The Old Grey Wizard
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The Kindness of Strangers: 9. Strange Kindness
The Lord of Orthanc paced restlessly back and forth in his study, awaiting the arrival of Muzlúk, the Urûk in charge of interrogation, who was due for his weekly report. Saruman was filled with eager anticipation, tempered by dread. His ability to vividly imagine what might be transpiring elsewhere was, at times, a great burden.
He was not, of course, unschooled in such matters. The White Wizard had traveled far in earlier days, and seen much. He had witnessed appalling cruelty on his journeys to the East. A few particularly horrific images lingered in his mind's eye, haunting his darkest nightmares even now, centuries later. Nothing within his power could have been done, those many years ago, to help those wretched victims or to ease their misery. He could not allow himself to become involved in such things, could he? He had far more important work to do. And they were mortals, after all; if they did not die in one unpleasant fashion they would die in another. What could he do about it?
As the centuries spun onward, he had witnessed other scenes of shocking brutality. Always he had stood by, consoling himself that it was not his place to intervene. Slowly his capacity to feel shocked grew dull. He became accustomed to it. And by the time Saruman the White became Master of Orthanc and Lord of an increasingly powerful realm, he had grown so used to harsh cruelty that he could command his servants to use it, or even employ it himself. Sometimes it was necessary to use deplorable methods against an individual to achieve laudable goals for the good of the many, he reassured himself.
Now the individual in question was one of an elite few—someone he had known for so long that the time could not be measured. They had always had their differences, and had finally declared themselves as outright foes. Still, Saruman found that he could not silence the memories of sometimes fascinating--if infuriating--debates, or those rare times of shared laughter. He could not erase the fragmentary images of admittedly pleasant meals, of wine drunk together, of meeting those sharply intelligent and challenging eyes from across the table, of what by all appearances had been at the least, comradeship, if not friendship.
But all that was long ago. Those grey eyes now hid too many secrets—secrets of critical importance that must be revealed. Comradeship had fallen away, and any pretense of friendship was gone. Gandalf the Grey was no longer just a harmless, meddling old fool who wandered from one pointless adventure to another, naively clinging to old ways and old beliefs. Now he stood squarely in the way of success—nay, of survival.
The stubborn Fool had brought this upon himself, after all. His difficulties would cease the moment he cooperated. Saruman had only resorted to these unpleasantries when he had no other choice. Whatever was happening below the Tower was the Grey Wizard's own doing. Indeed, only the Fool himself could put an end to it.
Saruman started at a loud rap on the doorframe, as Muzlúk appeared for his third visit in as many weeks. The White Wizard crossed the room to sit at his great desk and gestured for his servant to enter. He stared at the Urûk Captain coldly.
"Your news had better be an improvement over last week's dismal report."
"He is a stubborn one, my Lord…"
"Do not bore me with your failures. I am only interested in results."
"We have pressed him hard, I assure you!"
"Not hard enough, it seems. I am losing patience with you, Muzlúk. He has vital information, and I must have it. Well, what are you waiting for? Get back to it."
On his way out the door, Muzlúk paused on the threshold.
"We know he is a sorcerer. But are you certain this old man has no cursed Elf-blood in him?"
Saruman laughed harshly. "Elf-blood! Not a single drop—as if that should make any difference."
"Some of the lads are afraid of him, Lord Sharkû."
"How can they possibly be afraid of their own prisoner? Don't tell me you have let him loose down there!"
The Urûk scowled. "Of course we haven't. We keep him chained, blindfolded and gagged, day and night."
Saruman glared at the Urûk Captain. "What sort of idiocy is that? If he is gagged, how can you force him to speak?"
"You do not understand, my Lord. If his gag is removed, he whispers spells at us. If his horrible eyes are uncovered, my boys won't even go into the room. And once, his chains were undone for a few minutes…" He shook his head. "Three loyal goblins, dead. Besides, if you ask me, it is a waste of time to try to force this one to do anything. This sorcerer is worse than a filthy tark. He will never speak. He will die before he speaks."
"Listen well, Muzlúk. He must speak…and he must not die. Now you had best get out of my sight, before I whisper one of my own spells at you. And don't come back until you have something useful to report!"
Muzlúk snarled before he turned toward the stairs.
Saruman stared at the empty doorway. The Urûk was right about one thing: Gandalf the Grey was worse than a filthy tark. But Muzlúk was wrong that he would die before he spoke. For one thing, although this captive was decidedly not Elvish, he would prove far more difficult to kill than the strongest tark. And for another, he simply must be forced to speak. He must.
