The Old Grey Wizard
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The Kindness of Strangers: 12. And Need of Vittles
And Need Of Vittles
Coräc could hardly believe his sharp black eyes as he spiraled above the great Tower on September 9th. He folded his wings and streaked downward, flapping strongly to brake in the final dozen feet. He landed lightly and cautiously hopped toward the motionless figure lying in the soft glow of early morning.
The man lay curled on his side on the smooth stone surface. His head had fallen forward, and his lank hair lay in a tangle across his face. His hands were tightly bound in coarse rope behind his back. Coräc paced slowly around him, gazing with curiosity.
It was understandable that humans wore clothing, he thought. They looked so helpless and pathetic when their naked skins were revealed, like birds plucked of their feathers. And this one had such peculiar coloration. No wonder he wished to cover himself! His hide was so unsightly. His back and shoulders were mottled in purple, red and sickly green, and thickly layered in bands of various shades between bright scarlet and dull reddish-black. As Coräc continued his circuit, he noted the same patterned skin through tears in what remained of the ragged fabric that covered his legs. He hopped around the man's bare, similarly colored ankles and feet and continued his inspection. Coräc halted, level with the old man's chest, which, beneath its pelt of grey hair, was another unattractive blend of purplish hues and crimson stripes.
The human's long beard had flopped forward, revealing a bare patch on the side of his throat. Here, the raven saw, the old man's skin was not so oddly mottled. The bird stared, and blinked. He recalled that the greybeard's face had mostly been that same pale shade when he first beheld him. He began to realize that what he saw on the rest of the human was not his normal skin coloration. He took a hesitant, horrified step forward as comprehension finally dawned.
The raven had seen much in his thirty years. His father had died in the snapping jaws of a wolf. A Horse Master's arrow had pierced his elder brother. Coräc had seen their bodies; black feathers had obscured their wounds. He had mourned for them, but at least had known that their deaths had been quick.
Then Coräc thought on what he knew of humans. He had witnessed men kill one another in pitiless ways, ways no kelvari would think to inflict on another. Even those animals that ate living prey did so without purposefully prolonging death's release from suffering. But nothing in his long life had prepared him for what he saw now. The bird was deeply shocked. After all, he was only a raven, and thus he could not help but be appalled at the greybeard's condition.
A pile of filthy, blood-stained grey garments had been tossed nearby. A reeking pile of Orc excrement in a crockery bowl lay beside the man's head, with a wooden spoon shoved into the center. Next to the bowl was a leather flask, which also stank, suspiciously like Orc piss. The raven's fury grew as he snorted to clear the stench from his nostrils. Was this some sort of final cruel jest of the Cold White One and his Orc slaves, to leave this mockery of water and food for a dying man to see and smell in his final hours? Humans and Orcs were one and the same, and intolerable, Coräc decided angrily. They should be wiped from the face of Arda.
The raven approached closely. The man smelled nearly as badly as the pile in the crockery bowl. He stood, quivering with anxiety, barely two inches from the man's head. He had never come this close to a living human in all his life. Every instinct told him to flee, that humans were nothing but pure danger. Coräc quelled his fear and spoke in his throaty voice.
"Gandalf the Grey!" The man did not move. The raven reached out and nervously took a strand of filthy grey hair in his beak. He tugged, dropped it, and spoke again.
"Old One...Greybeard...my friend...you must wake."
Coräc fluttered back as the man suddenly stiffened, and with a low moan began to struggle against the rope. He accomplished nothing but to tear his already raw skin open, and his wrists began to bleed anew. The raven concluded he did not know where he was.
"Gandalf, you are on the roof," Coräc said.
The man stopped and frowned. "Eh?" he whispered hoarsely. "What did you say? Who is there? Saruman… Stay away from me…"
"It is I, Coräc. Open your eyes. Breathe free air. Feel the Sun."
