The Old Grey Wizard
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A Mortal Life: 3. A Quick Recovery
Chapter 2 A Quick Recovery
He woke on a cot to the smell of wood smoke. A neatly thatched roof was above him. His eyes wandered over the woven pattern. Must have found an inn. He remembered riding toward a cheerful stream, and a lazy nap in meadow grass. I wonder what town this is? He shifted; then he froze. Pain shot through him from all directions. Ah! His chest, his nose, his back, every limb! Where didn't he hurt? What ever was wrong with him? He felt as though he'd been trampled by a herd of runaway stallions. Or had he been caught in a rockslide and battered to pieces?
Surely, this was a flaw in his existence. When he had taken on this mortal flesh, he and the other messengers had been assured that everything would be different for them. Time would have little meaning. The years would change them imperceptibly slowly. Sickness and injury could befall them, to be sure. Already he had discovered how his skin could be cut, bruised, punctured, abraded or scorched as easily as anyone else's. But he had also found how his skin healed swiftly, and that the substance beneath his surface was hardy and resilient, and difficult to injure seriously. He had been promised that he, like the others, would heal thoroughly, and his personal experience bore that out. They had also been told they would be far stronger than any ordinary mortal.
Well, he didn't feel strong today. He couldn't think what might have happened to make him feel so utterly miserable. And here was the flaw: why must he feel everything as sharply as any ordinary mortal? Was that fair, he wondered, with so many more years before him and the task to become more perilous with each passing century? Had any of the others felt this way? Had any of the others felt battered and trampled? He must remember to inquire the next time he spoke to one of his colleagues. Or perhaps not; he doubted that any of the other messengers would have found opportunities to make such discoveries. He suspected his colleagues would be aghast to hear of how frequently his adventures—or misadventures—had brought him into the type of perilous situation in which one learned about such things. No, on second thought he would keep his questions to himself.
He gritted his teeth and sat up slowly, allowing the pain and dizziness to fade a bit before he looked around. If he'd thought to glean a clue to whatever had befallen him by searching his surroundings, he was disappointed. An unfamiliar room came into focus. A stone hearth took up almost an entire wall; the remains of a recent fire glowed pleasantly. A wooden table stood to the left. The surface was nearly covered with orderly piles of leaves, roots and dried flowers. Behind the table were shelves lined with jars and baskets, and bags of cloth tied with leather thongs. Aromatic scents came to him: something sweet and vaguely familiar, but also acrid and sharp tangs, a blend of many herbs.
To the right a door was ajar and daylight streamed in. He heard a rhythmic thumping outside. He started to stand and quickly sat again, squeezing his eyes shut. After a moment his head stopped whirling. He opened his eyes, looked down and frowned. By the stars! He hadn't a stitch on, not counting bandages tied here and there. Bandages! Why was he bandaged? Who had tied them? Where was his clothing? And most importantly, where in Arda was he?
He rubbed the back of his head, where a pair of tender lumps had formed. He had no recollection of this place, or of arriving here. The last thing he remembered was an unpleasant dream of a gang of men chopping a tree apart, branch by branch, and feeding the wood into a roaring blaze, and somehow, he was the tree. Woven in were glimpses of a child's anxious, dark brown face, and the touch of a cool hand on his brow. But those were fleeting images, flickering in the bonfire. He pushed the painful vision away, rose and wrapped the blanket around him like a cloak.
A woman sat before a low table just outside the door. She was pounding a bright yellow paste with a mortar in a stone bowl. Her sleeves were rolled to the elbow. She stopped, tasted her concoction, wrinkled her nose and added more powder from a bag on her left. She had just dipped her finger again. Her hand froze halfway to her mouth as she stared at the door to her healing hut.
"Where am I?" he said hoarsely as he squinted in the bright sunlight.
"By the gods! How in the world…!" The woman leaped up and shoved him back indoors. He stumbled backward. "You should not be standing, man!" She was almost a foot shorter than he, but she pushed and prodded him toward the cot.
"Get back into bed, this instant!"
His knees buckled on the edge of the cot and he sat abruptly.
She wore a stained apron over a plain blue gown. Her hair, tied behind her neck, was bright red. Silver dangled from each ear. Her eyes were intensely green with golden flecks beneath scowling brows. Her face was square, and at the moment her jaw jutted out fiercely. She jabbed a yellow-stained finger into his chest. He flinched.
"You! Lie down, and don't get up until I tell you to!"
"Lie down, I said."
"Are you going to do what I say or not?"
"No!" he shouted, leaning backward to dodge her poking finger. He was befuddled and irritable, and not accustomed to taking orders from anyone, especially someone who prodded him exactly where he seemed to hurt the most. "I won't lie down until you tell me where I am, and who in the world you are!"
