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Chapter 5 Light Under the Hill

 As the year was rounding again towards winter, Thar died. In the summer a wasting disease had come upon her; she who had been thin grew skeletal, she who had been grim now did not speak at all. Only to Arha would she talk, sometimes, when they were alone together; then even that ceased, and she went silently into the dark. When she was gone, Arha missed her sorely. If Thar had been stern, she had never been cruel. It was pride she had taught to Arha, not fear.
 Now there was only Kossil.
 A new High Priestess for the Temple of the Twin Gods would come in spring from Awabath; until then, Arha and Kossil between them were the rulers of the Place. The woman called the girl "mistress," and should obey her if commanded. But Arha learned not to command Kossil. She had the right to do so, but not the strength; it would take very great strength to stand up against Kossil's jealousy of a higher status than her own, her hatred of anything she herself did not control.
 Since Arha had learned (from gentle Penthe) of the existence of unfaith, and had accepted it as a reality even though it frightened her, she had been able to look at Kossil much more steadily, and to understand her. Kossil had no true worship in her heart of the Nameless Ones or of the gods. She held nothing sacred but power. The Emperor of the Kargad Lands now held the power, and therefore he was indeed a godking in her eyes, and she would serve him well. But to her the temples were mere show, the Tombstones were rocks, the Tombs of Atuan were dark holes in the ground, terrible but empty. She would do away with the worship of the Empty Throne, if she could. She would do away with the First Priestess, if she dared.
 Arha had come to face even this last fact quite steadily. Perhaps Thar had helped her to see it, though she had never said anything directly. In the first stages of her illness, before the silence came upon her, she had asked Arha to come to her every few days, and had talked to her, telling her much about the doings of the Godking and his predecessor, and the ways of Awabath - matters which she should as an important priestess know, but which were not often flattering to the Godking and his court. And she had spoken of her own life, and described what the Arha of the previous life had looked like and done; and sometimes, not often, she had mentioned what might be the difficulties and dangers of Arha's present life. Not once did she mention Kossil by name. But Arha had been Thar's pupil for eleven years, and needed no more than a hint or a tone to understand, and to remember.
 After the gloomy commotion of the Rites of Mourning was over, Arha took to avoiding Kossil. When the long works and rituals of the day were done, she went to her solitary dwelling; and whenever there was time, she went to the room behind the Throne, and opened the trapdoor, and went down into the dark. In daytime and nighttime, for it made no difference there, she pursued a systematic exploration of her domain. The Undertomb, with its great weight of sacredness, was utterly forbidden to any but priestesses and their most trusted eunuchs. Any other, man or woman, who ventured there would certainly be struck dead by the wrath of the Nameless Ones. But among all the rules she had learned, there was no rule forbidding entry to the Labyrinth. There was no need. It could be entered only from the Undertomb; and anyway, do flies need rules to tell them not to enter in a spider's web?
 So she took Manan often into the nearer regions of the Labyrinth, that he might learn the ways. He was not at all eager to go there, but as always he obeyed her. She made sure that Duby and Uahto, Kossil's eunuchs, knew the way to the Room of Chains and the way out of the Undertomb, but no more; she never took them into the Labyrinth. She wanted no one but Manan, utterly faithful to her, to know those secret ways. For they were hers, hers alone, forever. She had begun her full exploration with the Labyrinth. All the autumn she spent many days walking those endless corridors, and still there were regions of them she had never come to. There was a weariness in that tracing of the vast, meaningless web of ways; the legs got tired and the mind got bored, forever reckoning up the turnings and the passages behind and to come. It was wonderful, laid out in the solid rock underground like the streets of a great city; but it had been made to weary and confuse the mortal walking in it, and even its priestess must feel it to be nothing, in the end, but a great trap.
 So, more and more as winter deepened, she turned her thorough exploration to the Hall itself, the altars, the alcoves behind and beneath the altars, the rooms of chests and boxes, the contents of the chests and boxes, the passages and attics, the dusty hollow under the dome where hundreds of bats nested, the basements and underbasements that were the anterooms of the corridors of darkness.
 Her hands and sleeves perfumed with the dry sweetness of a musk that had fallen to powder lying for eight centuries in an iron chest, her brow smeared with the clinging black of cobweb, she would kneel for an hour to study the carvings on a beautiful, time-ruined coffer of cedar wood, the gift of some king ages since to the Nameless Powers of the Tombs. There was the king, a tiny stiff figure with a big nose, and there was the Hall of the Throne with its flat dome and porch columns, carved in delicate relief on the wood by some artist who had been dust for how many hundred years. There was the One Priestess, breathing in the drug-fumes from the trays of bronze and prophesying or advising the king, whose nose was broken off in this frame; the face of the Priestess was too small to have clear features, yet Arha would imagine that the face was her own face. She wondered what she had told the king with the big nose, and whether he had been grateful.
