The Old Grey Wizard
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A Mortal Life: 18. The Soldiers of Ithilien
Chapter 17 The Soldiers Of Ithilien
Suli was ready to travel again in two days. In a fortnight they reached the end of the brown, lifeless hills. Farased noticed that they were now steering southwest.
The newborn's baby things were all made of grey. Suli and Farased named her Kijivu, meaning a mix of black and white. At first, Farased had been a little shocked at the girl-child's light color. But he recalled the long, horrible journey north and the coarse slaver with the leering gaze. Farased had tried to shield the newly captive young woman from him. He had failed, helpless, his hands bound in chains, his skin flayed open for his troubles. He had survived the journey with a back lined with scar, and Suli's condition was soon apparent. But the child was beautiful and seemed healthy. Suli was happy, and so Farased was pleased.
They'd been on the road for four months. One day the scent of the sea was in the southern breeze. The sea meant that the great South Road was growing closer. Excitement gripped everyone. Even little Kijivu seemed aware of it. They traveled now through a pleasant, forested land, rich with game. It was autumn, and the bushes were laden with fruit, berries and nuts. The leaves on the trees turned brilliant gold and red, and the sky was pure blue. The travelers gathered what food they could at night, and as eagerness replaced wariness, they even began to walk beside the wagons during the day and forage. The health of the former slaves and captives had never been better since they had left their homelands.
Incanus was riding at a slow trot well ahead of the wagons. They hadn't seen anyone on the road for nearly a week, but there were signs that they approached a more civilized country. They had just crossed a rushing stream over a well-built stone bridge, and though the road's surface was still rough, he had glimpsed a few overgrown stone markers at intervals along the edge. He suspected they were coming near to the frontier of Ithilien, the easternmost region of the kingdom of Gondor. They would be safe there. The men of Gondor were wise and good, and long ago had outlawed slavery. He could relax, for once. He felt so at ease in this sweet-smelling land that for several days he'd left his staff in one of the wagons. Rubeo made it abundantly clear how nervous it made him, and the wizard had decided to give his old friend a break from the wood's chafing and bouncing.
He was munching on a tart red apple he'd plucked from an overhanging branch, and he had another in his pocket for a treat for Rubeo later. His mind turned again to thoughts of how Corli was faring. October was passing, and he knew he had to turn back soon. He was calculating the miles in his head, judging how swiftly a solitary rider could make the return journey, unburdened by any cares except thoughts of home. Could he make it back before December?
He took another bite of the fruit, wiped juice from his chin, and never noticed the men following along beside him in the thick trees. Tall men dressed in dull green tunics and brown cloaks, their faces masked and hands covered, paced carefully as they watched the rider in the road. They blended into the forest like Elves, and walked as silently.
They were soldiers of Ithilien, hunting slavers. And it seemed that they had caught one, riding brazenly in the open, his wagons filled to overflowing with bound captives. Signals were passed. A whistle like the call of a bird came from the left, and was answered from the right. Still Incanus rode on unaware.
A circle of rope dropped from out of nowhere. He was snared! The half-eaten fruit dropped from his hand. A second loop whistled out of the trees. The snares tightened and trapped his arms at his sides. Rubeo kicked and tossed his head. The ropes were pulled taut. The wizard was jerked from the saddle and he tumbled to the ground. An apple fell from his pocket and bounced away on the road.
Six men rushed from their hiding places. One restrained the rearing horse. The rest closed in on the man fighting against the ropes.
"Wait! I am not who you think…"
A soldier landed a hard punch into his midsection.
"Shut up, slaver!"
He doubled over, his breath knocked from him. He had cast tones of power into his voice, in the hope it would make them hesitate long enough for him to reveal his identity. But these were not the weak-willed hired mercenaries of Morgo. These were trained and determined soldiers of Ithilien, certain they were in the right. Two men tightened the ropes while another roughly searched him for weapons. The scabbard was stripped from his belt. A soldier withdrew the sword and snapped the blade over one green-clad knee and kicked the fragments into the bushes.
"Men of Gondor," he wheezed, "You've got this all wrong! I can explain…"
The tallest soldier, by his demeanor an officer, swung his fist. The wizard's head snapped to the side.
