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The Minnow and the Dragon

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In spring, when the great schools of fish pass through the East Reach and the fishermen make their large catches of the year, every home in the island of Iffish has a pot of vegetable-and-fish stew simmering on the hearth. Each is slightly different. One might use a preponderance of thyme, while another might depend mostly upon garlic for flavor, and yet another might be thickened with mashed roots. To compare one house's recipe to another aloud is seen as a great blunder. This stew, which has no special name in Iffish, is a family affair. One member of the family will bring home fish from boat or market, a second will chop the vegetables, and the small children of the family, if any, will drop them into the broth.

The stew Yarrow carried from the hearth to the carved stone countertop had been made as her mother had taught her, seasoned with wild onions and garlic and parsley, fresh-picked now that it was spring. Torv had bought the whitefish that morning. Fennel had, carefully supervised by Yarrow, dropped chunks of roots and sprigs of onion-shoots in one by one, making noises of appreciation for the largest pieces as they disappeared below the surface, leaving only bubbles in their path.

Now Yarrow swept the errant parsley leaves and garlic stubs from the floor of the kitchen as Torv fastened Fennel's sandals near the door. It was not a task of long duration, the kitchen being small. The house as a whole was rather more modest than Yarrow's parents' house, but at least as beloved: each cabinet, each drawer, had been made with care, either by Torv himself or by one of his friends, and fitted for Yarrow with thought as to what she might need as a wife and mother. The honey-colored wood glowed in the warm spring light pouring through the windows. Torv said something to Fennel, and she laughed, the light joyful sound of a child just out of babyhood.

Yarrow was happy, profoundly happy, because she had a loving husband and daughter; and she was happy because she was to be free from them for the afternoon.

Torv, having finished with Fennel's shoes, said to their daughter, "Say goodbye to Mama! She's going out with Uncle Vetch while we go down to the harbor."

"Bet!" Fennel declaimed to Yarrow, her name for her uncle, disregarding Torv's instructions entirely while giving Yarrow an impish grin.

Yarrow, smiling back, moved to them and bent down to receive Fennel's sticky kiss, relishing the feel of the child curling an arm around her shoulder. Yarrow said to Torv, a bit anxiously, "Are you sure that it's all right for you to bring Fennel?"

Torv said soothingly, "Yes, we're only checking that the repairs have held. We'll be home before you are. Go on," he said, giving her a little nudge. "I know you've needed a day out for some time."

"And," said Yarrow, "you'll take care of her?"

There was an unspoken worry that went along with the spoken question, and Torv answered it. "She was lost at the Festival because of the crowds," he said. "I will be with her the whole time, and it is not a day for large gatherings. Don't worry about us, dear." As if invited by his words, their pet harrekki looked up from the hearth, cocked its head, and flapped its tiny dragonish wings once to glide and land on Torv's shoulder, preening itself. "Look!" said Torv. "There are two of us to care for her. Go."

She went, pausing only for a kiss from Torv and another from Fennel. Outside, the narrow streets were alive with people. Their neighbor Garnet walked by, with her daughter a year older than Fennel. They stopped, and Garnet showed the child how to fan her fingers over her face in a respectful salute to Yarrow before she walked on. Filene, a family friend who had taught Yarrow much of what she knew about weaving, hurried past, and Yarrow in her turn passed her hands over her eyes in greeting as Filene nodded to her, her dark seamed face smiling. Pirin, from a block over, shuffled down the street. Yarrow recalled that her children were ill… "Pirin," she called, "do you need more stew? I can bring some by when I get home later this afternoon."

"That would be lovely," said Pirin, exhausted and grateful. Yarrow nodded, putting a hand on the other woman's shoulder, pressing comfort into the brief touch before she moved on.

And there was her brother, down the road, having started on the path to meet her as well. She ran to him, arms outstretched. "Yarrow!" Vetch said, and they embraced. "Ah, it's good to see you, sister!" He looked hard at her. "You look tired. Torv and Fennel have been treating you well?"

She smiled at his older-brother swagger. Though she was now a woman grown, with her own household and family, she knew Vetch would never tire of acting the protector to his baby sister. "Very well, and Fennel has two-word phrases now!" Vetch smiled indulgently, and Yarrow felt a little abashed in thinking her brother, the great wizard, would be interested. She went on, "I'm a little tired, yes. It's only that Torv's been working so much, with the spring building rush and then the storm." No one had been expecting such a large storm, fall and winter being the usual season for such tempests, and there had been a great deal of damage.

Vetch nodded ruefully. "I've been busy as well, with spell-patching and restoring what the winds blew down." He paused for a moment, with a small frown. "I've also been trying to give some order to the winds near Iffish -- the rain and wind here have been but a small part of bad weather all over the Archipelago in the last week. And satisfying the Equilibrium is not simple, when trying to balance the Reaches with the rest of Earthsea…" He drifted off, and Yarrow, who had been listening earnestly, stayed silent in hopes that he would continue. She always loved for Vetch to talk about his work, which he rarely did, with her.

