The Old Grey Wizard
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The Kindness of Strangers: 16. Lord of Thieves
Lord of Thieves
September 18th, IIIrd Age. Two hours after Midnight.
The greybeard seemed unusually restless. Coräc gazed down from his high perch as he paced endlessly. The man muttered to himself, glancing often toward the southeast, his face in a scowl as he stared into the gloom.
He stopped and pulled his heavy cloak more tightly about his shoulders. The bird saw him shiver. Indeed, it was quite cold tonight. And though ravens are not bothered much by weather, however miserable, Coräc felt a shudder pass through him.
"They are near," the man said quietly. "I feel them."
"Who?" the raven asked.
"The Nazgûl," the wizard replied. "It is their fell chill we feel. The Nine cannot be far away now."
At once, it seemed that the night was filled with ravens calling in alarm. Kruk came out of the darkness, croaking loudly throughout the final quarter mile as he approached the Tower. His calls were torn away by the gusting wind. In the cloud-scuttled moonlight, Coräc could see by the pattern of his flight that his lieutenant was excited, but he couldn't understand anything Kruk was shouting.
"Can't hear a thing he's saying, can you?" Morigian asked her husband.
Coräc shook his glossy head. "Not a word of it. Whatever he's got to say, it will have to wait until he lands. This wind covers every sound." He peered toward the peaks, from whence came the frigid wind. Suddenly he too began shouting.
"Sound the alarm! Formation! Defense! Defense!"
A dozen ravens took off and began circling around the pinnacle. At nearly the same moment, Kruk landed too fast and skidded across the polished floor of the platform. The old raven tumbled head over tail for three somersaults and was about to pitch off the edge of the Tower when the old man reached down and caught him.
"There, there, my dear Kruk," the wizard said. In the last days the human had learned the proper way to pick up a raven without unduly ruffling its feathers—by its feet, strangely enough*. "Let me give you a hand." With a swift movement, he clasped Kruk's claws, cupped and lightly folded his wings and swept the bird up, allowing him to flap freely and right himself. Of all the birds, Coräc thought, only Lieutenant Kruk, Lady Morigian and his feisty eldest daughter Anann—so like her mother—were foolish enough to perch on the man's wrist or shoulder. Kruk hopped backward onto the wizard's outstretched arm as soon as Gandalf released his claws.
"Grey One," Kruk croaked, "Dire news, I fear. The Riders in Black have appeared! They are near. They will be here very soon."
"And dire and dire is my news, Gandalf!" Corac cried in agitation from where he had landed at the wizard's feet. "A great Eagle comes, from the mountains! Even now, he approaches! Ah, this is desperate, enemies approach from all sides!"
"From all sides?" Gandalf said. "But Eagles are not enemies!"
"They are to us," Coräc said angrily. The Raven Lord hopped about on the polished stone. "Eagles are brutes who steal anything from anyone, even from a nesting mother…"
Morigian circled about the old man's head and called insistently. "Let me land, Gandalf!" she cried. The greybeard quickly removed his wide-brimmed hat and tossed it to the floor. She dropped onto his right shoulder. "A few years back, a raiding Eagle chased me off the nest on which I sat brooding, and stole our eggs," she explained.
"They are evil, ugly bullies!" shouted Coräc.
"And they're as thick-headed as they are huge," Kruk snapped. "Lazy and arrogant creatures. Think they're more important than the other feathered kelvar, simply because they are the biggest ruffians in the sky!"
"Why, ask anyone—ask the osprey, or the fishing heron, or ask the wolf, or the bear—all who have had their hard-earned food stolen from them by Eagles!" Coräc croaked angrily. "They'll tell you the same: Eagles are golden-eyed, oversized thieves!"
To Coräc's annoyance, the old man burst out laughing. "Yes, I suppose you are right! And yet, I must point out one irrefutable fact: if Eagles are thieves, then so also are ravens, my friends!"
Kruk croaked indignantly and flew away at once. Coräc leapt into the air and began flapping in tight circles about the wizard's head.
"Take it back!" he cried. "It is a lie, a lie!"
"Ah, would the wolves agree, Lord Coräc?" Gandalf chuckled, as he ducked his head. "Or the farmer, whose stacks of ripened grain look so tempting after harvest?"
"That's different!" Coräc shouted as he landed again. "We do what we must to survive!" The Raven Lord flapped angrily. "Morigian, come away from there! Leave that old liar's shoulder at once! I knew humans were not to be trusted!"
