Farmer Flint can shear five sheep in an hour, with nary a nick nor a scratch. He can read in the tint of the dawn sky when the first frost is near, and hear in the timbre of the mother’s cry when her calf is ready to drop.
He can no more comprehend his wife of a week than talk to a dragon.
The farm was dark when Flint came in for dinner. It was laundry day: perhaps his wife had fallen behind in her work, what with all the washing to be done. He resolved not to say a word even if his meal wasn’t on the table yet. She’d learn soon enough. But there she sat by the cold hearth, damp skirt clinging to her thin legs, fire long extinguished, and she neither looked up nor greeted him when he lit the lamps. His mam’s best pickling basin, the one his mam always said was just the colour of the sea on a summer evening, lay in three great pieces on the hearth.
What had she been thinking? A child knew not to put pots straight on the fire! Angry words rose in his gullet. Flint swallowed them down: a good wife was worth ten such bowls—a hundred! (He swallowed too the voice that said a Kargish lass would never make a good wife.)
‘Someone in the village will mend it,’ she said, coldly. ‘Isn’t that what your magic is for?’
For all Flint knew the old mage might mend such things with a brush of a fingertip, but Ban would chant till Flint’s head ached, and then demand a meal and a drink for his trouble, on top of his fee. And the early onions wanted salting!
He took a deep breath. ‘Ivy’s a healer,’ he said, as mildly as he knew how. ‘She hasn’t the trick of mending. There’s none other.’ He patted her shoulder, awkwardly. ‘It must wait till Ban the mender comes over the mountain again.’
But the next time he had business in Valmouth, Flint carefully wrapped the three pieces in a rug and took them to Albatross, who passed the work to his prentice, no doubt, though the grasping old sorcerer still charged twice what any mender could command. To show his wife he bore her no grudge, he bought five ells of fine woollen cloth in the market, dyed the crimson the merchants’ wives wore. Midsummer was approaching, and the mistress of Oak Farm should not wear homespun for the Long Dance like some labourer’s wife.
Flint asked Clearbrook’s Shandy to show the mistress where the copper and the soaking tub were stored, and several laundry days passed peaceably enough before Flint noticed that his wife had not yet worn the new red dress. She still went out marketing in the brown homespuns she’d brought from over the mountain.
‘Was anything the matter with that cloth I bought?’ He bent down to pinch one pale cheek and added shyly, ‘Mayhap the red’ll put some colour into my little white spider.’
She ducked away from his fingers. ‘I’ve yet to cut it up,’ she said.
Even his mam could not have called his wife lazy, not rightly: she cooked and scrubbed in the kitchen, tended to the chickens, dug and weeded in the vegetable patch all the long days without a word. It came to him, as she hung her head so those strange foreign braids of hers fell like a curtain, that she didn’t know how.
Shandy would teach her to cut out a dress, if he asked. And surely even Kargish women knew how to sew? Or did the Kargs go about naked as the sparrows?
Midsummer fell in under a week. ‘Shandy’ll take you to her sister the seamstress,’ he said, putting the cost from his thoughts with an effort. ‘I’ll not see you shamed at the Long Dance.’
But his wife said nothing.
Flint is not a silent man. He casts his words carefully, seed to the furrow, and he could not have borne a wife who chattered like a flock of starlings. But he has lived all his life among women’s gossip, and her silence gnaws at him. Were the Kargs, then, as dumb as oxen?
When she does speak, it’s always the wrong words, or the wrong time.
‘When will you be back?’ his wife asked, as she helped him pack the cheeses onto the cart for the Summerend Fair at Valmouth. It lasted three days, and had the biggest market east of the mountain.
‘Expect me when I walk through the door,’ Flint said.
Was it so hard for a woman to understand that he might be offered a fair price in the opening hour of the market or the closing one? Sometimes a ship from the North Reach was in port and the purser offered ivory for all he would sell; other times he’d to haggle till he was hoarse to scrape enough for the farm’s needs. It was not as though he spent overmuch in the taverns, or visited the whorehouse on the waterfront in his cups, like Bridgeman!