"Silence! Gag this one."
Strong hands grabbed him by his hair.
"But my name is Mi…"
Before he could finish a man jammed a wadded rag into his mouth, and another tied a cloth tightly between his teeth. Dark eyes stared from behind the mask of the soldier who had struck his face; then the man turned away.
The rest of the company, twenty all together, arrived on horseback. Six horses with empty saddles were brought forward for the lieutenant and his patrol. Someone barked orders--the captain, he presumed. They tied his wrists before him with one end of a long rope. The encircling snares were released while three soldiers held him in an unshakable grip and a fourth held a dagger to his throat. The rope binding his wrists was handed to a horseman nearby; he looped it around his saddle horn and pulled it tight. Another man jumped onto Rubeo, who bucked and whinnied. The soldier tossed the coiled whip he had found tucked beneath the wizard's bag to the captain.
He'd been caught unprepared again. Fool! Dreaming on the road instead of watching and listening! He could see well enough what the soldiers planned to do with him—and he had no desire to experience it. He had to think quickly. The archers of Ithilien were deadly accurate, and would not hesitate to loose their darts at any false move. No use in them discovering their error after I'm dead.
He never expected to be on the wrong side of these men. Twenty of them were far more dangerous than fifty of Morgo's hired thugs. And yet they were his allies, the descendants of those who had given their lives to overthrow the very same Enemy he had been sent to these shores to thwart. He could not simply do battle with these soldiers as he might with men bent on enslaving his friends, or killing him. He must protect the Men of Gondor as carefully as he would protect the freed slaves.
He had only a few moments. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, focusing his will. If he could distract the soldiers, this mess might be salvaged without a terrible battle, and one with an uncertain outcome.
The captain gestured with a gloved hand, pointing up the road. At the same instant, a blast of wind swirled through the company, sending a flurry of fallen leaves dancing into the air. The bright blue sky suddenly darkened as heavy clouds moved in. A flash of light split the gathering gloom, followed by a loud rumble.
The captain hesitated as he squinted up. His men shifted restlessly around him, their eyes skyward. Then the captain shouted.
"Right, then. To the wagons!"
The company rode forward in unison through the growing tempest, gaining speed as they went. The wizard's arms were yanked forward with a jerk. He ran to keep pace with them. Gusts of wind roared and the trees bent and twisted. Lightning pierced the air with a blinding flash. A clap of thunder came a split second later. The horses whinnied in terror, and not a few of the men of Ithilien gazed about in fear. But they continued, into the storm, bent on carrying out what they saw as their solemn duty.
After thirty yards the wizard twisted his wrists and pulled them apart. The rope that bound him snapped, and the tethering line dragged in the road. He tore the cloth from his mouth and stood still, waiting, as the soldiers of Ithilien rode on around him, momentarily unaware that their captive was free.
The soldier who held the rope felt it slacken. He turned and shouted into the wind.
"The slaver! He's undone the rope! He's getting away!"
Immediately the soldiers reversed their course. Mithrandir was soon surrounded by a ring of mounted men with bows bent and arrows aimed at him.
The wizard was ready for them. Even before their ring could be formed, he raised his hand and made a rapid circling gesture above his head. The wind responded, whirling about him with sudden violent force.
Captain Belegon, who had been riding at the fore, called out from behind the line of encircling men.
"Don't let him escape! Put an end to this, lads!'
Eighteen arrows were loosed, directed into the circle. Only one man failed to heed his captain's command--Lieutenant Dorlan, the young officer who only moments earlier had struck the wizard across his face.
Dorlan loathed these affairs. Dragging the captive in the road, using their own whips upon them: they were stooping as low as the men they hunted. But this time everything felt like a mistake from the first moment. For one thing, the man they had bound seemed to the lieutenant as the wrong sort altogether. Dorlan had got a look in his eyes—after he'd punched him. He didn't sense evil in this man. He had spoken to them—or had attempted to speak--in their own language, Sindarin. Few besides the Elves knew it. Then this uncanny storm, out of nowhere--something very odd was happening.
