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Other Dances

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"Mother."

The whisper stirred Tenar's dreams, and she shifted; a hand nudged her shoulder, and she rolled over onto her back, almost awake. The house that had once belonged to Aihal, more commonly known as Ogion the Silent, was lit by moonlight, shadows lurking in every corner.

"Mother," Tehanu repeated, her weak voice a mere breath. Her one dark eye sought Tenar's gaze from under the locks of sleek black hair. "I just woke up... Will you help me?"

The girl, standing a few feet from the bed, was clutching a piece of clothing, difficult to discern for Tenar's nearsighted eyes. But she saw the dark stains spattered across the surface, and she understood.

Ged stirred by her side, disturbed in his sleep. Tenar rose from the bed as silently as she could, then went to the chest where she kept the old pads amidst the rest of her underwear: sewn years ago from old material, they had been used and washed and boiled and dried and used again. She should have made some for Tehanu already, she thought, opening the chest -- she'd done so for Apple, before the naming ceremony, but Tehanu was eleven at the most, still so very young.

"This will only be for tonight," she whispered, her hands searching through well-worn wool and linen. "We can make some new ones tomorrow -- I should have done it before, but time is passing so quickly... But at least you know what is happening. Does your stomach hurt, my dear?"

The girl shook her head.

"It hurts sometimes, but the pains aren't dangerous -- here, this pad is the softest I could find. You can wash tomorrow, go back to bed now, sleep. Wake me again if your stomach hurts, and I'll make some rushwash tea for you."

Tehanu went back to her alcove, Tenar to her bed. She lay under the covers, listening to Tehanu's faint breathing until it grew even, her heart aching with tenderness. Yes -- still so very young, her little Therru! And yet growing older with every second, every minute, every passing year.

Teach her, Ogion had said, and Tenar had tried. But what, exactly, had Tehanu learned from her? Spinning, cooking, cleaning -- in other words, everything one needed in order to become a farmer's wife on Gont. For Tenar had made no attempt to teach Tehanu the True Speech, her mother tongue.

The house was silent. Tenar's thoughts went to Kalessin's words: I give you my child, as you will give me yours.

That was already four years ago. Time did not spare anyone, except perhaps dragons... But Tehanu's body was a human body, on its way to becoming a woman's body; she would not be spared from the expectations, the restrictions, the perceived shortcomings. Tenar could not protect her from the whispers, or the looks, or the sight of young couples courting in the village square of Re Albi.

She herself had given up her place with Ogion to become a farmer's wife; she herself had chosen a life of spinning, cooking, cleaning, of caring for a man and raising his children. And Flint had wanted her, had married a foreigner despite her white skin and Kargish accent. Would any Gontish farmer be capable of seeing past Tehanu's twisted hand, her damaged face? If so happened, would Tehanu want him to? Tehanu, with her scars and her fears, Kalessin's daughter?

Tenar could not believe it. Neither could she forget the time when she had been Arha, living alone among eunuchs and cold priestesses, her destiny laid out for her. Girl or woman, it was all the same. She'd danced her dances, and life had danced her in turn. Later, she'd fled and she'd danced other dances, none of which she had created herself, but she had chosen every one; she'd made the choices she could.

Thou hast work to do here -- but what work would that be? Not Tenar's work, mundane as it was. Was Tehanu's destiny laid out for her already? Would she be allowed to choose her own dance, or was it already chosen for her? And in the meantime, was she to waste away her youth in loneliness, scorned by village youngsters, feared by village witches like Ivy and her ilk?

Tenar's eyes stung all of a sudden, the tears hot and angry. She turned to press her face into her pillow. She thought, 'I can't do anything about it. I'm just an old woman, and she's not a child anymore... I will lose her, and I don't know where or when, only that it will be because the life I have isn't for her, will never be for her, and she must leave.' It was a bitter truth, tasting like ashes in her mouth.

Ged stirred again. His hand moved to her head, gently stroking her hair. "Are you crying?" he asked, his voice low from sleep.

"Are you awake?" She swallowed. "I didn't know..."

She turned to him, resting her head on his shoulder. He was always familiar to her, even in darkness; well-known, well-loved.

"Tehanu," she said, her voice muffled against Ged's neck. "She's growing up."

He nodded. He did not ask what she meant, but she knew he understood -- he wasn't afraid of women. His hand, gentle and sure, simply kept stroking her hair. "It is as it should be."

She laughed; a quiet, resigned sound. "But it's happening far too fast for me. I am not at all teaching her what she needs to learn... But how can I teach her something I don't even know what is? What is it that I should be doing, Ged?"

He was silent for a moment, pondering. Then he said, "I think she needs to learn how to be herself."

"But how can I teach her that?" she demanded.

"Be yourself."

She smiled -- she could not help it. "You were the one to teach me how to be myself, at least in part."

"We are teaching each other," he said, "always. And she will learn." His voice was hushed, steady. "She will."

Tenar contemplated his words. He'd spoken so reassuringly, which calmed her: his magic was gone, but his eyes were still sharp, and she trusted them. He saw Tehanu behind the scars, he always had. He'd seen Tenar, once.

"Yes," she said, after a pause. The weight of the years seemed to recede, leaving her heart a little more at ease. She stretched out, yawning -- there would be work to do, tomorrow. "She will learn... And I will do my best."

It was a promise, not an answer, but it would do for now. At length she drifted off to sleep again, comforted by the darkness, his warmth, and the quiet breathing coming from Tehanu.