But when he took his leave, she turned her face from his kiss.
The market went poorly. His mutton fetched a fair enough price, in the end, but—half the cheese unsold! And as for the preserves, there’d been a glut of fruit that year, and he could hardly give them away. (What did you expect, his mam’s voice said, what with the cheeses all lopsided and the pear jelly not set right?)
Bone-weary though he was, Flint endured the ten miles up the valley, the chill wind off the mountain in his face. How were they ever to manage over winter? It started to sleet just as he left the Kahedanan road behind him to climb up to the village. The last few miles he huddled down into his sheepskin coat in the darkness, a deep longing for his dinner, for the warm kitchen, for his wife’s slow smile of welcome pushing his worries from his head. But when he reached the farmhouse, all the fires were out, and his wife was nowhere to be found.
Round at the cottage, Shandy put the kettle on, and laid out cheese and beans and the stale heel of a loaf. ‘Mistress Goha’ll have just slipped out to check the gates are all shut tight,’ she said, fussing with the bread knife. ‘She’ll be back afore the kettle boils, I’ll be bound!’
‘Just slipped out!’ said her husband. ‘Just slipped out! The mistress, she said t’tell the master as his wife’s “gone for a walk” by the river. Hah! A walk, I ask you! In this weather!’ He speared some beans and helped himself to a thick slab of cheese, which Flint had scarcely had the heart to touch. ‘I told ’er straight, I told her as the master wouldn’t want her leaving the farmhouse all empty like, but she stopped up them pearl-white ears of hers, and she stomped off on them thin pins of hers, without so much as a “fare you well”! If you ask me…’
But Flint didn’t ask him. Clearbrook had not been among the village menfolk who’d cornered him one evening at the Goat & Feather and told him ‘no Kargish witch were fit to shag, let alone marry,’ or the shepherd would no longer be working at Oak Farm, tenancy or no. But he’d distrusted the idea of having a ‘furriner’ at the farm from the first, and Flint did not forget.
‘…I mean, a walk by the river. Who’d be daft enough to do that at Summerend?’ Clearbrook’s flow broke off as he cut another slice of cheese.
‘It were a nice afternoon for a walk,’ said Shandy, slowly, into the silence. ‘Cold, but clear like. Sunny, even. I might’ve gone for a walk by the river myself, if I’d nothing as needed doing.’ She sounded uncertain, as though there were something she was trying to convince herself about, something important. She lifted her head and looked at Flint, straight into his eyes, just for a moment. Her soft brown eyes were wide with fear.
And then there was a pain in his gut that had nothing to do with eating too quickly. Flint pushed his chair back, the sudden scrape over the flags loud over the crackling of the fire and the whistling of the kettle. ‘I’ll get a lantern,’ he said. ‘Go and look for her.’
‘Why would you want to go doing that, at this time o’ night?’ said Clearbrook. ‘The tea’ll be ready in a minute. She’ll be back when she’s back.’
Shandy squeezed his arm as she helped him into his sodden coat. ‘Mistress Goha’ll be just fine, you’ll see,’ she said, but she did not meet his eyes again.
Flint fetched the lantern from the lean-to. The sleet had stopped while he was inside, and the stars were out above the mountain. Before he set out, something made him go back into the kitchen. It was as if he might somehow repeat his earlier homecoming and get it right this time: his dinner steaming on the table, the fire crackling, and his wife smiling up at him.
She was standing by the hearth, as white and cold and silent as the ashes.
He stood like a post and stared at her, the lantern swinging in his hand and casting crazy shadows that chased each other around the walls. Afterwards he wondered what he’d been looking for, waterweed twined in her hair?
