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Chapter 3 The Prisoners

 Kossil's steps sounded along the hallway of the Small House, even and deliberate. The tall, heavy figure filled the doorway of the room, shrank as the priestess bowed down touching one knee to the floor, swelled as she straightened to her full height.
 "What is it, Kossil?"
 "I have been permitted to look after certain matters pertaining to the Domain of the Nameless Ones, until now. If you so desire, it is now time for you to learn, and see, and take charge of these matters, which you have not yet remembered in this life."
 The girl had been sitting in her windowless room, supposedly meditating, actually doing nothing and thinking almost nothing. It took some time for the fixed, dull, haughty expression of her face to change. Yet it did change, though she tried to conceal it. She said, with a certain slyness, "The Labyrinth?"
 "We will not enter the Labyrinth. But it will be necessary to cross the Undertomb."
 There was a tone in Kossil's voice that might have been fear, or might have been a pretense of fear, intended to frighten Arha. The girl stood up without haste and said indifferently, "Very well." But in her heart, as she followed the heavy figure of the Godking's priestess, she exulted: At last! At last! I shall see my own domain at last!
 She was fifteen. It was over a year since she had made her crossing into womanhood and at the same time had come into her full powers as the One Priestess of the Tombs of Atuan, highest of all high priestesses of the Kargad Lands, one whom not even the Godking himself might command. They all bowed the knee to her now, even grim Thar and Kossil. All spoke to her with elaborate deference. But nothing had changed. Nothing happened. Once the ceremonies of her consecration were over, the days went on as they had always gone. There was wool to be spun, black cloth to be woven, meal to be ground, rites to be performed; the Nine Chants must be sung nightly, the doorways blessed, the Stones fed with goat's blood twice a year, the dances of the dark of the moon danced before the Empty Throne. And so the whole year had passed, just as the years before it had passed, and were all the years of her life to pass so?
 Her boredom rose so strong in her sometimes that it felt like terror: it took her by the throat. Not long ago she had been driven to speak of it. She had to talk, she thought, or she would go mad. It was Manan she talked to. Pride kept her from confiding in the other girls, and caution kept her from confession to the older women, but Manan was nothing, a faithful old bellwether; it didn't matter what she said to him. To her surprise he had had an answer for her.
 "Long ago," he said, "you know, little one, before our four lands joined together into an empire, before there was a Godking over us all, there were a lot of lesser kings, princes, chiefs. They were always quarreling with each other. And they'd come here to settle their quarrels. That was how it was, they'd come from our land Atuan, and from Karego-At, and Atnini, and even from Hur-at-Hur, all the chiefs and princes with their servants and their armies. And they'd ask you what to do. And you'd go before the Empty Throne, and give them the counsel of the Nameless Ones. Well, that was long ago. After a while the Priest-Kings came to rule all of Karego-At, and soon they were ruling Atuan; and now for four or five lifetimes of men the Godkings have ruled all the four lands together, and made them an empire. And so things are changed. The Godking can put down the unruly chiefs, and settle all the quarrels himself. And being a god, you see, he doesn't have to consult the Nameless Ones very often."
 Arha stopped to think this over. Time did not mean very much, here in the desert land, under the unchanging Stones, leading a life that had been led in the same way since the beginning of the world. She was not accustomed to thinking about things changing, old ways dying and new ones arising. She did not find it comfortable to look at things in that light. "The powers of the Godking are much less than the powers of the Ones I serve," she said, frowning.
 "Surely... Surely... But one doesn't go about saying that to a god, little honeycomb. Nor to his priestess."
 And catching his small, brown, twinkling eye, she thought of Kissil, High Priestess of the Godking, whom she had feared ever since she first came to the Place; and she took his meaning.
 "But the Godking, and his people, are neglecting the worship of the Tombs. No one comes."
 "Well, he sends prisoners here to sacrifice. He doesn't neglect that. Nor the gifts due to the Nameless Ones."
 "Gifts! His temple is painted fresh every year, there's a hundredweight of gold on the altar, the lamps burn attar of roses! And look at the Hall of the Throne- holes in the roof, and the dome cracking, and the walls full of mice, and owls, and bats... But all the same it will outlast the Godking and all his temples, and all the kings that come after him. It was there before them, and when they're all gone it will still be there. It is the center of things."
 "It is the center of things."
 "There are riches there; Thar tells me about them sometimes. Enough to fill the Godking's temple ten times over. Gold and trophies given ages ago, a hundred generations, who knows how long. They're all locked away in the pits and vaults, underground. They won't take me there yet, they keep me waiting and waiting. But I know what it's like. There are rooms underneath the Hall, underneath the whole Place, under where we stand now. There's a great maze of tunnels, a Labyrinth. It's like a great dark city, under the hill. Full of gold, and the swords of old heroes, and old crowns, and bones, and years, and silence."
