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The Ghost of Orrimy

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Now, it came about that, in the days when there was still an Archmage on Roke, a restless spirit arose in the hills above Orrimy, and came down into the town with the winter. From dusk until dawn it wailed through the dark streets, turning milk sour and making cats miscarry. The burghers of Orrimy, tucked safely in warm beds behind high walls, felt the wailing creep into their dreams, casting them into formless and bloody nightmares.

After a week of this, the leading merchants of the town summoned Samphire, the town's sorcerer, before their council. Samphire, who had already spent three nights chasing the spirit through the steep streets, told them, rather tersely, that he did not know how to lay the spirit to rest.

What use, enquired the council, was his study on Roke if he could not manage such a simple thing?

A lifetime on Roke would not be enough to teach him patience with fools, Samphire retorted, and the year he had spent there had not been long enough to learn the names of every man slaughtered in the lawless hills of Hosk. They were welcome to seek out some other sorcerer, whether he be a wizard of Roke or a Pelnish warlock, but he had lost enough sleep over this already, and could not oblige them further.

This response was not welcomed by any of the merchants of Orrimy and, come evening, the foremost amongst them, one Cray, the owner of the largest fishing fleet of Hosk and the landlord of ten very fine warehouses, was still muttering about the temerity of petty sorcerers. Cray's wife listened patiently to his complaints, and thought to herself that Samphire had always been a honest and kind-hearted man, even if he was not like the other men of Orrimy, and so she decided to lift her voice.

“There are many such spirits walking across the hills,” she said. “Perhaps the hill-folk could help us. I remember once, when I was a child, a dead and motherless babe crept into our barn and wailed there when the wind blew from the west. The hill lord...”

Cray stared at her in outrage. He hated to remember that she had been born in an up-country farm, that she had once run laughing through the heather, long before she married a fisherboy who eventually forced his dreams of wealth into reality and now pretended that he had never shivered through a winter storm. Normally, she refrained from mentioning that she was hill-born; had pressed the soft accent from her mouth, and no longer hitched her skirts above her knees and walked in muddy weather, but waited dutifully for her coach to be brought around.

“We do not consort with those brigands,” he said stiffly, and outside the ghost began to wail again.

After another week, he had begun to wonder whether the lawless lords of the hills were quite as bad as their reputation. Though it pained him to treat with bandits, he urged the council to send a message to the nearest hill lord, Sarsen of Essimar, asking his advice on dealing with uncanny things.

Sarsen sent a reply, offering the services of his own sorcerer, a man practised in exorcism, in return for freedom of the port for all who served him, and double the normal price for the grain his farms sent to market that year.

Cray was outraged, and the rest of the council agreed with him. Who did this Sarsen think he was? A reasonable price they would have considered, but this was unacceptable. No, they would seek help on Roke.

“I doubt the wizards there will be able to help,” remarked Samphire, when he heard this news, but none on the council were willing to listen to him. Shrugging, he returned to his books, chasing the lore of the undead through dusty pages.

Although it would likely damage his profits, Cray was determined to go to Roke himself. Once there, he announced, he would not give up until he had found a wizard who could lay this ghost, even if he had to petition the Archmage himself.

By the time his ship reached Roke, he had decided that was indeed the best course of action. Most of the wizards of Roke he had heard tell of had been bookish and fragile men. The Archmage, though, was known for his courage and his great deeds, for facing dragons and the like. No, only the Archmage would have the skill and knowledge to face the Ghost of Orrimy (and, if Cray was beginning to imagine the songs that would be written about this confrontation, it was only civic pride, nothing more).

It was not a long journey from Hosk to Roke, but it was a poor season for travelling and they had had a hard passage through the storms. The long hours it took to actually find the school added to his tiredness, and he was perhaps a little tetchy as he stumbled through his story.

The Doorkeeper listened gravely and then said, “The Archmage cannot help you.”

“I have travelled all the way from Hosk,” Cray informed him, drawing himself up and squaring his shoulders, “to beg the Archmage Sparrowhawk to save my town. If this is the manner of wizards-”

“The Archmage is not on Roke,” the Doorkeeper said.

“Off with dragons, I suppose,” Cray said, secretly a little thrilled, and gave the Doorkeeper a smile which was meant to convey that he fully understood the mysterious ways of mages.

