The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin


  “Le Guin, one of modern science fiction’s most acclaimed writers, is also a fantasist of genius. . . . [Earthsea] is among her finest creations.”

  —The New York Times

  “Thrilling, wise, and beautiful . . . written in prose as taut and clean as a ship’s sail. Every word is perfect.”

  —The Guardian

  “Among the looms of fantasy fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin weaves on where J. R. R. Tolkien cast off. . . . Earthsea—fuming with dragons and busy with magic—has replaced Tolkien’s Middle Earth as the chosen land for high, otherworldly adventure.”

  —Sunday Times (London)

  “Readers will be beguiled by the flawless, poetic prose, the philosophy expressed in thoughtful, potent metaphor, and the consummately imagined world.”

  —Kirkus Reviews

  “A thoughtful, brilliant achievement.”

  —Horn Book

  “A treasure . . . It is at the top of any list of fantasy to be cherished.”

  —award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer Andre Norton

  “Stellar . . . Le Guin is still at the height of her powers, a superb stylist with a knack for creating characters who are both wise and deeply humane.”

  —Publishers Weekly in a starred review for Tales from Earthsea

  “Here there be dragons, and Ms. Le Guin’s dragons are some of the best in literature.”

  —award-winning fantasy writer Robin McKinley,

  The New York Times Book Review

  “Richly told. . . . [Le Guin] draws us into the magical land and its inhabitants’ doings immediately.”


  “Strong work from a master storyteller.”

  —Library Journal

  “All of Ursula Le Guin’s strengths are abundantly present . . . narrative power, tautly controlled and responsive prose, an imagination that never loses touch with the reality of things as they are.”

  —The Economist

  “Le Guin is not only one of the purest stylists writing in English, but the most transcendently truthful of writers.”

  —The Nation

  “Le Guin understands magic and dragons better than anyone, and her writing only gets better with each new book.”

  —Michael Swanwick, author of Stations of the Tide










  8. NAMES




  12. VOYAGE



  For the redhead

  from Telluride



  In the deep valley, in the twilight, the apple trees were on the eve of blossoming; here and there among the shadowed boughs one flower had opened early, rose and white, like a faint star. Down the orchard aisles, in the thick, new, wet grass, the little girl ran for the joy of running; hearing the call she did not come at once, but made a long circle before she turned her face toward home. The mother waiting in the doorway of the hut, with the firelight behind her, watched the tiny figure running and bobbing like a bit of thistledown blown over the darkening grass beneath the trees.

  By the corner of the hut, scraping clean an earth-clotted hoe, the father said, “Why do you let your heart hang on the child? They’re coming to take her away next month. For good. Might as well bury her and be done with it. What’s the good of clinging to one you’re bound to lose? She’s no good to us. If they’d pay for her when they took her, which would be something, but they won’t. They’ll take her and that’s an end of it.”

  The mother said nothing, watching the child who had stopped to look up through the trees. Over the high hills, above the orchards, the evening star shone piercing clear.

  “She isn’t ours, she never was since they came here and said she must be the Priestess at the Tombs. Why can’t you see that?” The man’s voice was harsh with complaint and bitterness. “You have four others. They’ll stay here, and this one won’t. So, don’t set your heart on her. Let her go!”

  “When the time comes,” the woman said, “I will let her go.” She bent to meet the child who came running on little, bare, white feet across the muddy ground, and gathered her up in her arms. As she turned to enter the hut she bent her head to kiss the child’s hair, which was black; but her own hair, in the flicker of firelight from the hearth, was fair.

  The man stood outside, his own feet bare and cold on the ground, the clear sky of spring darkening above him. His face in the dusk was full of grief, a dull, heavy, angry grief that he would never find the words to say. At last he shrugged, and followed his wife into the firelit room that rang with children’s voices.



  ONE HIGH HORN SHRILLED AND ceased. The silence that followed was shaken only by the sound of many footsteps keeping time with a drum struck softly at a slow heart-pace. Through cracks in the roof of the Hall of the Throne, gaps between columns where a whole section of masonry and tile had collapsed, unsteady sunlight shone aslant. It was an hour after sunrise. The air was still and cold. Dead leaves of weeds that had forced up between marble pavement-tiles were outlined with frost, and crackled, catching on the long black robes of the priestesses.

