The Dry Land
The yew-wood staff in the mage's hand shone in the dull, lowering darkness with a silver gleam. Another slight glimmering movement caught Arren's eye: a flicker of light along the blade of the sword he held naked in his band. As the dragon's act and death had broken the binding spell, he had drawn his sword, there on the beach of Selidor. And here, though he was no more than a shadow, he was a living shadow, and bore the shadow of his sword.
There was no other brightness anywhere. It was like a late twilight under clouds at the end of November, a dour, chill, dull air in which one could see, but not clearly and not far. Arren knew the place, the moors and barrens of his hopeless dreams; but it seemed to him that he was farther, immensely farther, than he had ever been in dream. He could make out nothing distinctly, except that he and his companion stood on the slope of a hill, and before them was a low wall of stones, no higher than a man's knee.
Ged still kept his right hand on Arren's arm. He moved forward now, and Arren went with him; they stepped over the wall of stones.
Formless, the long slope fell away before them, descending into the dark.
But overhead, where Arren had thought to see a heavy overcast of clouds, the sky was black, and there were stars. He looked at them, and it seemed as if his heart shrank small and cold within him. They were no stars that he had ever seen. Unmoving they shone, unwinking. They were those stars that do not rise or set, nor are they ever hidden by any cloud, nor does any sunrise dim them. Still and small they shine on the dry land.
Ged set off walking down the far side of the hill of being, and pace by pace Arren went with him. There was terror in him, and yet so resolved was his heart and so intent his will that the fear did not rule him, nor was he even very clearly aware of it. It was only as if something deep within him grieved, like an animal shut up in a room and chained.
It seemed that they walked down that hill-slope for a long way, but perhaps it was a short way; for there was no passing of time there, where no wind blew and the stars did not move. They came then into the streets of one of the cities that are there, and Arren saw the houses with windows that are never lit, and in certain doorways standing, with quiet faces and empty hands, the dead.
The marketplaces were all empty. There was no buying and selling there, no gaining and spending. Nothing was used; nothing was made. Ged and Arren went through the narrow streets alone, though a few times they saw a figure at the turning of another way, distant and hardly to be seen in the gloom. At sight of the first of these, Arren started and raised his sword to point, but Ged shook his head and went on. Arren saw then that the figure was a woman who moved slowly, not fleeing from them.
All those whom they saw -not many, for the dead are many, but that land is large– stood still, or moved slowly and with no purpose. None of them bore wounds, as had the semblance of Erreth-Akbe summoned into daylight at the place of his death. No marks of illness were on them. They were whole and healed. They were healed of pain and of life. They were not loathesome as Arren had feared they would be, not frightening in the way he had thought they would be. Quiet were their faces, freed from anger and desire, and there was in their shadowed eyes no hope.
Instead of fear, then, great pity rose up in Arren, and if fear underlay it, it was not for himself, but for all people. For he saw the mother and child who had died together, and they were in the dark land together; but the child did not run, nor did it cry, and the mother did not hold it or ever look at it. And those who had died for love passed each other in the streets.
The potter's wheel was still, the loom empty, the stove cold. No voice ever sang.
The dark streets between dark houses led on and on, and they passed through them. The sound of their feet was the only sound. It was cold. Arren had not noticed that cold at first, but it crept into his spirit, which was, here, also his flesh. He felt very weary. They must have come a long way. Why go on? he thought, and his steps lagged a little.
Ged stopped suddenly, turning to face a man who stood at the crossing of two streets. He was slender and tall, with a face that Arren thought he had seen, though he could not remember where. Ged spoke to him, and no other voice had broken the silence since they stepped across the wall of stones: “O Thorion, my friend, how come you here!”
And he put out his hands to the Summoner of Roke.
Thorion made no answering gesture. He stood still, and his face was still; but the silvery light on Ged's staff struck deep in his enshadowed eyes, making a little light there or meeting it. Ged took the hand he did not offer and said again, “What do you here, Thorion? You are not of this kingdom yet. Go back!”
“I followed the undying one. I lost my way.” The Summoner's voice was soft and dull, like that of a man who speaks in sleep.