He set the lantern down on the table with a heavy clunk and went towards her. As his shadow touched her, she shuddered. Anger born from the death of his grief welled up inside him. ‘Why weren’t you here when I got back?’ he said. He took her hand. It was as cold as if it had been carved from ice. He rubbed it between his own.
She tried to pull away. ‘Don’t,’ she said.
He folded her in his arms. She struggled for a moment, then sagged against his body. ‘Why weren’t you here,’ he said, stroking her face over and over. ‘Why weren’t you here.’
Flint comes after his mother has borne three girls, and she calls him Gift, in celebration. His sisters call him Little Un, and pet him like the Labrador pup he resembles. His father calls him nothing till he grows tall enough to help with the sheep, and then Lad, or Boy, or more often simply Hey you. Some say Flint is for Skinflint, though he’s no more miserly than the next man, others say he’s hard as stone, which is true enough as far as it goes.
His sisters marry, his mother dies. None now living knows Flint’s true name. All of Gont, nay all of Earthsea, knows his wife’s.
Flint had never met Lord Heno, and had very little wish to. When his sister told him the Lord of Valmouth commanded his presence at the Sunreturn feast, he’d been at first incredulous and then furious.
‘Heno’s taken it into his head that he wants to meet your wife,’ Clover’s husband explained. ‘You don’t mean to say you don’t realise that you’ve married the most famous woman on all of Gont?’ His brother-in-law guffawed, and clapped him on the back. ‘Flint, you’re priceless!’
Flint knew, of course, that his little white spider was the White Lady folks said had flown with hawks, put an end to darkness, brought peace to the Isle of the King, and a dozen things quite as ridiculous besides. But since half of what they said made not a particle of sense, and all of it was on the other side of the world, it never seemed as important as the fact she couldn’t scramble an egg, or darn a sock. But here in the lord’s mansion, where cooks scrambled the eggs and chambermaids darned the socks, and the farmer was as out of place as a flint in a diamond necklace, who knew what was important?
By the time the Lord of Valmouth descended from the high table to greet the throng of guests in his great hall, the feasting was all but over. The chanter was singing Morred’s song in praise of Elfarran, halfway through the Deed, but nobody much was listening: the menfolk were settling down to the important business of drinking the lord’s cellars dry, and the women to the equally important business of showing off their finery.
‘Farmer Flint – my Lady Tenar,’ said Lord Heno. ‘And quite as beautiful as all the stories tell.’ The lord bowed to his wife, as if she were a lady in truth.
And in truth, his wife looked a lady. His sister had pinned up her hair in proper Gontish fashion, with holly berries for beads. ‘Thank the stars it’s dark!’ she’d said. ‘I can’t think what I’d have done with you if you’d had that strange white hair like a grandmother.’ Clover had lent her a rich coral necklace with bracelets and earrings to match, and when his wife protested at wearing such things, she said proudly, ‘My husband gives me more jewellery than a matron my age might ever wear – and we can’t see you shamed at the lord’s hall, now can we, my dear?’
Clover had thrown herself away on a carpenter’s boy, with naught but good looks and a cheeky smile to recommend him. He’ll never come to anything, their mam prophesied, but Glade proved to have deft fingers for fine work, a keen eye for a popular design and a nimble tongue that parted men from their money. Carved panelling bearing his mark now graced many a lord’s hall, and his ornately decorated furniture, everything from cribs to spice cabinets, was much in demand among merchants’ wives as far away as Gont Port. Flint always shook his head over why people would hand over ivory for such trumpery things, but even he could no longer deny that his youngest sister had done well for herself.
Lord Heno insinuated himself between Flint and his wife. He was a great bear of a man, shorter than Flint but far broader; the sort of man who should have had a thick black beard, but didn’t. ‘You must be missing your homeland,’ he said, his voice like lamp oil. ‘I’ve acquired one or two pieces from the Kargad Lands in my travels – of course they’re mere trifles to one who’s worn Elfarran’s ring upon her arm, but it might interest you to see them?’
