Dry, his mouth was dry. There was the taste of dust in his mouth. His lips were covered with dust.
Without lifting his head from the floor, he watched the shadow-play. There were the big shadows that moved and stooped, swelled and shrank, and fainter ones that ran around the walls and ceiling swiftly, mocking them. There was a shadow in the corner and a shadow on the floor, and neither of these moved.
The back of his head began to hurt. At the same time, what he saw came clear to his mind, in one flash, frozen in an instant: Hare slumped in a corner with his head on his knees, Sparrowhawk sprawled on his back, a man kneeling over Sparrowhawk, another tossing gold pieces into a bag, a third standing watching. The third man held a lantern in one hand and a dagger in the other, Arren's dagger.
If they talked, he did not hear them. He heard only his own thoughts, which told him immediately and unhesitatingly what to do. He obeyed them at once. He crawled forward very slowly a couple of feet, darted out his left hand and grabbed the bag of loot, leapt to his feet, and made for the stairs with a hoarse yell. He plunged downstairs in the blind dark without missing a step, without even feeling them under his feet, as if he were flying. He broke out onto the street and ran full-speed into the dark.
The houses were black hulks against the stars. Starlight gleamed faintly on the river to his right, and though he could not see where the streets led, he could make out street-crossings and so turn and double on his track. They had followed him; he could hear them behind him, not very far behind. They were unshod, and their panting breathing was louder than their footfalls. He would have laughed if he had had time; he knew at last what it was like to be the hunted instead of the hunter, the quarry instead of the leader of the chase. It was to be alone and to be free. He swerved to the right and dodged stooping across a high-parapetted bridge, slipped into a side street, around a corner, back to the riverside and along it for a way, across another bridge. His shoes were loud on the cobblestones, the only sound in all the city; he paused at the bridge abutment to unlace them, but the strings were knotted, and the hunt had not lost him. The lantern glittered a second across the river; the soft, heavy, running feet came on. He could not get away from them. He could only outrun them; keep going, keep ahead, and get them away from the dusty room, far away…
They had stripped his coat off him, along with his dagger, and he was in shirt-sleeves, light and hot, his head swimming, and the pain in the back of his skull pointing and pointing with each stride, and he ran and he ran… The bag hindered him. He flung it down suddenly, a loose gold piece flying out and striking the stones with a clear ring. “Here's your money!” he yelled, his voice hoarse and gasping. He ran on. And all at once the street ended. No cross-streets, no stars before him, a dead end. Without pausing he turned back and ran at his pursuers. The lantern swung wild in his eyes, and he yelled defiance as he came at them.
There was a lantern swinging back and forth before him, a faint spot of light in a great, moving greyness. He watched it for a long time. It grew fainter, and at last a shadow passed before it, and when the shadow went on the light was gone. He grieved for it a little; or perhaps he was grieving for himself, because he knew he must wake up now.
The lantern, dead, still swung against the mast to which it was fixed. All around, the sea brightened with the coming sun. A drum beat. Oars creaked heavily, regularly; the wood of the ship cried and creaked in a hundred little voices; a man up in the prow called something to the sailors behind him. The men chained with Arren in the after hold were all silent. Each wore an iron band around his waist and manacles on his wrists, and both these bonds were linked by a short, heavy chain to the bonds of the next man; the belt of iron was also chained to a bolt in the deck, so that the man could sit or crouch, but could not stand. They were too close together to lie down, jammed together in the small cargo-hold. Arren was in the forward port corner. If he lifted his head high, his eyes were on a level with the deck between hold and rail, a couple of feet wide.
He did not remember much of last night past the chase and the dead-end street. He had fought and been knocked down and trussed up and carried somewhere. A man with a strange, whispering voice had spoken; there had been a place like a smithy, a forge-fire leaping red… He could not recall it. He knew, though, that this was a slave-ship, and that he had been taken to be sold.
It did not mean much to him. He was too thirsty. His body ached and his head hurt. When the sun rose the light sent lances of pain into his eyes.
Along in midmorning they were given a quarter-loaf of bread each and a long drink from a leather flask, held to their lips by a man with a sharp, hard face. His neck was clasped by a broad, gold-studded leather band like a dog's collar, and when Arren heard him speak he recognized the weak, strange, whistling voice.
