The Old Grey Wizard
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A Mortal Life: 5. A Soft Heart
Chapter 4 A Soft Heart
Two months passed. Corli had to scold herself to keep her mind to her work, which was always the busiest in the warm air of the spring. There were the early herbs to cull, and the late ones to coddle along. Some roots were only good if you gathered them in the wet month of the second moon after the snow. But she kept turning her head to peek at the Grey Man as he split lengths of wood in the late April sunlight: sleeves fastened up, long hair tied back with a length of twine, beard tucked into his sweat-soaked robe.
Two months, and she still didn't know his proper name. She wasn't really sure anymore how much she cared. He had worn through her defiance and her defenses. She thought she trusted him, whatever his name was, wherever he'd come from. But what was he hiding, and why? She prodded, sometimes gently, sometimes in exasperation. He answered some questions forthrightly, but others he adroitly dodged. She knew without a doubt, having found nary a scar on him just last week despite all those wounds, that he was something quite out of the ordinary, but what, exactly? Yet regardless of the unanswered questions, which annoyed her to no end, she truly did like having the man—or wizard--around.
Her thoughts drifted. She sat back on her heels and watched the Grey Man as he wiped his sleeve across his dripping brow. He unbuckled his belt and undid the clasp of his heavy robe. He shrugged it off. He was bare-chested beneath it; he had stopped wearing the winter tunic some weeks ago. He swung the ax high and brought it down. The wood split in half with a loud snap. Corli felt a thrill pass through her.
"His nose is too long, and crooked. It's the main part of him that didn't heal properly. There's a bump on it as big as my fingertip. He isn't stately or all that tall, not that it would matter to me, as short as I am. I wouldn't call him handsome, exactly. But I do like the looks of him. He has a fine figure: broad shoulders, a narrow waist, he's as well-muscled as any warrior. And his hands: long-fingered, gentle, yet strong... Then his eyes, strange they are…and his smile, like lightning at times, so bright… And that laugh of his! Why, I like everything--except that dratted beard, and those long locks. Makes him look too old, for he can't be much more than forty. Soon, Master Grey Man, Mistress Corli will make her demands known. Then we'll see the whole of your face!"
Men had a special and very particular place in the lives of the healing women of Corli's family, going back as far as any of them could remember. Men served a purpose: they provided children. But they were rarely anything other than a transient feature in their lives. Corli had not known her father, though her mother had laughed with fond memories when the girl child asked of him. Her grandmother, too, had smiled with a lazy delight when Corli had probed for stories of her grandfather. But those men were gone, their purpose served. There had not been a son in the family for five generations. The women healers were independent, and they couldn't imagine it any other way. Companionship, and often love, came from other women with healing knowledge, and occasionally from a roaming male willing to keep his place in the scheme of life.
Grandmama was gone almost fifteen years, and her mother had died far too early, when Corli was only eighteen. She missed their wisdom, especially now. For this stranger was becoming something other than a transient feature.
Corli had had other lovers. But no one had given so generously of smiles and laughter. None had been so interested in attending to her wishes, her needs. It troubled her, for she had met no one like him. He seemed concerned only with seeing to it that she was pleased and happy, and she was, wasn't she? He seemed to have no plans of his own, except to stay with her. It took some getting used to, this man with no apparent future and no past he would divulge. She wasn't certain that she loved him, not yet. She didn't know what to call what she felt. Fiery lust, quite obviously. Friendship and gratitude for what he had done, indeed. But love? She wasn't sure. But she knew she didn't want him to leave—not yet.
The Grey Man for his part was filled with joy and confusion. Confusion, because he had been warned about this very thing. Aboard the ship that brought the five of them—newly clothed in mortal flesh--across the Sea, they had discussed the risks of getting too close to the inhabitants of Middle Earth.
He could still recall Curumo's voice. It was a voice worth hearing, for Curumo's knowledge was apparently inexhaustible. His intelligence was as keen as a well-honed dagger. He remembered dates and names of the most trivial importance. He knew every detail of the history of Arda in general, and Middle Earth toward which they sailed in particular. And although what Curumo now professed to "know" seemed to Olorin to be mere opinion, he had listened.