“Upward: toward the wall,” said Ged, pointing the way he and Arren had come, the long, dark, descending street. At that there was a tremor in Thorion's face, as if some hope had entered into him like a sword, intolerable.
“I cannot find the way,” he said. “My lord, I cannot find the way.”
“Maybe thou shalt,” Ged said, and embraced him, and then went forward. Thorion stood still at the crossroads, behind him.
As they went on, it seemed to Arren that in this timeless dusk there was, in truth, neither forward nor backward, neither east nor west, no way to go. Was there a way out? He thought how they had come down the hill, always descending, no matter how they turned; and still in the dark city the streets went downward, so that to return to the wall of stones they need only climb, and at the hill's top they would find it. But they did not turn. Side by side, they went on. Did he follow Ged? Or did he lead him?
They came out of the city. The country of the innumerable dead was empty. No tree or thorn or blade of grass grew in the stony earth under the unsetting stars. There was no horizon, for the eye could not see so far into the gloom; but ahead of them the small, still stars were absent from the sky over a long space above the ground, and this starless space was jagged and sloped like a chain of mountains. As they went on, the shapes were more distinct: high peaks, weathered by no wind or rain. There was no snow on them to gleam in starlight. They were black. The sight of them struck desolation into Arren's heart. He looked away from them. But he knew them; he recognized them; his eyes were drawn back to them. Each time he looked at those peaks he felt a cold weight in his breast, and his nerve came near to failing. Still he walked on, always downward, for the land fell away, descending toward the mountains' feet. At last he said, “My lord, what are…” He pointed at the mountains, for he could not go on speaking; his throat was dry.
“They border on the world of light,” Ged answered, “even as does the wall of stones. They have no name but Pain. There is a road across them. It is forbidden to the dead. It is not long. But it is a bitter road.”
“I am thirsty,” Arren said, and his companion answered, “Here they drink dust.”
They went on.
It seemed to Arren that his companion's gait had slowed somewhat, and sometimes he hesitated. He himself felt no more hesitation, though the weariness had not ceased to grow in him. They must go down; they must go on. They went on.
Sometimes they passed through other towns of the dead, where the dark roofs made angles against the stars, which stood forever in the same place above them. After the towns was the empty land again, where nothing grew. As soon as they had come out of a town, it was lost in the darkness. Nothing could be seen, before or behind, except the mountains that grew ever nearer, towering before them. To their right the formless slope fell away as it had done, how long ago? when they crossed the wall of stones. “What lies that way?” Arren murmured to Ged, for he craved the sound of speech, but the mage shook his head: “I do not know. It may be a way without an end.”
In the direction they went, the slope seemed to be growing less and always less. The ground under their feet gritted harshly, like lava-dust. Still they went on, and now Arren never thought of returning or of how they might return. Nor did he think of stopping, though he was very weary. Once he tried to lighten the numb darkness and weariness and horror within him by thinking of his home; but he could not remember what sunlight looked like or his mother's face. There was nothing to do but to go on. And he went on.
He felt the ground level under his feet; and beside him Ged hesitated. Then he too stopped. The long descent was over; this was the end; there was no way further, no need to go on.
They were in the valley directly under the Mountains of Pain. There were rocks underfoot and boulders about them, rough to the touch like scoria. It was as if this narrow valley might be the dry bed of a river of water that had once run here or the course of a river of fire, long since cold, from the volcanoes that reared their black, unmerciful peaks above.
He stood still, there in the narrow valley in the dark, and Ged stood still beside him. They stood like the aimless dead, gazing at nothing, silent. Arren thought, with a little dread but not much, “We have come too far.”
It did not seem to matter much.
Speaking his thought, Ged said, “We have come too far to turn back.” His voice was soft, but the ring of it was not wholly muted by the great, gloomy hollowness around them, and at the sound of it Arren roused a little. Had they not come here to meet the one they sought?
A voice in the darkness said, “You have come too far.”
Arren answered it, saying, “Only too far is far enough.”
