The Old Grey Wizard
Playlist Navigation Bar
A Mortal Life: 16. A Voice Like The Wind
Chapter 15 A Voice Like The Wind
Corli hadn't planned on being on the road after dark. Somehow she had misjudged the time. The sun was already setting, and she was still an hour from home. As the road wound into a grove of trees she searched the dark shadows beneath the branches, wondering what might be hiding in the thick heath. She looked up anxiously. The crows were there, flapping from tree to tree. She sighed, and smiled. Her guardians were with her. She flicked the traces over the horse's back. There, just ahead, the trees came to an end, and the road passed by an open field. The light would be stronger. She would be safer there.
She needed to think of something pleasant that would make the time pass. Lately she had been pondering names. She was skilled at predicting for other women whether they carried a boy or a girl. She had no idea for herself. Either would be fine, she thought. As long as it was healthy; as long as it had his eyes.
She'd been toying with words that were variations of his name or hers, or both together. There was Corlin, which sounded like a boy's name to her. Or there was Olori, clearly a girl's name. He had all sorts of names she could borrow. Mithra might be a girl's name or a boy's. Gand was definitely male. Randir, probably a boy. But Randi could be a girl. She giggled. She had just named six children. She was too old to start such a huge family now!
Her reverie was broken by the harsh sound of cawing crows. She looked up. The birds were circling wildly, around and around in the deepening dusk. The horse slowed as she twisted on the bench, watching the black wings. Then she gasped, startled.
A man had her wrist in a tight grip. He had already climbed halfway into the cart before she even knew he was there. Corli knew that face, somehow different now. Her eyes flew open in fear. Jarek, from Arlindon! He had disappeared after the fight on the south road. No one knew where he'd gone, and most everyone hoped he would never come back. But here he was, a thinner, fiercer Jarek. His mouth was twisted in a hideous grin. His eyes were filled with rage and hatred as he fixed them on her.
Corli struggled to free her arm, but he squeezed so hard she thought he might break it. She cried out.
"Let me go! What do you want?"
"Stop struggling, you witch," he hissed. "I'll tear your arm from its socket."
He was right beside her now on the bench. She shrank from him. He was filthy and stinking. She smelled drink on his breath. He didn't say another word. He just smiled.
Corli saw in the man's eyes that she must fight him or die. She grabbed the traces and slapped his face. He winced and released her arm; then he lunged. Her knee was ready. She jammed it up between his legs and for a moment he doubled over with a howl.
She had a split second to think. He was still in the cart. Therefore she must leave it and run. Corli twisted in the seat and had one leg over the edge when Jarek placed his booted foot on her from behind. He shoved, and she tumbled out to the grassy ground. The horse whinnied and pulled the cart forward and away. She rolled to her knees and was struggling up when Jarek was there.
He swung a fist and Corli's head snapped backward. The side of her face felt as if it had caved in; her mouth filled with blood as she fell. She fought the urge to faint. "Get up, you must get up," she whispered. She dragged herself to her feet. He stood a foot away with his fists clenched.
"Go ahead, fight," he laughed. "Fight all you want."
Jarek towered over Corli. She felt a wave of nausea pass through her.
The first crow took Jarek by surprise. He yelped as he felt a sharp beak strike the top of his head. Then another hit him, and another. Soon his arms were wheeling about his head as he cursed. Corli backed up and started running. If she could reach the cart again she might get away. She didn't know if Jarek had a horse. Maybe he was on foot. Maybe she had a chance.
Jarek soon realized that the crows couldn't do him any real harm. He ignored them and ran after Corli, his long thick legs pumping hard. He jumped and threw her to the ground. She groaned as she felt his weight land full upon her. The child within kicked a few times then was still. For the first time Corli felt real terror. She was going to die, and her baby would die with her.
He straddled her, forced her onto her back and grabbed her hands, dragging them down to her sides. He planted his knees on her palms; his weight dug into her. He shoved her chin upward with one hand, gripped the neck of her gown with the other and tore it open. He scooped up a clot of dirt. Laughing, he smeared it over her bare breasts and belly. Then he rubbed the last bit over her face.
"Too bad he ain't here to see this."
Six crows landed on Jarek's back and neck and began pecking and scratching. He twisted and flung his hand back to wave them off. As his weight shifted, she managed to get one hand loose from beneath his knee. She reached up and pressed her fingers into his face, trying to poke his eyes. He snatched her hand, twisting her arm backward with a snap. She screamed as pain shot from wrist to elbow. The evening light faded for a moment.