Dorlan had the strangest sense that he had seen this man before. This so-called slaver's face was familiar, and yet it wasn't. So he had held back his arrow and watched. And he was astounded by what he saw.
Eighteen arrows flew swiftly. But as they approached him, the arrows curved and began to rapidly circle their target. Each dart spiraled upward, like autumn leaves caught in a whirlwind. As the arrows reached two dozen feet above the man's head, they erupted in blue sparks and burst into flames. In the center of this storm of flaming arrows, the slaver stood. He watched the arrows rise and burn. As ashes flew about in the wind and blackened arrowheads fell about his feet, he smiled.
"Hold your fire!" cried Dorlos. The men, their eyes wide with fear, lowered their weapons. The lieutenant leapt from his horse and ran into the circle. He tore the mask from his face and stood just outside the howling whirlwind.
"Who are you, stranger?" His heart was thumping within him, for he suddenly realized he knew the answer to his own question.
"I see you have come to you senses at last, Lieutenant," Mithrandir replied calmly.
He raised his hand again and the wind dropped. The storm ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and the dark clouds broke apart. A shaft of sunlight blazed through the canopy of trees and fell upon the road.
"You would know me as Mithrandir..."
Even as he spoke another dart flew and landed with an ugly thud. He gasped and stumbled backward, an arrow protruding from in his upper left chest.
The arrow was Captain Belegon's. Belegon had a reputation for bull-headed recklessness, which had kept him in the outskirts of Ithilien long after most of his contemporaries had moved up to more important duties. Unfortunately, his stubbornness greatly outweighed his intelligence.
Captain Belegon, seeing their arrows consumed by fire, had quickly concluded that the stranger was not only a savage slaver, but an evil sorcerer as well. When he heard Dorlan countermand his order to fire, and saw how his men obeyed the young officer, he was so enraged he could not speak. Was Dorlan in league with the creature? Then the sorcerer dropped his defenses. Belegon let fly his dart from just behind the encircling soldiers. His was the only successful shot, he noted proudly. Yet, it was strange how many of his men jumped from their mounts and rushed forward in apparent alarm and distress instead of finishing off the slaver. Were they bewitched? The actions of his insolent lieutenant were the most infuriating, for Dorlan was supporting the wounded man as if he were a friend, not a foe. Dorlan had crossed him before, but this was his most brazen defiance yet. Bewitched or not, when they returned to headquarters, he would see to it that the lieutenant was tried before a military tribunal for mutiny.
He spurred his horse forward through the crowd. Well, at least he had not fallen under the sorcerer's spell. If his men couldn't be counted on to do the job, he'd have to do it himself.
"Out of the way, Dorlan!" he cried, as he raised his bow again.
But the young lieutenant turned and planted himself in front of the slaver.
"Captain, we've made a terrible mistake! This is Mithrandir!"
"Who?" Belegon said. But he glanced about and saw the looks on the faces of his men. Half of them were gesturing vigorously to him to stop, and the rest looked too frightened to speak. The captain lowered his bow.
Mithrandir spoke softly into the young officer's ear.
"You'll have to explain it to him...er, what was your name, lieutenant?"
"Dorlan, sire," he whispered as he turned to stare at the man beside him. Dorlan was an educated man. He knew who and what Mithrandir was. He had glimpsed him, not three years ago, when the lieutenant was in training. He remembered his long beard and dark hair, his grey cloak flying behind him as he left the King's palace in Gordor's chief city of Osgiliath. But the strongest impression the great wizard had made on the youthful recruit was the intensity of his steel-grey eyes. Mithrandir had glanced at the young man as he hurried by. Dorlan recalled how that look had seemed to momentarily stop the flow of time. He was never sure whether he had gazed into those fierce eyes for an instant or for an entire hour.
His blood drained to his feet. By the stars! What had they done? What had he done? He had struck an Istar with his own fist! And if they had carried out their plans...!
"My Lord Mithrandir!" he sputtered. "We had no idea! My Lord, I am so sorry that I struck you! But you...you look so different..." The soldier's trembling hand pointed at the wizard's pale but clean-shaven face, marred by a purple bruise upon his jaw.