 She had favorite places in the Hall of the Throne, as one might have favorite spots to sit in a sunny house. She often went to a little half-loft over one of the robing rooms in the hinder part of the Hall. There ancient gowns and costumes were kept, left from the days when great kings and lords came to worship at the Place of the Tombs of Atuan, acknowledging a domain greater than their own or any man's. Sometimes their daughters, the princesses, had put on these soft white silks, embroidered with topaz and dark amethyst, and had danced with the Priestess of the Tombs. There were little painted ivory tables in one of the treasuries, showing such a dance, and the lords and kings waiting outside the Hall, for then as now no man ever set foot on the ground of the Tombs. But the maidens might come in, and dance with the Priestess, in white silk. The Priestess herself wore rough cloth, homespun black, always, then and now; but she liked to come and finger the sweet, soft stuff, rotten with age, the unperishing jewels tearing from the cloth by their own slight weight. There was a scent in these chests different from all the musks and incenses of the temples of the Place: a fresher scent, fainter, younger.
 In the treasure rooms she would spend a night learning the contents of a single chest, jewel by jewel, the rusted armor, the broken plumes of helms, the buckles and pins and brooches, bronze, silver-gilt, and solid gold.
 Owls, undisturbed by her presence, sat on the rafters and opened and shut their yellow eyes. A bit of starlight shone in between tiles of the roof; or the snow came sifting down, fine and cold as those ancient silks that fell to nothing at hand's touch.
 One night late in the winter, it was too cold in the Hall. She went to the trapdoor, raised it, swung down onto the steps, and closed it above her. She set off silently on the way she now knew so well, the passage to the Undertomb. There, of course, she never bore a light; if she carried a lantern, from going in the Labyrinth or in the dark of night above ground, she extinguished it before she came near the Undertomb. She had never seen that place, never in all the generations of her priestesshood. In the passage now, she blew out the candle in the lamp she carried, and without slowing her pace at all went forward in the pitch dark, easy as a little fish in dark water. Here, winter or summer, there was no cold, no heat: always the same even chill, a little damp, changeless. Up above, the great frozen winds of winter whipped thin snow over the desert. Here there was no wind, no season; it was close, it was still, it was safe.
 She was going to the Painted Room. She liked sometimes to go there and study the strange wall drawings that leapt out of the dark at the gleam of her candle: men with long wings and great eyes, serene and morose. No one could tell her what they were, there were no such paintings elsewhere in the Place, but she thought she knew; they were the spirits of the damned, who are not reborn. The Painted Room was in the Labyrinth, so she must pass through the cavern beneath the Tombstones first. As she approached it down the slanting passage, a faint gray bloomed, a bare hint and glimmer, the echo of an echo of a distant light.
 She thought her eyes were tricking her, as they often did in that utter blackness. She closed them, and the glimmering vanished. She opened them, and it reappeared.
 She had stopped and was standing still. Gray, not black. A dull edge of pallor, just visible, where nothing could be visible, where all must be black.
 She took a few steps forward and put out her hand to that angle of the tunnel wall; and, infinitely faint, saw the movement of her hand.
 She went on. This was strange beyond thought, beyond fear, this faint blooming of light where no light had ever been, in the inmost grave of darkness. She went noiseless on bare feet, blackclothed. At the last turn of the corridor she halted; then very slowly took the last step, and looked, and saw.
 -Saw what she had never seen, not though she had lived a hundred lives: the great vaulted cavern beneath the Tombstones, not hollowed by man's hand but by the powers of the Earth. It was jeweled with crystals and ornamented with pinnacles and filigrees of white limestone where the waters under earth had worked, eons since: immense, with glittering roof and walls, sparkling, delicate, intricate, a palace of diamonds, a house of amethyst and crystal, from which the ancient darkness had been driven out by glory.
 Not bright, but dazzling to the dark-accustomed eye, was the light that worked this wonder. It was a soft gleam, like marshlight, that moved slowly across the cavern, striking a thousand scintillations from the jeweled roof and shifting a thousand fantastic shadows along the carven walls.
 The light burned at the end of a staff of wood, smokeless, unconsuming. The staff was held by a human hand. Arha saw the face beside the light; the dark face: the face of a man.
 She did not move.
 For a long time he crossed and recrossed the vast cave. He moved as if he sought something, looking behind the lacy cataracts of stone, studying the several corridors that led out of the Undertomb, yet not entering them. And still the Priestess of the Tombs stood motionless, in the black angle of the passage, waiting.
 What was hardest for her to think, perhaps, was that she was looking at a stranger. She had very seldom seen a stranger. It seemed to her that this must be one of the wardens - no, one of the men from over the wall, a goatherd or guard, a slave of the Place; and he had come to see the secrets of the Nameless Ones, maybe to steal something from the Tombs...
