Disclaimer: the Earthsea universe is the creation of Ursula Le Guin. This is an unauthorised fan work, written for pleasure only.
Originally posted for the 'History' challenge at LiveJournal's earthsea_fic community.
In the twenty-fifth year after the School's founding, the library of Roke held one thousand, eight hundred and ninety-two books. The library occupied the largest room of Crow's house, which, according to his own preference, was arranged around the library and had its living quarters as an afterthought. Fourteen tall presses were spaced along the walls. In the centre was just room for a reading table and benches. The presses had been built from oak by a craftsman of Thwil when it became apparent that the library had outgrown Crow's domestic furniture.
Over each press hung a tablet of stone depicting a king or queen of Havnor. Crow and Tern, on one of their finding expeditions, had found these tablets in a burned council hall and hauled them back to Roke. Their thought was that the princes represented the restoration of order for which the School so hoped. Not long after hanging the tablets, Crow had begun to catalogue the books by the name of the prince who surmounted each case. He could tell any student whether the volume they required was under Heru, or Gemal, or Maharion; and he made lists of the books thus, so that they should still be found when he was not there to remember.
The core of the collection was Crow's own library. Always a reader, he had begun to collect books as a youth in Orrimy, even before the mage from the next town had walked him through an icy brook and given him his true name. In the dark days of raiders and dragons he had realised that his passion was more than a pastime. Travelling through the shattered towns, he had found himself on a quest to save books from destruction, packing volumes into his house with little thought as to what might be their value or what he might do with them after. It was Tern, the Master Finder, who somehow convinced him that instructing wizards was the best use of the knowledge he was preserving.
He and Tern had been good partners, employing Tern's ability to divine the whereabouts of lost things, and Crow's knowledge of what it was that they had found. The Book of Names (Maharion 5 13) had been only their greatest discovery. But the two of them were now too old for hunting. Tern, injured in his encounter with the tyrant wizard, Early, lacked the strength to travel much, and meditated in the hut he shared with Ember his love. Crow had become mostly a receiver of books, donations from students or treatises spawned by the School's disputes. The years of Roke's expansion had seen vocal new arrivals set themselves at odds with Ember and the other women of the Hand, and many of the disputants took up pen in the hope of proving this or that. Some of these treatises were insightful; others Crow considered frankly trash, and was unhesitant to bar from his library.
Much of Crow's interest now lay in collecting songs and verse. Pieces of the lore of the Hand, carefully passed down and held in memory; children's jumping songs and the broadsheets hawked in the lower town of Thwil; ballads on pages torn from books long since broken and forgotten. He had filled most of a large folio with such fragments. It satisfied him to work in the afternoon sunlight and watch his own, fine hand, slow with rheumatism but still well practised from his days of hastily copying charred books. And in the songs and ballads, he saw the beginning of how those days would be remembered.
That afternoon he was studying a recent acquisition. It was a local song, called The Battle of Roke Knoll; it told of a fight between a dark cloud (which could just be recognised as the dark mage, Early) and a shining "lady of fire". The song showed the influence of an ancient Pelnish chant, which had aroused his interest. On the table lay a book containing the chant, and his copy of the song beside it, and he was trying to trace the similarities between them, wondering how the one stemmed from the other and what lost songs lay between.
The library was empty, save him, since the students were in class. So he was surprised when the door snapped open, and even more surprised to see Ember, who seldom came to the library. Ember spent most of her days in the Immanent Grove, where she said the trees taught her more than books could. Since Tern had been injured, she had resigned her position as Master Patterner and retired almost wholly from the routine of the School. Now she was frowning. He recognised that look; it was a not uncommon one since the present disputes among the mages had begun.
Ember motioned to him not to rise, to which he acceded with more relief than he would have liked to admit. She walked to the case of Maharion and opened the shutters that kept off insects and the sun. He did not ask her what she was looking for. He would have intervened to ask a student, since students, especially new ones from backwater islands, often lacked care of books and were likely to eat their bread and dripping over the pages or to mark their place with twigs. Ember, however, was one of the wise, and even though she was not familiar with the catalogue and was thus unlikely to find whatever she wanted, he judged it better not to enquire unless she asked. Ember talked when she was ready and not before.
For several minutes, she stood before the case and read the titles inked on the spines, some of which were so faded that they looked like the natural patterning of the vellum. She did not lift down any of the books. Crow returned to considering the chant and the song. After a further minute, Ember closed the case with a sharp intake of breath, and sat down at the other end of the table.
"There is no book," she said eventually, "in which Morred set down a law of magecraft. There is not, is there? If there was, I would show it to Waris and his disciples; it is the kind of knowledge they respect, and understand. But even if such a book did exist, I am not sure that I would trust it myself. I am not sure I would trust a law that a man had written. How terrible is that, Crow? That is what they are reducing me to."
Now that she had spoken, he answered the first part of her speech. "If Morred wrote such a book, it's not survived," he said. "I've seen songs attributed to him, but nothing longer than that. Of course, books that were thought lost are sometimes found to exist after all, but there is usually some clue, some mention of them. I have never heard of such a book."
