The Old Grey Wizard
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The Kindness of Strangers: 15. An Unkindness of Ravens
An Unkindness of Ravens
Saruman barely registered the droning voice of the man before his desk, half his mind on the imminent arrival of the Nazgûl and the rest on the work before him, with no attention remaining to give to the quaking idiot standing at attention six feet away. He scribbled in his leather-bound ledger, frowning at the summer's expenses. He might have to reconsider whether to house any human soldiers in Orthanc at all. They consumed an inordinate amount of food. At least the Orcs' palates were less discriminating; they seemed not to care what they ate, as long as it had recently had a heartbeat. But all these sacks of grain and barrels of lard were becoming more costly by the year. And what was his quartermaster thinking, importing ale and spirits? He must put a stop to that, he fumed. Then he froze. What had the door warden just said?
"What did you say?" he hissed.
The black-haired Dunlending man turned pale. "Uh…my Lord…I beg your pardon… I was only giving you the report for the week…"
"Not that… No, just now, you said something else…" Saruman's black eyes locked onto the man's sweating face. "Something about crows…flying about the Tower?"
The man stammered under the White Wizard's terrifying glare. "Y..yes, my Lord," he whispered. "I noticed them a while back…"
"How long ago?" Saruman demanded.
"Uh… I don't rightly know… A few days, I think…"
"Uh…yes, I think it was Friday last…I saw them out of the corner of my eye, spots swirling about… I took another look, see, and that's when I realized it was birds, carrion birds. And since then, I seen 'em every day, more and more, it seems. Gathering, they are, like they do above a battlefield."
"Gathering?" Saruman said softly.
The Lord of Orthanc stared silently, his impassive face revealing nothing of the sudden terror that gripped him. As it seemed that his Master was no longer angry with him, the man's courage plucked up. He finished his curious tale.
"Yes, I thought they must have found something, up there…perhaps another of their own that they're picking to pieces. You know how crows are, my Lord, they'll eat anything. I figured, what could have come to its end, all the way up at the top of the Tower? Must be another bird: a hawk, or a crane—something that flies up high, you see--that landed there when it was hurt. And now whatever is up there is nothing but meat for the crows come a'gleanin'…"
Saruman sat quietly. What was it that men called a flock of crows? A murder. A murder of crows. He suddenly felt very cold. He looked down at his hands lying against the ivory parchment. A fine pen with a silver nib, black ink still clinging to its point, lay motionless within the half-curled fingers of his freshly manicured right hand. As he stared, a droplet fell onto the page, marring the graceful beauty of his script.
The Lord of Orthanc began to laugh. His door warden stiffened, for every man in Isengard knew that nothing good ever came of that chilling sound. If one was lucky, a lacerating, sarcastic comment came hard on the heels of that laughter, and nothing worse. The man waited, and after a moment he bowed and backed out of the room, unnoticed.
Saruman's bitter laughter abruptly ceased. He dropped the pen. No use in bothering over ledgers and budgets now. He rose from his chair and slowly crossed the room to the doorway that led to his broad balcony. The pleasant autumn weather sent light breezes filtering through his study. He frowned, trying to recall…yes, of course. That distant, coarse cawing—he remembered now. He had heard them calling incessantly, and the constant noise had irritated him, as does a small stone in one's shoe.
He stood on the balcony. Below, the Wizard's Vale unfolded. The stony ground swarmed with dark figures marching here and there. Smoke rose from great fissures in the hard earth. Rhythmic clanging, harsh shouts, the crunch of iron-shod boots on gravel: the din was steady and mechanical. But beneath the noise of war was something else. He leaned forward onto the black stone rail and listened.
Croak, croak, croak…
The White Wizard twisted his head and looked up. Flecks of darkness swirled about the top of the Tower. Carrion birds.
The Dark Lord had warned him--if he dies before they arrive, you will answer for it. When the Nine came to collect their victim, they would take him instead.
