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The Heart to Earth Returning

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1. Hawk of memory, hawk in the night.

Her brother's rare restlessnesses, when the smiles crumple like a flower under a heavy tread, come only in a certain season, when the waves are high on the shore. She watched it come this time and thought it felt heavier than before, water-logged and unhappy. He hides it from her: turns his face into a mask and lies and turns and mends the cracks in the clay of the life on this island with her fingers, but she sees the sadness getting heavier in him.

The ebb of magic in the Archipelago was slow to come to Iffish, and also slow to leave. The Reaches make their own rules, with this unmaking so with all other things. Yarrow and Vetch watched the change and drift of power, of his power, of the sparks at the ends of his fingers. Words were spoken in the islands and hearts were broken and life became not darker because darkness needs light to show itself -- to Yarrow it seemed grey, and the dark earth-brown of her brother's skin seemed greyer too, like his hair.

She asks him, sometimes; softly says the name out of her daughters' hearing. Vetch only shakes his head. He has gone, I think, he said, the last time she asked him. He has gone, and whether he can change anything for good or ill, I no longer know. Then she is frightened, because she has been used to that name being an easy way to make Vetch smile and bring something to him like a spark of light when he is in darkness. They are all in darkness, she thinks, suddenly, unbidden.

There is a mist hanging over the islands. Over Iffish it seems still thin, but Yarrow cannot remember seeing the coast of Venway, or Koppish, for a long time. What feels a long time. When she walks up over the hills, trailing a daughter and a bag that is too heavy for either of them, she holds on tight to the sight of small, jagged Tok, and its one great signal fire. She gazes at the sea and it seems grey, formless. No longer beautiful and too huge for man's -- woman's -- imagining. The child is watching a bird in the sky, following it closely with her eyes. Yarrow smiles, tiredly, but with genuine pleasure.

What do you see, Petal?

The child, not so small now as the child in Yarrow's remembrance, a lithe girl of eleven and barely a child at all any longer, looks up at her. She points. The great hawk, mother. It carries something, from its claws.

It's a seagull, sweetness, just close to shore.

The girl shakes her head. It's a hawk, she says.

Yarrow squints into the mist. As she strains the bunched clouds seem to part a little, and leak in some light over the wings of this bird, whether gull or hawk. It flashes white for a second, then black, over the tips of its wings, black as tar and midnight skies and fear and death. It shakes the wings, up once and down once, and across the air there seems to come a great shock -- a wave, hot as the breath of a furnace, and heavy, seeming to pull apart the edges of the clouds and shake the grass and stones under her feet. The bird calls and flies out into the mist. Petal is smiling. Yarrow shivers.

Later, she goes to Vetch. He nods and burrs and tells her nothing. She thinks because he does not know anything, or perhaps because his mind is somewhere else, seeking, watching.

 

2. Broken hawk, blinded hawk.

Vetch, the Wizard of the East Reach, of Iffish and Ismay, who went to Roke smiling and came back with the same smile on his face, so they say, has had a life of quiet work. He has watched much and tried to speak little and taken his rewards in food, drink, good company, and the warmth of a harmonious village. He has not hidden but has kept his handsome house and seen people come and go from it -- his brothers, sister, their children, in some years the needy who came to him, an old man who was much older then than Vetch is now, and a child, a boy, who died. He has always been smiling and generous and they talk of him with love in their hearts and voices, in Iffish, in the songs.

There is less singing on Iffish now, he thinks. Less singing, and more broken pots. Vetch sighs, and carries on his watch.

*

He comes in the winter, in the same boat, and there is salt in his hair and a sadness in his eyes that is like a long, delicate thread, spun out between his fingers.

He comes on the back of a dragon. It stretches under his shadow, unfurling its wings over the roll of the island. Vetch watches it spread, like wine from an overturned pitcher, out from the soles of Ged's feet, as he stands, silent, on the peak of the hill, on a morning late in the first week.

You've woken early, my friend.

My sleep was dreamless. Empty. And unrestful therefore.

This light is no easier to sleep in.

Ged laughs. The sound seems to pass into the earth and echo against Vetch's feet.

I'm not certain anything could make my sleep easier. My heart is too heavy for it; it sinks all like a stone in an old boat. All places seem dark to me.

Vetch smiles, as was his custom and habit to do when faced with Ged's expansive gloom, but it does not lift any weight from his own heart.

He came staring. He came empty. He smiled, like an old man and his fingers were cold as they gripped Vetch's cloak, when they embraced. They rushed up to the boat when he came, the two of them, like the tide up to the vessel. Ged took several minutes to unfold out of the boat, stiff arms and his hands wrapped around the guide ropes, clamped there. Vetch watched his fingers loosen one by one and tried to laugh, to joke, but couldn't. He and Yarrow were silent as they went to him and he breathed his thanks silently into Vetch's shoulder.