"Yes, no beard at the moment. Who would have thought it would be my sole distinguishing feature?" He grimaced and gripped his chest just beneath the arrow. "Have you a leech among you, Dorlan?"
The company had only one member who had any skill at all with situations like this: Dorlan himself.
"Of course, sire," the lieutenant said. In his shock at what had almost transpired, Dorlan had momentarily forgotten the wizard's wound. He looked at the growing stain on the front of his rough tunic, gauged how deeply the arrow had penetrated and swallowed hard. How on earth could he still be standing? Surely this arrow had pierced through his ribs and into his lung!
"Tirel, get my bag," he shouted, pointing at the soldier who had held the tether that would have dragged Mithrandir down the rocky path. "Pim, bring two flagons of water, and quick!"
The men sped to their tasks, while the rest of the company stood in a circle and whispered to one another. Belegon dismounted and scowled.
Dorlan took Mithrandir's arm and tried to guide him to the side of the road. "Come, sit here, my Lord. I shall tend to you at once."
Mithrandir eyed the man, who suddenly looked extremely young to him, with suspicion. "Have you any training, young man?"
Belegon edged between them. The Captain was a large, burly man who was several inches taller than the wizard.
"Lieutenant, how dare you countermand my direct order! Explain yourself," he snarled.
"Captain, if you could wait until I have tended him..."
"Now, Dorlan! Stop what you're doing and tell me why I shouldn't finish off this slave-driver!"
"He isn't a slave-driver, Captain Belegon, he's an Istar!"
"And what the hell is an Istar?"
"I think I'll wait until the wagons catch up with us," Mithrandir muttered, as he backed away from the arguing pair. "Perhaps Januno...or Nelika could tend this..."
The arrow had indeed pierced his lung; each breath stabbed him like a knife. It was becoming difficult to speak. He felt quite lightheaded. He focused on the edge of the road. If he could only find some place to sit for a moment, he knew he would feel better. He gazed into the trees, searching for a boulder or a fallen log.
He found no place to sit and rest. What he saw instead momentarily startled the lightheadedness right out of him. All the southern men, more than half of the women, and even a few of the children were creeping through the forest in utter silence, armed with knives, arrows, a broken spear, a few axes and some makeshift clubs. They were moments away from a surprize attack upon the soldiers of Gondor.
"No! Wait!" he cried hoarsely in Westron, hoping his friends would understand. "Do not attack, these men are friends!"
Pain ripped through his chest with the effort required to raise his voice. The afternoon sunlight grew dim and he swayed.
Dozens of hands reached out to catch him as he fell: brown hands, white ones, the gloved hands of soldiers, the narrow hands of women and the small ones of children. He looked up to an encircling sea of faces of all kinds, gazing down at him with rapt concern. He smiled faintly and closed his eyes. He heard their voices as if from far away.
"Bring him over here! Mobasu, drive the wagon as close as you can..."
A pair of mules brayed and he heard the clop of their hooves on the hard road as the wagon approached. They carried him slowly, doing their best not to jostle him.
"Carefully, now...watch for that stone! Be careful..."
"Why did you hurt him?" a child's shrill voice cried. "He's no slaver! He saved them up north, and rescued me!"
"Can you hear me, my friend?" Kutumi said.
"Who are these men, Incanus?" It was Mgeni. "What strange sort of friends would shoot you?"
"We made a grave error. We did not know who he was until it was too late..."
"This mess is your fault, Dorlan! You should have sorted things out earlier, and prevented me...prevented this from happening!"
"How badly is he hurt?" He recognized Farased's hushed voice. "You don't think he'll die, do you?"
"From only one arrow?" Nod's voice piped. "He had six in him this spring, and that didn't kill him!"
Two men spoke softly in the tongue of Gondor.
"Can this truly be the Grey Pilgrim of legend?"
"You saw how he evaded the other arrows, didn't you?"
"Get your filthy soldiers' hands off him," a woman hissed. "Get them away, Kutumi! Januno and I will tend to him..."
He opened his eyes to see Nelika leaning over him with a worried frown on her face. Dorlan was right beside her, looking pale and very frightened.
