The Deed of the Young King was over, the tables cleared and cups of hot spiced wine were being passed to put everyone in voice for the Winter Carol, yet still the carven chair at the heart of the High Table remained empty. The Archmage isn’t coming, the boy thought. Suddenly, all around him felt stuffy, dull. His new cloth-of-silver tunic (for his use-name was Silver) was stiff and scratchy, his fur-lined cloak over-hot. When his father pushed back his chair and went off to compliment the Master Chanter, he took his chance to look about him without fear of being scolded for staring.
The Hearth Hall of the Great House was smaller than Silver had imagined from his father’s tales. Smaller than the Great Hall of Havnor New Palace, where once he’d watched his uncle take up the sceptre of the north-eastern domain, that he’d expected – it was not called the greatest hall of all the isles for naught. But smaller than Uncle’s hall at Enila, smaller even than Grandpa’s hall at O-Tokne where he’d lived till he was six and his other grandfather died! Now that he’d seen the place, it scarce seemed worth all those months conning lists of kings long dead or cantos of chants best forgotten that had been the price – and a steep one, to be sure – of accompanying his father and uncle to the Sunreturn festivities on Roke.
On a whim, he slid cautiously from his seat, careful not to cross his father’s gaze (his uncle had been engrossed the entire evening talking with a Master who hailed from the South Port: he probably wouldn’t notice if the roof should chance to collapse, or Segoy speak the Last Word) and darted after a serving boy, ducking through a low concealed door in the panelling beside the hearth. He emerged, as he’d guessed he would, in a labyrinth of narrow service corridors, but in the dimness he soon lost his sure-scurrying guide. Opening doors at random divulged pantries and still-rooms, laundries and linen stores, but no treasure worthy of the name – though he laid by a couple of apples in the pouch sewn into his cloak lining against the likelihood of missing breakfast as punishment for his truancy. No Thissie here to bring me bread-and-milk from the nursery, he thought, and his stomach growled its reproach. No Thissie here to howl that we’re lost, and spoil all the fun like a girl, he consoled himself – and he was just admitting to himself that he was indeed lost, when the passage widened unexpectedly and he stumbled down a couple of shallow steps to be deposited in a huge vaulted space—the kitchens.
The feasting at an end, they stood empty, the great fires feeding the spits almost out. In the distance, doors were slamming and plates clattering, and he caught snatches of voices raised in a song that bore no resemblance to any version of the Winter Carol he’d ever heard – he guessed the sculleries must be as busy as the kitchens were deserted.
Or at least he’d thought them deserted. In the ruddy glow of the torches it was hard to be certain, but there seemed now to be a pale figure in the kitchens with him. Yes, a man, not tall, standing quite still beside one of the firepits. As his eyes became accustomed to the flickering light, he could see the man’s garments were plain, quite unlike the rich velvets and furs of the nobles and mage-masters gathered in the Hearth Hall. What little of his face could be seen in the shadow of his hood seemed rough and weather-beaten, and his hands were coarse and calloused.
‘Sit down, lad!’ the man said, and his pronounced country accent clinched the matter: he must surely be one of the kitchen staff.
Entirely forgetting the courtesy due to servants (an obligation dinned into him from his cradle), Silver announced ‘I could murder a glass of milk!’
‘I think I may arrange that,’ the man replied, and shortly reappeared bearing a pitcher and two mugs.
Too parched to care that he was, it seemed, to share his drink with a common kitchen-man, Silver perched himself cheerfully enough on a spit-turner’s bench, resting his boots on the firepit coping in a manner that would have earned him a sharp scolding at home (where, indeed, he was deemed too old to haunt the kitchens). The milk was cool, and the pitcher held enough for two and to spare. ‘The corridors here must all shift about by magic,’ he grumbled, when his thirst went some way to being quenched. ‘Else I’d never have missed my way.’
‘You did not miss your way,’ the man said, with an odd air of certainty. Silver was reminded of his father’s stories telling how the citizens of Thwil-town were fey and given to speaking in riddles, as if some of the magic from the School should have rubbed off upon even the most ordinary inhabitants of the place – but with a northern accent like that, this man was no more Roke-born than he was.
