Erreth-Akbe and Maharion.
The greatest mage ever to raise the magewind on a storm-tossed sea, and the last king of the Archipelago, who fought for peace until his death and got none, for his kingdom or himself.
Through all Earthsea, in every house, when the Long Dance arrives on the shortest night of the year, they are sung of, and Erreth-Akbe's sword stands atop the highest of the white towers in Havnor, a beacon to the world.
But there is a story not told. A song unsung. Flashes are all that can be had; glimpses in the dark.
It was the eyes that Heru noticed first, the day the boy who wore power like a cloak and had no fear walked into her hall. Dark eyes, piercing and wild and inscrutable, much as he was, standing before her throne in peasant's clothes with the wind of Mount Onn still tangled in his hair. She met those eyes and could not read them, though great men had stood before her as this boy did now and she had perused their souls with ease. For a long moment they watched each other, the bright brown gaze of the eagle queen and the dark eyes of the boy, and the whispers of her courtiers rustled like autumn leaves and did not matter.
"Why are you here?" Heru asked him at last, clear and direct, not raising her voice. She got the impression that he had no intention of bowing.
"To learn," he answered, just two words.
And because the queen of Earthsea knew power when she saw it, and because he was proud without arrogance and wise without condescension, and perhaps because he had not bowed, Heru sent him to her mages and instructed them to teach the boy everything they knew.
In the crowd of murmuring people, long after both the Queen and the dark-eyed boy were gone, the crown prince Maharion stood very still, as if the slightest movement would shatter the moment, feeling his heart beating at a quick, shallow tempo in his chest, though he did not know why.
The dark-haired boy turned at the sound, eyes a flash of brilliant shadow. He smiled, but did not speak, not yet. He was spare with words, the one called Harek; Dragon in the Hardic tongue. Not timid, but careful, speaking when needed. If words were not needed, then he was silent. As for smiles, only one person ever received those.
When the other boy had reached him, running because there was no one there to watch and comment on behavior improper for a prince, it was then that he spoke.
"I got my name today."
His friend was silent, solemn. They looked at each other. Four years it had been since Queen Heru had made the mage boy companion to her only son, seeing them drawn to each other, both of them lonely, respected, envied, and given power that neither had yet learned how to use.
Four years. There were many words, in those years, and many kinds of silence. There were things that changed and things that didn't. There was respect, and there was love. Now there would be names, and things for them to know. Them and no one else.
The prince took a breath. He was only fifteen, but he looked like a king in that moment, generous, vulnerable, magnificent.
"My name is Maharion," he said.
Harek, the wizard in training who had long ago outstripped his teachers, and who had decided that morning to call himself a mage now, looked at his friend.
"I am Erreth-Akbe," he replied.
There had been many things, in four years. Now, with the names to cement it, there was trust.
Queen Heru walked alone through the corridors of the palace, her feet making no noise as they paced out darkness broken only by starlight through the windows.
Aiman had been dead three months, withered by a wasting malady. The loss of her husband, of his wisdom and his wit, had dulled to an empty ache in Heru's heart by now. He had been making her smile until the end, unwilling to die with her weeping beside him. A laugh was better, he would have said.
But she still wandered the palace at night. Sleep was harder alone, and the Eagle Queen had lost the endurance for the loud, daylight world of the court.
Lost in memory, Heru was awakened from her reverie by the glow of a doorway, light spilling out golden against the dark.
There were shapes outlined in it, two of them, and as she watched they met and merged, arms and lips entwined. There was the sound of soft whispers.
With a slight shock, Heru realized that the doorway was her son's. Well, it shouldn't be too much of a surprise; he was nineteen, after all, and his father was dead. It made sense that he would look for comfort in another person, if only as an antidote to grief… But it was strange, anyway, because she had never seen him show any attachment to a girl, or for that matter any interest at all.
So Heru, nosy, knowing she shouldn't but nagged by a lingering kind of doubt, moved closer to the doorway rather than turning back, closer, until she could see the two people outlined against the candle light, their shapes darkness against gold.
It was Maharion and Erreth-Akbe. They held each other close, heads buried in each other's shoulders now, the mage running one hand over her son's hair in a slow, gentle caress. They kissed again, passionate, fervent, and when they broke apart it was only to look at each other for a long moment.
"Maharion," the mage whispered, quiet as a prayer.
Then the words ceased, and Heru slipped away, into the dark of the corridor, not looking back. Her son and heir had indeed found comfort in another after his father's death… Although, this could have started years ago, for all she knew. They loved each other, her son and the dark-eyed mage called Harek. She knew that, though Heru had never suspected they would end up in bed together.
