Work Header

Cold Stars

Chapter Text

"Why does he hide from me?" the young man cried in his grief.

Tehanu, by Ursula K. Le Guin.


The gold and red sunlight, slanting down from the western horizon, fell upon the gold-red skin of the tall young man standing by the ship railing. He did not see it; nor did he see the town of Gont Port laid out before him, nor the fields beyond, busy with hay being mowed. His eyes were reserved for the steep hills to the west of the town, and he was peering closely at them, as though he might see the tiny house hidden within the trees.

He said, "The previous messengers did not tell me of this."

He turned his head in time to see the quick smile of the bright-eyed courtier beside him. "Perhaps," the young courtier said tactfully, "they were eager to return to the grace of your presence."

"We are quite sure, my lord," said the older courtier. "We made enquiries with all of the neighbors, and they say that Sparrowhawk, who was once Archmage of Earthsea, now lives with her, husband to her in all but name."

"Of course," the bright-eyed courtier added with deepening tact, "we cannot be sure that is the true reason the lady is hiding the truth of his whereabouts. It may be that she has simply guested him out of courtesy of their past acquaintance, and his guesthood in her house has been misunderstood by low-minded neighbors."

A bald-headed sailor standing nearby gave a snort at this, and smiles were exchanged among the crewmen who were standing in a circle about the king and his messengers. Lebannen, resisting an impulse to scream invectives at the onlookers, gave a sharp gesture of dismissal, and the sailors swiftly returned to their tasks. The courtiers began to slide back as well, bowing their leave, but a second gesture stayed the bright-eyed courtier, and he came to stand by his companion in age beside the rail.

Lebannen stared down upon the water between the ship and the port dock. Nearby, a sailor boy ran over the gangplank to the ship, eager to learn the latest news. Without looking at the courtier beside him, Lebannen said, "He will not come."

"My lord, her message to you was, 'My honor lies in silence, until my friend releases me. I'm sure that he'll send some word to you, in time.' Of course we cannot be sure those are in fact the sentiments of . . ." He hesitated, grasping for an appropriate title to describe the man who had recently lost all his powers as mage in order to save the world from destruction. Finally he said, "We cannot be sure that he would have said this himself. Though the White Lady seems kind and smiles sweetly, it may be she is hiding him for her own ends."

Lebannen stared at the sky-lantern reflected in the water, and said nothing.

"My lord, she has the reputation of being a witch. If you believe that she means to do him harm—"

"No." His voice sounded as harsh to his own ears as the Archmage's had once been. "She would not do him harm. He saved her life, when she was young."

"As he did yours, my lord." The smile was returned to the courtier's voice. "I have heard tale of what happened between you and the . . . Between you and him. Oh, not of the final days, when you and he won your way back from the land of death, but of the days not so long ago when you journeyed together in quest. I have heard that he saved you from the slavers— My lord, what is it?"

Lebannen, closing his eyes, tried to breathe steadily, though his heart beat like a drum. "Nothing. It is nothing. It will pass."

"My lord, I speak too freely. Forgive me."

The courtier was silent then, and Lebannen raised his eyes upward once more, to where the sunlight lay golden upon the hills of Gont – where the Archmage hid himself from his king.

Hid himself from more. Lebannen wondered whether Sparrowhawk had told his new love the truth.


"Never fear. It is much easier for men to act than to refrain from acting. We will continue to do good and to do evil. . . . But if there were a king over us all again and he sought counsel of a mage, as in the days of old, and I were that mage, I would say to him: My lord, do nothing because it is righteous or praiseworthy or noble to do so; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do and which you cannot do in any other way."

There was that in his voice which made Arren turn to watch him as he spoke. He thought that the radiance of light was shining again from his face, seeing the hawk nose and the scarred cheek, the dark, fierce eyes. And Arren looked at him with love, but also with fear, thinking, "He is too far above me." Yet as he gazed he became aware at last that it was no magelight, no cold glory of wizardry, that lay shadowless on every line and plane of the man's face, but light itself: morning, the common light of day. There was a power greater than the mage's. And the years had been no kinder to Sparrowhawk than to any man. Those were lines of age, and he looked tired, as the light grew ever stronger. He yawned. . . .