“He knows your situation,” the Doorkeeper said, and did not tell Cray that the Archmage was currently a dolphin, bathing in the moonlight and listening to the songs of the pods that swam along the coast of Roke. “You should return to Hosk.”

“I will wait,” Cray announced.

“There is an inn by the dock,” the Doorkeeper said and closed the door.

It was a good inn, its taproom warm and noisy, and Cray was happy to while away his evening there, talking to sailors about the state of the sea and the running of the fish. He bought a round and boasted a little about how he had moved from owning one small boat to running a fleet of his own, and basked in the praise that brought him from gathered sailors and ignored the odd snigger as the jealousy of those doomed to remain forever poor. Towards the end of the evening he fell into conversation with a Gontishman, a sailor who had crossed more oceans than Cray himself had ever dreamed of. He was a sturdy man, though, despite his wanderings, neither old nor over-young, and willing to listen to the advice of man of greater means. Indeed, Cray soon found himself spilling out the story of the lonesome spirit, and the Gontishman nursed his drink and listened.

When Cray had done, he said, frowning a little, “Your wife was right. The hill-lords know how to deal with such things.”

“No,” Cray thundered, slamming his fist against the bar with more force than he had intended. “I'll not have some half-baked sorcerer rescue my town. We're respectable folk in Orrimy, and we'll seek proper help when we need it.”

The Gontishman demurred in the face of his conviction, and their conversation turned back to other matters. Indeed, at the end of the evening, Cray had no hesitation in telling the man that he would be happy to offer him work if he ever made landfall in Orrimy.

“I'll remember that,” the Gontishman said and shook his hand. “But I do think you ought to go home to your wife.”

Two weeks later, Cray was still waiting for the Archmage to return. The Doorkeeper said, “The Archmage is not walking the halls of this school,” and meant he is a tree bending over the edge of the cliff, learning the names the waves call the shore.

“Ah,” Cray said knowingly, tapping his nose. “Still with the dragons, eh? I'll wait.”

He wandered down to the edge of the quay, where the cold winter sun shone off the humps of the waves like fat coins of light. It was busy and bustling, as a port should be, and he sat on a bollard to enjoy the sun, pushing his cap back on his head and fumbling for his pipe. He had sat like this once on the docks of Orrimy, before he'd set his mind to earning his fortune, and he found himself enjoying it. Perhaps he should make more time for such things, once the Archmage had saved them from the ghost and all was stable and steady once more.

There was a juggler at play on the cobbles in front of the water, a lean man tossing red and gold cloths into the air until they danced above his head: now fish with flickering tails, then flames, then simple silk twisting before a grey sky.

“There's a pretty thing,” Cray said, being of a mind to talk. “My wife would like it, if she were here.”

“Where have you left her?” the juggler asked, catching his cloths in one smooth slide.

“Home where it's safe,” Cray said and sighed a little. “Safe as it can be, with ghosts in the streets. She's away behind strong walls, though, and the doors are thick.”

“And does she have jugglers, behind your thick doors?” the other man asked, kicking up a scrap of seaweed from foot to hand and into the air with a whisper of bells. It began to swim in the air above his hand, dipping and weaving like a eel playing in the water.

“If she asks for them,” Cray informed him stiffly, sensing that there was some criticism there. “Whatever she wants, I'll bring to her.” And, because the day was young and the sharp wind off the sea made him remember other days of his life, he went on, telling the juggler of how he had promised her gold and silver, long ago when the only gold he'd ever seen was the sunrise over the Inner Sea, how everything he'd accomplished had been for her: the wealth and prestige and the grand house. He talked about how they'd never had children, and he had grieved for it even more than she did, and how he had built his fortune instead, to keep them both safe in their old age.

“And what name does she go by?” the juggler asked.

The question startled Cray. For so long he had thought of her simply as his that he hadn't realised until then how rarely he spoke her name.

“Honey,” he said, and his mind went back to a night long ago, when she had leaned close and breathed, Eilis in his ear.

“You should go home to her,” the juggler said, and there was something on his face that could have been pity, if there was anything in Cray's life that needed pitying.

