The Old Grey Wizard
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A Mortal Life: 21. The New Father
Chapter 20 The New Father
A month later the Grey Man paced in the yard, a new pair of black boots crunching on a thin layer of snow. The familiar hooded cloak flew out behind him, though beneath it he now wore new grey woolen trousers and a fine white shirt. His face was still clean-shaven, and wavy dark hair was trimmed to his ears. A broad-shouldered, thick-limbed man sat on the step before Mistress Corli's door. His curly light brown beard was neatly clipped, and his hair reached his collar. He was wrapped in a fur-lined cloak, the hood drawn up against the cold. The men's breath stood out in the chill air like puffs of smoke.
"Does it help you to walk so, back and forth? You'll wear out those new boots. There are hours yet to go, maybe days."
"Why won't they let me in?"
The man on the step laughed curtly. His voice was gravelly and deep.
"These women? Are you mad? They'll guard her like she-wolves. Black-haired Iorla, for one--I've always thought her eyes were like a wolf's, icy-blue, and fierce. She's an old rival of yours. Did you know that?" The men's eyes met, and the wizard's brows rose. "Hmm, I see you didn't. Well, take it from me: Iorla's not likely to let you in to see her little Corli. And mine, Frin. At times I think she'd like to trim the stones from half the men in these parts, just to lessen the burden on the womenfolk. And from the tales she tells me late at night, I've considered doing the job for her."
The Grey Man glanced again into the other man's twinkling blue eyes. He concluded that this must be a type of masculine banter designed to distract the expectant father: half true, half exaggerated lies, left to the listener to pick the wheat from the chaff for something amusing to do while he waited. He stopped pacing. Schlain slid over and slapped the step beside him with his wide palm.
"Plenty of room. Take a load off them long shanks."
The wizard slumped onto the step.
"It was good of you to come, Schlain."
"Well, it is your first, and when I heard that the whole lot was heading this way I couldn't very well leave you alone with all them healers, now could I? Think Iorla's stubborn? You haven't spent much time around Zeta. Tessel's kindly enough, but with all of them together, I felt right sorry for you."
The expectant father smiled faintly. "They do have a fierceness, whether one at a time or together. It's admirable; they stick together, watch over one another."
"Yes. Men don't often do the same, do we? Perhaps most men don't deserve to have a friend stick by them fiercely. Except in times of great need, war and such. Not that I'd know about that. I'm no fighter."
Schlain sniffed. "Call yourself what you like. It's not what I been hearing."
The Grey Man turned and looked at him. Schlain eyed him back.
"You might as well learn it now, Grey Man—or whatever we are to call you. There are no secrets between your Corli and my Frin. What one knows, the other is bound to hear. It seems they have some sort of pact. And then of course, Frin tells me everything, half of it while she's asleep and babbling about the oddest things. I am likely the only silversmith alive who also knows the secret recipe for an elixir that will bring down a woman's breast milk." They both chuckled. "So, if there's anything you'd rather that Frin not know—or I, for that matter—best not tell Corli."
"I'm afraid it's too late for that. I've done nothing for the last month but answer Corli's every question—well, almost nothing."
He smiled to himself--or so he thought.
Schlain poked his arm and snickered. "Another secret known to the smith who sleeps with the midwife: pregnant women are lusty almost until the day they deliver. And by the sounds of it, long absence didn't dampen the passion any!"
The wizard flushed, his eyes wide. "What are you, a mind-reader?"
"No need to be. I have it on the best authority."
He shook his head ruefully and laughed. "This will take some getting used to!"
"You have lots to get used to. You and Corli have hardly had time to get to know one another. You only been together since the spring, and what with you off traveling, doing your heroics and all…"
The Grey Man frowned. "Heroics? Did Corli say that?"
"Not exactly. But it's true enough."
"I'd hardly call it... " He snorted. "I meant what I said, a moment ago. I am no warrior. I would never choose to… I simply tried to do what I thought was right."
Schlain nodded and scowled. "Aye--what was right. And you had to fight your way to the front of a crowd of other folk eager to do the same, didn't you?"