But the Raven Lady stayed where she was perched, although her husband noted in satisfaction that she dug her claws into the man's shoulder until he winced.
"He is impertinent, I agree. But he does not lie," she croaked. "We are thieves, of course." Coräc snorted; but ravens are truthful creatures, and he had to admit she was right. "But the difference is that Eagles have great talons, and enormous sharp beaks. They can hunt, and rather well," Morigian went on as Coräc and Kruk nodded in agreement. "They could hunt all the time, but they most often choose the lazy way…the bully's way, and steal instead!"
Gandalf frowned thoughtfully. "I had not thought of it that way, my Lady," he mused. "From your point of view, Eagles are hardly admirable creatures. But I have always been a friend of Eagles. I once helped an injured Eagle, and he in his turn saved my life. Whether anyone is a friend or an enemy is a matter of perspective. Since this Eagle seems to be coming to visit, I would appreciate it, as my friends, if you would treat him courteously."
Coräc eyed the greybeard fiercely. "I must point out that you might not be the best judge of who is a friend and who is not, Gandalf! Need I remind you that you believed the White Bearded Wizard was your friend until he proved himself such an enemy that he nearly murdered you!"
The old man glared down at the bird at his feet. "I beg your pardon, Coräc, but you are quite mistaken. Saruman did not nearly murder me. I was far from dead…"
"Oh, really!" Coräc huffed. "That isn't how I remember it…"
"Then your memory is faulty…"
"Stop it, you two," Morigian snapped. "Cease your silly arguing! Listen, and look to the north!"
They stopped talking and listened. The night was filled with the sound of raucous croaking and cawing as the sky filled with ravens flocking in from all directions. A huge winged silhouette soared in front of a moonlit cloud, and all about the figure were much smaller flecks, circling, spinning, and diving. The Eagle was coming, and the Raven Clan of Isen was doing its best to drive him off.
"Coräc!" Gandalf cried. "Please, tell your people to stop! This Eagle is coming to speak to me, I am certain of it. I promise, he will not harm any of you. Let him pass!"
Kruk flapped back and circled once around the wizard before he landed again upon Gandalf's forearm. "Say nothing, Lord Coräc. Your people will rebel if you ask them to stop. Grey One, it is in the nature of a raven to harass an Eagle, and no clan leader can interfere," he croaked solemnly. "Besides, if this is truly an Eagle of the High Peaks, nothing we can do will stop him. If he wishes to come to the pinnacle of Orthanc, no ravens, however determined, can prevent it."
"You speak the truth, Kruk," Morigian said. "And see? Even now, he comes."
The moonlight was cut off by a soaring shadow that circled about the Tower twice. The wind suddenly increased. With a great whooshing noise, the great Eagle flapped his enormous wings and extended his huge talons. The ravens screamed and flew away in fear: all, save one. Morigian, Lady of the Raven Clan of Isen, held her place on the greybeard's shoulder. Even the man stepped back, out of the reach of those razor-sharp talons. Morigian clutched him tightly, and pressed herself down onto the old man's shoulder so that she would not be blown loose.
The Eagle's feet skidded and splayed out clumsily on the stone floor as he landed. His great claws were made to clutch a heavy branch of wood, or to tear and grasp his prey, not for standing on a slippery structure made smooth by human hands. He flapped twice more to gain his balance, and the wind from his wings was so strong that the greybeard was pushed backward another step, and his raven companion had to flap her own wings to keep her place. Then the Eagle folded his huge wings halfway, unwilling, it seemed, to allow himself to be completely at his ease in this strange place. He turned his great yellow eyes toward the man.
"I am Gwaihir, Lord of the Wind," he screeched in his own tongue. "I come with news, on behalf of Radagast Bird-Friend. Who are you, old human?" He glared suspiciously at the raven on the man's shoulder.
Morigian raised her wings in anger. "Lord of the Wind, indeed!" she hissed in her own language. "Typical arrogant Haliaen!" The man reached up and lightly touched the side of her ruffled neck.
"Please, my Lady," he said Corvidian. "Give me a chance to speak."
Morigian dug in her claws again, but she folded her wings.
The old man bowed his head solemnly toward the Eagle. He had to look up to meet the creature's eye, for the great Eagles of the Misty Mountains stood taller than the Mearas of Rohan, and their likeness has not been seen in Arda in many an age. "Well met, Lord Gwaihir," he said politely in Aquilish, the tongue of Mountain Eagles. "I bid you welcome, and many thanks for troubling to make this long and difficult journey. I am called Gandalf the Grey. I am, I believe, he to whom my friend Radagast requested that you deliver your news." He bowed again, more deeply.