The remaining Elves of Middle Earth, said Curumo, were weak and sorrowful; best avoided when possible. They were unlikely, he stated, ever again to play an important role in the affairs of Arda.
"And mortals live such brief lives, like candles in a storm. They age and are gone in the blink of an eye, while we, in comparison, would remain virtually unchanged. To come too close would arouse suspicion, as they aged and died and we did not."
"But are we not also mortal now?" Olorin asked, as he gazed in curious amazement at his own hand. "Do we not come as mortals, subject to all their ways, different only in degree?"
Curumo agreed, but then launched into a long-winded discussion of all the ways they were more powerful, mightier, indeed how they were better than the people of Middle Earth. Olorin recalled that he had briefly met Alatare's dark eyes. They exchanged a ghost of a smile. She too, it seemed, was no longer interested in listening to Curumo's pedantic pronouncements. Olorin lost the train of Curumo's speech and turned his face to the sea breeze. Curumo took note of it and snapped.
"Mark my words, Olorin, you'll come to grief if you allow yourself to indulge in softheartedness!"
The others--even Alatare--turned to stare. Olorin felt his face heat up with unbidden emotion. He deeply disliked having attention turned his way, though he cared little what they thought of him. No, the flush was not shame. Why should he feel shame? It was anger. For Curumo was wrong, and had revealed himself as an arrogant fool. All this talk of their superiority--rubbish. The Ainur might be the first, but all were Children of Iluvatar. For what had they been sent but to know and mix freely with the people of Middle Earth? How else might they accomplish their difficult task?
Besides, he, Olorin, was softhearted. It was his nature. He'd never kept himself away from the closeness of others before. How could he now?
And now joy lived in his soft heart; there was no denying it. He had never felt such joy. He wondered if mortality had simply clouded his memory, or had he really never felt this way, not even in Valinor? He'd known intimacy in his other forms, had blended his being with lovers. He had ignored Curumo's sneering admonishment and had explored the ways in which dwelling within this strangely solid and clumsy substance called flesh had quite pleasant advantages. But it hadn't ever been like this. Perhaps it was the profound separateness, the bleak aloneness of this mortal existence, and now such bliss at finding connection. He didn't know. All he knew was that he was happy.
As he took a rest from splitting wood his eyes strayed to where Corli knelt, hunched over her plants. Her strong hands were stained to the wrist with loam. A strand of her red hair had come loose and kept falling into her eyes. He smiled as she kept pushing it away, again and again, too impatient to stop for half a minute and tie it back.
He studied her frowning, dirt-smudged face, intently focused on her row of thin green sprouts of horehound. She wasn't beautiful, not in the way he'd seen beauty. He had known High Elven kings and queens, fair and noble. He had once glimpsed the face of Luthien Tinuviel, the loveliest maiden that had ever lived in all of Arda. He knew the Queen of the Stars, the most beautiful of the Vala. And Manwe's Herald, Eonwe; he had the handsomest face and figure in all of Valinor.
But beauty, he knew, was no proof of what lay within. The noblest face could hide the foulest thoughts; the loveliest eyes could deceive. For some, physical beauty became a trap that led to vanity. When the Five revealed their physical manifestations, several of his colleagues inhabited forms of stunning elegance and attractiveness. But he had chosen to carefully avoid features that were anything other than ordinary. He desired that any who might befriend him as he went about his task would do so based on his words and deeds, and not on the fairness of his face. He wished that others would know him by what was within, for so had he learned to judge others.
And so, Corli was more than beautiful to him. He admired everything she thought were her faults: short legs, shoulders broader than most women, her strong wide hands. Then there were the features even she acknowledged might be attractive: her lovely soft breasts, her dazzling smile, her eyes. He thought he could become lost in the bright sparkle of her eyes. There was a green gemstone the Elves called beryl. He had carried one with him from the West as a token of friendship and forgiveness to the greatest of the High Elves in Exile. Corli's eyes were as brilliant as the finest beryl--and her coppery hair! She rinsed it every night in water that had steeped all day with fragrant lavender and rosemary. He longed to bury his face in it, wanted to hide in its fiery depths. To him, her square jaw and thick brows expressed her strength and resolve, and her deeply caring heart. And in that heart he had found, for the first time, a glowing reflection of his own.
