A/N: This is a one-shot description of the death of Arha-before-Tenar. Thar, Kossil, Manan, and Punti all appear, and Tenar turns up briefly at the end. Enjoy!
Disclaimer: I really own nothing at all. The setting, characters, customs…it all belongs to Ursula Le Guin.
It was the third day of the last moon.
Far under the pale sun, the Hall of the Throne was filled with a crowd of black-robed women. They were of all ages, and knelt in crowded lines on the dusty floor, swaying as they chanted a dirge. Eunuchs were stationed around the crumbling walls, their faces taut with solemnity or furrowed with grief.
Upon the third step before the Empty Throne lay a small figure clad in black: the One Priestess. Her wizened hands were clasped loosely upon her breast, and only the breath that rattled her veined throat confirmed that life was still within her. Lank, colourless hair framed her shrivelled features that had once been so beautiful in youth. Arha had served the Nameless Ones long and well, and nearly all of the Priestesses felt genuine affection for the elderly woman. As they sang the dirge, they fondly recalled her sharp humour, and the crabby nature that had hidden (unsuccessfully) her true kindness.
A tall, stern woman drifted up the middle of the Hall, ignoring the voices that rose around her in lament. She knelt at the dying one's side, and placed a dry hand on the fragile shoulder. "Mistress."
Bleary eyes fluttered open, unseeing. "Thar?" croaked the One Priestess.
"Yes, mistress. It is I."
The old woman sighed, relief evident on her wrinkled face. "My old friend… do you have the keys?"
"Do you remember what I told you? The way through the labyrinth, and to the Great –"
"I remember every word, mistress."
Arha's hand reached up to grip Thar's, and the younger Priestess was startled by the strength she felt in the wasted fingers. Those blind grey eyes turned to her face as though they could see her.
"You must remember… you must teach me everything…"
"I will, mistress."
Thar clasped Arha's knotted, arthritic hand in both of hers. Her voice trembled slightly. "I swear it." For the first time, a bright wetness shone in the younger woman's eyes, and she blinked rapidly, releasing Arha's hand. The Priestess of the Twin Gods got slowly to her feet and stepped back deferentially, melting into the shadows.
When she had gone, a large woman hefted her bulk over to the One Priestess' side. She did not take the dying woman's hand. "I am here, mistress", she said.
"Kossil", the old woman uttered quietly, her lined face expressionless.
"The Godking expresses his grief –"
"You and your Godking!" Arha hissed maliciously. Kossil started in surprise at the treasonous words, and the old woman smiled. "I am on my deathbed, Kossil, and I will say what I will. You have ignored your true masters, the Nameless Ones. You brew strange poisons, which are twisted and unnatural. You try to interfere with my authority." Arha paused here to regain her breath, her frail lungs wheezing fitfully. The other Priestess waited in silence, dark eyes glittering. Finally, when the One Priestess had composed herself she continued, her voice low and passionate: "I may be dying, but I will return, Kossil – younger, and stronger. You will have reason to fear me then."
The large woman's eyes grew very round, but she said nothing. Taking a deep breath, she turned heavily and crept back to the shadows.
The next person to approach the steps was a Eunuch, old and grey as Arha herself, his face moist with weeping. "Punti", the One Priestess greeted, extending her frail, quivering fingers in greeting. The Eunuch grabbed the withered brown hand and pressed it tenderly to his heart. "Dear Punti", she rasped, "You have served me well these past years. What do you wish in return for your service? Would you like to be freed from the Place of the Tombs?"
"No, mistress", the old Eunuch whispered, snivelling as he tried to hold back his tears. "The Tombs are my home. I would like to stay, if you please, mistress."
"I understand", the One Priestess said gently. "You may remain here, and guard the novices within these walls. You have been a good Warden, Punti. I pray you live to see me return and grow again."
The sobbing Eunuch stumbled away from the black-clad figure, covering his yellow face with his hands.
The fourth and final one to speak to Arha was another Eunuch, a young Warden of the Tombs. "Manan", the old woman breathed, her voice growing weaker with each passing moment. "Of the Ten Wardens, I have chosen you to raise me when I return."
"Yes, mistress", the Eunuch said, tears springing to his eyes. "Thank you, mistress."
The old Priestess reached out with a claw-like hand, and his large yellow one completely engulfed hers in a loving grasp. "Manan", she murmured, and the young Warden drew closer. "Manan", Arha sighed again, "You must look for me."
"I will", he promised, alto voice shaking with emotion.
"No", Arha insisted, raising her head, sightless grey eyes glaring. "Kossil is afraid. She will draw out the search as long as she can. But you must find me!" A sudden hacking cough cut short the One Priestess' words, and several voices faltered in the dirge.
"I promise", wept Manan as he bent over his mistress' hand.
"Good", Arha said, and smiled feebly. A dreamy look came over her blind eyes. "Already I feel life slipping away. It flows into another body – a young, strong body about to enter the world."
The Priestesses and Wardens in the Hall stirred; they could sense that the Eaten One was passing away.
"Goodbye, Manan", Arha mumbled, her voice a dry rustle. She laid her head back on the step, and closed her eyes. "I will be waiting for you…"
With these words, the One Priestess breathed her last.
And off to the north and west, across the Eastern island, a girl-child let out her first cry.
A/N: Thanks for reading! Some shameless advertising here: if you like, check out my other story "Dragonlord", which tells of Ged sailing the Dragon's Run and finding out about the Ring of Erreth-Akbe from Orm Embar. If you understood that previous sentence, then you're a true fan, and have to check out that story – but please review this first!