The Circle in the Keep

Wind whistles through stone and the leaves rattle. I step carefully over sodden moss steps in the dim moonlight, which casts branch ridden shadows like blackened claws against the walls of the old keep. I tremble slightly in the cold damp air and try to move faster. Moving faster feels better. Moving faster forward implies that I won’t turn tail and run headlong down the hill toward the safety of home. Moving forward means that I’m determined; but nothing is further from my mind.

A wicked blast rakes through the trees, and leaves plummet, twirling in the silver light. My knees lock me into place, jarring my whole body to a halt. I look around, fearful that the wind ripping away the autumn beauty has hidden some dangerous hazard, some predatory fiend now moving in the camouflage of sound. But the wind dies in a reluctant gasp and nothing remains, save a few crackles of the leaves now settling to the ground. I look up along the keep wall to the dark starless sky and see the jagged stones and crumbling masonry. How old is it now, I wonder. Older than the memory of a man, which has failed miserably.

The top of the steps end in a flagstone courtyard, full of the detritus of time. Broken pieces of the rock walls lay in piles of rubble, new and old leaves are swept into the corners, and dead sticks and branches look like traps to be sprung just for me. Here the children played their imaginary games. Here the adventures of youth began, only to be tempered by the harsh reality of the world of men. I can see them in my mind. I hear their songs, and their dreams. It is a sweet sorely missed sound. A bitter morsel of something lost and never to be found again.

I pick my way carefully through the maze to a door-shaped hole in the stone. The light from the courtyard reflects into the room beyond, and as I walk into the kitchen I see the old fireplace. Here the meals were prepared and eaten. Here at the long forgotten table, a family broke bread together and feasted on stories of the day, sharing their lives and passions, sculpting the ties that bound them. I pick up a stray stick and stoop to poke into the hearth. Nothing remains but ashes.

Beyond the kitchen lies the great room, its high ceiling still mostly intact. The stone has only collapsed in a few places. I hear the laughter, angry voices, and tearful crying. All the fullness of what life brings. A smile brims my lips, and a tear flows freely.

I find the stairway that leads into the second story that lacks the wooden roof that did not outlast the test of stone. Here the library once was. Here the shelves of books are now dust in the shadows. Here the mighty wisdom of this house once flourished. Long ago I drank deeply from this place. I sucked the marrow from the bones of knowledge, and laughed in delight of it. Here I spent too much time. Now it is all dust and shadow. Dust and shadow.

I move on. My limbs frozen now, not from cold, but from dread. I know what lies beyond. The dark maw of yet another doorway that sucks up all the night and lets none escape it. The sill has collapsed and I must crawl beneath it to gain entrance. Claustrophobia consumes and I feel the keep close around and threaten to crush me. A stark terror strikes into my heart. The keep threatens to push me into an unlit grave. It speaks of piling earth and stone over me. It tells me that I will be buried and forgotten, and never see light again. But, I press on because I must see this through if I am to be free.

Once inside the room, my eyes adjust to the shadow. On the walls the stains of long forgotten scenes play out where the pictures hung. Memory serves me, like a cruel mistress, a cold and unforgiving meal of never ending betrayal. The scene plays out. The meal is served. My mind reels with pain. The horrible bed is made, though no bed remains.

How long I’ve sat here I don’t know. How long has the darkness held sway over my mind and bent me to its will? I don’t know, but I’ve come for a purpose this night, and I must not fail. I pull the knife from the sheath on my belt and shuffle to the center of the room. I feel about the smooth floor for the seams of long ago. My fingers find the purchase of a small crack not filled with mortar, and I fit the knife in and tip it to pry the stone up. I lift the stone out of the hole and set it aside, then reach into the darkness below. I feel carefully about, wary of dangers, but determined. My brow sweats in fear as I frantically search the hidden place. Then my fingers close around cold smooth metal, and I withdraw my hand.

I crawl out of the room and into the light, seeking the moon as a drowning man seeks land. My breath comes hard, and my heart pounds. I hold the little circle of metal to the silvery light, framing the moon within the ring. It is now or never. It is now that this circle must end. The cycle of regret and reverie that has caged my soul must be broken, and only this night will do. Only this moonlit magic can break the chains.

I place the ring on the flagstone floor, take the knife and turn the handle downward. I hold it high over my head and bring it smashing down onto the ring, which by the power of this moon shatters into sparkling splinters that dazzle the night before my eyes. The floor shakes and I leap to my feet, I’m running down the stairs, out into the courtyard, down the steps. I feel the walls falling behind me. I feel the earth groaning and bending in protest. The sound of failing stone is deafening about my ears. I run for my life, back to my life. I run for the soft glow of firelight windows, family, and safety.

I look behind one last time, and see the keep no more, the earth has swallowed it up and none of the stones remain. I wonder if I shall miss it. Miss the sad regret. I wonder what lies ahead for me. I think long about this. I think I will be glad.

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