The two men frowned at their steaming breath for a moment, each with his thoughts. Schlain was berating himself for not saddling his horse in June and joining the wagons heading south when the slaves had been freed. They could have used an extra hand, and he'd not provided it. And the wizard was reliving the horror of seeing blackened and bloodied bodies lying in the road at his feet.
Finally the Grey Man spoke again. His voice was low.
"Why did they all come? Is it…is it going to be that bad for her?"
Schlain turned to him with a look of pity and wonder. He put a heavy arm across the wizard's shoulder.
"Nay, man. It's nothing like that. Believe me, I'd know if Frin was truly worried. No, it's because of who Corli is." The wizard blinked at him. "You really don't know, do you? Corli is the best of them all. She's the youngest, and the most skilled of any of them. She's the best healer any of them have ever seen. If these women had an order, Corli would be the head of it. They love your woman. That's why they're here."
Schlain hesitated, trying hard to control the corners of his mouth, which wanted to twitch upward. He took in a slow breath.
"And yet it could be, of course, that they're here because you are the father."
The wizard stared into the air, imagining the worst. He had told Corli more than he had told any mortal about who and what he was, and why he had come. Did every one of her friends know the tale now? While he had been distracted away south, had Sauron discovered him—and were these healing women secretly in league with the Enemy? He was suddenly afraid that evil was lurking in the house behind his back.
"What do you mean?" he said, in as level a voice as he could muster.
"Well," Schlain said, one brow rising, his eyes sliding sideways, "I suppose they might be curious. Will the babe emerge with a flash of lightning, perhaps, or will it fly about the room before they've had a chance to tie off the cord or…"
The fiery look that the Grey Man gave him stopped Schlain cold. He slid his arm away from the wizard. He felt himself trembling, and not from the winter's chill.
"I…I was just joking, man--just joking! No harm meant. Just trying to lighten the mood a bit…"
The wizard rose to his feet and turned. His face was set.
"They will let me in. I won't be kept out a moment longer!"
He had raised his hand to cast a spell on the door when they heard the bolt slide and it opened. Iorla stood there, red-faced and flustered.
"All right then, come on."
He reached out and clutched her wrist. She glared down at his hand.
"What's happened? Is she all right, Iorla?" he asked in a choked voice.
She sighed crossly, then reached up and patted his arm. Her anger dissolved.
"It's fine, there's nothing wrong. She's fine. She wants you in there, and she said you'd want to be there. That's all. Now, come inside and close this door, before you let all the warmth out. And let go of my arm. Ach, what a grip you've got!"
Schlain had never seen or heard of a birth like it. Corli's labor went on for the rest of the day. By evening, when things were advancing in the normal way, the smith found himself in the sitting room by the fire, just as he'd expected. But what he hadn't expected was the company of three healing women forbidden to enter the birthing room. Only Frin, Lira and the Grey Man were within. He had quite a time of it, keeping himself on his toes in the presence of such indignant, opinionated females. Their tempers were running red hot at the very idea that they'd been excluded and the father, of all people, was let inside. He had all he could do to stop them from hissing at each other like so many wildcats.
"Grey Man," Schlain thought, as he poured a fourth cup of chamomile tea for Zeta and tried to block her view of Iorla for a few minutes, "Grey Man, you owe me. You owe me for this."
No lightning was reported from Corli's room, and the newborn girl lay calmly on her mother's belly while Frin tied and divided the cord. The Grey Man knelt at the side of the bed, his eyes level with the child. Corli watched his face. On it she saw the same wondrous look she had seen on hundreds of faces, of the love at first sight of a new parent when they see their first babe.
It was after midnight. As he lay half asleep in the sitting room, wrapped in a spare blanket next to Frin, Schlain heard the creak of footsteps on the planked floor. He opened one eye. The silversmith saw the Grey Man seem to stumble as he went to the door and slipped out into the night. Schlain waited, watching the dance of firelight and shadow on the whitewashed walls of the cottage. Nervous father, he thought. Just hitting him now, all that it means to have the care of a little one. But then he heard a sound; he frowned. He rose carefully, not waking Frin or the others. He pulled his thick brown cloak from a peg by the door and threw it around his shoulders. With his hand on the latch, he noticed a grey cloak hanging. He laid it across his arm, and went out.
