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Authors: Ursula K. le Guin

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BOOK: Gifts
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I do not know what my father intended his raid to be—a sudden, fierce onslaught of warriors falling on terrified townsfolk, or an impressive entry and demands enforced by the threat of dreaded and uncanny powers. Whatever he had imagined doing, when he came there he led his troop to the city and into the streets not at a gallop, shouting and brandishing weapons, but sedately, in order. So they went all but unnoticed among the crowds and flocks and wagons and horse herds of a market day, until they were right in the central square and marketplace, where suddenly people saw them and began to scream, “Uplanders! Witchfolk!” Then some ran to escape or to bar their doors, and others scurried to save their market goods, and those fleeing were trapped in the square by those coming to see what was going on, and there was panic and havoc, stalls overturned, canopies dragging, frightened horses plunging and trampling, cattle bawling, the farmers of Caspromant brandishing their lances and cudgels at fishwives and tinsmiths. Canoc called them out of this panic, threatening not the townspeople but his own men with his power, till he got them gathered around him, some of them doggedly hanging on to goods they had grabbed from the market stalls—a pink shawl, a copper stew pot.

He told me, “I saw that in a blood-fight, we were lost. There were hundreds of those folk—hundreds!”

How could he have known what a town was? He had never seen one.

“If we went into the houses to loot, wed be separated and they’d pick us off one by one. Only Ternoc and I had a gift strong enough to attack or defend with. And what were we to take? There was all this stuff, things, everywhere—food, goods, clothes, no end to it! How could we take all that? What were we after? I wanted me a wife, but I didn’t see how that was to be, the way things were there. And the one thing we really need in the Uplands is hands to work. I knew if I didn’t put a scare into them, and soon, they’d be all over us. So I raised up the parley flag, hoping they knew what it was. They did. Some men showed themselves at the windows of the big house over the marketplace and waved a cloth out the window.

“Then I called out, ‘I am Canoc Caspro of the True Lineage of Caspromant, and I have the gift and power to undo, which you shall see me use.’ And first I struck one of the market stalls, so it fell all to pieces. Then I turned half round, to be sure they saw what I did and how I did it, and I struck the corner of a big stone building across from the house they were in. I held my arm out steady, so they could see. They saw the wall of the building move and bulge, and stones slip down out of it, making a hole in the wall. That grew bigger, and the sacks of grain inside burst open, and the noise of the stones falling was terrible. ‘Enough, enough!’ they shouted out. So I ceased to unmake the granary and turned to them again. They wanted to talk and parley. They asked me what I wanted of them. I said, ‘Women and boys.’

“There went up an awful howl at that. People in all the streets and houses around shouted, ‘No! No! Kill the witches!’ There were so many of them, their voices were like a storm of wind. My horse jumped and screamed. An arrow had just nicked his rump. I looked up into the window above the one where the men were parleying and saw an archer leaning far out the window to draw his bow again. I struck him. His body fell like a sack from the window to the stones below, and burst. Then I saw a man at the edge of the crowd of people caught in the marketplace stoop and come up with a stone in his hand, and I struck him. I unmade his arm only. It fell to his side limp as a string. He began to scream, and there was wailing and panic where the archer had fallen. ‘I will unmake the next man who moves,’ I called aloud. And nobody moved.”

Canoc kept his men close around while he parleyed. Ternoc guarded his back. The men speaking for the town consented, under his threats, to give him five serf women and five boys. They began to argue for time to collect the tribute, as they called it, but that he forbade: “Send them here, now, and we will choose what we want,” he said, and raised his left hand a little, at which they agreed to his demand.

Then came a time that seemed very long to him, while the crowds in the side streets ebbed and then grew again, pressing closer, and he could do nothing but sit his sweating horse and keep a keen eye out for archers and other threats. At last dismal little groups of boys and women came driven through the streets to the marketplace, two here and three there, weeping and pleading, some even crawling on their hands and knees, goaded forward by whips and kicks. There were five boys in all, none of them more than ten years old, and four women: two little serf girls half dead with fear, and two older women with stained, stinking clothing who came without being driven, maybe thinking life the witchfolk could not be worse than life as a tanners slave. And that was all.