Drink and food eased his bodily wretchedness for a while and cleared his head. He looked for the first time at the faces of his fellow slaves, three in his row and four close behind. Some sat with tbeir heads on their raised knees; one was slumped over, sick or drugged. The one next to Arren was a fellow of twenty or so with a broad, flat face. “Where are they taking us?” Arren said to him.
The fellow looked at him -their faces were not a foot apart– and grinned, shrugging, and Arren thought he meant he did not know; but then he jerked his manacled arms as if to gesture and opened his still-grinning mouth wide to show, where the tongue should be, only a black root.
“It'll be Showl,” said one behind Arren; and another, “Or the Market at Amrun,” and then the man with the collar, who seemed to be everywhere on the ship, was bending above the hold, hissing, “Be still if you don't want to be shark bait,” and all of them were still.
Arren tried to imagine these places, Showl, the Market of Amrun. They sold slaves there. They stood them out in front of the buyers, no doubt, like oxen or rams for sale in Berila Marketplace. He would stand there wearing chains. Somebody would buy him and lead him home and they would give him an order; and he would refuse to obey. Or obey and try to escape. And he would be killed, one way or the other. It was not that his soul rebelled at the thought of slavery; he was much too sick and bewildered for that. It was simply that he knew he could not do it; that within a week or two he would die or be killed. Though he saw and accepted this as a fact, it frightened him, so that he stopped trying to think ahead. He stared down at the foul, black planking of the hold between his feet and felt the heat of the sun on his naked shoulders and felt the thirst drying out his mouth and narrowing his throat again.
The sun sank. Night came on clear and cold. The sharp stars came out. The drum beat like a slow heart, keeping the oar-stroke, for there was no breath of wind. Now the cold became the greatest misery. Arren's back gained a little warmth from the cramped legs of the man behind him and his left side from the mute beside him, who sat hunched up, humming a grunting rhythm all on one note. The rowers changed shift; the drum beat again. Arren had longed for the darkness, but he could not sleep. His bones ached, and he could not change position. He sat aching, shivering, parched, staring up at the stars, which jerked across the sky with every stroke the oarsmen took, slid to their places, and were still, jerked again, slid, paused…
The man with the collar and another man stood between the after hold and the mast; the little swinging lantern on the mast sent gleams between them and silhouetted their heads and shoulders. “Fog, you pig's bladder,” said the weak, hateful voice of the man with the collar, “what's a fog doing in the Southing Straits this time of year? Curse the luck!”
The drum beat. The stars jerked, slid, paused. Beside Arren the tongueless man shuddered all at once and, raising his head, let out a nightmare scream, a terrible, formless noise. “Quiet there!” roared the second man by the mast. The mute shuddered again and was silent, munching with his jaws.
Stealthily the stars slid forward into nothingness.
The mast wavered and vanished. A cold, grey blanket seemed to drop over Arren's back. The drum faltered and then resumed its beat, but slower.
“Thick as curdled milk,” said the hoarse voice somewhere above Arren. “Keep up the stroke there! There's no shoals for twenty miles!” A horny, scarred foot appeared out of the fog, paused an instant close to Arren's face, then with one step vanished.
In the fog there was no sense of forward motion, only of swaying and the tug of the oars. The throb of the stroke-drum was muffled. It was clammy cold. The mist condensing in Arren's hair ran down into his eyes; he tried to catch the drops with his tongue and breathed the damp air with open mouth, trying to assuage his thirst. But his teeth chattered. The cold metal of a chain swung against his thigh and burnt like fire where it touched. The drum beat, and beat, and ceased.
It was silent.
“Keep the beat! What's amiss?” roared the hoarse, whistling voice from the prow. No answer came.
The ship rolled a little on the quiet sea. Beyond the dim rails was nothing: blank. Something grated against the ship's side. The noise was loud in that dead, weird silence and darkness. “We're aground,” one of the prisoners whispered, but the silence closed in on his voice.
The fog grew bright, as if a light were blooming in it. Arren saw the heads of the men chained by him clearly, the tiny moisture-drops shining in their hair. Again the ship swayed, and he strained as far up as his chains would let him, stretching his neck, to see forward in the ship. The fog glowed over the deck like the moon behind thin clouds, cold and radiant. The oarsmen sat like carved statues. Crewmen stood in the waist of the ship, their eyes shining a little. Alone on the port side stood a man, and it was from him that the light came, from the face and hands and staff that burned like molten silver.
At the feet of the radiant man a dark shape was crouched.