Or maybe she had, if she had thought, and taken the lingering glances and the shared smiles and the fact that as far as she knew Maharion had never looked at a girl in his life and put them together into this. She wondered, with a rush of sorrow, what Aiman would have thought of his son carrying on with another man. Maybe he would have been shocked, disgusted, as the court and most of the Archipelago would be if they ever found out, or maybe… maybe he would have said that love is love, and if it made them happy and harmed no one then they belonged together, Erreth-Akbe and Maharion.
She went back to her rooms, alone, and slept restlessly, with her son and her throne and her dead husband drifting through her thoughts. Just before sleep took her, Heru smiled to herself, the expression bittersweet. No grandchildren for us, I think, her consort would have said, and for all her shock and worry she would have laughed to hear the words.
Songs. Stories. They chronicle the years that passed. The deeds that made Erreth-Akbe the greatest hero ever born in Earthsea, the wars he fought with Maharion, keeping back the dragons and the Kargs and anyone who set his kingdom alight without care of the consequences. It's a hard thing, fighting for peace.
But of a thousand departures, there is nothing. Of a thousand kisses each thought would be their last, of things stolen from time before dawn could send the ships out from the harbor, chasing peace, chasing dragons, there is only silence.
Heru knew. She held her tongue. The Eagle Queen was only the Queen Mother now, with Aiman was long gone into the dry land and her wish for power gone with him. She saw the look between them, each time, a desperate look, carrying everything that could never be spoken aloud in daylight. I don't want you to go, I'll come back, promise me, please, I need you, I love you.
A thousand kisses. More than a thousand. Twenty years, maybe. There was happiness in there, somewhere, elusive, winged creature that it is. If nothing else, there was happiness.
A thousand kisses. A thousand goodbyes. And then, finally, the last.
The ship sailed into the harbor, storm tossed, with its sails worn to gossamer by the onslaught of the wind.
The king stood on the dock, tall, his black hair blowing a little in the wind. Word had come to the palace, of course, that the ship of the Dragon Mage was coming into port, coming home. They still called him Dragon, he whose name was Erreth-Akbe, though there was no trace mockery in it now. Maharion was surrounded by courtiers and hangers-on, all of them talking or rustling about. None of them were important. He had eyes only for the man standing in the prow of the lone boat; his bearing proud, though his shoulders were slumped with weariness.
Then the noise came. A noise like brass sheets shaken in the wind, and the roar of rage and the bright flame searing the sky with heat. The dragon rose over the city, a huge, lithe creature the color of granite just touched by the first light of dawn.
Their gazes met across the harbor. For a long, long moment the king and the mage looked into each other's eyes. They made no gestures, mouthed no words. Only the eyes, searing, longing, lit with the orange light of dragon flame above Havnor Great Port.
Then the mage leapt from the prow of his ship, his form shifting, the wings spreading outward until another dragon flew upward into the sky, to meet Orm in combat.
No last embrace for Maharion and Erreth-Akbe. No words. Only the look across the water, beneath dragon fire.
On the shore of Selidor, in the burning, gold-red light of sunset on that farthest western land, a king knelt on the ground with his head bowed low. The ivory sand of the beach was stained red with the blood of single combat, crimson as the setting sun. The dragon lay, vast and scaled on the last while crescent of shore jutting out into the endless sea. Beside the dragon lay a man, clad in bronze armor rent with the slashing of his foe's claws, his neck and arms and side bloody with the wounds that had been his death.
Slowly, gently, the kneeling king took the hand of the dead mage in both of his own, holding it tightly, tenderly, looking down into the stern, black browed face whose dark eyes were closed forever now.
"Oh Erreth-Akbe," Maharion whispered. "I always used to say that no living thing could ever best you but a dragon."
There was no sound but the gentle lapping of the waves on the shore, and the faint rustle of the wind in the tall grasses of the island.
The king did not weep, not now. There had been so much silence, so many things concealed. Here, with no one to hear him, he wanted to speak.
He looked into the face of the dead mage, a face that was still proud and beautiful even after death and etched with the pain and exhaustion of his final battle.
"We fought so hard for peace," the king of Earthsea said, voice low. "I lost so many years with you, years we could have had, for the sake of that mission to the Kargs. I shouldn't have let you go alone! It was just you, setting out in your boat, bearing the ring of peace into the east for king Thoreg. And now it is broken, you are broken, and Erreth-Akbe I can't find any reason to go on living anymore."
He hadn't let go of the mage's hand, and now the king brought it to his lips in a kiss that had all the passion of a lifetime in its touch.
