The Old Grey Wizard
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A Mortal Life: 23. Dire Circumstances
Chapter 22 Dire Circumstances
Their fourth child, Corlin, was born when Olori was nearly grown at sixteen and the twins were fourteen. They hadn't planned another child. Corli had used herbs to prevent one. Though it was a surprise, at first it was a pleasant one, and they were glad for the accident.
But Corli's entire pregnancy seemed difficult, and now that the time had come, her labor was not going well. Frin's apprentice, Lira, had gone out on her own and had moved away some years back, so Frin called Tessel to help her. Tessel took one look and told Frin to send one of Corli's boys to ride fast and far to fetch Iorla, and bring her back swiftly on horseback, not by cart. Wise old Zeta had been taken by a terrible fever just the year before. Tessel was frightened, and felt the need to have as many healing hands nearby as could be gathered. Even young Olori was not kept away from the birthing room. But this time Frin pulled the fretting husband aside.
"You can't stay in there every minute. You're wearing her out. She sees that look on your face and worries about you, and that's the last thing she needs right now. Stay outside! We'll call you at the least change."
Schlain, now half grey and thicker in the middle, walked silently with his friend as he paced back and forth between house and barn. The smith moved more slowly now; every so often he had to stop and sit to ease the ache in his knobbed knees.
Schlain didn't know for whom to feel more pity: the woman laboring within or the suffering man beside him. He had grown to love this Olorin in the last decade and a half. He'd gotten used to all his strange ways, and to his face that never changed.
The smith knew that making small talk was useless. He'd learned that Olorin didn't respond well to idle speech or the half-lies that filled up most ordinary conversations between folk. It was better to keep silent, unless you had true words to say. If you wanted to talk to this one, you had to speak what was in your heart, undiluted and pure, for that was how the man spoke to you, if he spoke at all—though the meaning of his words was not always immediately apparent. Sometimes his words would work within you for a while—sometimes for months, before the truth of them came clear. He had an uncanny way of knowing when you weren't being honest. But when you spoke true the man listened with such attention that you felt that he was climbing up into your head. Often he knew what was in your heart when you had no way of saying it.
Schlain had found his friend's advice to be valid and wise. He'd brought him troubles and they'd worked them out, the man moving the talk on in a way that at the time Schlain would think he'd found the solution himself. It was only later that he'd realize how Olorin had artfully steered him down the right path.
Of course, their talks were not always serious. Schlain still dearly loved to tease him. He was so easy to tease! He never seemed to expect it. You could almost always take him by surprise with the simplest, baldest falsehood or jest. Yet, though teasing could sometimes cajole a man out of a sulk, trying that with Olorin was bound to fail or worse. Sometimes the reaction he sparked in him was startling. Schlain had learned when to restrain his impish wit when the man who had become his best friend was in one of his brooding moods.
It wasn't as though Olorin had no sense of humor. In fact, Schlain wasn't sure he'd ever heard anyone laugh so often. He laughed at sun and rain, at birds and the antics of goats, at buds coming in the spring and leaves wafting down in autumn. He laughed when he realized that he'd fallen again for one of Schlain's jokes. He laughed when he saw the sunlight shimmering in Corli's red-gold hair, or his children's faces, and he even beamed when he saw Schlain's ugly old mug. About the only thing he didn't ever laugh at was what caused most others to laugh: a jest at someone else's expense.
The men liked to visit each other's farms and help each other with their work, which was an excuse to have time for rambling conversations out of the range of hearing of the women. Schlain kept those talks to himself, not bringing them to Frin, as he had always done before. He'd been assured that the reverse was also true. They were men, and when men talk certain things will be discussed.
Olorin had heard about Schlain's sporadic indiscretions—he was, after all, a traveling silversmith--and the experimentations of his youth. Schlain had asked, and been told—in approximate terms—how many lovers a man might have if he had already walked on this earth for three hundred and seventy-odd years and only looked to be somewhere between forty and forty-five. The smith's brows rose at the estimated total.
"My, my... You don't say--that many?"
