The Old Grey Wizard
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The Kindness of Strangers: 17. A Hopeless Fool
A Hopeless Fool
Saruman stood on the narrow balcony that overlooked the double doors at the base of the Tower and down into a deep shadow that gathered at the edges of the golden light. The doors were barred, for the moment, but with a muttered spell, the great lanterns at the entrance had been lit. The shadowy shapes seemed unwilling to enter the glowing circle, preferring to linger in the darkness. Their hoods were thrown back, and their aged, pale faces were upturned. Foul, icy breath wafted toward him, and the glittering, empty eyes of the Nine Ringwraiths were fixed on his.
"I am told that you have a guest," the Nazgûl Chieftain said in a chill whisper.
"Angrenost is a large and busy fortress," Saruman sneered. "Many guests come and go. You shall have to consult the keeper of the keys..."
"You know who we seek," The Witch King snarled. "That interfering old conjurer…"
"If you are referring to Gandalf the Grey, your information is correct," Saruman replied coldly. "He is here, by my invitation. And he remains here, by my command."
"Excellent! Let me have him, Saruman," the Witch King hissed. "He and I have never met, in all the years we have both wandered about these lands." His ruined face was creased by a cunning smile. Saruman's blood ran cold to see it. "I have long desired to have the opportunity to…know the old grey fellow. I would enjoy…probing him, to learn his secrets. I am certain I will find his company to be quite…stimulating, as would my eight companions. We would all like a chance…to know him."
The shrieks of laughter of the other wraiths sent an icy shiver up Saruman's spine. His stomach heaved. Hidden below the edge of the balcony, both his fists were clenched around the smooth black wood of his staff. Never had he needed it more urgently. His fate balanced on a knife's-edge. He must grasp his power—the true essence of his power—and use it as he had never used it before.
For nothing was as it had seemed, just minutes ago, before his capacity for rational thought had fled before the onslaught of the desperation that now filled him. There they stood, before his Tower, with their gleaming, terrible eyes and their insatiable need. He felt the depths of their madness, and wondered if he were going mad himself. They were filled with howling despair. To assuage their own misery they sought to take others down into their vile pit with them.
Everything was, at last, horribly clear. In the Palantír, Sauron had revealed just enough of his mind and soul to Saruman to entrap him—his brilliant intellect, unbounded vitality, and relentless pursuit of power--and had shrewdly concealed the rest. The White Wizard knew, of course, of Sauron's age-old and deadly reputation, and had personally felt his vicious anger. But he had never stood in his presence...that is, until now. These wraiths were but vessels for their Master's spirit—they carried Sauron within them. The Nazgûl revealed the Dark Lord's willingness to corrupt anything—the finest gold, the human act of physical bonding, nine wretched living beings--for his own ends. In them, Saruman could see the true nature of Sauron vividly, for the very first time, and he was filled with loathing.
Below him, gathered just outside the glow of the lanterns, he saw his future. He was careening headlong down a path to become exactly like them—nothing but a shell, without intellect or independent will, utterly devoid of dignity or nobility. The realization filled him with such anguish that it was all he could do to stifle his screams.
He had but one chance to avoid it. And that slim chance had nothing to do with logic, or reason. Calculation and objectivity scattered from him, blown away by a frigid, foul wind. His only chance balanced on hope—a preposterously foolish hope.
"You may wait here," Saruman said in his iciest, most imperious voice. "Should you require anything for your beasts, return to the gate and speak to the warden." He turned from the balcony to leave.
"Wait!" the Witch King cried angrily. "We came here for information, and to take the other Wizard with us! Bring him to me!"
Saruman stopped and glanced over his shoulder. "You forget yourself, wraith," he spat out with contempt. "I do not answer to a creature like you. There is but One who can command a being of my stature." And I shall not name the One of whom I speak. Let these foul creatures guess. His voice took on a deep, resonant timbre. "Now do as I say, and wait." He took two steps toward the open doorway.
