The Humiliation of Cob
The markets of Havnor had many stalls. Most were filled with merchants hawking their wares. Bright silks from Lorbannery competed with sweet wines and bitter ales from the Enlades, wool and cheese from Gont, weapons from the Karg smithies, and precious stones from the western islands for the attention and resources of the crowds thronging about. Amongst the merchants' stalls wandered beggars with hands extended and faces pleading, thieves and pickpockets eager to cut a purse or palm a jewel, lost children looking for a familiar face, nervous patrons looking for bargains, the wealthy out for a pleasant afternoon's diversion, and various guards, some royal, some private, keeping sharp their lookout. In odd corners and wedged into awkward spaces were merchants and other folk selling more questionable goods aimed at satisfying the darker desires of body and soul. Furtive hazia dealers looked for marks, men and women offered their companionship, and roaming vendors offered cures for almost any problem that plagued the people of the archipelago.
Still, despite this wide variety of goods and services on offer, there was one stall, or rather space between stalls, in the back of the market that advertised nothing, but perpetually was filled with all manner of people entering and leaving. It was to this stall that Sparrowhawk headed. Sparrowhawk was still shaken by his long struggle with the Shadow, and even though he had made his peace with it so that it no longer tormented him in this world or the other, he still was finding his way as an ordinary mage. Most common people shied away from him; the scars on his face were even now brilliantly white against his dark coppery skin, and that combined with the sight of his wizard's staff meant few dared approach him. Witches, sorcerers, and most wizards were equally cautious around him, but for other reasons. They had heard tales of Sparrowhawk and his power, his temper, how he had summoned the dead and bargained with dragons, and how he had merged in some arcane way with a Power of darkness. They believed it was better to leave him be. So it was in this way, alone and pensive, that Sparrowhawk made his way to that dark space in the back of the market.
The market was like a maze, and even though Sparrowhawk had not been there much before, he knew where to go. He was following not his memory of the place, but rather the promptings of his wizard's eye and his gut instincts. He felt that the Equilibrium was being disrupted in that Market's hollow spaces and he meant to see what the source of that unbalance was. Perhaps he could do nothing, yet perhaps he could.
As he drew nearer, Sparrowhawk could see people, some older and alone, some younger and in groups, entering the space. The older ones moved purposively, self-contained, like they hoped for something but dared not allow themselves to feel that hope too strongly. The younger people in groups laughed and joked, pushing each other good-naturedly ahead. However, their eyes betrayed a kind of wariness, like they knew that they were brushing up against something that is better ignored, but fearful of looking weak in front of their friends. Sparrowhawk took his time and moved like one of the older people into that space.
It was between the walls of two stalls, and partially behind another one. The air felt drier than the general humidity of the market, and there was hardly any conversation or human noise at all, except for one soft voice, reed-thin and contained, asking what the crowd "would like to see." No one responded, until one elderly man, bent double with age, in a voice trembling not from age, requested, "I would like to see Lobelia. I want to know she is not miserable. I want to see her again. My wife…"
The soft voice, coming from a figure shrouded in a dark robe and carrying a staff, responded, "So shall it be. I can make it happen, and I will. I charge nothing, because this is my purpose." He began chanting the distorted syllables of the Palnish lore, one following the other, the boundaries between words not clear even to one trained in wizardly speech such as Sparrowhawk. The chant continued for minutes, and as it did, the air grew palpably cooler and drier, the sensation of thick darkness grew, and the crowd let out small gasps of astonishment. Then, suddenly and instantaneously, Sparrowhawk could see bright stars over a dry land, and a hole in the wall separating the living from the dead, and a wizard beckoning a female spirit to cross the wall, to come, to belong again to the living, even if only for a moment. She advanced, crossing the wall and into the room in Havnor market, where the old, weeping, man called her name. She made no response, but stood there amongst the crowd, expressionless. The old man moved to embrace her, but as he moved to grasp her, she faded away. Sparrowhawk saw her crossing back across the stone wall, and then fading into the dusty landscape.
