The Old Grey Wizard
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The Chronicles of The Kelvar: 8. A Night's Sleep, Interrupted
Chapter 8. Shadowfax and Mugwort, the Stable Cat.
A Night's Sleep, Interrupted
I stood silent and watched the bearded Two-Foot kneeling upon the ground, clutching that scrap of woven stuff the color of deep water, his gnarled knuckles white with the force of his grip. My pity was roused, for he seemed overcome. The Old One's fatigue had, at least for a time, caught up with him. Undoubtedly the days with little sustenance might also have worn down his resistance for such onslaughts of emotion. He made no other sound than the low groan that had come from somewhere deep within him. His eyes were closed and his head was bowed low, and he seemed near to collapsing from weariness and grief.
I wondered whether the favor I had so magnanimously granted in allowing him to ride upon me could now be declared completed. It had been ten days since I had spied him atop the Winged Kelvar Lord, though in truth it seemed much longer than that. My duties to my Kingdom called, and I must make my way back to the windswept plains of my realm before long, I knew—for Winter was not all that far off, and the miles I must retrace to my herds and fields were many. I considered whether to inquire if my further assistance would be needed. But I held back, and remained silent, and thought long and hard upon the situation.
For I faced a dilemma. On the one hand my duties as Lord of Horses pulled on me, and his errand that had been so pressing was now an obviously futile one. The evidence was utterly clear: the small friend of my Grey-Robed companion had been taken by the Riders in Black, and there could be no reasonable hope for him. As I considered these realities, I found my urgency to be on my way toward the land of the Gold-Hairs increasing by the minute.
On the other hand, I had come far with this one, hundreds of leagues, 'tween mountains and across rivers, through blazing Sun and driving rain, in dark and day. I had provided him with the gift of speed—allowed him use of my legs, as it were—and granted him a measure of my friendship. Logic dictated that his errand was now finished, but perhaps, out of friendship, I should await his own admission of the same. It seemed only polite, and being an admirably well-bred creature, I am nothing if not polite.
And so I waited upon him, in silence. And waited. We had arrived at the small dwelling at near to Noon, and the agreeable warmth of the morning Sun now beat hotly upon my royal head. I waited again, and he made no further move, but remained bowed over his knees as if some great weight pressed down upon him.
Alas, we horses are not patient creatures. It is a trial to us to be immobile. Our legs itch, our tails twitch and our noses tingle if we are forced to hold our flesh in stillness. E'en in sleep, many a horse will stand upright rather than lie, for we find comfort in the texture of the grass beneath our hooves and in the readiness of our limbs for flight. In truth, no more than two minutes passed as the Old Man crouched upon the earth in silence; but to me those minutes stretched out as an eternity of waiting. I had reached the end of my patience and was about to snort and stamp at him, when at last, he let fall the torn cloak and raised his head.
His dark eyes were afire, and yet his face was graven with anguish. For a fleeting moment he stared directly into my eyes, and once again I glimpsed something very ancient and strange within him. Then he leapt up with such swiftness that I stepped backward in alarm and neighed. But he came near, reached out and placed his palm upon me, and at once I calmed.
"We can do nothing more here, Shadowfax," he said quietly as his hand stroked down my neck. "After everything you've done for me, my friend, you deserve a good long rest… But rest is yet elusive for us…"
Apparently he was not yet willing to recognize the truth of the matter. I turned my head to gaze down at him.
"The Black Demons have taken the one you sought, Old One," I said. "Surely he is either dead or has suffered an even worse fate. What more is there for you to do?"
His expression, which moments ago had been full of grief, now hardened with anger. "I know not his fate—not beyond all doubt… And as long as I do not know the full truth of it, I will not let go of hope… Hope may have left me, but I have not abandoned Frodo!" he said fiercely. "He may yet live… He may have been taken alive… And if I do nothing but discover that he is beyond all aid—that the Nazgûl have turned him into one of their wraith-slaves—then so be it… But I shall not rest until I know the truth!" He grasped the reins in his fist and glared at me. "Are you with me, or must I go on without you?"
