The Dragons' Run
On the seas of the outermost West Reach, that Lord of the Island of the Wise, waking cramped and stiff in a small boat in a cold, bright morning, sat up and yawned. And after a moment, pointing north, he said to his yawning companion, “There! Two islands, do you see them? The southmost of the isles of the Dragons' Run.”
“You have a hawk's eyes, lord,” said Arren, peering through sleep over the sea and seeing nothing.
“Therefore I am the Sparrowhawk,” the mage said; he was still cheerful, seeming to shrug off forethought and foreboding. “Can't you see them?”
“I see gulls,” said Arren, after rubbing his eyes and searching all the blue-grey horizon before the boat.
The mage laughed. “Could even a hawk see gulls at twenty miles' distance?”
As the sun brightened above the eastern mists, the tiny wheeling flecks in the air that Arren watched seemed to sparkle, like gold-dust shaken in water, or dust-motes in a sunbeam. And then Arren realized that they were dragons.
As Lookfar approached the islands, Arren saw the dragons soaring and circling on the morning wind, and his heart leapt up with them with a joy, a joy of fulfillment, that was like pain. All the glory of mortality was in that flight. Their beauty was made up of terrible strength, utter wildness, and the grace of reason. For these were thinking creatures, with speech and ancient wisdom: in the patterns of their flight there was a fierce, willed concord.
Arren did not speak, but he thought: I do not care what comes after; I have seen the dragons on the wind of morning.
At times the patterns jarred, and the circles broke, and often in flight one dragon or another would jet from its nostrils a long streak of fire that curved and hung on the air a moment repeating the curve and brightness of the dragon's long, arching body. Seeing that, the mage said, “They are angry. They dance their anger on the wind.”
And presently he said, “Now we're in the hornet's nest.” For the dragons had seen the little sail on the waves, and first one, then another, broke from the whirlwind of their dancing and came stretched long and level on the air, rowing with great wings, straight toward the boat.
The mage looked at Arren, who sat at the tiller, since the waves ran rough and counter. The boy held it steady with a steady hand, though his eyes were on the beating of those wings. As if satisfied, Sparrowhawk turned again, and standing by the mast, let the magewind drop from the sail. He lifted up his staff and spoke aloud.
At the sound of his voice and the words of the Old Speech, some of the dragons wheeled in mid flight, scattering, and returned to the isles. Others halted and hovered, the swordlike claws of their forearms outstretched but checked. One, dropping low over the water, flew slowly on toward them: in two wing-strokes it was over the boat. The mailed belly scarcely cleared the mast. Arren saw the wrinkled, unarmored flesh between the inner shoulder-joint and breast, which, with the eye, is the dragon's only vulnerable part, unless the spear that strikes is mightily enchanted. The smoke that roiled from the long, toothed mouth choked him, and with it came a carrion stench that made him wince and retch.
The shadow passed. It returned, as low as before, and this time Arren felt the furnace-blast of breath before the smoke. He heard Sparrowhawk's voice, clear and fierce. The dragon passed over. Then all were gone, streaming back to the isles like fiery cinders on a gust of wind.
Arren caught his breath and wiped his forehead, which was covered with cold sweat. Looking at his companion, he saw his hair gone white: the dragon's breath had burnt and crisped the ends of the hairs. And the heavy cloth of the sail was scorched brown along one side.
“Your head is somewhat singed, lad.”
“So is yours, lord.”
Sparrowhawk passed his hand over his hair, surprised. “So it is!– That was an insolence; but I seek no quarrel with these creatures. They seem mad or bewildered. They did not speak. Never have I met a dragon who did not speak before it struck, if only to torment its prey… Now we must go forward. Do not look them in the eye, Arren. Turn aside your face if you must. We'll go with the world's wind; it blows fair from the south, and I may need my art for other things. Hold her as she goes.”
Lookfar moved forward and soon had on her left a distant island and on her right the twin isles they had seen first. These rose up into low cliffs, and all the stark rock was whitened with the droppings of the dragons and of the little, black-headed terns that nested fearlessly among them.
The dragons had flown up high, and circled in the upper air as vultures circle. Not one stooped down again to the boat. Sometimes they cried out to one another, high and harsh across the gulfs of air, but if there were words in their crying, Arren could not make them out.
