King Dog: Sample

A Movie for the Mind’s Eye
by Ursula K. Le Guin

Part One: The Stranger Comes

The Opening: Tollin Bay.

It is late dusk on the shore of a great bay. The wet sand or mud of the beach shines dimly down by the quiet, blue-grey water. Far off across the bay, dark mountains stand between it and the sea, and over them a little rusty stain is left from sunset, low in the sky. Far down the shore to the left are a few faint yellowish lights —firelight or lamplight in fishermen’s huts. A boat is passing; a candle in a horn lantern, very dim, sways on the mast. The shadowy sail fades across the water till it can be seen no more. Above it, high up in the sky, a star shines out.

The star brightens, keeps brightening, and its motion becomes apparent — it is falling, falling, to the bay in a great brilliant arc. A deep thunder noise increases, louder and louder. The brightness is blinding: the bay mouth, the mountains, the water, the silhouette of a wooded island out in the bay, all are distinct, spectrally vivid white and black, as in a lightning flash prolonged unbearably — and then in one instant both noise and light cease, as the “star” falls behind the island.

Silence. Twilight. Down the beach a lantern swings, and faint indistinguishable voices are calling. A dog barks excitedly in the distance.

Images of Romond’s Journey to the Capital.

An old man is speaking, a Councillor called Batash; as we hear his voice we see these images on the screen:

A man, very dimly seen, in silver clothing and helmet, comes towards us up from the water’s edge on the beach of Tollin Bay.

A dog runs along the water’s edge and across the mud flats, barking wildly.

The man in silver — Romond — carrying his helmet in his hand, with shadowy figures of fishermen and villagers accompanying him, goes away down the beach towards the little town. It is nearly dark. Romond and the villagers are talking, mostly in gestures, pointing out to sea.

In hot, sunny weather, Romond, wearing the tunic part of his silver suit but also wearing leather breeches and carrying a leather backpack and a walking stick, trudges along a dusty country road, deeply rutted with wagon tracks.

In the rain, beside a big plowed field, Romond is talking to three or four peasant women and men. They are at some distance — the landscape, the big, lonely, halfwild landscape, is the dominating presence in this and many other scenes — and we can’t hear what they say, but Romond talks earnestly and they listen intently, nodding or interrupting once or twice. He points to the ground and makes gestures indicating some activity. A gesture — “it’ll grow this high!” He laughs, they laugh, dark toothless grins. He salutes them, turns, and walks on along the wagon-track towards us. As he walks, Batash is ending his speech.

BATASH’S VOICE: My lord the King! They say this man is wise. The fishermen of Tollin Bay saw a star fall in the sea between the nightfall and the night, and then saw this man come across the bay in a silver boat, they say, a boat without sail or oars, they say. He left Tollin and went from town to town. He can cure the cough, they say, he can prevent the plague. He knows the secrets of the earth, when to plant the seed and where to mine for lead. He’s walked for half a year across your kingdom, coming to your city Aremgar. He hopes to serve your majesty, though he knows well that your majesty needs no service, being complete as is the sun at noon.

The Throne Room of the Palace in Aremgar.

Now we see the face of the old man, Batash, as he finishes speaking; and then we see that Romond is standing beside him; and then as the camera pulls back, the whole group of courtiers who stand facing the throne. It is as if we sat on the throne, seeing these men.

This is a society in the Bronze Age. There are none of the luxuries and appurtenances of industrial high technology. But it is a civilisation. The throne room is large, long, high, and beautiful, lit with a diffuse indirect daylight from hidden windows, decorated with fine tapestries. The courtiers, all men, a dozen or so, are dressed with elegance and style, in clear soft colors; the cut of their clothes is not recognisable as coming from any place or period on Earth, but it’s not outlandish at all. Romond wears his silver suit minus the helmet, and does not stand out too badly.

The courtiers face the throne, and none of them turns his back on it at any time, but they are not servile or particularly formal; this is a working government carrying on daily business.