"We were at the School," she said, "this morning. Tern and I. Waris was there. Usually we keep to our separate ways. But we met, and - spoke. Just spoke, yet it leaves me so on edge that I feel I need to spend a week, quietly in the Grove, to feel myself balanced again. I feel always what he thinks of me. He thinks me a bad influence."
"On the School?" Crow knew the broad context of these disputes, but the treatises he had rejected from the library did not go so far as to make accusations.
"On the students, for telling them that they may listen, if they are careful, to the old powers that root in the Earth. On the other masters. On Tern." She grinned fiercely. "Tern's art is a lesser one, you see, suitable for witches or sorcerers but not for a man who has the power that he has. I am apparently to blame for that."
"I have been glad enough of his art," said Crow, tipping his head at the case that held the Book of Names.
"And I am glad of it!" said Ember. "None for years had found their way over the sea to Roke. He was the first. If he had not come, then I - ". She broke off. "But if the School were to have another like him, Waris would rather he had lived all his life on a mountaintop, isolated from women and their magic." For an instant, her voice was nakedly bitter, and he was relieved when she rolled her eyes.
He saw afresh that she, like all of them, had grown old. She was still the woman he had met when Tern had first brought him to Roke; she was still the woman who had gone alone up on Roke Knoll and killed Early; but her copper skin was dulled, and her hair had fallen into ash.
"What is worst," she went on slowly, "I cannot wholly dispute him. Only in my heart. In my heart, I know that what he says is wrong. But I have always lived on Roke. The wards of Roke have shielded me from what has happened on other islands: the deaths, the burnings, the ignorance and evil powers. Waris has lived on those islands and witnessed those things. I can understand why that would make a man fear corruption, to drive out everything that was a part of that place and time. We all do what we feel we must to survive. What I cannot accept, and this is where we quarrel, is that our fears should become rules, and should be that which we teach to others. To our students. To those who were my students."
"It's wrong to teach things that are wrong," he agreed, "just as it's wrong to set down untruths in books."
"And what will their teaching accomplish?" said Ember. "If women of power and men of power are kept apart, and women are steered away from the great arts for fear of their bringing with them something of the earth, impure, then Waris' gloomy foretellings will fulfil themselves. If women of power may learn nothing but how to make love-potions, cure cramps and procure abortions, then that is all they will do. And in time they will forget the Language of the Making and the law of the Equilibrium. The world will not be better for that."
"No. I've travelled in places far from the influence of the Hand, and seen witches such as you describe. Women selling magic at the markets where slave-takers sold their slaves and refugees sold their books. I thought them part of the sickness for which knowledge was the cure."
"It can be a cure," said Ember. "But perhaps not for all things."
She stretched her arms across the table, looking tired. "I am sorry," she said. "When I was young, before the School, I thought there was nothing I could do to make the world better. And now I am old, despite the work I have done in between, I feel much the same way again."
"It's an uncertain time, when we come to pass on our legacies. Especially if we don't fully trust those who will receive them." Crow looked around at the fourteen presses, at the ranked books and at the stone faces of the monarchs, who smiled imperturbably. "Look at them, all dead - or almost all - did they know that they would be read in our time? In times we can't yet imagine? Did they wonder what use would be made of their words?"
He rose and closed the volume of Pelnish chants. He replaced the book (Heru 2 7) on its shelf and closed the case. "How old is that?" Ember asked.
"The book? Perhaps sixty years. The text? I don't know. Some of the writings it contains have circulated, in different forms, for at least four hundred years. But it's difficult to mark the point at which a work is finished and begins to age. Every person who copies it changes something."
"But when it comes here, to the library, it becomes fixed," she said. "It does not change any more."
Ember had written no books, he thought. If any future student wished to know what Roke's first Master Patterner had thought about something, they must rely on accounts that would be second-hand at best, altered by time and the embellishments of different speakers. But fisherfolk mending their nets in Thwil harbour would still sing a common street ballad about a battle and a lady of fire.
"Librarians are not makers," he said. "Collectors. Cataloguers."
"Keepers." She smiled wryly. "Perhaps that is what we both are. When I was a girl – and a woman, for years – all our purpose was to hold our knowledge; to pass it on, yes, with an open hand, but not to use it. Then Tern came, from outside, and made us think that by using our knowledge we could help the rest of the Archipelago. We built the School. But we knew the task would take a long time, and soon we realised that it would take more than our lifetimes. Perhaps more than twenty lifetimes. So now we pass on what we know more widely than before; but still we hold it, and we wait. We hope that someday, by our doing this, the throne of Havnor will be filled again and not by tyrants. We cannot see from here to there. We can only keep it – thus – " she held out one hand, fingers curled – "the knowledge from which use may come."
"A task with little glory, and thus more suited to the temper of a librarian than to some of the masters of Roke. No wonder they quarrel so."
"I have felt bitter myself, that none will remember me."
"They will remember you," Crow said. "It won't be as you are, but that's the fate even of princes…". He reached for the book that still lay on the table, the anthology copied in his own hand. "Here. We have some time before classes finish and the students swarm in. Let me read you something."