For soon, Saruman knew, he would be required give his own report. The Palantír's insidious voice was calling to him. He had not peered into its depths for over a fortnight, and the pressure to return to it was growing unbearable. The strength of will required to resist it was wearing him down. But he knew better than to report more lack of progress. He must wait until something changed…for the better.
After Muzlúk left, he drummed his narrow fingertips against the desk, considering his dilemma. Should he descend into the deep places of Orthanc and see the situation for himself? The very idea was repulsive to his refined sensibilities. He had visited the dungeons rarely, and the memory of the sour stench and dank closeness of those underground chambers made him shudder. Saruman was fastidious about the cleanliness of his person and his garments. He felt befouled after a trip below ground, and he would certainly require a hot bath and fresh clothing to remove the odors that would cling to him. And the descending stairway was even steeper and narrower than the one that led to the rooftop observatory. The journey itself would be hazardous.
No, that would not do, not at all. He should not be inconvenienced in any way. The prisoner must be brought to him. But not here—not to his study. This room was too welcoming, too comfortable. And besides, the Fool had already ruined one priceless carpet. He must find some place more appropriate to the circumstances. A small, dimly lit room somewhere, with only one door. No sense in taking chances.
He nodded to himself. The northwestern antechamber, of course. The designers of the Tower of Orthanc had thought of everything. The Palantír was housed at present on its pedestal in the southeastern antechamber, and the Stone was thus oriented in that direction. But in the past, when other Stones could be sought in the North Kingdom, the opposite antechamber was used for communication with Arnor. Now the room stood empty. It was forbidding, dark, and small, but not too close; windowless, but could be lit by lanterns, and had but one entrance that could be well guarded. He would have it prepared--and he would prepare himself, for a meeting of utmost importance.
The next evening, the White Wizard waited in a comfortable chair in the antechamber. He heard grunting and snarling from the stairs as they drove their charge up from the depths. The noise grew louder, until they were in the hallway just outside the door. There was a heavy thud, and the clang of rattling chains. Orcs cursed and shouted; apparently their captive had fallen. More rough sounds; someone was dragged to his feet. Saruman felt his shoulders tense. He gripped his staff in anticipation. The door opened, and as instructed, the Orcs did not acknowledge their Master's presence in the room with anything other than soundless nods. The largest Urûk reached up and removed the captive's gag before they shoved him forward and slammed the door shut.
Shadows from the flickering lamps danced on the black walls. Saruman gazed at his former colleague in silence. He had tumbled to the floor, and stayed there, kneeling and sitting back on his heels, while his rapid breathing slowed. He was, of course, still bound—his wrists fastened behind his back into a double iron shackle and his ankles chained together. Saruman had taken Muzluk's advice and had them leave the blindfold in place. The chains and blindfold were nearly all he wore. Everything else, save for the tattered remnants of a pair of grey leggings, had been stripped away. Curious, Saruman thought. After over two thousand years, it was his first opportunity to examine one of his fellow Istari unclothed.
It was said in Valinor that the physical expression of the Ainu revealed their innermost selves. Saruman thought of himself foremost as one of the most excellent beings in all of Arda, who had generously consented to trouble himself with the needs of these provincial, lesser creatures. He desired that his corporeal self would reflect this oft-ignored fact of his very presence in Middle Earth. His form was tall, spare and elegant. His hands and fingers were long and delicate, and his high-browed face was full of sculpted angles. He was stunningly handsome, he knew, with his pure white hair and beard and his intense black eyes. One thought of supreme rationality, keen intelligence, and above all, nobility when one looked upon the White Wizard.
Saruman had long mused on the odd ways his fellow travelers had appeared in the realm of substance. That tedious, pudgy little Bird-Tamer, for instance, apparently wished to present himself as soft—in flesh, mind and will. And while the images of the Blue Istari were but a distant memory, he recalled having thought that their choices—unattractive, swarthy skin and an annoying, detached serenity for Pallando, and sallow complexion, a round, excessively cheerful face and hooded eyes for Alatar—revealed questionable taste, at least. And the Grey Fool—well! His weathered features and unruly beard and brows certainly reflected his coarseness…and his obdurate, calculating nature.
