Okay. Finished my story, so I'm posting it now. Please comment!
Title: Precious Things
Fandom: Earthsea (duh) (Takes place a bit after The Tombs of Atuan)
Genre: Angsty fuzz
Beta: The wonderful, wonderful cibeles
It had all happened so fast: the joining of the Ring, the feasts and celebrations in Havnor, the long journeys, the trek up the mountain, and yet, he enjoyed it all the way. Through illness and fatigue, she’d been there with him; or had she? It was hard to imagine. Perhaps it was just her: her presence, her soul that had always lived with him and had held him from the shadows, pulling him back to where he belonged, bringing him back to the light.
She was so young, hardly a woman, but . . . she still looked like a woman; with curves and smiles and that sort of mischief that all women seem to have . . . or was it just her? She’d been so quiet recently, even moreso than her usual demeanor, but he still saw that spark, that twinkle in her eyes that told him she was thinking of something she’d never tell; and yet she did send fair, speechless messages with those same eyes. They’d nearly grayed since he’d brought her here, with that old green shine he’d seen in the darkness fading away, leaving her natural color where it had been; but still, he’d see a flash of that wonderful shimmer, and he couldn’t help but smile.
But her silence still unnerved him. She would sit in the corner, huddled up in her old, torn gown, never uttering a word. She seemed wary of Ogion, and so his plans of going off on his own had been delayed, for she would speak only to him, let only him touch her; even just that light, reassuring pressure on her arm was reserved for only him. Her Hardic had improved, and he would speak to her in it, and she to him, but whenever she was frightened or lonely, it was always her childish tug on his sleeve and that soft, broken Kargish that said, “Ged? I’m frightened. I’m scared of the dark. I’m all alone.”
She was a child of the dark, so consumed by the hatred and evil of her upbringing that sometimes, with no warning at all, she’d break down and cry. And, as in the Labyrinth, that tomb of darkness and fear, he’d rest his hands on her head and speak quietly, and she, trusting in the strength of the arms that held her and faithful in the light that guided her, held to him and allowed him to lead her from the only life she ever knew, out of darkness and into light.
She was most precious thing he knew, the holiest object in his possession, and he adored her as such. Her very presence would cause him to tremble in anticipation, waiting for her to speak, or simply brush against his arm as she walked past. She was always so solemn, so proper and respectful. He wondered if she’d always been that way, if she’d always recognized authority and power, forgetting for the time being that she was above them all; a servant of powers greater than those of any wizard, given the right to deal out life and death as she so pleased. He had come as an enemy, and, upon being found, expected death, but instead she had given him life.
Life and love.
Love? He pondered the word often, especially in respect to her. Did he love her? He loved the way she acted toward him, but did he actually love her? He wanted above all else to say he did, to admit it to her, and even more, to himself. But such love was forbidden. A celibate wizard and an untouched, holy priestess . . . the thought was almost laughable. And yet, whenever she’d look at him, smile at him, touch him, he’d feel the urge to reach out, gather her into his arms and hold her as she deserved to be held.
However, he did have his opportunities. Every night, he would take the bed in the alcove, and she, rather reluctantly, would sleep on the floor beside him. After several moments of darkness, he’d feel her tapping ever so gently on his arm. “Ged?” she’d whisper, “I’m scared of the dark.” Knowing the sort of protection she longed for, he would move to the side of the bed, and she, understanding the offer, would clamber up close beside him, not touching him, but still close enough that he could feel her breath against his bare skin. It was dangerous, her lying in the same bed as he, so innocent and helpless, sleeping so trustingly beside him, clinging to his hand like the child she was . . .
A child. That’s really what she was: a little girl. She looked like a woman, a beautiful one at that, intelligent, too, but she was still frightened easily, and she still needed guidance. There was still so much for her to learn . . . she’d never seen the sea before he’d shown her. She’d not seen a man before him. Was it possible that she’d never known love, either? He did not wonder about the sort of love she’d described to him, not the affection she still felt for her scarcely remembered mother, nor the devotion she had to those she had told him of, Penthe, Thar, Manan . . . but the pure, true, passionate love he could give her. Oh, if only he could! And would she accept it? Or return it? Could darkness truly love the light the way he loved her? No, that sort of love was forbidden; no matter how sincere it may be. And yet the bond existed, an irremovable link between them that, tattered and torn, stood strong through everything they went through, and would face in the future. He did not know what she felt for him, but he knew something was there. She trusted him with everything she had, but still, she was often shy around him, as if she wanted more than anything to keep herself from the risk of heartache of such attachment . . . as if she’d been taught not to befriend others.
