The Old Grey Wizard
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The Kindness of Strangers: 6. The Gift
Once the rains began, they continued for days. Ravens still must hunt for food, whatever the weather, but no sensible bird would approach the Tower during the storms. Forked lightning and booming thunder seemed to gather about Orthanc. Coräc and his family were making do in the rain by picking the reeking, two-week-old carcass of an Orc clean of every last morsel of gristle and sinew. Not the sweetest meat, but one ate what was available. From his perch atop the dead beast's thorax, Coräc gazed toward the black spike in the distance. A swirl of mist hung about it. Its surface was a darker shadow amid the shadows of the clouds. Well, at least the old man had water, Coräc thought, as he nagged at a dried strand of lung that stuck to the Orc's rib.
July melted into August. On the fifth day the rain let up for a few hours, and the ravens dispersed throughout the Wizard's Vale in search of better food. Soon, the call went out: a stag had been found, taken by wolves. The hide had been opened by the pack's teeth. Coräc's clan set up vigil in the trees, as the wolves, who had been feasting for days, finished gorging themselves. By the time the pack finally sated their appetites and trotted off, other scavengers had arrived: foxes, crows, a pair of magpies, and a swarm of insects. The ravens successfully chased them all off—except the insects--and claimed the corpse.
The stag was a great beast, and there were plenty of entrails, muscle and spilt brains to go around. Coräc soon felt comfortably full. He looked down at the stag's flank and went to work tugging on a strip of what he felt was fairly sound meat. He caught it up in his bill and took off. His wife called after him, but he ignored her and flew away.
Mist curled around the black Tower, its surface shimmering in the shifting light. The day was oppressive with renewed heat, and the rain was certain not to hold off again for long. Coräc felt as though he was swimming upstream in the heavy air. It took an extra effort for him to keep flying upward with the added weight he carried in his bill.
The old man sat with his back to the northwest pillar. His boots were standing on the platform before him, and he was wringing moisture from his thick cloak, letting the drops gather into them. The boots were nearly full of water.
Coräc dropped from the sky onto the platform. He hopped awkwardly with his burden in his bill. When he came to within three yards of where the man sat, he stopped and let go of the strip of flesh.
"Clever idea, human," the raven croaked. "But I doubt those leather boots can hold water for long. Will it not seep through the stitching?"
"Good day to you, Master Raven," the man smiled. "As for my boots, in my opinion they hold too much water far too efficiently, when I do not wish them to. Alas, you may well be correct that when I want my boots to serve as water skins, they are likely to let it leak away. But as I have no more suitable container, I must do what I can." His smile faded as he returned to his task. "Indeed, I must do something useful, else I shall truly lose the faculty of rational thought," he muttered.
Coräc reached down to peck at the strip of meat he had brought. His movements disturbed a dozen flies and a maggot or two, although the bird hardly noted their presence.
"Here is a gift, old one. Rain does not ease pangs of hunger."
The raven watched as the man noticed the gift for the first time. He placed the boots off to one side and leaned forward onto his knees. Coräc hopped out of reach as the man crawled toward him. Gingerly, he picked up the raven's offering and sat back upon his heels. He flicked the flies away; they returned immediately. He stared at it warily.
"My friend, if I may ask...what sort of creature was this?"
"A stag," the raven replied. "It is still quite sweet--no more than four days dead. Go ahead, I have had plenty."
"Yes, and the first two of those days were the coolest we have seen in months."
The man swallowed forcefully, and it appeared to Coräc that the bearded one was suppressing the urge to shudder. He sniffed the strip of greyish, glistening meat and recoiled. Carefully, he laid it back down upon the stone floor.
"My dear raven..."
"Coräc. My name is Coräc," the bird said gruffly. He could see well enough what was about to happen. Silly humans and their infamously weak stomachs.
"Coräc, my friend, I cannot thank you enough for your generosity. I do appreciate the effort and trouble it took you to carry this all the way up here. But... I am sorry. I do not believe I can eat it."
The raven could not sneer, or roll his black eyes, but he managed to convey his annoyance just the same. "You won't even try?"
The greybeard frowned, and even Coräc could read the distress on his face. "I have not your digestive powers, Coräc. Please, accept my apology and my deepest thanks."
The bird snorted. "You refuse to take a gift from a carrion-eater."
"No, no! That has nothing to do with it."
The greybeard stared resolutely at the meat. He reached out again and took the strip of rancid flesh into his hand. He trembled as he brought it toward his open mouth. He stopped. His deeply bronzed face seemed to turn ashen pale, and he pursed his lips tightly closed. Placing the meat once again upon the floor, he wiped his other hand across his sweating brow.
"To have the first thing into my stomach besides rainwater in nearly four weeks be a strip of raw meat that has lain outdoors for four days...I fear I would become ill. I cannot take that chance, for I would quickly become even weaker than I already am. Forgive an old man's frailties, friend."
"You will die, then," Coräc muttered.
The man raised his head and stared fiercely at the surface of the southwest pillar. To Coräc it seemed that the man believed the black stone was listening. "Saruman will not allow me to die so quickly," he said grimly. "I am only valuable to him alive."
The raven hopped over to the strip of meat. "I don't see how you can be so certain about that. He hasn't bothered to feed you yet," he said.
"I have not done what he desires. He believes he can convince me to cooperate. But if that strategy fails, he has threatened to use me for a different sort of advantage, and turn me over to one who is known to use...well, more determined methods of persuasion."
"What fell thing has he asked you to do, that you would risk such a fate to avoid complying with his demand?" the Raven Lord asked as he nudged the meat.
The old man's steely eyes gleamed. "Among other evils, he demands that I betray a friend. If I give in, my friend would take my place, and suffer in my stead. And this friend would never have been in such dire peril in the first place were it not for me… and my thoughtless meddling."
Coräc looked up. The old man's sunburned face was drawn into a frown that seemed troubled by heavy responsibility. He felt a rush of gratitude that he was only a raven, and did not get himself entangled in such weighty matters. "All ways before you seem fraught with unsolvable difficulties. Maybe you should just leap off this Tower, Gandalf the Grey."
The greybeard smiled grimly, and the raven saw no mirth in his eyes. "That is another thing I cannot do—pardon me, will not do—for I have not given in to despair, Coräc. For though at this moment I cannot see any escape from this place, I will not give up hope that a way might yet appear. And even if I do not escape, my friend may yet have a chance—perhaps an even better chance, if I divert our enemies' eyes away from him for a while." The man's smile faded. "Indeed, his fate is far more important than mine. And if everything happened as planned, he should be well on his way to safety by now," he whispered to himself.
Men were rather pitiful creatures, Coräc thought, weighed down by their disproportionately large heads. They did altogether too much plotting, wondering, thinking and worrying. The raven poked the meat again. "If you are sure you are not interested, do you mind...?"
"Be my guest," the man said, and this time his smile appeared genuine. Coräc thought he was sincerely pleased to see the meat put to good use.
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