The Old Grey Wizard
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A Mortal Life: 20. The One Who Walks In Dreams
Chapter 19 The One Who Walks In Dreams
It was late November, and the weather had turned bitter. Rain came down steadily. Cold mist gathered in every low-lying fold of land. The trees were bare. Brown leaves clumped on the barren ground. Puddles froze overnight, only to thaw to cold mud in slightly warmer air the next morning.
Lira was staying with Corli, and Frin sent her boy Hain, home now with his father after the end of the traveling season, back and forth with messages. Frin had a bag packed and waiting by the door. This was Corli's first. There was no telling what time her babe might choose, whether early or late. First labors were always the worst, and the riskiest. She had tried to prepare for anything. Frin realized she was more nervous about attending this birth than she'd ever been, even her very first one years ago. It wasn't just because it was her dear friend Corli who would be delivering. It was also because she wouldn't be able to call on her wise friend Corli for help if she needed it.
Corli still felt well and strong, and she tried to continue to do what little chores there were on the cusp between fall and winter. Lira took over the care of the goats and chickens and fed the horse and her pony. Hain exercised and groomed the mounts each week, and made sure the women had an ample supply of firewood and water. But there wasn't enough for Corli to do. She sorted herbs and mixed easy concoctions, nothing that required pounding or boiling. She had gone through every piece of mending in her house. But hours passed daily with nothing to do but worry.
She'd been so grateful when Frin and Schlain had appeared at her door the morning after she was attacked. Frin had stayed with her for a week, listening over and over to the wild tale with wide eyes. Corli wondered if her friends really believed her. And as time had passed, she wasn't certain she knew what to think of the story herself.
Where was the Grey Man? After seeing what she had taken to calling his spirit on that terrible September night, she had been filled with hope and courage. But with time the hope had dulled, and the memory of being embraced by the sun had faded. Even her pleasant dreams had abandoned her. The only way she knew for certain that she hadn't imagined the whole thing was the badger's newly dug grave behind the barn. Every evening a female and a growing young male badger came out, sniffed the earth and bleated softly. Corli watched them every day.
The crows were still there. She wasn't sure, because they all looked alike to her, but it seemed that there was more crow traffic to and fro lately. Some days she counted twelve birds, some days as many as fifty gathered to roost. Once she was sure that a pair of croaking ravens visited. The crows avoided them, and they were certainly bigger and heavier than any crow. And twice she caught sight of a bird flying high up in the sky, circling slowly. A hawk? An eagle? Whatever it was, it was too far away for her to see.
She had not seen the bear since the night Jarek was killed. But without seeing it, she knew it was there. She'd learned to smell it. Its scent was musky and very particular. As long as the scent remained, she felt confident that she was well guarded. But her worries were not really for herself. She wondered over and over again, hour after hour, day after day: where was the Grey Man? Was he safe, and when would he return?
At last, one night near the end of the month, Corli had another vivid dream. She was watching from high on a cliff, looking down on a river raging in full flood. It was dark and raining. A man on horseback came to the far bank of the river and stopped. He gazed across, then upstream and down. She noticed his dark clothes were close fitting and seemed well made. It was cold, but he wore no cloak. His face was beardless and pale. He had wavy dark hair shorn above his collar. She worried that the stranger would attempt a crossing. He seemed interested in exactly that.
She watched as he got off the horse and inspected a wooden post standing on the bank of the stream. She noticed it for the first time. Suddenly the place was familiar. It was the ford across the river a few days south of here. It was marked with a wooden post just like that! But she had never seen the water so high. It looked treacherous, impassable. Then in the dream the man strode forward, right into the water. He led the horse by the traces. She saw the horse's eyes widen with terror; the man coaxed it forward. Soon, he was swimming in the strong current, downstream from his mount. The horse began to struggle, to pull against the bridle. The man swam next to its neck. He stroked it, trying to calm it. He wrapped the trace around his wrist, looping it so it would stay.
Then the horse began bucking in the stream. She saw hooves fly up. Something tumbled by. A log in the raging river had smashed into the horse, knocking his legs from under him and he in turn fell into his master. Corli caught a flash of white--an arm, wrapped with dark cord. The man, tangled in the traces, vanished under the foam.
She woke shivering in the night. What had the dream meant? It wasn't the Grey Man. It looked nothing like him. Well, she hadn't actually gotten a close view of his face. Was it he? Should she send a message, ask Frin to send her husband in search of him? But Hain had just left yesterday. He wasn't due back for a week. She'd have to send Lira with a message, and then she would be here alone. And what would Frin think, asking her to send her real living husband off into the cold and wet in search of a phantom from a dream? She drifted back to uneasy sleep.
The next day passed slowly, the minutes marked by a steady drip, drip. It was too wet and cold to go outdoors. Corli paced in her small cottage from room to room, or dozed over a basket of knitting. That evening, as she sat by the hearth, she thought she heard a knock on the door, so faint that she wondered if she had drifted off and dreamed it. She looked over at Frin's apprentice to see if she'd heard it. But Lira was snoring in a chair, her head slumped on the kitchen table. The girl always fell asleep just after supper. Tap, tap. She heard the knock again. Corli pulled herself to her feet and waddled to the door. She opened it to the endless rain.
There stood her dream man: drenched to the skin, pale—ashen, in fact--and gaunt. His dripping hair was dark with occasional flecks of silver. His jaw was shadowed with a few days of beard, and on his brow was an ugly bruise and a recent gash. He wore strange close-fitting garments that might have once been green but now were so stained and travel worn as to be any dark color. Head bowed, he leaned on the frame of the door in silence.
If Corli hadn't glanced down at the man's boots for a moment, she might not have known him until he spoke. But she knew those boots--there, on the right, were the holes in the leather where she'd withdrawn a splintered, broken arrow. He'd never found the time to replace them. They spoke each other's names in the same instant as he stumbled into her arms. He only managed to say one other thing.
"Oh Corli, poor Rubeo… My fault..."
She took him straight to bed, and he was asleep before she could even pull off his muddy and waterlogged boots. He didn't move while she unfastened the many buttons of his finely made tunic. The lines of his face were startlingly angular. His features were familiar and strange at the same time. She thought he looked so much younger without the long hair and beard. But no, on second thought he looked old, even ancient: a statue carved of milk-hued stone, a graven tribute to some legendary figure from another age. His skin seemed transparent. She knew she must be imagining it, but she thought a dim, pale light welled up from within him.
He wore a dozen strands of colored beads around his neck, hidden under the tunic. Many of the beads were broken, and the dye had stained his skin in shades of yellow and red. She leaned forward to study them, placing her palm upon the center of his chest, and still he didn't stir. She stripped away the cold, soaking wet tunic.
She giggled as she tugged his breeches free. It seemed it was her fate to always be peeling this man's clothing off him. Then she caught sight of how lean he was beneath the clothes, how many bruises he had, just like a man who had tumbled through a raging river full of rocks. She pressed her hand to her mouth as tears started in her eyes. When had he last eaten? When had he last slept? How many miles without a rest had he traveled to reach her in time, as he had promised?
She brushed the tears away. What he needed first was warmth, and she had plenty of that. At this point in her pregnancy she radiated heat like a forge. Corli pulled off her own clothing and climbed into the bed, yanking the covers over them snugly. She curled around him as well as she could, given her size, and caressed his face.
He stirred as he felt a strange kick from Corli's belly. A faint smile appeared on his lips. He wrapped his arms around her, sighed and went back to sleep.
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