And yet she had grown so fond of him. She was always very subtle about it, but he noticed how she watched his every move. He would leave on walks, like Ogion, wanting an hour or two alone with his thoughts, and, walking away, he’d glance back to find her perched on the lowest branch of the tree she’d claimed as her own, looking after him as he left. And upon returning, he would find her sitting in the doorway, wrapped up in her heavy black cloak, having fallen asleep in her always patient waiting for him. He’d scoop her up in his arms and carry her off for a nap. Ogion would often chuckle upon seeing this, pointing out to Ged that, if she were awake, she’d most certainly not approve. However, Ged felt that she might actually enjoy it (but he’d never confess this suspicion to Ogion), and this was confirmed when he could have sworn he saw her eyes flicker open once as he held her.
He feared for her. He feared for what others would say of her, how others would treat her . . . how she would treat herself. She was so fragile and so delicate that, should she give into her fears and miseries, she’d fall and break, and he’d not be there to collect the pieces, to reconstruct her as he had done in that wretched darkness, in the cold air of the mountains of Atuan, in the lavish palaces of Havnor. She’d confessed to him her desire to be alone, to vanish from this place, destined not to go onto an afterlife, punished for forsaking her gods by not being reborn. She’d cried in the darkness, wanting only to dissolve into those very shadows, to dissipate into the sea mist and not bother or betray anyone anymore. And there he’d been, her light, her savior, shining there where sorrow had lived. He’d held her as she cried sometimes, other times, simply being there, watching her, had saved her. But what would become of her should he leave? Would she will herself into nonexistence? Or perhaps she might walk off into the sea; she could not swim. It would be a sad ending to the songs . . . surely there’d be songs about the rejoining of the Ring? It would be tragic, like the tale of Morred and Elfarran, but the sacrifice would not be for the better good, but for selfish motives. And, instead of teaching their daughters to live life like Tenar of the Ring, to idolize her, housewives from everywhere in the Archipelago would use her as an example, a weak woman to be looked down upon, not revered. And he knew she deserved more than that. She deserved greatness.
And there she was, sitting quietly at his feet, her own tucked beneath herself, her hands folded delicately in her lap as she gazed into the fire. He saw how her cheeks became rosy in the warmth of the flame, how her hair curled up into a mess of loose, tangled ringlets, finally free of the conservative braids and the dry air of the Atuani desert. She stared, wholly occupied with the leaping, sputtering flames before her, as if trying to remember something just beyond the grasp of her memory. She’d told him of her mother, or rather what she knew of her. The fire . . . the wonderful, comforting warmth that both sheltered and burned. She did not know where she came from or who she was, only that she’d been loved. The thought both soothed and saddened her; he saw it in her eyes.
Those eyes . . . she never looked anyone directly in the eye; he’d figured this out even in the Labyrinth, when she'd not even allow such simple communication with that warden of hers. Only when her demonic anger took over would she even glance at him in such a way. Any stranger she met, she’d greet with her eyes downcast. Whether she was frightened or just shy, he couldn’t say, but he knew that she’d look at him and speak to him, showing no fear, no distrust, only innocent adoration.
She sighed presently, brushing away a tear. She’d been crying? He wanted to hold her, to soothe her, but he knew she’d resist, and, if she didn’t, it would only be harder to say goodbye, to have known the sensation of her lying so willingly in his arms, for her to be conscious of her actions as she rested her head against his chest, to confess his love to her, to know, in all hopes, that she returned such love. But still, he’d have to leave. He was not meant to be some village sorcerer, married to a village witch; he was destined for much more.
He reached down and touched the top of her head briefly, silent, detached. She said nothing. She’d certainly be a good companion for Ogion, quiet, obedient and faithful, if only she’d open up to him. They were strangers almost, but Ogion seemed to have grown attached to her nonetheless. He knew the old man was getting lonely, living alone with no warden. He’d wanted no new prentice, especially not a girl, but Ged had brought her, and so she would stay.
He heard a slight rustling of fabric, and glanced down to find her inching shyly closer to him, rearranging her legs more comfortably to her side. He smiled slightly, afraid to move or make a sound, lest he frighten her. He knew she was crying. He knew she was afraid, but it was toward him she went for safety, not away, and this thought alone eased the suffering her pain brought him, if only a little.
He watched her silently as she cautiously closed the distance between them. Very carefully, she rested the side of her head against his knee, not comfortable enough to lean all her weight onto him, sitting awkwardly but trustingly beside him. He thought of returning the contact, stroking her hair, holding her hand, or at least saying something, but he found no words powerful enough, tender enough to even begin to describe what he felt. I love you, little one . . .
She was still getting used to this odd place he’d brought her to, this strange world where she felt more alone, more vulnerable than she’d ever felt at the Place of the Tombs. But he was there, and that’s all that mattered. She had learned not to trust, and felt it the best decision she’d ever made, and yet she still trusted him, this man that stayed by her side through nightmares and tears, sorrow and fear, and never asked for anything in return. He was a true friend.
