The Old Grey Wizard
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The Kindness of Strangers: 3. A Civil Conversation
A Civil Conversation
Secretly, Saruman burned with the desire to learn how his captive was faring, but he kept his curiosity in check. Ten days passed. He fully expected that the Grey Fool would be faint with thirst and hunger by now, and far more compliant to his demands. Yes, his timing would be perfect. Soon, very soon, his plans would be fulfilled: the One would be his to command. Steady, steady, he told himself, as his mind began to leap forward in anticipation. One step at a time.
After sampling six exquisitely prepared, pungent dishes at his evening meal on the 20th of July, he sat back in contentment, his belly comfortably but not overly full. He would have to remember to send his compliments down to his cook.
That she had once been a slave was a source of satisfaction for him, for he had freed her from her servitude, had he not? He had purchased her a few years ago from the traveling peddler from Khând—the one who also dealt in fine carpets. She certainly seemed grateful, and ever willing to provide him with services of another sort, away from the kitchens. And he was always kind to her, afterward. He usually remembered to give her something, a small trinket or coin. He could be generous and kind; indeed, he was often kind, no matter what certain others insinuated.
The great wizard humbly contemplated the marvels of his virtuous nature as he sipped at a glass of golden wine. He stretched out his long legs in studied nonchalance. His spy in the court of Rohan, Gríma, sat at a smaller table nearby.
"I think I shall go to the roof tonight," Saruman said casually. "It is time I saw how my honored guest is enjoying his lofty perch."
Gríma glanced up from the plate he seemed interested in scraping clean, right down to the glaze. "I don't know why you trouble yourself to check on him personally, my Lord," he said with his mouth full of food. "If you ask for my opinion, you should just let the Orcs have him—or better still, your Urûk-hai. He'll give you the information you seek, soon enough." Gríma snickered. "A few days with them and he'll be begging to spill his secrets."
Saruman regarded his greasy-haired, slovenly companion with barely disguised loathing. "I did not ask for your opinion, Worm. If you were even slightly observant, you would notice that I never ask for your opinion."
Gríma frowned and hunched lower over the table. "I only spoke because I am concerned for your welfare, my Lord," he whined. "The stairs to the roof are steep and narrow, and the climb will be strenuous. Why waste your breath and energy, when strong and able servants are ready and eager to deal with him for you?"
Saruman rose from his chair and gazed down his long, noble nose at Gríma. "Are you calling me a weakling, Worm?"
"Oh, no, my Lord, that isn't what I meant at all..." Wormtongue cringed as he tried to gauge how severely he would be punished for his ill-considered words.
But the White Wizard ignored Gríma's sniveling panic and strode gracefully toward the doorway in the corner. "Make sure you clean up this mess before you leave, Worm. And I expect you back here with an up to date appraisal of the situation in the court of Edoras by no later than the second week of August."
"Yes, my Lord," Gríma whispered in relief.
Saruman closed and locked the door after himself, just in case that idiot half-Dunlending took it into his head to follow. It was completely black in the stairwell. He muttered a spell and the knob of his ebony staff began to glow. He began his ascent.
Within ten minutes he was cursing himself under his huffing breath, and cursing Gandalf the Grey more vehemently still. The stairs were steep and narrow, and he had lost count at two hundred. He stopped at a landing and rested until his chest stopped heaving. Finally, after fully an hour of painfully difficult climbing interspersed with gasping for air, he reached the small dark chamber at the very top. He nearly forgot to whisper the counter spell; the light from the ivory knob blinked out.
As he stood waiting for his heart to stop galloping within his breast, once again he found himself in awe of the craftsmanship of those who had built the Tower of Orthanc. It was nearly inconceivable that mere mortal men, even Númenoreans, had constructed this place. This stairway ended in a hollow chamber within the southwest pillar. He knew that the door, like its identical counterpart in the northeast pillar, was completely invisible from the outside. It could not be forced open, from within or without, by any known method. Saruman himself had tested any number of potent spells upon it, to no avail. Only a pair of black keys, simultaneously turned in adjoining locks, would release it from the inside. From outdoors, only the proper door-word, different for each pillar, and spoken with precisely the correct ancient Adûnaic accent, would reveal the keyholes.
