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The Ending From the Beginning

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"Greatmother! Greatmother, messengers!" Marit stumbled to a halt, panting, and sucked in a gulp of air. “Two of them. On horses.”

Penthe straightened slowly. Her back crackled and she pressed her lips together to hold in a groan. Old bones made gathering windfallen apples a chore rather than the privilege it had been when she fought the other young acolytes for it. "From where?"

Marit bobbed her shoulders up and down. "Don't know."

Even in the dappled orchard shade, it was hot on this bright, still day of second-summer. Penthe wiped sweat from her eyes with her forearm. “Is your mother giving them water?”

Marit nodded, eying the basket at Penthe’s feet that was half-filled with bruised, sweetly over-ripe fruit. The scent of apples was so thick in the air it could be tasted in the throat.

Penthe smiled. “If you take that basket to the cider press for me, you may have two for yourself.”

Marit could barely wrap her arms around the wide-bellied basket, but she lifted it with a grunt and waddled off toward the press-house on the other side of the orchard.

Penthe watched her for a moment to make sure the basket would not come to grief, and then turned away down the gradual slope to the house set in the shelter of the hill. She paused in the courtyard to kick off her clogs and dip a ladle of water from the well to wash her hands, sticky with apple juice. Two fine-boned horses the color of polished copper were hitched in the shade of the pigshed. One lifted its head from a bucket of water and watched her pass with eyes black and shiny as the shell of a beetle.

Even before she fled the Place of the Tombs, Penthe had never been a very good priestess. She had not been one of the novices who could read omens in the flight of birds or the spattered blood of a sacrifice. Still, she knew that the messengers must have something to do with the Place. Who else would ride such fine beasts to seek out an old farmwife in the hill country of Atuan? Who else would even have need to send a message? Everyone Penthe knew lived within a day’s walk of this house—except those she had left behind at the Place.

She no longer feared being sent back for punishment. For the first few years after her escape, even though she knew Kossil was dead beneath the heavy stones of the Throne Hall, Penthe hadn’t been able to shake off her terror of eunuchs coming to seize her and drag her to the altar for sacrifice.

But Penthe had belonged to the Godking, who was no longer either royal or divine. He had been sacrificed and the Twin Gods had eaten his power to revive their strength. And Penthe had never betrayed the Twins; what need would they have to punish her?

So she was curious, but composed, as she entered her own house to find a man in a fine dove-grey cloak seated at the kitchen table. It startled her to see his skin and hair the warm brown of oak leaves in autumn. Penthe had never seen one of the western barbarians before. A tall Kargish man—no, not a man, a eunuch—sat beside him.

Kalla had given them water to share in the household’s one fine cup of beaten brass. She stood at the doorway to her and Marit’s bedroom, her hands wound in the strings of her apron the only sign of her uncertainty. “This is my mother, Penthe,” she said.

Penthe’s knees dipped automatically in a bobbled curtsey. “I sent Marit to the press-house,” she said to her daughter. “Best go see that she hasn’t spilled the whole basket.” Kalla nodded and sidled around the table to the door, placing her steps precisely to make sure that her shadow didn’t touch the barbarian’s.

The barbarian pushed back his chair and stood, expertly managing his mantle so that it fell into graceful lines. His bow—a man bowing! to her!—was brief, but courteous.

“Greetings, Penthe of Dalnat Farm. I am called Gull of Havnor.” His accent was flattened and broad, yet not unpleasant. “The Red Queen of the Archipelago, Seserakh, sends this word to you: the Lady Tenar, Arha-that-was, is dead.”

Penthe’s backbone sagged and she grasped at the nearest chair to stay upright. Arha—dead. Fifty years and more since Arha fled the wrath of the Ones Underfoot, leaving the Place crashing into ruin behind her… and Penthe, following her lead as always, had taken advantage of the uproar she caused to flee as well.

Gull went on in smooth polished cadences, ignoring her reaction. “I brought word first to the High King in Awabath and to the Place of the Tombs, since the Lady was known there. But she also spoke to the Queen of you in particular, and your time together as acolytes. The Queen Seserakh desired you to be told of the Lady’s crossing to the other wind, and that she remembered you.”

Penthe was stunned that Arha had thought of her at the last. Yet it was true that they had grown up together; had been friends, even, as much as an acolyte and the Eaten One could be. Penthe had worshipped her too, in a way, or at least thought so, before she understood what lay behind her admiration of Arha’s sleek braids and smooth pale skin.

Penthe licked her lips and tried to gather her thoughts. “Arha was not so old—we were of an age. Did the Queen say…?” She couldn’t think of a way to ask.

“She was not in Havnor with the King and Queen when she died, but with her daughter’s family, on Gont. That isle has suffered from the lung-rot this year,” Gull said. “Both Lady Tenar and one of her grandsons died.”