Rumour had it that Heno’s father Herion kept the heads of all the men he’d killed and had them stuffed to line the walls of his bedchamber, but the treasures the servants carried in at a click of the lord’s fingers seemed harmless enough: shields and armour and rusting swords, helmets bearing dusty plumes, chests of wood or ivory inlaid with every kind of gemstone, and more gold and silver than a dragon’s hoard. Flint had thought the Kargs barbarians, but this silver mail-shirt with the double arrow embossing his wife said was for the Twin Gods – it was finer than Heno’s men wore, finer even than the guards at Gont Port. Glade was fingering the intricate metalwork, no doubt wondering how something similar might be contrived in wood.
Clover pointed out a heavy gold necklace that must have been worth ten times more than all of Oak Farm together. ‘Did you wear a necklace like that when you were a Kargie?’ she asked, fidgeting with her own beads.
‘Lapis and carnelian side by side, for long life and fruitfulness,’ his wife said. ‘That would have belonged to one of the Godking’s wives. They tended to die by poison when they lost their looks however much lapis lazuli they wore.’ Then she pushed the necklace aside as if it were a mouldy cabbage at the market. ‘Where did you get this, Lord Heno?’ It was just a fragment of crumbly old plaster, crudely painted in black and red and white, an egg or perhaps an eye: the dullest thing in the entire pile of plunder.
‘The man who sold it to me said it came from Atuan,’ said Heno, with the sound of a man who had just won a bet. ‘From the labyrinth, he said, but I daresay he lied. If a half of the things traders claim for pieces of the labyrinth really were, there’d just be a great big hole in the desert!’
His wife stroked one fingertip over the paint, carefully, tenderly, as if it were the brow of a dying child. ‘Darkness defeated,’ she said, slowly, though midnight had not yet struck.
‘Light renewed,’ said Heno, as tradition demanded. ‘Your glass is empty, my lady, let me fill it for you.’ And as one servant poured more wine, and several others started to remove all the treasures from the hall before any of the guests thought to steal anything, Heno began to tell his wife the tale of his triumph over the hordes of her kinsfolk who’d invaded from the east the year that Spevy fell.
‘The old lord must be turning in his grave,’ said Clover. ‘Heno would barely have been out of the nursery!’ She pressed her handkerchief to her mouth to stifle a giggle. ‘Do you remember, brother, when the lad came screeching that Beech Springs was burning? Mother threw on her best gown – she said no barbarian was going to ravish her in her work dress – and snatched up the slaughtering knife…’
Flint had no more use for memories than so many dead leaves, but this he did remember. ‘Dad armed himself with a scythe in each hand…’
‘He kept yelling at you to take the cows up to the summer pasture with the sheep, but you stood there like a block.’
‘Cows always know when something’s amiss – they wouldn’t budge. I remember Mam locking you and your sisters in the pantry.’
‘And hiding the key in her petticoats!’ Clover forgot all her matronly dignity and howled with laughter.
Neither Flint nor his sister set eyes on a barbarian that day: they never reached the Middle Valley. Lord Herion’s men and the men of East Port and all of Norvale ran them into the sea, and there was slaughter enough even for the bloodthirsty Lords of Valmouth. It was the year Flint was named. He’d heard the story a dozen times every year since, but he’d never thought about the end: about those Kargish men trapped on the beach, butchered like a herd of pigs till the sea ran red with blood.
Flint looked back at his wife. Lord Heno’s hand was on her pale arm, and she was laughing, merry as a robin in her bright red dress.
Glade took his arm. ‘You need have no fears there,’ he said, in that man-to-man voice Flint hated. ‘The lord’s new wife is a plump young puss, but they say she spits like a witch’s cat when she’s jealous. He won’t risk her claws!’
‘How dare you!’ Flint shook him off. ‘How dare you say that about my wife!’