The boat rounded a short promontory, and he saw on the shore what he took for a moment to be a ruined fortress. It was a dragon. One black wing was bent under it and the other stretched out vast across the sand and into the water, so that the come and go of waves moved it a little to and fro in a mockery of flight. The long snake-body lay full length on the rock and sand. One foreleg was missing, the armor and flesh were torn from the great arch of the ribs, and the belly was torn open, so that the sand for yards about was blackened with the poisoned dragon-blood. Yet the creature still lived. So great a life is in dragons that only an equal power of wizardry can kill them swiftly. The green-gold eyes were open, and as the boat sailed by, the lean, huge head moved a little, and with a rattling hiss steam mixed with bloody spray shot from the nostrils.
The beach between the dying dragon and the sea's edge was tracked and scored by the feet and heavy bodies of his kind, and his entrails were trodden into the sand.
Neither Arren nor Sparrowhawk spoke until they were well clear of that island and heading across the choppy, restless channel of the Dragons' Run, full of reefs and pinnacles and shapes of rock, toward the northern islands of the double chain. Then Sparrowhawk said, “That was an evil sight,” and his voice was bleak and cold.
“Do they… eat their own kind?”
“No. No more than we do. They have been driven mad. Their speech has been taken from them. They who spoke before men spoke, they who are older than any living thing, the Children of Segoy -they have been driven to the dumb terror of the beasts. Ah! Kalessin! where have your wings borne you? Have you lived to see your race learn shame?” His voice rang like struck iron, and he looked upward, searching the sky. But the dragons were behind, circling lower now above the rocky isles and the blood-stained beach, and overhead was nothing but the blue sky and the sun of noon.
There was then no man living who had sailed the Dragons' Run or seen it, except the Archmage. Twenty years before and more, he had sailed the length of it from east to west and back again. It was a nightmare and a marvel, to a sailor. The water was a maze of blue channels and green shoals, and among these, by hand and word and most vigilant care, he and Arren now picked their boat's way, between the rocks and reefs. Some of these lay low, under or half-under the wash of the waves, covered with anemone and barnacle and ribbony sea fern; like water-monsters, shelled or sinuous. Others stood up in cliff and pinnacle sheer from the sea, and these were arches and half-arches, carven towers, fantastic shapes of animals, boar's backs and serpent's heads, all huge, deformed, diffuse, as if life writhed half-conscious in the rock. The sea-waves beat on them with a sound like breathing, and they were wet with the bright, bitter spray. In one such rock from the south there was plainly visible the hunched shoulders and heavy, noble head of a man, stooped in pondering thought above the sea; but when the boat had passed it, looking back from the north, all man was gone from it, and the massive rocks revealed a cave in which the sea rose and fell making a hollow, clapping thunder. There seemed to be a word, a syllable, in that sound. As they sailed on, the garbling echoes lessened and this syllable came more clearly, so that Arren said, “Is there a voice in the cave?”
“The sea's voice.”
“But it speaks a word.”
Sparrowhawk listened; he glanced at Arren and back at the cave. “How do you hear it?”
“As saying the sound ahm.”
“In the Old Speech that signifies the beginning, or long ago. But I hear it as ohb, which is a way of saying the end. Look ahead there!” he ended abruptly, even as Arren warned him, “Shoal water!” And, though Lookfar picked her way like a cat among the dangers, they were busy with the steering for some while, and slowly the cave forever thundering out its enigmatic word fell behind them.
Now the water deepened, and they came out from among the phantasmagoria of the rocks. Ahead of them loomed an island like a tower. Its cliffs were black and made up of many cylinders or great pillars pressed together, with straight edges and plane surfaces, rising three hundred feet sheer from the water.
“That is the Keep of Kalessin,” said the mage. “So the dragons named it to me, when I was here long ago.”
“Who is Kalessin?”
“Did he build this place?”
“I do not know. I don't know if it was built. Nor how old he is. I say 'he,' but I do not even know that… To Kalessin, Orm Embar is like a yearling kid. And you and I are like mayflies.” He scanned the terrific palisades, and Arren looked up at them uneasily, thinking how a dragon might drop from that far, black rim and be upon them almost with its shadow. But no dragon came. They passed slowly through the still waters in the lee of the rock, hearing nothing but the whisper and clap of shadowed waves on the columns of basalt. The water here was deep, without reef or rock; Arren handled the boat, and Sparrowhawk stood up in the prow, searching the cliffs and the bright sky ahead.