Arren tried to speak and could not. Clothed in that majesty of light, the Archmage came to him and knelt down on the deck. Arren felt the touch of his hand and heard his voice. He felt the bonds on his wrists and body give way; all through the hold there was a rattling of chains. But no man moved; only Arren tried to stand, but he could not, being cramped with long immobility. The Archmage's strong grip was on his arm, and with that help he crawled up out of the cargo-hold and huddled on the deck.
The Archmage strode away from him, and the misty splendor glowed on the unmoving faces of the oarsmen. He halted by the man who had crouched down by the port rail.
“I do not punish,” said the hard, clear voice, cold as the cold magelight in the fog. “But in the cause of justice, Egre, I take this much upon myself: I bid your voice be dumb until the day you find a word worth speaking.”
He came back to Arren and helped him to get to his feet. “Come on now, lad,” he said, and with his help Arren managed to hobble forward, and half-scramble, half-fall down into the boat that rocked there below the ship's side: Lookfar, her sail like a moth's wing in the fog.
In the same silence and dead calm the light died away, and the boat turned and slipped from the ship's side. Almost at once the galley, the dim mast-lantern, the immobile oarsmen, the hulking black side, were gone. Arren thought he heard voices break out in cries, but the sound was thin and soon lost. A little longer, and the fog began to thin and tatter, blowing by in the dark. They came out under the stars, and silent as a moth Lookfar fled through the clear night over the sea.
Sparrowhawk had covered Arren with blankets and given him water; he sat with his hand on the boy's shoulder when Arren fell suddenly to weeping. Sparrowhawk said nothing, but there was a gentleness, a steadiness, in the touch of his hand. Comfort came slowly into Arren: warmth, the soft motion of the boat, heart's ease.
He looked up at his companion. No unearthly radiance clung to the dark face. He could barely see him against the stars.
The boat fled on, charm-guided. Waves whispered as if in surprise along her sides.
“Who is the man with the collar?”
“Lie still. A sea-robber, Egre. He wears that collar to hide a scar where his throat was slit once. It seems his trade has sunk from piracy to slaving. But he took the bear's cub this time.” There was a slight ring of satisfaction in the dry, quiet voice.
“How did you find me?”
“Wizardry, bribery… I wasted time. I did not like to let it be known that the Archmage and Warden of Roke was ferreting about the slums of Hort Town. I wish still I could have kept up my disguise. But I had to track down this man and that man, and when at last I found that the slaver had sailed before daybreak, I lost my temper. I took Lookfar and spoke the wind into her sail in the dead calm of the day and glued the oars of every ship in that bay fast into the oarlocks– for a while. How they'll explain that, if wizardry's all lies and air, is their problem. But in my haste and anger I missed and overpassed Egre's ship, which had gone east of south to miss the shoals. Ill done was all I did this day. There is no luck in Hort Town… Well, I made a spell of finding at last, and so came on the ship in the darkness. Should you not sleep now?”
“I'm all right. I feel much better.” A light fever had replaced Arren's chill, and he did indeed feel well, his body languid but his mind racing lightly from one thing to another. “How soon did you wake up? What happened to Hare?”
“I woke with daylight; and lucky I have a hard head; there's a lump and a cut like a split cucumber behind my ear. I left Hare in the drug-sleep.”
“I failed my guard-”
“But not by falling asleep.”
“No.” Arren hesitated. “It was– I was-”
“You were ahead of me; I saw you,” Sparrowhawk said strangely. “And so they crept in and tapped us on the head like lambs at the shambles, took gold, good clothes, and the salable slave, and left. It was you they were after, lad. You'd fetch the price of a farm in Amrun Market.”
“They didn't tap me hard enough. I woke up. I did give them a run. I spilt their loot all over the street, too, before they cornered me.” Arren's eyes glittered.
“You woke while they were there– and ran? Why?”
“To get them away from you.” The surprise in Sparrowhawk's voice suddenly struck Arren's pride, and he added fiercely, “I thought it was you they were after. I thought they might kill you. I grabbed their bag so they'd follow me, and shouted out and ran. And they did follow me.”
“Aye– they would!” That was all Sparrowhawk said, no word of praise, though he sat and thought a while. Then he said, “Did it not occur to you I might be dead already?”
“Murder first and rob after, is the safer course.”
“I didn't think of that. I only thought of getting them away from you.”