‘Calm yourself, brother! I meant no disrespect.’ Glade picked up a jug from a passing serving man. ‘Here, have another drink.’
Flint tossed back the wine. It was sour in his mouth. The hour of deepest darkness had just passed, the musicians had taken up the Winter Carol, and all around him people were drinking and talking and laughing and wishing each other light renewed. Turning his back on Glade and his sister, he pushed his way through the crowd to the great arched garden windows and found he could slip out onto the terrace. No doubt Heno’s gardens were as full of exotic plants from distant islands as his cellars were stuffed with treasure, but in the blackness only the dim bulk of the Valmouth hills was visible, and above that the stars, familiar as sheep. The wind cut through his best clothes like a knife, but that ache was familiar too. Flint stood like a stone beneath the stars, and the wind did his howling for him.
When he heard footsteps behind him he turned in mute hope, but it was only Albatross’ prentice, Larch… Ash… Beech, that was his name.
‘You’re a wise man,’ he said. ‘It’s stifling in the hall. Light renewed, my friend.’
‘I swore I’d punch the next person who wished me that.’ Flint’s teeth were chattering so much he could hardly get the words out.
‘Ah.’ Beech leaned against the balustrade beside him and said nothing for a long time. Then he said: ‘The mage Ogion visited my master this summer past, and my master asked him about your lady, seeing as she would be living just up the road from Valmouth.’ He paused, as if choosing his words with care. ‘Ogion likened your lady to a well-made pot. He said that you could fill such a pot with well water or with the finest wine, and it would complement each alike.’
Flint was not sure he liked his wife being compared to a pot, even by as great a man as the old mage, but he felt a little comforted nonetheless.
She chose me over all the princes of Havnor, he thought. She chose me.
Flint loves his wife as he loves his land: a dumb thirst that goes as deep as his bones. He could no more part with it than cut off his toes. Sometimes he takes it for granted, often he curses it, but just occasionally the season changes, the oak leaves begin to unfurl, and it surprises him with its beauty.
He never has to question whether it loves him in return.
Flint knew his wife had been a priestess in the desert far, far away before she came to Gont, knew it as he knew Segoy raised the islands and gave the stars their names. Seeing her like this, though—there’s a difference between knowing that fire burns and putting your hand in the flame.
He could not look away.
When he’d heard the noise in the woodhouse Flint thought it must be one of the goats got out again, and he’d grumbled under his breath about his neighbour’s fences and the malign nature of goats that wasted so much of a man’s time. But when he opened the door the shaft of sunlight fell not on a goat but on his wife. The slaughtering knife was in her hand, and she was dancing, throwing and catching the knife with every twist and turn of her bare feet upon the earth.
At first he feared – the blade was six inches long and as sharp as whetstone could make it – then he saw how the handle found her hand over and over, sure as the swallow finds the gap in the barn wall. (The first time he’d taken her hand he found the long scars crisscrossing her palms; he’d never asked and she’d never told, but now he wondered how much blood had bought this strange skill.) She faltered when the light touched her and he thought she would stop, but she looked straight at him in the doorway for a moment, and when the dance caught her up again he knew that each step, each catch, each heavy breath was for him.
And then the dance ceased and she was his little white spider again, and yet not. She took a step towards him, and then another. He found he was breathing as deep as she was, and his breeches felt uncomfortably tight. Come into the house, he started to say, but she put her finger to his mouth and pulled him towards her by the laces of his breeches. He felt no fear though the knife was still in her hand. The door swung shut behind him, and in the newborn darkness he could smell her sweat over the scent of pine resin and the tang of cow dung from the byre next door. And then they were pressed against the log pile and the dance, the oldest dance of all, caught them both up again.
When he was spent he didn’t pull away but pulled her even tighter against him, breast to breast. And for the first time since he asked her to marry him, the right words formed in his mouth.
‘Tenar,’ he said, ‘my true name is Elennost.’