She did not wait for an answer. “I’ll walk her up,” she said, standing up, and put out her hand for the reins. Ivory saw that he was supposed to dismount. He did so, asking, “Is it very bad?” and peering at the horse’s leg, seeing only bright, bloody foam.

“Come on then, my love,” the young woman said, not to him. The mare followed her trustfully. They set off up the rough path round the hillside to an old stone and brick stableyard, empty of horses, inhabited only by nesting swallows that swooped about over the roofs calling their quick gossip.

“Keep her quiet,” said the young woman, and left him holding the mare’s reins in this deserted place. She returned after some time lugging a heavy bucket, and set to sponging off the mare’s leg. “Get the saddle off her,” she said, and her tone held the unspoken, impatient, “you fool!” Ivory obeyed, half-annoyed by this crude giantess and half-intrigued. She did not put him in mind of a flowering tree at all, but she was in fact beautiful, in a large, fierce way. The mare submitted to her absolutely. When she said, “Move your foot!” the mare moved her foot. The woman wiped her down all over, put the saddle blanket back on her, and made sure she was standing in the sun. “She’ll be all right,” she said. “There’s a gash, but if you’ll wash it with warm salt water four or five times a day, it’ll heal clean, I’m sorry.” She said the last honestly, though grudgingly, as if she still wondered how he could have let his mare stand there to be assaulted, and she looked straight at him for the first time. Her eyes were clear orange-brown, like dark topaz or amber. They were strange eyes, right on a level with his own.

“I’m sorry too,” he said, trying to speak carelessly, lightly.

“She’s Irian of Westpool’s mare. You’re the wizard, then?”

He bowed. “Ivory, of Havnor Great Port, at your service. May I -“

She interrupted. “I thought you were from Roke.”

“I am,” he said, his composure regained.

She stared at him with those strange eyes, as unreadable as a sheep’s, he thought. Then she burst out: ‘You lived there? You studied there? Do you know the Archmage?”

“Yes,” he said with a smile. Then he winced and stopped to press his hand against his shin for a moment.

“Are you hurt too?”

“It’s nothing,” he said. In fact, rather to his annoyance, the cut had stopped bleeding. The woman’s gaze returned to his face.

“What is it – what is it like – on Roke?”

Ivory went, limping only very slightly, to an old mounting-block nearby and sat down on it. He stretched his leg, nursing the torn place, and looked up at the woman. “It would take a long time to tell you what Roke is like,” he said. “But it would be my pleasure.”

“The man’s a wizard, or nearly,” said Rose the witch, “a Roke wizard! You must not ask him questions!” She was more than scandalized, she was frightened.

“He doesn’t mind,” Dragonfly reassured her. “Only he hardly ever really answers.”

“Of course not!”

“Why of course not?”

“Because he’s a wizard! Because you’re a woman, with no art, no knowledge, no learning!”

“You could have taught me! You never would!”

Rose dismissed all she had taught or could teach with a flick of the fingers.

“Well, so I have to learn from him,” said Dragonfly.

“Wizards don’t teach women. You’re besotted.”

“You and Broom trade spells.”

“Broom’s a village sorcerer. This man is a wise man. He learned the High Arts at the Great House on Roke!”

“He told me what it’s like,” Dragonfly said. “You walk up through the town, Thwil Town. There’s a door opening on the street, but it’s shut. It looks like an ordinary door.”

The witch listened, unable to resist the lure of secrets revealed and the contagion of passionate desire.

“And a man comes when you knock, an ordinary-looking man. And he gives you a test. You have to say a certain word, a password, before he’ll let you in. If you don’t know it, you can never go in. But if he lets you in, then from inside you see that the door is entirely different – it’s made out of horn, with a tree carved on it, and the frame is made out of a tooth, one tooth of a dragon that lived long, long before Erreth-Akbe, before Morred, before there were people in Earthsea. There were only dragons, to begin with. They found the tooth on Mount Onn, in Havnor, at the centre of the world. And the leaves of the tree are carved so thin that the light shines through them, but the door’s so strong that if the Doorkeeper shuts it no spell could ever open it. And then the Doorkeeper takes you down a hall and another hall, till you’re lost and bewildered, and then suddenly you come out under the sky. In the Court of the Fountain, in the very deepest inside of the Great House. And that’s where the Archmage would be, if he was there…”

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Categories: Ursula K. Le Guin