But more marvelous still was the window. The door was made of the same polished black stone as the rest of the Tower, or appeared so from outside. But from the inside, one could see through an oval of what seemed to be slightly tinted crystal. At its edges, the window gradually became darker and more opaque until it blended seamlessly with the remaining door. It was as if by some lost process, the makers had bleached away the black color, leaving solid but translucent stone in place.
It was an ideal place from which to observe someone on the platform. If he inclined his head and looked up, he could also see the stars. Perhaps the craftsmen had placed this window here for those whose main interest would be in knowing whether the skies were clear enough for astronomical studies. But tonight Saruman's interests were not in the heavens.
The Grey Wizard was pacing furiously in the silver moonlight. Saruman watched with growing disappointment as his captive strode back and forth, his cloak flapping in his wake. The vigor in his step belied the hard fact that he had not drunk nor eaten in ten days. Each time he neared the edge, he came so close to taking a step into the void that the White Wizard held his breath. But each time he turned at the final instant, and without breaking stride, continued his trek back across the platform.
He had traversed the distance three times, following a path that brought him closer and closer to the pillar within which Saruman observed, when suddenly he stopped. He was facing away, toward the north. He looked over one shoulder, frowning. Did he sense something, or someone, behind him? Saruman thought he saw one of those unkempt brows of his rise and a brief and irritating smile cross his opponent's face. Then Gandalf crossed his arms and looked away.
Saruman cursed beneath his breath. He must have made a noise, or somehow given himself away. The Grey Fool knew he was there, and now was apparently waiting for him to emerge. He reached into his pocket and brought out the keys. The locks clicked faintly as hidden tumblers slid into place. With a single thrust, the door swung open.
Though the stone floor still radiated the day's heat, a strong wind flowed from the northern peaks, bringing a biting chill to the high place. Saruman stepped out onto the platform, wishing he had brought his cloak. He made sure that he held his elegant staff directly in front of himself. He noted that at the moment, Gandalf was not holding his weather-beaten one.
The Five Istari each carried a distinctive staff that had come into existence when their mortal bodies were created. These highly personal objects served to focus the unique powers each Maia held within him. Saruman's staff had always brought him an intense clarity of mind, and gave him the capacity to read the thoughts of any being in Middle Earth—that is, almost anyone, for the minds of his fellow Wizards and a few of the most strong-willed of the Wise were closed to him. When he spoke, his staff allowed him to manipulate his voice to become whatever the situation required: commanding, persuasive, kindly, engaging, humble, or merciless. He was proud of his skills, and never let his staff out of his sight.
It had always been a source of irritation to the White Wizard that the lesser, Grey Wizard had the ability to bring forth bolts of lightning from his gnarled and knobby staff: light bright enough to momentarily blind an opponent, knock a foe flat, or in need, strike an enemy dead. Saruman had witnessed it first-hand just once—in his own study, ten nights ago. He had to admit that it was impressive. He himself had not had such a talent, and for many long centuries he had been gnawed by deeply suppressed envy.
But in recent years—since he had begun to gaze into the Palantír of Orthanc, and had been ensnared by another, far stronger mind peering into a linked Stone in a much greater Black Tower—he had felt new strengths awakening. He experimented, first on a series of muscular blond captives taken by the Dunlendings in border skirmishes with Rohan and presented as gifts to the Lord of Orthanc. None of the Rohirrhim brutes lasted long, but from them he did learn the value of restraint. Then Saruman turned his attention to a few dozen much sturdier Orcs: useful and expendable subjects for more intense study. He finely tuned the concentration required, whether his desire was to maim, murder or merely to inflict searing pain. The experiments had a side benefit--the Orcs were now quite terrified of him, and never hesitated to do his bidding. This new power was an awesome discovery, and the whispering voice in his head was correct. One never knew when such a tool would be needed, and how it might prove useful.
While the Grey Fool's back was turned, Saruman was tempted to secretly strike, as he had that first night, with the fire-bolt that had provided the Orcs their opportunity for a successful capture. The moment passed as Gandalf turned to face him. Saruman wasn't surprised to see defiance still kindling in those grey eyes, above a careful, tight-lipped smile. Before the White Wizard could open his mouth, the Grey Wizard spoke.