She placed her hands on her hips and glared. Her initial flash of terror at seeing the man she'd pronounced a hairsbreadth from death standing in the sunlight had turned to anger. The cheek of the fellow, after all she'd done! Why, all through the night she had stayed at his bedside, sponging his burning brow, dripping an infusion of willow bark into his open mouth, forcing him to swallow it, until the raging fever broke. And now, here he was, saucy and demanding, after how many hours she'd spent watching his chest rise and fall, wasting time worrying over a stranger. The nerve of him!
"Well! I like that! I drive in a bumping cart all night, pluck arrows out in the middle of a freezing field, drag the man into the cart, no matter that he seems to weigh three times as much as me, bind all his wounds and how does he repay me? By shouting for names. Well, you, for one, could start by giving up yours! Who, may I ask, are you?"
Cart…arrows…a field? He remembered nothing of that. But that voice! The calm voice in the night, the tender touch of a healing hand, and the scent of wholesome herbs: a singularly pleasant memory amidst a vague sense of other uneasy thoughts. Now the memory had a face, one he thought might be pleasing if she ever smiled. Who was he? It was a reasonable question. He laughed, then winced and grabbed his chest.
"Ouch… I am called Mithrandir by some, and Gandalf by others, and either way I seem to be in your debt. My apologies for shouting. I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Mistress, no matter what your name is."
He stretched out his hand to her, smiling in what he hoped would be seen as a friendly manner. He had no way of knowing how dreadful his face appeared. She stared at his hand mistrustfully. He drew back. A handshake was apparently the wrong gesture. He placed his palm over his heart and bowed his head.
"Many thanks, kind lady. Now, if you please, could we begin again? I can't quite recall what happened, though I'm surely grateful for whatever it was you did. And perhaps you could tell me where I am, and who you are?"
She snorted. "Stubborn, aren't you? Very well, we'll start with the last first. I am Corli. That's my proper name, given to me by my mother, not what 'I am called' by this one or that. It isn't considered polite where I come from to pass off what other people call you as your own name. But you do as you see fit, Master Gandalf-Mithra-whoever you are. In my family, the proper greeting when meeting a stranger is 'good health upon you and yours,' although that doesn't seem quite correct for this occasion, as you are hardly in good health. This is my healing hut, and you are on my farm. You are located, if that's what you're driving at, about fifteen miles southwest as the crow flies of where those men left you for dead, and some twenty by cart."
The man blinked. Left for dead? Ugly images began to surface.
"As for what happened, I only know what the boy told me, and he wasn't there for the worst of it, thank goodness. But as I piece it together, that gang didn't take too kindly to you loaning your horse to the boy they were out hunting. Since they couldn't have the boy, they apparently decided to take their frustration out on you. I don't doubt they were pleased to find the odds so nicely stacked in their favor, a dozen against one. They jabbed and stabbed and loaded you full of darts. Then they left, thinking you'd soon be dead. If I hadn't come and dragged you off, either the wolves would have torn you to shreds or those villains would have been back at first light and finished the job, probably by chopping your head off and burning the rest to hide what they'd done. They're not all a bad lot, but you'd best steer clear of the town of Arlindon on your future travels. Someone will undoubtedly recall your face, though they did their best to alter it."
He remembered everything now. He'd acted like a complete idiot, allowing an ordinary gang of ordinary men to get the better of him. He carefully touched his nose, which was exquisitely tender. By crossing his eyes he could see the end of it: purple and misshapen. The scowling face of the brutish man wielding the club flashed in his brain.
"Arlindon, you say? Helpful advice. I'll try to remember it. How did you find me, Mistress Corli? How did you even know to look?"
"Nod, of course. He galloped in here on a fine looking roan three nights ago, shouting and all excited. Once I got out of him what had happened—and that he hadn't stolen the horse—he begged me to go back with him and help you. Mind, I can't say I was eager to march headlong into what sounded like either a battleground or a search for a corpse. But the child wouldn't take no for an answer. I got the cart ready and we set out. He brought me to you."
A picture of Nod's sparking eyes and gap-toothed grin returned to him.
"Ah, yes--Nod!" He smiled. "Seems like a fine lad. Is he yours?"
Her eyes narrowed. "And just what do you mean by that, sir?"
He seemed to have blundered again, said something wrong. "I…I meant, is he your son? His father must be a handsome fellow."
Sadness fell across her face.
"Yes," she said softly, "his father was handsome. Junga, he said his name was. Nod is not my son, not by birth, at least. I never met his mother." She looked up, studying his eyes. "When you said 'is he yours' I thought you were asking if I owned him. Nod was a slave, like his father."
