The Old Grey Wizard
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A Mortal Life: 15. News From The Sky
Chapter 14 News From The Sky
Ridges of bare, grey hills now blocked the travelers' view of the snow-capped peaks. They were heading directly south, but were still many miles east of the road they sought. They must find that main road, for the seas curved in on both sides and the only way to cross into the south lands was over a broad isthmus. The old road, built by the great Kings of Men, was the surest route--other than the sea itself--for thousands of miles.
The wizard was guiding them around the now abandoned but still dreadful country that the Enemy had occupied before his defeat. The southerners knew only vague rumors of Sauron, and Incanus was not interested in telling them sad and evil tales from the past. Their current troubles were bad enough.
At least one good thing had come of their passing into this barren land, known in later days as Khand: they met few other travelers. Days passed between the hateful encounters when he would be forced to pretend to be someone he loathed. He began to release some of the tightness that was constricting his soul. He began to feel his heart loosening.
One night he appeared at a fire they had built for the night. Nod was laughing and playing with one of the other children, now his fast friend. The boy looked up and saw his rescuer smiling gently from the edge of the light.
"Grey Man!" the boy cried. "You're back!"
He ran to the wizard and threw his arms about his legs.
"I'm back, Nod."
He picked the boy up and placed him on his shoulders. The man laughed for the first time in many days as Nod grabbed two fistfuls of his hair and hung on tight.
"Ouch! There may be less of it, but that still smarts, Nod!"
The boy let go of his hair, wrapped his arms about the man's neck and giggled.
"Take me for a ride!"
"You'll soon be too big for this."
"Never!" the child called, parading on his hero's shoulders.
"Nod," he said hesitantly, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry I hit you that day."
"Huh? Oh, that! It was nothin'. I didn't even feel it," the boy boasted.
He remembered otherwise. But the boy was learning to emulate the grown men. They took great pride in their ability to mask their emotions. He reached up and squeezed Nod's hand. When the child was satisfied with his ride they returned to camp. Nod dragged him to a different campfire.
"Come, be with us tonight. Suli's the best cook in all the world!"
Nod had been taken in as Farased's adopted son. Suli, fully healed from her wound, was now near to the term of her pregnancy. She smiled and blushed as Farased made room for their honored guest. He enjoyed the best meal he'd eaten since he left Corli's house, and that night he slept by a fire for the first time in weeks.
The next day as they broke camp and made ready to begin their day's journey, Kutumi approached the wizard with Nelika at his side. Kutumi bowed deeply.
"Incanus, I hear you have come back into camp. I am glad. We would be honored if you would stay at our fire tonight."
The wizard had forgotten how tall and noble Kutumi appeared, even dressed, as he was, in ill-fitting rags. He had been avoiding all contact with the handsome herdsman, and more to the point, with his wife. She had a regal bearing that belied her threadbare brown skirt and patched blouse. Incanus bowed formally in return.
"I would be most pleased, Kutumi. Nelika, thank you in advance for your trouble."
"No trouble, Incanus," she said, a small smile on her face. Her eyes caught his; she looked down bashfully and blushed. Incanus frowned slightly. Such coy behavior seemed uncharacteristic for the headstrong healing woman.
Nelika looked up. The demure look was gone. Had he only imagined it?
"You were at Farased's fire last evening," she said. "As you have seen, Suli is far along. When she comes due, we must stop our travels and wait for her lying in."
"Yes, of course," he said. "When will it be?"
"I can't say exactly, but very soon. Perhaps tomorrow. I'll let you know the minute she gives us the signs." Her eyes flashed at him again; this time she did not look away. "Until tonight, then, Incanus."
Suddenly he recalled how she had leaned against him, cradling his injured hand. His arm had pressed into the soft, warm curve of her breast. He shifted uncomfortably at the memory. Nelika seemed to glance down the length of him with a knowing smirk that she did nothing to conceal. He felt his face heat up. But he must be mistaken, for Kutumi, who apparently watched the entire scene, was smiling and nodding. Get hold of yourself! the wizard said to himself.
"Until tonight," he muttered. He inclined his head and left.
As Rubeo trotted along the hard-packed dirt road, Incanus tried to think of anything except the evening and night he must spend with Kutumi and Nelika. What a fool he'd been! Why had he not thought more swiftly, and politely declined their invitation? He tried to invent an excuse, but his mind didn't work that way. He could think of nothing that sounded remotely plausible, and a flimsy deception would insult the proud warrior and his prouder spouse. Riding was a constant irritation. He felt like flint sparking against a saddle made of stone. The day seemed endless--but at the same time it was passing all too quickly.
As the sun began to sink behind the dun-colored range to their west, the wizard caught something out of the corner of his eye that took his mind at once from the evening to come. He gazed directly into the sky. A wheeling speck circled above. He rode up beside the first wagon, where Farased was driving.
"Go ahead, Farased. I'll be back shortly."
He spurred Rubeo and galloped onward, then left the path and began to climb into the dusty hills. Farased watched. He saw Incanus reach the top of a ridge and dismount. He raised his arms and held the staff high. A dark fragment fell with startling speed, growing larger by the second, followed by a shrieking call. Farased could hardly believe his eyes.
"Look, Kutumi, a falcon! A falcon dove on him from above! See?"
Kutumi shielded his eyes against the setting sun. "Yes, the bird perches on his hand. Now it flies again, swiftly away!"
"He can tame the birds of the air as well as the wind! He is a powerful sorcerer, indeed," Nelika whispered from where she sat behind Kutumi. "We've chosen well."
"Will he understand, do you think? Their ways are strange, these northerners. Will he understand the honor he would do us?" Kutumi muttered.
Nelika smiled slyly. "We'll help him understand. Your own father did the same thing. Tell him the story, and I'll explain in my own way."
Kutumi looked at her and slowly grinned. "You're enjoying this, aren't you? I'm lucky we haven't met other men like him before."
Nelika pinched him in the arm and giggled. "You're very lucky, husband. You don't know how lucky you are."
The sound of hoof beats interrupted their conversation. Incanus raced toward them. His face was twisted with barely suppressed emotion. The others stared. They had never seen a look like that on his face before.
"What's wrong?" Farased said as the wizard approached.
"News--I've had news. It isn't good." His chest heaved. He clenched his teeth and his knuckles were white from gripping the reins. "I need your help, all of you."
He slid from the saddle and leaned on Rubeo's flank as if suddenly exhausted.
"What is it, Incanus? What news?"
"How can we help?"
They jumped down from the wagons and gathered around him.
"Corli is in danger. The falcon brought word, and the news is four or five days old. I must go back at once..."
Kutumi cried out. "Go back! But…but we're hundreds of miles from Corli! This is terrible news, but what good can you do? You won't reach her for weeks, even if you ride day and night..."
"You do not understand. I will be there tonight."
Farased looked at Kutumi. Was he mad? What was he saying?
"What do you mean?"
"You must look after…look after…this." He held up his hands and gazed at them strangely, as if they were not his own. "Watch for three days. If I do not waken in that time, it will be over. Dispatch the remains as we did Ahmed's. Goodbye, my friends."
He glanced briefly at each of half-dozen faces that encircled him. Then he closed his eyes. He took in a deep breath and fell to the ground.
Kutumi, Farased and Nelika gasped together. The others pressed in around them. Nelika dropped to his side. She laid her ear to his chest and listened for a full minute while the others leaned forward. Then she sat up and rocked back and forth.
"He is gone! He is gone!" she wailed.
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