A friend . . . she’d known very few friends in her life. Manan had been a dear friend. She remembered playing games with him in the courtyard of the Small House, laughing, bringing just a bit of brightness into that dreadful place of evil. And Penthe, to whom she’d caused so much pain, such incredible suffering, but who still did not blame her for her hurts, who did not look on her accusingly as her dress rubbed roughly against the fresh wounds on her back. And then there was Thar, who looked on disapprovingly each time Penthe paid for Arha’s sins (yes, they were Arha’s, not Tenar’s, Arha had sinned but Tenar remained pure, it was all Arha’s business, this “sinning” . . . ), and yet, as she fell ill, she asked for her more and more often, and spoke with her, telling her the truths of the world, warning her against evils not so great as those she worshipped, but just as deadly. She had died holding her hand, not strong enough to speak, and yet the girl knew the woman’s feelings, knew the warnings and knew the loneliness that would follow . . . she knew the pure despair of watching this woman, this woman who had been almost a mother to her, die before her eyes.
They were all gone now, those friends. Thar was dead. Manan was dead. And she could only pray Penthe had survived, and, with some optimistic stretch of the imagination, that she had escaped the horrors of priestess life. She had but one companion now, and it was the man who walked so solemnly beside her. She was to his left and, should she look up, she would see those scars. They did not bother her in their horridness, but in the pain and sorrow they must have wreaked upon him, that ache she had only worsened, prodded at with her arrogant questions, that sort of doubt in him that hurt him most. And she was sorry.
She often regretted the things she said and did as Arha, the despicable acts she’d committed, the rude things she’d said to those she cared for, too caught up in the title and power to realize she was helpless, alone and dying. Yes, she was dying, not physically, but spiritually. With every blow to the powers of Darkness she believed to be true, her faith, her very being began to wither away, leaving only a soulless, nameless shell. Nameless, yes, Arha was she who had been eaten, she with no name, and so it was rather fitting, and thus her personality changed to fit who she was to be, descending further and further into that unending darkness with no hope of return, no hope except him.
Him. He was a good man, she’d discovered. He was comforting, kind and wise, and yet, despite how close they had grown, he seemed to be hiding something from her, some unforgettable, unforgivable past. And she knew it was there, so did the world for that matter. That same past marked him with those scars on his cheek. One of the Nameless Ones had given that gift to him; so great a gift he could not hide it, not even with that magic that saved a poor little girl from the very heart of darkness, that rejoined the Ring of Peace, that would do great things . . . he would be great, and yet he would always appear imperfect, wronged and worthy of pity. He could not hide his own mistakes.
And now she felt that same, piercing gaze he must have felt for years after attaining those scars. She would walk through the village, and every head would turn to see the light-skinned girl. “She’s so strange,” they’d whisper. “She can go back to where she came from.” The only thing that freed her from such scrutiny was Ged’s constant, comforting presence. Whether he intimidated them into not speaking of her, or if she was more concerned with his actions than theirs, she couldn’t really say, but either way, he was saving her again.
Or had she saved him the first time? In the Tombs, everything had become so confusing, so backward and bungled that nothing was clear. She’d led the way, but who had truly brought the other from that place? Was it he, with his hand so steadily clasping hers? Or she, who had fought her own faith and element to return him to his own? She considered asking him presently, looking up at him steadily, questioningly, waiting for him to respond. He said nothing. Perhaps he did not want her with him, perhaps he would rather have left her at the Old Mage’s House and not bothered with the burden of taking her so far with him, but he had asked her, and, obediently, she had acquiesced. It gave her time to say goodbye.
Goodbye . . . it was something they’d never really said to each other. In the Labyrinth there would always have been a next time, and since then, they’d never spent long apart. She thought nothing of it, really. He was something to hold onto, something tangible and good and oh, so real, and it was what she needed, something steady, something to rely on. She needed him. He was the only thing that kept her sane, that kept her alive. Yes, she needed him more than anything, but was it even possible that he could need her, too?
Of course he didn’t. He couldn’t. She was but a child he had saved: a small, useless thing, pretty enough, but valuable only as a trophy, something to wear on one’s arm like a little trinket. But why did he seem to treat her better than that? He always seemed concerned with her feelings, her thoughts . . . but that didn’t mean anything. He was a kind man, after all; he was just being a gentleman. He didn’t need her. Who would?