Corli was next aware that her skirt had been jerked up and her legs shoved apart. He fumbled to open his belt. She tried to sit up. He aimed another blow at her face. It never fell.
A badger leapt from the ground and sank its teeth into Jarek's arm. She heard the sickening sound of bone being crushed. He bellowed frantically and tried to beat it off with his free hand; but badgers don't let go. Corli slid backward and away from him, cradling her injured arm before her.
She watched as he fought with the badger, ignoring the crows that dove at his head, cawing wildly. The badger hissed and growled while the man cursed and yelled, doing more damage to his arm the harder he struggled. Then as if he realized his error, Jarek abruptly stopped. He reached awkwardly with his left hand for his belt and produced a knife. In an instant he had sunk it into the animal's neck. The badger went limp and its jaws loosened.
At the same moment three figures appeared behind Jarek. One was an enormous roaring bear; the next was a snapping, vicious wolverine. The third seemed to be made of silvery smoke. It stooped to the ground and picked up the grey cloak that had fallen into the grass and threw it over its shoulders. It reached up with hands that Corli could look right through and pulled the hood forward. She only just glimpsed the glowing countenance now hidden by the hood. It was like nothing she had ever seen before.
Jarek gaped, his eyes darting from the shadowy figure to the ravening teeth of the bear and the snapping wolverine. Corli heard a voice like the wind.
"You've lived too long, Jarek. I should have killed you when I killed Morgo. My one regret is that I couldn't carry your whip with me when I came to find you tonight. I would have enjoyed hearing you scream as I used it on you, just as you planned to use it on me. Teeth and claws are too quick for you."
His shrieks began and didn't stop until the animals finished with him. The cloaked figure stood by and watched every second of it.
Corli fell to the ground and curled into a ball. She didn't want to watch. She didn't want to hear the rending and tearing, the snarling and the screaming. She shivered in terror and pain, waiting. Her breath came in ragged sobs. Then she was aware of someone near her. She dared to open her eyes.
The figure knelt beside her. The shimmering face was now hidden by the hood. It was too dark; she couldn't even see eyes gleaming. No beard poked out of the hood, and no long hair draped onto shoulders.
"Who are you?" she whispered.
"It is I…Olorin." The voice was now like a breeze through pine needles. The sound did not seem to come from inside the hood, but from above and all around. Her eyes widened as he reached for her arm. She shrank away in fear.
"Do not be afraid. Let me help you."
She held still. She felt a touch like bright sunlight on her arm. It was not a human touch. But in just a few seconds of the warm glow, her pain faded and was gone. She moved her wrist; there was no pain. She felt the glow on her cheek. The salty taste of blood vanished, and her jaw and face felt as if they had never been hurt.
"Did he you hurt anywhere else?" the voice murmured.
She looked down. Without knowing it her hand had dropped to her belly. She heard a sound like wind rushing through branches. Her belly began to feel warm.
"What's this… Ah! Did you know before I left? Did you know?"
She nodded. "I wasn't entirely sure."
The wind stuttered and a gust blew. "Why? Why didn't you tell me?"
"You had to leave. I couldn't tell you."
The sound of the wind became stronger, but Corli felt no movement in the air. She looked up, expecting to see branches bending from side to side, but they were still. The first stars twinkled above. The bear stood guard over the dead body of Jarek. The crows sat silent in the nearby trees. The wolverine paced and growled. The badger's lifeless form lay stiffly nearby.
It was like a dream, yet not a dream. It was more real than any moment she had ever lived, and more strange. Corli wasn't sure how she knew, but she realized that the sound of the rising wind was Olorin weeping. But was he weeping for joy, or grief?
"Grey Man, is it really you? What's happened to you? Are you…are you all right?" She choked on sudden tears. "You aren't dead, are you?"
The wind stopped and the gentle breeze returned. "I've never been more alive. The other--my mortal shell—is far from here. This was the only way I could reach you in time." The voice fell. "But in the end I did nothing. The animals protected you. I did nothing."
"You healed me," she whispered, as she touched her arm in amazement.
"You would have eventually healed yourself. I merely sped things a bit." The voice hesitated. "I must leave soon, Corli. If I don't, the man will die. I must go back. I must finish what I've started."
The wind picked up. This time it was lighter, like gentle laughter. She felt the glow on her belly again.
She smiled, blinking tears from her eyes. "This is my sixth month. If all goes well, it will be December."
"I'll see you to the farm, and then I must go. Will someone stay with you?"
"Frin has promised. It's all arranged."