"But sire…" the Nazgûl King whispered desperately. "Lord Saruman… The Master commanded us… We must obey him… What do you intend to do, Lord?"
The White Wizard stepped to the railing and gazed down once more on the upturned faces of the wraiths with an expression of condescending pity. "Ah, yes… I do understand how difficult this is for you. You must be patient. Your Master and I have been in conversation on these matters. As your Master knows, the other Wizard of whom you speak and I have been deep in negotiations. Recently we reached a crucial point, and indeed are quite close to a solution that will serve the needs of many who are interested in…information. Wait here. Wait patiently. I will send word when our negotiation is completed, and you may carry a message for me to your Master." He snapped his fingers, and the lanterns were extinguished. He turned away swiftly, and without waiting for the Witch King to reply, he slammed the doors to the balcony behind him.
Saruman leaned backward onto the doorframe and gasped for air. His head whirled as he fought to keep from fainting. He had nearly choked on their deadly breath. Trembling, he took one hesitant step after another toward the hallway. His strength gradually returned as his pace quickened.
The balcony parlor was ten levels below his study, and his study was halfway up the Tower. He couldn't think about how many additional steps he would be forced to climb. He couldn't think about anything but rushing through the curved hallway that wrapped around this level to the door of the stairwell leading to the roof.
Ignoring a servant carrying a covered tray, he sped past her, jostling her arm and sending her burden spilling to the floor. She screamed as the bowl of hot soup and plate of sliced meats smashed and scattered. At the clattering noise a door opened; the Khândian woman stepped into the hall.
"Sire?" she said. For a fleeting moment he paused. She frowned with concern. "Are you well? What is… Is something wrong, my Lord?" she whispered.
"Get back in your room," he said huskily. "Do not go outside, what ever happens… Stay indoors!"
By the gape of pure terror he saw on her face, he knew that his own fear must be exposed on his. He shoved her backward and pressed on. There! There was the doorway; he opened it, locked it behind him and began to climb.
Up, up. Forcing his knees to bend and straighten, bend and straighten, grasping at the railing, pulling with his arms, up and up he went. His legs ached. His muscles screamed in pain, and his joints were on fire. But he must not pause, he must not rest.
Such a flimsy hope! But it was all he had: The hope that everything he had always thought he believed about him was wrong. The hope that from the ruins of what he had attempted to destroy, something might be salvaged. The hope that the words he had so arrogantly rebuffed as just another calculated ploy had been, in fact, the truth. …Listen to me, Saruman! I will put all this behind us, if you will only reconsider this course...
But so much more had happened since those words were spoken. Could he—could Gandalf put all of it behind him now? After what had been done to him? After what I did to him? Futilely, Saruman squeezed his eyes shut against the brutal images that flooded his mind's eye, and continued to climb blindly.
All he had ever wanted was to safeguard himself. He knew what was coming, and as he always had, for all the ages of time and before time, he turned to objective, cool-headed logic for the solution. His intentions had been so rational, so sensible! Protect yourself, first and foremost. How can one do anything to alter the relentless progress of evil unless one is alive and thriving? Good must have a safe place to exist, after all. What use was standing against the Shadow if one was doomed to be swept away by it? He had rejected as illogical the idea that one might gain greater results by taking greater risks. He had scoffed at fanciful tales of the weak and the brave defying evil against insurmountable odds as deluded reinterpretations of ancient history. He had refused to believe that the means were as important as the ends. He denied the possibility of hope as nothing more than false comfort for fools.
Logic, intellect and reason had been his guides. Other possibilities—hunches—the heart's wisdom—pity—integrity—he rejected as irrational. Or so he had always thought.
…You can still turn away from this path--now, before it is too late for you...
It must be true—he could still turn away. He had to believe it, even if it was nothing but a fool's hope. The alternative was so horrifying—to let them have him, to let them do what they wanted… And that would only be the beginning, for him and for me… For soon enough Sauron would demand more of him, much more. To cross a line from which there was no returning, to embrace the darkness, to worship it… He could not do it. He would not. He was not lost! It could not be too late! Not now!