He staggered away from the rail and back into his study, clutching the front of his robe. His heart beat wildly within him. Everything was unraveling. Each calculated step he had taken had been countered by that Fool. How? How had all his carefully orchestrated plans, with all their contingencies and alternatives, come to naught? Was it even possible that his rival had bested him in death?
With shaking hands Saruman unstoppered a crystal decanter of amber-colored, potent spirits that he regularly imported from Umbar. He poured a glass and downed it in two gulps. A shiver of icy fire went through him. A faint voice whispered within. But would you not have felt it? If his spirit had departed these lands, would you not have heard the strains of music shift? He poured another and tossed it back. Mayhap he is not dead…not yet. His racing pulse began to slow. Or it may be that I failed to hear it… For indeed, Saruman had to admit to himself, he had long ago learned to block out the distant, interwoven melodies. Only when he was very weary, or at the moment before sleep, would he hear the music now. He might well have missed a minor alteration in its faint complexity.
Perhaps, perhaps… Maybe something could be salvaged from this turn of events. If the Grey Wizard was dead, no one could later accuse him of the ultimate treachery—of handing another of the Five over to Sauron, could they? And there might yet be a way to escape dreadful consequences in the near term. Perhaps the manner of the Grey Fool's death could shield him from the Dark Lord's wrath. If Gandalf had taken his own life, in a desperate attempt to avoid the horrors of imprisonment and torment in Barad-dûr… Yes, that would be logical. And if he is near to death, lying helpless as carrion birds tear at him…it might even be called merciful… Perhaps the damage could yet be contained.
He must see for himself, and whatever was left of him—living still, or not--must be flung to the ground, in full view of numerous witnesses who could swear to the Nine that they had seen the Grey Wizard leap to his death. It was an ugly business; Saruman had no desire to see yet another corpse half-consumed by carrion crows. He had seen enough of that in his long sojourn in Middle Earth. But it must be done.
A half an hour later, the White Wizard stood staring out the secret window in the southwest pillar at the top of the Tower of Orthanc. His mouth hung open as he gazed at the scene on the rooftop observatory. He watched for as long as he could bear it. Then he turned and slowly, carefully made his way back down the steep and narrow stairs.
He sat at his ornate desk. The ledger was still open, the creamy-white page ruined by a black stain. The blotch had spread into an irregular, jagged shape. Saruman stared at it. Surely it was his overworked imagination, but the stain resembled a large black bird, its head tilted back and its heavy beak open. The creature seemed to be laughing at him.
He slammed the ledger shut. Predictable. Utterly predictable. Birds, of course. He was Manwë's lackey—rumor said he was more than that--and birds always did Manwë's bidding. And he had insinuated himself into the good favors of other powerful Vala, even those who by rights should have paid far greater attention to himself… Áule's consort, Yavanna, for one… The kelvar were her special pets, after all, and as frustrating as it was to admit it, Yavanna had always favored his rival, even more, he had long suspected, than she cared for the bumbling, foolish member of her own household she had insisted come along on this ridiculous venture.
The great black birds had been flocking about him, coming and going from the platform, bringing him bits of food in their beaks or clutched in their claws. On the four pillars, guardian birds sat motionless, gazing outward. One sat on his shoulder, and another perched on his outstretched arm as he grasped his staff and watched toward the southeast.
Their intentions were unmistakable. These birds were not only helping him; they had befriended him. They were conversing with him, and he with them. It had finally dawned on Saruman. These were not carrion crows. These were ravens. And even Saruman the White, Wizard of Cunning Machines, Deep Study, Scholarly Knowledge and of Razor-Sharp Logic, recalled that ravens were the most intelligent of all birds. And reputedly, some of the most fiercely loyal creatures in Arda.
Evening was falling. It was September the 17th. At any moment the Nine would arrive, and Saruman would, of course, be forced to assist them as they took his former colleague captive. There was no avoiding it. He must take this logical, final step. It was a matter of survival. He, Curumo, would betray Olorin, esteemed by Yavanna, favorite of Manwë, friend of ravens. No other rational choice remained.
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