 To steal something. To rob the Dark Powers. Sacrilege: the word came slowly into Arha's mind. This was a man, and no man's foot must ever touch the soil of the Tombs, the Holy Place. Yet he had come here into the hollow place that was the heart of the Tombs. He had entered in. He had made light where light was forbidden, where it had never been since world's beginning. Why did the Nameless Ones not strike him down?
 He was standing now looking down at the rocky floor, which was cut and troubled. One could see that it had been opened and reclosed. The sour sterile clods dug up for the graves had not all been stamped down again.
 Her Masters had eaten those three. Why did they not eat this one? What were they waiting for?
 For their hands to act, for their tongue to speak...
 "Go! Go! Begone!" she screamed all at once at the top of her voice. Great echoes shrilled and boomed across the cavern, seeming to blur the dark, startled face that turned towards her, and, for one moment, across the shaken splendor of the cavern, saw her. Then the light was gone. All splendor gone. Blind dark, and silence.
 Now she could think again. She was released from the spell of light.
 He must have come in by the red rock door, the Prisoners' Door, so he would try to escape by it. Light and silent as the soft-winged owls she ran the half-circuit of the cavern to the low tunnel that led to the door which opened only inwards. She stooped there at the entrance of the tunnel. There was no draft of wind from outside; he had not left the door fixed open behind him. It was shut, and if he was in the tunnel, he was trapped there.
 But he was not in the tunnel. She was sure of it. So close, in that cramped place, she would have heard his breath, felt the warmth and pulse of his life itself. There was no one in the tunnel. She stood erect, and listened. Where had he gone?
 The darkness pressed like a bandage on her eyes. To have seen the Undertomb confused her; she was bewildered. She had known it only as a region defined by hearing, by hand's touch, by drifts of cool air in the dark; a vastness; a mystery, never to be seen. She had seen it, and the mystery had given place, not to horror, but to beauty, a mystery deeper even than that of the dark.
 She went slowly forward now, unsure. She felt her way to the left, to the second passageway, the one that led into the Labyrinth. There she paused and listened.
 Her ears told her no more than her eyes. But, as she stood with one hand on either side of the rock archway, she felt a faint, obscure vibration in the rock, and on the chill, stale air was the trace of a scent that did not belong there: the smell of the wild sage that grew on the desert hills, overhead, under the open sky.
 Slow and quiet she moved down the corridor, following her nose.
 After perhaps a hundred paces she heard him. He was almost as silent as she, but he was not so surefooted in the dark. She heard a slight scuffle, as if he bad stumbled on the uneven floor and recovered himself at once. Nothing else. She waited awhile and then went slowly on, touching her right hand fingertips very lightly to the wall. At last a rounded bar of metal came under them. There she stopped, and felt up the strip of iron until, almost as high as she could reach, she touched a projecting handle of rough iron. This, suddenly, with all her strength, she dragged downward.
 There was a fearful grinding and a clash. Blue sparks leapt out in a falling shower. Echoes died away, quarreling, down the corridor behind her. She put out her hands and felt, only a few inches before her face, the pocked surface of an iron door.
 She drew a long breath.
 Returning slowly up the tunnel to the Undertomb, and keeping its wall to her right, she went on to the trapdoor in the Hall of the Throne. She did not hasten, and went silently, though there was no need for silence any more. She had caught her thief. The door that he had gone through was the only way into or out of the Labyrinth; and it could be opened only from the outer side.
 He was down there now, in the darkness underground, and he would never come out again.
 Walking slowly and erect, she went past the Throne into the long columned hall. There, where one bronze bowl on the high tripod brimmed with the red glow of charcoal, she turned and approached the seven steps that led up to the Throne.
 On the lowest step she knelt, and bowed her forehead down to the cold, dusty stone, littered with mouse bones dropped by the hunting owls.
 "Forgive me that I have seen Your darkness broken," she said, not speaking the words aloud. "Forgive me that I have seen Your tombs violated. You will be avenged. O my Masters, death will deliver him to you, and he will never be reborn!"
 Yet even as she prayed, in her mind's eye she saw the quivering radiance of the lighted cavern, life in the place of death; and instead of terror at the sacrilege and rage against the thief, she thought only how strange it was, how strange...
 "What must I tell Kossil?" she asked herself as she came out into the blast of the winter wind and drew her cloak about her. "Nothing. Not yet. I am mistress of the Labyrinth. This is no business of the Godking's. I'll tell her after the thief is dead, perhaps. How must I kill him? I should make Kossil come and watch him die. She's fond of death. What is it he was seeking? He must be mad. How did he get in? Kossil and I have the only keys to the red rock door and the trapdoor. He must have come by the red rock door. Only a sorcerer could open it. A sorcerer-"
 She halted, though the wind almost buffeted her off her feet.
 "He is a sorcerer, a wizard of the Inner Lands, seeking the amulet of Erreth-Akbe."
