The Old Grey Wizard
Playlist Navigation Bar
A Mortal Life: 13. The Plan
Chapter 12 The Plan
That night as they made camp, the wizard checked on Suli. Januno was beside her, still humming softly. Farased was curled up nearby, fast asleep. Nelika was nowhere in sight. But the injured woman smiled and stretched her hands toward him when the guide appeared.
"Incanus!" she whispered. "I feel so much better! Nelika is a wonder, is she not?"
"She is indeed," he murmured, as a vision of long lashes against deep brown skin came to him. He gave Suli's hand a squeeze and left swiftly.
As he rubbed the caked mud from Rubeo's legs and flanks, he heard the sounds of a vigorous discussion. Voices were raised and their shouts carried, echoing in the darkness. His head turned toward the sound. They had not seen fit to invite the guide to this evening's council. It could only mean one thing: he was tonight's topic. After all, one of their own had been killed, and others injured—including the invincible wizard. Surely, he thought bitterly, they were discussing what to do, now that the Famous Grey Robed Sorcerer's vulnerability had been unmasked.
Incanus lit a small fire and stretched out beside it, his eyes closed. The sound of voices continued. Let them talk, he thought. He was so weary. He wanted nothing more than to follow Nelika's advice, and rest. His hand stung, but was a minor nuisance compared to the fierce throb in his right side. He drifted off to the sound of arguing. At last the noise died down.
Two men stood watching the wizard. They were reluctant to rouse him. It seemed as dangerous as waking a sleeping viper. But they had their message to deliver, and it could not wait. When he didn't move, one cleared his throat.
Instantly, Incanus opened his eyes. Kutumi and Mgeni were staring at him, their faces grim. There were no polite greetings tonight. As they joined their guide on the ground, Mgeni got right to the point.
"This isn't working."
The guide responded in low tones. "I could not prevent Ahmed's death. I regret that, though I cannot see how it might have turned out otherwise..."
"No one blames you for that, Incanus," Kutumi said. "You fought like a cornered leopard. You could not have saved Ahmed, we know that. We meant that the way we travel isn't working."
"Splitting up is no better an idea now than it was before." The wizard's voice was growing impatient. "I'm taking you by the fastest road there is. Other routes would be difficult and slow. We'd have to abandon the wagons…"
Mgeni interrupted. "No, no! It isn't the route. Listen, we've been thinking this through, all of us. We can see now that this way we travel is too risky. We've discussed it, and have decided. We can't continue to go about as if we're free, not until we get to lands where we can trust the faces we see—where there are more black skins than light ones. Therefore, we have come up with a different idea. We must travel as slaves."
Incanus blinked. "What in Arda!… I cannot imagine what you mean..."
Kutumi gestured eagerly.
"Here is the plan. We found rope after that first battle and stored it away in case it would be useful. Well, now it will be! We've made bracelets we can easily slip on and off, but to someone riding by it will appear we are all bound. We've hidden the weapons cleverly, out of sight but where we can get them quickly if we need them. You'll tell everyone we meet that you're driving us to market in the great cities near the sea. They might offer to buy us, but you will refuse."
The wizard stared. "Have you lost your minds?"
"No, we are being practical."
"But what possible good will come of such a deception?"
Mgeni smiled wryly. "The truth is just too strange to these people. How we travel now is too tempting. You can see it written on every face. Everywhere we go through these northern lands, all the way until we reach our own countries, white men look at us and see potential slaves. So, we'll pretend we are still slaves!"
"Do you want a battle every day from here all the way to the Isthmus, Incanus?" Kutumi said sharply.
"Of course not, but not everyone we've met has tried what those men did today!"
"Most of them would have, if they'd been bolder."
"Even if that's true, I still don't see what this ugly pretence will accomplish…"
"We took more clothing from the dead men today." Mgeni went on as if he hadn't heard. "You can wear your own trousers." The southern men had observed their guide's hidden garb on the rare days when they had found a stream secluded enough for bathing. "But you'll need an ordinary shirt, instead of that robe, to play your role correctly." He tossed an item of clothing he'd been carrying at the wizard's feet. "This one ought to fit you. Don't worry. Kira washed out the blood stains and boiled it to kill the lice."
Incanus stared at the homespun shirt. It was roughly made, with a row of buttons of bone down the front and shapeless sleeves. He thought of the finely tailored grey tunic he had left behind at Corli's farm. It was made of soft grey wool and was very comfortable. He wore it beneath his robe in the coldest months of winter. But as he hadn't planned to be on the road that long, he'd hung it on a peg by the door. He wished he'd packed it.
