Back to the Circle
The first thing Nicholas felt was a sharp pain in his knees. All air went out of him, and he was bent in a fetal position. He did not look up yet, but he already noticed it was dark around him, and somehow, unmistakably, the quality of the air he breathed, and the smells and sounds, and the imperceptible familiarity he felt in the land that supported him - all combined together told him that it worked, that the Stormglass gate was opened, and that he was now home.
He lifted his head up. He found himself, once more, in the Stone Circle. The air was cool, but it was the cool of an evening, not a pre-dawn chill, and the position of the half-moon in the sky convinced Nicholas that the night was just beginning.
Slowly, he got up, probing his shaking feet. They managed to support the weight of his body. His ribs were hurting on one side, and he felt as tired as if he were just forced to walk an entire day without a stop for food or drink. Fittingly, his tongue was parched, so much that it hardly wet his lips when he attempted to lick them.
It was a dream, he told himself wildly, stress has taken its toll and I’ve had the strangest vision, but now it’s gone. But when he opened the pouch on his belt and looked once more at the items in it, he was forced to admit that this was real, and that his world was changed forever.
He held a hand to his side, clutching his ribs, and began limping in the direction of the village.
The pub owner’s eyes widened perceptibly upon his appearance, and Nicholas could not blame the man. He was still wearing his Tilirian garb, including the new - a little extravagant, in his opinion - ermine-trimmed cloak he received from the city elders as a parting gift. And quite apart from looking like the most rabid Tolkien-inspired fan, he was dirty from his fall, exhausted-looking, and needless to say, he had no identifying documents with him.
The landlord did not appear to recognize Nicholas, which as far as he was concerned was all to the good. Under a scrutinizing gaze, he plunged into a dramatic story about a stuck car and an urgent appointment, and finally managed to obtain a grudging permission to use the telephone. With shaking fingers, he dialed Andrew’s number.
At first, the deep silence after his “hello, Andy” convinced him that the line must have gone bad, but then his friend’s voice erupted with such force that he had to hold the receiver at some distance from his ear.
“Nick?! Is that you? Where are you? Where have you been? Do you have any idea - ”
“Andy,” Nicholas interrupted him, “I need you to pick me up.”
“What you need is a good beating for not having appeared earlier!” boomed Andrew’s voice.
“I will explain to you, you will understand - ”
“Hold on,” Andrew spoke across him forcefully. “I don’t want to waste time. Tell me where you are, and I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Nicholas dictated the address and, to make the wait a little more bearable, ordered a tankard of hot ale. He hoped Andrew would not mind paying the bill, as he didn’t fancy trying to discharge it with Tilirian coins.
He must have dozed off over his half-empty tankard, because he was startled by a sharp blow to the back of his head.
“Ow!” he exclaimed, his voice slurry with sleep, and turned around. Andrew was standing in front of him, his face shining with a mixture of indignation and excitement. Nicholas got up slowly and spread his arms, so as to display his magnificent cloak, expertly sewn tunic and muddy breeches. For a moment Andrew stared, speechless, and then Nicholas was pulled into a bear hug that put further strain on his already hurting ribs. He winced but bore it bravely, and gratefully allowed Andrew to steer him in the direction of the car.
Once they were sitting inside it, Andrew did not even make a move to put his hands on the steering wheel, but instead looked at Nicholas intently, studying his friend’s face.
“You promised to explain,” he reminded him. But at the moment, it was the last thing Nicholas felt like doing. His leaned his head back on the seat cushion, and would gladly have fallen asleep on the spot if it were possible. “What happened?” demanded Andrew. “We didn’t know what to think. That idiot Jim O’Keeffe and his stupid paper created a sensation with the story of your disappearance, but of course the Scotland Yard experts couldn’t take him seriously - they didn’t believe, naturally, that you just vanished into thin air... but then, it seemed that you did exactly that! All those months, and not a single call, nor a letter - ”
“I didn’t go to a place I could call or write from,” Nicholas said quietly.
“So you are saying that you went somewhere?”
“Went,” Nicholas shrugged, “or was taken. It depends on the outlook.”
“Would you be so kind as to elaborate?” Andrew said impatiently.
But instead of elaborating, Nicholas looked straight at him and asked, “how is Kate?”
Andrew stared back at him with a mixture of incredulity and satisfaction. “You vanish,” he said distinctly, “for months, you wander God knows where, without showing the slightest sign of life - and then, all of a sudden you return, and instead of explaining what the hell is going on, you ask about Kate?”
Nicholas said nothing.
“If you must know,” Andrew continued in softened tones, “Kate was terribly affected by your disappearance. In some twisted way I believe she even felt guilty for it, poor girl. It will be a relief for her to know that you are fine.”
“... You are mad,” Andrew told him in an awed whisper several hours later, just as Nicholas had finished his tale. “All that digging in ancient scrolls and medieval texts has taken its toll. You have gone utterly, irrevocably mad.”
That was just the response Nicholas expected, and he was not in the least put off by it. He kept staring steadily, seriously at his friend. “Aren’t... aren’t you?” Andrew added hesitantly, in a faltering voice.