So gazing and wondering and pondering, Arren fell asleep at last.

The Farthest Shore, by Ursula K. Le Guin.


Arren stared up at the sun, as he had stared up at the cold stars on the night before, but the sun was warm upon his body. He had pushed back the blanket that Sparrowhawk had placed upon him, and now he lay dressed only in the clothes the slaver had left him with: a cloth about his loins. The sun stroked him softly, and sea-spray fell upon his skin.

A shadow shut out the sun. He turned his head and saw the dark face of the Archmage looking down upon him. "I thought you were asleep," Sparrowhawk said.

"I'm still cold." There was a truth to what he said. Within his heart he still felt the chill of the previous night: of knowing that he would soon be sold as a slave, and would refuse to follow orders, and would die. . . But he could not speak the full truth to Sparrowhawk, which was that he had been remembering the moment when the Archmage, clothed in the glory of his power and magelight, had knelt down and freed him from his chains.

"Well, then . . ." said Sparrowhawk, and seated himself next to the boy in order to reach for the blanket, fallen at Arren's feet in the mage's little boat.

"Oh, there's no need, my lord!" Arren hastily kicked the blanket away and then, in a moment of impulse, pressed himself against the wizard sitting beside him.

He saw for a moment a rare look of surprise on the Archmage's face, and Arren swallowed heavily, wondering at himself for his boldness. But then Sparrowhawk, who until now had done no more than to touch the young prince's shoulder, put his arm around Arren in an awkward manner that suggested he was unfamiliar with such acts.

Prince Arren, who would one day be known as King Lebannen, settled back into his shoulder-hollow with a sigh. Sparrowhawk was warm too, like the sun, and again Arren remembered the light that had radiated from the Archmage and his staff when he rescued the boy who had accompanied him on this journey. After a moment, Arren became aware that Sparrowhawk was touching his arms. He opened his eyes and asked, "What is it?"

"Your wrists," replied the Archmage. "They were chafed by the manacles. Remind me: where else were you chained?"

"Around my waist." Arren bent his head to look at his bruised wrists, which were caked with blood. Dimly he was aware of Sparrowhawk's hand touching him lightly on his back, inspecting for damage.

Then his breath stopped. The Archmage, without shifting his position from behind Arren, had moved his hands around to the front of the prince; he was tugging down the loincloth slightly to feel Arren's belly. Arren was not sure why he was suddenly aware, with an intensity that was piercing, of the rough touch of Sparrowhawk's hands upon his body. Certainly Sparrowhawk was doing nothing other than what Arren's father had done on many an occasion, helping his son to strip for bathing. And yet . . .

"No harm done there," Sparrowhawk reported, withdrawing his hands. "Your wrists will need healing, though."

"Are you going to use wizardry on them?"

Arren turned his head in time to see the Archmage's smile. "Like a village witch casting a healing spell? No, I think not. I will bandage your wrists and let the body heal itself."

"Do only that which you must." Arren echoed the words Sparrowhawk had spoken earlier.

"Indeed." The Archmage rose and went over to the other end of the boat, which was continuing to sail under the power of the magewind. His withdrawal left a cold space against Arren's back; the boy wrapped his arms around himself, shivering.

Sparrowhawk returned within moments and, without comment, resumed his former place and began to bind bandages around Arren's wrists. His arms reached around the young prince to do this, enfolding Arren like the blanket that lay abandoned at the bottom of the boat. Arren twisted his head, looking at the mage who had rescued him from death. The wizard's attention was focussed upon his task at hand.

His motions slowed, though, as he came to the end of the binding. For a minute, Sparrowhawk continued to look down toward the wrists, as though inspecting his handiwork. Then his eyes turned toward Arren's.

Arren felt his belly, which had been growing increasingly warm all this time, turn to fire. He had come close to feeling this way in the past, as he neared to his manhood, but never before had the fire burned so fiercely within him. He gave a little gasp, and he saw the Archmage's face change, and he knew that Sparrowhawk had guessed the cause of his shock. How could he not? He was the caretaker of Roke, the Isle of the Wizards – he was the most powerful mage in all of Earthsea. He must have known from the beginning how Arren felt about him, and had humored him all this while, as a parent humors a sick child. But now that he knew how strongly Arren felt . . . Arren's face grew warm with the heat of shame.

