A/N. This is my first attempt at an Earthsea fic, even if it is short and sweet, so PLEASE read and review! Please please please! I adore Le Guin's books, which is why the recent SciFi miniseries, which was beyond horrible, broke my heart so completely. It was like the gebbeth itself, which sucked all soul and meaning from Le Guin's words. But it inspired me revisit the books, and I was amazed all over again at their depth and wisdom. So I wrote a story. There's really no plot here, but someone may find it enjoyable anyway. : ).
Standard Disclaimers Apply: Tenar, Ged, and Ogion belong entirely to Ursula K. Le Guin, as does the incredible universe of Earthsea.
A Matter of Dress
This is a story, my child, my sweet, my little one, of Tenar of the Ring, whom we came to know as Goha, and how she was when she first came here to Gont. There are many who claim true knowledge of the White Lady, and they tell many yarns, each one more incredible and fantastic than the last. Such stories are mostly lies, however, fairy tales spun on winter nights to stave off the cold. Harmless and amusing, yet false. But my grandmother, a kind woman called Lark, was the White Lady's friend, and I speak true. She told me this story when I was a child, when I wept just as you weep now. It is a small tale, birdlette, a small tale for a small sadness. So dry your eyes, dearest daughter, and listen to what I have to say.
When the White Lady first set foot our Gontish shores, she wore the fine white silks and slippers that the great lords at Havnor had forced upon her. She arrived in quiet state, and my grandmother said that she sparkled in the sun like black and white fire for all to look upon. Few on Gont had seen a pale-skinned Kargish woman before, and many thought her the most beautiful creature they had ever set eyes upon. None knew then who she was, because she would not allow the mage who brought her here to reveal her true identity.
But with her she carried secretly a black robe she would not part with. She had worn it in her youth, which had been spent as a Priestess chained to the Nameless Ones. And that tale, the great tale of how the lost Ring of Erreth-Akbe was found and made whole, you already know.
But did you know that the mage in that tale, the wizard Sparrowhawk, whose true name was Ged and who was both Archmage and Dragonlord while living, was the same mage who brought our Goha to Gont? Together, they took the Ring triumphantly to Havnor. Afterwards, desiring solitude and peace, Tenar asked to be brought to a place where she need not face the world of men. And so the mage Sparrowhawk brought her to our island, where he had grown up as a boy.
He carried the girl into the mountains and entrusted her to Ogion, the mage of Re Albi, whose true name was Aihal. He sailed away from Gont at sunrise the next day. But Tenar continued here, to spend the remains of her maidenhood as ward to the mage of Re Albi.
Now the mage Ogion, although possessing some skill with needle and thread, had no knowledge of women's garb. Tenar herself could have done much on her own, for many of Arha's childhood hours had been spent at immense looms spinning acres of black clothe. But Archipelagan looms differ greatly from those of Kargad, and her fingers were ignorant and clumsy with the foreign shuttle. And so Ogion, who perhaps felt somewhat awkward about the whole difficulty, pressed several coins into her hand and told her in a dignified manner that the business was entirely in her own hands. "Go buy what pleases you," he said.
And so the Kargish lass made the half-day's journey from Re Albi to Gont Harbor, where she had arrived just a few days before. Recognizing her as the highborn foreigner, the guardsmen let her pass through the town gates unchallenged, leering as she walked by with her chin held high.
By the time she reached the first shops, her thin slippers were torn and filthy, and she knew she would make the long walk back to Re Albi with a slight limp from the blisters burning on her heels. The first thing she purchased was a pair of stout, sturdy boots, although the woman who sold them to her did so with a sneer on her face, not understanding why the beautiful foreign princess should desire to be shod so plainly.
Suitable clothing proved more difficult to come by. As you know, child, most decent people on Gont spin and weave their own clothing. Only fools with money they are not wise enough to keep splurge for costumes. And so everything Tenar came across that day was of garish fashion: too colorful, too thin, and too expensive. Money was no problem, for what was dear to many Gontish villagers (the honest ones at least) was not so for the mage of Re Albi, who had accumulated much small coin over the years that he had nearly forgotten about 'til it came time to buy clothes for a young woman who had been unexpectedly thrust upon his hands.
The girl Tenar quickly realized that she must face one of two shames. She could approach the old women of Gont Harbor, the crones whose wrinkled eyes leered at her in her wrinkled finery, and ask that they sell her some of their rags or make her a dress from their own needles. Or she could buy what she found in the colorful market stalls. Grim-faced, she had known she could not do the former, for there was much in her that was still Arha, the sensitive and proud Priestess of the Tombs, and could not yet stoop to ask favors of those who scorned her. So she walked back to Re Albi that evening in a glaring gown that blazed in the moonlight like an incandescent flame, with heavy brown boots bought a size too large clumping along on her clumsy feet.
Ogion stared when he first saw her, but said nothing as she entered the house. She kept her eyes lowered in shame, for she was not yet at ease in the silent man's company and missed sorely the comfort of Ged's presence. Without speaking she placed the kettle on the stove and stoked the fire, her cheeks flushing a deep crimson.
"Lass . . ." Ogion said once, hesitantly.
She shook her head violently, signaling that she did not desire any speech on the subject.