“You have come to the Dry River,” said the voice. “You cannot go back to the wall of stones. You cannot go back to life.”
“Not that way,” said Ged, speaking into the darkness. Arren could hardly see him, though they stood side by side, for the mountains under which they stood cut out half the starlight, and it seemed as if the current of the Dry River were darkness itself. “But we would learn your way.”
There was no answer.
“We meet as equals here. If you are blind, Cob, yet we are in the dark.”
There was no answer.
“We cannot hurt you here; we cannot kill you. What is there to fear?”
“I have no fear,” said the voice in the darkness. Then slowly, glimmering a little as with that light that sometimes clung to Ged's staff, the man appeared, standing some way upstream from Ged and Arren, among the great, dim masses of the boulders. He was tall, broad-shouldered and longarmed, like that figure which had appeared to them on the dune and on the beach of Selidor, but older; the hair was white and thickly matted over the high forehead. So he appeared in the spirit, in the kingdom of death, not burnt by the dragon's fire, not maimed; but not whole. The sockets of his eyes were empty.
“I have no fear,” he said. “What should a dead man fear?” He laughed. The sound of laughter rang so false and uncanny, there in that narrow, stony valley under the mountains, that Arren's breath failed him for a moment. But he gripped his sword and listened.
“I do not know what a dead man should fear,” Ged answered. “Surely not death? Yet it seems you fear it. Even though you have found a way to escape from it.”
“I have. I live: my body lives.”
“Not well,” the mage said dryly. “Illusion might hide age; but Orm Embar was not gentle with that body.”
“I can mend it. I know secrets of healing and of youth, no mere illusions. What do you take me for? Because you are called Archmage, do you take me for a village sorcerer? I who alone among all mages found the Way of Immortality, which no other ever found!”
“Maybe we did not seek it,” said Ged.
“You sought it. All of you. You sought it and could not find it, and so made wise words about acceptance and balance and the equilibrium of life and death. But they were words -lies to cover your failure– to cover your fear of death! What man would not live forever, if he could? And I can. I am immortal. I did what you could not do and therefore I am your master; and you know it. Would you know how I did it, Archmage?”
Cob came a step closer. Arren noticed that, though the man had no eyes, his manner was not quite that of the stoneblind; he seemed to know exactly where Ged and Arren stood and to be aware of both of them, though he never turned his head to Arren. Some wizardly second-sight he might have, such as that hearing and seeing that sendings and presentments had: something that gave him an awareness, though it might not be true sight.
“I was in Paln,” he said to Ged, “after you, in your pride, thought you had humbled me and taught me a lesson. Oh, a lesson you taught me, indeed, but not the one you meant to teach! There I said to myself: I have seen death now, and I will not accept it. Let all stupid nature go its stupid course, but I am a man, better than nature, above nature. I will not go that way, I will not cease to be myself! And so determined, I took the Pelnish Lore again, but found only hints and smatterings of what I needed. So I rewove it and remade it, and made a spell– the greatest spell that has ever been made. The greatest and the last!”
“In working that spell, you died.”
“Yes! I died. I had the courage to die, to find what you cowards could never find – the way back from death. I opened the door that had been shut since the beginning of time. And now I come freely to this place and freely return to the world of the living. Alone of all men in all time I am Lord of the Two Lands. And the door I opened is open not only here, but in the minds of the living, in the depths and unknown places of their being, where we are all one in the darkness. They know it, and they come to me. And the dead too must come to me, all of them, for I have not lost the magery of the living: they must climb over the wall of stones when I bid them, all the souls, the lords, the mages, the proud women; back and forth from life to death, at my command. All must come to me, the living and the dead, I who died and live!”
“Where do they come to you, Cob? Where is it that you are?”
“Between the worlds.”
“But that is neither life nor death. What is life, Cob?”
“What is love?”
“Power,” the blind man repeated heavily, hunching up his shoulders.
“What is light?”
“What is your name?”
“I have none.”
“All in this land bear their true name.”
“Tell me yours, then!”
“I am named Ged. And you?”
The blind man hesitated, and said, “Cob.”