"I still don't see how this plan will be any less dangerous than the way we travel now. It wouldn't have stopped the ruffians we met today. Men like those are just thieves of one sort or another. They are either stealing your lives away from you directly, or think they're stealing from me. They'll still see two cartloads of people and only one apparent guard. What difference will it make?"
"Oh, it won't stop the worst of them. You'll still have to fight—with us at your side--when it comes to it," Kutumi said. "But it will make a difference, you'll see." He sneered. "Men are men, Incanus, dark or light skinned. Most are lazy bastards, only willing to put out so much effort. Two cartloads of savages free for the taking is mighty tempting to even the laziest, especially to those white skins who object to the very idea of free dark skins in the first place. But two cartloads full of someone else's property, not for sale and guarded by a vicious slaver is something else entirely."
The wizard sniffed. "I see. And I suppose your plan calls for me to act the part of that slaver."
"Who else? Your other choice is to provoke a confrontation with everyone we meet from here to the Sea." Kutumi's tone was harsh. "Maybe you don't care about your own skin. But how many more of us will die because of your stubborn insistence on telling the truth? How many more murders will it mean, Incanus? Eleven—not counting Ahmed--have already been killed, and the journey's not half over."
Mgeni looked on anxiously as Incanus scowled fiercely and Kutumi glared right back at him. How did Kutumi dare speak like that to a sorcerer, even one who wasn't invincible? Mgeni shook his head. Kutumi was bold, he had to give him that. Maybe there was something to the legends about these fearless herdsmen, these lion-killers.
"You must understand, Incanus. The men are frightened. No one blames you for the trouble." Kutumi's voice was low. "But there have been three attacks, three! It is a bad omen!"
"Omens and superstitions!" the wizard scoffed. "Do I travel with children, frightened by bad dreams in the night?"
"Those men who attacked us were no dream!" Kutumi shouted. "Things are getting worse, and something has got to change!"
The men had argued fiercely all evening. The sight of blood on their guide's skin had deeply shocked some, angered others. For if the sorcerer could bleed, surely he could die, and then where would they be, alone in this hostile northern wilderness? Responsibility was laid on Mobasu, for cutting off the sorcerer's hair and robbing him of his powers, or on Kutumi, for asking the barber to do it. Many blamed Incanus himself, for having tricked them into this difficult and dangerous journey. The heated discussion had nearly come to blows before they could all agree to the plan.
What else could they do? Kutumi thought. He sneered at the superstitions of the others, and reminded them of the alternative to their dangerous journey. But he agreed that more fights meant more of a chance that their guide might be killed, and if their guide was dead, they had little chance in such a large group. They needed him to stay alive and well, and Kutumi was willing to play this hideous game if it might help.
Incanus stared at the ground. This ugly play-acting felt totally wrong. It went against every fiber of his nature. He would refuse. Then suddenly their intentions were utterly clear. His eyes widened as he looked at Kutumi.
"This is for my protection, isn't it? You do this for me, because I…"
"We do what we must to get home." Kutumi gazed directly into the wizard's eyes. "And to get home together, we need you alive."
Mgeni spoke. "You have no choice, Incanus. Half of us are ready to go off on our own if you don't agree to the plan. The rest will leave soon enough, and you'll be alone with five children and most of the women. And still the thieves will come. You'll have to stay awake and on guard for the rest of the way by yourself."
Incanus closed his eyes, seeing the travelers walking alone, or by twos and threes, afraid to use the road, lost, and hungry. The image of horsemen surrounding and roping them together appeared in his mind. He saw them sold at another market, heard them cry out as the whips were used. He saw Kutumi and Mgeni fall, their throats cut as they struggled against more marauding riders. He felt his own failure as he rode endlessly, searching in vain for a trace of Nod, or Farased--or Nelika.
His imagination was sometimes his enemy. He could always envision the worst. He rubbed his forehead. Perhaps something had to change. And what other change could they make? He'd already tried every reasonable option and his every effort had been thwarted. Maybe he should consider this offensive idea.
"Very well," Incanus said slowly. "I'll try your plan. But at the first sign it isn't working…"
"It will work," Kutumi interrupted. "Now there are a few more things to complete your costume. You've shown us how you wield a sword. You must continue to carry it."