  They came, four by four, down the vast hall between double rows of columns. The drum beat dully. No voice spoke, no eye watched. Torches carried by black-clad girls burned reddish in the shafts of sunlight, brighter in the dusk between. Outside, on the steps of the Hall of the Throne, the men stood, guards, trumpeters, drummers; within the great doors only women had come, dark-robed and hooded, walking slowly four by four toward the empty throne.

  Two came, tall women looming in their black, one of them thin and rigid, the other heavy, swaying with the planting of her feet. Between these two walked a child of about six. She wore a straight white shift. Her head and arms and legs were bare, and she was barefoot. She looked extremely small. At the foot of the steps leading up to the throne, where the others now waited in dark rows, the two tall women halted. They pushed the child forward a little.

  The throne on its high platform seemed to be curtained on each side with great webs of blackness dropping from the gloom of the roof; whether these were curtains, or only denser shadows, the eye could not make certain. The throne itself was black, with a dull glimmer of precious stones or gold on the arms and back, and it was huge. A man sitting in it would have been dwarfed; it was not of human dimensions. It was empty. Nothing sat in it but shadows.

  Alone, the child climbed up four of the seven steps of red-veined marble. They were so broad and high that she had to get both feet onto one step before attempting the next. On the middle step, directly in front of the throne, stood a large, rough block of wood, hollowed out on top. The child knelt on both knees and fitted her head into the hollow, turning it a little sideways. She knelt there without moving.

  A figure in a belted gown of white wool stepped suddenly out of the shadows at the right of the throne and strode down the steps to the child. His face was masked with white. He held a sword of polished steel five feet long. Without word or hesitation he swung the sword, held in both hands, up over the little girl’s neck. The drum stopped beating.

  As the blade swung to its highest point and poised, a figure in black darted out from the left side of the throne, leapt
down the stairs, and stayed the sacrificer’s arms with slenderer arms. The sharp edge of the sword glittered in midair. So they balanced for a moment, the white figure and the black, both faceless, dancer-like above the motionless child whose white neck was bared by the parting of her black hair.

  In silence each leapt aside and up the stairs again, vanishing in the darkness behind the enormous throne. A priestess came forward and poured out a bowl of some liquid on the steps beside the kneeling child. The stain looked black in the dimness of the hall.

  The child got up and descended the four stairs laboriously. When she stood at the bottom, the two tall priestesses put on her a black robe and hood and mantle, and turned her around again to face the steps, the dark stain, the throne.

  “O let the Nameless Ones behold the girl given to them, who is verily the one born ever nameless. Let them accept her life and the years of her life until her death, which is also theirs. Let them find her acceptable. Let her be eaten!”

  Other voices, shrill and harsh as trumpets, replied: “She is eaten! She is eaten!”

  The little girl stood looking from under her black cowl up at the throne. The jewels inset in the huge clawed arms and the back were glazed with dust, and on the carven back were cobwebs and whitish stains of owl droppings. The three highest steps directly before the throne, above the step on which she had knelt, had never been climbed by mortal feet. They were so thick with dust that they looked like one slant of grey soil, the planes of the red-veined marble wholly hidden by the unstirred, untrodden siftings of how many years, how many centuries.

  “She is eaten! She is eaten!”

  Now the drum, abrupt, began to sound again, beating a quicker pace.

  Silent and shuffling, the procession formed and moved away from the throne, eastward toward the bright, distant square of the doorway. On either side, the thick double columns, like the calves of immense pale legs, went up to the dusk under the ceiling. Among the priestesses, and now all in black like them, the child walked, her small bare feet treading solemnly over the frozen weeds, the icy stones. When sunlight slanting through the ruined roof flashed across her way, she did not look up.

