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Authors: Victor Canning

The Circle of the Gods

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Contents
Victor Canning
The Circle of the Gods
Victor Canning

Victor Canning was primarily a writer of thrillers, and wrote his many books under the pseudonyms Julian Forest and Alan Gould. Among his immediate contemporaries were Eric Ambler, Alistair Maclean and Hammond Innes.

Canning was a prolific writer throughout his career, which began young: he had sold several short stories by the age of nineteen and his first novel,
Mr Finchley Discovers His England
(1934) was published when he was twenty-three. Canning also wrote for children: his
The Runaways
trilogy was adapted for US children's television.

Canning's later thrillers were darker and more complex than his earlier work and received great critical acclaim.
The Rainbird Pattern
was awarded the CWA Silver Dagger in 1973 and nominated for an Edgar award in 1974.

In 1976
The Rainbird Pattern
was transformed by Alfred Hitchcock into the comic film
The Family Plot
, which was to be Hitchcock's last film. Several of Canning's other novels including
The Golden Salamander
(1949) were also made into films during Canning's lifetime.

Dedication

For the One Who Wept
When the Dream Ended

1. The Brooch Of Epona

Arttag sat in the sun, looking down over the village, its huts stone-walled, the roofs turf-and-heather-thatched, weighted with boulders against the winter gales. The river, running down from the distant moorlands, was low with late-summer drought. Where the river met the sands of the small cove it fanned out in a shifting web of shallow channels. Some of the younger children, naked, their brown bodies gleaming like polished oak wood, played in the water, watched by a small group of women who sat in the shaded lee of the tall rocks which ribbed through the white sands at the foot of the cliffs. He caught the sound of their laughter as they worked at their spindles, teasing the wool of the moor sheep into yarn. At the edge of the sea, docile under summer zephyrs, older boys and their fathers were working on two of the fishing curraghs. From time to time, despite the summer's heat, he coughed and shivered under the striped cloak drawn close about his shoulders and, with each cough, felt the chest pain stab him, a pain which had grown fiercer with the passing of each year.

Among the women he marked the fair, gorse-bloom hair of the one named Tia who had come to them with her babe, claiming it to be the child of Baradoc—the son of his long-dead brother; Baradoc who—if he lived still—was chief of the people of the Enduring Crow. With her had come Merlin, whose word no man doubted, Merlin who with one eye looked into the past and with the other into the future; Merlin who had said that one day Baradoc would return and speak the truth of the villainy which the woman Tia had laid against Inbar, his own son. But, since he, Aritag, now stood in Baradoc's place, he had refused any judgment until Baradoc should come himself and, amongst them all in the boulder-flagged village circle, should speak the evil to Inbar's face.
Aie
… but in his heart he, Aritag, knew the truth already for he knew his own son.

A shadow stretching over his shoulder from behind darkened the close-cropped grass, and the scent of crushed marjoram and thyme rose briefly in the air as Merlin sat down cross-legged. Merlin ran a hand over the jet-black hair which fell long to his shoulders and then scratched at the tangle of his thick beard.

Merlin said, “The corn is ripe for gathering, the fleeces are stacked and the heather ready to cut for winter. All that lacks now is the silver shoaling to fill the great jars with salted fish against the winter.”

Aritag said, “If the gods are good I shall live to see it.”

“You will see it, Aritag.”

Aritag smiled. “How many times?”

“Only the gods know that.”

Aritag nodded and said, “I would live long enough to see Baradoc return. Do the gods tell you about that, my friend?”

“He will return. That I know.”

“Then let it be before I die. Without me here, when Inbar is chief he will take the woman, Tia.”

Merlin picked up a ladybird from the grass and watched it crawl across his palm. “Because of this woman it is written that he will come to his death.” He blew gently at the ladybird and it took clumsily to the air.

“Say more.”

“I cannot.”

“Will not?”

Merlin laughed. “You think I live in the belt pouch of the gods? Good Aritag, when in my dreams I play cupbearer at their feasts, there is too much laughter and noise to catch more than scraps of their talk. Anyway, I came not to talk of the future. I came to say that my time here is ended and I go this day.” He stood up and briefly brushed dried grass and dust from his loose trews and long tunic.