“That was your use-name, not your name. Where is your name? Where is the truth of you? Did you leave it in Paln where you died? You have forgotten much, O Lord of the Two Lands. You have forgotten light, and love, and your own name.”
“I have your name now, and power over you, Ged the Archmage– Ged who was Archmage when he was alive!”
“My name is no use to you,” Ged said. “You have no power over me at all. I am a living man; my body lies on the beach of Selidor, under the sun, on the turning earth. And when that body dies, I will be here: but only in name, in name alone, in shadow. Do you not understand? Did you never understand, you who called up so many shadows from the dead, who summoned all the hosts of the perished, even my lord Erreth-Akbe, wisest of us all? Did you not understand that he, even he, is but a shadow and a name? His death did not diminish life. Nor did it diminish him. He is there – there, not here! Here is nothing, dust and shadows. There, he is the earth and sunlight, the leaves of trees, the eagle's flight. He is alive. And all who ever died, live; they are reborn and have no end, nor will there ever be an end. All, save you. For you would not have death. You lost death, you lost life, in order to save yourself. Yourself! Your immortal self! What is it? Who are you?”
“I am myself. My body will not decay and die-”
“A living body suffers pain, Cob; a living body grows old; it dies. Death is the price we pay for our life and for all life.”
“I do not pay it! I can die and in that moment live again! I cannot be killed; I am immortal. I alone am myself forever!”
“Who are you, then?”
“The Immortal One.”
"Say your name
“Say my name. I told it to you but a minute since. Say my name!”
"You are not real. You have no name. Only I exist "
“You exist: without name, without form. You cannot see the light of day; you cannot see the dark. You sold the green earth and the sun and stars to save yourself. But you have no self. All that which you sold, that is yourself. You have given everything for nothing. And so now you seek to draw the world to you, all that light and life you lost, to fill up your nothingness. But it cannot be filled. Not all the songs of earth, not all the stars of heaven, could fill your emptiness.”
Ged's voice rang like iron, there in the cold valley under the mountains, and the blind man cringed away from him. He lifted up his face, and the dim starlight shone on it; he looked as if he wept, but he had no tears, having no eyes. His mouth opened and shut, full of darkness, but no words came out of it, only a groaning. At last he said one word, barely shaping it with his contorted lips, and the word was “Life.”
“I would give you life if I could, Cob. But I cannot. You are dead. But I can give you death.”
“No!” the blind man screamed aloud, and then he said, “No, no,” and crouched down sobbing, though his cheeks were as dry as the stony rivercourse where only night, and no water, ran. “You cannot. No one can ever set me free. I opened the door between the worlds and I cannot shut it. No one can shut it. It will never be shut again. It draws, it draws me. I must come back to it. I must go through it and come back here, into the dust and cold and silence. It sucks at me and sucks at me. I cannot leave it. I cannot close it. It will suck all the light out of the world in the end. All the rivers will be like the Dry River. There is no power anywhere that can close the door I opened!”
Very strange was the mixture of despair and vindictiveness, terror and vanity, in his words and voice.
Ged said only, “Where is it?”
“That way. Not far. You can go there. But you cannot do anything there. You cannot shut it. If you spent all your power in that one act, it would not be enough. Nothing is enough.”
“Maybe,” Ged answered. “Though you chose despair, remember we have not yet done so. Take us there.”
The blind man raised his face, in which fear and hatred struggled visibly. Hatred triumphed. “I will not,” he said.
At that Arren stepped forward, and he said, “You will.”
The blind man held still. The cold silence and the darkness of the realm of the dead surrounded them, surrounded their words.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Lebannen.”
Ged spoke: “You who call yourself King, do you not know who this is?”
Again Cob held utterly still. Then he said, gasping a little as he spoke, “But he is dead – You are dead. You cannot go back. There is no way out. You are caught here!” As he spoke, the glimmer of light died away from him, and they heard him turn in the darkness and go away from them into it, hastily. “Give me light, my lord!” Arren cried, and Ged held up his staff above his head, letting the white light break open that old darkness, full of rocks and shadows, among which the tall, stooped figure of the blind man hurried and dodged, going upstream from them with a strange, unseeing, unhesitating gait. After him Arren came, sword in hand; and after him, Ged.
