The Old Grey Wizard
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A Mortal Life: 4. A Stranger Passing Through
Chapter 3 A Stranger Passing Through
Less than a week later the net was put to the test. Late one afternoon Corli was tying bundles of roots to dry. Nod was playing in the hayfield, which had a high knob with a view to the northeast. The boy raced up, his face twisted in fright.
"They're coming, Mistress! Men on horses--they're headed here!"
"Go, Nod, find the Grey Man, then come to the barn!"
Long ago the women of her family had learned that some found their healing knowledge too irksome to bear. Witches, they had been called, and worse. Corli's great-grandmother had been hauled from her house in a far off land and charged with sorcery. She'd been burned alive. Corli's grandmother fled with her young daughter to this farm. She had dug a hiding place as safe as was possible to make it. It was a snug, brick-lined chamber deep under the woods. The entrance was cleverly hidden among a pile of weathered, lichen-covered rocks that looked as if they had not been disturbed in a hundred years. It was far from the buildings, in case anyone took it into their heads to burn them.
Corli had stocked the hiding place with supplies the day after Nod returned to her. But it wasn't until yesterday at sunset that she'd finally taken the stranger into her confidence. She led him through the gap in the stones and tilted a thin rock. A narrow doorway was revealed. He followed her underground into total darkness. They stood in the tiny damp room, no larger than a closet. Corli fumbled to light a lamp, each acutely aware of the other standing very near, listening to the other's breathing. They managed to avoid bumping into one another by holding still. She quickly showed him the cramped space and its cunning tunnel, an escape of last resort through which one could crawl like a snake. The tunnel led to the far edge of the woods. As they emerged from under the earth, Corli evaded his eyes.
They had spent the evening pacing slowly through the yard, discussing the worst.
"I'll not leave my farm to run from anyone," Corli said fiercely, with arms crossed. Then she sighed. "But what, exactly, to do instead?"
She had no clear sense of how to keep the ruffians from repeating their successful recapture of Nod. She had a vague idea that they would all head for the hiding place, but the details troubled her. The room was intended to conceal one, or at most two; could three people truly stay in that place for hours on end? How long would they be forced to remain below ground? What awful things would they find when they emerged: burned cottage and barn, livestock slaughtered, fields trampled? Or worse: a gang of men, enraged and waiting?
The Grey Man listened in silence until she voiced all her doubts. When she paused, he spoke.
"Perhaps you'll consider this idea," he said quietly. "You and the boy could hide if trouble comes. We can place the cart behind the hut and cover it with branches, and tether your mare out of sight in a corner of the hayfield. I'll stay above ground. That way there will be room enough in that tiny shelter for you and the boy. I'll tell whoever comes that you took Nod in the cart days ago, leaving me to rest until I am well enough to travel. Perhaps true enough, at least that last bit." One brow rose. "Maybe they'll believe it and just leave."
Corli grumbled. "I don't like that. Seems foolish to leave one all alone above ground. And I mean no offence, Grey Man, but I've never relied on anyone but myself."
"No offence taken. You strike me as an entirely self-reliant person. But these circumstances are…unusual."
"I hate the thought of hiding from them--from anyone."
"That doesn't surprise me, Mistress Corli. Yet it seems that trouble of this sort was precisely why your grandmother built that hiding place. And I doubt that she was in the habit of hiding from anyone either."
"But…"She looked toward him, her worry unconcealed on her face. "You must know what will happen. They won't believe a word you say, and you'll be in the same spot you were by the riverbank…"
His face was calm and impassive.
"Certainly that is a possibility, but we cannot guard against all possibilities. We must face facts, and place things in their proper order. If the men come, they are coming for the boy. The risk to him is greatest. Nod comes first. I think we can agree on that. He must either flee or hide, and he can do neither alone. Your safety should be next…"
"Why?" Her chin lifted. "Why not yours? For the sake of discussion, if you please."