My dwindling energy rekindled as I read the grim determination in his weary face. I could see that if I were to refuse him he would force himself to carry on after those Dark Riders in endless pursuit, on the back of some lesser steed or upon his own wholly inadequate two feet, until he caught them or dropped from exhaustion. He too, like a horse, found it irksome to be still. What was I, after all, to do but agree?
"Oh, very well… I am with you, Old Man," I said with a loud neigh.
A slight nod of his grey head was all the acknowledgment he gave to my supreme generosity, which might have irked me had I not had other pressing concerns. For in the next instant he was upon my back, we had hurdled the low hedge and were racing Northward.
We retraced our path to the little gate of the Hole-Dwellers land as the afternoon wore onward, and while I ran the Grey-Beard mused aloud, speaking as much or more to himself than to me. Yet I listened, curious to hear the workings of his mind.
"Why did they not take him South at once?" he muttered. "And how many were there? Clearly not all Nine… The Hobbits would have noted such a large number… More than one, less than nine… And why north, to their main Gate? Why not break free of the Shire in Haysend—through the postern Hedge Gate which they hardly guard at all—and make for Tharbad by the most direct route… But perhaps they know nothing of such details…"
Oft did his voice drop below the level of my hearing, given the whistling of the wind. By and by, however, I could discern a word or two.
"Maybe Fredegar could tell me more… Yet I can hardly wait for him now… If his news is the worst—that he witnessed Frodo taken, or killed—it would not change my course, not now, for then they would have It, and I must still pursue them…"
One by one, it seemed, his doubts and fears he held before him and then laid aside. Nothing—not even if certain knowledge came to him that his errand had utterly failed—would stop him now. Once his decision was made, he turned to more practical matters.
"Through the Gate then, as they flew, so must we… Then they make for Bree… Why that way?... The Greenway?… perhaps they know of it… Yes, if they have spies, they are likely to reside in the Breelands… Well, then I—or, rather, we…" and at that, he nudged my flanks… "…we must make for Bree…"
At once his muttering rose to full, and he leaned forward onto my neck as he cried out in a loud voice. "On, Shadowfax, Lord of the Wind Upon The Grass! Run, run—for we are closer to them now than ever… We are upon their very heels! Run, as you have never run before!"
It seems boastful to tell of it, but the truth is that I outpaced even myself. Strange as it may be, each leg of that long journey from the upland grasses of Rohan to these peculiar lands of the North was speedier than the one before. It was as if as our weariness grew the greater, so did our resolve—and my swiftness. My hooves pounded the earth mercilessly and in a quarter less than the time it had taken for us to go from the little Hole-Dwellers' Gate to the small place called Crickhollow, we retraced our steps and flew past the slack-jawed crowd of Little Folk. At the wizard's urging I veered East and once more found myself flying over the surface of the broad Road of the Sea-Kings toward a settlement with the rather absurd name of Bree.
Twenty-five leagues more I ran that day, into the evening and night, and every mile of it quite nearly in full gallop. A race indeed it was, and not just swiftness was required, but endurance also. Even I, Lord of the Mearas, felt my weariness deeply when we came at last through another gate of Two-Footed Folk and to our destination. My magnificent legs shook, my hooves had passed beyond the ache of constant pounding and were nearly numb, and my curvaceous throat was as dry as sand. My back, upon which the Two-Foot had perched, felt battered and bruised, and where his knees and calves had gripped me firmly, my flanks were sore indeed. And he—well, I know not what pains he felt, but his legs would barely hold him upright when we finally halted an hour before Midnight and he slid from atop me. I noted the trembling of his limbs and the pale color of his face as we stood in the muddy street before the entrance to a Man-Stable with the odious name of Prancing Pony.
Ugh! How insulting was that swinging wooden device upon which some Mortal hand had lain pigments depicting the ugliest, fattest image of so-called horse-flesh I have ever yet seen! A travesty, I deemed it, and if I'd had remaining strength I would have reared up and knocked the disgusting placard to the ground. I would have insisted that we leave the place at once, save that my friend was equally insistent that this ramshackle hovel with its ridiculous adornment was indeed the most likely place he would find news, whether it be gladsome tidings or the worst imaginable tale.