"I was asked to seek for one named Gandalf, but also for another, known as Saruman the White. Where is he, that I may deliver my news to both at once, and be gone from this uncomfortable place?"
Gandalf pulled in a breath to speak. Morigian, who like most ravens understood the common dialects of men, Eagles, wolves and bears, as a means of defense against their rivals and foes, dug a sharp warning with her claws. "Have a care, Gandalf," she whispered. "Why does he mention the name of your enemy? You do not know whether you can trust this Eagle!"
Gandalf glanced at her sharply before he spoke. "Saruman is within the Tower," he said carefully. "If you are willing to deliver your news to me, I assure you that anything he should know will be passed along, when I next have an opportunity to speak to him."
Gwaihir's black pupils widened within his great yellow eyes as he stared at the man. "So—Saruman the White will not come to this high place?"
The ghost of a grim smile flashed across Gandalf's face. "No, I do not believe he will be joining us tonight."
"You are hiding something, old man," the Eagle said warily. "How can I be certain that you are the real Gandalf the Grey, the one who is known to my people?"
Before Gandalf could respond, Morigian leaned forward and croaked in Aquilish. "How dare you doubt this one, Eagle! Your eyes may be farsighted, but there is much you cannot see close at hand!"
"And who are you, puny blackbird?" Gwaihir said haughtily. "Why should I listen to the coarse voice of an ugly little scavenger?" At that, Morigian made ready to take off and attack the great creature.
"Wait, wait!" the wizard interrupted. "I believe I can prove my identity to your satisfaction, Gwaihir."
"You shouldn't have to prove anything to this oversized thug, Gandalf!" Morigian snapped. Gwaihir snarled and raised his great wings in response.
"I beg you both, put your enmity aside, for my sake…for I consider both ravens and Eagles to be my friends," Gandalf said. "Lord Gwaihir, if I am not mistaken, your uncle on your mother's side was the great Arathoron, the Lord of the Northern Clan of Eagles. Did not Arathoron rescue one wizard, thirteen dwarves and a hobbit from marauding Orcs and Wargs, and later lead his people to victory in the Battle of the Five Armies at Erebor, some seven or eight decades ago?"
"Such are the facts of history," Gwaihir said. "But these events are no secret. This proves nothing…"
"True enough, but what is not widely known is how Arathoron came to be a friend of that particular wizard," Gandalf said with a smile and a polite bow. "I found your uncle, furious and embarrassed, with one talon ensnared in an iron trap designed to catch bear for their pelts. I released him and tended his injury. While he was healing from his wound, Arathoron admitted that such a foolish error was one only the youngest and least experienced Eagle should make. He swore me to secrecy, and I agreed, on the condition that he tell the tale to his kinfolk, so that they would not repeat his blunder."
Gwaihir seemed to relax a bit. "The tale is accurate, and something only a member of my closest kin, or the real Gandalf would know. I am glad you are he, for I very much wished to speak to the genuine Gandalf the Grey, and indeed, I preferred to speak to him without the other wizard present." His golden eyes narrowed. "I mean no disrespect toward the esteemed Radagast Bird-Friend, but when he asked me to deliver news to both you and Saruman, I admit I had doubts. Perhaps it is merely the cautious nature of my people in these evil times, but the Eagles of the Mountains have never trusted the White Wizard."
"Finally!" Morigian croaked in Corvidian. "He shows some sense. You see, Gandalf? Even an Eagle knows better than to trust the Cold White One…"
"You and your mate need not keep reminding me of how foolish I have been, my Lady," the wizard grunted in Corvidian. He went on in Aquilish. "Lord Gwaihir, I am glad we have cleared the air, for now I can be completely honest with you. Saruman the White, I am sorry to say, has allied himself with the Enemy of all free creatures. He has trapped me here in this high place, and holds me imprisoned."
"Indeed!" Gwaihir said. "It does not surprise me. The White Wizard has eyes of dead stone, and a heart, I deem, to match." He stretched his wings a bit before folding them more completely. "I will give you my news quickly, then." He pulled his huge head up and peered down imperiously. "My first news is this: I am told that the creature known as Gollum, who was held by the Green Elves of the Woodland Realm, has escaped. None know his whereabouts."
"Gollum has escaped!" Gandalf frowned. "That is ill news indeed. How could he possibly have eluded the watchfulness of the Elves? And where will he go next, I wonder?" he muttered.