He was a strong man, not in the way that those barbarians in Havnor had described strength, but it was doubtlessly there. He was muscular, yet not to the point of bulkiness; but when he lifted her and her head would rest against his arm or chest, she could feel the power there. It was not the magic, though, but the physical might that he commanded, that he used to lift her and hold her when he thought her unconscious. His power enthralled her, both his magical and physical authority, and this, in conjunction with that kind soul she so adored, led her to one conclusion: perfection. He was truly perfect, despite the secrets he hid, despite the heavy silence that came over him, despite any mistake he might have made. And no-one else knew this; they all passed him off as some imperfect wretch, some troublesome young man with a terrifying past. They did not see him as she did, nor could they. They were simple people with no understanding of others. But she, she knew how to see him without knowing his past, to look upon him and not judge him the way others did, to trust him without question.
The Ring of Erreth-Akbe . . . trust . . . they were one and the same to her. Whenever he held out his hand to her, she’d slip hers into his, and she’d feel the warmth of his skin against hers, but between them, she could sense the cold, polished silver, the two halves becoming one in the twilight between them, in that space where light and dark met and became one. And, although the Ring was no longer on her wrist, that trust remained, and that same trust grew and deepened to innocent adoration and devotion.
They were at the dock. It wouldn’t be long now . . . he was leaving and she didn’t know when he would return . . . if he would return. He’d not spoken a word since they’d left the old house in Re Albi. He set about loading his few possessions into Lookfar, the same boat that had taken them from Atuan to Havnor, from Havnor to Gont . . . but now it would take him to wherever that place was his soul sought, that sacred point he longed for, as it had before she’d even met him. He would survive without her as he had before, and yet for her it was not quite that simple: she needed the light, something to break through that dark fear with pure radiance and glory, the kind only he could give her.
She stepped closer to the edge of the pier, shaking in the icy wind, fidgeting her bare feet in an attempt at warming them. “Won’t this wind throw you off course?” she asked quietly, the Hardic words awkward through what seemed to be repressed tears.
He looked at her round the red, patched sail, speaking slowly and cautiously, “I’ll sail by the mage-wind.”
She looked at her feet and fidgeted her fingers silently while he set about readying Lookfar for whatever journey lay ahead. She heard the soft splashing of the water against the shore, against the dock, and she remembered the first time she’d seen this sea, in Atuan. ‘What is that?’ she had said. ‘The sea,’ he’d replied. She whimpered quietly in remembrance.
“Tenar?” His voice was full of tenderness and worry.
“Can I come with you?” The words left her mouth before she could hinder them.
“Can I come with you? I promise: I’ll be quiet and I won’t bother you one bit. I just want to come. Please?” Her voice had gained an almost childish quality, unintentionally slipping from Hardic to Kargish.
“Tenar,” he whispered, stepping out of the boat and onto the pier before her, “I thought you liked it here.”
She sniffled and looked away from him, clasping her hands tightly in front of her chest. “I do, I do,” she spoke quickly in Kargish, “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, because I like it here, I really do. But,” she bit her lip briefly, “I like it more because you’re here. I don’t want to be here or anywhere without you. Please . . .” She looked up into his dark, scarred face, eyes shining with childish innocence and unshed tears.
He sighed, running a hand over the left side of his face. She watched his fingers, the way they ran over the four white seams, almost soothing them. She wanted to reach out and feel them, just touch them the way he did, but she did not, for his hand found her head, settling itself lightly on top, half buried in the mess of tangles and frizz that was her hair. “Tenar,” he whispered in Kargish, “I’ll miss you.” An icy tear trickled down her cheek, but he did not move to brush it away. He removed his hand and returned to Lookfar silently. She watched him as he untied those wretched knots—“sailor’s knots”, he’d called them—and started weaving the weather-working spell, his eyes closed, his hands twitching slightly with the power of the charm, until he relaxed. The wind began to change.
“Ged!” she cried out softly, leaning out over the water to grab hold of his hand desperately.
“Ged,” she whimpered in Hardic, “You made me a promise. Do you remember?” She could feel the wind beginning to tug lightly on the sail, pulling him slowly away from her. She held on fast.
“A promise? I don’t know what you’re talking about, little one.” Lookfar moved farther, faster away.
“You . . . you said that . . . that if I ever needed you . . .”
“I will come,” he murmured in Kargish, and the mage-wind pulled him away. She held on as long as she could, leaning out over the void between them, until his hand slipped from hers. She watched him turn away as he sailed off. She said nothing more to him, nor he to her; and yet she stayed there, watching.
She sat down on the edge of the pier, huddled up in that same torn gown of black, her thick wool cloak, the cloak she’d given him, wrapped tightly about her. The sea stretched on forever, it seemed, as did the distance between them. The sun was setting. She thought it rather fitting that their journey should end so, having begun as the sun rose that cold desert morning. But she had faith in his return, and that faith was greater even than the powers of the dark, just as the trust she put in him, and he in her. He’d taught her that.