Slowly the man raised his head. The raven hardly recognized his misshapen, deeply discolored features. He opened his eyes, and instantly shut them against what apparently was to him a blinding light, but what to the raven was a gentle glimmer.
"Coräc?" he whispered. "The Raven Lord? Of the Clan of Isen?"
"One and the same," the bird croaked delightedly.
The man grunted. "Am I really on the roof?"
"Can you not feel the morning air?"
"Yes...I feel it..." he sighed, smiling weakly. Then his face fell. "How long? How long was I... How long did they have me?"
The bird thought for a moment. Coräc could count to five, but much more time than that had elapsed. How might he convey the number of days and nights that the old man had been held within the black spike?
"Are you accustomed to mark the changing shape of the Moon?" Coräc said. The man nodded hesitantly. "Then I can tell you this. On the night that followed the day when I first knew you had been taken from here, the Moon was a growing crescent. He has reached fullness, waned to darkness and grows again. The Moon shall be at half again three nights from now. Is that what you would know?"
"Yes...just over a lunar month..." the man muttered. He dared to open his eyes. He spoke aloud to himself, calculating days. "I arrived on July the 10th. I counted 25 days of deprivation, then five more of fattening, in preparation for what followed..." He let his head fall to the floor as he groaned. "No! It cannot be! It is already September! Two months--two months have passed! Blessed Erú, why was I such a fool to come here, directly into his trap?" he cried. His voice fell to a harsh whisper. "Manwë... Sweet Varda... Hear me! You must help me—no, help him, for I have failed him utterly! Protect him, for I cannot. Help him find his way without me. Send others to give him aide… Ah! If I only knew the letter reached him! If only I could be sure he has already fled and is safe for now... I could bear anything if I were only certain..."
Coräc watched as the man's shoulders shook and deep, stuttering moans came forth from him. It appeared that the greybeard was finally allowing himself to feel his pain and grief. He knew that human weeping was a release of powerful emotion, but he did not truly understand it. Ravens did not weep, nor did Eagles, or stags, or wolves, or even the human-like great bear. The kelvar shared the same joys, sorrows, laughter and anger as those who walked on two legs and used fire. The difference, the raven thought proudly, was that the kelvar stood apart from their emotions, and were not overmastered by them. Still, he pitied the man, for his sorrow was deep, and it seemed that his anguish was not for his own decidedly wretched plight. He wept for another, for whom he seemed to feel responsible, and whose fate was now beyond his power.
The man's fit of unleashed emotion was passing. He must be given the other news, as dreadful as it was. The raven stepped closer again. "Grey One. Listen to me. I have heard things, terrible things. You must know the news that is passing from bird to bird."
"News... What have you heard? Tell me…" His voice grew urgent, and he seemed to brace himself against another onslaught of grief.
"Men--nay, no longer men--wraiths in black, riding from the East..."
"Ah, that!" The man sighed with apparent relief, as though he had expected something worse. The raven could not imagine what might be worse news. "I already know your news, Coräc. I had heard even before I came here that they were abroad."
"But the rumors say the riders are heading directly this way, with all speed…"
"They may be headed here, or they may intend to travel farther, through the Gap of Rohan and beyond." Coräc could tell that the man was once again thinking aloud. "That indeed is my greatest fear. But if they do come to Isengard, Saruman will likely make good on his threat to hand me over to Mordor..."
"It is just as you predicted. Worse days lie ahead for you." Coräc paused. "Will you leap now, Old One?"
The man forced himself to his knees. He took one look at the revolting pile and the flask of caustic fluid and shuddered. He quickly turned his face away. His body trembled as he began to inch toward his sword. "No," he said, his voice rough and raw. "As an old gardener I know is fond of saying, where there's life, there's hope... Although I doubt very much that Master Gamgee had circumstances like this in mind." The man laughed grimly. "And the Gaffer would usually add that with life, comes the need for vittles. A wise hobbit…"
The poor old fellow's brains must have been addled by the beatings the Orcs had given him, the bird thought. What strange language was he speaking now? "What are vittles, Gandalf the Grey?" The raven hopped with him as he slid on his knees toward Glamdring.