"That I know not," Gwaihir said. "But I wonder why such an insignificant gangrel creature should concern you, Wizard. Surely such a famished wretch is no harm to anyone, save a small fish or two."
"Alas, if only that were true," Gandalf said. "He is much more dangerous than he appears. This is very troubling news, Gwaihir," he sighed. "What other grim tidings do you bring?"
"The Wraiths of the Dark Lord are abroad," the Eagle said. "Indeed, I saw them from afar, riding toward the northwestern frontier of Rohan. I believe that they are speeding toward this very place."
The Grey Wizard nodded. "Thank you for your warning, Gwaihir. I had already heard that those fell Riders were coming. Anything else?"
"All manner of evil creatures are gathering, from all corners of Middle Earth. The Mountains teem with Orcs and a new half-breed of Goblin-Men that can easily bear the Sun. Men from the South and the East are marching, and trolls have been seen in greater numbers than in many a century. The winds of war are blowing, Gandalf."
"Yes, and when the storm arrives I shall either be trapped here, or somewhere even worse," the greybeard whispered under his breath.
As the man and the Eagle were speaking, many of the ravens of the Isen Clan had silently returned to perch about on the pillars, or at the edges of the platform. Their black silhouettes were nearly invisible against the night sky. They watched and listened, unnoticed by anyone except Morigian. She caught her mate's eye as he peered down from the top of the southeastern spire. They nodded to one another.
"Well, that is the last of my news, Wizard. This Tower is a very uncomfortable place." He carefully shifted his weight from one talon to the other, and began to spread his great wings. "If there is nothing else, I will take my leave of you..."
Morigian stirred on his shoulder and was about to croak, when Gandalf spoke. "There is something you could do for me, Gwaihir. If you might consider… It would be a very great favor…" He let his voice fall to a low mutter. "Ah, no. Never mind. I suppose that would be too much to ask of you..."
"Speak up, old man," the Eagle grunted. "I can hardly hear you in this wind!"
Gandalf bowed again. "Well, there is one thing you certainly can do. If you could deliver news of my plight to Lord Elrond, in Rivendell, I would be grateful. There is, of course, nothing he, or anyone, can do to help me. But at least he should know of my fate, and he must be warned of Saruman's treachery…"
"More messages!" the Eagle grumbled. "What am I, a Lord of Eagles, or a pigeon?"
"…And as for the other favor I mentioned, I should not have brought it up, Lord Gwaihir, I am sure it is impossible. After all, you are not nearly as large an Eagle as was your mother's brother, the great Arathoron…"
"Will you cease your confounded mumbling and speak clearly? What other errand are you attempting to ask of me?"
Gandalf frowned and shook his head. "I beg your pardon, Lord Gwaihir, do not give it another thought. It would be impractical… Given the significant difference in your size compared to that of your famed uncle, I must presume that your strength would be insufficient…" On his shoulder, the Raven Lady was snickering softly in his ear.
"I'll have you know that my uncle Arathoron was merely taller," Gwaihir said heatedly, as he stretched his neck up proudly. "He was most definitely not stronger than I am! Now I insist, Gandalf the Grey, you must tell me what you are hiding from me!"
The wizard opened his mouth to speak. But Coräc's patience had run out. The Raven Lord flapped angrily in a circle about the heads of the Eagle and the Wizard. "Listen, you oversized sparrow!" he shouted in Aquilish. "How foolish are you? Can you not put two and two together?"
Gwaihir reared up in fury. "Insolent crebain!" he snarled, as he snapped his great beak at the raven circling him.
Gandalf groaned and raised his hands in protest. "Wait! Stop! Coräc, I beg you, let him be! Gwaihir, stay your attack!"
The Eagle Lord screeched and hissed as dozens of the Raven Clan of Isen began mobbing him. The air about the Tower was full of flapping black wings, taunting raven croaks, and responding Eagle clacks and screeches.
"Bumble-Footed Feather Brain!"
"Foul-tongued Kin of Crebain!"
"Lord of Thieves!"
"Coal-Dusted Carrion Eaters!"
Suddenly, the night was shattered by a blinding flash of light as Gandalf the Grey slammed the end of his staff down onto the platform.
"Stop!" he shouted in a great voice. "All of you, cease this ridiculous nonsense!"
The mobbing ravens and the Eagle were shocked into silence. Gwaihir reared back, his mighty wings raised in alarm and his great golden eyes staring wildly. The ravens circled twice before gathering again in threes and fours upon the pillars, and lining up by the dozens along the edges of the platform.