Councillor Batash is a stout, handsome man, not so old after all, about sixty. Kida, a minister, is fortyish, dark, alert, well-fed, shrewd. Fezat, the king’s youngest brother, is in his twenties, very handsome, with a pleasant, thin face; the other brother of the king, Bolhan, is about thirty, also handsome, but with a bad complexion, puffy and discolored. Harish Ashed, the Lord of the North, brother of the king’s wife, is a barrelchested, broad- shouldered, vigorous man, not tall, in soldier’s gear. He is about thirty, as are most of the other courtiers — Batash is the oldest man there.

When Batash has finished his peroration, Kida takes up the introduction.

KIDA: His name is Romond the Traveller, my lord. He’s lived twelve days now in my house, a welcome guest. He tells good stories about the foreign lands he’s seen. The world grows stranger every time he talks.

BATASH: But there’s no foreign land where he can have seen so strong a kingdom ruled by a king so righteous!

BOLHAN: Who bets against such heavy odds.

HARISH: Yes, Traveller, in those foreign places did you ever see a king who was threatened with invasion and wouldn’t lift his hand to —

BATASH: So strong a kingdom, I say, strong and secure —

HARISH: Secure!!

His roar brings sudden silence, in which he and Batash recollect themselves and turn again towards the throne. In the pause, Romond steps forward, and now addresses the throne. He has a slight foreign accent, a self-possessed manner, a warm, quiet voice. He turns to each man as he names them.

ROMOND: Lord Harish Ashed, Lord Bolhan, Lord Fezat, my kind hosts, your majesty! The experience of others is uncertain gain. The traveller tells his stories, and the old say In my day, but each of us must live our days and none can live them for us. So I came to live some of the days of my life in your kindly kingdom, under your bright sun.

As Romond speaks the viewpoint shifts, pulling back to include King Ashthera sitting on his throne, facing the courtiers. The throne is of dark wood inlaid with gold wire tracery and opals: old, fragile, regal, precious. The king, a man of thirty-four or thirty- five, is dressed in darker, plainer clothes than most of the courtiers. He has an unremarkable face. A dog, a big, handsome hound, nothing fancy, sits alert beside the throne. Also alert and relaxed, the king responds to Romond’s speech with a pleasant nod. Romond steps back to stand beside Kida, who looks pleased and says something to him in an undertone. Bolhan, ostensibly addressing Romond, speaks for the king’s ears.

BOLHAN: A pity that you came in cloudy weather.

HARISH: Kingdom? What kingdom? A country torn apart, half of it thrown away, thrown to the dogs —

FEZAT: (goodnaturedly) Harish, leave out the poetry. Say what you want to say.

HARISH: I will speak!

BOLHAN: Or bellow, as the case may be.

HARISH: King Ashthera, my sister’s husband, my king! You know that if you don’t fight for it, King Kammin will take over the whole Eastern Province and then invade from there. You talk about peace. Peace, when his sword’s drawn! We can choose to fight or to surrender, to win or get beaten, to live or to lie down and die — but we can’t choose peace!

A COUNCILLOR: The Eastern Province sent messengers again this morning, your majesty. They beg again for troops to help them hold the border before it’s too late to make a stand.

HARISH: Your father won the Eastern Province in a great battle. You cannot let his victory go to waste!

BATASH: Who says cannot to the king? But I will say, majesty, that the time seems ripe. The only jewel missing in your crown is the ruby of Victory.

HARISH: We must strike before Kammin moves —

THE COUNCILLOR: The Eastern Province fears for its freedom —

ASHTHERA: Freedom?

There is a little silence before he speaks again.

ASHTHERA: Freedom is a very tricky business. Justice, though, justice is a human matter, justice is in our hands, isn’t it? Well, my father won that land, all right — took it from Kammin’s father. More of their people live on that land; but we won the battle. The victory. Now King Kammin and I each claim the land. So where’s the right? With the victor — is that right?

Again a silence.

ASHTHERA: If justice is simply a matter of winning, why drag armies in? Why kill people?

FEZAT: You want a single combat with King Kammin…?