And in that moment, without any change of expression, Sparrowhawk bent his head forward and kissed Arren.

It was a brief kiss, as soft as the sea breeze, and then Sparrowhawk had raised his head again. Behind him, the sun burnt hot, even with the cool wind to chill it.

The Archmage said, in his usual harsh voice, "Forgive me, lad. I did not mean to do that."

"I don't mind." Arren's voice was shaking. "If you wanted to do it again—"

Suddenly the wizard was on his feet. Arren shrank back, remembering the tall, lighted figure that had stood on the deck of the slaver's ship the night before, but Sparrowhawk simply moved to the other end of the boat and stood there, looking at Arren silently with his dark eyes.

His companion in travel said hesitantly, "I'm sorry."

"You are not at fault." The Archmage's voice was as cold as it had been when he spoke to the slaver. "You are a boy – nearly a man, but a boy nonetheless. I am the one at fault."

Arren looked down at the bandages wrapped neatly about his wounds; he fingered them silently for a minute. Finally he looked up and said softly, "Need either of us be at fault? Couldn't it be just something that happened?"

Sparrowhawk's face was a stone. After a moment, the Archmage said, "Perhaps."

"Something that happened again?"

Even as he spoke, Arren could not believe his own temerity. He bit his lip and stared down at the bandages that softly cradled his wrists.

A moment later he heard a footfall and looked up to see the wizard standing beside him. "Lad," Sparrowhawk said softly, "do you understand what you're requesting?"

Arren nodded; he was afraid that his voice would shake again if he spoke. In actual fact, he had only a dim notion of what might follow hereafter, but that was not what caused shivers to go through him. It was the knowledge that the Archmage was considering his desire. That Sparrowhawk, the most powerful mage in all the world, should choose him . . .

Sparrowhawk gave out a long sigh like the breath of the sea upon the boat. His face was drawn into taut lines, yet oddly this made him seem younger rather than older. He said in an even voice, "Arren, there is a reason why wizards do not marry."

Arren considered this statement, then said slowly, "Your power?"

Sparrowhawk nodded. "To draw forth enough power to perform such acts as you have seen this past night is no easy thing. If mages were to marry, it may be that we would not have the strength left over from loving to perform other feats."

"Perhaps," Arren suggested in a small voice, "it would be different if your love were only a boy."

"Perhaps." The mage's voice was as blank as the horizon ahead. "Shall we test the matter and see?"

Arren felt the blood rush into his face once more. He had forgotten for a moment whom he was addressing; now that he remembered, it was painful to think how foolish he had been. That Arren should ask the Archmage to risk losing his power for the sake of a boy's fancy, and that Arren should make this proposal now, when the wizard was engaged in a quest to find the source of the darkness that was quenching all the power in Earthsea. . . He ducked his head.

Something sighed again – he was not sure whether it was the sea or the man – and then the plank of the boat-seat bowed as a heavier weight sat down beside him. Arren looked out of the corner of his eye, and saw that Sparrowhawk was gesturing. He remained where he was, uncertain.

"Come," said the Archmage, and at this command, Arren let himself be pulled into Sparrowhawk's strong arms. He could not think what would happen next, but it did not matter: the Archmage would lead the way.

They were both silent for a minute, the boy and the man. Arren could feel Sparrowhawk's chest rise and fall, like the water under the boat; the little craft sang along smoothly, pushed by the magewind, unconcerned by any care. Arren closed his eyes.

Through the darkness, he heard Sparrowhawk say, "You will have heard of the journey I made to Atuan years ago."

"When you brought back the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, which will bring peace to the world—"

"Except that the man who will bring such peace has not yet appeared. Yes."