The boat passed out at last from the shadow of the Keep of Kalessin into the sunlight of late afternoon. They were across the Dragons' Run. The mage lifted his head, like one who sees what he had looked to see, and across that great space of gold before them came on golden wings the dragon Orm Embar.
Arren heard Sparrowhawk's cry to him: Aro Kalessin? He guessed the meaning of that, but could make no sense of what the dragon answered. Yet hearing the Old Speech he felt always that he was on the point of understanding, almost understanding: as if it were a language he had forgotten, not one he had never known. In speaking it the mage's voice was much clearer than when he spoke Hardic, and seemed to make a kind of silence about it, as does the softest touch on a great bell. But the dragon's voice was like a gong, both deep and shrill, or the hissing thrum of cymbals.
Arren watched his companion stand there in the narrow prow, speaking with the monstrous creature that hovered above him filling half the sky; and a kind of rejoicing pride came into the boy's heart, to see how small a thing a man is, how frail and how terrible. For the dragon could have torn the man's head from his shoulders with one stroke of his taloned foot, he could have crushed and sunk the boat as a stone sinks a floating leaf, if it were only size that mattered. But Sparrowhawk was as dangerous as Orm Embar, and the dragon knew it.
The mage turned his head. “Lebannen,” he said, and the boy got up and came forward, though he wanted to go not one step closer to those fifteen-foot jaws and the long, slit-pupilled, yellow-green eyes that burned upon him from the air.
Sparrowhawk said nothing to him, but put a hand on his shoulder, and spoke again to the dragon, briefly.
“Lebannen,” said the vast voice with no passion in it. “Agni Lebannen!”
He looked up; the pressure of the mage's hand reminded him, and he avoided the gaze of the greengold eyes.
He could not speak the Old Speech, but he was not dumb. “I greet thee, Orm Embar, Lord Dragon,” he said clearly, as one prince greets another.
Then there was a silence, and Arren's heart beat hard and labored. But Sparrowhawk, standing by him, smiled.
After that the dragon spoke again, and Sparrowhawk replied; and this seemed long to Arren. At last it was over, suddenly. The dragon sprang aloft with a wingbeat that all but heeled the boat over, and was off. Arren looked at the sun and found it seemed no nearer setting than before; the time had not really been long. But the mage's face was the color of wet ashes, and his eyes glittered as he turned to Arren. He sat down on the thwart.
“Well done, lad,” he said hoarsely, “It is not easy talking to dragons.”
Arren got them food, for they had not eaten all day; and the mage said no more until they had eaten and drunk. By then the sun was low to the horizon, though in these northern latitudes, and not long past midsummer, night came late and slowly.
"Well," he said at last, "Orm Embar has, after his fashion, told me much. He says that the one we seek is and is not on Selidor… It is hard for a dragon to speak plainly. They do not have plain minds. And even when one of them would speak the truth to a man, which is seldom, he does not know how truth looks to a man. So I asked him, 'Even as thy father Orm is on Selidor?' For as you know, there Orm and Erreth-Akbe died in their battle. And he answered, 'No and yes. You will find him on Selidor, but not on Selidor.'" Sparrowhawk paused and pondered, chewing on a crust of hard bread. "Maybe he meant that though the man is not on Selidor, yet I must go there to get to him. Maybe…
"I asked him then of the other dragons. He said that this man has been among them, having no fear of them, for though killed he returns from death in his body, alive. Therefore they fear him as a creature outside nature. Their fear gives his wizardry hold over them, and he takes the Speech of the Making from them, leaving them prey to their own wild nature. So they devour one another or take their own lives, plunging into the sea – a loathly death for the fire-serpent, the beast of wind and fire. Then I said, 'Where is thy lord Kalessin?' and all he would answer was, 'In the West,' which might mean that Kalessin has flown away to the other lands, which dragons say lie farther than ever ship has sailed; or it may not mean that.
“So then I ceased my questions, and he asked his, saying, 'I flew over Kaltuel returning north, and over the Toringates. On Kaltuel I saw villagers killing a baby on an altar stone, and on Ingat I saw a sorcerer killed by his towns folk throwing stones at him. Will they eat the baby, think you, Ged? Will the sorcerer come back from death and throw stones at his towns folk?' I thought he mocked me and was about to speak in anger, but he was not mocking. He said, 'The sense has gone out of things. There is a hole in the world and the sea is running out of it. The light is running out. We will be left in the dry land. There will be no more speaking and no more dying.' So at last I saw what he would say to me.”
