The Old Grey Wizard
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Now You Tell Me: 1. Now You Tell Me
Now You Tell Me
Year 1087 by the Shire-Reckoning (III 2687), late summer. Tookborough, Westfarthing, The Shire.
Isengrim Took (the Second) smiled as he gazed across his cozy sitting room at his visitor. It was a rare sight to see a Big Person in The Shire, rarer still to see one indoors, attempting to look comfortable all hunched over beneath the (appropriately) lowered ceiling, and rarest of all, he supposed, to have invited one to a meal. But he had done so, and offered his guest liberal quantities of after-dinner libations, which, he noted, were enthusiastically received. And then the Thain had generously made the ultimate offer of Hobbit hospitality—to partake in a bit of 'the weed' as one sat and relaxed by the hearth.
Isengrim had begun the excavations of the Great Smials that very summer, and thus he and his guest currently sat in the sitting room of his older, less adequate hole. While larger than most Hobbit holes—for of course, he was the Thain—he now saw it as absurdly small and most definitely too stuffy. This particular room had but one window, placed just to the right of the hearth, at the level of the thick oak plank that served as its mantelpiece. According to the thinking of the Thain, the only good thing about that window was that it overlooked his small experimental patch of Southfarthing Leaf—planted in his garden by none other than Tobold Hornblower of Longbottom. Toby had owed Isengrim a favor and the Thain had collected the debt in a plot filled with neat rows of curly-leaved plants. It was, of course, too soon to know whether the soil and climate of the Westfarthing would prove as favorable as the lands near Longbottom. But until the success of the crop was established, Isengrim continued to import an entire barrel of Longbottom Leaf every year, fully one tenth of Toby's entire output.
His guest—and most unusual friend—was rather learned, and had proven his reputation for wisdom on several occasions. He certainly had the long beard and flowing robes—not to mention the ominous appearing magical staff—to go along with his status as a wizard. And so it was with surprise that Isengrim learned on this particular visit that the old fellow had heretofore not indulged in the most recently acquired of Shire-folk customs, and the most delightful: breathing in the smoke of fragrant, cured leaf smoldering in a pipe.
"Well, it won't do, Gandalf, it simply won't do," he had said in a most persuasive manner. "No one of your stature—and of such high repute—should go through life bereft of the knowledge of…why, the sheer pleasure of the taste and scent of smoldering leaf. Ah, my friend, it is simply divine!"
The old man gazed at him with a suspicious frown, his piercing eyes glaring out from beneath those thick and impressive brows of his. He did not appear at all convinced.
"Breelander nonsense," he muttered. "I knew that this queer habit was spreading, of course, but as Thain I'd hoped you might have had a bit more sense than to join in such a foolish endeavor, Isengrim. Inhaling smoke…! What could possess anyone to do such a thing…"
The Thain laughed. "Ah, my friend, for once you have no idea what you are talking about." Isengrim leaned forward and proffered a wooden tray, upon which three beautiful pipes lay in carved niches. One had a cherry-red wooden stem, bindings of what looked like real silver and a bowl of polished brown clay; the next was made entirely of delicately grained golden wood, and was carved to appear like the branch of a tree, with one cupped leaf serving as the bowl; and the third had a curved black stem at least twice as long as the others, with clean, neat lines and a bowl of creamy white, apparently carved of stone.
"Choose one—and it would please me greatly if you were to keep it, and consider it my humble gift…"
He saw the old Man's brow rise again, but this time the look on his face was one of amused surprise, mixed with a hint of curiosity. I believe he's touched, Isengrim thought. And I've definitely caught his interest! He won't dare refuse now…
He watched with a droll smile as the wizard chose the third pipe, the long black-stemmed one.
"Excellent!" Isengrim said. "A beautiful thing, isn't it?" He reached out and gestured for the old Man to hand him the pipe. "Here, let me demonstrate…"
The wizard watched with narrowed gaze as his host filled the bowl with dried, dark tendrils that he removed from a small leather pouch, crushed them downward, and tapped the bowl on the side of the table, checking that none of the tiny leaves would shake loose. Then he handed it back, stem outward. The wizard took it and held it gingerly, as though he thought the thing might rear up and bite his fingers. Isengrim filled his own favorite pipe—the cherry-stemmed one—and then reached for a cylindrical holder, which contained at least two dozen long thin sticks. He grasped one, leaned toward the fire and lit the end of the stick; then he held the flame over the bowl.