ASHTHERA: He’d never take me on. My reputation with a sword’s too good. I thought I might challenge him to a game of dice.

HARISH: Dice!

BATASH: A game of dice, majesty?

BOLHAN: Well, brother, you run true to form.

HARISH: A game of dice!!

The king looks at them all, his gaze lingering a moment on Romond.

ASHTHERA: The odds at dice are even. Our rights are about equal. Our armies may be equal, or may not. Do you think righteousness wins wars? Which righteousness? I’d rather trust to luck.

HARISH: I’d fight — I’d fight for you, for my sister, for our cause — to keep from shame — And you laugh at that, you joke!

ASHTHERA: I’m not joking, Harish.

KIDA: But, my lord —

BATASH: Your majesty is pleased to — to…

ASHTHERA: I was always lucky, playing dice, you know.

A couple of the courtiers, including Batash, look as if they did indeed know. Ashthera goes on:

The Goddess loves a gambler. And win or lose, we’ll save the cost of war. In money and in lives.

HARISH: Soldiers’ lives? Save them? What for?

ASHTHERA: The hitch is, will King Kammin bet with me. He’s not a gambling man. Well, my lords! Shall I send my challenge? The Eastern Province, best of three — winner takes all.

BATASH: For shame, my lord!

FEZAT: He might play — for shame. But if he lost—

ASHTHERA: He wouldn’t pay. Well, then, you could have your war.

HARISH: Our war? Yours — your war — your right — your duty as the king! The land is yours!

ASHTHERA: As much as it is Kammin’s, anyway.

HARISH: I speak of your whole kingdom — the Inner Land — the Northland my sister brought you! Would you gamble that away? Are you so afraid of fighting?

FEZAT: (cuts in adroitly) I doubt Kammin would have the nerve for single combat. He fancies himself a strategist. Safe behind the lines, in other words.

ASHTHERA: Well, my friends, consider my suggestion. We must make up our minds tonight. Now will you leave our guest an hour with me?

As the courtiers withdraw, the king’s brothers Fezat and Bolhan join him a moment as he steps down from the throne. He strokes the dog’s head as he listens to them.

FEZAT: You’re caught, Ashthera. No way out. Don’t put it off by playing games. War’s your duty, and you know it.

BOLHAN: Dutiful Ashthera!

FEZAT: Quit sneering, Bolhan.

BOLHAN: I’m not. I’m stating fact. I see a rabbit in a trap and say, there’s a trapped rabbit. Or, projectively, there’s rabbit stew for supper.

FEZAT: You’re drunk.

BOLHAN: Temporarily, yes. But our brother the king drinks the sour wine pressed out by trampling barefoot on his conscience, and is always drunk.

FEZAT: Come on.

Fezat and Bolhan leave. A couple of servants have been setting the throne room in order, and now go out quietly. Romond is standing where he has stood throughout the audience. Ashthera now turns to look at him. They look at each other for a moment in silence. The high room is quiet around them.

ROMOND: In the inmost room of the great house, splendor becomes silence.

ASHTHERA: This isn’t the inmost room. I’ve never found it.

He continues to look at Romond, smiling but reserved, studying him as one might study a person recognized from a picture or from a meeting very long ago.

ASHTHERA: I’ll take you as close to it as I can.

The dog close beside him, Ashthera goes to a tapestried wall behind the throne and holds the tapestry aside for Romond; they enter a small door hidden by the tapestry. They are in a corridor now, a rat-run between the palace walls, dusty and cramped, littered with bits of wood and plaster, light coming from somewhere up where the roof meets the high wall. The dog goes first, then Romond, then the king.