He would beg for forgiveness. He would fall to the floor and abase himself--anything. They would stand as colleagues once more, side by side. Together they would drive the Nine from Orthanc. They could start anew; he could rejoin the living, step back into the light, ally himself with those who strove against…against the monstrosity that waited outside the doors of the Tower.
His breath came in gasps as his heart thundered within his breast. His face was damp—were these tears? A rasping sound tore from his raw throat. His eyes burned; the stairway blurred. Up, up, keep climbing!
He was near the top… Keep climbing! The final few steps… At last! He was there, at the very top, in the small chamber with its wondrous window of crystal.
Wheezing, Saruman bent double. His legs shook and gave out. He fell to his knees and pressed his sweating palms against the door. Control yourself! He could not display these untamed emotions—he must not reveal the roiling cauldron that always seethed within him! Not to anyone, particularly not to Gandalf—never! He had spent all eternity subduing his fear, his passions, and his longings, concealing his true nature behind a mask of imperturbable logic; he was not about to change now. As he dragged himself to his feet and rubbed his sleeve across his eyes, he wrestled the disguise back into place.
Shaking, he looked through the crystal. The rooftop seemed queerly empty; yet he knew, of course, he could not see it in its entirety. He must be standing to one side, perhaps gazing down at the fell creatures thronging at the door far below. Saruman searched his pockets and brought forth the paired keys. Clumsily, he tried to fit them to the locks. His hands would not obey him. He thought of watching Gandalf struggle to use his numb hands in the aftermath of... Another sob threatened to burst from his tight throat; he choked it back.
Finally the locks clicked; he thrust forward. The door opened, and Saruman stepped out onto the windswept rooftop of the Tower of Orthanc.
Slowly, the White Wizard turned in a circle. His hands were outstretched, reaching, his mouth gaping open. This was impossible. Impossible!
The roof was empty.
Had he finally done it? Had the Grey Fool seen the Nazgûl arrive, and taken his fate into his own hands? He might well have failed to detect a perturbation in the music while his attention was focused upon the Nazgûl thronging at his door. The White Wizard rushed to the edge of the roof and peered down to the dark plain of Isengard. Where was the body? He strode swiftly along the edge of the platform, searching. Nothing, he could see nothing! Where was he?
He reached the south edge of the rooftop. The moon was nearly full, hanging in the southern sky. A shadow caught in Saruman's vision. He raised his head and saw broad wings speeding away against a silver cloud. Tiny black flecks swarmed around it.
An Eagle. Manwë's messenger…
His heart labored within him as the wavering light dimmed. He staggered to all fours, smashing hard against the unyielding stone. Beneath his right palm, he felt something wet and slimy. He lifted his shaking hand and gazed at a smear of white. Stunned and momentarily unable to grasp what he was seeing, he raised his head and looked around. He saw nothing but scattered white flecks on the shiny stone floor, and streaks of white on the looming black pillars…
Saruman's remaining strength gave way. He fell flat on the platform floor and felt his face press into the cold stone. Gone. Gasping sobs tore through him; the sound was lost in the wind.
Hope was gone, and nothing was left but an eternity of enslavement. He did not know how long he lay there, face down on the rooftop, lost in misery. It was only when he heard his own teeth chattering and felt his body shivering that he came back to himself.
As he pulled himself to his feet on the windswept observatory platform, Saruman's fury returned. Gandalf the Grey Fool had escaped…no, had abandoned him! At just the right moment, that blasted good fortune of his had snatched him from harm's way yet again. The White Wizard cursed as he spun on his heel and strode to the open doorway. Damn him! Manwë's fawning courtier…if not his catamite…off he goes, pursuing his own plots and secret strategies, and leaves me alone to deal with the barbarians clamoring at my gate…
With every step down the long staircase his bitter anger grew. His mind whirled and calculated as he devised tactics for his new and more difficult circumstances. He must rid Orthanc of the Nazgûl immediately; indeed, they might be put to use. Yes, he would inform them of the escape of their prey. An Eagle could not carry a human far, after all. And he had his own hunters. They must be unleashed at once.