But Vetch shook his head, dismissing his talk of wizardry as well as her talk of her family. He said to her, "Listen, Yarrow: I know we had planned to stay in Ismay today, but would you be willing to come to Moonstone Bay with me?"

Yarrow had been rather hoping that they might go to Orret's shop to see if new silks had come from Lorbanery. Since Fennel's birth her beloved loom had sat mostly idle in the corner of their house. Yet still she loved to run the fine threads through her fingers, deep sapphire and flaming crimson flowing like water through her hands. In the back of her head were designs for the weaving of jeweled birds and harrekki that would turn to weft and tapestry once Fennel and any other children they might have were older.

But now, to Vetch's query, she only said "Yes, of course," immediately. "Why?"

Vetch's good-natured face looked faintly troubled. "I've just come from the harbor. I spoke to a captain there, newly docked, who talked of strange sounds and smoke his crew had seen from the sea. I thought that from the bay I might understand better what is happening. Nothing too serious, I trust. And — " he looked more cheerful — "I should imagine others who want to take the path would not mind a little care given to it."

Moonstone Bay is very near the port of Ismay, being divided from it only by a large hill, and the trail to the bay is a lovely walk meandering up and down the hills bordering the town. The long stalks of wild mustard-flower that arise in the springtime in the island of Iffish thickly blanketed the hills, so that it was as if the two of them were walking in and within a sea of bright yellow flowers rippling like waves in the wind. It seemed almost unconscionable, under the blueness of the sky and the warmth of the sun, to remember the unseasonable wind and rain of before. The only hints were the mud and deep puddles dotting the trail, some all but impassable. From the pattern of muddy footprints around the first and second of these water-hazards, absent from the rest, Yarrow could see that none had dared the mud through the entire path. Several times Vetch murmured a handful of words, or gestured with his staff, to dry and firm a patch of ground to ease their way.

They had come to almost the end of the trail. At this point, the path seems from afar to end not at ocean but in a wall of earth, an illusion made not by wizardry but by the shape of the path and hill. Closer, it becomes clear that the trail curves to fit a notch between two hills that then opens up to the bay. Yarrow and Vetch had taken this path many times before, since they were children, and neither was bothered overmuch by, or even took much thought for, the threatened false end of the trail. And yet as they rounded the curve, Yarrow frowned, for the dark rugged rock whose shadow loomed over the entrance to the cove had not been there when she had last made the trip.

"Down!" Vetch said suddenly, in an urgent whisper, pressing her down with a protective arm as he too crouched and flung his other hand forward with his staff as if to shield them both.

Then Yarrow saw the rock unfurl itself, and the head of the dragon rise, swaying from side to side, as it stared at the sea.

The entire bay was filled with the dragon's body. It was longer than the largest boats she had ever seen, the twenty-oared trading vessels from the Inmost Sea. It was eerily quiet for such a massive beast. Only the gulls and wind and the dim thunder of waves from the bay could be heard.

She also did not make any sound, though her eyes widened. "You must not look in its eyes," Vetch said to her, low, and she bent her head quickly. They crept back around the curve of the trail to where the dragon was no longer visible.

Vetch said, "I do not think the dragon saw or heard us." He looked more worried than Yarrow had ever seen him. "A dragon in Iffish! I have been too complacent. There has not been a dragon here for five hundred years…" He did not say, but both knew, that the island was very lucky the dragon had not yet ventured out for food. The small population of goats and sheep in the hills could not support a creature of that size for very long. "Yarrow," Vetch said, the pain in his face evident, "you must go immediately so that you will be safe." He passed a hand over his face. "I wish Sparrowhawk were here."

Yarrow wished it as well. She spared a thought for the young man with the dark scars who had come to them grim and foreboding, and who had left them lighter of heart and spirit. She remembered Sparrowhawk saying gravely to her, "Dragons are venomous and dangerous; they are not like men," and remembered, even more than the words, the warmth of the fire, the melancholy of the lad far from his home on Gont, her harrekki stealing a cake…

And as though in a dream she stood up and walked forward again, towards the dragon.

"What are you doing?" Vetch whispered furiously. "Yarrow—"

She turned and said quickly to him, "Vetch, you speak the dragon's language --"

"Yarrow!" he said again sharply, but then the dragon had seen her. The great grim head bent to regard her. She hid her eyes against the force of its gaze, and she spoke.