Another two weeks passed, and the Doorkeeper told him that the Archmage could not see him (he was a hawk on the wing, so high that he could read the names drawn in the sweep of the frost over the marshes of Roke). By this time, the glamour of travel had worn off and Cray was missing the comforts of home. He was somewhat short with the Doorkeeper and stomped off through the streets of Thwil in high temper.

When he stumbled across a loose cobble, he took great pleasure in kicking it hard, sending it spinning into the nearest wall. It ricocheted off with a sharp click and went flying into the pan of a street sweeper who was working his way down the middle of the road.

The sweeper tipped the stone into his barrow with a soft chuckle and turned to Cray. “Trouble, friend?”

Cray, who hadn't even noticed him until that moment, stammered an apology, and then, because the man had a sympathetic face, poured out his complaint.

“Orrimy, eh,” the sweeper said when Cray was done, his rough face folding into creases as he thought. “I knew a boy once, who went from Roke to Orrimy. Samphire, it was.”

“Still there,” Cray said, with a snort. “Useless, half-ignorant sort of a sorcerer. Not a real wizard, like we need.”

“He was always clever, that Samphire,” the sweeper remarked, with a fond half-smile. “Not suited to the ways of Roke, and wise enough to know it, but he could handle a spirit, if he had a little help.”

“He's not needed,” Cray informed him. “I know what I want.”

“You should want to go home,” the sweeper said. “No one here can help you.”

Then, while Cray was still spluttering and vowing that the next person who told him to leave would suffer the blunt edge of his tongue, the sweeper picked his pan up and wheeled his barrow around the next corner. When Cray started after him, still with things to say, he found an empty road, slanting down to the sea.

A week after that, a boat from Orrimy happened to put in at Thwil, and its captain had been charged to bring Cray a letter from his wife. When he asked about the spirit, the crew looked at him and laughed behind their hands.

It was gone, Honey's letter told him, weeks ago.

After he had left, she told him, it had continued to wail through the streets, driving the people of Orrimy to the edge of madness. At last, when no one else had acted, she had stopped waiting for him to come home and taken his seat at the merchants' council. For only a fraction of his first price, Sarsen of Essimar had sent not his sorcerer, who was sorely needed in the hills in this season, but advice. Samphire had read that message, and combined it with his own studies to learn how to lay the spirit.

She had helped him: had walked beyond the safe, solid walls of her house, and stood beside the sorcerer when he called the spirit to him. She had been the one to speak to it, to persuade it with soft words to tell its true name and be set free. It had been such a sad thing, she wrote, sad and lonely, and she had wept in relief when Samphire spoke its name and it had glowed and winked out, like a candle hushed by the wind.

Now, she added, and she was sorry to tell him this way, but she felt bolder in writing than in speaking out loud, she could not bear to go back behind the walls of her house, grand as they were. By the time he read this letter, she would be gone, back into the hills where she was born, back to her mother's family. And perhaps she would come back, and perhaps she would find something there which filled her days, but she would never again be the same Honey who had lived so long in his shadow.

And as Cray sat frozen in the taproom, the letter cold in his hand, someone sat down opposite him.

He was a short man, not extraordinary, with a scarred face and eyes as dark and quiet as the sea, but he was dressed as a mage would dress, and the barkeeper looked on him with a mixture of awe and wry affection. Cray did not need to be told that this, at last, was the Archmage Sparrowhawk.

“Where were you?” he choked out.

“You didn't need me,” the Archmage said.

Cray felt the letter crumple in his fist and demanded, voice cracking, “Why didn't someone tell me?”

“Someone did,” the Archmage said, and there was compassion in those dark eyes. “I was the sailor at the bar and the juggler on the quay and the sweeper in the street. Why did you choose not to listen?”

But Cray was looking down at the loss of the thing he had never truly feared to lose, and he could not answer. His Honey, his own Eilis, was lost to him.

“Go home,” the Archmage said, for the last time. “She may yet choose to come back to you.” He hesitated, as if he would add something more, but then shrugged and rose from his seat, leaving Cray to his sorrows.

And, before the tide had turned, Cray of Orrimy sailed home from Roke. And little more of note is said of him, besides that he was known afterwards to be a humble and generous man and few men could be found living along the shores of the Inner Sea who equalled his largesse, in those long ago days before the king returned.