Suddenly the full recollection of the hatred of the slave hunters slammed into him. He heard the hissing laughter of the vicious bowman and felt every wound throb at once. A cold sweat broke over him and his ears roared.
Corli pressed gently on his shoulders.
"Will you settle back onto that cot, man, before you tumble head first to the floor? The color's drained right out of you. And I need to see how you've torn yourself up after I worked so hard to put you back together."
He lay back, grimacing with the movement. She tugged on the blanket. He felt his face heat up. She clicked her tongue.
"Don't blush! Who do you think peeled those filthy bloodstained garments off you in the first place? I've seen you already." And you're not a bad looking specimen, she said to herself, save for all the holes and tears in your skin.
He watched her as she leaned over him, intent on checking his every hurt. She was slender, but he saw the strength in her limbs as she worked. As she unwrapped the bandages, Corli told him how six years ago she had been called to tend to a slave woman who'd been laboring for three days.
"It was up at the big farm called Bramblewood, five miles northeast of Arlindon. The master hadn't thought to call me until the poor woman was dying. I could save neither mother nor child, so the slippery jackass figured I was owed no fee. He paid me nothing for my travels or my troubles. All I could do was help ease her passing. As I was leaving the slave quarters, this tall young fellow comes to my side and hands me a struggling, kicking bundle. He said I should tell his son that he loved him and that his mother had loved him. The mother was gone; Junga didn't know where. She'd been sold off as soon as the boy could be weaned. Junga said he didn't want his son to grow up in slavery."
She hid the child among her things and left the estate. She raised the boy as her own. Five years later she heard that a slave had been killed trying to escape. Soon afterward a gang of men appeared at her farm.
"They said Junga had told them he'd given his son to me. I heard later that one of the other slaves accidentally let it slip that his child hadn't died in infancy, like he'd claimed at first." Corli sighed. "Junga was willing to give his son to a stranger on the chance of a better life. I figure he was never trying to escape at all. The master just wanted the boy back once he knew he was still alive. The only way a father like that would have told such a thing is if they'd tortured him to it. Those ruffians said all sorts of nonsense about the child being the property of the estate, and they'd come to collect him--and a reward, I've no doubt. Stolen goods, they called him, and me a thief. Said if I didn't hand the boy over they'd burn the place down with me in it. When they knocked me to the floor Nod came flying out of his hiding place, his arms swinging." Her voice grew mournful. "Off they went with him, poor boy, screaming and kicking all the while. Over a year ago--it was a sorrowful day. I'd grown very fond of the child. I'm more than pleased to have him back."
The boy was smart and ever watchful. A chance came in the fields when the guards' backs were turned for a minute, and Nod ran as fast he could. After he escaped, Nod aimed for Corli and her farm and the only real home he had ever known. Astride Rubeo, the boy had galloped right to her door.
"Of course, it won't be long before they show up here. They'll come looking for their stolen property again, even if they don't find my cartwheel tracks leading away from the riverbank where they left you. They'll come, soon enough."
He was beginning to understand the workings of this community.
"What will you do, Mistress?"
"Well now, that's a problem. I thought of going away with him, but here you were, and to my surprise, you kept on breathing. I couldn't just leave—not that Nod would have let me." She looked out the door. "Truth is I don't know what I can do, besides stay. I hate to leave this place. It's my home. I've spent my life here. My grandmother first coaxed the herbs to grow in these fields. And the people around here depend on me, especially the women. I know a bit about childbearing and women's sicknesses, you see."
Mithrandir smiled faintly. "More than a bit, I suspect, and a great deal about other types of healing, too. Look what you've done for me! Why, I'm almost good as new."
Corli stood from where she had been perched on the edge of the cot. She looked down, her glance sweeping over him. As he pulled the cover over himself he surmised the reason for her scrutiny. She was an experienced healer, after all. She'd know that something was odd.
She regarded him with irritated awe. What he'd said was true enough. In just three days wounds that would ordinarily take weeks to heal had nearly closed. Why, the changes she noted since just yesterday were astonishing! Since bringing him here she had checked on him dozens of times, amazed at each passing hour when he did not die. And suddenly here he was, talking to her as if nothing had happened.
Corli had never seen anything like it, and she had no illusions that her hyssop poultices and unguents of yarrow had anything to do with it. There was something entirely uncanny about this one. Was he some sort of sorcerer? She didn't understand it, and anything Corli didn't understand annoyed her intensely. She crossed her arms.
"Good as new! You should by all rights be dead, man. When I saw you standing in the doorway I thought I was seeing a ghost, wearing my bed-linens and shouting at me! I can't explain that you're alive at all."