His look softened, and his voice dropped. "Because Nod is your son by all but blood, Mistress. You have a responsibility to him, and to the folk about here who depend on you." He smiled slightly. "And I am merely a stranger passing through."
Corli sat on the low bench near her front door. The Grey Man slouched at the opposite end, legs stretched out before him, his right ankle crossed over the left. She stared at the "stranger's" supple and fitted boots: well made but travel-worn, the right one stained dark around two holes where an arrow had pierced it. The mud of her farm clung to the fine leather. He'd begun to earn his keep by helping out with chores, and every day he'd made her laugh more than she had in years. Clearly he was well enough for travel, and had been delaying his departure because of the threat to her and the child. He was already more than a stranger. But she said nothing of that. She fretted that he didn't mention how she'd failed to protect Nod once before when the ruffians came for him. He didn't need to. She had said it to herself a hundred times. She closed her eyes and sighed.
"It's late, and I can't think of anything better right now. But I don't like it."
Now, less than a day later, the ruffians were on their way. Corli ran to the barn and began climbing into the hayloft, which had the highest window on her farm. The man sat near the hut in the slanting light, smoothing the rough wood of the new staff with a blade he'd borrowed from his hostess. He saw the boy running toward him and knew what it meant. He'd been expecting them all day. He rose to his feet. He would have confidently relied on the untested net, had he been alone. But with others to account for, he would not take the chance. If the spell unexpectedly failed, this gang would not catch him unprepared.
He joined her at the loft window. A dark blur sped toward them from the far ridge.
"Nineteen--no, twenty. A platoon against three," he murmured.
She squinted. "You have sharp eyes. But the number matters little. We can't hold off even half that many."
"Then we should follow the plan we discussed, Mistress."
"I still don't like it one bit. Why can't all of us hide?"
"They are sure to have seen the smoke from the chimney. They'll know someone is still here. Someone must stay above and speak to them or they'll torch every building and dig the place up, yard by yard."
"Which they're likely to do anyway." After they've murdered you, she thought.
"But there is a chance they won't. You'd better go down and get ready."
Corli hesitated, her fingers clamping and unclamping. She reached for his hand. "Goodbye then, Grey Man."
She saw his eyes gleam at her from the shadows.
"I don't think I'll say goodbye to you just yet, Mistress Corli."
He squeezed her hand and let go. She ran to the ladder and went down.
Corli and Nod huddled together in the dark. Hours passed without a sound. They had agreed she would wait for a day before emerging. She didn't think she could bear it.
Nod fell asleep. Corli strained for the least noise. At last she heard a knock and a clear voice calling.
"Hello! Anyone awake in there? You can come out now."
She woke Nod and they climbed up the ladder. The Grey Man stood smiling at the entrance. It was dark. Stars hung in the trees.
"What happened?" she whispered.
"No need to whisper. They're gone. They rode by, you see. Rode around the farm along the western edge and continued south. Then they came back, curved off to the east and kept going north. Four more times, the same: circling and riding off. They've been gone now for hours. I don't think they'll be back."
"How can you be sure?" Corli said, amazed at his strange story.
"Stop worrying, Mistress," he grinned. "I'm quite sure they will not be riding to this farm, not tonight, not ever."
For a long moment, they stared at one another in the starlight. His wide grin softened to a gentle smile, and her look of alarm gave way. She swallowed hard as she felt the intensity of his gaze. Then Nod tugged at her hand and yawned.
"Can we go back to the house now?"
Their eyes fell and they walked together without speaking. Halfway there, Nod stumbled. She waited and watched while he lifted the boy into his arms and carried him. He followed Corli into her house. He had not entered it before this night. Nod was fast asleep. She stood in the doorway and held it open for him. He brushed by her in silence. The man tucked Nod into his cot by the hearth. He knelt and ran his fingertips over the boy's cheek. He heard the door close. She took in and released a shuddering breath. He turned, and caught her eyes shining in the dark.
"Stay, won't you? Stay, Grey Man," she whispered huskily.
"If you hadn't asked, I would have fallen to my knees and begged," he muttered as he rose and came toward her.