"And you can rest here in a proper stable at last, my friend," he said, his voice raspy with dryness, and I knew he had as great a thirst as I. "And so, maybe, can I… For I do not think either one of us can continue farther, no matter what news we learn…" He placed two fingers between his lips and whistled sharply, a surprisingly loud noise for such an aged one to produce.
"Hi! Barliman! Bob!" he shouted into the night. "Ho there, anyone about? I've a horse to be watered, fed, and groomed if he'll allow it, and stabled for the night…"
It took another two shouts and piercing whistles and some pounding upon the closed doorway before any Two-Foots appeared. I was interested to note that here, as in the Little Folks' country of Buckland, my companion seemed to be known and welcomed as a returning friend—or at least as a paying customer. For that this establishment's primary purpose was the exchange of coin for nourishment and shelter was clear enough, and I had no illusions that these Mortals would do anything to help my grey-robed companion without full compensation. And as I was above such common transactions, having given my assistance to the Old One out of the generosity of spirit that is my wont, I grunted in gloomy displeasure at the thought.
Still, as the ostler—Bob—led me to the stables that were his domain, I cheered considerably at the scent of clean straw, cool water and oats that greeted my nostrils. The stable housed no other steeds at that moment, which I thought somewhat odd; I learned later that every horse and pony that had previously been stabled there had been driven away before dawn on that very day. Yet for now, I was grateful for the peculiar circumstances, as I would not need to assert my dominance upon any other strange beasts in my current state of fatigue.
A few minutes later my assessment of the Two-Footed folk of Bree had risen significantly as I was given access to as much water as I wished to drink and as many sweet oats as I cared to eat. The ostler was one of those Two-Foots who is partly Four-Foot—that is, he wore his warm spirit outwardly, and hid it not deep within as do most Mortal Men. His manner with The Kelvar was one of respectful ease and kinship, and I deemed him worthy of trust.
In little time, my belly was full and my parched throat was soothed. I allowed the ostler to approach, and with skilled hands he cleansed my hide and limbs of the muck and burrs I had acquired along the many miles. Each of my hooves he lifted and examined, plucking out the small bits of the Road that had lodged there and gently applying an unguent upon my tender frogs. He produced combs and bristled brushes, and I will admit that I crooned with pleasure at his grooming of my coat, tail and mane, for he was a Two-Foot who knew his business well. He used few words but made small musical noises in his throat that enhanced the restful nature of his ministrations. He finished, making certain the water trough and feedbag were well supplied, and left me alone in my stall.
Ah! I was utterly content, and gave no thought whatsoever of the grey-robed Two-Foot whose errand had, after all, dragged me here to this outlandish place in the middle of nowhere. I was well on my way toward forgetful sleep when a silken voice from above and to my right startled me from my blissful drowse.
"Fine sort of friend you turned out to be—why, you cannot even stay awake long enough to hear the news…"
I jerked from my pleasantly dreamy state into one of wrath. My eyes flew open.
"What! What insults, and to me…!" I choked. "How dare you call into question my friendship…! Who are you? Explain yourself, at once!"
But instead of replying, the voice simply laughed mockingly. The only light in the stable came from the waxing Crescent Moon shining through a narrow window high above, and the pale silvery light fell upon a small shape—one with up-turned ears, glowing eyes and a long curving tail. The creature was perched atop the wall that separated my stall from the rest of the stable, and thus, was perched over my head.
A cat... I fumed to myself. A barn cat at that. Horses and cats are well familiar with one another, and some have forged friendships built of need and close quarters; but I have never stooped so low. I have always ignored the cats that live near the structures built by the Gold-Hairs: scurrying about, hunting for vermin… It would be unseemly for one of my royal bloodline to lower himself to converse with such a one. But that night, in a strange village of Mortals, hundreds of miles from my realm, I found myself stung by the creature's accusation, and more to the point, by the air of scornful superiority in that voice.
The yellow-gold striped cat had interrupted her laughter to lick her white paw and clean the backs of her ears. I snorted and glared at the thing, stamping my hoof smartly upon the floorboards.
"I am Shadowfax, Lord of Horses," I said in my most imperious voice. "Explain yourself, Feline…"
Her green-gold eyes flickered briefly in my direction, and then she stifled a yawn. Next the insolent creature took the time to stretch languorously from the tip of her front paws to the end of her long tail, all the while balanced upon the narrow wooden wall. I sputtered impatiently at her manner of supreme indolence and haughty superiority. Finally the cat turned and stared directly into my eyes.