“Well, then,” said Nicholas, putting the tips of his fingers together, as always when a mysterious ancient proceeding applied to the cold logic of his thought. “Suggest another explanation. Where, in your opinion, have I been all this time?”
“In a madhouse,” Andrew said quickly. “You have only just escaped from there, and they are probably looking for you. Tomorrow we will see the ads everywhere. Mad and dangerous, they will say. A peril to himself and the society. Anyone who knows something of his whereabouts, call without delay.”
Nicholas offered him a mildly amused smile.
“Or you might have decided the strain of work is too much for you,” Andrew went on ponderously. “You took a flight to Brazil, enjoyed the carnival, got drunk, knocked yourself on the head, and only regained your memory recently.”
“What you suggest,” Nicholas said patiently, “is more unbelievable than what I just told you. You know me, Andy.”
Andrew took his hair in his hands, in a gesture that suggested he was about to tear it out, and was looking at him with something akin to despair. “But if it is true,” he said slowly, ”if it is true... then the world as we know it does not exist... has never existed...”
“Why? Of course it exists. It is only that another world exists as well, and it is, alas, a reproach to ours. A world with medieval technology, but such nearly perfect harmony! A medieval world, but without religious wars! Such peaceful worship, such unrepressed social structure. It makes me blush with shame for our own world, Andy.”
“Well,” declared Andrew, “if it is true, anything is possible.”
“Precisely,” Nicholas nodded in decisive agreement, “anything.”
Kate, Andrew told him, has taken a secretarial job in an insignificant accounting company located in one of the shabbier districts of downtown London. After Nicholas had bathed, changed, and made one very long call to the university, that accounting company was his first destination.
He pushed the glass door and found himself in a small reception area. It was poorly heated and lit by glaring fluorescent bulbs. He cleared his throat at the sight of the empty reception desk in front of him. There were piles of papers and files, and a small potted plant with squeaky clean leaves which made Nicholas’s heart beat faster, because there he saw a touch of her hand, and knew that she was near.
Behind his back he heard a noise of scattering papers, as a large pile of them fell out of Kate’s hand, to cover the cheaply carpeted floor. She was standing in front of him, her hands empty, her face pale.
“Dr. Swift,” she whispered, wide-eyed.
He made a step in her direction. “Miss Nuland,” he said. He bent to help her pick up the papers, and she bent as well, and the two of them remained this way, looking at each other, Kate mesmerized, he fearful.
“I have looked for you everywhere,” she said, still whispering, staring at him almost as if he were a ghost. “I did not know what to think.”
“Nor I,” said Nicholas, finally gathering his senses and the fallen papers. “Nor I,” he repeated, handing the papers to her. She gave him a nod of thanks, rose, and absent-mindedly put the papers away.
Now she was looking at him, and Nicholas was struck anew by the spirit-filled beauty of her face, the clear blue eyes, the luscious waves of chestnut hair, the soft contours of her cheekbone and jaw and neck. The first hint of a smile appeared on her lips.
“You look well, Dr. Swift,” she said.
... Half an hour later, when Nicholas went out of there, he felt younger and happier than he had ever remembered. He felt like a man who conquered the highest peak, who fulfilled his wildest dreams, who achieved what he hardly dared to hope for.
Logically speaking, such celebration was perhaps unmerited, for nothing happened but that Kate - no, Cathy - agreed to have dinner with him. But in his heart he already knew that he had won, that his destiny had sent him a gift the equal of which he could not imagine, that this loveliest and fairest of all women would be his - he could not have defined all these thoughts, and if someone put them in words he would have vehemently denied them, but nevertheless it was true. He was no longer the man he had been, and his life would never again be what it once was. The new part of his own history was beginning today.
...One day, the Messenger would arrive, the Essence of the Spirit would no longer be obscure, and the Dominion of Tilir would come again. In his mind Thadorn Tionae did not doubt these absolute truths, yet in the practical course of his life they now held little and less meaning to him. Between his resumed duties as Commander of the Sea Guard, the clan headship, and taking care of three children who felt as if they were orphaned anew, days and nights and weeks passed as if in a blur, and Thadorn kept delaying what he knew he had no right to delay any longer - his meeting with Rohir and Hinassi Kotsar.
His wife’s mother and father had been unfair to Thadorn, they had accused him unjustly, they had spread slander about him, and this hurt his pride more than he cared to admit. Yet he had to confess that he, in his turn, was unfair to them as well. They gave great importance to the status of their clan, but that was not all they cared about. They had lost two of their children, and he had underestimated their grief. He knew that well.
Rohir and Hinassi received him in a formal manner, in the spacious marble hall of their luxurious home. Hinassi was well-dressed, her handsome and arrogant face smooth as though she had never known care nor anxiety, yet Thadorn knew it for the lie that it was.
“What are you doing here?” Hinassi asked him in her detached, cool manner.
“Whether you like it or not,” Thadorn told her, “I was your daughter’s husband.”