Canoc thought it unwise to insist on a better selection to choose from. The longer he was here so hugely outnumbered, the nearer to the time when somebody in the mob of people shot an arrow or threw a stone that hit its mark, and then the crowd would tear them all to pieces.

All the same, he would not be bilked by these merchants.

“There are four women only,” he said.

The parleyers whined and argued.

His time was short. He looked about the marketplace and the big houses around it. He saw a woman’s face in the window of a narrow house at the corner. She wore a willow-green color that had caught his eye before. She was not hiding, but standing right in the window looking down at him.

“Her,” he said, pointing. He pointed with his right hand, but all the people gasped and cowered. That made him laugh. He moved his right hand slowly across the watching faces in a pretense of unmaking them all.

The door of the corner house opened, and the woman in willow-green came out and stood on the step. She was young, small, and thin. Her long hair lay black on her green gown.

“Will you be my wife?” Canoc said to her.

She stood still. “Yes,” she said, and came walking slowly across the ruined marketplace to him. She wore strapped black slippers. He held his left hand down to her. She stepped in the stirrup, and he swung her up into the saddle before him.

“The mules and their gear are yours!” he called out to the townsmen, mindful of the gift’s gift. From his poverty it was indeed a great gift, though the people of Dunet may well have taken it for a final insolence.

His men had each taken one of the serfs up to ride double with them, and so they set out, riding sedately, in order, the crowds falling away from them in silence, through the street, out from between the house walls, onto the northern road, seeing the mountains before them.

So ended the last raid on the Lowlands from Caspromant. Neither Canoc nor his bride ever went down that road again.

She was named Melle Aulitta. She owned the willow-green dress, the little black slippers she stood in, and a tiny opal on a silver chain around her neck. That was her dowry. He married her four nights after he brought her home to the Stone House. His mother and the housewomen had readied clothing and other things proper for a bride to have, in great haste and with a good will. Brantor Orrec married them in the hall of the Stone House, with all the members of the raiding troop present, and all the people of Caspromant, and whoever could come from the domains of the west to dance at the wedding.

“And then,” I said, when my father had finished the story, “Mother had me!”

♦ ♦ ♦

M
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was born and grew up in Derris Water, fourth of the five daughters of a priest-magistrate of the civic religion of Bendraman. It is a high office, and the priest-magistrate and his wife were well off, bringing up their daughters in leisure and luxury, though very strictly, for the state religion demands modesty, chastity, and obedience of women, and is full of penances and humiliations for those who disobey. Adild Aulitta was a kindly and indulgent father. His highest hope for his girls was that they should be dedicated virgins in the City Temple. Melle was taught reading, writing, some mathematics, a great deal of holy history and poetry, and the elements of urban surveying and architecture, as preparation for that honorable career. She liked learning and was an excellent pupil.

But when she was eighteen, something went awry; something occurred, I don’t know what; she never said; she only smiled and passed over the matter. Maybe her tutor fell in love with her and she was blamed for it. Maybe she had a sweetheart and stole out to meet him. Maybe it was a smaller matter even than that. Not the least shadow of a scandal may touch a postulant virgin of the City Temple, on whose purity the prosperity of all Bendraman depends. I have wondered if Melle may have engineered a little scandal in order to escape the City Temple. In any case, she was sent to stay with distant cousins in the north, in the remote and rural town of Dunet. They too were respectable, proper people, who kept her closer than ever while they bargained and chicaned with local families for a suitable husband for her and brought the candidates in to look her over.

“One of them,” she said, “was a little fat man with a pink nose, who trafficked in pigs. Another of them was a tall, tall, thin, thin boy who prayed for an hour eleven times a day. He wanted me to pray with him.”