"Shadowfax, is it? Hmm… Never heard of you," she said. "Must not be from around here…"
"Of course not! I hail from Rohan, the Land of Great Green Plains, far to the South…"
"South," she hissed. "Nothing good ever comes out of the South…" Her eyes seemed to glow with greater brilliance.
"What do you know of it, Feline?" I replied, as I stepped back a pace or two, the better to get a good look at her. "You cannot have traveled far from this warm and secure abode. Cats are lazy, looking out for their own comfort above all…"
She sat quite still and glared down at me. "One need not be well traveled to learn things, Long-Shanks. One need only sit quietly and listen… as I have done tonight, for instance…"
I had awakened sufficiently by then to recall the Old Man that I had brought to this place in search of news of the plight of his small friend. Perhaps this feline—for I had observed how the Gold-Hairs inexplicably allowed such small Kelvar to roam freely about their structures, and mayhap these Two-Foots of Bree were similarly foolish—perhaps she had entered the nearby Man-shelter and heard something of import! Yes, that must be the reason for her insolence. She knew something, and I must get it out of her! I was anxious to hear what she might say, for now that my senses were fully stirred, my feelings of loyalty…er, rather I mean, my curiosity awoke as well. But I could not appear too eager—for after all, I am King, and such a creature as a cat—especially a cat—must be treated according to rank, which is, of course, nearly as low as that of a Two-Foot.
I held myself quite still and glanced at her with studied disinterest. "Oh, very well, I suppose I can force myself to suffer through whatever uninteresting tale you've overheard… Go on, then, Cat. I have nothing better to do…"
Alas, the thing was a trickster. The cat said nothing, but stared at me with those eerie, glowing eyes of hers and that little smirk on her face. Ah, how she annoyed me! I thought of rearing up and dashing her off that wall with my hooves; but as if she could hear my thoughts, she roused herself and padded atop the dividing wall until she reached a beam. With two supple leaps she now sat upon a crossbeam directly over my stall. Her tail drifted slowly back and forth at least three feet above my highest reach.
"Dratted cat," I muttered, none too softly. She began to laugh again, which merely served to increase my agitation, which of course was precisely her aim. All cats are alike, it seems, North or South.
"Feeling a bit frustrated, Long-Shanks?" she laughed.
"Do not call me that!" I snorted. "My name is Shadowfax…"
"Very well, then… Shadowfax Long-Shanks…"
I growled and stamped my hoof, but it was to no avail.
"I am called Mugs by the Two-Foot, Bob-the-Ostler, whom I believe you have already met… My proper name is Mugwort, bestowed upon me by Butterbur himself, as my beautiful coat is the exact color of dried mugwort, which is, as you undoubtedly know, one of the key ingredients in gruit, the herbal mixture added to barley in the brewing of ale*… The Two-Foots make a fine ale here at The Pony, as I can certainly attest, and the gruit recipe was passed down to Barliman by his sire and his sire before him… Of course other herbs are used as well, but it was old Master Aleman—Barley's father, you see—who, I have it on the highest authority, was of the opinion that the quality of the mugwort was truly the essential component…"
"Will you get to the point!" I shouted, as I stamped the floor with both my front hooves and bucked my backbone into the air in a most unseemly display of impatience. But I could no longer contain myself, and cared no more whether this insolent little snippet of a Kelvar saw me with respectful eyes or no. I cared only that she cease prattling and get on with her story… And I said as much to her, and much more, I am afraid, most of it quite rude.
Alas, I lived to regret my lack of self-control, for my tantrum drove her into a sulk, and for a time she refused to speak at all. In the end, the only way in which I would learn what tale she had to tell—and it was, after all, quite a good one—would be for me to beg forgiveness of her. Ah, such trials I was subject to on this journey! Weariness, deprivation, fear: these I expected, but that I would live to see the day when I found myself willingly apologizing to, of all things, a cat! Never. I can only say how grateful I am that no one else was present to witness my indignity.