"Well, it is a long time, you know…"
"Hmm, when you put it that way, divide by the number of years and all…"
"Now, wait just a moment, Schlain!" he sputtered. "It isn't as though I've gone out in search of it. These things just happen…"
"Aye, of course they do…and fairly often, from the sounds of it…"
"…and it never lasted, it was never anything serious. Not until Corli. My rule—an informal one, of course—has been to wait until the opportunity arises and someone extends an invitation. Less confusion all around that way."
Schlain nodded with mock seriousness. "Oh, of course---much less confusion. You'd not want there to be confusion!" He leaned forward with a smirk. "And tell me, do you ever turn away an invitation?"
"Well, I… I..."
"Ha!" Schlain slapped his knee. "I didn't think so! You can't remember a single time, can you, you lecherous dog!" The smith howled at the look of chagrin on his friend's red face. "I know I'm merely an ignorant silversmith, Olorin, but it seems to me that the compensation you're receiving for this dangerous task of yours is unduly generous!"
That got a good long laugh out of him. In other talks he'd learned that some of the long string of lovers had been male, and a good portion had not even been what Schlain would consider human: beings too short, or too tall, or even immortal. He'd heard about the most recent human one, Nelika, and the possibility that another branch of the Olorin line was sprouting away south.
That he could give of his affection to so many with such ease did not surprise the silversmith. Over the years Schlain had seen his friend offer compassion to some that others had long scorned. He was unquestionably the most generous and soft-hearted man Schlain had ever met. Olorin seemed incapable of judging a person unworthy, no matter what their circumstances. He always seemed to believe—and thus was always being disappointed—that there was good in everyone.
Of course he knew that his friend's soft heart came with a will of iron and unblinking courage, and occasional formidable wrath. Nothing made him angrier than a person taking advantage of unequal power, or strength, or even knowledge, and using it to hurt or intimidate another. The smith hadn't forgotten the stories from seventeen years ago, even if all the neighbors had.
Schlain had heard other tales that made his hair stand on end: about a ruthless and mighty enemy from the past who was coming again, who would cover the world with smoke and fire and unleash armies of Orcs and even worse things if he weren't stopped. He'd heard of the dreadful monsters called Orcs before, like something from the darkest edge of a nasty childhood nightmare. But he learned for the first time how wretched they truly were. Even these creatures earned his friend's pity, for Orcs, Olorin had told him, were all that was left of once fair Elves, taken captive ages ago and slowly tormented and warped into viciousness. No wonder Orcs were so horrible. They hated everything, and hated themselves most of all.
Guilt was confided to the silversmith, of the unanticipated need for violence to sometimes be countered with violence, and grief at the number of bodies the man had found lying at his feet when no other alternative remained. He heard fear expressed from the courageous heart, that the man wouldn't be strong enough or brave enough to face evil when it finally returned, and confused doubt at the erosion of beliefs once thought to be built on foundations of stone. The smith found himself clumsily giving solace and encouragement to one he knew had powers he'd never dreamed of, who could kill him in the blink of an eye. This spirit-person, this wizard: he wasn't really a man, Schlain knew in his head. But at the same time his heart knew that Olorin was altogether human, and was the dearest friend he had ever had.
But now, with his beloved inside fighting for her own life and the life of a child, there was nothing to do but wait with him, whoever he was, whatever he was. Schlain would talk with him if he wanted speech, or would walk with him if he wanted to dissipate some of the energy in his long restless legs. And he would sit with him in silence, when that was all that was left.
In the evening on the day her labor began, Corli gave birth to a small but healthy boy who crowed with life. But her bleeding would not stop, and she came to the razor's edge of death. Once the child was born and her life hung in the balance, Olorin refused to leave the chamber. His eyes blazed and his voice turned threatening. He shouted harshly.
"Let me be alone with her, if any of you have hearts within you!"
The healers retreated from the cottage into the night, afraid for the first time in his presence. The door was closed and the cottage was silent. The window to the bedchamber was covered, and a dim yellow light shone from beneath the shutters. After an hour, he emerged with a wan smile on a weary face. He invited the healers to go to her.
Frin, Tessel and even old Iorla had to admit that Corli was better when they examined her again. Her bleeding had finally stopped. Her faint pulse grew stronger, hour by hour, day by day. Yet it took her months to recover. Indeed, Frin thought her friend never did return to her former state of health. Frin scolded her for not taking sufficient care, and added a few suggestions of her own so they would prevent another pregnancy.