"Vittles? Food, my friend…food. And water." The wizard's coarsened voice fell lower. "Another month has passed without either... My need has never been greater…"
The raven croaked excitedly. "We have left you another gift, Grey One. If you can free your hands, water awaits you. Do you see?" He flew and landed near the man's left boot, which was standing upright, brimming with rainwater. "It was Morigian's, my wife's idea—she is a clever bird, the cleverest there is!" The bird flew back to his side. "I will gather my clan, and we will bring food…" Coräc cackled at the look of dismay the old man shot him. "No, no…not meat this time. The gardens of Isengard are overflowing. We shall bring you…vittles!" he cried, as he flew off croaking.
Later that morning Coräc, Morigian and a dozen of their clan returned to the Tower. Each member of the flock of ravens carried a morsel in its bill or claws: a small apple, a cluster of grapes, a plum, a few leaves of nutritious greens the birds had seen humans gathering for food, a carrot. The birds managed quell their intense desires to simply swallow the food for themselves. The Raven Lord and his Lady had convinced their people of the wisdom of this sacrifice. The flock delivered their gifts and left swiftly. Only Coräc and Morigian stayed to visit with the old human.
Coräc eyed the Old One carefully. He had freed himself, somehow managing to use the bright sword with his hands tied behind his back. The bird was relieved to see that his discolored hide was once again concealed beneath the grey garments; he had not wished his wife to witness such ugliness. The man sat with his back to the northwest pillar, the boot standing before him. Clearly, he had drunk a good deal of the water, and had used some of the rain to wash blood and grime from his face. He was just now wrapping his hands with a strip of blue-stained white cloth. Coräc recognized the child's tunic that he and his wife had left behind so many weeks ago.
"Coräc, my friend," the man said with a crooked grin. "You must introduce me to your beautiful and clever spouse!"
Without hesitation, Morigian hopped much closer than Coräc thought was safe. He twitched anxiously as she came within easy reach of the greybeard's hand. She flexed her neck feathers and croaked excitedly.
"I am Morigian. I understand that you are Gandalf the Grey, one of the Five Messengers whom legend says came from over the Sea long ago."
The man tucked the final strip of bandage around his palm and bowed his head formally. He regarded the Raven Lady with a solemn look on his bruised face. "It is my honor to meet you, Lady Morigian. I am in your debt, for the gift of this priceless water at the moment I most required it." He indicated the half-full boot. "I was unaware that my name was known among your people." He glanced toward Coräc with one bristling brow raised and a half-smile curling his lip.
Coräc nervously cleared his throat and started to croak, but Morigian interrupted him. "The kelvar are not blind to what goes on in the wide world, nor are we easily deceived, Grey One," she said. "Your name is known, and well regarded among feathered kelvari, as is that of your esteemed kinsman, who is robed in brown. But as for the one who encases himself in black stone..." She tapped her beak on the roof of Orthanc. "We ravens never trusted the White One. And now, the proof of his treachery is written for all to see, upon your face."
"Yes, I suppose it is," he muttered. "And his deepest treachery may prove to be his betrayal of himself."
Morigian nudged a plum with her bill, rolling it toward him. "You should eat, Grey One," she said. "Whatever lies before you, it is better to face it with strength, is it not?"
The man met her sharp-eyed gaze and nodded grimly. He began to eat the plum with a determined look on his face. But Coräc felt crestfallen. What was the point, after all, of reviving this unfortunate human? The wraiths would come, and he would be taken to an even worse place than the dungeons of Orthanc—a place from which no one ever emerged.
The man rose to his feet with obvious effort, and gathered all the bits of food the birds had brought him. Then he sat down heavily and leaned against the pillar. He slowly ate, closing his eyes and resting his head against the stone between bites. He said nothing more, and the ravens saw his weariness. They croaked goodbye and flew off.
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