City of Circles
After the assembly of the Adalthing and the election of the lord protector, Godfrey swiftly journeyed southeast. Leaving Middanhal, he crossed the hills south of the capital and followed the Kingsroad through the province of Ingmond before reaching Hæthiod. A journey of several days came afterwards until he finally had Tothmor, capital of the heathlands, in sight. Although a long trip, Godfrey arrived about a week after summer solstice and the aforementioned assembly.
Tothmor was built leaning against a lone mountain, rising up on the heath. The name for the mountain had lent its name to the city built against its southern side, resembling a tooth jagging up on the otherwise flat moor. Some with more wit than affection for the city had once said that the last part of the name had a different meaning originally, however, and it actually meant dead tooth.
On a cloudy, bleak day, such a name might seem apt. Entering through the gate and paying the toll, Godfrey was treated to the sight of a city built mostly in brown clay bricks. Similar earth tones were worn by the commoners that dwelled there as Godfrey looked beyond the city gate and planted his staff in the ground, walking forward. There were not many decorations, little marble or gilded metal to be found; Hæthiod was not a rich country. The only exception was the uncommon number of temples in Tothmor. While other cities of Adalmearc typically had one major temple dedicated to one god and smaller shrines elsewhere or attached to the main temple, Tothmor had no less than six separate temples, all of which trained novices and acolytes to be initiated into their respective priesthoods. In a stark contrast to the rest of the city, these temples were richly adorned, and they might almost rival the royal palace.
Tothmor was a city of circles; it had begun with merely a single half-circle closest to the mountain and thus in an elevated, easily defended position. As the city grew, another semi-circular wall had been added further down the mountainside, starting from the east, running in a curve southwards and then connecting with the mountain on the west side. Then another circle and another, arriving at the current number of five districts with the lowest semicircle being on the same level as the surrounding heath. Each time a new district was added, the poorest were relegated to living there, slowly pushed downhill by the more affluent residents taking over the old districts. A man’s worth, wealth, or status could be judged quite accurately simply by the district in which he lived.
Each of the old city walls was still in use; no longer an outer line of fortifications, they served instead to separate the districts. Their gates lay directly opposite each other with one short main road running from lowest to highest; thus, standing at the lowest, one had a view up the hill of all the next four gates. Moving up the street, Godfrey passed through the fifth district, which was much like Lowtown in Middanhal, occupied by the poor, the serving class, and those who had cause to hide from the city guard in the overpopulated district. Passing through the next gate, the guards gave him a lazy glance as he entered the fourth district, which still had its share of filth and overcrowded atmosphere; here there were craftsmen, vendors, and peddlers of all kinds. There was no marketplace as such in Tothmor, so the stalls and shops were simply scattered across the entire district.
Going beyond the boundary of this fourth circle and entering the third, change was more noticeable. Fewer houses were built from clay bricks, and not all people lived clumped together in large blocks of buildings but might have their own, detached house. The wealthier merchants and the poorer nobility had their dwellings here as did the many temples. This was reflected by the numerous robes in various colours, belonging to the priests and priestesses. Reaching this area, Godfrey turned away from the main road and walked east into the disorganised morass of small streets.
While there were other houses displaying certain affluence, the temples outshone them all, aided by the fact that they were funded by their respective priesthoods in the other realms of Adalmearc. While the three temples for the goddesses lay west of the gate, Godfrey went in the other direction. He passed by the temple for Hamaring, guarded by its warrior monks with their great war hammers. Next the temple for Egnil, whose guardians stood with shields and flails by their side, and finally, he reached the largest of the temples, whose sword-wielding sentinels revealed it to be consecrated to Rihimil, lord of the lesser divines.
Godfrey moved with a few other people into the dark, cool interior of the building; however, while they came to seek out the altar and give offerings, Godfrey continued deeper into the temple until he was stopped by an acolyte.
“I am Brother Nikodemos,” the initiate introduced himself. “May I enquire as to your presence?”
“I am here to see your high priest,” Godfrey explained. “I bring a message from Middanhal, from the Archon,” he said, using the southern term for the Highfather. The acolyte asked no further questions and led Godfrey to the local high priest for Rihimil in Tothmor.
Nikodemos brought Godfrey into a small, private shrine only for use by the priests of the temple. Inside knelt the high priest in prayer before a statue of a knight in black armour. Like all priests of his faith, he wore black robes with a silver dragon as its emblem. The hem of the robe was decorated in a certain pattern that revealed his status within the priesthood, and around his neck hung a heavy necklace with a large pendant. The acolyte, whose low status was indicated by his simple black robe without patterns or emblems, left quietly.
Although the noise of entering had made it clear that somebody else was in the shrine, the high priest remained kneeling in prayer while his lips moved wordlessly. Godfrey waited a short while, resting his walking staff against the wall. “You have convinced me of your piety. Now please stand so I may address you,” he said.