So she looked out of the window, and saw Canoc of Caspromant astride his red stallion, destroying men and houses with a glance. As he chose her, she chose him.

“How did you make your cousins let you go?” I asked, knowing the answer, savoring it in advance.

“They were all lying down on the floor, under the furniture, so that the witch warrior couldn’t see them and melt their bones and destroy them. I said, ‘Don’t fear, Cousin. Is it not said,
a virgin shall save thy house and goods?
’ And I went downstairs and outside.”

“How did you know Father wouldn’t destroy you?”

“I knew,” she said.

♦ ♦ ♦

S
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idea of where she was going and what she was getting into than Canoc had when he rode down out of the mountains expecting Dunet to be like our villages—a few huts and hovels, a cattle pen, and nine or ten inhabitants, all gone hunting. Probably she thought she was going to something not very different from her father’s house, or at least her cousins house, a cleanly, warm, bright place, full of company and comforts. How could she have known?

To Lowlanders, the Uplands are an accursed, forgotten corner of a world they left behind long ago. They know nothing of them. A warlike people might have sent an army up to clear out these fearsome, irksome remnants of the past, but Bendraman and Urdile are lands of merchants, farmers, scholars, and priests, not warriors. All they did was turn their back on the mountains and forget them. Even in Dunet, my mother said, many people no longer believed in the tales of the Men of the Carrantages—goblin hordes sweeping down on the cities of the plain, monsters on horseback, who set whole fields aflame with a sweep of the hand and withered an army with a glance of the eye. All that was long ago, “when Cumbelo was King.” Nothing like that happened these days. People used to trade from Dunet for the fine cream-white Upland cattle, they told her, but the breed had all but died out. The land was terribly poor up there. Nobody lived on the old Upland domains but poor herdsmen and shepherds and farmers scratching a living out of stone.

And that was, as my mother found, the truth. Or a substantial part of it.

But there were many kinds of truth in my mothers view of things, as many kinds as there were tales to tell.

All the adventures in the stories she told us as children happened “when Cumbelo was King.” The brave young priest-knights who defeated devils in the shape of huge dogs, the fearsome witchfolk of the Carrantages, the talking fish that warned of earthquake, the beggar girl who got a flying cart made out of moonlight, they were all of the time when Cumbelo was King. The rest of her stories were not adventures at all, except for that one, the story in which she herself stepped out of a door and walked across a marketplace. There the two lines of story crossed, the two truths met.

Her stories without adventures were mere descriptions of the tame doings of a stuffy household in a middle-sized city in a sleepy country of the Lowlands. I loved them as well or better than the adventures. I demanded them: Tell about Derris Water! And I think she liked to talk about it not only to please me but to tease and appease her homesickness. She was always a stranger among strange folk, however much she loved them and was beloved. She was merry, joyous, active, full of life; but I know one of her greatest happinesses was to curl up with me on rugs and cushions in front of the small hearth in her sitting room, the round room in the tower, and tell me what they sold in the markets of Derris Water. She told how she and her sisters used to their father getting dressed in all his corsets and paddings and robes and overrobes as priest-magistrate, and how he wobbled walking in the high-soled shoes that made him taller than other men and how, when he took off the shoes and robes, he shrank. She told how she had gone with family friends on a boat that sailed clear down the Trond to its mouth where it ran out into the sea. She told me of the sea. She told me that the snailstones we found in quarries and used for gaming pieces were living creatures down on the ocean shore, delicate colored shining.

My father would come in from his farm work to her room—with clean hands, and in clean shoes, for she held firmly to certain principles new to the Stone House—and he would sit with us, listening. He loved to listen to her. She talked like a little stream running, clearly and merrily, with the Lowland softness and fluency. To people in the cities, talk is an art and a pleasure, not a matter of mere use and need. She brought that art and pleasure to Caspromant. She was the light of my father’s eyes.

BOOK: Gifts
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