The hands lifted him gently and lay him upon the bed of the larger wagon. The crowd of faces thinned until only the healing women, Kutumi, Farased, Dorlan, and Belegon remained--and Nod, who sat by his feet and clutched his boot in his small hand.
Farased whispered to Kutumi. "Shall I fetch Mobasu, and Rassu, perhaps? Some strong men may be needed to hold him down..."
"I do not think that will be required, Farased," Kutumi replied.
Nelika knelt by his left side. She bit her lip and grasped the arrow in her fist.
"I will ease it out as carefully as I can, Incanus..."
Dorlan reached out and covered her slender fingers with his own.
"Madame," he said, "I have much experience with arrows. A strong and certain grip is more important right now than care. Once it is removed, I leave him in your capable hands."
Anger rose on her face; then she looked down into Incanus' eyes. He gazed back steadily.
"Let him do it, Nelika," he said quietly.
Her pride melted, and she nodded. He saw relief in her eyes as she turned away. He thought with wonder of Corli, all alone with him in that freezing field so many months ago. How had she found the courage to pluck all those arrows from him?
Dorlan exchanged places with Nelika. Belegon scowled, took a step back and glared sullenly. Kutumi reached up and clasped the wizard's right hand in his own.
Dorlan studied the feathered vanes at the end of the shaft. He could see from their pattern that the dart had twisted. Carefully, he rotated it. Mithrandir winced.
"It should come directly out, without the barbs catching now," he said. "Are you ready, sire?"
"When you are, Lieutenant."
The young soldier seemed reluctant to face his gaze as he gripped the arrow, so Mithrandir closed his eyes. Kutumi felt Incanus squeeze his hand; he thought his bones might be crushed. The lieutenant clenched his jaw. With one swift, steady movement, he pulled it straight up and out.
The wizard stiffened and his back arched upward. A cold sweat broke over him. He made no sound. He hardly dared to move. Searing pain spread within him, then it dulled to a deep throb. As Dorlan pressed a folded cloth to his chest, he slowly relaxed. He took a breath, and then another.
Arrows were the invention of a cunning mind, he thought. If one survived the initial wounding, there was worse to endure, for the coming out did more harm and felt much worse than the going in. What strange fortune had brought him this new experience not just once, but seven times in one brief year! He hoped the fates would decide that he had learned this lesson well enough.
He was vaguely aware of the others' voices. Someone undid the buttons of the blood-soaked tunic and it was opened to expose the wound. He did not protest or struggle as the women began to cleanse him.
"We can manage things from here, soldier," Nelika said haughtily.
"As you wish, Madame," Dorlan muttered. The pressure on his chest eased as Dorlan stood and moved away. The wagon bounced and he knew that heavy-footed Captain Belegon had left as well. He felt something warm trickle down his side.
"Look, Nelika, he still bleeds. Do not let up on it," Januno whispered.
He felt a smaller but firm hand press down on him again; it was Nelika. He became aware of someone clutching his right hand. He realized he had been gripping Kutumi tightly the entire time. He squeezed his friend's hand once and let go.
He opened his eyes and watched as the women worked over him. Farased stood at the side of the wagon with a worried frown on his face. Kutumi crouched near his right side. He saw the wizard's eyes open. The lion-hunter smiled as he rubbed the fingers of his right hand.
"Welcome back, Incanus. Thank you for not breaking all my bones. You see, Farased? He needed no help from us." Kutumi rose to his feet and began to leave.
"Wait," Nelika said. "Help him sit up for a moment."
Kutumi and Farased pulled Incanus to a sitting position and steadied him. Kutumi leaned close to the wizard's ear.
"Are you all right, my friend?"
"Much better now," he replied hoarsely.
"Then we shall leave you to them," Kutumi whispered. "I hope they don't torment you too much. I'm afraid Januno hasn't forgiven you for bursting into the birthing tent...and you know how Nelika can be..."
Farased and Kutumi were laughing as they climbed from the wagon. Incanus watched the men leave with a frown on his face. Now only Nod remained to protect him from these fierce women. He glanced at the boy, who grinned back at him.
Without a word of warning, Januno stepped behind him and clasped the neck of his shirt. She peeled it down and tugged his arms free. He flushed scarlet. He had never felt so exposed, and with two women he hardly knew!