The priest rose and sent the newly arrived traveller a scowl. “You dare speak to me in such a manner? I could have the guards flog you.”
“First you should read the message I bring,” Godfrey replied with a sly smile. He extended a folded piece of paper to the priest who snatched it from his hands. Looking at the seal, he strained his eyes to examine it in the dim torch light inside the shrine.
“This came from the Archon himself? From the Basilika?”
“None less,” Godfrey confirmed.
The high priest broke the seal, and his eyes skimmed over the text. “I thought this was an answer to my pleas,” complained the black-robed man. “Does the Holy One not realise my position as court seer is threatened?”
“I am sure you have made it abundantly clear to him,” Godfrey said dryly.
“He was initiated to sacred Rihimil as well before taking the mantle of Archon,” continued the high priest. “But all he writes is that he cannot intercede! Why not?”
“That is a question for him, not me,” Godfrey said dismissively. “Now, the letter mentions you are to provide me with coin.”
“You know its contents?” asked the priest surprised.
“I know a great deal, Brother Dominic,” Godfrey said with a smile bordering mockery. “The silver, please.”
“Wait here,” Dominic said curtly and quickly left. When he returned, he handed a small bag of coins to Godfrey.
“My thanks,” Godfrey said and inclined his head, his smile still insincere. Without being dismissed or words of parting, he turned and left the premises.
Shortly after, the same acolyte who had guided Godfrey to the high priest of Rihimil left the temple and entered the streets of the third circle. He remained in the back alleys, however, and his black robe kept him nearly invisible to other people. A voice reached him, trembling with age and withered fury. “Bow, you fools, before it is too late,” the voice spoke. “How long will you worship these false gods in their temples of gold while your children starve?”
Walking past, Nikodemos could see the speaker; it was a madman, by all appearance, attracting little attention. The acolyte shuddered at hearing such words of blasphemy, pulling the hood of his robe up to cover his ears. Soon after, he reached another of the eastern-lying temples and made his way inside through a back entrance, unseen. Finally, Nikodemos reached a small study and waited until somebody entered. The new person in the room wore a robe with the same patterned hem as all high priests did; the colour was bright yellow, however, and a black bull was its emblem.
“You,” exclaimed the high priest of Egnil as he spotted the black-robed acolyte. “You bring news?”
“I do, Reverend One,” the acolyte said with a small bow. “A messenger from the Archon arrived just now and spoke with my master.”
“And? Will he be given any assurances?”
“No, Reverend One,” Nikodemos answered whilst shaking his head. “From what I could hear, the Holy One had no interest in interfering.”
“Good, good,” mumbled the high priest. “Our plans can proceed.” The black-robed acolyte remained in the room while the yellow-robed priest seemed to forget his presence. “You may go,” he finally told Nikodemos. The blackrobe gave a small bow and retreated out of the room. The high priest of Egnil waited until his spy had left; then he walked to the door and called for his servant. “Tell Brother Gregory to come to my chamber,” he informed his attendant.
The latter disappeared and quickly returned with another man; his yellow robe with the black bull upon its chest proclaimed him an ordained priest of Egnil. “You asked for me, Reverend One?” said Gregory.
“The court seer has received his reply from Middanhal. The Archon has not granted him any favours.”
“What was he hoping to achieve, do you think? It is not the Archon’s decision to determine the position of court seer,” Gregory pondered.
The high priest shrugged. “Some kind of decree supporting his position, perhaps? Even though the court seer is appointed at the discretion of our local monarch, a word from the Archon in Middanhal would weigh heavily. Or perhaps the Holy One could simply forbid the rest of us from accepting the position.”
“In that case, we are fortunate that the Holy One is not interested in involving himself,” Gregory claimed.
“Yes. Our plans continue. Prepare yourself,” the high priest declared.
Outside the door stood the high priest’s personal servant, listening. When footsteps announced that the men inside the room were leaving, the servant hastened away. He left the temple for Egnil entirely and walked towards the central part of the third district until he reached the first of the three temples for the male divinities; a statue of a man in bearskin was atop its entrance, holding a great hammer in both hands, which proclaimed it dedicated to Hamaring. The servant went inside, unseen, until he spotted one of the priests in their white robes.
“I have to return shortly, or my master will know I am gone,” the servant whispered to the priest. “Tell your high priest that the court seer is not receiving any support from Middanhal, and that the geolrobes are continuing their plans.”
The white-robed priest with a black bear as its insignia nodded to the servant and moved to an inner courtyard in the small temple complex. Here, guards and lay brothers were training with their large war hammers under the supervision of the high priest of Hamaring in Hæthiod; while the white robe was rather concealing, it could not entirely hide that the high priest had forearms suggesting his own ability to swing the two-handed hammers if need be.
