The Other Wind
Ursula K. Le Guin
Sparrowhawk asks his visitor, Alder, about himself.
The best harps in Earthsea are made on Taon, and there are schools of music there, and many famous singers of the Lays and Deeds were born or learned their art there. Elini, however, is just a market town in the hills, with no music about it, Alder said; and his mother was a poor woman, though not, as he put it, hungry poor. She had a birthmark, a red stain from the right eyebrow and ear clear down over her shoulder. Many women and men with such a blemish or difference about them become witches or sorcerers perforce, "marked for it," people say. Blackberry learned spells and could do the most ordinary kind of witchery; she had no real gift for it, but she had a way about her that was almost as good as the gift itself. She made a living, and trained her son as well as she could, and saved enough to prentice him to the sorcerer who gave him his true name.
Of his father Alder said nothing. He knew nothing. Blackberry had never spoken of him. Though seldom celibate, witches seldom kept company more than a night or two with any man, and it was a rare thing for a witch to marry a man. Far more often two of them lived their lives together, and that was called witch-marriage or she-troth. A witch's child, then, had a mother or two mothers, but no father. That went without saying, and Sparrowhawk asked nothing on that score; but he asked about Alder's training.
The sorcerer Gannet had taught Alder the few words he knew of the True Speech, and some spells of finding and illusion, at which he had shown, he said, no talent at all. But Gannet took enough interest in the boy to discover his true gift. Alder was a mender. He could rejoin. He could make whole. A broken tool, a knife blade or an axle snapped, a pottery bowl shattered: he could bring the fragments back together without joint or seam or weakness. So his master sent him about seeking various spells of mending, which he found mostly among witches of the island, and he worked with them and by himself to learn to mend.
"That is a kind of Healing," Sparrowhawk said. "No small gift, nor easy craft."
"It was a joy to me," Alder said, with a shadow of a smile in his face. "Working out the spells, and finding sometimes how to use one of the True Words in the work.... To put back together a barrel that's dried, the staves all fallen in from the hoops that's a real pleasure, seeing it build up again, and swell out in the right curve, and stand there on its bottom ready for the wine.... There was a harper from Meoni, a great harper, oh, he played like a storm on the high hills, like a tempest on the sea. He was hard on the harpstrings, twanging and pulling them in the passion of his art, so they'd break at the very height and flight of the music. And so he hired me to be there near him when he played, and when he broke a string I'd mend it quick as the note itself, and he'd play on."
Sparrowhawk nodded with the warmth of a fellow professional talking shop. "Have you mended glass?" he asked.
"I have, but it's a long, nasty job," Alder said, "with all the tiny little bits and speckles glass goes to."
"But a big hole in the heel of a stocking can be worse," Sparrowhawk said, and they discussed mending for a while longer, before Alder returned to his story.
He had become a mender, then, a sorcerer with a modest practice and a local reputation for his gift. When he was about thirty, he went to the principal city of the island, Meoni, with the harper, who was playing for a wedding there. A woman sought him out in their lodging, a young woman, not trained as a witch; but she had a gift, she said, the same as his, and wanted him to teach her. And indeed she had a greater gift than his. Though she knew not a word of the Old Speech, she could put a smashed jug back together or mend a frayed-out rope just with the movements of her hands and a wordless song she sang under her breath, and she had healed broken limbs of animals and people, which Alder had never dared try to do.
So rather than his teaching her, they put their skills together and taught each other more than either had ever known. She came back to Elini and lived with Alder's mother Blackberry, who taught her various useful appearances and effects and ways of impressing customers, if not much actual witch-knowledge. Lily was her name; and Lily and Alder worked together there and in all the hill-towns nearby, as their reputation grew.
"And I came to love her," Alder said. His voice had changed when he began to speak of her, losing its hesitancy, growing urgent and musical.
"Her hair was dark, but with a shining of red gold in it," he said.
There was no way he could hide his love from her, and she knew it and returned it. Whether she was a witch now or not, she said she did not care; she said the two of them were born to be together, in their work and in their life; she loved him and would be married to him.
So they were married, and lived in very great happiness for a year, and half a second year.
"Nothing was wrong at all until the time came for the child to be born," Alder said. "But it was late, and then very late. The midwives tried to bring on the birth with herbs and spells, but it was as if the child would not let her bear it. It would not be separated from her. It would not be born. And it was not born. It took her with it."
After a while he said, "We had great joy."
"I see that."
"And my sorrow was in that degree."
The old man nodded.
"I could bear that," Alder said. "You know how it is. There was not much reason to be living that I could see, but I could bear that."
"But in the winter. Two months after her death. There was a dream came to me. She was in the dream."
"I stood on a hillside. Along the top of the hill and running down the slope was a wall, low, like a boundary wall between sheep-pastures. She was standing across the wall from me, below it. It was darker there."
Sparrowhawk nodded once. His face had gone rock hard.
"She was calling to me. I heard her voice saying my name, and I went to her. I knew she was dead, I knew that in the dream, but I was glad to go. I couldn't see her clear, and I went to her to see her, to be with her. And she reached out across the wall. It was no higher than my heart. I had thought she might have the child with her, but she did not. She was reaching her hands out to me, and so I reached out to her, and we took each other's hands."
"I wanted to go to her, but it was as if I could not cross the wall. My legs would not move. I tried to draw her to me, and she wanted to come, it seemed as if she could, but the wall was there between us. We couldn't get over it. So she leaned across to me and kissed my mouth and said my name. And she said, 'Set me free!'
"I thought if I called her by her true name maybe I could free her, bring her across that wall, and I said, 'Come with me, Mevre!' But she said, 'That's not my name, Hara, that's not my name any more.' And she let go my hands, though I tried to hold her. She cried, 'Set me free, Hara!' But she was going down into the dark. It was all dark down that hillside below the wall. I called her name and her use-name and all the dear names I had had for her, but she went on away. So then I woke."
Sparrowhawk gazed long and keenly at his visitor. "You gave me your name, Hara," he said.
Alder looked a little stunned, and took a couple of long breaths, but he looked up with desolate courage. "Who could I better trust it with?" he said.
Sparrowhawk thanked him gravely. "I will try to deserve your trust," he said. "Tell me, do you know what that place is that wall?"
"I did not know it then. Now I know you have crossed it."
"Yes. I've been on that hill. And crossed the wall, by the power and art I used to have. And I've gone down to the cities of the dead, and spoken to men I had known living, and sometimes they answered me. But Hara, you are the first man I ever knew or heard of, among all the great mages in the lore of Roke or Paln or the Enlades, that ever touched, that ever kissed his love across that wall."