The Inner Room

They come out through a narrow little door into a room with high ceiling, whitewashed walls, bare wood floor. There is a string cot and a low table, the height for a person sitting on the floor. On the table is a book, handmade, handlettered, a rare object, old and much handled. Clear, calm light enters from a broad window set high up in the wall; up in the window, on the inner ledge, a tabby cat is sleeping, having given the newcomers one uninterested, slit-eyed stare. On the wall facing the window is a single large tapestry, somewhat ragged and much darkened by age, threads and patches of color and gold in it catching the light. As the king and his guest sit down to talk this tapestry dominates the room, and Romond glances up at it from time to time. Its subject is a single large figure, an androgynous dancing god/dess, holding the sun in the right hand and the moon in the left. The figure is graceful, erotic, and threatening; the face, however, is totally serene. The background and lower part of the tapestry are composed of a mass of small figures, which as the light catches them stand out, now one, now another: corpses, people dying of plague, women in childbirth in prison, warriors disembowelled, a bound slave being blinded, a baby spitted on a sword, horses foundering under loads, oxen at the slaughterhouse, dogs whipped, people and animals starving thin, broken tools, houses collapsing in earthquake, altars befouled, palaces burning. All these small images form a dark, burnished mass or heap beneath the dancing feet of the god/dess; and at the bottom of the tapestry is woven the image of a wide-mouthed bowl of reddish clay, into which thin streams of red, black, and gold run from the mass of tormented figures.

Ashthera sits down crosslegged on the floor, inviting Romond with a gesture to sit on the cot. His manner is easy and goodhumored. The hound settles down at once beside him, head on forepaws, eyes watchful: habit, love, and training.

ASHTHERA: Duty. A strange thing. My brothers, my brother- in-law, my councillors, the generals, the priests, they all know what my duty is. But when I ask for justice, nobody answers.

ROMOND: (answers with evident caution)Will you play at dice with King Kammin for this province that’s in question?

ASHTHERA: I won’t be allowed to. Kings can’t play. Blood’s what kings drink, not water.

ROMOND: But if you could — you’d risk half your kingdom on a game?

ASHTHERA: Risk it? I’d give it to him! And give my brothers the other half. Bet with Bolhan for it, maybe, best of three; he’s always wanted it. But he’s no gambler. And he’d lose. He always does.

Ashthera looks shrewdly at Romond before he goes on:

It’s no secret that I’m king against my will. I always win; but that doesn’t mean I choose. What I’d have chosen would be to walk, to walk on the roads, in the forests, by myself, alone. But Fezat is right. There’s no way out, no road into the forest. The righteous king must lead the rightful war… I had a dream the other night that a little animal was in my pocket, like a pet mouse a boy might have. I took it to the Great Temple to show to the priests. I had to show it to them. I knew they’d take it and sacrifice it. Why is it that one can’t choose, in dreams? While they were doing that, I came back here and searched all over the palace for something I’d lost, but it wasn’t here. Something I couldn’t find, no bigger than a mouse, a little frightened animal. Today I keep on feeling in my pockets; but there’s nothing in them but my hands.

Ashthera looks at his hands, palm and back; then strokes the dog’s muscular neck.

ROMOND: (speaks cautiously, curious, testing)I have heard that King Kammin is a tyrant, bloodthirsty.

ASHTHERA: In his country you’d hear the same of me.

ROMOND: It’s not true, then?

ASHTHERA: Of course it’s true. I tell you, kings drink blood. Where have you travelled, Romond the Traveller? Where you’ve been, do kings go into the forest alone, and drink water, and sit so still that mice make nests in their shirt pockets?

ROMOND: No, my lord.

ASHTHERA: Where you come from, do tigers live on grass?

ROMOND: No, my lord.

ASHTHERA: Tigers are obedient. They do their duty. They drink blood. What is my conscience to the will of God?

ROMOND: What is your conscience but the will of God?

ASHTHERA: Ah! I knew the stranger hid a friend!

ROMOND: You bring the stranger quickly to the hidden room.

ASHTHERA: I am a gambler.

ROMOND: So I see.

ASHTHERA: When I bet, when I act on chance, on the fall of the dice, I win. When I act as I ought to do, as duty bids, I lose. I’m a hound that can start the hare of chance and run it till it drops, but that’s not the nature of a king. Kings are tigers, killing with a blow. Kings are above chance; they are Fate, they are Destiny. Isn’t it so, in the country you came from?