“Reverend One,” the priest said and gained his superior’s attention. “The blackrobes have heard from the Basilika. The Archon will not interfere on behalf of the court seer.”
“And the geolrobes?” asked the high priest, using the archaic term for the yellow-clad servants of Egnil.
“Their plans continue,” answered the lesser priest.
“As will ours,” came a smile from the highest placed servant of Hamaring in Hæthiod, turning his attention once more to the men sparring in front of him.
Evening was slowly approaching when the high priest of Rihimil left his temple and walked towards the gate road. Being in the third district filled with temples, he was a common sight in his robes; men and women of every age filled this circle in robes of black, yellow, white, green, blue, and red. Those who noticed the pattern on his hem, however, were quick to show reverence and get out of his way. Reaching the gate, he had no trouble passing either as the city guards kept out of his path.
The second district was home to stately houses, manors, and their associated servants’ quarters. Carriages and horses were a more common sight here, and there were both a large number of city guards as well as soldiers employed to the various members of the nobility dwelling here. The high priest did not linger but continued straight along the road until he reached the last gate leading into the first district. The guards, recognising the court seer, did not hinder his passage.
In ancient times, the first district had been the entire city; now barely any remnant of that could be found. The royal palace was one of the few buildings that had existed since the foundation of Tothmor, but it had been demolished and rebuilt centuries ago. Now, the palace took up a large area of the innermost circle of the city along with its extensive gardens and terraces as an oasis in the surrounding heaths. There was a small keep as well, belonging to the Order and the marshal of Hæthiod. The garrison was small, however, since nearly all Order soldiers in Hæthiod were manning the Langstan. The rest of the first circle was housing for the servants, lined up against the district wall or Mount Tothmor itself, where their residences would not mar the view.
The high priest continued into the palace complex, moving through its corridors until he reached the innermost part. This was built right up against the mountainside, which meant it had few windows and little natural light. Torches lit a dim path until he stood before two large doors. Outside stood guards, and one of them opened the door. “The court seer, my lady,” he announced.
“Let him enter,” said a preoccupied female voice from within the chambers.
The priest hurried inside the chambers, which were richly adorned and furnished. Inside, eating grapes and studying documents, sat a woman some fifty years of age. Her hair was lightly touched by grey and intricately worn, and her clothes, covering a slightly pudgy figure, spoke of wealth. On her head, she wore a small tiara in the custom of southern royalty.
“My lady Irene,” the high priest greeted her while bowing his head.
“Dominic,” she said casually as she glanced over to acknowledge his presence. “What reason does the court seer have for disturbing me?”
“Dear lady, I have received a reply for my request that the Archon affirms my position as court seer. If you recall that we spoke of this.”
“I do not recall,” Irene said absentmindedly.
“I see,” Dominic said disheartened, but he continued nonetheless as he walked closer. “I requested that the Archon forbade the other priests in the city from any attempt to steal my office. This, he declined.”
“Dominic, why is this a necessity with you? You are court seer at my discretion. If you want to keep that,” she said while pointing at the medallion around his neck, “I am the one you should seek to placate, not anybody else.”
“Of course, my lady,” Dominic said, inclining his neck once more. “But without the Archon supporting me, I fear the other high priests may plot against me and by extension therefore you, Lady Irene.”
“Plot against me?” she snorted. “How so? I am the undisputed ruler of this realm.”
“None can argue that, my lady,” Dominic told her, “but the queen is your niece and not you, my lady. Suppose she were influenced by voices other than yours, my lady, she might be persuaded to change many things.”
“They would not dare,” Irene said sharply.
“Perhaps not,” Dominic admitted, “but the position of court seer and the ability to elevate their own priesthood above the others in this city is a most tempting prospect. You should be wary, my lady.”
“Do you have any proof or are these all figments of your mind?”
“I have my sources of information, my lady,” Dominic said.
Irene sat silent, pondering for a moment. “I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later with Theodora growing up.”
“While my counterparts of the other priesthoods may scheme against you, my lady, you have my assured loyalty,” Dominic claimed.
“Do I? For you are easily replaced, dear Dominic, should I find one of your peers more preferable.”
“My lady,” Dominic protested, “Do not forget I helped you create the current situation here at the palace.”
“And were rewarded for it,” Irene said quickly in reply, to which Dominic bowed his head again.
“I would never dispute that, my lady. It is this strong bond that makes me fear that the other priests seek not only to replace me but your ladyship as well.”
“There may be some veracity to your line of thinking,” Irene granted thoughtfully. “Very well. Find out what you can about these supposed plots. If it necessitates taking action, then by the divines I will not hesitate in doing so,” she swore. Dominic bowed his head for the last time and left her chambers to carry out her command.