  Guards held the great doors wide. The black procession came out into the thin, cold light and wind of early morning. The sun dazzled, swimming above the eastern vastness. Westward, the mountains caught its yellow light, as did the facade of the Hall of the Throne. The other buildings, lower on the hill, still lay in purplish shadow, except for the Temple of the God-Brothers across the way on a little knoll: its roof, newly gilt, flashed the day back in glory. The black line of priestesses, four by four, wound down the Hill of the Tombs, and as they went they began softly to chant. The tune was on three notes only, and the word that was repeated over and over was a word so old it had lost its meaning, like a signpost still standing when the road is gone. Over and over they chanted the empty word. All that day of the Remaking of the Priestess was filled with the low chanting of women’s voices, a dry unceasing drone.

  The little girl was taken from room to room, from temple to temple. In one place salt was placed upon her tongue; in another she knelt facing west while her hair was cut short and washed with oil and scented vinegar; in another she lay facedown on a slab of black marble behind an altar while shrill voices sang a lament for the dead. Neither she nor any of the priestesses ate food or drank water all that day. As the evening star set, the little girl was put to bed, naked between sheepskin rugs, in a room she had never slept in before. It was in a house that had been locked for years, unlocked only that day. The room was higher than it was long, and had no windows. There was a dead smell in it, still and stale. The silent women left her there in the dark.

  She held still, lying just as they had put her. Her eyes were wide open. She lay so for a long time.

  She saw light shake on the high wall. Someone came quietly along the corridor, shielding a rushlight so it showed no more light than a firefly. A husky whisper: “Ho, are you there, Tenar?”

  The child did not reply.

  A head poked in the doorway, a strange head, hairless as a peeled potato, and of the same yellowish color. The eyes were like potato-eyes, brown and tiny. The nose was dwarfed by great, flat slabs of cheek, and the mouth was a lipless slit. The child stared unmoving at this face. Her eyes were large, dark, and fixed.

  “Ho, Tenar, my little honeycomb, there you are!” The voice was husky, high as a woman’s voice but not a woman’s voice. “I shouldn’t be here, I belong outside the door, on the porch, that’s where I go. But I had to see how my little Tenar is, after all the long day of it, eh, how’s my poor little honeycomb?”

  He moved toward her, noiseless and burly, and put out his hand as if to smooth back her hair.

  “I am not Tenar anymore,” the child said, staring up at him. His hand stopped; he did not touch her.

  “No,” he said, after a moment, whispering. “I know. I know. Now you’re the little Eaten One. But I . . . ”

  She said nothing.

  “It was a hard day for a little one,” the man said, shuffling, the tiny light flickering in his big yellow hand.

  “You should not be in this House, Manan.”

  “No. No. I know. I shouldn’t be in this House. Well, good night, little one. . . . Good night.”

  The child said nothing. Manan slowly turned around and went away. The glimmer died from the high cell walls.

  The little girl, who had no name anymore but Arha, the Eaten One, lay on her back looking steadily at the dark.




  AS SHE GREW OLDER SHE lost all remembrance of her mother, without knowing she had lost it. She belonged here, at the Place of the Tombs; she had always belonged here. Only sometimes in the long evenings of July as she watched the western mountains, dry and lion-colored in the afterglow of sunset, she would think of a fire that had burned on a hearth, long ago, with the same clear yellow light. And with this came a memory of being held, which was strange, for here she was seldom even touched; and the memory of a pleasant smell, the fragrance of hair freshly washed and rinsed in sage-scented water, fair long hair, the color of sunset and firelight. That was all she had left.

  She knew more than she remembered, of course, for she had been told the whole story. When she was seven or eight years old, and first beginning to wonder who indeed this person called “Arha” was, she had gone to her guardian, the Warden Manan, and said, “Tell me how I was chosen, Manan.”

  “Oh, you know all that, little one.”