ROMOND: In the country I came from there are no kings.

ASHTHERA: A messenger of good news. No kings! I’d like to hear about your country. Kida tells me you made some suggestions about the commerce of our Southern ports; I want to hear those too. Come eat with me, we’ll talk.

He gets up, lithe and almost boyish; Romond stands up too.

ASHTHERA: Will you accept a house here in Aremgar for as long as you want to stay — and whatever furnishings you need?

ROMOND: The gift is kingly.

ASHTHERA: It’s not a gift. I’m laying stakes. Come this way, Romond.

Ashthera leads Romond out the second, higher door of the room, into a particularly splendid series of hallways and rooms, furnished grandly, in contrast with the austerity of the inner room. The door closing behind them is hidden by a flowery tapestry. They go off together, talking, the dog following at a little distance, tail up and head down, sniffing at carpets and chairlegs.

The House of the Traveller.

The Palace Compound is a kind of town within the city of Aremgar; the gardens are extensive, and among them are many houses for courtiers and guests. This is the house the king has given Romond — a pleasant place, with a deep porch all round shaded by big, dark, old trees and with slatted blinds for privacy. Fatheyo and Jaga, middle-aged servants, man and wife, are showing Romond about the house; the rooms are bare and airy, very clean. Jaga, slightly lame, says nothing and hangs back, uneasy with the foreigner. Fatheyo, the wife, is respectful, but treats Romond rather as if he were deaf or childish, because of his foreign accent. They come into a room which runs almost the length of one side of the house, and the outer wall of which is all sliding doors, now open, that give on the shady porch.

ROMOND: Ah, here’s where I’ll sleep, I think.

FATHEYO: (nods vigorously) Sleep here, very good. We’ll bring the feather bed in here —

ROMOND: There’s a cot here already.

FATHEYO: A string cot, no, no, we’ll bring in the feather bed.

ROMOND: I’d prefer this. Really.

Fatheyo is resistant to the idea, sneers at the string cot, frets, accepts the inevitable since all foreigners are crazy, and nods resignedly. Romond smiles at her. She responds with a dignified smile.

FATHEYO: You clap your hands if you want us. All right? Like so. Loud, if you want the old man! He’s deaf.

ROMOND: Thank you, Fatheyo. Thank you, Jaga.

FATHEYO: Thank you, Sir Traveller.

As they leave, Fatheyo bumps into Jaga because she is going backwards, partly out of respect and partly out of curiosity, keeping an eye on the foreigner. They go off grumbling connubially at each other.

When Romond is alone in the room he goes out onto the porch and surveys it and the deep, shady gardens beyond it, then comes in and slides the doors shut. He opens and shuts the door the servants left by. He sits down then on the cot and from a concealed pocket in his silver tunic takes a device like a small dictaphone. After some tuning or fiddling he speaks into it, with no foreign accent.

ROMOND: Bara Romond. Record for Anduse Deji…. Listen, Anduse. I’m in a very interesting situation here. I definitely want to stay on. Register me for a depth field-report on a Class 8 H-N society. Two T-years at the minimum. Say ten at the max. Use this coordinate for confirmation or directives. Right? Stop record.

He clicks off the instrument, looks around for a place to store it, finds a small sliding-door wall-cabinet with a key, which he pockets after locking the device away. He looks distinctly pleased with himself: a scientist with a sweet piece of research. He reopens a sliding door to the sweet, shady air and flowering vines of the porch, and stands there, stretching.

Outside the Great Temple of Aremgar.

The outer courtyard of the Great Temple is a very large paved area, partly walled, opening onto a wide, dusty street. Across it, facing the street, rise the long steps and the austere facade of the temple, blank white walls, fiercely bright in the hot sunlight. The courtyard is full of a cheerful, restless crowd milling around and talking, children shouting and running, all in a festival mood. Batash and Romond are making their way through the crowd, getting jostled on the way and occasionally separated, which does not keep Batash from talking on.