He must be falling in love. There was no other explanation. He knew the risks; he didn't care. All he wanted was to stay with Corli: to know all she knew, to learn from her, to share the passing of the days. He simply wanted to be with her and make her happy, for as long as he could, however brief the time might be.
They moved into a quiet pattern. Each worked all day, Corli in her fields or her hut, the Grey Man tending to whatever task she assigned him. She'd had to bargain with neighbors for much of the rougher work he did now, and his presence eased her burden greatly. He exercised and groomed the horses and cleaned their stalls, fed chickens, milked goats, chopped wood and climbed up to weave new bundles of thatch into the roof. Corli's mother had hired men to dig a deep well between the house and the healing hut. She had always struggled to turn the crank that drew up the heavy bucket, and had loathed the task. Now, it became his daily routine, morning and evening, to draw water for all their needs. Even bathing became a pleasure. At her instruction he hoed and weeded, dug roots and snipped leaves, always under her watchful eye. When he ran out of farmyard chores he began to teach Nod his letters.
At first he didn't know what letters to teach the boy. It didn't seem quite right to teach someone of his race the Westron runes that men used in these parts. In most of the north, anyone with a face any tint other than white couldn't possibly be more than a slave. Nod would never really be at home here; he would always be an alien. But which of the many tongues from the south was the right one? The boy had barely heard any other language, handed as he'd been into Corli's arms when he'd only begun to say his first words. And in truth, wouldn't he likely stay right here all his life? So the man taught him to read and write Westron.
Corli didn't know whether she approved.
"Are you certain it's a good idea, Grey Man? Won't it give him ideas beyond his place in life?"
"I'm not sure I know what his place in life will be. The advantages of literacy would seem to outweigh any chance that he'll grow a big head." He wondered if there was something else behind her questioning. "I would gladly teach you too, if you'd like."
She scowled and tossed her hand at him.
"I'm too old to start learning something like that."
But he could see curiosity in her face.
"How old are you, then, woman?"
She blushed. "Well, if you must know, I am twenty-five."
He clapped his hands to his head in mock horror. "Twenty-five! By the stars, I didn't know I'd taken up with an ancient crone!"
"You be quiet. And how old are you, longbeard?" She reached out and gave his beard a yank.
"Ouch! None of your business, old woman."
Evenings they were together, a family of three. The man seemed to have no biases about the nature of one type of work or another. He gladly entered the kitchen and peeled, chopped, or stirred as she commanded, for the pleasure of being near her, he said. He set table and cleaned crockery; he stitched up the holes and tears in his robe, and in Nod's tunics, too; she told him his stitch-work was too coarse for her gowns. He delighted in playing with the boy. Corli watched as the child rode gleefully on the man's shoulders, or as the two of them chased one another back and forth from barn to house, Nod squealing with giggles and the Grey Man roaring.
At night she would gasp and cry out with wonder at the tender ferocity of their lovemaking. It seemed the man sought to merge with her mind and soul as well as her flesh. It bewildered her at first; then she gave herself over to it and wanted to do the same in exchange. She'd never been so happy in all her life. She believed he was happy, too.
He almost did not dare admit to himself how happy he was. He had always loved easily and freely, or so he had thought. But now he saw that he had always held something back. This time he had passed from amused admiration, to desire, through love, to an aching need to hold nothing back. He was torn between a fierce longing to tell Corli everything, and uncomfortable fear that he might lose this priceless jewel if he did. Would she be afraid? Would she see him with new eyes, treat him with awkward reverence? Gradually he tested her strength, and allowed more of his being to bind with hers. She passed the test. She wanted more of him. And he relinquished it, willingly.
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