“Because you might be able to defend us, to get us both out of it, if you had time to wake up. Or get yourself out of it, anyway. I was on guard, and I failed my guard. I tried to make up for it. You are the one I was guarding. You are the one that matters. I'm along to guard, or whatever you need– it's you who'll lead us, who can get to wherever it is we must go, and put right what's gone wrong.”
“Is it?” said the mage. “I thought so myself, until last night. I thought I had a follower, but I followed you, my lad.” His voice was cool and perhaps a little ironic. Arren did not know what to say. He was indeed completely confused. He had thought that his fault of falling into sleep or trance on guard could scarcely be atoned by his feat of drawing off the robbers from Sparrowhawk: it now appeared that the latter had been a silly act, whereas going into trance at the wrong moment had been wonderfully clever.
“I am sorry, my lord,” he said at last, his lips rather stiff and the need to cry not easily controlled again, “that I failed you. And you have saved my life-”
“And you mine, maybe,” said the mage harshly.
“Who knows? They might have slit my throat when they were done. No more of that, Arren. I am glad you are with me.”
He went to their stores-box then and lit their little charcoal stove and busied himself with something. Arren lay and watched the stars, and his emotions cooled and his mind ceased racing. And he saw then that what he had done and what he had not done were not going to receive judgment from Sparrowhawk. He had done it; Sparrowhawk accepted it as done. “I do not punish,” he had said, cold-voiced, to Egre. Neither did he reward. But he had come for Arren in all haste across the sea, unleashing the power of his wizardry for his sake; and he would do so again. He was to be depended on.
He was worth all the love Arren had for him, and all the trust. For the fact was that he trusted Arren. What Arren did, was right.
He came back now, handing Arren a cup of steaming hot wine. “Maybe that'll put you to sleep. Take care, it'll scald your tongue.”
“Where did the wine come from? I never saw a wineskin aboard-”
“There's more in Lookfar than meets the eye,” Sparrowhawk said, sitting down again beside him, and Arren heard him laugh, briefly and almost silently, in the dark.
Arren sat up to drink the wine. It was very good, refreshing body and spirit. He said, “Where are we going now?”
“Where did you go with Hare?”
“Into the darkness. I never lost him, but he was lost. He wandered on the outer borders, in the endless barrens of delirium and nightmare. His soul piped like a bird in those dreary places, like a seagull crying far from the sea. He is no guide. He has always been lost. For all his craft in sorcery he has never seen the way before him, seeing only himself.”
Arren did not understand all of this; nor did he want to understand it, now. He had been drawn a little way into that “darkness” of which wizards spoke, and he did not want to remember it; it was nothing to do with him. Indeed he did not want to sleep, lest he see it again in dream and see that dark figure, a shadow holding out a pearl, whispering, “Come.”
“My lord,” he said, his mind veering away rapidly to another subject, “why-”
“Sleep!” said Sparrowhawk with mild exasperation. “I can't sleep, my lord. I wondered why you didn't free the other slaves.”
“I did. I left none bound on that ship.”
“But Egre's men had weapons. If you had bound them-”
“Aye, if I had bound them? There were but six. The oarsmen were chained slaves, like you. Egre and his men may be dead by now, or chained by the others to be sold as slaves; but I left them free to fight or bargain. I am no slavetaker.”
“But you knew them to be evil men-”
“Was I to join them therefore? To let their acts rule my own? I will not make their choices for them, nor will I let them make mine for me!”
Arren was silent, pondering this. Presently the mage said, speaking softly, “Do you see, Arren, how an act is not, as young men think, like a rock that one picks up and throws, and it hits or misses, and that's the end of it. When that rock is lifted, the earth is lighter; the hand that bears it heavier. When it is thrown, the circuits of the stars respond, and where it strikes or falls the universe is changed. On every act the balance of the whole depends. The winds and seas, the powers of water and earth and light, all that these do, and all that the beasts and green things do, is well done, and rightly done. All these act within the Equilibrium. From the hurricane and the great whale's sounding to the fall of a dry leaf and the gnat's flight, all they do is done within the balance of the whole. But we, insofar as we have power over the world and over one another, we must learn to do what the leaf and the whale and the wind do of their own nature. We must learn to keep the balance. Having intelligence, we must not act in ignorance. Having choice, we must not act without responsibility. Who am I -though I have the power to do it– to punish and reward, playing with men's destinies?”
“But then,” the boy said, frowning at the stars, “is the balance to be kept by doing nothing? Surely a man must act, even not knowing all the consequences of his act, if anything is to be done at all?”
“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. 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.