Mgeni spoke. "We managed to salvage this scabbard for you." He produced a sheath, blackened in a few spots, which they had repaired with strips of leather. Mobasu had offered to hone the wizard's new weapon to razor-sharpness.
"And then there's this. You must carry it, and learn to use it like an expert." Kutumi held out a whip. "We picked it up after the first battle. You plucked it out of that ugly brute's hand, the one from Arlindon. We've removed all the bits of nail the evil bastard had woven into it. Every slaver in the world uses a whip. Take it."
The wizard took the thing into his hands with a look of revulsion.
"I imagine you have a suggestion as to how I become expert in using this?"
"Practice. There's a moon tonight. Practice knocking leaves from a tree while the light holds. Think of someone you despise. Think of your worst enemy. Pretend you're using this on him."
The grey eyes smoldered. "I would not use this on anyone."
Mgeni sniffed. "There's no one you hate? What about him, the one who dropped it? I saw his face. He hated you. If things had gone otherwise, he wouldn't have hesitated to use it on you."
"Things did not go otherwise. But even he--I would not use this on him."
As he fingered the heavy rawhide he wondered, if with such a thing I could defeat Sauron, would I use it? And in doing so, would I not become just like him?
Mgeni did not believe that a man would refuse to avenge himself against scum like Jarek. This Incanus became more confounding by the day. If he wasn't as powerful a sorcerer as they thought, then he must be more of a man. But what sort of man was he? First those bizarre notions about females, and now this! One minute he was as soft as an old woman, and the next, as hard as granite.
Kutumi wondered the same, but he was pragmatic. They had to make the best of the situation. Incanus wasn't a coward. They'd seen ample evidence of that. Otherwise, he didn't behave like any man they knew. But there was no one else.
"All right, don't worry about practicing. Just memorize your lie until you can say it in your sleep. The next time we encounter a curious northerner who wants to buy a few slaves from your two overloaded wagons, stick with the story that Yellow Hair guessed. You're taking us south because you couldn't sell us up north. And you couldn't sell us because…because we're all troublemakers. Say that no one could control us. And threaten us with that whip to prove it."
Incanus clenched the whip. "Then I'd best learn to be accurate with it. I don't think I could bear it if I actually struck one of you."
The two men looked at each other. To the wizard's shock they both laughed.
"You're going to have to," Kutumi chuckled. "No one will believe the act if you don't. And besides, it's impossible not to. No matter how skilled you become, you'll hit someone."
"Don't be so worried. We all have scars. A few more won't matter. See?" Mgeni turned and lifted his tunic. His back was crisscrossed with raised shiny lines. "Morgo gave me those with his own hand," he muttered.
They stopped at the look of horror on Incanus' face.
"But…but what if I hit one of the children, or the women?" he whispered.
Kutumi pitied him. His heart was too soft. What kind of sorcerer could call down the wind and command fire, and yet dread to scratch the skin of a slave? He would have to speak to Nelika about this. She was wise about strange things.
"Aim for my shoulders, Incanus. That way you won't hit one of the others."
Mgeni nodded. "Or for me. Let us come between you and the others. That way fewer will be hurt."
Without another word, Incanus rose and walked into the night, holding the whip. In a few minutes they heard a whine and a crack. He practiced until the moon set. No one saw him return to camp.
Kutumi had numbered the days on the long road north when he and Nelika had been taken captive and sold at one auction after another. They'd been locked up in one place, moved, then locked up again. He had counted only those days when they were actually in motion. He would never forget the figure: one hundred and seventy-four. On the return trip they were traveling faster without stops or detours. As of this morning they had been on the road for eighty-two days. They were at least half the way home!
Kutumi smiled at the sunburned and sweat-streaked face of the man astride Rubeo, riding between the wagons. With shorn hair, a beardless face and in his costume of tunic and trousers, he looked like an entirely different person.
"You have to admit it, Incanus. We've had far less trouble since you took on your new role."
Incanus looked straight ahead and didn't return the smile. Kutumi noted it and frowned. He still had a hard time understanding this northerner. And he knew, even as he thought it, that his being a northerner had little to do with it. Incanus was like no one he had ever met. And this journey was the oddest one he had ever taken.
Incanus was thinking the same thing. He had never been on a journey so peculiar. Maybe the plan had been right. Maybe the rumor had passed along the road about the ferocity of the savages and the white man who rode with them. Perhaps it was merely luck. But no one challenged them, though they still met other travelers nearly every day. Sneering questions were still asked, and they still encountered unfriendly stares. But once the new "facts" were established—heading south to market in Umbar, on the coast; too unruly to sell up north--it never went any farther than stares.