BATASH: After the goat sacrifice he asks divine support for this war, you see, and then he’ll come out with his brothers and the queen. You haven’t met the queen yet, it’ll take a while, she keeps to herself. Northern women, it’s hard to know what to expect, that part of the country is very backward, very backward.

The high, carved doors of the temple are flung open wide, and from them issues music, ringing and percussive: gongs, bells, woodblocks, and the huge, deep, dragging notes of long horns. The crowd goes silent, attentive, all faces to the temple. From the dark interior a procession comes out into the glaring light: priests and priestesses, barefoot and in white; then Harish Ashed, beaming, holding up his hands which are covered to the wrists in blood. The crowd cheers, a rhythmic hai! hai! hai! hai! Then Bolhan and Fezat come out, Bolhan looking glassy-eyed; then as the great horns blow, a short, dark woman with a grimly set face; then the king. As the others descend the temple steps the king stops at the top of the steps and speaks to the crowd in a ringing voice.

ASHTHERA: You who go forth to fight or who send your beloved forth to fight, do not be afraid! It is the soldier’s duty to kill or to be killed, and glory rewards the dutiful. If you strike down the enemy you win the right to his lands and goods. If you are struck down in battle you win in that moment the right to heaven. So go forth gladly to this way, knowing that you dance the dance of God!

He holds out his arms in the same position as those of the figure on the tapestry in the inner room: his hands and arms are red with blood. The crowd shouts out its wild rhythmic chant of enthusiasm. Priests scatter tiny gold sequins in showers from the steps, and people push to catch them. Ashthera makes his way straight down the temple steps into the crowd, which parts widely for him, two moving walls of smiling, cheering faces, many people bowing to touch the earth or dropping on their knees. Ashthera, looking ahead, strides past his wife and brothers, Romond and Batash. He is dressed very splendidly and walks erect and rather fast. Fezat and the queen follow him. Harish Ashed runs part way back up the temple steps and shakes his bloody hands, exhibiting them, and the crowd falls back into the rhythmic cheering chant.

HARISH: We’ll drive those mad dogs back! They’ll learn what color blood is! We’ll be back to celebrate our victory, here, before the summer’s over!

The Inner Room.

It is dusk; the high, white walls of the room are dim. Ashthera, alone, sits motionless on the floor, crosslegged, in a posture of meditation, but profoundly dejected. Silence. The last unfinished call of a bird outside. The hound is crouched beside Ashthera, and it sniffs once at his hands, which are still masked in blood, now dried brown and scaly. Ashthera’s expression is inward-turned, but his gaze is steadily on the tapestry, on the feet of the dancing figure, and the innumerable small figures under its feet, gazing at the tangled scenes of war and famine and misery, gazing till the images, the eyes and hands break up into the meaningless textures of the warp and weft, and go dark.

The Inner Gardens of the Palace in Aremgar.

In the warm spring of this warm land, the trees are in full leaf, casting dark shadows on bright grass; the sun shines on great flowering bushes, ponds where the lilies are opening, fountains. Sheltered by a wing of the Palace and by high walls, the inner gardens are beautiful and peaceful. The two children of the king run and play here, the princess Shiros, a bright-faced, dark-eyed girl of ten, and the prince Hantammad, a stout eight-year-old. He is chasing his sister, shouting.

HANTAMMAD: Wait, Shiros! Wait! Shiros, wait!

But she outruns him, and they vanish among the trees and shrubbery. Swallows dip over the ponds, Birds sing near and far. Presently the queen, Tassalil, comes across the grass from the Palace. She is a small woman, compactly built, no beauty, about the same age as her husband.

TASSALIL: Shiros? Hantammad?

But she is not calling aloud, not really trying to find where the children have got to; they’ll turn up. She stops to examine a rose-tree, rubs a leaf for rust or mildew, sniffs a blossom with an intent, almost unbelieving look. She stands to gaze across the sunlit pond. She is self-absorbed, very quiet. The nearby bird sings again.

From the Palace side, Fezat approaches her among the flower- beds. She sees him, and they greet each other with a smile, reserved and affectionate, saying nothing at first.