The wizard of the Palnish lore chuckled and reminded his audience not to try to touch the apparitions; they were no longer accustomed to the living and could not abide their noise and stench. "Next request?" he continued. One of the young people responded, "Elfarran…"
The shadow wizard began his Palnish chant. Sparrowhawk felt the palpitations of his racing heart, the cold sweat breaking out on his palms and the unscarred cheek, a heated fury rising in his chest. Head throbbing, he called out, "Stop your sorcery. Now. You mock the living by offering what you cannot provide, and you toy with the dead as puppets of your make. You…"
The shadow wizard interrupted, "And who you are that you interpose yourself between my Art and my audience? Who are you to tell me, Master of the Palnish Lore, Cob of the Two Lands, what may I or mightn't I do? Where is your authority and where is your right? Go, and hurry, before I summon darker powers than these to deal with you."
Sparrowhawk, in full rage, shouted, "I know what you do and why you do it. It will stop. My authority? I have been to the land of the dead and returned; therein lies my authority. My right? I have loved in this land and seen those loves go to the Dry Land; therein lies my right. You will not do this thing again. If you wish to manipulate the living and the dead, you will do it from the other side of the wall."
Cob righted himself, and thrusting forward his staff as the crowd shrank back, he resumed chanting his Palnish song. This time, however, Sparrowhawk felt that it was he who was the target as a chill ran the length of his spine. Suddenly he was in front of the stone wall, body being jerked forward like a marionette, his will seemingly not in control of his movements. Sparrowhawk looked about, and catching sight of Cob several paces behind him, tip of his staff glowing with an ultraviolet gleam, thrust out his own staff and shouted "loren carolistek," at which point Cob stiffened and moved in synchronicity with Sparrowhawk. Sparrowhawk had cast a binding spell, and bound Cob to him so that what befell one befell the other.
Cob began sobbing and pulling back, trying to reverse his spell. Sparrowhawk, uttering the words of a spell to strengthen his momentum, pulled Cob forward despite his resistance. Eyes growing wider with panic, Cob realized that he was overmatched and that Sparrowhawk was leading the both of them over the stone wall. Tears of helpless rage and fear overwhelmed Cob. He began pleading with Sparrowhawk, promising him riches, fame, worship, whatever he wanted as long as he did not drag Cob into the dry land. Finally Cob fell to his knees, begging Sparrowhawk for mercy, promising repentance, and appealing to Sparrowhawk's compassion. Sparrowhawk's heart, in his rage and fury, was hardened to Cob's pleas for mercy, and he kept advancing. The wall drew ever closer, and finally Cob's protestations stopped. He simply fell onto the ground and curled into a ball, gibbering and whimpering.
Sparrowhawk kept going, lifting Cob over the stone wall and into the Dry Land. Cob's inert form lay there, stone-cold and solid. Sparrowhawk looked down, his anger cooling somewhat, decided to let Cob stay there for a time, so that he may learn his lesson. Sparrowhawk thought to himself, "I will treat Cob as he has treated the shades of the dead. I will right the Equilibrium in this way; the Balance will be restored. This is justice, and I will bring it."
After a time he thought appropriate, Sparrowhawk lifted Cob again and conveyed him back over the stone wall. He removed the binding spell from him and waited for him to recover his senses. During this whole episode, the crowd simply saw lights on the wizards' staves grow until Cob collapsed. Then they saw Cob waking to consciousness, but looking fragile, weak, shaken, and sick, his power broken and his pride destroyed. Satisfied, Sparrowhawk spoke for all to hear, "You now have been dealt with as you have dealt with others. Learn from this and do it no more. I have dealt my punishment and brought you justice. If I catch you again at these games, I will destroy you and remove your name from this world and the other. Do you understand? Do you?" Cob squeaked a short reply, indicating that he did understand. What he understood, though, was not quite what Sparrowhawk had intended. For Cob had seen that one could cross back over the wall separating the dry land from the land of the living, and not just at the bidding of a Palnish wizard.
Later, when Sparrowhawk returned to his master's cabin on Gont and told Ogion of what had happened, Ogion's only response was, "Your anger itself unbalances the Equilibrium. What you did to Cob will not easily be undone."