Yarrow has been trying to feed the hole up -- fill him full of cakes, ale, cured meats, milk and cheese. He eats, Vetch watches him eat, but there is no pleasure in it, for either of them. He can see Yarrow watching him, as she would watch an ailing child, looking for the slightest sign of change -- the dimming of a fever or the easing of heavy, wearied breaths. But the change does not come.

There is a morning, there are several mornings, in the first week, that Vetch wakes in the cold of the early morning and finds that Ged's pallet is empty, cold too, though it would not have taken long for that heat to disappear. Vetch lets his hand rest in the depression in the centre of the pillow -- a rich thing, full of down and wool instead of straw -- and sighs. He was ever restless, and never to be found in time, or if the time is too late, too far-off to be comforted.

This morning, Vetch gets up, pulls on his cloak, and opens the door of his house to look out at the rising daylight. He cannot see anything but the mist over the hills and the forest of masts and sails in port, just visible. And yet he knows where he should go to find the man who has made an empty place in his house, the mage with no magic, the friend of his heart.

On the crest of the hill that already holds the impressions of Ged's feet and Vetch's and the shadow like scorched earth of the never-seen dragon, Vetch finds him.

Still an early waker, Ged, Vetch says quietly.

Aye, says he, not turning around. I could not sleep, he says, as if to himself. As if puzzling out a riddle.

They say it is age, Vetch says, cheerfully, or trying to be cheerful. Though the old are not meant to wander.

I learnt wandering long ago, Ged says. It is easier than thinking.

Or sleeping.

Yes.

I would have guessed a different journey for you, Sparrowhawk, Vetch says, after a time.

Yes?

The hills and flocks of Gont do not call you? He asks this gently, easing a smile onto his lips like to encourage a frightened animal: do not be afraid. Your silent forests? he adds.

Ged nods, a slight movement that dips his brow below the level of the horizon at which they are both gazing. It darkens further his dark brow, and starlight winks there.

Aye. It called me.

You did not go?

I did not stay.

Vetch clasps and unclasps his hands, and finds in the grass a small flower, a violet, its petals soft under his fingers. He breathes its name (olas) into the air, no sound, but a greeting.

They say the earth of home heals, Vetch says.

Ged chuckles. It is a rich, knowing sound. There is no self-pity in it.

Aye, so they say. My sickness, like myself, is stubborn, I think, and a new earth may be more use to me than an old. Though I have little enough spirit left for new adventuring.

No more songs, Sparrowhawk? Vetch asks, grinning now. No more wonders? No more tales? My sister will plague you, and then her daughters will do likewise! He clasps Ged's shoulder and laughs. The Archmage that was laughs too and Vetch feels, as he did long ago and every time since that he has thought on it, the warmth of Ged's good humour -- a thick cloak around both their shoulders.

Iffish is a beautiful isle, Ged says. I have been a long way, Estarriol, but hills as blue as these I've seldom seen.

They have more of brown in them in this season, I think, Vetch says, still smiling. The floods have not your eye for beauty.

Perhaps. They too have their attraction.

As long as a man is not stuck in the mud.

Ged laughs again, and turns to meet Vetch's gaze. I have missed you, my friend. Your humour is like quicksilver to me.

Poisonous?

Nay, Ged says. Bright. Good. A ballast in the storm. The light of a new place found in an old.

You see much in mud and quicksilver, Sparrowhawk. Vetch claps Ged on the back and stands. Come. My sister will be waiting to fill you too full of porridge.

*

In the dark is where he asks. Vetch knows that above him are the strong rafters and thick thatch of his own roof but on the lids of his eyes he sees stars and the flight of birds. It is cold, and Vetch fancies that he would be able to see the wisps of Ged's breath, sighing out and pulling back in, if there was any light.

He is not asleep. They have walked a long way this day, and Vetch has shown him everything he could think to show -- the body of the island; its stretch and span, its breast, the colours of the heathers just coming out, the secret streams and the nests of the harreki which Ged called to his hand with a plain word and a chuck of his tongue. Vetch smiled when he did, when the animal ran over his wrist like a disappearing lick of flame, and Ged looked up with a laugh in his eyes that made Vetch think of a skinny lad, who had no scars on his face. They lay in the grass and watched the clouds, the birds, closed their eyes against the brief coming of a warm rain. Vetch pressed his left shoulder against Ged's right and his left hand into the grass, fingertips in the earth. He listened to Ged sigh, as he listens now.

Did you ever make that song, Estarriol? he asks, quietly.

Aye, they sing it here, Vetch says, trying to smile, cannot you hear it in the hills? The fish do not sing sweetly but they make their attempt.

The Deed of Ged, he says, in nothing much more than a whisper. He has not laughed. It seems far off.

It is a little longer now, Sparrowhawk. I know the first part of the the song the best.

I am no longer that man, Vetch.

Then do you need that song to be sung?

I feel I am unmade ... here, in this darkness.

Clay may be remoulded. When ice melts there is water.

To Vetch Ged's chuckle sounds even richer when his eyes are closed. When did you take to talking in riddles, Vetch? he says. Where is the boy who could solve all his ills with a plate piled high with his dinner?