"Please, Mistress Mugwort," I heard myself say. "I am very sorry for my outburst. I swear on my sire's bones that it shall never, never happen again… If it please you, Mistress, I would be ever so grateful if you would be willing to go on with your story…"
She had remained well out of reach, sitting upon the high crossbeam, and the rapid twitching of her tail told me that her agitation was nearly equal to mine. But to my shame she kept hers in check through the entire unseemly exchange. I heard a slight shift in her position, and with the faintest swishing sound, she leapt down to the back of the stall and positioned herself upon a narrow shelf of wood that was almost exactly even with my head. From there she gave me a look—a look that only one who has been stared at by a cat can possibly understand.
"Are you quite ready to stand still, with no further ill-mannered interruptions?" she said softly but very sternly.
"Yes, I am," I said meekly. Well… meekly enough.
"Well then: listen…"
Mistress Mugwort displayed rather rich knowledge of the circumstances that had led to the Old Two-Foot's urgent journey from the South. She had, it was apparent, been listening and watching for some time. She knew in detail of the small friend for whom the Grey-Beard searched, and announced that he was not only not dead, a wraith, or a captive of the Black Riders, but had been a guest in this very establishment the evening before! She even seemed to know something of the secret that he carried—and even I knew not the details of that, only that the Holbytlan bore something of grave import in the struggle against the Black Power of The East. She snickered to herself over some doggerel or other about the Moon that had been sung, or danced, or performed within the miserable Man-Shelter called The Prancing Pony, and that it had something to do with the little one.
"And then the one they call Strider appeared," she purred. "The Rangers' Chieftain… No one about here trusts him… They think he's little better than a ruffian… They are such fools, these Bree-Landers…" She stopped to arrange her long whiskers for a moment, only going on when she was satisfied that each strand was in perfect alignment with the rest. "But I've overheard them—the tall, grey-eyed Two-Foots, the Rangers—when they think no one's about, when they've retired to their rooms, or in the deepest corners and shadows of the Common Room… I know who they are…" She crouched forward a bit, as if she wished to keep her voice down to a whisper. I stretched my neck toward her and pointed my ears at her. "And I've seen them… in the woodlands… with the Shining Ones, especially the ones the Wolves call The Thunderbolts**… and so I know they must be trustworthy…"
I narrowed my gaze at her odd expressions. "'Shining Ones?' Do you mean the Firstborn Two-Foots?" She nodded solemnly. But I could hardly believe that she had ever had opportunity to see one of them. "Are you certain? I hardly suspect they would wander this far to the North…"
She bristled at that, and her eyes glowed again. "This far North? Why, the North is where the Shining Folk come from! They are not from the South, I can tell you that much for certain…"
I snorted loudly, for of course the borders of the Gold-Hairs land rubs squarely against The Forest Realm of The Firstborn and their strangely wild steeds. Obviously this feline, this Mugwort, had limits to her knowledge. I was tempted to engage in a debate with her on this point, but thought better of it, for it was, after all, a side issue… One we might settle at some later, more convenient time. But for the moment I was more interested to know what else she had overheard.
"Never mind about all that, Mistress Mugwort," I said. "I am most keen to learn what became of the small Two-Foot that my companion sought, for I brought him many hundreds of leagues upon my back, and he was extremely concerned for his friend."
She smiled smugly at me. "Your 'companion,' as you so quaintly put it, has heard the tale in full, though from a less eloquent source… Old Butterbur told him everything, once he stopped quivering with terror at the sight of the Grey Wizard…"
"'Quivering with terror…' Whatever do you mean?" I asked; and I meant it in all honesty. I could see no reason why anyone might be afraid of the decrepit Old One.
But the cat laughed merrily. "What do I mean? Why, you hardly seem to know who it is you've been carrying about on your back, King Long-Shanks! Old Butterbur is quite rightly terrified of Gandalf the Grey, for he knows well enough that if he wished to, that old Grey-Beard could cast a spell on The Pony—why, the whole of Bree—that would turn it to ashes in no time!"
I stood up straight at that, and my eyes flew open wide, for we horses are especially not fond of fires of any kind. "What?" I sniffed the air for any scent of smoke. "But… well… he didn't actually do such a thing… did he?" I said, aghast with the idea of a conflagration in such a nearby structure… and at the sudden realization that I had been ferrying a firedrake about the lands unwittingly.