"Draw in while you light…" He pulled on the stem, making small noises with his cheeks, until the leaf began to glow—and a puff of white smoke abruptly appeared between his lips, curling outward slowly as he exhaled. "Ahhh…" Isengrim's eyes twinkled. "Now… You try it…"
The wizard mimicked the actions of his host precisely, drawing inward at just the right moment. The leaf caught, hissing as it flared up briefly—and then, the old Man's eyes flew open as he simultaneously snorted, coughed and exhaled a huge cloud of smoke.
"What in Arda…" he wheezed. "This is dreadful, Isengrim…" Cough, cough. "My throat is aflame… what a foul taste...!"
The Thain grinned. "Everyone always says that after the first puff… But if you are brave enough try another, you'll soon begin to get the idea… Go on…"
A few days later, Isengrim was rewarded by a begrudging admission by the Wizard that he did indeed find the inhalations to be peculiarly pleasing.
"You were right after all, my friend… puff… puff… Most soothing… Curiously calming, I must say…"
The Thain smiled knowingly, very pleased to have introduced his wise and well-traveled friend to something novel—and highly addicting. And now he'll simply have to visit The Shire more often—to replenish his supply of Old Toby…
200 years later….
Year 1287, Shire-Reckoning (III 2887), late summer. The Great Smials of Tookborough, Westfarthing, The Shire.
Gerontius smiled as he gazed across his luxurious sitting room at his visitor. The mighty wizard's grey locks and beard seemed merely the center of a large wreath of grey smoke that encircled the Thain's most unusual friend's twinkling eyes. Indeed, the entire corner of the Thain's private sitting room now hung with smoke. A variety of rings, sailing ships, dragons, and other ephemeral images hovered in the rafters and gradually dissipated. The scent of burning pipeweed was very strong, for Gerontius's friend Gandalf the Grey had been smoking non-stop through their entire several hours' long conversation. Notably, however, the Old Took himself had only imbibed in one pipeful of Old Toby, inhaling lightly and lingering over his one bowlful for a goodly long time.
The wizard, after filling and lighting his treasured but now somewhat battered long black and cream colored pipe—a gift from the current Thain's great-great-grandfather Isengrim the Second—for the sixth time, finally took note of his host's apparent stinginess with his own use of pipe-weed.
"You don't seem to be smoking very much tonight, Gerontius," Gandalf said through a cloud of exhaled smoke. "Are you feeling well, my friend?"
"Of course, my dear Gandalf," Gerontius replied, as he turned his own rather impressively luxurious, gold-filigreed, Dwarf-made pipe around and around in his hands in a nervous habit. "I am as fit as a well-strung fiddle…"
The Hobbit eyed his guest a bit anxiously as he set about creating an entire flock of what appeared to be Eagles out of smoke, and releasing the grand filmy birds toward the ceiling. To accomplish such a feat, of course, the wizard had to draw deeply and frequently upon his pipe, producing even more than the usual amount of smoke. The Thain swallowed, and cleared his throat twice before finally speaking.
"You know, my friend, I was thinking…"
Gandalf sent another plume aloft, all the while peering at his host with that unnervingly direct stare of his.
"Yes?" he muttered, when the hobbit seemed hesitant to reveal his thoughts.
"Well… You see… Hmm, how do I put this… Rather awkward… Perhaps unnecessary, after all, who knows about these things…"
"Do get to the point, Gerontius…"
"Very well, then. I shall," the Thain finally said, placing his pipe on the table at his elbow with a sharp thud, as if for emphasis. "I will give you a bit of advice, awkward as that may be for one such as me to be speaking up to one such as you…"
But then, the Thain hesitated again, pausing in silence to watch as the wizard scooped yet another bowlful of cured weed into his pipe and tamped it down in preparation for lighting. Gerontius opened his mouth, took a breath, stopped, closed his mouth, and sat back without a word.
The wizard could stand no more of it. "Confound it, Gerontius!" he snapped. "Out with it! What is the matter?" He glared at the hobbit, then snorted and leaned toward the hearth with one of the Thain's lighting sticks in his hand and reached toward the fire.
But the Thain was quicker. He suddenly lunged forward and snatched the stick away from his startled guest's fingers.
"What in Arda…!"
"You shouldn't… I mean… I wish you wouldn't…"
Gandalf sat back against the cushions of the chair and stared at his companion.
"Curious… curious, indeed… I have been told that I can be dense when others are attempting to send me subtle signals, but a blind Goblin could read this one, my friend," he said quietly. "You'd like me to stop smoking… Is that it?"