"Is it truly necessary to strip me bare, Januno?" he said irritably.
"You are a bloody mess, and this thing is soaked," she growled. "It must be washed, though I doubt that stain will ever come out."
She held it up and sniffed, as if the large red stain was somehow the wizard's fault. She tossed it aside and briskly scrubbed his flank. Nelika knelt in front, keeping steady pressure on the wound. She did not look at him, but at Januno crouching right behind him.
"Hurry up, Januno," she said. "We must bind it."
A very uncomfortable few minutes passed while Nelika and Januno smeared a thick paste of herbs on his skin, padded the wound and wrapped a length of cloth around him. They leaned very close, but did their work as if he were some injured mule, without a word directed at him or a glance into his face. He held his arms up and out at his sides. Nelika's spicy earthen scent filled his nose. He kept himself perfectly still as her arms almost encircled him and her fingertips grazed his chest.
Nelika's breath was warm against his skin as she tied the cloth snugly. A shiver passed through him--from a chill, he told himself.
"Here," Januno said gruffly. She draped a scratchy blanket over him. "I'll go see if Suli or Kira might find some time to wash this thing," she said as she picked up his shirt.
He didn't know which was worse: being exposed, feeling chilled or itching all over. "What do you expect me to wear in the meantime?"
"That blanket," Januno snapped. "Nelika, make sure this sorcerer lies still and sleeps for a while. I don't want him tearing that hole open again."
He looked up. Nelika was glaring at him too. She pushed on his chest.
"Do as she says, Incanus. Lie down, and stay there!"
He sighed, wrapped the blanket about himself and lay back. Women! Why did they all act as though a man's injuries were his own doing? Corli had been the same, ordering him about and treating him like a misbehaving child. He shifted, trying to find a comfortable position on the hard wooden floor of the wagon. His eyes opened part way and he saw the two women whispering together. Nelika was smiling slyly, and Januno seemed to be scolding her, although with half a grin on her round face. Then they noticed him watching, and their stern and serious looks returned at once.
"We told you to sleep, sorcerer!"
Incanus sighed again and closed his eyes. He really was rather tired; he could use a nap. He was about to drift off when he realized he had been hearing the same sound in the distance, over and over. It was a horse, a very angry horse, screaming and neighing. His eyes flew open.
"Rubeo!" he muttered. He sat up at once. "Come on, Nod! Poor Rubeo, he doesn't know what happened! He probably thinks these fellows murdered me!"
He leapt to his feet and jumped from the wagon before Nelika could stop him. Nod laughed and clapped and ran after him.
Later, when Mithrandir's roan stallion had been calmed and given two ripe apples as a reward for his faithfulness, the Captain and the Lieutenant of Gondor sat near the fire with the wizard and the leaders of the men of the south. Mithrandir's damp tunic, complete with a dark stain and a jagged hole on the left, clung to him. He had insisted that Kira return it to him after only a quick rinse. He wore the blanket draped about his shoulders. Belegon wanted to hear it all again.
"So you're telling me that you've been pretending to be their slaver?"
"That is correct. We've traveled many hundreds of miles. Three parted from us months ago, preferring to make their own way. A fourth man was killed, by marauders intent on taking them captive. But everyone else has come through safely, all twenty-three—no, twenty-four now, with Kijivu, the infant."
"But their slaver! What an odd way to go about protecting them."
Kutumi grinned and patted himself on the chest. "Our plan. Our idea."
The wizard smiled ruefully. "Yes, and the idea was more to protect me, you see. When we tried to ride about as ordinary free folk, we were attacked again and again. But a nasty slaver with his cargo, it seems, makes a less tempting target for ruffians."
Belegon scratched his head. "But no one you met objected to you transporting two dozen slaves, right out in the open?"
"Don't forget where we've come from. The lands east and north of here are wilder than you think. We mostly encountered interested buyers, and a few determined thieves. It was very disappointing. I suspect there were some who disapproved of slavery and kept their opinions to themselves, but no one tried to help them."
"Until you," Farased said hesitantly. "And we wish you had not."