My consternation merely served to increase the wretched feline's amusement, for she laughed all the harder, and could not go on with her tale for a few minutes until she composed herself again. "Ah, me, King Shadowfax Long-Shanks, you are a rather curious fellow… Undoubtedly swift upon your hooves but, alas, not so swift on the uptake…"
I gave her a warning thump of my hoof. She yawned widely before continuing.
"Of course he did no such thing!" she scolded. "He wouldn't, even though he could… He's not like that! We've known about him all along, you see…"
"'We'?" I queried, suspicious.
"We cats, of course," she purred. "We pass our lore down from one generation to the next…" I nodded, for it is the same for we horses. From my own dam and sire I had learned much, including knowledge of The Firstborn and how they are different from other Two-Foots. "The Grey Wizard is a particular friend of ours, ever since he came here from over the Sea, long ago… He's been coming to Bree—and whatever it was called before that—for a very long time. And while we may not be in a position to give him aid in the same manner that a great huge Four Foot like you can, we cats do offer one thing of great value that few others can provide…"
She beamed rather impudently at me with those words, and I found myself annoyed by her again.
"Oh, really? And what could one of you… felines… offer to an obviously important Two-Foot as the Grey Wizard?" I snapped.
"We are beautiful," she crooned, as she stretched again and showed off her supple figure. "And we give permission to a special few to stroke our luxurious fur. It is soothing…for the Two-Foots, I mean." She stared at me again, with that unnervingly direct gaze of hers. "In fact, that is where I was, just now: in the Grey Wizard's room. He had just completed a large bowl of stew and an enormous tankard of ale—of which I had a taste—and was soaking in a great copper tub of steaming hot water, sending clouds of smoke about the room from that pipe of his. I perched next to him on the stool and let him rub the back of my ears." She blinked twice, and gave me one of her very smug smiles. "I believe he enjoyed it. He told me I remind him of someone named Vana, who is very beautiful… I think perhaps he is in love with me," she sighed.
I rolled my eyes at that, and finally the cat completed her overly long tale. My companion had learned that his friend was safely in the company of another whom he trusted—indeed, the very same as the one Mistress Mugwort had already named the Chieftain of the Rangers. They had narrowly escaped from the Demons in Black on more than one occasion, and they were hardly safe. But for tonight, he was content; and so, at last, was I. I felt drowsiness overtaking me again as the silken voice of the cat droned on.
"Of course, I do have to take exception to the description that I have ever once in my life been tipsy… I have been known to sample a tongue-ful or two of Butterbur's ale on occasion, but tipsy! Really, I have never been tipsy any more than those spoons could actually stand up and run…"
I was asleep before I heard another word, and dreamed of grass beneath me and Stars above me and white-crowned Mountains before me… And abruptly, my dreams ceased and I was startled awake by a cat's sharp claws digging into my back!
"Wake up, awake, Shadowfax! Wake, they're here, they've come back… Oh, save us, save us, Gandalf…"
The cat's claws dug in for an instant even harder, and then she leapt like an arrow from a bowstring and hid herself in the rafters. As I came fully awake I heard Two-Foots shouting, doors slamming and a bell clanging. I snorted and pranced, and turned about in the stall anxiously.
"Who?" I demanded. "Who has come? Is it those Dead Demons? Those Riders?" I screamed in anger. "Let me at them… I'll pound them to dust… I'll smash them…" And I began to buck and thrash about in my growing rage, and all the while Mugwort hissed and screeched above me.
The door to the stable flung open to the light of early dawn. The Two-Foot, Bob, looking bedraggled and still half asleep, stood there blinking for an instant, until he was thrust aside by another directly behind him.
"Shadowfax!" Gandalf shouted as he came into my stall and grabbed the leather bridle from the hook. "The night's rest I promised you shall be all too short—we must away at once. The Nazgûl—four of them—have just ridden through Bree like a bleak, foul wind out of Mordor itself—and we must follow!"
…to be continued…
*For information about ale and how it was made in the days before hops, read en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ale
** My nod to Ziggy's fabulous "Sons of Thunder" – thinking that wolves might have a similar name for the Twain.
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