Penthe nodded and folded her hands together at her waist, a trick all the novices learnt when very young. It kept them from shaking, or at least concealed it. “I thank you, Gull.” The courteous forms of speech felt clumsy in her mouth.

“This is Senak. He is one of those who serve the God-Brothers at the Place.” Gull indicated the Karg still seated at the table. Of course, he had not risen to acknowledge a peasant woman. He was not bulky and bald like the eunuchs Penthe had known in her girlhood, but a man tall and strong, with long pale hair braided in the warrior’s knot. The only sign of his nature was his smooth chin and cheeks, without the beard of a man.

Penthe kept her mouth closed. She did not want to know why he was here.

“The Twin Priests have tasked me with finding Arha-reborn.” Senak’s voice was a beautiful light tenor; it must stand out in the temple chants, Penthe thought. She was so caught up in admiring the sound of his words that their meaning came to her slowly, and then she could make no response but only stood there with her mouth part-way open like a gawping hen.

Senak frowned at her slowness and continued, more sharply. “I want to know how the search is properly done. You are one of the few remaining of an age to remember. Did Arha-that-was never speak to you of her own discovery?”

Penthe’s breath escaped in a harsh pant. Why was she shocked? Of course Arha had already been reborn somewhere in the Kargad lands, a girl child only a few weeks old. But Penthe had always assumed that the worship of the Unnamed Ones at the Place had ended when Arha had turned on them. Their temple was ruined, their treasures ransacked and their Tombs fallen.

And the new High King had never seemed interested in venerating any gods but the Twins. Penthe had never heard that he sought to rebuild the ancient temple of the Nameless; as far as she knew it had been left to crumble in the desert winds. Why would the Brothers’ priests care to seek for the next Arha?

Penthe knew she had never been suited to the life of a priestess. She perceived too little of the undercurrents of people’s thought, the unexpressed desires and motives which it always seemed Kossil could read with a single glance of her pebble-hard eyes. But with a jolt like the earth moving under her feet, she saw into the depths of Senak’s heart. She realized that the priests would look to find a girl—any girl who fit their purpose, never mind whether she were the true Arha or not—and mold her into their creature. Someone to give the oracles they meant the King to hear.

Kossil had been cruel, and disdained the Old Powers, but even she had not sought to make a puppet of Arha—only to rule her.

Penthe forced herself to speak, although her words sounded harsh and shrill after Senak. “The Nameless Ones are no longer there. They have gone.”

“Surely their own priestess could call them back.” Senak’s lovely voice was mild and persuasive.

Penthe shook her head. “Even if Arha returns, they will not answer. And why should they? She betrayed them.” She did not dare meet Senak’s eyes, but frowned in the haughtiest manner she could, calling on her memories of Kossil. “Has my lord set foot on the precincts of the broken temple? I have. I was there before the dome fell, and after. They have gone.”

Astonishingly, Gull supported her. “It may be that their time at the Place of the Tombs is over. Many things have changed, now that the dragons are gone.”

Sweat slicked the back of Penthe’s neck and her forehead. Almost she wished for the feyagat to veil her face and her thoughts. Let Arha be! she prayed fiercely. Let her be uneaten in this one life and death.

“Perhaps.” Senak crossed his arms and brooded. “I will take your words to the Twin Priests. It may be that we will speak of this again.”

 

The messengers had collected their horses and gone, and the sun had slipped below the brow of the hill, before Penthe roused herself from the kitchen chair where she’d collapsed.

Outside in the courtyard, the packed dirt was still warm beneath her feet, but the air was cold on her clammy skin. Black bars of shadow from the trunks of the apple trees crossed the yellowing autumn grass and crept closer to the house.

Penthe shuddered, half-panicked at her own duplicity. She had never loved the Unnamed Ones, but unlike Kossil she had not told herself they were not real. She could feel them in the earth under her bare feet, even here in the mild orchard lands; they might sleep, but they were still there at the Place, of course, whatever she had told Senak. They were everywhere.

He might not catch her lie, but the Ones Underfoot would.

All Penthe had to give them that they did not already own was her own blood. Her pruning knife was still thrust into her belt. She drew it across the side of her fist and kneeled to press the seeping cut to the dirt. Grit stung in her flesh.

“Forgive me, Nameless Ones,” Penthe whispered. “I meant no disrespect.” And that was even true; she was sorry to have disparaged the eldest powers.

Still, let her be uneaten. That month-old girl child, whether she were a fisherman’s daughter or a princess or a beggar; she prayed that in this one life and death they would let Arha’s soul be her own.

Penthe heard Marit’s clear, piping voice floating down to her as the child darted down the slope, and Kalla’s murmured reply. She took a deep breath, brushed her hand off on her skirt, and rose to meet them at the door to the house.