 She spoke as if in trance, in rapture. Manan watched her. His slabby face never expressed much but stolid, careful sadness; it was sadder than usual now. "Well, and you're mistress of all that," he said. "The silence, and the dark."
 "I am. But they won't show me anything, only the rooms above ground, behind the Throne. They haven't even shown me the entrances to the places underground; they just mumble about them sometimes. They're keeping my own domain from me! Why do they make me wait and wait?"
 "You are young. And perhaps," Manan said in his husky alto, "perhaps they're afraid, little one. It's not their domain, after all. It's yours. They are in danger when they enter there. There's no mortal that doesn't fear the Nameless Ones."
 Arha said nothing, but her eyes flashed. Again Manan had shown her a new way of seeing things. So formidable, so cold, so strong had Thar and Kossil always seemed to her, that she had never even imagined their being afraid. Yet Manan was right. They feared those places, those powers of which Arha was part, to which she belonged. They were afraid to go into the dark places, lest they be eaten.
 Now, as she went with Kossil down the steps of the Small House and up the steep winding path towards the Hall of the Throne, she recalled that conversation with Manan, and exulted again. No matter where they took her, what they showed her, she would not be afraid. She would know her way.
 A little behind her on the path, Kossil spoke. "One of my mistress' duties, as she knows, is the sacrifice of certain prisoners, criminals of noble birth, who by sacrilege or treason have sinned against our lord the Godking."
 "Or against the Nameless Ones," said Arha.
 "Truly. Now it is not fitting that the Eaten One while yet a child should undertake this duty. But my mistress is no longer a child. There are prisoners in the Room of Chains, sent a month ago by the grace of our lord the Godking from his city Awabath."
 "I did not know prisoners had come. Why did I not know?"
 "Prisoners are brought at night, and secretly, in the way prescribed of old in the rituals of the Tombs. It is the secret way my mistress will follow, if she takes the path that leads along the wall."
 Arha turned off the path to follow the great wall of stone that bounded the Tombs behind the domed hall. The rocks it was built of were massive; the least of them would outweigh a man, and the largest were big as wagons. Though unshapen they were carefully fitted and interlocked. Yet in places the height of the wall had slipped down and the rocks lay in a shapeless heap. Only a vast span of time could do that, the desert centuries of fiery days and frozen nights, the millennial, imperceptible movements of the hills themselves.
 "It is very easy to climb the Tomb Wall," Arha said as they went along beneath it.
 "We have not men enough to rebuild it," Kossil replied.
 "We have men enough to guard it."
 "Only slaves. They cannot be trusted."
 "They can be trusted if they're frightened. Let the penalty be the same for them as for the stranger they allow to set foot on the holy ground within the wall."
 "What is that penalty?" Kossil did not ask to learn the answer. She had taught the answer to Arha, long ago.
 "To be decapitated before the Throne."
 "Is it my mistress' will that a guard be set upon the Tomb Wall?"
 "It is," the girl answered. Inside her long black sleeves her fingers clenched with elation. She knew Kossil did not want to spare a slave to this duty of watching the wall, and indeed it was a useless duty, for what strangers ever came here? It was not likely that any man would wander, by mischance or intent, anywhere within a mile of the Place without being seen; he certainly would get nowhere near the Tombs. But a guard was an honor due them, and Kossil could not well argue against it. She must obey Arha.
 "Here," said her cold voice.
 Arha stopped. She had often walked this path around the Tomb Wall, and knew it as she knew every foot of the Place, every rock and thorn and thistle. The great rock wall reared up thrice her height to the left; to the right the hill shelved away into a shallow, arid valley, which soon rose again towards the foothills of the western range. She looked over all the ground nearby, and saw nothing that she had not seen before.
 "Under the red rocks, mistress."
 A few yards down the slope an outcropping of red lava made a stair or little cliff in the hill. When she went down to it and stood on the level before it, facing the rocks, Arha realized that they looked like a rough doorway, four feet high.
 "What must be done?"
 She had learned long ago that in the holy places it is no use trying to open a door until you know how the door is opened.
 "My mistress has all the keys to the dark places."
 Since the rites of her coming of age, Arha had worn on her belt an iron ring on which hung a little dagger and thirteen keys, some long and heavy, some small as fishhooks. She lifted the ring and spread the keys. "That one," Kossil said, pointing; and then placed her thick forefinger on a crevice between two red, pitted rock-surfaces.
 "The key, a long shaft of iron with two ornate wards, entered the crevice. Arha turned it to the left, using both hands, for it was stiff to move; yet it turned smoothly.
 Together they pushed at the rough rock face to the left of the keyhole. Heavily, but without catch and with very little noise, an uneven section of the red rock moved inward until a narrow slit was opened. Inside it was blackness.
 Arha stooped and entered.