Several minutes passed in silence before Ogion tried again. "I – I could illusion them, you know. It wouldn't last very long, we'd have to do it each day, but it would be nothing if you so wished."
She laughed then, a harsh bitter laugh that came from a place in her being that knew nothing of joy. The laughter caught in her throat and choked her, and so transformed itself into heavy sobs. She fell to her knees before the mage's chair, placed her head in his lap, and let herself weep with abandon. They were the first tears she had shed since leaving the shores of her homeland, Atuan. Her fingers clutched desperately at the harsh brown homespun of his robe, which felt just the same way as Ged's had, when he had taken her hand in the Tombs to lead her across the dark Pit, and his sleeve had brushed softly against the skin of her forearm.
What was that you asked, child? Had she fallen in love with the mage Sparrowhawk? Truly, I do not know, although they say he was a handsome man in his own dark, strange, powerful way, so long as one paid no heed tothe scars on his face. Certainly, there are many strange stories about the days when King Lebannen first came to his throne in Havnor, for that was when the Archmage Sparrowhawk vanished, never to be seen again. Some say that he came here to Gont, his homeland, and returned to the woman who had brought the Ring of Erreth-Akbe from darkness with him, thus living out the rest of his days in peace. But this is all conjecture and rumor, child. After all, some say he died in the dusty land and that it was only his shadow that returned. And others claim the Archmage returned to the far West and took a dragon's form, and is still flying there today on the wind that burns.
But hush. That's a tale for another day. In my story, the story I am telling you now, Tenar cried with her head on her foster-father's knee. The mage's hand skimmed lightly over her hair, and he whispered small words of comfort to her. "Tenar . . . Tenar," he said kindly, and she did not know whether the kindness made her want to smile or to scream. "Child, I cannot imagine how difficult this is for you. I shall go with you tomorrow to take them back, and talk to someone who will gladly help us. I was foolish to send you on your own this first time. I'm sorry. I'm a silly man, to lack resolution to face such simple tasks. I, who have spoken with kings, to be wary of a shopwoman!"
She did not laugh, but she giggled, which did her as much good as the mage's kind words that accepted a responsibility he did not need to take. When her breathing had calmed, she raised her head to look at Ogion with what was the beginnings of trust. She wiped the silly tears from her eyes, for she was almost a woman grown, only a year or so older than you are now. "No," she said, shaking her head and smiling at her foolishness. "They will do, let them be. I don't truly mind. It's just that I wore such . . . different . . . things for so many years. And . . . and I do not wish to see anyone but you for quite some time, if that is all right."
She spoke in halting Hardic, in the words the mage Sparrowhawk had taught her during their journey, for Ogion knew no Kargish.
Ogion acquiesced, and Tenar traipsed that summer through the woods and fields of Re Albi in dancing gowns and a farmer's boots. The material did not hold up well, and by the Festival of Sunreturn she possessed not one dress that did not show steaks of dirt on the sleeves and tears at the seams. But she was not going to the Festival anyway, and did not mind the shabbiness of her dress so much as facing the eyes of the villagers.
But when deep winter came and the wind howled madly through the eaves, the cheap clothes she had bought became woefully inadequate. One day after a long absence, Ogion entered the house with a heaping armful of rough brown material. Tenar was sitting at the table studying her runes by candlelight in the dim winter evening. She watched with astonishment as Ogion dumped the unwieldy pile on an empty chair.
"There," he said with some satisfaction. "I know nothing of the kind of clothes a girl your age would desire, but if you don't mind this, I'm sure we can somehow make this pile of stuff into something sensible. Enough with that outlandish garb you've insisted on wearing. I can't watch you punish yourself anymore."
She smiled up at him gratefully, for his words contained a real kindness and told her that he loved her and cared that she should be happy in her new home. And at this, the first sign she had received since coming to Gont that someone held her dear, a darkness that had been brooding in her breast dissolved and melted away. "Thank you, father," she said simply. "It's lovely."
He started, and a smile came over his quiet lined face. He traced a gentle finger against her cheek. "It is well, daughter, I do not need your thanks."
Tenar rose to her feet, walked slowly to a dark corner of the house, and retrieved a small bag she had hidden there. She pulled from the bag the black robe the Priestess Arha had worn and which she had brought secretly to Gont. Smiling slightly, she knelt before the fire and threw the material into the flames. The stuff smoked more than it should have, and her eyes blinked as hot ash flew about her. "You were wrong, Ged," she is said to have whispered. "Now I am truly free."
Now, let me see your dress, child. See, I can easily mend this tear, and that nasty mud will wash out with a little soap. And yes, it is quite plain, but Tenar of the Ring longed for something just like this and put away all her finery for such garb. Next time a merchant's daughter scorns your clothes, pay her no heed. Hold your head high and walk proudly. Remember that the White Lady, our greatest treasure, placed no value on the type of frippery she wears. And in the end it was love, not clothes, that loosed her from her chains.
But come, girl, I have a pretty blue ribbon put away. If you wish, I can braid it in your black hair tonight, and you shall wear it tomorrow evening at the dance. With your sweet eyes and nimble feet, you shall be the prettiest girl of Gont. You will outshine even this beastly Humarth you tell me of. For how could someone with such ugliness in her heart dance as gracefully as you do?