 And there was such an outrageous glamor in this, that she grew warm all over, even in that icy wind, and laughed out loud. All around her the Place, and the desert around it, was black and silent; the wind keened; there were no lights down in the Big House. Thin, invisible snow flicked past on the wind.
 "If he opened the red rock door with sorcery, he can open others. He can escape."
 This thought chilled her for a moment, but it did not convince her. The Nameless Ones had let him enter. Why not? He could not do any harm. What harm is a thief who can't leave the scene of his theft? Spells and black powers he must have, and strong ones no doubt, since he had got that far; but he would not get farther. No spell cast by mortal man could be stronger than the will of the Nameless Ones, the presences in the Tombs, the Kings whose Throne was empty.
 To reassure herself of this, she hastened on down to the Small House. Manan was asleep on the porch, rolled up in his cloak and the ratty fur blanket that was his winter bed. She entered quietly, so as not to awaken him, and without lighting any lamp. She opened a little locked room, a mere closet at the end of the hall. She struck a flint spark long enough to find a certain place on the floor, and kneeling, pried up one tile. A bit of heavy, dirty cloth, only a few inches square, was revealed to her touch. This she slipped aside noiselessly. She started back, for a ray of light shot upward, straight into her face.
 After a moment, very cautiously, she looked into the opening. She had forgotten that he carried that queer light on his staff. She had been expecting at most to hear him, down there in the dark. She had forgotten the light, but he was where she had expected him to be: right beneath the spy hole, at the iron door that blocked his escape from the Labyrinth.
 He was standing there, one hand on his hip, the other holding out at an angle the wooden staff, as tall as he was, to the tip of which clung the soft will-o'-the-wisp. His head, which she looked down upon from some six feet above. was cocked a bit to the side. His clothes were those of any winter traveler or pilgrim, a short heavy cloak, a leather tunic, leggings of wool, laced sandals; there was a light pack on his back, a water bottle slung from it, a knife sheathed at his hip. He stood there still as a statue, easy and thoughtful.
 Slowly he raised his staff from the ground, and held the bright tip of it out towards the door, which Arha could not see from her spy hole. The light changed, growing smaller and brighter, an intense brilliance. He spoke aloud. The language he spoke was strange to Arha, but stranger to her than the words was the voice, deep and resonant.
 The light on the staff brightened, flickered, dimmed. For a moment it died quite away, and she could not see him.
 The pale violet marshlight reappeared, steady, and she saw him turn away from the door. His spell of opening had failed. The powers that held the lock fast on that door were stronger than any magic he possessed.
 He looked about him, as if thinking, now what?
 The tunnel or corridor in which he stood was about five feet wide. Its roof was from twelve to fifteen feet above the rough rock floor. The walls here were of dressed stone, laid without mortar but very carefully and closely, so that one could scarcely slip a knife-tip into the joints. They leaned inward increasingly as they rose, forming a vault.
 There was nothing else.
 He started forward. One stride took him out of Arha's range of vision. The light died away. She was about to replace the cloth and the tile, when again the soft shaft of light rose up out of the floor before her. He had come back to the door. Perhaps he had realized that if he once left it and entered the maze, he was not very likely to find it again.
 He spoke, one word only, in a low voice. "Emenn," he said, and then again, louder, "Emenn!" And the iron door rattled in its jambs, and low echoes rolled down the vaulted tunnel like thunder, and it seemed to Arha that the floor beneath her shook.
 But the door stayed fast.
 He laughed then, a short laugh, that of a man who thinks, "What a fool I've made of myself!" He looked around the walls once more, and as he glanced upward Arha saw the smile lingering on his dark face. Then he sat down, unslung his pack, got out a piece of dry bread, and munched on it. He unstopped his leather bottle of water and shook it; it looked light in his hand, as if nearly empty. He replaced the stopper without drinking. He put the pack behind him for a pillow, pulled his cloak around him, and lay down. His staff was in his right hand. As he lay back, the little wisp or ball of light floated upward from the staff and hung dimly behind his head, a few feet off the ground. His left hand was on his breast, holding something that hung from a heavy chain around his neck. He lay there quite comfortable, legs crossed at the ankle; his gaze wandered across the spy hole and away; he sighed and closed his eyes. The light grew slowly dimmer. He slept.
 The clenched hand on his breast relaxed and slipped aside, and the watcher above saw then what talisman he wore on the chain: a bit of rough metal, crescent-shaped, it seemed.

 The faint glimmer of his sorcery died away. He lay in silence and the dark.
 Arha replaced the cloth and reset the tile in its place, rose cautiously and slipped away to her room. There she lay long awake in the wind-loud darkness, seeing always before her the crystal radiance that had shimmered in the house of death, the soft unburning fire, the stones of the tunnel wall, the quiet face of the man asleep.

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