"Saruman! At last, reason has returned to you! As you have personally taken the trouble to climb to this high place, I presume that you come to apologize."
"As usual, you presume far too much," Saruman said dryly. He had promised himself to keep his rage in check. But the tone of arrogance in the Grey Wizard's voice already irked him. As if reason had ever been anywhere but solidly in the White Wizard's control!
Gandalf frowned. "But surely you now regret your vile behavior toward me, and wish to take back your detestable words…"
"'Regret? Take back'?" Saruman repeated, his mocking tone laced with venom. "Why would I do either? It is you who must recant the insults you spat at me the evening of your arrival. It is I who waits upon the return of reason to your confused mind."
Gandalf glared at him angrily. Saruman stared back with cool fury. After a moment, the Grey Wizard's anger seemed to falter, and his eyes drifted downward. Saruman smiled in triumph. I intimidate him. He is afraid to meet my gaze...
"I do not understand," Gandalf muttered. "What has happened to you? We once shared a common purpose, or so I long believed. Have you forgotten everything?"
"I never forget anything," Saruman snorted.
"Then how?" Gandalf snapped, his anger boiling over again. "If you forget nothing, then explain it to me! How can I be standing here, wasting valuable time listening to your nonsense, ten days since I sought your advice? Not only did you rebuff my plea for aide, but you set Orcs—Orcs!—on me and placed me in this lofty prison! Instead of advice, you poured poison into my ears. Instead of aide, you delayed me…and have given me nothing else: not shelter, food, or even water!"
Saruman sniffed. "I had always heard that Gandalf the Grey was utterly inured to hardship, that he wandered through the wilderness without a thought for comfort...and yet here he is, whimpering about a bit of thirst and an empty belly! If you are hungry, I can most assuredly recommend my cook to you. Why, just this evening, I could hardly finish half of the delightful meal she prepared for my dining pleasure. I'm afraid the rest went to waste. You need but say the word, and you too could be enjoying such a banquet." His mocking voice grew hard. "For it is your choices that keep you trapped here, not mine!"
The Grey Wizard studied him in silence for the passage of several heartbeats, and Saruman expected that in the next moment he would plead for mercy, and for a meal. But instead he turned away and began to pace again, slowly this time, in a wide circle. Saruman watched him warily, his staff at the ready. He moved backward a pace, toward the open doorway to the stairwell.
A cloud passed over the gibbous moon, and the wavering light faded. What was the Grey Fool up to? His staff and that huge sword were lying at the base of the pillar to his right, and Gandalf had walked toward the left. At least he was not immediately seeking to arm himself. But what was he doing? Saruman was about to demand that he return to where he could be seen more clearly when Gandalf halted and spoke from the darkness at the far edge of the platform.
"Perhaps we should begin this conversation again, Saruman," he said quietly. "We are civilized men. We should have no cause to disagree. We should be able to work through our differences."
Saruman responded with exaggerated courtesy. "Of course. We are indeed civilized men. We are, in fact, the highest beings in all these lands." He nodded politely. "Go on."
"You claim that my choices have led to our impasse," Gandalf said. "But I would say that you also have choices. Lest you fear otherwise, I can assure you that nothing that has happened here need pass beyond these walls. No one else need ever know of the events that have led us to…" He gestured at the windswept rooftop. "…to this unfortunate circumstance."
For an instant, the White Wizard found himself imagining what the rest of the White Council might say if they were witnesses to this scene—and to the scene in his study, ten nights ago. A flicker of misgivings whispered within as the extraordinarily beautiful features of Galadriel came into his mind, staring at him in shocked horror. Then he thrust the image away.
"Nothing about this circumstance, as you put it, is anything other than perfectly logical!" he snarled. "Do not waste my time with this insulting rubbish."
The Grey Wizard walked forward, his voice urgent, almost pleading. "Please, listen to me, Saruman! I will put all this behind us, if you will only reconsider this course!"
Saruman's eyes narrowed as he calculated what motive the Grey Fool might have to make such a proposal. What cunning trap is he setting? He took another step backward as Gandalf came closer.
"You can still ally yourself with those of us who strive against the Enemy! You can still turn away from this path--now, before it is too late for you."
