Chapter 9. Estraven the Traitor

From The Left Hand of Darkness

An East Karhidish tale, as told in Gorinhering by Tobord Chorhawa and recorded by G.A. The story is well known in various versions, and a “habben” play based on it is in the repertory of traveling players east of the Kargav.

Long ago, before the days of King Argaven I who made Karhide one kingdom, there was blood feud between the Domain of Stok and the Domain of Estre in Kerm Land. The feud had been fought in forays and ambushes for three generations, and there was no settling it, for it was a dispute over land. Rich land is scarce in Kerm, and a Domain’s pride is in the length of its borders, and the lords of Kerm Land are proud men and umbrageous men, casting black shadows.

It chanced that the heir of the flesh of the Lord of Estre, a young man, skiing across Icefoot Lake in the month of Irrem hunting pesthry, came onto rotten ice and fell into the lake. Though by using one ski as a lever on a firmer ice-edge he pulled himself up out of the water at last, he was in almost as bad case out of the lake as in it, for he was drenched, the air was kurem, and night was coming on. He saw no hope of reaching Estre eight miles away uphill, and so set off towards the village of Ebos on the north shore of the lake. As night fell the fog flowed down off the glacier and spread out all across the lake, so that he could not see his way, nor where to set his skis. Slowly he went for fear of rotten ice, yet in haste, because the cold was at his bones and before long he would not be able to move. He saw at last a light before him in the night and fog. He cast off his skis, for the lakeshore was rough going and bare of snow in places. His legs would not well hold him up any more, and he struggled as best he could to the light. He was far astray from the way to Ebos. This was a small house set by itself in a forest of the thore-trees that are all the woods of Kerm Land, and they grew close all about the house and no taller than its roof. He beat at the door with his hands and called aloud, and one opened the door and brought him into firelight.

There was no one else there, only this one person alone. He took Estraven’s clothes off him that were like clothes of iron with the ice, and put him naked between furs, and with the warmth of his own body drove out the frost from Estraven’s feet and hands and face, and gave him hot ale to drink. At last the young man was recovered, and looked on the one who cared for him.

This was a stranger, young as himself. They looked at each other. Each of them was comely, strong of frame and fine of feature, straight and dark. Estraven saw that the fire of kemmer was in the face of the other.

He said, “I am Arek of Estre.”

The other said, “I am Therem of Stok.”

Then Estraven laughed, for he was still weak, and said, “Did you warm me back to life in order to kill me, Stokven?”

The other said, “No.”

He put out his hand and touched Estraven’s hand, as if he were making certain that the frost was driven out. At the touch, though Estraven was a day or two from his kemmer, he felt the fire waken in himself. So for a while both held still, their hands touching.

“They are the same,” said Stokven, and laying his palm against Estraven’s showed it was so: their hands were the same in length and form, finger by finger, matching like the two hands of one man laid palm to palm.

“I have never seen you before,” Stokven said. “We are mortal enemies.” He rose, and built up the fire in the hearth, and returned to sit by Estraven.

“We are mortal enemies,” said Estraven. “I would swear kemmering with you.”

“And I with you,” said the other. Then they vowed kemmering to each other, and in Kerm Land then as now that vow of faithfulness is not to be broken, not to be replaced. That night, and the day that followed, and the night that followed, they spent in the hut in the forest by the frozen lake. On the next morning a party of men from Stok came to the hut. One of them knew young Estraven by sight. He said no word and gave no warning but drew his knife, and there in Stokven’s sight stabbed Estraven in the throat and chest, and the young man fell across the cold hearth in his blood, dead.

“He was the heir of Estre,” the murderer said.

Stokven said, “Put him on your sledge, and take him to Estre for burial.”

He went back to Stok. The men set off with Estraven’s body on the sledge, but they left it far in the thore-forest for wild beasts to eat, and returned that night to Stok. Therem stood up before his parent in the flesh, Lord Harish rem ir Stokven, and said to the men, “Did you do as I bid you?” They answered, “Yes.” Therem said, “You lie, for you would never have come back alive from Estre. These men have disobeyed my command and lied to hide their disobedience: I ask their banishment.” Lord Harish granted it, and they were driven out of hearth and law.

Soon after this Therem left his Domain, saying that he wished to indwell at Rotherer Fastness for a time, and he did not return to Stok until a year had passed.

Now in the Domain of Estre they sought for Arek in mountain and plain, and then mourned for him: bitter the mourning through summer and autumn, for he had been the lord’s one child of the flesh. But in the end of the month Thern when winter lay heavy on the land, a man came up the mountainside on skis, and gave to the warder at Estre Gate a bundle wrapped in furs, saying, “This is Therem, the son’s son of Estre.” Then he was down the mountain on his skis like a rock skipping over water, gone before any thought to hold him.

In the bundle of furs lay a newborn child, weeping. They brought the child in to Lord Sorve and told him the stranger’s words; and the old lord full of grief saw in the baby his lost son Arek. He ordered that the child be reared as a son of the Inner Hearth, and that he be called Therem, though that was not a name ever used by the clan of Estre.

The child grew comely, fine and strong; he was dark of nature and silent, yet all saw in him some likeness to the lost Arek. When he was grown Lord Sorve in the willfulness of old age named him heir of Estre. Then there were swollen hearts among Sorve’s kemmering-sons, all strong men in their prime, who had waited long for lordship. They laid ambush against young Therem when he went out alone hunting pesthry in the month of Irrem. But he was armed, and not taken unawares. Two of his hearth-brothers he shot, in the fog that lay thick on Icefoot Lake in the thaw-weather, and a third he fought with, knife to knife, and killed at last, though he himself was wounded on the chest and neck with deep cuts. Then he stood above his brother’s body in the mist over the ice, and saw that night was falling. He grew sick and weak as the blood ran from his wounds, and he thought to go to Ebos village for help; but in the gathering dark he went astray, and came to the thore-forest on the east shore of the lake. There seeing an abandoned hut he entered it, and too faint to light a fire he fell down on the cold stones of die hearth, and lay so with his wounds unstanched.

One came in out of the night, a man alone. He stopped in the doorway and was still, staring at the man who lay in his blood across the hearth. Then he entered in haste, and made a bed of furs that he took out of an old chest, and built up a fire, and cleaned Therem’s wounds and bound them. When he saw the young man look at him he said, “I am Therem of Stok.”

“I am Therem of Estre.”

There was silence a while between them. Then the young man smiled and said, “Did you bind up my wounds in order to kill me, Stokven?”

“No,” said the older one.

Estraven asked, “How does it chance that you, the Lord of Stok, are here on disputed land alone?”

“I come here often,” Stokven replied.

He felt the young man’s pulse and hand for fever, and for an instant laid his palm flat to Estraven’s palm; and finger by finger their two hands matched, like the two hands of one man.

“We are mortal enemies,” said Stokven.

Estraven answered, “We are mortal enemies. Yet I have never seen you before.”

Stokven turned aside his face. “Once I saw you, long ago,” he said. “I wish there might be peace between our houses.”

Estraven said, “I will vow peace with you.”

So they made that vow, and then spoke no more, and the hurt man slept. In the morning Stokven was gone, but a party of people from Ebos village came to the hut and carried Estraven home to Estre. There none dared longer oppose the old lord’s will, the rightness of which was written plain in three men’s blood on the lake-ice; and at Sorve’s death Therem became Lord of Estre. Within the year he ended the old feud, giving up half the disputed lands to the Domain of Stok. For this, and for the murder of his hearth-brothers, he was called Estraven the Traitor. Yet his name, Therem, is still given to children of that Domain.