Corli held the front of her torn gown together as she watched the horse follow the figure without a sound. The cart was soon standing next to her, waiting for her to climb in. The cloaked figure gestured to the bear. The huge animal lumbered over to where the badger lay. He gently closed his great jaws about the scruff of the badger's neck and lifted the body into the back of the cart. Then the bear growled and moved away into the trees, the wolverine following at a cautious distance.
Corli didn't have to take the reins into her hands. The horse clip-clopped along. A shadow walked before it. The crows flapped silently overhead. This time they didn't wait for her to catch up. They knew she was safe now.
At the door to her farmhouse Corli stood in the starlight. The cart was in the barn, the horse unhitched, fed and watered. The badger was buried while a second slightly smaller badger and a third, a young one, stood by and bleated softly. She watched as a cloaked shadow performed all these tasks effortlessly.
She tried to ignore how different--how beautiful--the face had been that she had seen for that fleeting moment. It was the face of something not human, lit from within. It wasn't clearly a male face, or a female face. It wasn't the face of the man she had fallen in love with. "So this is what he meant when he said there's more to it… This is who—or what--he truly is…" Her mind rebelled against what her eyes had seen—and not seen. How could she be in love with a being of shimmering smoke?
So she tried instead to hear what her heart was telling her. "Don't listen to your head, Corli," she said to herself. "Listen to your heart." Her heart was leaping with celebration inside her.
The cloaked shadow approached and stood before her. A faint silvery glow came from the folds of the fabric.
"I promise I will be back. I promise to come back in time."
She looked up and tried to touch him. But there was nothing more solid to touch than heavy cloth. It gave way before her fingers, and all at once she was afraid. She began to weep. Then she felt the glow. This time it covered her from head to toe. It held her in its embrace and pressed into her. She was filled with warmth, as by a penetrating fountain of sunlight. Her mind filled with glorious spinning visions: of the endless waves of the sea; of the night sky glowing with stars brighter than any she had ever seen; of two magnificent trees laden with glowing flowers, silver and gold; of mountain peaks gleaming in the sun, seen from high in the air as a soaring eagle might see them; and through it all she felt her heart lift with deep, majestic music. She arched toward the glow and her head fell back as she cried out with astonishment and pure joy.
Corli sighed and fell limp into the arms of this stranger who wasn't a stranger. She felt herself lifted and carried to the bedroom and laid gently on the mattress. Her torn gown was loosened, stripped off and replaced with a soft bedgown. The filth Jarek had rubbed onto her skin was washed away by a warm and soothing hand. She was tucked in beneath the covers, as she had not been since she was a girl. She fell asleep with the glow lingering around her, softly and quietly.
When she woke, all that remained of him was his grey cloak spread over her.
Frin couldn't remember what herbs she'd blended into the strange smelling infusion that was steaming on the table before her. She scowled at the cup, sniffed it, stirred it; did she dare taste it? Maybe it was best to just dump it out. She must be getting forgetful. Then she heard a faint knock on the frame of the open doorway. She turned.
"Grey Man!" she cried, seeing Corli's man standing there, smiling gently at her in the morning sun. "When did you get home? Whatever are you doing here?"
He just smiled. Frin blushed and jumped to her feet.
"Oh, my manners, where have they gone! Can I brew you a spot of tea, after your long journey?"
"I haven't come for tea. I have come to ask a favor."
She stopped fussing with the kettle and stared at him.
"Will you come in?"
"I cannot stay. The favor is this. Pay a visit to Corli today, this morning. There has been trouble…" He held up a hand as she gasped. "Everything is over, she's fine. No harm has come to her. But she will need you today. And thank you, Frin."
She gaped at the doorway as he turned without another word and disappeared. Then the door seemed to close on its own and the room became very dark.
Frin startled awake. Her hand shot out to the side and came into abrupt contact with her husband.
"Schlain! Wake up!" She felt him jerk awake.
"Argh," he growled. "What in… What the hell is wrong with you, Frin? I was in the middle of a dream, and a very odd one it was…"
"Yes, yes. Now we must get up and get dressed at once."
Schlain sat up and shook his head. He rubbed his eyes and stared out the window where the sky showed barely grey in the first light of dawn.
"Can whatever is so urgent wait for another hour, so a man can sleep?"
"It can't. We must go to Corli's, right now. She needs me."
His jaw dropped and he blinked in the direction of his wife. She glared back.
"All right, then." He yanked the covers back. "Out with you! Get moving!"
Playlist Navigation Bar