Pah! He said to himself. Once again, he seeks to lecture to me as to one of the simpletons who gather in his wake. "Too late for me? It is for you that time has run out," Saruman replied. "There is only one path for those who accept the reality of the world in which we find ourselves. Against the Power that now rises there can be no defense, nor is there any sane plan for its defeat—save to seize and use the only effective weapon that exists! And as you refuse to acknowledge that reality, I can only conclude that you have indeed lost the faculty of rational thought!"
Gandalf now stood an arm's length away. "So. You have nothing to add to your wearisome arguments? How disappointing. But as for me, I cannot believe that the struggle against that dark Power is in vain—indeed, I will not believe it. If that is what you call madness, then so be it. And as for the weapon you suggest, to attempt to use it would be the true course of folly! But if those reasons do not move you, consider this: what of the choice between darkness and light? Between treachery and loyalty?"
The White Wizard leaned forward. "Speak not to me of loyalty," Saruman snapped. "Was it loyalty that led you to conceal the most critical pieces of your knowledge from me, the Head of the White Council?"
The Grey Wizard's bristling brows rose. "We apparently have a different definition of loyalty. Yours seems to concern itself solely with your own self-serving desires. May I remind you that you stood beside me and took an oath, two millennia and a Sea-crossing ago, to complete a task—a task that remains unfinished."
"And therein is the problem," Saruman laughed mirthlessly. "That oath was taken long ago and far away. Nothing now is as it seemed from such a vantage point, so very distant in place and time. Only a fool attempts to complete an impossible task. But far worse is the vain, thoughtless fool who cannot admit the truth, and in his self-indulgent arrogance, sacrifices the lives of innocent others by ensnaring them in his futile plots!"
The cloud drifted from the moon, and the platform was briefly illuminated with silvery light. Gandalf was staring downward with a troubled look on his face. My barb hit the mark, thought Saruman. He doubts the course he has chosen. Any moment now...
Then without warning Gandalf spun on his heel and rushed toward the pillar where his sword and staff waited. Saruman moved just as quickly. A streak leapt out. Gandalf jerked his arm back and glanced down at the fiery red mark on his hand.
"Well, well," he said as he flexed his fingers cautiously. "You seem to have acquired a new skill—one I now realize you have already put to use against me, when my back was turned, that night in your study. I learn more about you each day, Saruman. What other tricks has your new Master taught you?"
"There are many things about me of which you know nothing," Saruman said icily.
Gandalf snorted. "Apparently--and each more contemptible than the last!"
"Silence!" the White Wizard hissed. He brandished his staff. "The decision is yours: either cooperate with me, and soon, or I will be forced to make other choices."
"The logical ones, when faced with the rigid obstinacy of a fool."
"Your threats do not intimidate me."
The White Wizard laughed coldly. "Oh, such brave words! We shall see how your courage holds up, as things become more…troublesome. And there is yet another option. I may decide to surrender you to another: One who is eager to learn your secrets, and who would use whatever means were necessary to obtain them."
The Fool's brow rose. "You hate me so much?" he said quietly. "You would turn me over to Sauron?'
"Judge me not by your own maudlin tendencies. Such a primitive emotion has nothing whatever to do with it," the White Wizard said. "I merely weigh my options, and choose that which is most logical. And when logic has finally returned to you—or when you have had enough of heat, cold, hunger and thirst—rap sharply on the door." He smiled coldly. "Someone will hear you, eventually."
The Grey Wizard hesitated a split second as Saruman began to turn toward the open door. Then he leapt for his staff. The White Wizard was ready for him. A bolt of lightning shot out again. The staff was knocked away. It clattered on the stone, spinning toward the edge. Gandalf threw himself forward and slid on the platform, barely catching his staff before it flew off into the night.
The stones rang with harsh laughter as the Grey Fool twisted himself upright and away from the sheer edge. He split the darkness with a streak of blue-green fire. Too late. The powerful bolt crackled uselessly against the now closed and invisible doorway of the Tower of Orthanc.
Saruman watched from inside the small chamber. His captive sat at the edge of the platform, his staff clenched in one fist as he slammed the other onto the floor in frustration. The Master of Orthanc chuckled to himself all the way down the stairs.
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