Mithrandir shifted and winced. His entire left side throbbed, and he still could not take a full breath without pain shooting through him. He gazed at Belegon, wondering if the man was ever going to apologize, or even admit he had made a mistake. The Captain glared back and said nothing.
Dorlan watched his superior officer's behavior and shook his head. He knew exactly how angry what he was about to say would make his captain, but he didn't care.
"My Lord Mithrandir, can you ever forgive us?"
Belegon snorted. Mithrandir ignored him and looked at the lieutenant. At least he might learn something from this affair.
"I'll have to give that some thought." His eyes smoldered. "One might say it was simply a case of mistaken identity. You didn't hear my name until later--though I did attempt to tell you. I believe, lieutenant, that it was you who rather sharply interrupted me when I initially tried to identify myself."
The wizard touched his jaw. The purple, swollen mark looked even worse than before. Mithrandir watched as the young officer turned whiter still. Dorlan seems to have all the intelligence in this company. He could use a lesson he'll never forget. He'd speak to the man later, in private, but for now he decided to let him squirm.
"Well, maybe something can be salvaged from this sorry episode. While I applaud the sentiment behind it, perhaps it is time for the captains of Gondor to reconsider this policy about slavers. The consequences of making a mistake seem quite severe."
The men of Gondor camped nearby that night. At Farased's fire, a meeting of the southerners and Incanus was taking place.
"Mobasu and I have spoken to the young officer, Dorlan. We believe he is trustworthy, and he says the road would be safe from here," Farased said.
"I was a soldier myself, before… Dorlan is honest," Mobasu said. "He wasn't lying, I'd swear to it."
"And I have had words with another, Tirel," Mgeni said. "He says the men of his land, Gondor, know all the lands to the south for many leagues. The slavers have been forced to take other routes for all the last year. They are afraid of the soldiers, and the ordinary people are tired of seeing them and chase them off."
Kutumi leaned forward and placed a hand on Incanus' shoulder. "You said you would stay until we didn't need you any more. The time has come. We are safe now. You can go home, my friend."
The wizard stared at the ground. Home. Until this spring, that word would have meant something very different to him. But for now, and for a space of time to come, home meant Corli. He had been dreaming of returning to her side for what seemed like so long, he almost couldn't grasp that it might finally be true.
"You're sure?" he said hoarsely.
"Yes. We're sure."
It was decided. The former captives and Incanus would stay encamped for a second night to rest and let their guide heal another day before his long journey. And no one was anxious to speed up the parting of friends.
The soldiers of Ithilien left in the morning. Dorlan and Tirel stayed behind. They would accompany the wagons along the road until they reached the southern borders of Gondor, a week's ride away. There, the men of Gondor would give them letters of passage, liberally sprinkled with references to Mithrandir. His name was well known in these parts. They felt confident that no one would harass them.
That afternoon Mithrandir appeared at Dorlan's campsite. The soldier was sitting on the ground, his gear in disarray around him. He clutched his head in both hands.
"Lieutenant, I'd like a word with you."
The young soldier jumped to his feet, stammering in protest as the wizard dropped to the ground beside him like any ordinary man.
"Sit. And stop fretting, Dorlan! You are making me nervous. I will get directly to the point. One, I woud like to thank you for your skill in removing your Captain's arrow. And two, I forgive you. Your career may not be in as much of a shambles as you suspected."
The lieutenant stared into Mithrandir's gently twinkling eyes. How had he known? Dorlan had been agonizing for an entire day and all through a sleepless night. They'd come this close to murdering one of the Istari! This close! But despite Dorlan's pivotal role in preventing the disaster, Captain Belegon was furious with him, yet again. His captain had told him with cold relish how he planned to put Dorlan up for charges of insubordination and treason. And, he'd been worrying, even if he got beyond that somehow, how he could possibly advance in the service of Gondor with someone as important as Mithrandir holding a grudge against him. He had been seriously thinking of continuing south on the road and deserting. Now all the confusion vanished with a few brief words. He blinked and listened as the wizard went on sternly.