Her house was divided into three chambers: sitting room, kitchen, with a double hearth between, and a sleeping alcove. Garments soon trailed from the middle of the sitting room. A heavy grey cloak, a dark green one, a leather belt, boots and low-heeled shoes lay in a jumbled row. At the curtained entrance to the alcove, a pale green gown was loosened.
"You have the advantage of me, Mistress," he whispered, as he untied the strings that bound her bodice. "For as you've said, you have already seen me. Now it is my turn."
He led her into a pool of dim light from the window. As he stood behind her, his hands moved beneath the fabric of her gown. Soon it lay in folds about her feet. Walking around her, he bent his head first to one side and then to the other, taking his time as he looked up and down, pausing to study when he felt the need. She stood utterly still, an ivory statue in the moonlight, but her chest heaved with short, shallow breaths.
"It's too dark," he muttered. "I can't see you well enough. I'll have to…"
He reached out and began to caress every curve. She sighed and shivered as his fingertips traced over her. He drew her close. She reached up and fumbled with the fastener on the front of his robe. He tried to help her. She brushed his hands away.
"I can do it myself. I ought to know how by now…"
The grey robe slid to the floor, followed quickly by a woolen tunic and a pair of grey breeches. She began pushing him to her bed.
"Go on, get into bed this instant! You lay back, man," she commanded, a mocking grin on her face. "First I must check to see if you're well enough for this."
He smiled crookedly and stretched out, his arms crossed behind his head.
"I welcome your assessment of my state of health, Mistress."
The healer tilted her head to the side and closed one eye, assessing.
"It appears you're healthy enough!"
As she clambered giggling into the bed he thought, on balance, I'd say this capacity for feeling isn't a flaw after all.
In the night she woke to find him awake and watching her. He was fingering one silver earring that she'd forgotten to remove. The cover had slipped from her, or had he pulled it off? He studied the contrasts of shimmering moonlight and shadow on her skin. She groaned as fingertips and tickling bearded lips roamed. Her hands began searching for wounds, but all that remained were well-healed scars. She lost interest in looking for defects and focused on taut skin stretched over muscle and bone, and the rush of pulses.
Later she snuggled beside him, her head cradled in the crook of his shoulder. Her fingers twirled into the hair on his chest and tugged playfully. He felt her mouth move against his skin
"Are you a sorcerer, then?" she asked quietly.
He stiffened, and drew in a sharp breath.
"I'd prefer that you not use that particular word."
"Well, then a wizard, or a magician. You're a wizard?"
"Hmm. Some have called me that."
"Tsk. There you go again! You've been 'called' a wizard... Well, are you or aren't you one? Will you speak plainly, for once?"
"Very well. Yes, I suppose--in a way... But…"
A moment passed in silence.
"But that's only part of it."
"What's the rest?"
There was another pause.
"It's rather hard to explain."
She pushed his beard aside and toyed with the hollows at the base of his neck. "Can you at least explain how you kept them off?"
She could tell he was smiling when he replied.
"By sorcery, of course. You're safe, Corli. Believe me. The farm is protected now, for you or anyone with you. No one can hurt you here, whether I am here or not."
She frowned. Her hand stopped exploring. What did he mean, 'whether I am here or not?' She hesitated, and spoke softly as she drew a line down his breastbone.
"Are you just passing through, then?"
"Ah! That was just for the sake of discussion." He ran his fingers through a strand of her long hair. "I'd like to stay for a while, if you'll have me, Mistress Corli."
She snorted. "Already half the folk in these parts think I'm a witch. I wonder what they'll be saying once it gets out I've taken a wizard to my bed?"
"Well, I have never paid much heed to what others are saying…"
"I suppose I haven't either."
He laughed. "Am I to gather that I have your permission to stay, Mistress?"
She snuggled closer. "I suppose you do."
The next morning she beckoned him to the lichen-covered rocks.
"We have some unfinished business in the hiding place," she said.
He grinned and followed her down into the chamber.
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