  And indeed she did; the tall, dry-voiced priestess Thar had told her till she knew the words by heart, and she recited them: “Yes, I know. At the death of the One Priestess of the Tombs of Atuan, the ceremonies of burial and purification are completed within one month by the moon’s calendar. After this certain of the Priestesses and Wardens of the Place of the Tombs go forth across the desert, among the towns and villages of Atuan, seeking and asking. They seek the girl-child who was born on the night of the Priestess’s death. When they find such a child, they wait and they watch. The child must be sound of body and of mind, and as it grows it must not suffer from rickets nor the smallpox nor any deformity, nor become blind. If it reaches the age of five years unblemished, then it is known that the body of the child is indeed the new body of the Priestess who died. And the child is made known to the Godking in Awabath, and brought here to her Temple and instructed for a year. And at the year’s end she is taken to the Hall of the Throne and her name is given back to those who are her Masters, the Nameless Ones: for she is the nameless one, the Priestess Ever Reborn.”

  This was all word for word as Thar had told her, and she had never dared ask for a word more. The thin priestess was not cruel, but she was very cold and lived by an iron law, and Arha was in awe of her. But she was not in awe of Manan, far from it, and she would command him, “Now tell me how I was chosen!” And he would tell her again.

  “We left here, going n
orth and west, in the third day of the moon’s waxing; for Arha-that-was had died in the third day of the last moon. And first we went to Tenacbah, which is a great city, though those who’ve seen both say it’s no more to Awabath than a flea to a cow. But it’s big enough for me, there must be ten hundred houses in Tenacbah! And we went on to Gar. But nobody in those cities had a baby girl born to them on the third day of the moon a month before; there were some had boys, but boys won’t do. . . . So we went into the hill country north of Gar, to the towns and villages. That’s my own land. I was born in the hills there, where the rivers run, and the land is green. Not in this desert.” Manan’s husky voice would get a strange sound when he said that, and his small eyes would be quite hidden in their folds; he would pause a little, and at last go on. “And so we found and spoke to all those who were parents of babies born in the last months. And some would lie to us. ‘Oh yes, surely our baby girl was born on the moon’s third day!’ For poor folk, you know, are often glad to get rid of girl-babies. And there were others who were so poor, living in lonely huts in the valleys of the hills, that they kept no count of days and scarce knew how to tell the turn of time, so they could not say for certain how old their baby was. But we could always come at the truth, by asking long enough. But it was slow work. At last we found a girl-child, in a village of ten houses, in the orchard-vales westward of Entat. Eight months old she was, so long had we been looking. But she had been born on the night that the Priestess of the Tombs had died, and within the very hour of her death. And she was a fine baby, sitting up on her mother’s knee and looking with bright eyes at all of us, crowding into the one room of the house like bats into a cave! The father was a poor man. He tended the apple trees of the rich man’s orchard, and had nothing of his own but five children and a goat. Not even the house was his. So there we all crowded in, and you could tell by the way the priestesses looked at the baby and spoke among themselves that they thought they had found the Reborn One at last. And the mother could tell this too. She held the baby and never said a word. Well, so, the next day we came back. And look here! The little bright-eyed baby lying in a cot of rushes weeping and screaming, and all over its body weals and red rashes of fever, and the mother wailing louder than the baby, ‘Oh! Oh! My babe hath the Witch-Fingers on her!’ That’s how she said it; the smallpox she meant. In my village, too, they called it the Witch-Fingers. But Kossil, she who is now the High Priestess of the Godking, she went to the cot and picked up the baby. The others had all drawn back, and I with them; I don’t value my life very high, but who enters a house where smallpox is? But she had no fear, not that one. She picked up the baby and said, ‘It has no fever.’ And she spat on her finger and rubbed at the red marks, and they came off. They were only berry juice. The poor silly mother had thought to fool us and keep her child!” Manan laughed heartily at this; his yellow face hardly changed, but his sides heaved. “So, her husband beat her, for he was afraid of the wrath of the priestesses. And soon we came back to the desert, but each year one of the people of the Place would return to the village among the apple orchards, and see how the child got on. So five years passed, and then Thar and Kossil made the journey, with the Temple guards, and soldiers of the red helmet sent by the Godking to escort them safely. They brought the child back here, for it was indeed the Priestess of the Tombs reborn, and here it belonged. And who was the child, eh, little one?”

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