"And you brought back the One Priestess of the Tombs of Atuan—"

"Priestess." There was something beyond irony in Sparrowhawk's voice – a sort of dark bitterness. "It would be more truthful to say the prisoner of Atuan. The older priestesses who kept her called her Arha, the Eaten One – and they did their best to eat everything from her. Among other things, they taught her to hate men and fear them, unless the men were cut of all manhood. So she saw me as her enemy, a prisoner to be killed. But she did not kill me. She came to me in the dark, as lovers do, and she listened to what I had to say. And in the end she freed me from my prison, and I freed her from hers. She awakened, and saw who she was."

The Archmage's voice was as quiet as the waves slapping against the side of the boat; his arms lay loose about Arren. His chest continued to rise and fall in easy breaths.

"And so I brought her to Gont, to the land of my birthplace, where I had herded goats as a boy, and I left her with my teacher there. . . . Do you wonder at that?"

"No, my lord." He was barely aware of what the mage was saying. All his thoughts were on the warmth of Sparrowhawk's arms and the slow, steady beat of his heart.

"Many have wondered. She was newly come into her womanhood, you know, and I was younger then – young enough to consider the matter with seriousness. But she had only just awoken. She had just learned her true name, Tenar, and she did not yet fully know who she was. She would have given me anything I asked for – a kiss, a pledge of her love and her body . . ."

Arren felt Sparrowhawk shift as the mage turned his head to look down upon the prince's face. "Do you know who you are, lad?" he asked quietly.

The arms were warm about him, but he could not lie. "No, my lord."

He turned his head far enough to see the smile on Sparrowhawk's face. "No more do I," said the mage simply. "I would tell you if I knew, Arren, but I fear that in this matter you must make your way alone. I will not be the one to turn you onto a path you were not intended to take; I will not risk the danger of making you an Eaten One."

Arren's throat ached. He could not take his eyes from the lean, dark profile of the Archmage, nor from the dark eyes that looked down upon him with tenderness. The mage said softly, "When you have found yourself, Arren, there will be time enough for you to decide who to honor with your love."

Then he had pulled away from Arren, so swiftly that the boy did not have time to cry out his dismay. The archmage stooped down and deftly scooped the blanket from the floor of the boat, carefully dropping it onto Arren's lap. "Sleep, lad," he said. "We have far to go on this journey, and we both need all the powers we can muster."

He turned and strode to the other end of the boat, leaving Arren shivering in the hot, rising sun.


So gazing and wondering and pondering, Arren fell asleep at last. But Sparrowhawk sat by him watching the dawn come and the sun rise, even as one might study a treasure for something gone amiss in it, a jewel flawed, a child sick.

The Farthest Shore.


"He gave me my true name, you see." Lebannen's voice was soft as he looked out upon the water turned fiery by the setting sun. "He helped me to find myself, and he brought me my manhood and my kingship. I could understand why, before, he had not had time for me: I was only a boy, and he was a mage engaged in an important quest. But afterwards, when I had become a man, and he had lost his powers as a mage . . ."

He looked over finally at the bright-eyed courtier, whose smile had disappeared some time during the long silence while the king pursued his memories. The courtier said nothing. Lebannen found himself wondering whether anything he had said was coherent from the perspective of the truth as the courtier and the rest of the world knew it: that Sparrowhawk had been close companion to young Prince Arren, and now refused to see him.

"The dragon took him away to be healed," Lebannen added, as though this might provide a better explanation of what had taken place. "He was terribly wounded from the work he had done in the land of death, when he spent his powers for the sake of Earthsea. So the dragon left me on Roke Island, with the wizards, and brought Sparrowhawk back here, to Gont. . . . I thought that he would return, once his wounds were healed. I would never have left him if I had known this would happen."

"Perhaps," the courtier suggested quietly, "his wounds are not yet healed."

Lebannen stared again at the water, remembering the gold sea in which he and Sparrowhawk had swum together in the afternoon after they left the slaver ship. They had swum side by side in the water, as though all had been mended from what had taken place earlier that day. Later, when Sparrowhawk had climbed onto the boat to care for it, Arren had lifted his head to see Sparrowhawk looking down upon him, watching him.

"Why?" he whispered now. "Why wouldn't he return? If he has wounds still, I could help to heal them."

"Perhaps," the courtier said, yet more quietly, "it is because you are a man and a king."