"But let me give you a bit of advice. The next time you are faced with the choice between immediate action and a pause for thought, count to ten--or at least to three! When you have a man roped in the dust, there is nothing to be lost by waiting long enough to hear his name." His eyes flashed and his voice was sharp. "Remember your history, Dorlan. You are of the people of Numenor, ruled by the descendants of Elros, son of Earendil! The blood of Men, Elves and Maia runs in your ruler's veins, though the latter must be quite dilute at this late age. Think: when you have heard tales of Beren—your King's ancestor, the greatest warrior and hero of all time--have you ever heard that he struck first, then asked questions? You must do your best to be as wise as he, or if you can't be wise, at least use more caution!"
Dorlan's face was nearly green. He stared at the ground like a whipped puppy. Mithrandir felt a little badly at how harsh he'd been. He softened his tone.
"You've shown some signs of wisdom. We do have you to thank for helping to spare us much unwanted bloodshed. It took some courage to defy your captain's rather hasty order." He smiled slightly. "If you and your men had persisted in firing upon me, however futile your attack, my friends from the South would have been happy to tear you limb from limb."
Dorlan flushed. His heart was still racing. "I wish I could say that Captain Belegon is as pleased about my defiance of his order as you are, my Lord. I'm afraid he plans to...to bring charges against me."
Mithrandir frowned. "Charges? What for?"
"Treason, sire--for disobeying his direct order to fire upon you. He knows I was the only one who did not fire. And I gave the men a counter-command to hold fire, immediately afterward. He is furious, my Lord."
"Treason! Absurd! Military discipline is one thing, but idiocy is entirely another. Belegon!" he snorted. "How in Arda did such a man rise to the rank of captain in the realm of Gondor? Have you got pen and parchment, Dorlan? I would like to send a letter to the High Command. I think it is high time that Captain Belegon's superiors receive a more accurate description of the relative merits of this company's officers."
The lieutenant rummaged in his bags and found the needed supplies.
"I would be more than grateful, my Lord Mithrandir," he mumbled in awe.
The wizard's eyes glinted. "'Mithrandir' alone will suffice." He dipped the pen and began scribbling.
Dorlan dared to look up. He studied the great and famous figure he'd heard of all his life. He was so different than how he remembered him, and the difference was much deeper than appearances. He never expected that an Istar would care one whit for the career of a lowly soldier like himself. Yet here he was, writing a letter on his behalf! And the way all those people from the South had rushed to his aide, and how warmly they spoke of him. There could be no doubt—they thought of him as a friend. The lieutenant wondered if he might feel the same, given a bit more time with him. He flushed; what was he thinking? Friendship with a wizard? It wasn't possible—was it?
Yet, the wizard was clearly not some invincible being so far removed as to be not human. Dorlan had withdrawn dozens of arrows from injured men, and even one from his own leg when there was no one about to help. He knew what mortal flesh felt like. This Istar was more vulnerable than legend allowed, though he was obviously much stronger than an ordinary mortal. Few ordinary men would be standing even the day after a wound like that—and Mithrandir had stood up within minutes of the arrow's removal. But one thing was exactly the same as Dorlan remembered—his eyes.
The soldier noticed his companion's clothing. Embarrassing, for one such as he. The wizard's ill-fitting tunic was blotched with a dark stain, and had an inch-long tear in the front. Even his grey breeches had a bloody stripe down his left leg. The lieutenant cleared his throat.
"My Lord--I mean, Mithrandir--I beg your pardon, but you look like you could use some new clothing."
The wizard chuckled as he looked down. "Indeed, I am a pitiful sight, aren't I? Alas, my robe is gone. It was needed a while back for swaddling clothes, you see."
His eyes twinkled as he watched the soldier gape and flush red again. Mithrandir thought, by the stars, he is so young.
"Well, I…I never thought I'd be saying anything like this in my life, but it appears that you and I are about the same build, though I am a bit taller," Dorlan said. "I…I'd gladly give you anything I've got, sire, except the clothes I'm wearing now."
For the rest of his life, Dorlan would never forget the beaming smile that the great wizard gave him as a reply.
Mithrandir left with a clean set of dark green trousers that were an inch and a half too long and a finely made knee-length tunic that fit him well. He grinned when he thought of what Corli would say when she saw him. He could hardly wait to see the look on her face.
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