Aritag smiled. “For a man who can hear the beat of a moth's wings above the roar of the wind and the waves in gale time it is strange that in dreams the laughter and noise of the gods'feasting makes you so deaf.… Go to Bada and he will give you all the stores you need and a moor pony to carry you.”

Merlin shook his head. “I need nothing.”

“You will be back one day?”

“One day.”

“But I shall not be here to greet you?”

“If not”—Merlin nodded his head westward to the great run of the sea that met the horizon in a silver haze—“there will be a greeting one day in the Blessed Isles.”

He raised a hand in parting and turned down the grass slope, following the narrow path to the cove. He walked across the white sands to the rocks where the women sat working. Before he reached them Tia saw him coming and left her companions.

In the years since he had brought her with her babe to the people of the Enduring Crow she had grown a little taller, and her body had lost some of the slender suppleness of a young girl and found the beginning of the dignity and maturity of a woman. Her hair, short like a boy's when he had first seen her on Caer Sibli, was long now, worked into gold braids that hung loose over her shoulders. Watching the movement of her body under the belted working smock of dyed coarse linen he knew how Inbar must feel when he saw her. The gods, he thought, gave men their desires and had created women to inflame them. The gods, he felt, sometimes expected too much of mortals.

Tia came up to him and he briefly set his hands on her shoulders in greeting.

Tia said, “You are going.”

“Yes.”

“And leave the boy and me—and no man to stand by my side?”

“You will come to no harm”

“How can you know that?”

“It is written.”

Tia gave an impatient shrug of her shoulders. “You are like Baradoc. Something calls you and you must follow it. To excuse yourself you say that the gods have decreed it. But you use the gods for your own ends. You put words in their mouths.”

Merlin laughed. “Or they in mine. I have done enough for you. Now you must do everything for yourself.”

For a moment or two Tia was silent. Then she said in a softer tone, the hint of a plea in her voice, “I am strong and can look after myself and Arturo so long as Aritag lives. And without him I have friends who would stand by me. But friends may not be enough. If you can … then, before you go, give me some word of comfort.”

Merlin shook his head. “When Baradoc took you to your uncle at Aquae Sulis you could have stayed in comfort, but you left all the pleasures of a Roman villa to follow him westward and be his wife. For you comfort lies in the giving, not the receiving.”

Tia laughed suddenly. “Oh, Merlin, whose tongue is as twisted as a unicorn's horn, sometimes I think that for the moment the gods made you their occasional cupbearer you have mourned the comfort of being as other men.” She gestured to the far group of working women in the shadow of the rocks and went on, “Look—there are single women there who would join their lives to yours and give you comfort. I have seen you eye them with the eye of a man. Stay here and wait for Baradoc's return.”

Merlin, grinning, shook his head. “Not for me, my Tia. I must move as the seasons and the stars move.” He gestured with one hand down the beach to where the five-year-old Arturo, naked and brown, was rolling in mock fight with old Lerg the great hound, splashing in shallow water and scuffling up the white sand, and said, “There is another who will never be content at any hearthside for long, nor ever be full held by any woman and will rouse wrath in men before he gains their love. Take the withy switch to his brown hide when he offends for there is an arrogance in him which ill fits the young but will serve him well when the gods open his eyes to his destiny.”

Tia shook her head, her eyes narrowing with mockery. “You spawn fine phrases careless of whether they die or live in the memory—or even make sense. Now be on your way, for I see your feet shuffle the sand with impatience. But take with you my gratitude for all you have done for me.”

Without a word, laughter in his eyes, Merlin half bowed his head, touched his forehead in salute, and turned away. Tia watched him go across the sands and up the narrow path that climbed the cliffs to the north while above him the seabirds wheeled and called in the bright air, among them the black choughs, red-billed and red-legged, the tribal birds of the people of the Enduring Crow. She watched him until he reached the cliff top and his figure dwindled and finally disappeared over the headland.

When she turned it was to find Inbar standing behind her with Arturo squatting on the sand beside him, digging into it with his hands to build a barrier across a small rivulet of the spreading river.

He was taller than his cousin, Baradoc her husband, and darker of hair and colouring. His bearded face was long, strong, and pleasant so that it was hard to believe any villainy of him. He stood looking at her, smiling, showing the edges of his white teeth, his lean, hard body, sea- and sun-tanned, bare except for the rolled-up trews, held by a leather belt which carried a short sword in a whale-skin scabbard.

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