I have watched you carefully and seen hardly a spoonful's worth of good food stick to your ribs, Sparrowhawk. You were ever one who thinks too much, and on everything. Meat has not aided you there.

No. But now I have time to tend my belly and neglect my mind.

That is a lesson even you could not learn.

Even if it were you who taught me, Estarriol?

More skill than I have, my friend.

I think you do not know your own power.

But it makes a poor song: two old men, getting fat, watching the boats go out and waiting for them to come back in.

Are not the songs of the old men those that last?

None but the old read them.

That does not trouble me, Vetch.

Vetch sighs, suddenly. Ah. All the songs have become sour things, Ged, and their singing so hard that none stick at the task. My happy island, what befell you? What ails my people?

Ged's voice is quiet and nearer, firmer, carrying authority as lightly and richly, on his back like a fine cloak, as Vetch has ever heard it. He says: It will be better soon, Estarriol.

Your king?

Our king. The king. His heart is true, and he did not leave all his work behind him in the mountains, by the Dry River. Unlike me. Ged sighs. He will be a good king.

Will you tell me of him?

What would you hear?

Oh, Vetch says, suddenly feeling joy -- sudden and sharp, like a swallow passing over the sky -- anything, anything. Did you learn any new songs on your adventure?

We did, Ged says. They were all of the sea.

Vetch nods though Ged cannot see him. That is good, he says.

The people of the sea, the Raft People. We saw them. Their world is a wonderful, shining one.

And their songs? Vetch asks, in order that he can keep hold of at least one thread of the story.

They are like ours, and yet not like. They have ... swum to different places. They know different things. And yet all of the same thing. Ged laughs in the darkness. It was a strange time. And I had a brief meeting with a spear in the chest that I was glad to curtail.

Ah, that is the part of great deeds that I could not do. Too heroic, too near to unnecessary pain. Let me eat and sleep; leave the hero-ing to thinner men!

Ged laughs again. I sometimes think, or I have thought, that I would have had you there, my friend, for even those dark things would not have touched you -- of the earth and the sea and the sky and the rain are you, Estarriol, and no pride can unmake you or take away your self. I have loved that for a long time, carelessly, but no less so for that.

Vetch swallows, unable to speak for a moment. Aye, he says, quietly. And I would have thought to bring good ale to your Dry River, Ged.

Aye, Ged says.

He turns in the bed, Vetch hears him, and though they cannot see each other in the darkness of that night under the thatch, they know they are both smiling and the sparks of that smile have reached the other, and warmed him.

I will go soon, Ged says. You have taught me what I should have known. You and Yarrow.

Vetch nods. Yes. Home. Forests, goats, the skies above your own island, he says. That she you do not speak of -- yes, Ged, I know of her. All Earthsea knows of her and I can spot your fingerprints out here in the Reach without having to reach too far!

Yes. I will see her.

Vetch smiles. Fly fast, dear hawk -- bright hawk, hawk with a new call -- fly home and safe, and carry that star on your brow, and think of me, and know me for your friend, for your heart if you should lose it, is what he thinks. He says nothing, only nods again and parts the darkness with his smile. A little werelight hovers over Ged's face, for a moment, then fades. The Archmage that was has closed his eyes. He is sleeping.

 

3. Hawk flight.

Ged wakes in the darkness, yet knows the time for morning. Vetch is snoring gently in the bed across the room, curled up around himself. He makes a little mountain under the covers, and Ged smiles. If he stays he will be able to see the dawn break blue and chilled over Vetch's shoulders, and perhaps he would wish to put his hands in the snow that has gathered in the peaks, at Vetch's temples, around the close of his eyes. He would wish to admire the colours of earth and sky in Vetch's face. But he cannot stay.

He gets up, dresses quickly, readies the bed for whoever will be its next occupant, and goes to the door. Vetch's breathing is the same -- deep, steady, full of sleep. Ged looks at him, then nods once and steps out into the coming dawn.

The island is beautiful in the coming light, when its grey and silver tones billow out into the rich blues and browns and dark greens of the day. The landscape is not smooth, and perhaps not handsome, but no less noble for that. Ged sets off for the hilltop perch where he has watched the sea and sky these past weeks, the burn of the effort almost pleasant in his thighs, finally awake -- finally. He bends every now and then to touch a stone or a flower or a pocket of earth full of rainfall. He digs his fingers deep into the mud and sucks in great breaths of the air that tastes sweet and sustaining; as good as bread.

On the hilltop, the mists have passed. Ged can see, his eyesight still as good as it ever was, or nearly, the outlines of the nearest islands: Venway, Koppish, the lights at Mishport on Vemish. Somewhere a gull calls.

Ged smiles, and turns his gaze a little to the west, over the islands and seas, further north. He nods again. Then he bends and scoops into his hand a little rock, covered in earth, that lay beside his feet. He puts this in his pocket, and then sets off again, down the hillside, making for the docks.