Soon Arren had outdistanced his companion, and the light was very faint, much interrupted by the boulders and the turnings of the riverbed; but the sound of Cob's going, the sense of his presence ahead, was guide enough. Arren drew closer slowly, as the way became steeper. They were climbing in a steep gorge choked with stones; the Dry River, narrowing to its head, wound between sheer banks. Rocks clattered under their feet and under their hands, for they had to clamber. Arren sensed the final narrowing-in of the banks, and with a lunge forward came up to Cob and caught his arm, halting him there: at a kind of basin of rocks five or six feet wide, what might have been a pool if ever water ran there; and above it a tumbled cliff of rock and slag. In that cliff there was a black hole, the source of the Dry River.
Cob did not try to pull away from him. He stood quite still, while the light of Ged's approach brightened on his eyeless face. He had turned that face to Arren. “This is the place,” he said at last, a kind of smile forming on his lips. “This is the place you seek. See it? There you can be reborn. All you need do is follow me. You will live immortally. We shall be kings together.”
Arren looked at that dry, dark springhead, the mouth of dust, the place where a dead soul, crawling into earth and darkness, was born again dead: abominable it was to him, and he said in a harsh voice, struggling with deadly sickness, “Let it be shut!”
“It will be shut,” Ged said, coming beside them: and the light blazed up now from his hands and face as if he were a star fallen on earth in that endless night. Before him the dry spring, the door, yawned open. It was wide and hollow, but whether deep or shallow there was no telling. There was nothing in it for the light to fall on, for the eye to see. It was void. Through it was neither light nor dark, neither life nor death. It was nothing. It was a way that led nowhere.
Ged raised up his hands and spoke.
Arren still held Cob's arm; the blind man had laid his free hand against the rocks of the cliff-wall. Both stood still, caught in the power of the spell.
With all the skill of his life's training and with all the strength of his fierce heart, Ged strove to shut that door, to make the world whole once more. And under his voice and the command of his shaping hands the rocks drew together, painfully, trying to be whole, to meet. But at the same time the light weakened and weakened, dying out from his hands and from his face, dying out from his yew staff, until only a little glimmer of it clung there. By that faint light Arren saw that the door was nearly closed.
Under his hand the blind man felt the rocks move, felt them come together: and felt also the art and power giving itself up, spending itself, spent– And all at once he shouted, “No!” and broke from Arren's grasp, lunged forward, and caught Ged in his blind, powerful grasp. Bearing Ged down under his weight, he closed his hands on his throat to strangle him.
Arren raised up the sword of Serriadh and brought the blade down straight and hard on the bowed neck beneath the matted hair.
The living spirit has weight in the world of the dead, and the shadow of his sword has an edge. The blade made a great wound, severing Cob's spine. Black blood leapt out, lit by the sword's own light.
But there is no good in killing a dead man, and Cob was dead, years dead. The wound closed, swallowing its blood. The blind man stood up very tall, groping out with his long arms at Arren, his face writhing with rage and hatred: as if he had just now perceived who his true enemy and rival was.
So horrible to see was this recovery from a deathblow, this inability to die, more horrible than any dying, that a rage of loathing swelled up in Arren, a berserk fury, and swinging up the sword he struck again with it, a full, terrible, downward blow. Cob fell with skull split open and face masked with blood, yet Arren was upon him at once, to strike again, before the wound could close, to strike until he killed…
Beside him Ged, struggling to his knees, spoke one word.
At the sound of his voice Arren was stopped, as if a hand had grasped his sword-arm. The blind man, who had begun to rise, also held utterly still. Ged got to his feet; he swayed a little. When he could hold himself erect, he faced the cliff.
“Be thou made whole!” he said in a clear voice, and with his staff he drew in lines of fire across the gate of rocks a figure: the rune Agnen, the Rune of Ending, which closes roads and is drawn on coffin lids. And there was then no gap or void place among the boulders. The door was shut.