Although surely he suspected that his long forced march up the stairs had been for a meeting with the Lord of the Tower, the Fool showed no hint of trepidation. His heavy breathing had slowed, and after a few minutes rest, he struggled to his feet. Saruman nearly gagged at the reek of the dungeons that wafted off his former colleague, who, in the dim light, appeared to be smudged with filth. His skin, even accounting for dirt, also showed much evidence of the Orcs' industriousness.
But Saruman found it interesting to observe that half-hidden beneath the more recent signs were a number of faded marks, apparently old battle scars. There, on his right flank--a puckered arrow wound. And in the thick muscle of his left shoulder was a long shiny swath of scar—knife? Ax? Scattered about were other signs of encounters with blade, dart and tooth. What with his rather broad shoulders and sinewy form, when the loose robe was removed Gandalf resembled an ancient, grizzled warrior more than any sort of wizard. Saruman sneered to himself. Brawn over brains. Of course; he would choose to project an outmoded image of strength of will, or some such archaic concept. Recalcitrant meddler, more accurately. He cannot seem to keep himself out of trouble.
And now, the Grey Wizard looked more stubborn than ever. He stood near the center of the small chamber, blind, chained and all but helpless. He should have appeared cowed and broken. But instead, there was an arrogant look of defiance on his face. He seemed content to wait silently—for of course, the longer he waited, the longer would be his respite from the gentle company of the Orcs.
Saruman had no such motive for patience. He seethed at the Fool's insolence. Gripping his staff tightly, he rose from the chair and crossed the room. As he circled his prisoner, he noted with satisfaction how he stiffened and his breathing sped up. He turned his head this way and that, trying to guess the White Wizard's location.
The nearly empty antechamber was just large and resonant enough that sounds bounced easily upon its stone walls. Saruman's delighted chuckling at the sight of the Grey Wizard's attempt to anticipate his movements echoed eerily about the room.
Saruman stood directly behind the Fool. The appearance of his captive's back and shoulders momentarily took him aback. The White Wizard grimaced as his eyes flicked back and forth, tracing the lines, involuntarily attempting to count them. It was impossible; there were too many. One layer had been laid upon another, and another... Why must he be so obstinate? It is not my nature to resort to violence, he protested inwardly. I condone it only because it was demanded of me…because he leaves me no other choice. He steeled his will and forced himself to coldly inspect the damage his servants had wrought. All of this, every last hideous mark…it is his own fault, he said to himself as his resolve hardened. He could stop all this, with a word.
"I see the Urûks have been rather busy," he said, using the lightest tone he could muster.
"They do only what you command, Saruman," Gandalf said in a hoarse voice.
"The Orcs have reason enough to despise you. They need no encouragement from me. Indeed, it is only by the mercy of my command that you yet live."
The Grey Wizard grunted. "I am not much impressed by your mercy."
"You should be. I am only trying to help you, you know," Saruman said, his voice dripping with regret. "It hurts me deeply to see you like this. But if you will not answer me, soon enough you will face the same questions from another—one who will not be nearly as patient as I have been. I do this out of kindness!"
"Kindness? If you can gaze on me and call this kindness, then you are lost indeed..."
The White Wizard strode swiftly around his prisoner and leaned in, until their faces were but inches apart. "Lost, am I?" he hissed. "You are the one who is lost, Gandalf the Grey. You live or die by my command. You are in my power. And if you do not cooperate with me, soon you will pine to return to the pleasant comforts of Orthanc, as you contemplate an eternity of Sauron's kindness and mercy." He stepped back a pace. "One last time, tell me where the One is hidden."
"I cannot do that," the Fool said. He smiled faintly. "Or rather, I will not."
"Very well." Saruman took aim with his staff. "You leave me no choice."
Gandalf turned his face directly toward him, as if he could see through the blindfold. "You are wrong, Saruman! You still have choices. But you choose to squander…"
Saruman smiled as the Fool's ability to produce coherent words abruptly ceased.
Several hours later, Saruman opened the door to the antechamber and emerged into the hallway. He had a blistering headache, and his evening meal had been delayed for far too long. The heat of his fury had cooled somewhat, and he looked forward to a relaxing bath to cleanse away the odor—and the memory—of this very trying evening.
"Take him below," he said to Muzlúk, as he gestured into the darkness of the antechamber at the motionless figure on the floor. "When he wakes, begin again."
* * *
The Blue Wizards knew they were heading to the East, and took on forms appropriate for the peoples they would visit. Maybe their influence lasted longer than we know, and the "secret cults" that formed around them became major world philosophies.
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