"My line will die with me, I think," he said softly, with a sad smile. "I never wanted anyone but you by my side. Never anyone but you."
On the last word, his voice cracked, and though he did not weep his eyes were full of anguish.
The sun was almost down, now, nothing but an orange and golden glow on the horizon and a pink tint on the waves of the sea.
"Oh Erreth-Akbe," Maharion whispered. "We were not as lucky as Morred and Elfarran, you and I. They had a year, and a love story, and all the mourners of the centuries to weep for them, but for us… Only the names of heroes, alone, linked by nothing but friendship and the battles we fought together."
He took a long breath, deep and shuddering.
"But I will make sure that the world remembers you, Erreth-Akbe. If my name fades to nothing but the dust of ancient paper and the whisper of a shadow yours shall be that of a hero until Segoy speaks the last word and the islands are taken by the sea."
With fumbling fingers, the king reached out his hand and pulled from the jeweled scabbard of the mage a sword, long and bright, still stained with the blood of Orm the great dragon.
"This goes to Havnor," Maharion said. "To the highest tower of my palace. Your body lies with the dragon on the shore of Selidor, but I will place your sword as a beacon to the world."
Then, at last, with the promise that was meant to offer him at least a little, bitter hope, Maharion broke.
He crumpled, his body wracked with sobs, forehead resting on Erreth-Akbe's chest. He wept long, helplessly, like a lost child who cannot seem to stop his tears. All the buried pain he had been hiding in his heart while the ship carried him here, all the awful, aching heartbreak he had contained before his mother and his people, it came forth now, running in rivers of grief that spoke of more anguish than words ever could. There was no one to see the king cry, alone with the dead on Selidor.
He was silent for a long time after, running his eyes over his lover's face for the last time, trying to fix it in his mind so that he could never forget it, even when death swept all other memory from him.
He looked long, but said nothing. Silence was a good thing to give the dead. Maybe there would be peace for Erreth-Akbe now, though he had gotten little enough in life.
There was such grief in the face of Maharion that it seemed he had aged a thousand years in the few short days since Erreth-Akbe's death. For the last time, he bent his head and kissed the lips of the mage, gently, and then he broke again, filled with too much regret and wasted dreams, his tears silent, holding Erreth-Akbe's body to him as if he would never let go. Through his mind went a thousand wild hopes, a thousand wishes, that they might pass together, that with this sword stained with a dragon's blood he could run himself through and die as he had always wanted to, by Erreth-Akbe's side.
But Maharion was a king, and kings have to live even when there is no reason for the man behind the crown to do so anymore. He stood up at last, bearing the sword of the hero in his hands with reverence, and went back over the grassy dunes of Selidor to where his ship was waiting. As he went he looked back, for the last time, at the corpse of the dragon and the mage who had died together in their combat; and he said, aloud, even if there was no one but the sea and the sky to hear him,
"Goodbye, my right hand, my brother, my beloved, Erreth-Akbe, who was best and bravest of us all, rest in thy honor and in death."
On the white sand, under the setting sun, the tears of a king who had lost the man he loved ran with the blood of a dragon into the gentle waters of the sea.
He came home to Havnor, sitting on the deck with the bloodstained sword of the hero in his hands, saying not a word. His face was like stone in winter, cold and desolate.
Queen Heru greeted him at the palace, old enough that walking was difficult, now. She said nothing, but put her hands on her son's shoulders, looking him in the face for a long time.
"If there's any justice in the world for the living or the dead you'll get him back someday," she said. "I put my faith in justice."
"You knew?" he asked.
"Yes. For a long time."
He nodded again, and then some memory must have struck him because the kings face filled with longing and sorrow for a moment, the stone cracking despite itself.
Heru gave him a glance that was half pity and half pride.
"Poor boy," she whispered. "My poor boy. But you're a king, and lying down and dying on the shore of Selidor isn't something you can have yet. Put your faith in justice, Maharion. There is always hope."
For all that some fragments can be found of the stories lost, the hidden hopes, there are no eyes that can see all the secrets of the dead.
But if you choose to trust in justice, and I hope you do, because without it kings and gods are blind and light and dark are nothing more than shades of gray, then there could be hope. Not all things are known about the dry land. Mages are not, whatever they would like to think, infallible.
And they caught happiness, sometimes, and held the intangible as long as they could, Maharion and Erreth-Akbe. If nothing else, it is good to know that they found some happiness, and it is worth making the tragedy more painful to hear. Songs and legends are full of heroes who did great deeds, but rarely do they make much of whether or not they were happy.
Fragments only. But sometimes fragments are enough.