*

Vetch almost shouted with anguish and terror as Yarrow moved towards the dragon. He tried to pull her back, but he was too late. He did not know, and could not guess, what had caused her to go from the safety of the rock to face the dragon. Had she thought that he would surely save her? He was all but powerless here. Ged, his friend whom Yarrow knew as Sparrowhawk, had defeated young dragons such as this by binding the wings of a flying dragon, and by Changing into a dragon himself. But this dragon was not in flight, and Vetch's skill was not in Changing as was his friend's. He knew the proper spells, had learned them as all wizards do on Roke. But the art by which the wizard becomes the creature and yet retains his own self was not one he had ever been wholly comfortable with, and since Roke he had not used it. Yet he saw no other way. He prepared to work the spell, thinking it was possible to succeed, but knowing he would likely fail. He despaired, for his failure here would mean catastrophe for the people he was bound by both duty and love to protect.

Yarrow had been speaking while he thought, and he had not listened. Now he heard her say clearly, into the silence, "And to the west and south of us are the islands Tok and Holp. They are very like this island of Iffish, but with higher hills, and finer sand on the beaches…"

Arrested by the strange plainness of her words, he paused in his spellcasting. He heard Yarrow speak of the Isle of the Ear, with its red coral reefs under the clear water, the green hurbah trees of Lorbanery, the ivory-white sand of the West Reach: the way to the Dragon's Run. She had never been to any of these places. Vetch thought she must know of it from their father or brothers — perhaps their older brother Tellin, the sea-trader — or perhaps Ged.

And he began to understand what she had seen, that he had not: that a dragon, a young one, not yet grown to the complex ways of her kind, could be caught and carried by storms out of season across the Archipelago.

He stood and went to where Yarrow was. And, behind her, he started to speak, his voice hoarse and yet carrying: saying her words in the dragon's language.

She reached an end, and her words dropped into silence, and Vetch also fell silent.

The dragon spoke for the first time, briefly, a sound like shards of metal tumbled together, amplified a thousandfold. Vetch said quietly, "She says: I go, sister."

Then they saw what few in the islands of Earthsea have seen: the dragon, uncoiling and taking flight in a great rush of fire and air. Vetch's heart leapt with dread and wonder, watching the dragon rise, its scales molten copper and gold in the mid-afternoon sun, as if flame itself were soaring on the wind. He held his breath, bracing for the dragon to circle back; but she only flew higher and westward until she was but a speck in the distance.

He turned his eyes to Yarrow and saw the fear hit her, where he thought she must not have had time to be frightened before. He had seen it happen before, with fishermen or wizards in the midst of crisis, who had no thought for fear in the moment, and only after the trial was past did they understand to be afraid. This he now saw in Yarrow. She closed her eyes and opened them again shuddering, as if seeing within what might have happened: dragonfire on the rock, a child motherless… But she remained standing, and only breathed out hard and leaned a little against the rock.

Vetch and Yarrow looked at each other, brother and sister alone, in silence. He spoke first. "How did you know?" he asked quietly.

Yarrow said, "Our harrekki moves her head like that when she is upset. And at the Festival of Sunreturn, Fennel wandered away from us, in the midst of Ismay, and was lost until Garnet saw her and brought her to me. She was frightened…"

Vetch nodded, understanding. And he saw also what Yarrow did not say, perhaps not thinking it needed to be said: that she had thought of the dragon as its own creature, not only in terms of enmity, of opposition. Only in dark the light, he thought, but she lived in both, and saw clearly in both. "Kest," he said, using her true name, the minnow that darts silver in the limpid stream, "you are wiser than I."

He looked at her, seeing her anew: Yarrow, Kest, whom he remembered as a child younger than Fennel, who had no power in her for magic; and yet who was a woman, a person, of great mystery and splendor, of strength and mastery.

She smiled at him, though visibly still shaken. "Estarriol," she said gently, "together we are wise."

Then she hid her eyes, suddenly abashed. "Well!" Vetch said. "If you are to be kin to dragons, I had best tell you some of their lore. Then let me tell you of Kalessin, who is called the Eldest." He did this not for the sake of wizardry, for she had none, but simply to share what he knew with her, because she was his sister. She, in her turn, started to tell him of Fennel and her joys and sorrows as a mother, and to speculate as to how one might best weave a dragon-tapestry, as he listened in respect. They walked thus back along the path, talking all the way. As they entered back into Ismay the sun drew behind a cloud, lending a chill note to the air, so that they were glad to come to Yarrow's house at last.

As they opened the door, the warm aroma of the stew surrounded them. Torv, looking up from where he built blocks with Fennel by the fire, said to them, "Did you see the dragon fly overhead?" And Fennel beamed delightedly, running to Yarrow with arms outstretched to be held and cuddled, calling "Mama!" high and sweet.

*

Of Estarriol and the dragon there was no song made. But in the East Reach there is a children's song, the "Song of the Minnow," that tells of a mother who carries a dragon-mother's child back to her; and this lullaby is sung by mothers to their babes to this day.