Lebannen stared at him. Behind him, the sailors bustled about, but in a leisurely manner, for it was well known that the king was determined to stay as long as was necessary to see his old friend. The docks below were crowded with late-afternoon business, but few people looked up at the royal ship that had been there for so many days.

"My lord," the courtier said carefully, "you are newly come to your power. If any man could be your rival, it is the old Archmage."

"He would not—"

"It would make no difference whether he did. Even if he has lost his powers as a mage, he is still a man of keen wisdom. If he were at your side, people would likely say that any great acts you undertook were not the result of your command, but of his. I'm sorry, my lord, but that is how it is often seen when a young king has a great man as his advisor."

Lebannen shook his head, as though trying to rid himself of a spray of water. "It is more than that. If it were only that he wished to leave me alone to fully find myself, wouldn't he come to tell me this? We were the closest of companions on our journey, and now—"

"And now he has given his heart to another."

Lebannen's breath drew swiftly inward. He waited, his heart drumming, to see how badly he had revealed himself.

But the courtier only smiled and said, "It is an old tale, sire. Two men enter into a friendship that seems unbreakable, and then a woman comes along, and with one smile she breaks the bond and leads a man astray. And the man loses all thought of his friend. It has happened to me; it has happened to many men."

Lebannen swallowed heavily. "And how have you and other men dealt with so great a plight?"

"Well," said the courtier, his gaze wandering away toward the dark hills above the town, "there are many schools of thought on this matter. Some men say that the best thing to do is get rid of the woman: debase her in the eyes of your friend, or at least arrange for her absence for a short while, so that the friendship can be remembered. However—"

He stopped short, looking down at the sailor boy tugging at his sleeve. Gracefully going down on bended knee, the courtier listened for a moment to the ship's young messenger, then rose once more and smiled at the king.

"Forgive me, my lord," he said. "There is a matter in the hold that the captain needs dealt with. There is no need to see to it yourself; it is a small thing. I will return in a few minutes—" He glanced at the boy, who was shaking his head vigorously, and his smile broadened. "Well, perhaps more than a few minutes," he amended. "With your leave, my lord."

Lebannen nodded, and the courtier went down onto his knee once more, this time for his king. Then the young man and the boy disappeared into the hold.

The sun was beginning to sink behind the broad shoulders of one of the hills. Shadows lengthened upon the dock; to the east, the first suggestions of starlight began. Life in the town started to slow; people grew more languid in their movements, like seabirds on a cold day.

There was a flash of movement at the edge of the dock, and then a woman burst forward, running.

Lebannen, his breath suddenly still in his chest, gripped the railing and leaned forward. He could not have said why he knew at once who the woman must be. Perhaps it was only because of her appearance. "The White Lady," the courtier had called her, and Lebannen could see why now. It was not merely that her skin was pale in comparison to the dark skin of the Gontish folk about her. There was also a certain radiance coming from her face: a pride and strength, as great as that of a wizard clothed with a magelight.

She held a young child in her arms, whose face was buried against her shoulder. Lebannen knew that she had once been married; it had been one of the things that had angered him most, that she, who had already found companionship in her life, should take Sparrowhawk from himself, who had known no companion before he met the Archmage. She was looking backwards at a man who seemed to be pursuing her through the crowd. An old lover, perhaps? He was saying something in a clear voice about the child, how it belonged to him. Yes, an old lover, it seemed, one who was now intent on reclaiming her and the girl he had fathered. And why not? If the lady had given him love in the past, why should she spurn him now? Did she not owe him at least a little time together?

She had run up to the entrance to the bridge leading to the royal ship; the bald-headed sailor on guard there shook his head, refusing her entrance. She seemed upset. Lebannen thought to himself that it would be a righteous deed for him to aid a lady so clearly determined to escape from her past lover.

But Sparrowhawk had told him to do nothing because it was righteous. He was to do nothing because it was righteous or praiseworthy or noble. He had the word of the Archmage on this matter, and surely the Archmage's word was to be trusted above any instinct he felt to help. Besides, it was folly to interfere in the quarrels of a man and woman. Let the lady and her lover sort the matter out themselves; it would surely take only a short time for them to do so. And while the lady was gone, it might be that her new love would emerge from hiding . . .