No need to lie, but no need to tell the whole truth either, he thought. He was fairly certain he would have lived through this ordeal without her help—if the gang hadn't caught up with him in the morning and burned him alive. But there was no doubt her skills had helped hasten his recovery. And she'd saved him from having to withdraw the rest of those miserable arrows by himself. He shuddered, and grinned to hide it.
"Well, I can explain it. You are a skilled healer, Mistress Corli, and I've always recovered quickly."
She sniffed. "Always, you say. I should hope you don't often put yourself to a test like this one!"
Mithrandir chuckled, bracing his chest in anticipation of the ache.
"Oh, no, not if I can avoid it. But this winter I did have a tussle with a wolf. He caught hold of my arm," he mused, as he held up his right forearm and searched it with his fingers. "It seems to have knit together well enough."
She peered closely. There was not even a scar. Her brows rose.
"A wolf, you say."
His eyes twinkled. He didn't blame her; it was a wild tale. He wouldn't have believed it either. But the most pressing matter was the boy. His face grew serious.
"Mistress Corli, I can't properly repay you for all the trouble I've caused you, not the least by going on living when anyone could see I should have died. I have coin enough—or at least I did, in my saddlebags which I hope arrived here with Nod--but that's not what I mean. Whatever your fee, it won't begin to even the score. You took a considerable risk to come to my aid."
She frowned and waved her hand. She didn't like the whole business. But from what Nod reported and what she had observed herself, she'd begun to form opinions about this strange man. He'd been uncommonly kind to the boy, and had placed himself directly into peril to protect a runaway slave child. Not many would have done it. Not any that she knew.
"I'd say the score's even enough. Nod's home safe, and in better condition than I could ever have hoped."
"I would like to do what I can to make certain he stays safe. If you decide to flee, I could accompany you…"
"I'm not leaving..."
"Well then, maybe I could stay and help for a while."
Corli's jaw tightened. She might be forming opinions, but that didn't mean she trusted him.
"If those men come here, perhaps I could help keep them off—or maybe see to it that they don't bother you again."
Her lips pursed. Men! Always boasting.
"We'll see. First get yourself healed, then we'll see. Now you stay put for the rest of the day."
He did intend to obey her. But he was restless, and every wound was tingling and itching fiercely. If he stayed in bed another minute he knew he'd start scratching. He was searching the hut for his robe when Nod appeared at the door, carrying a tray with a bowl of broth and thick slices of bread.
"Mister! You ain't supposed to be up!"
Mithrandir turned and smiled. The boy gaped. A slave-boy was accustomed to nakedness, but he'd never seen so much pale skin at the same moment. The man surely looked different—stronger, for one thing--out of his loose robe than in it, despite all those bandages tied to him.
"Nod! Come on over. Let me have a look at you."
He sat on the cot as the boy brought the tray. He reached out and ran his fingers over Nod's head, studying his face. The boy looked better fed--better clothed, certainly. He'd had some peaceful sleep, maybe for the first time in a year. He wondered what evils those young eyes had witnessed.
"You look well, lad. Rubeo carried you here safely?"
Nod beamed. "Oh, he's a gallant mount, sir. Speedy, and gentle, too. He's out in the pasture. I groomed him yesterday, all by myself."
He gave a low whistle. "My goodness, you must have needed a ladder! Good work, Nod. My compliments to you on behalf of my friend Rubeo."
Nod had turned to look back as the roan sped away and glimpsed a grey figure hemmed in by a ring of men. He studied his newfound hero's face. His most prominent features at the moment were a variety of fading bruises, a blackened, swollen nose and a pair of deep, purple rings beneath his eyes.
"Those were evil men, weren't they, sir?"
"Well, perhaps one or two. Most of them were merely deluded, or greedy."
The boy scratched his head. The man was kindly, and brave, too, but he said such odd things. "I brought the Mistress as quick as I could."
"It took great courage to lead her back toward those men. I owe you my life, Nod," he said solemnly.
Nod reddened. His eyes fell on the tray.
"You gonna eat?"
Mithrandir laughed. "Oh, yes! This time I'm very hungry. While I eat, I wonder if you could do me a favor?"
The boy's face brightened.
"Could you look about and find my clothes? I seem to be missing my robe, and my shirt and trousers, and you wore my cloak here yourself. I can't go about in just my belt and boots, can I?" He had found the leather pieces of his wardrobe lying in a corner of the hut.
"I know right where they are: flappin' on the line in the sun! But the Mistress said I was not to touch them."
"Oh, that's all right. They're my clothes, and I give you leave. Now, go!"