Rohir raised his eyebrows slightly. “Jadine had committed betrayal and dark sorcery,” he said. “Even if she still lived, she would not be considered our daughter. We have nothing more to connect us with her... or you.”
“Nothing but three links,” Thadorn said, “called Korian, Datrine and Tari.”
“We recognize our grandchildren, of course,” Hinassi said reservedly. “Their kinship to the clan of Kotsar is undisputed.”
He should have turned and walked away then, of course, but he insisted. “That is not enough,” he said. “We have all suffered great losses. You have lost a son and a daughter, I...” he stopped, then nodded resolutely, “I have lost my wife, and the children have lost their mother. But they still have me, and they still have you. That is important. I love my son and daughters dearly, but I am a man, with a man’s duties. I cannot tend to their needs in a proper way. They need more attention. I need help.”
The expression on Hinassi’s face was suspiciously like a sneer. “How very touching. Precisely now that your faithful sidekick and his wife are gone, yes? Until now you had someone to tend to your home and take care of the children... Lya was her name, was it not? I believe you had made a mistake, Thadorn. You ought to have married her. Jadine was not made for you.”
Rohir put a hand on his wife’s sleeve. He, at least, had the decency to look slightly guilty. “Forgive Hinassi’s harsh words, Thadorn. It is grief speaking through her. Yet I believe she is not without reason. Perhaps we were the ones to make a mistake, reversing the better order of things... if at the right time we had promoted a match between you and Kelena, and Jadine and Dankar, everything might have turned out differently.”
Nothing would have turned out differently, Thadorn thought. It was hopeless, hopeless from the first moment he saw Jadine the way a man sees a woman. He might have been happy with Lya, with Kelena, with a thousand other women - but he would not listen to the voice of reason, he would not stop until he had the one who was destined to ruin him.
He made a curt bow, turned around, and left.
He walked on, cursing himself for a fool. He should never have come. Now, with Kelena gone, it was easier than ever to finalize his breach with the Kotsar.
When he came home, he found Datrine in tears over a torn rag doll. Little Tari pulled on one of the doll’s legs, it turned out, and the sawdust stuffing spilled out.
“No matter,” said Thadorn, wiping his daughter’s tears with a callused thumb. “I will sew this up for you.”
Datrine looked up at him, forgetting to cry in her incredulity. “I didn’t know you could sew,” she said.
He offered her a smile. “Who do you think patched up my cloak and boots when they got worn out during marches?”
“One of the soldiers?” guessed Datrine. He shook his head.
“Not at all. If I want a task done well, I do it myself... and my boots held together all the way home.”
“Will you tell us about the march?” Korian asked hopefully.
“I will,” promised Thadorn, “in a minute. But first, we need to find a needle and some thread.”
...Nicholas and Catherine were walking, not quite knowing where they were going, but it did not matter. Over half the night was already gone, the streets were emptying, but it did not signify much to them, so immersed they were in their conversation. It seemed to Nicholas that never before in his life he had spoken so eloquently, nor had his step ever been so springy and graceful. While she walked by him, and her head was turned towards him, the spirit of pure beauty, of longing and dreams, of poetry and wonder enveloped his world and promised to never let go.
“Is that the whole story?” Catherine asked timidly once they found themselves standing beneath the apartment building where she lived.
“Far from it,” Nicholas assured her. “It is only the... outline.” She nodded, satisfied. The night air was chilly, though neither of them had noticed it until this moment. Catherine buttoned up her jacket.
“Would you... would you like to come up, Dr. Swift?”
“Only if you call me Nicholas,” he told her firmly.
“Nicholas,” she smiled shyly. “Would you like to come up and have a cup of tea? You can use my phone to call for a taxi.”
Catherine’s flat was small but neat, with a welcoming look that did not suggest, however, that she often hosted a large company. She gestured for Nicholas to sit by the small, square, neatly arranged kitchen table that stood right by the window, and put out a plate of ginger biscuits while the tea was boiling on the two-burner stove. She added a dash of cinnamon to the tea, and its scent touched Nicholas like a warm caress.
She was sitting in front of him, holding her cup of steaming tea in both hands for warmth. Her blue cardigan brought out the color of her wonderful eyes and contrasted with the milky paleness of her face and neck. He realized he had been staring at her for a whole minute and lowered his eyes, blushing like a boy.
“You aren’t drinking,” Catherine remarked. “Is the tea too hot?”
“No, not at all,” he hastened to say and took a careless gulp, scorching his tongue and the back of his throat. He suppressed the urge to cough. If she noticed, she pretended not to. He took another sip, more carefully this time.
Catherine took a biscuit but did not eat it. “Will you tell me the rest?” she asked.
“Does that interest you?”
“Very much,” she said earnestly, and her faith warmed him and filled him with pride and joy. “It sounds like a fascinating story,” she added.
“It is,” he nodded.
“Will you tell it to me?” she prompted again.
Seized by a fit of sudden daring, Nicholas reached for her hand. “I am prepared to spend the rest of my life telling it to you, Cathy,” he said.