He must present a strong front to the Witch King. Perhaps a tempting bone for them to pick at… Yes! It had long been his suspicion that Gandalf must have an excellent reason for his peculiar interest in the Halfling's land. If Saruman's conjecture was correct, the Grey Fool would make for the Shire at once. The Nine might well intercept him.
What a fool I was! he thought, as his thighs began to ache and shudder with the strain of the endless descent. To think I considered begging him for forgiveness… By the time he reached the level of the parlor off the balcony, rage blotted out every other thought.
He swept through the doorway and began his rapid circuit of the curved hallway, intending to return at once to the balcony above the great doors and send the Nine away in pursuit. He seethed and stomped, seeing nothing but the image of the empty observatory platform and the emptiness of his futile, idiotic hope. No one need ever know indeed! His hope had been born violently, and had been ripped from his hands so quickly that it had warped into something else entirely. Hope was now a lust for revenge.
Suddenly a door opened. The Khândian woman emerged. She pressed her hand to his arm as he passed. "Lord Sharkû?" Her admittedly attractive face turned toward him in fear, seeking reassurance.
But he had no time for such trifles now. He shook her away roughly. "Let go of me!" he snarled. She was flung backward against the wall. She stumbled and fell, her arms raised protectively over her head.
Saruman kept striding onward—but in a moment, he faltered. That piteous sound… The Khândian woman was weeping. He took a hesitant step. He stopped. He turned, and paced toward her in silence.
She had done nothing to deserve his wrath. She had always obeyed his every whim, indeed, had awakened desires in him he had never before allowed to surface. She had attended to needs he had never admitted were possible. Perhaps she had even cared for him, in her own way. And perhaps, in his own way, he had cared for her…
In that moment, he realized that he did not know her name.
He looked down at where she had slid to the floor. She was shaking uncontrollably. Appalled that he, Saruman, the Wizard of Reason and Intellect, could invoke such terror in a servant, he reached out and lightly touched her hair. She flinched and shrank toward the wall; but as his touch did not become a striking blow, her trembling faded. She slowly lowered her hands, and looked up at him.
"My Lord?" she whispered.
He gazed at her, searching her eyes, troubled by feelings he did not recognize. What did it mean, this hesitation he felt? This yearning to disappear into her room, to abandon everything he had once thought important? He was filled with the longing to be, just this once, an ordinary mortal man.
"Will you send them away, Lord Sharkû?...Please, sire! They are so cold…and I am afraid."
Saruman felt a strange, tender ache in his chest as pride filled him. "Do not fear. I will not let them harm you. I will drive them off immediately."
Her eyes closed and she sighed, her head bowed as she sank against the wall. She whispered something in her own tongue, some invocation, he supposed, or perhaps a prayer of thanks. He would protect her; he would send them away, and he would return. The ghost of a smile came to his lips and his flesh thrilled with sudden desire for her.
She looked up again. "Sire…" She stood gracefully and reached toward him. He flinched as she made to touch his face.
"What are you doing?" he hissed, as he evaded her hand.
"My Lord… On your face…"
Saruman reached up and felt his left cheek. Something damp, thick… His fingertip came away smeared with white. He choked with disgust—for the revolting substance that soiled his skin, and for the reminder of his abject humiliation at the hand of his rival.
"Clean it off!" he cried. "Get something, quickly… Get it off of me!"
The Khândian woman turned and ran back into her room. In a moment she emerged, carrying a moistened cloth. The Wizard of Orthanc stood rigidly still, seething with renewed hatred, and allowed his servant to wipe the foul material away.
