The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin
The door was open.
“Quick!” she said, and pulled her companion through. Then, on the further side, she halted.
“Why was it open?” she said.
“Because your Masters need your hands to shut it for them.”
“We are coming to. . . . ” Her voice failed her.
“To the center of the darkness. I know. Yet we’re out of the Labyrinth. What ways out of the Undertomb are there?”
“Only one. The door you entered doesn’t open from within. The way goes through the cavern and up passages to a trapdoor in a room behind the Throne. In the Hall of the Throne.”
“Then we must go that way.”
“But she is there,” the girl whispered. “There in the Undertomb. In the cavern. Digging in the empty grave. I cannot pass her, oh, I cannot pass her again!”
“She will have gone by now.”
“I cannot go there.”
“Tenar, I hold the roof up over our heads, this moment. I keep the walls from closing in upon us. I keep the ground from opening beneath our feet. I have done this since we passed the pit where their servant waited. If I can hold off the earthquake, do you fear to meet one human soul with me? Trust me, as I have trusted you! Come with me now.”
They went forward.
The endless tunnel opened out. The sense of a greater air met them, an enlarging of the dark. They had entered the great cave beneath the Tombstones.
They started to circle it, keeping to the right-hand wall. Tenar had gone only a few steps when she paused. “What is it?” she murmured, her voice barely passing her lips. There was a noise in the dead, vast, black bubble of air: a tremor or shaking, a sound heard by the blood and felt in the bones. The time-carven walls beneath her fingers thrummed, thrummed.
“Go forward,” the man’s voice said, dry and strained. “Hurry, Tenar.”
As she stumbled forward she cried out in her mind, which was as dark, as shaken as the subterranean vault, “Forgive me. O my Masters, O unnamed ones, most ancient ones, forgive me, forgive me!”
There was no answer. There had never been an answer.
They came to the passage beneath the Hall, climbed the stairs, came to the last steps up and the trapdoor at their head. It was shut, as she always left it. She pressed the spring that opened it. It did not open.
“It is broken,” she said. “It is locked.”
He came up past her and put his back against the trap. It did not move.
“It’s not locked, but held down by something heavy.”
“Can you open it?”
“Perhaps. I think she’ll be waiting there. Has she men with her?”
“Duby and Uahto, maybe other wardens—men cannot come there—”
“I can’t make a spell of opening, and hold off the people waiting up there, and withstand the will of the darkness, all at one time,” said his steady voice, considering. “We must try the other door then, the door in the rocks, by which I came in. She knows that it can’t be opened from within?”
“She knows. She let me try it once.”
“Then she may discount it. Come. Come, Tenar!”
She had sunk down on the stone steps, which hummed and shivered as if a great bowstring were being plucked in the depths beneath them.
“What is it—the shaking?”
“Come,” he said, so steady and certain that she obeyed, and crept back down the passages and stairs, back to the dreadful cavern.
At the entrance so great a weight of blind and dire hatred came pressing down upon her, like the weight of the earth itself, that she cowered and without knowing it cried out aloud, “They are here! They are here!”
“Then let them know that we are here,” the man said, and from his staff and hands leapt forth a white radiance that broke as a sea-wave breaks in sunlight, against the thousand diamonds of the roof and walls: a glory of light, through which the two fled, straight across the great cavern, their shadows racing from them into the white traceries and the glittering crevices and the empty, open grave. To the low doorway they ran, down the tunnel, stooping over, she first, he following. There in the tunnel the rocks boomed, and moved under their feet. Yet the light was with them still, dazzling. As she saw the dead rock-face before her, she heard over the thundering of the earth his voice speaking one word, and as she fell to her knees his staff struck down, over her head, against the red rock of the shut door. The rocks burned white as if afire, and burst asunder.
Outside them was the sky, paling to dawn. A few white stars lay high and cool within it.
Tenar saw the stars and felt the sweet wind on her face; but she did not get up. She crouched on hands and knees there between the earth and sky.
The man, a strange dark figure in that half-light before the dawn, turned and pulled at her arm to make her get up. His face was black and twisted like a demon’s. She cowered away from him, shrieking in a thick voice not her own, as if a dead tongue moved in her mouth, “No! No! Don’t touch me—leave me—Go!” And she writhed back away from him, into the crumbling, lipless mouth of the Tombs.
His hard grip loosened. He said in a quiet voice, “By the bond you wear I bid you come, Tenar.”
She saw the starlight on the silver of the ring on her arm. Her eyes on that, she rose, staggering. She put her hand in his, and came with him. She could not run. They walked down the hill. From the black mouth among the rocks behind them issued forth a long, long, groaning howl of hatred and lament. Stones fell about them. The ground quivered. They went on, she with her eyes still fixed on the glimmer of starlight on her wrist.