Schlain peered, searching the darkness lit by moon and stars reflected on snow. The sound—a wrenching, single cry of grief, it had seemed—had come from near the barn. He walked slowly across the yard. He stopped beside the man who stood as stiff as stone, his fists clenched, his eyes unblinking.
"What is it, man?" he whispered. There was no reply.
He paused, searching his face. Schlain thought at first that he had fallen into some sort of a trance. His features were motionless and cold. But then he looked more closely. In those staring eyes, the smith saw a deep well of terrible anguish, barely held in check. What could be causing such sorrow, he wondered?
The wizard was breathing deeply now. His head bowed and his eyes had closed tightly. Schlain unfolded the heavy grey cloak and placed it around his shoulders, leaving one hand lightly upon him.
"What is it, my friend?"
The voice that emerged from him was thin and raw.
"I just saw it. I just saw all of it, all of them, like candles in a storm, just as he said. All at once: Corli, this child, the next and the next, and their children, and theirs and theirs… I understand now. How will I bear it? How could anyone bear it?"
Schlain leaned forward. He hadn't caught more than half of the words, and what he had made little sense. If this man was mad, he'd better discover it now, and tell Frin.
"What? What did you say?"
"I haven't told her this part yet. I didn't know how."
"Told her what? Tell me."
Schlain was becoming alarmed. He felt about Corli just as all the others did, and was just as protective of her. He must find out what secrets this man was hiding from her.
"He said I would come to grief," the wizard whispered. "I didn't know he meant it this way."
"He said? Who? What are you saying, man? You're not making sense!"
Suddenly the wizard pressed his hands to his face. He heaved a shuddering sigh. When he spoke again, his voice returned to something closer to normal.
"Schlain, I don't know what you've heard from Frin about me, what all Corli might have told her…"
"Well, I… I'll admit it hasn't made a lot of sense to me, but Corli's got the idea that you might be some sort of a…a wizard, I guess you'd say… And then again it seems you might be a kind of…well, a flying spirit… Or maybe a bit of both. Mind you, it don't matter all that much to me. Corli's wild for you, that's sure. You seem to be a likable enough fellow, at least when you've got both feet planted on the earth, and aren't tossing bolts of fire about." He paused, wondering if he'd gone too far again. The man beside him said nothing. Schlain went on. "And it seems clear enough you've got a good heart. That is what matters, after all."
"Yes. That is what matters. That is the only thing that matters."
"Then what's this all about? What's hit you so hard? What haven't you told her?"
There was no response. Schlain's heart thumped as he recalled the fierce and terrifying look in the man's eyes this afternoon; then his jaw hardened.
"Listen," Schlain said sternly. "If you've got some secret and Corli's going to be hurt by it, you might as well know now that you'll have me to contend with, wizard or no. So you'd better just out with it, now!"
So it happened that Schlain the silversmith heard the cause of the wizard's grief before Corli learned of it. At first he thought he was simply listening to the raving of a madman. Then he remembered the peculiar things Corli had told them: of arrows that had failed to kill him, of wounds that healed with inhuman swiftness and scars that vanished. Schlain had been in the marketplace in Arlindon with a display of the fine jewelry for which he was well known. He'd seen ruffians armed with clubs and knives frightened off by a puff of air. Men fleeing from the south road had come home with wild stories about lightning and fire raining from a clear night sky. And the oddest thing, just as the Grey Man had predicted, a friendly traveler came to the late summer Arlindon market bearing a sack of seeds, free for the taking. Now in everyone's yard a bushy plant flourished with pods that practically burst with gooey syrup that dried to a sweet powder. The price of sugar had plummeted, all right. It grew for the price of sunshine right out the back door. Then there was the dream.
He'd never told Frin, but the morning she woke him, frantic to visit Corli, he'd been having a dream of his own. He'd been at his bench, holding a nugget of copper and wondering what on earth he'd planned to do with it when the Grey Man had appeared at the door to his shed. Frin woke him right in the midst of hearing the man's politely insistent request for him to drive his wife to her best friend's farm as soon as possible.
After hearing what Corli had to say, Schlain had gone to look for himself—another thing he'd not told Frin. He had inspected the mutilated, half-eaten corpse of Jarek with his own eyes and with an uneasy stomach, taking a spade along to bury the evidence once he was done.