When Corli saw the stranger approaching she shook her head with exasperation. She watched him hobble up, chattering brightly as if nothing unusual had happened three days ago. He was a wonder, all right, grinning despite that hideous nose and his robe in tatters, white bandages peeking through gaps in the grey. In a few moments he had her convinced to set her work aside. Off they walked, she taking two quick steps for his one longer stride. He said he wanted to walk the perimeter of her property.
"Perhaps I'll see something you don't see, Mistress, some way the farm can be protected."
She glanced sideways at him. "Whatever you say, man."
They had completed half the circuit of her ten-acre plot when she flapped a hand and stopped moving.
"Let's hold here a bit. Your gait's too fast for my short gams."
"And I could very much use a rest."
They halted in a patch of oak trees and leaned on a broad flat boulder, as high as a bench. He waited to speak until the sharp jabs that their walk had stirred up began to subside.
"Mistress, did you happen to find my staff when you dragged me into your cart?"
"Staff? Never saw one. Of course it was dark, and I was busy enough."
"Indeed you were."
He squinted up and searched the trees overhead. Corli watched him, puzzled.
"What are you looking for?"
"Oh, a likely candidate."
"A new staff."
"You are an odd one, man."
He grinned down at her.
"Mistress Corli, you're going to have to choose what to call me. Unless I am to be simply 'man' from now on."
Her brows rose as she looked up at him. He wondered if he'd ever seen eyes that exact color. It was like gazing into a pair of green jewels set in gold filigree and lit from behind by flickering fire. Corli stared into his smoky grey eyes. She thought she'd never seen such a plain color look so warm, or a smile so inviting. But no--it was too soon. She was not about to return that smile, though her lips seemed to want to curve upward on their own. She dropped her gaze.
"Since you refuse to tell me your proper name, I suppose I'll have to name you myself, like those others you mentioned. I'll call you Grey Man, for your clothes and more than a few strands of your hair. How does that suit you?"
He laughed softly. "Perfectly. 'Gandalf'—which means 'Elf-Man with a Wand'--is generally followed by 'the Grey.' And 'Mithrandir'--what the Elves call me--is 'grey wanderer' or 'pilgrim' in their tongue. You've chosen well."
She peeked up with a look of alarm.
"So. You're Elvish, then. That explains a bit."
"Elvish? Why, no. I am as mortal as you are."
"Who are you, then? Where do you come from?"
He regarded her with a serious look, but a gentle smile still lingered.
"I am just a grey man, as you've said, and I come from far away."
Corli's eyes flashed with greenish fire. She held her head high.
"Suit yourself. Have your secrets. You can find your way back to the hut on your own. Follow the trees--the property line is there. I have work to do."
She jumped up and headed straight through the woods, her hair flying behind her head like a flaming aureole. He sat, still smiling, and watched her short but very proud figure until she vanished into the cottage. The sound of the door slamming carried all the way through the woods. As he completed his walk around the edge of Corli's farm his eyes strayed often to the thatched roof and the smoke curling from her chimney.
Nod brought the Grey Man his evening meal on the tray. He ate alone. When it was dark and the house was quiet, he stepped out of the hut and walked toward the wood. He didn't require a staff for his work, but he'd found that having one in his hand helped him focus. He had his eye on a half-dead oak. One of its gnarled branches had the right heft and length, and most importantly, hung within reach. When he was fit and well he could have climbed into any tree and chosen the best piece of wood for his new staff, but this would do. He reached up and pulled. The branch snapped. He would shape it later.
Now he closed his eyes and took the branch into his hands. His fingers roamed over every inch of it. As he muttered softly, the tip of the branch glowed briefly. Where his hands moved against the wood, faint blue sparks flickered and just as quickly disappeared. It was ready enough for tonight's task.
He walked the entire perimeter, moving the staff up and down, back and forth. If anyone had been watching they would have thought he was a madman drawing imaginary lines in the air. All around Mistress Corli's farm he wove a protective net that no one but he could see. The net could be easily breached by anyone who approached with an honest heart, with no ill will or malice; indeed, they would never know that they had passed through anything at all. But if someone tried to enter with the intention of doing harm to her or anyone inside, it would cloud their minds and turn them away, so that they forgot why they came in the first place. If by chance they continued on and tried to pass through, it would prick their skin with annoying jabs that would grow stronger the more they persisted. If they were stubborn enough, the jabs would knock them out cold. The net would remain until he commanded it to unwind.
It had been long since he had cast such a spell. It was tiring work, and he ached in a dozen places. When the net was finished he leaned on the staff and limped stiffly to the hut. He slept deeply, peaceful in the knowledge that the farm was secure.
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