‘What’s it like where you hail from, lad?’ the man enquired, and Silver set about describing the hilly region of Havnor east of the Onneva where he’d lived since he was younger than Thissie, recounting how he’d scoured the steep-sided valleys up-country in search of dragons (though he’d never found any, worst luck) on the pure black pony his father’d given him when he was ten, and who was surely the most sure-footed and brave mount in the whole of Havnor isle. Describing Ebony (whose bravery against dragons was only exceeded by his appetite) recalled to mind the apples hoarded in his cloak, now neatly rolled up beneath the bench. He squatted on his haunches to dig out one, then the second (having recovered his manners sufficiently by now to think of offering one to his companion), when his eye fell upon a fold of the man’s white woollen cloak: not plain at all, but embroidered with leaves, like the thousand leaves of the tree carved upon the arches lining the Hearth Hall. White, now, wasn’t that the colour of—
Silver sprang to his feet, the apples forgotten. ‘You must’ve cast some spell on me!’ he railed, chagrin rapidly fuelling anger. ‘Else I’d have recognised you for sure.’
‘Nay, lad, no spell,’ the Archmage replied, without rancour. ‘I did hide my face beneath my hood, though,’ and so saying he threw it back, revealing a broad smile at odds with a sharp face, thrice scored by dragon’s claw as all the portraits showed. ‘That was very wicked of me, was it not?’ And at that, despite his shame, the boy had to grin back. ‘Come, tell me your name, lad, as you’ve discovered mine.’
‘Silver of Havnor at your service, my lord,’ he said, with his courtliest of bows, and would have fallen to his knees but the Archmage grasped his shoulder.
‘You’d best keep those fancy breeches off the floor or your mother’ll be sure to scold when you get home.’ And then he said, ‘Why did you want to see Roke, lad? Do you have the gift?’
‘Can you not tell, my lord? I’ve no more power than a donkey—or a stone! Thissie – my baby sister, Amethyst – can make her slate whiz about during lessons—I can’t even make the thing jump, not the least bit! And she turns her tapestry wools into little birds whenever Mistress Hazel isn’t looking.’
‘They probably fly up into the rafters and make an awful racket,’ said the Archmage, with sympathy.
‘I suppose you have half a hundred boys playing tricks here.’
‘Or more! Thank the stars it’s no part of the Archmage’s duties to keep ’em all in order!’ As if to forestall enquiries about what those duties might be, he added, ‘But you never answered my question, lad.’
Why had he wanted to come here? Now that he was face to face with Sparrowhawk the Dragonlord, Archmage of all the isles, all the reasons he’d given his father seemed inadequate, false. ‘It’s not Roke,’ he started, the words forming in his mouth slowly, laboriously, as the truth assembled in his mind. ‘Or not just Roke. Wherever I go, I always want to go further.’
‘You’re an explorer, then,’ said the Archmage, as matter of fact as if he’d said he wanted to be a lawyer, or an estate manager. ‘There’s not much money to be had from that.’
‘An explorer,’ said Silver, tasting the word. ‘An explorer.’
‘Will your father approve your choice of profession?’
‘I expect Father wishes I had the power.’ Silver fancied a shadow flitted across the Archmage’s face. ‘He’s the court sorcerer to my uncle, you know.’ Feeling foolish once again, he added hastily, ‘Of course you know, you must know everything.’
‘None but Segoy knows everything, lad,’ the Archmage said. ‘But that I did know—and I also know that if your father isn’t missing you by now, your uncle will be.’ He rose and retrieved his long yew staff, which was propped unnoticed in a corner, and so equipped it was impossible to imagine him as anything other than the mage-master he was. ‘We had best brave the hall, you and I.’
The Hearth Hall thronged with people celebrating the defeat of the darkness for another year. The tables were pushed back against the walls, a host of werelights congregated in the roof like stars, the Thousand-leaved Trees adorning the pillars now sprouted yellow roses, and a couple of young prentice-mages were juggling clubs that spouted green flame like miniature dragons and left silvery trails in their wake.
Silver had once or twice wondered if his father might have exaggerated just a little when he claimed to have known Sparrowhawk – for who would not want to boast friendship with the sailor of the Dragon’s Run, the solver of the Labyrinth of Atuan, the hero of all the songs? – and his heart clenched a little with the thought that the Archmage would not know his father. But even amidst all the host of merrymakers, his companion seemed to pick out his father in a trice. His hood drawn over his head, his brow stern, he pushed through the nobles who clustered around him like butterflies about lilac blossom as if he saw them not.