"It won't be for so long, Corli. You're getting older, you know. You're forty-one. Soon you won't have to worry about it. There are advantages to the changes of life."
As her convalescence progressed, Corli couldn't help noticing that her husband, who'd never looked even slightly ill since the day he woke on her cot, seemed drawn and fatigued. His face had lines and shadows she hadn't seen before, and his color was unusually pale. She pressed. He scoffed and said he'd simply been worrying about her. As his apparent sickness went on and she grew stronger, she began to piece the evidence together. She wondered aloud if he had been helping her, as he had one September night years ago when she had suffered a broken arm and a bruised cheek.
"Of course I helped you, Corli," he said with a hint of impatience in his voice. "It was, without a doubt, a dire circumstance."
At once she suspected that there was another reason he dare not use his healing skills except in great need.
"But…but what does it do to you to help me?"
He shrugged. "I don't know what you mean. There is nothing wrong with me."
"There is! You are ill, and in pain. Do you think I can't see it?"
"You are imagining things," he said, as he found something interesting to look at out the window.
She clutched his arm. "Tell me!"
"You are very stubborn, Mistress Corli."
"As if you are not, Master Olorin!"
His eyes twinkled. "You are correct. I am stubborn—stubborn enough to insist on repaying old debts. Such as the one I owe to you, Mistress."
She sniffed. "And which debt would that be?"
"One involving a half dozen arrows and a freezing field…"
Corli tossed her hand. "That! You've repaid that one long ago—for instance, when a gang of men rode to the farm to take young Nod…"
"Ah!" He smiled crookedly. "But that gang never arrived, Corli. What sort of payment was that?"
"Then what about…about when that madman attacked me and you came hundreds of miles to help…"
"And I stood by while a badger, a bear and a wolverine defended you." His face grew serious. "Allow me to do something in return for your having saved my life."
"But at what cost to you? I can see that there is something wrong, don't tell me that there isn't…" Her voice broke. "It isn't fair, Olorin. Y..you promised that you wouldn't hide things… You promised!"
The lines and shadows on his face were suddenly accentuated. "Very well," he said in a low voice. "As it is clear you have already guessed... When I use my ability to help someone to heal, I…I take it upon myself. I bring it within. Not all at once, unless the hurt is something small, or easily healed…"
"Like my arm."
"Yes. But this time, you were so ill, I had to take it on slowly, bit by bit…"
"And then? What happens after you 'bring it within'?"
"Just as with any other injury, I use some of my ability to heal myself."
"Use? You mean, 'use up,' don't you? Can this ability of yours be renewed?"
One brow rose, and he looked away.
"You don't know, do you?"
He reached out and traced the silver necklace with its green gem that lay about her neck. "I find myself telling you things I have never told another."
Her chin went out. "Well, I should hope so!"
He smiled wearily and embraced her.
The next morning she brought it up again. "Olorin, you cannot use your…your skills for me again. Not for me, nor for anyone else."
"But I don't care what happens to me," he cried. "You need my help!"
"But you must care!" she said firmly. "Think of what lies ahead for you. And besides, I care."
She convinced him she was healed enough. He grudgingly agreed. There were limits, after all, to what he could achieve, and he had already done nearly all that was possible. He cared for her in the more usual fashion as she gradually healed. She knew she would not have survived without him. But she knew also that he had a long road before him that extended far beyond her lifespan. She had no doubt he would need that ability, as he called it, again and again in the future. Slowly they both gained strength. Neither was ever quite as strong as before.
Corlin, the child, was different from the others. It was apparent from the day he was born that he was more Olorin's child than Corli's. He had dark wavy hair, and his clear grey eyes seemed aware from the moment he emerged from his mother's womb, searching deeply into any that gazed into his. Corli never guessed the truth: that her husband had been helping her all through the difficult pregnancy, and the stamp of it was on his son.
Because the mother was weak, his father raised him from his earliest infancy, taking on every care of the child that he could, save nursing. Corli smiled as she watched him rock the baby, staring into the boy's eyes. She wondered what he saw there. She wondered how like her husband her fourth child would be, and what it would mean. She heard all the same tales told again that Olorin had told to the first three. But Corli could tell that this time, the child believed every word--and never stopped believing.
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