Arren did not see it, and moreover was sorely troubled. For Sparrowhawk, in repeating the dragon's words, had named himself by his own true name, unmistakably. This brought unwelcome into Arren's mind the memory of that tormented woman of Lorbanery crying out, “My name is Akaren!” If the powers of wizardry, and of music, and speech, and trust, were weakening and withering among men, if an insanity of fear was coming on them so that, like the dragons bereft of reason, they turned on each other to destroy: if all this were so, would his lord escape it? Was he so strong?
He did not look strong, sitting hunched over his supper of bread and smoked fish, with hair greyed and fire-singed, and slight hands, and a tired face.
Yet the dragon feared him.
“What irks you, lad?”
Only the truth would do, with him.
“My lord, you spoke your name.”
“Oh, aye. I forgot I had not done so earlier. You will need my true name, if we go where we must go.” He looked up, chewing, at Arren “Did you think I grew senile and went about babbling my name, like old bleared men past sense and shame? Not yet, lad!”
“No,” said Arren, so confused that he could say nothing else. He was very weary; the day had been long, and full of dragons. And the way ahead grew dark.
“Arren,” said the mage.– “No; Lebannen: where we go, there is no hiding. There all bear their own true names.”
“The dead cannot be hurt,” said Arren somberly.
“But it is not only there, not in death only, that men take their names. Those who can be most hurt, the most vulnerable: those who have given love and do not take it back, they speak each other's names. The faithful-hearted, the givers of life… You are worn out, lad. Lie down and sleep. There's nothing to do now but keep the course all night. And by morning we shall see the last island of the world.”
In his voice was an insuperable gentleness. Arren curled up in the prow, and sleep began to come into him at once. He heard the mage begin a soft, almost whispering chant, not in the Hardic tongue but in the words of the Making; and as he began to understand at last and to remember what the words meant, just before he understood them, he fell fast asleep.
Silently the mage stowed away their bread and meat, looked to the lines, made all trim in the boat, and then, taking the guide-line of the sail in hand and sitting down on the after-thwart, he set the magewind strong in the sail. Tireless, Lookfar sped north, an arrow over the sea.
He looked down at Arren. The boy's sleeping face was lit red-gold by the long sunset, the rough hair was wind-stirred. The soft, easy, princely look of the boy who had sat by the fountain of the Great House a few months since was gone; this was a thinner face, harder, and much stronger. But it was not less beautiful.
“I have found none to follow in my way,” Ged the Archmage said aloud to the sleeping boy or to the empty wind. “None but thee. And thou must go thy way, not mine. Yet will thy kingship be, in part, my own. For I knew thee first. I knew thee flrst! They will praise me more for that in afterdays than for any thing I did of magery… If there will be after-days. For first we two must stand upon the balance-point, the very fulcrum of the world. And if I fall, you fall, and all the rest… For a while, for a while. No darkness lasts forever. And even there, there are stars… Oh, but I should like to see thee crowned in Havnor, and the sunlight shining on the Tower of the Sword and on the Ring we brought for thee from Atuan, from the dark tombs, Tenar and I, before ever thou wast born!”
He laughed then, and turning to face the north, he said to himself in the common tongue, “A goatherd to set the heir of Morred on his throne! Will I never learn?”
Presently, as he sat with the guide-rope in his hand and watched the full sail strain reddened in the last light of the west, he spoke again softly. “Not In Havnor would I be and not in Roke. It is time to be done with power. To drop the old toys and go on. It is time that I went home. I would see Tenar. I would see Ogion and speak with him before he dies, in the house on the cliffs of Re Albi. I crave to walk on the mountain, the mountain of Gont, in the forests, in the autumn when the leaves are bright. There is no kingdom like the forests. It is time I went there, went in silence, went alone. And maybe there I would learn at last what no act or art or power can teach me, what I have never learned.”
The whole west blazed up in a fury and glory of red, so that the sea was crimson and the sail above it bright as blood; and then the night came quietly on. All that night long the boy slept and the man waked, gazing forward steadily into the dark. There were no stars.