FEZAT: I hate to disturb you here.

TASSALIL: You never disturb me.

FEZAT: What a nice place this is!

TASSALIL: This is my kingdom.

FEZAT: And the heart of ours. The inmost garden of the Inner Lands.

They separate a little, Fezat walking down to the pond’s edge. From there he speaks without fully turning back to Tassalil.

FEZAT: Have you seen him?

TASSALIL: Not since the sacrifice.

FEZAT: Two days now.

TASSALIL: I’ll have to go.

FEZAT: In that room — ?

TASSALIL: (nods, gazing across the pond.)

FEZAT: At least he doesn’t run off into the forest anymore.

TASSALIL: No. Not even to the gambling house.

FEZAT: He can’t stay in there.

TASSALIL: (shakes her head in agreement. She is impassive.)

FEZAT: I know — I think I know how he feels. But you’re the one to speak to him.

TASSALIL: The children are over there somewhere.

FEZAT: I wish I could stay here with them.

As he goes towards the trees he calls the children, “Shiros! Tammad!” — and they come running across the grass to him. The queen goes slowly towards the palace, with a pause and a long glance back at Fezat and the children.

The Inner Room.

Tassalil comes through the splendid, sunlit rooms that give on the inner garden, and lifts the hanging that conceals the door of the inner room. As she does so she looks back to make sure no one is watching her. Her movements are unhesitating, circumspect, calm, controlled. She knocks once and opens the door slowly.

In the high, bare room, bright with sunlight, Ashthera is sitting in the same position, crosslegged, his back straight, his face turned to the tapestry. His hands are on his knees. His face is hard and haggard.

Tassalil stands a moment watching him, then speaks in a very low, quiet voice.

TASSALIL: I’ll bring water, Ashthera.

When she comes back with a pitcher and basin, the hound follows her and comes in with her, uneasy, wanting to greet Ashthera but restraining itself, waiting unhappily. Tassalil sets the basin on the table and then touches her husband on the shoulder, holding the pitcher ready. He takes it from her and drinks, a long draft. She takes it back and pours water out into the basin. He kneels at the table and begins to wash the dried brown blood off his arms and hands, running his wet hands over his face and hair. Tassalil kneels facing him, quiet. The hound watches and whines once. The tabby cat is fast asleep up on the window ledge. The sound of birds singing and once a child’s shout comes in the window from the gardens.

Tassalil speaks very quietly, unemphatically; her voice is rather husky, and there is a singsong quality, a touch of dialect, in the way she speaks.

TASSALIL: War has been declared…. The messenger from King Kammin came this morning. I saw my brother Harish Ashed later on, all in harness, pawing at the ground….My women say the city’s like it was on coronation day. Flags, and rumors, and running up and down….

There is a pause. Ashthera sits back on his heels. They are not quite facing each other. Both of them speak quietly; the room is secret, quiet, high, full of light.

TASSALIL: Do you think we might lose this war?

ASHTHERA: I’ve already lost.

TASSALIL: Lost what?

ASHTHERA: My truth.

TASSALIL: (shakes her head in calm, absolute denial.)

ASHTHERA: I lied. Aloud, and knowing that I lied.

TASSALIL: Never. You have never lied.

ASHTHERA: “Go kill and be rewarded, be killed and be rewarded, heaven and earth are yours by right of war!”

TASSALIL: The words are sacred. They’re in the Book of Ashantari.

As she speaks she touches the old book on the table beside her. While Ashthera speaks, she watches the serene face of the dancing god/dess above him.

ASHTHERA: Spoken with the heart against it, any word is a lie. I never lied till I stood there on the temple steps. I never hoped to know what the truth is, but I thought I could hold to the piece of it that had been given me. Not the sun, not the moon, only a little rock, a little stone, my truth. You drop it and it’s gone. How can you tell it from all the other stones, all the pebbles, the grains of sand on all the beaches….

TASSALIL: You said what you had to say. You had no choice. Regret is weakness.

ASHTHERA: So I came in here with my weakness.