They were in the dim valley westward of the Place. Now they began to climb; and all at once he bade her turn. “See—”
She turned, and saw. They were across the valley, on a level now with the Tombstones, the nine great monoliths that stood or lay above the cavern of diamonds and graves. The stones that stood were moving. They jerked, and leaned slowly like the masts of ships. One of them seemed to twitch and rise taller; then a shudder went through it, and it fell. Another fell, smashing crossways on the first. Behind them the low dome of the Hall of the Throne, black against the yellow light in the east, quivered. The walls bulged. The whole great ruinous mass of stone and masonry changed shape like clay in running water, sank in upon itself, and with a roar and sudden storm of splinters and dust slid sideways and collapsed. The earth of the valley rippled and bucked; a kind of wave ran up the hillside, and a huge crack opened among the Tombstones, gaping on the blackness underneath, oozing dust like grey smoke. The stones that still stood upright toppled into it and were swallowed. Then with a crash that seemed to echo off the sky itself, the raw black lips of the crack closed together; and the hills shook once, and grew still.
She looked from the horror of earthquake to the man beside her, whose face she had never seen by daylight. “You held it back,” she said, and her voice piped like the wind in a reed, after that mighty bellowing and crying of the earth. “You held back the earthquake, the anger of the dark.”
“We must go on,” he said, turning away from the sunrise and the ruined Tombs. “I am tired, I am cold. . . . ” He stumbled as they went, and she took his arm. Neither could go faster than a dragging walk. Slowly, like two tiny spiders on a great wall, they toiled up the immense slope of the hill, until at the top they stood on dry ground yellowed by the rising sun and streaked with the long, sparse shadows of the sage. Before them the western mountains stood, their feet purple, their upper slopes gold. The two paused a moment, then passed over the crest of the hill, out of sight of the Place of the Tombs, and were gone.
TENAR WOKE, STRUGGLING UP FROM bad dreams, out of places where she had walked so long that all the flesh had fallen from her and she could see the double white bones of her arms glimmer faintly in the dark. She opened her eyes to a golden light, and smelled the pungency of sage. A sweetness came into her as she woke, a pleasure that fille
It was evening. The sun was down behind the mountains that loomed close and high to westward, but its afterglow filled all earth and sky: a vast, clear, wintry sky, a vast, barren, golden land of mountains and wide valleys. The wind was down. It was cold, and absolutely silent. Nothing moved. The leaves of the sagebushes nearby were dry and grey, the stalks of tiny dried-up desert herbs prickled her hand. The huge silent glory of light burned on every twig and withered leaf and stem, on the hills, in the air.
She looked to her left and saw the man lying on the desert ground, his cloak pulled round him, one arm under his head, fast asleep. His face in sleep was stern, almost frowning; but his left hand lay relaxed on the dirt, beside a small thistle that still bore its ragged cloak of grey fluff and its tiny defense of spikes and spines. The man and the small desert thistle; the thistle and the sleeping man. . . .
He was one whose power was akin to, and as strong as, the Old Powers of the earth; one who talked with dragons, and held off earthquakes with his word. And there he lay asleep on the dirt, with a little thistle growing by his hand. It was very strange. Living, being in the world, was a much greater and stranger thing than she had ever dreamed. The glory of the sky touched his dusty hair, and turned the thistle gold for a little while.
The light was slowly fading. As it did so, the cold seemed to grow intenser minute by minute. Tenar got up and began to gather dry sagebrush, picking up fallen twigs, breaking off the tough branches that grew as gnarled and massive, in their scale, as the limbs of oaks. They had stopped here about noon, when it was warm, and they could go no farther for weariness. A couple of stunted junipers, and the westward slope of the ridge they had just descended, had offered shelter enough; they had drunk a little water from the flask, and lain down, and gone to sleep.
There was a litter of larger branches under the little trees, which she gathered. Scooping out a pit in an angle of earth-embedded rocks, she built up a fire, and lit it with her flint and steel. The tinder of sage leaves and twigs caught at once. Dry branches bloomed into rosy flame, scented with resin. Now it seemed quite dark, all around the fire; and the stars were coming out again in the tremendous sky.
The snap and crack of the flames roused the sleeper. He sat up, rubbing his hands over his grimy face, and at last got up stiffly and came close to the fire.
“I wonder—” he said sleepily.
“I know, but we can’t last the night here without a fire. It gets too cold.” After a minute she added, “Unless you have some magic that would keep us warm, or that would hide the fire. . . . ”
He sat down by the fire, his feet almost in it, his arms round his knees. “Brr,” he said. “A fire is much better than magic. I’ve put a little illusion about us here; if someone comes by, we might look like sticks and stones to him. What do you think? Will they be following us?”
“I fear it, yet I don’t think they will. No one but Kossil knew of your being there. Kossil, and Manan. And they are dead. Surely she was in the Hall when it fell. She was waiting at the trapdoor. And the others, the rest, they must think that I was in the Hall or the Tombs, and was crushed in the earthquake.” She too put her arms round her knees, and shuddered. “I hope the other buildings didn’t fall. It was hard to see from the hill, there was so much dust.
Surely all the temples and houses didn’t fall, the Big House where all the girls sleep.”
“I think not. It was the Tombs that devoured themselves. I saw a gold roof of some temple as we turned away; it still stood. And there were figures down the hill, people running.”
