Of Thistles and
(Warriors in the Mist)
Shorn of clothes and name alike, the lad looked too tall for his bones. Head held high, he picked his way across the stream like a yearling bear: arrogant, inquisitive, mighty enough to crush a man yet still uncertain of his place, his power.
But haba was not his name.
Ogion felt, as he always did at these times, a moment of fear that the name would not come, would slip away downstream to the sea uncaught. He shook his head, what will be will be, and bent over the icy water, birthed here like the boy. He touched his fingers to the surface—and reflected there he saw a hawk soaring on the wind above a scree-clad mountain—a young man with a closed face, alone in a marble hall crowded with merrymakers—a sturdy boat with eyes painted aside the prow and a patched brown sail skimming across an empty ocean—one image fast replacing another like leaves cascading from a tree in autumn.
And last of all he saw a common thistle, such as flourished on the Overfell by his cliff-top home. ‘Your name is Ged,’ he said to the shivering lad, and it was fitting, for thistledown floats everywhere the wind blows, but the spiky thistle endears itself to few.
Gone was the slender gawky lad, like a runner bean on a pole, he’d named what, six summers ago now. The promise of height had not been met: the fur-cloaked youth hunched at the hearth, grey as storm clouds even in the firelight, would never stand as tall as Ogion himself. Comely he had never been, and the pale scars that striped his cheek and neck made his flint-hard profile harsher still. His proud, fierce eyes hid, listless and cowed, beneath his dripping hair.
Where have you flown from so fast, my young hawk? Ogion wondered as he loosed the cloak, heavy with salt, and saw the silver-broidered tunic and silken hose beneath. They didn’t dress men like that at Roke when last I was there. Ged shuddered, but made no move and spoke no word; indeed he had flown on falcon wings far beyond any language of man.
He laid the youth upon the pallet that no new prentice had ever claimed, pulled a sheepskin fleece over the fancy, ruined garments and laid upon him a simple charm for sleep. What follows you, that you fear so much?
Being a mage of great power and greater wisdom, Ogion’s questions were no sooner asked than answered, but the answers pleased him no more than the pallid look and vacant stare of this youth whom once he’d tried to teach. He fastened the shutters of the west window tight against the thin winter light, against the frigid breeze that blew always from the sea at the close of the year, against anything colder still that might chance to blow in with it. Then, drawing up a stool, he lit the lamp and studied the sleeping youth in the warm, wavering circle of light cast by the tiny flame.
Oft can a mage’s eye seem a burden, for there is no eluding the truth: if naught else were done, the lad he’d named would die this night. The threads of pride and anger that once had bound his soul to his body had long been severed, and his fearful, friendless spirit, freed from the cage of reason that prisoned him in this world, longed to fly in the dry lands.
Do what is needful, ran the first rule of Roke, and the last. But magic would serve him ill here, he judged, for it was magic the lad was fleeing from, magic that changed his form and removed his reason, magic moreover that had loosed the shadow he dreaded. Yet there were older powers in the world than the art magic, stronger ties than any binding spell. He recalled the nut-brown maid of Valmouth town whom once he’d sighed over, when the power in him was fresh awakened, before ever he went to Roke or was prenticed to the Old Mage, and he gave to Ged that night and the next what he might have given to her, had choices fallen otherwise.
On the third morning Ged rose, and came to the fireside. Ogion brewed a pot of rushwash tea, and though they spoke of many matters as they sipped the bitter liquid, some grave and some less so, they did not speak of what they’d done in silence. The first snow of winter fell wet and heavy upon the thatch, slithering to the ground beneath the eaves in great soggy slabs. When evening came they ate mussels and fresh-baked bread together by the flickering light and fierce heat of the fire. That night Ged came to him, and he did not turn him away.
And in the cold dawn when he awoke, Ged was gone.
Long ago, half a lifetime ago, he’d accepted all that might follow from those three nights he’d spent with his young hawk, both the good and the evil. A piece of string has two ends, as the goodwives say on Gont, and when he reckoned up the years since last Ged had sent word, he called to mind that a dragonlord might have more pressing things to do than visit an old man. When his mattress seemed large for his lean frame, he told himself it had got musty and stuffed another, narrower one with straw from Turby whose herd he’d cured of the staggers. And when Ged brought him a daughter, he smiled and bade her welcome, though he was no longer young and had not thought to take another prentice. He taught her and he talked to her, and when the whey-faced lass he’d indeed come to regard as daughter tired of learning and listening and put him aside to belong to a man who would act, he accepted the loss.
And now she was here and he was not. Ged should be here, he thought, with the querulousness that even mages sometimes show when they’ve seen near ninety summers. He shouldn’t have to die without him. It wasn’t fitting.
That winter afternoon when he’d put on coat and boots and run all the way down the rugged cliff path to the mussel-beds of Kelnay cove—oh, how his knees had ached on the way down, and how his lungs strained on the way up! But when he’d placed the dish of mussels on the table Ged had smiled for the first time since the falcon had flown to his nest, and he’d eaten heartily for the first time likewise. And when Ged asked why Ogion had barely tasted the feast, he’d told him that his mother had been a wharfside tavern wench in Gont Port and for twelve years, till he was prenticed, the smell of mussels had never quite come out of his clothes—and only afterwards did he remember that he’d never spoken of his mother to anyone, not even the Old Mage, Heleth his master on whose earthlocked grave he’d stood with bare feet and wept.
The lass didn’t care for mussels either, screwing up her thin face when once he’d offered them. Have you sent to him? she’d asked when she came but the hawk they both loved had flown into the west, and an icy fog shrouded him from sight.
Fitting or no he’d seen soon enough that his death wasn’t going to wait, no not even for Ged to fly out of the west and walk in through the open door. So it was she who held his arm as he walked on his own two feet and not on any stretcher to the edge of the forest that was more home to him than ever Heleth’s house could be, she who cosseted him with his best fleecefell, she who prisoned his cold hand in her warm one as he watched still the west with his outward eye. But not even a thistle could find any hold in the parched grey lands where now he wandered, where no wind ever blew the dust around and the stars never set.
And then—no words for what came then. And in the dark light he whispered, ‘My name was Aihal.’
Earthsea was created by Ursula Le Guin; no copyright infringement is intended by this amateur story. Thanks to Harriet, Ika & Nova for discussion & encouragement, and Northland & Zimraphel for expert editing. All remaining infelicities are my own. Written for the Yuletide Secret Santa Project (7 December 2004)
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