TASSALIL: But you must come out soon. Strong.

ASHTHERA: Come out and speak the next lie, and the next. I know. I will. Give me a little time. I have to learn to walk. My little truth was light, no burden, but lies are lead. I can hardly get up off the ground. Weak-kneed. Unkingly. Even the king’s wife looks contemptuous.

TASSALIL: That’s not true.

ASHTHERA: See how they breed, the lies? Like flies!

TASSALIL: I am not contemptuous! How could I be? I’ve never understood you — you know that. You’re beyond my reach. I was a child in a fortress in the mountains. Hunters, soldiers, horses, falcons, hounds. A red stag gutted by the fire in the snow, the horned men dancing on midwinter’s day, the old women chattering by the hearths. And all the talk was food, and blood, and hides, and hunts, and raids. And there were always the mountains and the forests and the snow, nothing else, and that was all I knew, when I came here. When I came here ten years ago, to you, and to the sunlight, and the gold, and the silk, and the roses in the gardens, and the flowering trees in sunlight, to you, to marry you. What did I know about kindness then? or patience? or peace? What did I know of strength, but swords? What did I know of truth, but words? What true man did I ever know, but you? You are my truth.

ASHTHERA: (after a pause) What a relief shame is….

Their hands meet.

TASSALIL: Did you sleep last night?

ASHTHERA: I heard the watchmen call all night. I heard every dog in Aremgar. I heard the mice making love.

TASSALIL: Sleep for an hour now.

ASHTHERA: I must see that messenger.

TASSALIL: King Kammin’s messenger can wait. He can wait in hell. Sleep for a while. I’ll bring my harp.

She goes out. Ashthera stands up and stretches, stares a moment at the tapestry, lies down on the cot. Tassalil returns with a small, heavy-framed harp and sits on the floor beside the cot, tuning the strings.

TASSALIL: Shiros has learned to play the Apple Dance, and Tammad sings with her.

ASHTHERA: Let me hear them tonight.

TASSALIL: This peg’s loose…. (She spits on the peg and rubs the saliva into it.) Who’s this man my women call the Silver Man?

ASHTHERA: Romond, he calls himself. A traveller. Travels very light, no burdens; a very practical man.

TASSALIL: Where does he come from?

ASHTHERA: From beyond the Mountains of the Moon, he says. From a country where they have no king.

TASSALIL: Barbarians.

ASHTHERA: There’s no need to have a king if each man acts as a king. Freedom is the mother of order, he says.

TASSALIL: Order is the mother of freedom. Why do you hold your kingship cheap, Ashthera?

ASHTHERA: Because I have better things to do.

TASSALIL: The forest.

ASHTHERA: Yes, the forest. But don’t worry. I’m on the leash now.

He closes his eyes, lying relaxed. Tassalil tests her instrument with a run of arpeggios.

ASHTHERA: Tassalil, listen. Your father wants Hantammad at his court. He should go there, since he’s going to be Prince of the North. Will you take Shiros there too, and live there, till I come back from the East?

TASSALIL: Go back to my father’s court — back to Jogen?

ASHTHERA: The North is half our children’s heritage. Tammad will be prince there, when Shiros is queen. Besides… Jogen is a good fort.

TASSALIL: You think the war might come to Aremgar?

ASHTHERA: (closing his eyes again) I’d give odds on it. Five to three.

TASSALIL: Harish says we’ll have no trouble driving Kammin back to his own border. Or farther if we want.

ASHTHERA: I wouldn’t bet on that….Once you start to beat the drum, how do you stop the dancing?

TASSALIL: I’ll take the children north. There; it’s because the frame’s warped.

She retunes one string, and plays, and presently sings softly to her playing:

TASSALIL’S SONG

O come my king!
I dance beside the river,
I see the river flow.
I will dance life over,
I will dance death forever.
I sing, I sing
The name I do not know.
In love’s name I destroy.
I am danced by joy.
I sing, I sing
O come my king!

 



A Movie for the Mind’s Eye
by Ursula K. Le Guin

$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-120-7

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