The boys from Morgo's gang might have concocted a fancy tale to explain their failure to recapture the escaped slaves. Corli might have imagined the spirit and its glowing touch, and he and Frin might have got into some tainted wine the night before their uncanny dreams. But Jarek had been killed by both a bear and a wolverine. There was no doubt about that. The marks each made in the soil—and in a man's flesh--were distinctive. And who ever heard of a bear and a wolverine working together? And if one peculiar detail of the whole peculiar tale was true, perhaps all of it was.
A flurry of thoughts rushed through Schlain's head. So the man would live forever, or what would count to the rest of them as forever. They would grow old and die, and he would stay the same. He would be at every deathbed, the one standing by every grave. No wonder he was racked with grief. Schlain couldn't imagine a worse fate.
Schlain had never believed in any of the various gods or stories he knew others clung to for comfort. He had always thought that way it all fit, the whole pattern of life, made perfect sense just the way it was. Everyone was subject to the same rules, whether you were an ant or a king. He'd heard legends of immortal folk, but they kept themselves out of the way these days and didn't bother anyone. Life was short for the rest, but if you paid attention it went along pleasantly enough. Things had a beginning, a middle and an end, and if there was something beyond that, Schlain figured he'd find out in due time. Someone had to leave to make room for the next lot. Growing old didn't frighten him, and death didn't either, as long as dying wasn't too difficult. If nothing ever changed, life would be awfully dull.
It occurred to him that perhaps that was why this man's life seemed to be anything but dull. He had lots of time on his hands, and apparently his response was to form the habit of going looking for trouble. And if you're going to be around for centuries and live the kind of life he seemed to lead, it would be truly unfair if you didn't also possess some means of healing that was better than for ordinary men. Otherwise you'd probably stay locked indoors, too wary to risk losing the long life granted to you, afraid you could fall and twist a limb and be crippled for ages.
He understood now what the wizard had meant earlier when he'd objected to the word "heroic." He was right. It wasn't heroic for him, what he'd done; it was ordinary. The risk was not the same for him as it was for a plain old silversmith. The wizard could afford to do extraordinary things. It seemed to Schlain that the fellow was downright designed for it. But he wasn't all that well prepared for the rigors of an ordinary life.
"Let's move about, at least. My blood's near to freezing," Schlain grumbled.
He started pacing the Grey Man back and forth across the snow. The smith didn't know any words of comfort he could give. Anything he could think of to say seemed ridiculously empty. So he just walked with him in the starlight, back and forth, through the small hours of the night.
Finally, when Schlain figured his feet were frozen through and he'd lost all his toes, the wizard stopped pacing, turned and put a hand on the smith's broad shoulder.
"Schlain, I don't know what to say except thank you: for sleeping with one eye open, for staying out here all night with me, for listening to what I suppose sounds like a lot of far-fetched nonsense, for being willing to sacrifice your feet to the freezing cold. Thank you for being a good friend."
Schlain grunted and gave a curt nod.
"Would you not say anything to Frin yet? About what I've told you, and how you found me, what a state I was in? Give me a little time."
"Of course. Corli will be a bit distracted for a while. You will tell her, though, what you've told me--about the way you are different?"
"Yes. I promise, by year's end, no later."
"No need for a date. I believe you. You seem to be the sort that keeps promises."
"I would like to be thought of that way. I don't think I'll have to tell her what it means for me. She will figure that out for herself. One last thing. You and Frin, you haven't told anyone else what you know, have you?"
Schlain's eyes twinkled. "We're a couple of vicious old gossips, man. But we only gossip with each other. We've told no one and we've no plans to in the future. But you know, of course, that we didn't have to. Folk are talking anyway. There must have been three or four hundred people in that square in Arlindon. And plenty of Morgo's hired men made their way back home. Everyone for a hundred miles has heard of you."
"That's all right. I've been the subject of idle speculation before."
"Hmm. Now that I can believe."
The wizard chuckled. "It will die down when nothing else interesting happens. It may take a year or two, but the talk will stop."
"It may take more than a year or two. And how can you guarantee that nothing interesting will happen, as you put it?"
"I plan to avoid interesting things for a long time."
"Well, let's hope that they avoid you, too. Now can we go inside and warm up before my toes snap off?"
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