Then face to face they stood: one tall, slender, bronzed, hair black as jet, the other short, stocky, weather-beaten, hair salted with grey. The Archmage threw back his hood as if in challenge, and beside that seamed and scarred face, his father’s features seemed soft, slack. Silence fell, shadows lengthened. One of the prentices dropped his club. It clattered on the floor, abruptly returned to the silverware from which it had been conjured. Two grey-cloaked Masters – one exultant, pale as a Hoary Man, the other grim, an obsidian statue – now flanked the Archmage, though Silver could not have said when they appeared or whence they came. His uncle had moved to his father’s left shoulder, and Silver instinctively inched towards his right. And over the two of them, his father and the Archmage, a great shadow hung—or perhaps it was a trick of the light, just another illusion, like the roses, like the fire-clubs.
‘I restore to you what is yours,’ said the Archmage quietly, and he held out one hand. The tip of his staff glowed white, and by its light the thrice-cut scars bloomed livid across his cheek. Around him the shadow deepened, thickened, clotted, like a swirl of black pigment in a jar of water drawing back to the brush. Silver, frozen in place whether by fear or by magic he knew not, fancied he could see a shape: long spidery limbs, claws, outspread wings like a bat, and – worst of all – a face, human yet not human.
Father stepped backwards and almost seemed to cower. He sketched the gesture to avert, his face as pale and grey as when Thissie had fallen from the oak tree and cracked open her head, but his hand dropped slack to his side.
‘Take now what is yours,’ repeated the Archmage, and he closed the gap between them. The shadow creature loomed, swelled, changed, and in its face Silver now saw the hawk nose of the Archmage, but also something of his father’s handsome features.
Father, a peculiar look upon his face that might equally have been recognition or resignation, brushed Sparrowhawk’s outstretched hand, and the Archmage leaned in and whispered something by his ear that Silver couldn’t catch—and suddenly as a squall on Havnor Bay, the shadow dissipated as if it had never been.
The butter-haired Master let out a peal of laughter and, one by one, the onlookers dispersed, to return to the serious business of making merry. Another cask of ale was broached and a bevy of serving boys proffered trays piled high with nuts and sultanas, dried fruits and little honey cakes. The prentices resumed their juggling tricks to loud applause, the Chanter strummed some chords upon the harp and soon a ragged chorus of the Winter Carol rose up. The two mage-masters were no longer there, though Silver no more marked their leaving than their arrival. He was disappointed that the white-skinned Master had disappeared, for he felt sure he’d prove to be a Karg, and he’d never seen a real barbarian before.
‘I pray my son has not been getting into mischief, my Lord Archmage,’ said his father, as if nothing out of the ordinary had passed, and he ruffled Silver’s hair as if he were a baby. ‘I fear boys can be such a handful at his age.’
‘Just a little exploration,’ said the Archmage, lightly. ‘How old is the lad?’
‘He has seen twelve summers, my lord.’
‘He should be named as soon as may be.’
‘Has he then the gift, my lord?’ enquired his uncle, and Silver held his breath.
‘The lad has many gifts—not least the cheek of Erreth-Akbe’ – and he actually winked at Silver, which quite took the sting from his words – ‘but magery is not among them.’
Most magic is mere tricks, of little use beyond amusement, Silver told himself, and he rapidly schooled his face into the bland mask suitable for listening to the wisdom of his elders. Now to sail the Dragon’s Run, that would be a real adventure, he thought, and for the first time he wondered if Sparrowhawk might miss all that, living here on Roke.
‘And if young Silver would attend a moment,’ said Sparrowhawk, ‘I’d like – with your leave, sirs – to introduce him to the Patterner.’
Silver thought there must be some mistake, for what end could it possibly serve to meet the Master of the Immanent Grove, whose arts were among the most arcane of all the disciplines taught on Roke? And then he saw the grey-cloaked Karg standing at the Archmage’s shoulder.
‘This is Silver, son of Jasper,’ said Sparrowhawk, with a smile that on a man less wise might be called mischievous. ‘If I’m not very much mistaken, I believe he may enjoy hearing some tales of your homeland.’