 Kossil, a heavy woman heavily clothed, had to squeeze through the narrow opening. As soon as she was inside she backed against the door and, straining, pushed it shut.
 It was absolutely black. There was no light. The dark seemed to press like wet felt upon the open eyes.
 They crouched, almost doubled over, for the place they stood in was not four feet high, and so narrow that Arha's groping hands touched damp rock at once to right and left.
 "Did you bring a light?"
 She whispered, as one does in the dark.
 "I brought no light," Kossil replied, behind her. Kossil's voice too was lowered, but it had an odd sound to it, as if she were smiling. Kossil never smiled. Arha's heart jumped; the blood pounded in her throat. She said to herself, fiercely: This is my place, I belong here, I will not be afraid!
 Aloud she said nothing. She started forward; there was only one way to go. It went into the hill, and downward.
 Kossil followed, breathing heavily, her garments brushing and scraping against rock and earth.
 All at once the roof lifted: Arha could stand straight, and stretching out her hands she felt no walls. The air, which had been close and earthy, touched her face with a cooler dampness, and faint movements in it gave the sense of a great expanse. Arha took a few cautious steps forward into the utter blackness. A pebble, slipping under her sandaled foot, struck another pebble, and the tiny sound wakened echoes, many echoes, minute, remote, yet more remote. The cavern must be immense, high and broad, yet not empty: something in its darkness, surfaces of invisible objects or partitions, broke the echo into a thousand fragments.
 "Here we must be beneath the Stones," the girl said whispering, and her whisper ran out into the hollow blackness and frayed into threads of sound as fine as spiderweb, that clung to the hearing for a long time.
 "Yes. This is the Undertomb. Go on. I cannot stay here. Follow the wall to the left. Pass three openings."
 Kossil's whisper hissed (and the tiny echoes hissed after it). She was afraid, she was indeed afraid. She did not like to be here among the Nameless Ones, in their tombs, in their caves, in the dark. It was not her place, she did not belong here.
 "I shall come here with a torch," Arha said, guiding herself along the wall of the cavern by the touch of her fingers, wondering at the strange shapes of the rock, hollows and swellings and fine curves and edges, rough as lace here, smooth as brass there: surely this was carven work. Perhaps the whole cavern was the work of sculptors of the ancient days?
 "Light is forbidden here." Kossil's whisper was sharp. Even as she said it, Arha knew it must be so. This was the very home of darkness, the inmost center of the night.
 Three times her fingers swept across a gap in the complex, rocky blackness. The fourth time she felt for the height and width of the opening, and entered it. Kossil came behind.
 In this tunnel, which went upward again at a slight slant, they passed an opening on the left, and then at a branching way took the right: all by feel, by groping, in the blindness of the underearth and the silence inside the ground. In such a passageway as this, one must reach out almost constantly to touch both sides of the tunnel, lest one of the openings that must be counted be missed, or the forking of the way go unnoticed. Touch was one's whole guidance; one could not see the way, but held it in one's hands.
 "Is this the Labyrinth?"
 "No. This is the lesser maze, which is beneath the Throne."
 "Where is the entrance to the Labyrinth?"
 Arha liked this game in the dark, she wanted a greater puzzle to be set her.
 "The second opening we passed in the Undertomb. Feel for a door to the right now, a wooden door, perhaps we've passed it already-"
 Arha heard Kossil's hands fumbling uneasily along the wall, scraping on the rough rock. She kept her fingertips light against the rock, and in a moment felt the smooth grain of wood beneath them. She pushed on it, and the door creaked open easily. She stood for a moment blind with light.
 They entered a large low room, walled with hewn stone and lighted by one fuming torch hung from a chain. The place was foul with the torch-smoke that had no outlet. Arha's eyes stung and watered.
 "Where are the prisoners?"
 At last she realized that the three heaps of something on the far side of the room were men.
 "The door isn't locked. Is there no guard?"
 "None is needed."
 She went a little farther into the room, hesitant, peering through the smoky haze. The prisoners were manacled by both ankles and one wrist to great rings driven into the rock of the wall. If one of them wanted to lie down, his chained arm must remain raised, hanging from the manacle. Their hair and beards had made a matted tangle which, together with the shadows, hid their faces. One of them half lay, the other two sat or squatted. They were naked. The smell from them was stronger even than the reek of smoke.
 One of them seemed to be watching Arha; she thought she saw the glitter of eyes, then was not sure. The others had not moved or lifted their heads.
 She turned away. "They are not men any more," she said.
 "They were never men. They were demons, beast-spirits, who plotted against the sacred life of the Godking!" Kossil's eyes shone with the reddish torchlight.
 Arha looked again at the prisoners, awed and curious. "How could a man attack a god? How was it? You: how could you dare attack a living god?"
 The one man stared at her through the black brush of his hair, but said nothing.