Gerontius felt his face heat up. "Not stop, precisely… It's just that I think it would be advisable for you to slow down your rather prodigious consumption of the weed, my friend…"
Gandalf eyed him curiously as he placed the still leaf-laden pipe on the nearby table. "Hmm… And what might be hidden behind this unexpected advice, my old friend? Somehow I get the feeling that you are not telling me everything, Gerontius. You'd best out with it, at once…"
The Thain cleared his throat again and looked down at the wizard's boots. "Well, you know, we Shire-Folk have been using pipeweed for over two centuries now, and… well, we've learned a few things…"
"Well, it's just that we… or rather some of us… well, my sister Mira, to be precise… She's a Healer, as you no doubt recall… She and some other experienced healers have noticed some… connections…"
"Connections? Connections of what to what?"
"Of smoking pipeweed… to a few…hmm… issues of… er… health…"
The wizard leaned forward with a fierce glare. "Are you trying to tell me that you've discovered the stuff is dangerous? And you're just getting around to telling me about it now?"
Gerontius glared right back at the fearsome wizard—certainly the only Shire-Hobbit alive who dared do so, indeed, perhaps the only Mortal alive at that moment in history who dared do such a thing. "I must say I do not appreciate your tone of voice. You seem to imply that I have some nefarious motive, Gandalf!"
"Well? Have you?"
"No!" Gerontius cried. "Of course not… I've done nothing harmful… on purpose…"
"But you have withheld knowledge from me…"
The Thain sputtered. "It isn't as though this information came to us all at once, you know! We've come to understand things gradually… slowly put two and two together, as it were…"
The wizard glared again. "And what, precisely, have you discovered, besides that 'two and two makes four', in regard to pipeweed?"
Gerontius looked down at his hands. "Well, there appear to be certain… risks…" The Thain stopped his guest from interrupting again with another sharp glance. "If you'll allow me to speak, I shall tell you all that we've discovered…" The wizard sat back with a harrumph and stared balefully at his host. The Took gathered his courage and went on.
"Well, of course, there is the morning cough… I believe you've already experienced as much, if my hearing is not deceiving me… That's clearly the most common unwanted effect, but nothing terribly dangerous about a cough, of course, nor altogether unexpected, given that one is purposefully inhaling smoke, after all… My sister, Mira, has put together most of the other associations… Things one might not notice unless one happened to see a variety of folk seeking the skills of a Healer, and over a long course of years… Far less common ailments, but more… well… difficult…"
Slowly, the smoke in the Thain's favorite sitting room dissipated as the woeful list of ailments felt by the most experienced of the Healers to be somehow linked to the smoking of pipeweed came out. As the atmosphere cleared, a look of alarm grew upon the face of Gerontius' guest, followed by an expression of shock, then horror. Gandalf stared down at his own hand, clutching his battered black and cream colored pipe—and then he dropped it onto the nearby table, as though the thing suddenly had grown as hot as a flaming coal.
"Growths upon the tongue… sores on the lip that refuse to heal… bloody coughs… blue and bloodless fingers… loss of sexual potency… brain seizures and heart fits…!" the wizard sputtered as he leaned forward, his eyes bulging toward his host. "Are your Healers quite certain? All these dire ailments?"
The Thain was already nodding sadly. "Alas, so my sister Mira believes. And the greater the use of the weed, the higher the risk, it seems…"
Gandalf had shrunk back into the overstuffed chair in which he sat, one hand flat against his chest, fingers splayed, while his breath came in deep gasps through his gaping mouth. He blinked rapidly as he focused on the empty air between him and his host. The Thain watched his guest worriedly.
Dear me, Gerontius thought. I do hope I haven't precipitated a heart fit in the old fellow just by delivering this news!
"My dear Gandalf," the Thain said aloud at last. "Are you quite well, my friend?"
The wizard's mouth slammed shut, his breathing settled and his shoulders slumped forward. He eyed his host again with another of his fierce glares. "I suppose… Yes, well enough…" A loud and frustrated grunt escaped from him. "This is dreadful news, Gerontius, simply dreadful… And the worst of it… the worst of it…"
"Yes, the worst is confining oneself to a parsimonious quantity of pipeweed…"
The wizard snorted, and began to chuckle. "No—not that, as difficult as it may prove to keep a rein upon this most pleasant and addicting pastime. I was thinking of something much worse…"
"Oh?" The Thain said, intrigued to note that his guest's face had begun to color with embarrassment. "And what might that be?"
Another grumbling harrumph sounded from behind the wizard's beard. "I shall have to tell Lord Elrond of this… and be forced to endure the look of triumph in his face while he gloats and says, 'I told you so'…"
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