“What will they say, what will they think. . . . Poor Penthe! She might have to become the High Priestess of the Godking now. And it was always she who wanted to run away. Not I. Maybe now she’ll run away.” Tenar smiled. There was a joy in her that no thought nor dread could darken, that same sure joy that had risen in her, waking in the golden light. She opened her bag and took out two small, flat loaves; she handed one across the fire to Ged, and bit into the other. The bread was tough, and sour, and very good to eat.
They munched together in silence awhile.
“How far are we from the sea?”
“It took me two nights and two days coming. It’ll take us longer going.”
“I’m strong,” she said.
“You are. And valiant. But your companion’s tired,” he said with a smile. “And we haven’t any too much bread.”
“Will we find water?”
“Tomorrow, in the mountains.”
“Can you find food for us?” she asked, rather vaguely and timidly.
“Hunting takes time, and weapons.”
“I meant, with, you know, spells.”
“I can call a rabbit,” he said, poking the fire with a twisted stick of juniper. “The rabbits are coming out of their holes all around us, now. Evening’s their time. I could call one by name, and he’d come. But would you catch and skin and broil a rabbit that you’d called to you thus? Perhaps if you were starving. But it would be a breaking of trust, I think.”
“Yes. I thought, perhaps you could just . . . ”
“Summon up a supper,” he said. “Oh, I could. On golden plates, if you like. But that’s illusion, and when you eat illusions you end up hungrier than before. It’s about as nourishing as eating your own words.” She saw his white teeth flash a moment in the firelight.
“Your magic is peculiar,” she said, with a little dignity of equals, Priestess addressing Mage. “It appears to be useful only for large matters.”
He laid more wood on the fire, and it flared up on a juniper-scented fireworks of sparks and crackles.
“Can you really call a rabbit?” Tenar inquired suddenly.
“Do you want me to?”
He turned away from the fire and said softly into the immense and starlit dark, “Kebbo . . . O kebbo . . . ”
Silence. No sound. No motion. Only presently, at the very edge of the flickering firelight, a round eye like a pebble of jet, very near the ground. A curve of furry back; an ear, long, alert, upraised.
Ged spoke again. The ear flicked, gained a sudden partner-ear out of the shadow; then as the little beast turned Tenar saw it entire for an instant, the small, soft, lithe hop of it returning unconcerned to its business in the night.
“Ah!” she said, letting out her breath. “That’s lovely.” Presently she asked, “Could I do that?”
“It is a secret,” she said at once, dignified again.
“The rabbit’s name is a secret. At least, one should not use it lightly, for no reason. But what is not a secret, but rather a gift, or a mystery, do you see, is the power of calling.”
“Oh,” she said, “that you have. I know!” There was a passion in her voice, not hidden by pretended mockery. He looked at her and did not answer.
He was indeed still worn out by his struggle against the Nameless Ones; he had spent his strength in the quaking tunnels. Though he had won, he had little spirit left for exultation. He soon curled up again, as near the fire as he could get, and slept.
Tenar sat feeding the fire and watching the blaze of the winter constellations from horizon to horizon until her head grew giddy with splendor and silence, and she dozed off.
They both woke. The fire was dead. The stars she had watched were now far over the mountains and new ones had risen in the east. It was the cold that woke them, the dry cold of the desert night, the wind like a knife of ice. A veil of cloud was coming over the sky from the southwest.
The gathered firewood was almost gone. “Let’s walk,” Ged said, “it’s not long till dawn.” His teeth chattered so that she could hardly understand him. They set out, climbing the long slow slope westward. The bushes and rocks showed black in starlight, and it was as easy to walk as in the day. After a cold first while, the
They stopped in a grove of trees whose golden, quivering leaves still clung to the boughs. He told her they were aspens; she knew no trees but juniper, and the sickly poplars by the river-springs, and the forty apple trees of the orchard of the Place. A small bird among the aspens said “dee, dee,” in a small voice. Under the trees ran a stream, narrow but powerful, shouting, muscular over its rocks and falls, too hasty to freeze. Tenar was almost afraid of it. She was used to the desert where things are silent and move slowly: sluggish rivers, shadows of clouds, vultures circling.
They divided a piece of bread and a last crumbling bit of cheese for breakfast, rested a little, and went on.
By evening they were up high. It was overcast and windy, freezing weather. They camped in the valley of another stream, where there was plenty of wood, and this time built up a sturdy fire of logs by which they could keep fairly warm.
Tenar was happy. She had found a squirrel’s cache of nuts, exposed by the falling of a hollow tree: a couple of pounds of fine walnuts and a smooth-shelled kind that Ged, not knowing the Kargish name, called ubir. She cracked them one by one between a flat stone and a hammerstone, and handed every second nutmeat to the man.
“I wish we could stay here,” she said, looking down at the windy, twilit valley between the hills. “I like this place.”
“This is a good place,” he agreed.
“People would never come here.”
“Not often. . . . I was born in the mountains,” he said, “on the Mountain of Gont. We shall pass it, sailing to Havnor, if we take the northern way. It’s beautiful to see it in winter, rising all white out of the sea, like a greater wave. My village was by just such a stream as this one. Where were you born, Tenar?”
Previous PageNext Page