 "Their tongues were cut out before they were sent from Awabath," Kossil said. "Do not speak to them, mistress. They are defilement. They are yours, but not to speak to, nor to look at, nor to think upon. They are yours to give to the Nameless Ones."
 "How are they to be sacrificed?"
 Arha no longer looked at the prisoners. She faced Kossil instead, drawing strength from the massive body, the cold voice. She felt dizzy, and the reek of smoke and filth made her sick, yet she seemed to think and speak with perfect calm. Had she not done this many times before?
 "The Priestess of the Tombs knows best what manner of death will please her Masters, and it is hers to choose. There are many ways."
 "Let Gobar the captain of the guards hew off their heads. And the blood will be poured out before the Throne."
 "As if it were a sacrifice of goats?" Kossil seemed to be sneering at her lack of imagination. She stood dumb. Kossil went on, "Besides, Gobar is a man. No man can enter the Dark Places of the Tombs, surely my mistress remembers that? If he enters, he does not leave..."
 "Who brought them here? Who feeds them?"
 "The wardens who serve my temple, Duby and Uahto; they are eunuchs and may enter here on the services of the Nameless Ones, as I may. The Godking's soldiers left the prisoners bound outside the wall, and I and the wardens brought them in through the Prisoner's Door, the door in the red rocks. So it is always done. The food and water is lowered from a trapdoor in one of the rooms behind the Throne."
 Arha looked up and saw, beside the chain from which the torch hung, a wooden square set into the stone ceiling. It was far too small for a man to crawl through, but a rope lowered from it would come down just within reach of the middle prisoner of the three. She looked away again quickly.
 "Let them not bring any more food or water, then. Let the torch go out."
 Kossil bowed. "And the bodies, when they die?"
 "Let Duby and Uahto bury them in the great cavern that we passed through, the Undertomb," the girl said, her voice becoming quick and high. "They must do it in the dark. My Masters will eat the bodies."
 "It shall be done."
 "Is this well, Kossil?"
 "It is well, mistress."
 "Then let us go," Arha said, very shrill. She turned and hurried back to the wooden door, and out of the Room of Chains into the blackness of the tunnel. It seemed sweet and peaceful as a starless night, silent, without sight, or light, or life. She plunged into the clean darkness, hurried forward through it like a swimmer through water. Kossil hastened along, behind her and getting farther behind, panting, lumbering. Without hesitation Arha repeated the missed and taken turnings as they had come, skirted the vast echoing Undertomb, and crept, bent over, up the last long tunnel to the shut door of rock. There she crouched down and felt for the long key on the ring at her waist. She found it, but could not find the keyhole. There was no pinprick of light in the invisible wall before her. Her fingers groped over it seeking lock or bolt or handle and finding nothing. Where must the key go? How could she get out?
 Kossil's voice, magnified by echoes, hissed and boomed far behind her.
 "Mistress, the door will not open from inside. There is no way out. There is no return."
 Arha crouched against the rock. She said nothing.
 "I am here."
 She came, crawling on hands and knees along the passage, like a dog, to Kossil's skirts.
 "To the right. Hurry! I must not linger here. It is not my place. Follow me."
 Arha got to her feet, and held onto Kossils robes. They went forward, following the strangely carven wall of the cavern to the right for a long way, then entering a black gap in the blackness. They went upward now, in tunnels, by stairs. The girl still clung to the woman's robe. Her eyes were shut.
 There was light, red through her eyelids. She thought it was the torchlit room full of smoke again, and did not open her eyes. But the air smelt sweetish, dry and moldy, a familiar smell; and her feet were on a staircase steep almost as a ladder. She let go Kossil's robe, and looked. A trapdoor was open over her head. She scrambled through it after Kossil. It let her into a room she knew, a little stone cell containing a couple of chests and iron boxes, in the warren of rooms behind the Throne Room of the Hall. Daylight glimmered gray and faint in the hallway outside its door.
 "The other, the Prisoner's Door, leads only into the tunnels. It does not lead out. This is the only way out. If there is any other way I do not know of it, nor does Thar. You must remember it for yourself, if there is one. But I do not think there is." Kossil still spoke in an undertone, and with a kind of spitefulness. Her heavy face within the black cowl was pale, and damp with sweat.
 "I don't remember the turnings to this way out."
 "I'll tell them to you. Once. You must remember them. Next time I will not come with you. This is not my place. You must come alone."
 The girl nodded. She looked up into the older woman's face, and thought how strange it looked, pale with scarcely mastered fear and yet triumphant, as if Kossil gloated over her weakness.
 "I will come alone after this," Arha said, and then trying to turn away from Kossil she felt her legs give way, and saw the room turn over. She fainted in a little black heap at the priestess' feet.
 "You'll learn," Kossil said, still breathing heavily, standing motionless. "You'll learn."

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