Lebannen found that he had stepped forward to the top of the bridge. "What do you want with her?" he asked the man, hearing his voice as stern and harsh as Sparrowhawk's.

"She took my kid—"

Lebannen did not listen to what the man said. He was trying to judge the lady from how she reacted to the man's words. Her look of pride was close to arrogance; it reminded him strongly of another he had known.

Then she spoke. "Let me come aboard," she said simply. "Please!"

Her voice was not that of the One Priestess of Atuan; nor was it that of the White Lady of Gont. Her voice was that of a terrified woman. In her arms, the child had begun to cry.

The sailor looked up at his king, awaiting the word to turn the woman away. From behind Lebannen came no sound but for the sailors murmuring at their tasks. The seabirds wheeled above the hills of Gont, where a wounded man lay in hiding.

"Come," said Lebannen, and he reached out his hand to Tenar.


The sea basked in the hot, gold noon, endless water under endless light. In the stern of the boat Sparrowhawk sat naked except for a loincloth and a kind of turban made from sailcloth. He was singing softly, striking his palms on the thwart as if it were a drum, in a light, monotonous rhythm. The song he sang was no spell of wizardry, no chant or Deed of heroes or kings, but a lilting drone of nonsense words, such as a boy might sing as he herded goats through the long, long afternoons of summer, in the high hills of Gont, alone.

The Farthest Shore.


The sun cast gold-red rays upon the crowd jammed upon the docks on Valmouth Port, in southern Gont. Most folk looked up at the great ship in the harbor, its white sails catching the last of the evening breeze. Other folk were staring curiously at a reunion taking place on the dock, as the White Lady of Gont rejoined her adult daughter and her daughter's husband. No one noticed the young man who, having changed out of his royal clothes into plain clothing like a seaman, had come to stand by the railing.

He heard a step beside him and said, without turning, "Give the order to sail."

"The order has already been given, my lord," said the bright-eyed courtier as he joined Lebannen at the railing. "The captain says that, if we're to sail tonight, we will need to do so by power of the oars, as the wind is too weak to carry us further."

Lebannen nodded; already he could hear the beat of the drum establishing the rhythm for the freemen seated at the oar-seats in the hold below. He had spoken with the oarsmen the previous day, asking each their story of how they came to serve him, and he had learned that the oldest man there, a rangy oarsman with skin plastered like paper upon his bones, had served on a galley alongside Sparrowhawk, back when the old Archmage had first left Gont, in the year that he came to study as a pupil at Roke.

"'Tweren't yet a man then," said the oarsman. "'Twas only a young lad, like yourself."

Lebannen had not bothered to correct him; he was caught up in the vision of Sparrowhawk as a young man, gay and worry-free in the years before darkness scarred his cheek and sliced lines of pain upon his face. Were those lines now eased, after months in the care of the lady on the dock below?

He said to the courtier, "It was good to have the opportunity to get to know the Lady Tenar. She is a friend worth having."

The courtier did not reply. He was watching neither the crowd dispersing below, nor the sailors hurrying to unfurl the sails, but the still figure of his king.

Lebannen said, his throat tight, "He made the right decision. I am king now; I will have little time to do anything but rule. It is better that he should be cared for by the lady, who can devote all her time to healing him."

He turned his head to look at the courtier, and something in the man's expression told him that the bright eyes had finally penetrated beyond the words the king used to cloak the truth. But all that the tactful courtier said was, "Well, that is the way of the world – the strongest bond between men cannot be retained if a woman makes her way between them. No doubt the day will come when you too will turn your eyes toward a beautiful woman. When that happens, my lord, I hope and trust that you will not forget those of us who are bold enough to consider ourselves your friends."

He made a reply – he could not remember afterwards what he said – which made the courtier smile. The deck below him began to shudder as the oars pulled the ship back from the dock, and the spray of the harbor water churned upwards toward him. After a while he realized that no one stood beside him. For a long while he watched the isle grow smaller as the royal ship picked up speed. The sun was below the horizon now, and the cold stars had begun to wheel overhead. Then even that light blurred in his eyes. He passed his hand over his face, then stiffly turned and made his way down to where his subjects awaited him.