As weeks passed and many miles were covered, the wizard withdrew more and more into himself. He'd expected every imaginable risk. He had anticipated many struggles, one battle after another. He never suspected that this journey would instead become a choice between an endless battle, placing himself and others at risk, and a long foul masquerade. The struggle changed into one entirely within his heart.
How could he untangle the many choices that had brought him to this time and place? Choice after choice, age upon age, as far back as time had been counted and beyond time itself: to speak up, or be silent; to stand with what he believed to be right, or play it safe and side with strength; to attempt to thwart what seemed wrong, however unlikely success, or retreat and concede defeat. All too often the choice was between his comfort and the needs of others, between safety and peril. Why, he wondered, why did he come to such crossroads, again and again? Why was it always he? He heard Corli's voice, asking the same thing. Why? Why must it be you? And his own words echoed. I was sent to try to help turn the tide toward better ways. But he had not chosen to be sent. He had not asked for this—for any of it.
Almost every day he was forced to play a role he despised. He had to lie convincingly and repeatedly. He had to use the whip again and again. Kutumi and Mgeni were right. He could not avoid striking the people in the wagons. But almost worse, he could not flinch from the sight of a red raised wheal that he had caused with his own hands. He could not avert his face from the tears that started in Nod's eyes the day he accidentally hit the boy. And he certainly couldn't allow the slightest emotion to show in his own eyes. He had to continue the pretense, shout harshly in a voice he never dreamed he could use. He felt the softness of his heart hardening behind a wall of scar.
When they camped, he stayed out of sight as much as possible, and out of the range of firelight and hearing. It caused him more grief to swing wildly back and forth between one sort of person and another. He tried for a while to be his old self at night when they hid away from the road, and play the brutal slaver during the day. He couldn't bear it for long. It was safer to build a barrier between him and the others. The less he knew of them and their ways, the easier it would be to carry on the vicious act, to pretend to despise them on their behalf.
He wondered whether the others understood. Was it genuine terror he saw in their eyes now when they looked up at him from the wagons? Did he glimpse hatred in their faces? Perhaps they thought that all white-skinned men, given a whip and a taste of power, would revert to evil. He didn't have the heart to ask. He just kept silent and as far away as he could. The only hint that they felt anything but fear toward him was the presence every night of two men on guard nearby. Had they'd drawn lots for it after all, now that they'd discovered his mortality? Or were they setting a guard against him? He did not know, for the men never spoke to him. Hardly anyone spoke to him anymore.
He longed for the journey to be over. He thought of Corli often. Soon, he thought, soon he would be able to turn north and go to her. But a small part of him worried. How much had he been changed by this? What if he was now a different man—a different being—and a harsher one? The role became easier to play every day. He was becoming used to lying. Ugly words flew from his lips. He found himself taking less care with the whip, hardly noticing when he flicked someone on the shoulder or across the back. Would Corli see how he had changed? Would she hate him for it?
Everything about this life was different, it seemed. He was forced into too many new things. He disliked the new routine of shaving, though he continued it—with a razor that he carefully honed himself--to give Corli a surprise when he returned to her. But the flimsy homespun shirt was too snug across his shoulders, and the sleeves were too short. And in his opinion, his breeches, though well-made and well-fitting, were meant to be hidden; he felt revealed without his loose-fitting robe. He missed the peace of the farm, and Corli's bed, her hair that smelled like sweet herbs. He missed playing with Nod. He missed laughter.
But there was nothing to be done but to endure it. There were always choices, he knew. Every life, whether the brief flickering of mortal existence, or the long eternity of the Ainur, was filled with such choices. Most had not the sight or the wit to recognize them when they came. Be grateful that you have been granted eyes to see, and a heart with which to judge, he told himself.
Snow topped mountains floated low on the western horizon, but they were still far distant. They could not take the most direct route to the main roads to the south. Between them and those distant peaks was the site of a battle at the end of the last age, when the enemy he sought was overthrown but not destroyed. The land had become a lifeless desert of ash and vast plains of cracked mud, bordered by treacherous marshes. One hardy traveler alone might pass through, but wagons would sink and founder, or those who rode in them would die of thirst. They had to go around, far south and then west. They still had a long way to go.
Playlist Navigation Bar