She stood on her tiptoes, carefully inspecting his face. "There, sire. It is gone now. I could not allow you to…to be seen by those creatures that way…"
He met her eyes for a moment before hers dropped down in fear. As he strode off down the hallway, he noted the placement of her doorway. He would return, later…and tonight, perhaps… Yes. Tonight he would learn her name.
Five minutes later Saruman again stood on the balcony, gazing down upon the Nine Black Riders. One lantern was lit; they stayed carefully outside its glow.
"What do you mean, he is gone?" the Witch King hissed. "How can it be? I thought Orthanc was impregnable!"
"He had outside assistance, of course," Saruman sneered. "It is of little consequence, after all. He cannot have gone far. If you leave immediately, you may well find him nearby, on the fields of Rohan. But before he left, I forced him to disclose something of vital importance."
The Nine stared up in silence. Saruman felt their hungry eyes latch onto him.
"Tell us," the Nazgûl Chieftain whispered. "Tell me!"
Their desire to fulfill their Master's command was so strong that for a moment before he deflected it, Saruman felt an urge to tell them everything, to confess his deepest secrets. Then he wrested his will from them and was back in control.
"I know that which you truly seek. Gandalf the Grey has hidden It away, in a land to the north and west of here, near to the borders of the Elven realm of the Grey Havens upon the Sea." The Riders hissed at the word, Elven. Saruman knew well enough that these wraiths feared Elves, and would be reluctant to come near them. And water, he recalled--were they not also afraid of crossing a stream, or traveling near deep lakes or the Sea? "It lies between Lake Nenuial in the north, the rivers Baranduin in the south and Lhûn in the west, in the heart of the ancient realm of Arthedain. To find it from here, you must follow the many tributaries of the River Angren to its Fords. Cross the river, and then bear northwest through the Gap." He felt their uneasiness growing. "Next you shall ford the wide stream of Mitheithel." He purposefully used the Elvish names of the rivers. "And last, you will come to the swift, brown waters of Baranduin. Cross it, and you will be very near to your goal. Much more guidance than that I cannot give you, for the land you seek is one with which I am not familiar."
He waited, enjoying their discomfort at the number of rivers they must cross. And of course, he was more than familiar with the Shire. He had visited the Southfarthing in secret just this past April. One of his agents was due back with a shipment of the hobbits' excellent wine and other samples of their wares any day now—indulgent comforts that the Grey Fool had been enjoying in secret for centuries. He smiled cruelly as he thought of the Nine on horseback surrounding the Fool in some desolate, wild place as he fled northward on foot. "But Gandalf the Grey knows the Shire intimately, and has deep knowledge of the inhabitants. Seek for him. Probe him for his secrets—all of you. You will soon have…what you desire."
The Nazgul's laughter was like knives of ice. Their hideous faces had all turned toward him, and their hollow eyes gleamed in the shadows. They regarded him with satisfied, leering grins. He had encouraged them. He understood. They welcomed him as a brother. At their Chieftain's command they turned and rode into the night.
Saruman had no idea how long he stayed outside on the balcony in the darkness, waiting for the stench of their breath to clear from his lungs, and for the sense of their clinging filth to dissolve away in the night wind. He shivered, and his teeth chattered; but still, he felt unclean. Finally, he accepted that this stain would never leave him. He was tainted, and that Fool was at the root of it all. He opened the doors and stepped inside.
The Lord of Orthanc rang the bell for the commander of his troops, and gave instructions that four packs of Wargs and six platoons of hunting Orcs be unleashed in pursuit of the escapee.
"I have no wish to see him alive, nor have I any desire to inspect his corpse," he said. "Kill him and leave the remains for the wolves and birds of carrion. But bring me his staff. Whoever does so will be richly rewarded."
And now: the Khândian woman. He needed distraction. He had to dispel some of this icy cold. He needed to touch something—someone—that was warm, to prove to himself that he was still clothed in human flesh, and was not yet a wraith.
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