The earth of the Dry Land trembled under their feet, and across the unchanging, barren sky a long roll of thunder ran and died away.
“By the word that will not be spoken until time's end I summoned thee. By the word that was spoken at the making of things I now release thee. Go free!” And bending over the blind man, who was crouched on his knees, Ged whispered in his ear, under the white, tangled hair.
Cob stood up. He looked about him slowly, with seeing eyes. He looked at Arren and then at Ged. He spoke no word, but gazed at them with dark eyes. There was no anger in his face, no hate, no grief. Slowly he turned, went off down the course of the Dry River, and soon was gone to sight.
There was no more light on Ged's yew staff or in his face. He stood there in the darkness. When Arren came to him he caught at the young man's arm to hold himself upright. For a moment a spasm of dry sobbing shook him. “It is done,” he said. “It is all gone.”
“It is done, dear lord. We must go.”
“Aye. We must go home.”
Ged was like one bewildered or exhausted. He followed Arren back down the river-course, stumbling along slowly and with difficulty among the rocks and boulders. Arren stayed with him. When the banks of the Dry River were low and the ground was less steep, he turned toward the way they had come, the long, formless slope that led up into the dark. Then he turned away.
Ged said nothing. As soon as they halted, he bad sunk down, sitting on a lava-boulder, forspent, his head hanging.
Arren knew that the way they had come was closed to them. They could only go on. They must go all the way. “Even too far is not far enough,” he thought. He looked up at the black peaks, cold and silent against the unmoving stars, terrible; and once more that ironic, mocking voice of his will spoke in him, unrelenting: “Will you stop halfway, Lebannen?”
He went to Ged and said very gently, “We must go on, my lord.”
Ged said nothing, but he stood up.
“We must go by the mountains, I think.”
“Thy way, lad,” Ged said in a hoarse whisper. “Help me.”
So they set out up the slopes of dust and scoria into the mountains, Arren helping his companion along as well as he could. It was black dark in the combes and gorges, so that he had to feel the way ahead, and it was hard for him to give Ged support at the same time. Walking was hard, a stumbling matter; but when they had to climb and clamber as the slopes grew steeper, that was harder still. The rocks were rough, burning their hands like molten iron. Yet it was cold and got colder as they went higher. There was a torment in the touch of this earth. It seared like live coals: a fire burned within the mountains. But the air was always cold and always dark. There was no sound. No wind blew. The sharp rocks broke under their hands, and gave way under their feet. Black and sheer, the spurs and chasms went up in front of them and fell away beside them into blackness. Behind, below, the kingdom of the dead was lost. Ahead, above, the peaks and rocks stood out against the stars. And nothing moved in all the length and breadth of those black mountains, except the two mortal souls.
Ged often stumbled or missed his footing, in weariness. His breath came harder and harder, and when his hands came hard against the rocks, he gasped in pain. To hear him cry out wrung Arren's heart. He tried to keep him from falling. But often the way was too narrow for them to go abreast, or Arren had to go in front to seek out footing. And at last, on a high slope that ran up to the stars, Ged slipped and fell forward, and did not get up.
“My lord,” Arren said, kneeling by him, and then spoke his name: “Ged.”
He did not move or answer.
Arren lifted him in his arms and carried him up that high slope. At the end of it there was level ground for some way ahead. Arren laid his burden down and dropped down beside him, exhausted and in pain, past hope. This was the summit of the pass between the two black peaks, for which he had been struggling. This was the pass and the end. There was no way farther. The end of the level ground was the edge of a cliff: beyond it the darkness went on forever, and the small stars hung unmoving in the black gulf of the sky.
Endurance may outlast hope. He crawled forward, when he was able to do so, doggedly. He looked over the edge of darkness. And below him, only a little way below, he saw the beach of ivory sand; the white and amber waves were curling and breaking in foam on it, and across the sea the sun was setting in a haze of gold.
Arren turned back to the dark. He went back. He lifted Ged up as best he could and struggled forward with him until he could not go any farther. There all things ceased to be: thirst, and pain, and the dark, and the sun's light, and the sound of the breaking sea.