The first evening bell had already rung when Godfrey reached the lowest district. There were plenty of people on the streets even as the shops and stalls closed; the taverns and inns remained open past first bell, and most people on the street were headed for such places. Godfrey followed a stream of people walking into the crowded sections of the lowest circle, where the houses were built close together and people lived in them even closer.
His attention was diverted by something that most others ignored or did not notice. A man in ragged clothes and with a thoroughly unkempt look was speaking loudly. As the only one, Godfrey stopped to inspect the speaker’s haggard appearance and hear his words.
“Listen before it is too late! He comes like a storm across the desert, bringing a flood to sweep away the unworthy!” This and similar warnings came unendingly, threatening those passing with all manner of doom.
“Who is coming?” asked Godfrey quietly, yet his question penetrated the loud noises of the evening street, and the madman ceased talking, fixing his feverish eyes on Godfrey. They stared out under bushy eyebrows in a face surrounded by filthy, long hair with a dirty full beard. The anxious energy that permeated the madman’s whole body and his ranting stood in stark contrast to Godfrey’s calm awaiting of an answer, leaning against his staff as an anchor amidst the push and pull of the crowd.
“He is the Beginning and the End, the Daystar and the Night Sky, Saviour of the World,” came a stream of declarations as the speaker raised his eyes upwards; he would have continued if Godfrey did not intercede.
“But what is his name?” he asked with the same quiet voice.
“Does eternity have a name? Is the sun anything other than the sun?”
“No,” Godfrey replied, “but this is something else.”
“How would you know,” the old man said with sneer.
“You are not as one among priests,” Godfrey said, looking upwards in the city towards the temple district. “These are not their words.”
“The priests!” exclaimed the crazed man, whose ribs were showing through his ripped tunic. “They scurry like rats in the sewers they have built, temples to their own vanity! They shall be the first to be cleansed,” he swore.
“While I am not wholly unsympathetic to your sentiments,” Godfrey told him, “I wonder what idol you would erect in place of their temples.”
“Not an idol,” the madman replied, suddenly lowering his voice while his eyes shone once more. “A living god, not of stone but of flesh, not with gems but with eyes, not deaf but who may hear our prayers and with a tongue to answer them with.”
“And where does this god preside? Is he close?” asked Godfrey.
“He waits,” came the answer as the feverish eyes turned east. The city buildings and walls blocked the view, but the madman stared as if he could see further. “Beyond walls, beyond moors, long has he slept in the mountain, but now he wakes! Now he will come, now he will come…” His voice trailed off. In the distance, they heard the cacophony of all the temple bells ringing to announce that nightfall had come and all decent folk should be off the streets.
“In the mountain?” Godfrey suddenly said sharply as if the old man’s voice had made him slumber but now he woke. “Beyond the wall in the mountain, you say?”
“That is what I said, I said what that is,” the madman answered.
“What is your name?” Godfrey now asked, more gently.
“My name? My name. It is gone… consumed by the years until only I remained. A vessel, cleansed of impurities.”
“You were taken prisoner as a child,” Godfrey speculated, speaking as much to himself as to the old man. “Your mind and soul bent to this purpose and sent back when you had become willing.”
“Willing? Yes, willing, so willing. One day I will be rewarded, one day,” the old man repeated. “One day I will stand in his presence.”
“I fear this very moment is the closest you will ever know to something akin to his presence,” Godfrey said, keeping his voice kind. “Unless I am most mistaken.”
“If not in this life, then the next,” the old man claimed with more serenity than he had displayed so far.
“It is late and last bell has rung,” Godfrey said, changing the subject. “Do you have a place to stay? I could find you accommodations for the night.”
“I have my barrel,” the old man said with a touch of pride, pointing to a barrel lying on its side behind him. “I don’t think I could sleep anywhere else, it’s so nice and dry and wooden in there. Only trouble is the neighbourhood scoundrels. When they are out carousing at night, they like to kick my poor barrel while I’m inside, wake me up,” he complained.
“Go sleep in your barrel,” Godfrey told him and walked over to the wall next to it. He let himself slide down against the wall until he was seated next to the old man’s shanty home, holding his staff between his hands and in front of him. “You will not be disturbed tonight.”
“Very gracious of you,” the haggard-looking man mumbled, climbing inside his barrel. “I hope you will be spared the oncoming storm of righteousness.”
“Question is rather if it will be spared from me,” Godfrey said, his voice growing quiet once more; this time, the old man could not hear him. Time passed as the stars rose in the night sky; the moon was hidden behind clouds, and darkness surrounded Godfrey. Then, as if the moon had burst through the haze or a star exploded, a light flared towards the north. It was not up in the heavens, however, but located on earth; it was a beacon placed upon Mount Tothmor and it signalled a breach of the long watch at the Langstan.
“Looks like I was most mistaken,” Godfrey muttered with concern on his countenance; the only reply he received was a snore from inside the barrel.
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