Gandalf swept his gaze about in a circle. "I expected more wisdom from kelvari," he snapped. "You are as bad as a pack of bickering Elves and Dwarves! Can you not see, my friends, that your arguing amongst yourselves only serves the needs of the Enemy of all of us?"
Morigian, who had remained perched on the wizard's shoulder through all of it, spoke in a subdued croak. "It is difficult for us to overcome our natural tendencies, Gandalf. But these are perilous times, and the Isen Clan swore to do what we could in the struggle against the Darkness. Ravens do not go back on their word." The Lady Raven tilted her head and turned one gleaming black eye toward the Eagle. "Well, Gwaihir? Will you help him, as we have?" she said.
"What sort of aide could these…these ravens have given you, Gandalf?" Gwaihir said skeptically.
Low muttering croaks came from around the encircling ravens. But the old man stepped forward and spoke in a clear voice that all could hear, despite the sudden gusts of icy wind.
"You mean, what sort of aid have these noble and generous creatures, the Ravens of the Isen Clan, given to me? I will tell you what they have done, Lord Gwaihir. They offered me friendship when I was alone. They provided me with water when I had none, and food when I was in desperate need of it. They have guarded me and kept watch with me as my enemies draw near." The murmur of hoarse voices grew louder, and dozens of glossy black heads nodded in approval. "They have, in short, done everything within their power to aide me."
As Gwaihir glanced around, one raven took off from his perch atop the southeastern spire and circled above. Coräc banked his turn, spiraled downward, and lightly landed on Gandalf's left shoulder.
"The only question that remains," the Raven Lord said, "Is will you help him, in the way that only a great Eagle can? Will you bear him away from here?"
Gwaihir pulled his great shoulders back and stared haughtily. "I am the Windlord! I agreed to bear messages at the behest of Radagast Bird-Friend, who is revered by my people. But to play beast of burden to a mere human! That would be beneath my station!"
Coräc fumed. "Now look, Lord of Th…" Gandalf directed a piercing glance of warning at him. "I mean, Lord of the Wind. You know as well as I do that this is no mere human! And if he does not escape from here, and very soon, do you realize what is likely to happen to him? Do you not yet understand?"
Kruk soared in a circle overhead, his deep rough croaks echoing. "They have arrived," he said gravely. "The Nine are here."
Accompanied by several dozen ravens, hopping, flapping and silently soaring, Gandalf walked to the edge of the roof and peered downward. The two ravens on his shoulders leaned forward and gazed down with him.
Far below, as shadows moving in deeper shadow, a line of black Riders on black steeds cantered from the gate toward the base of the Tower. A beam of yellow light streamed outward from the great door of Orthanc. Their hideous voices drifted up from the valley floor. Every being on the top of the Tower shuddered in dread at their penetrating, evil wails.
Morigian bowed her head, huddled against the side of the old man's neck and sighed sadly. "I am sorry, Gandalf," she whispered.
"You have absolutely no need to apologize to me, my Lady," he replied softly. "You and your people have done everything you could. You have been the very best of friends to me, and I shall never forget you." He turned away from the precipice and strode to the center of the platform. "Lord Gwaihir, seventy-seven years ago, your famed uncle plucked me from the top of a flaming tree. Had he hesitated one moment more, I would have either been burned alive, or I would have leapt down into a battle with hundreds of Orcs that would have undoubtedly ended in my death. Tonight, only minutes remain before the Nine Ringwraiths come to this platform, with the intention of taking me with them to Barad-dûr. And so I ask: can you bear me away from here? Can you take me to safety, although it might be a bit beneath your dignity to do so?"
The great Eagle looked about at all the silent, encircling black eyes. His huge head swiveled back and forth as he considered his response. Finally his yellow gaze settled on the wizard.
"Oh, very well..." he grumbled. "But I don't see why you didn't just come out and ask me in the first place!"
Kruk called loudly. "You had better hurry," he said. "The light has gone out. I believe the great door to the Tower has been shut. They are coming!"
Gandalf reached up to lightly stroke the feathers of the birds perched on his shoulders—first Morigian, then Coräc.
"The deeds of the Raven Clan of Isen and their noble Lord and Lady shall long be remembered! Lady Morigian, you are the wisest, cleverest creature of the air I have ever met. And Lord Coräc, you have a courageous and stalwart heart. You are the finest friends I could ask for. Until we meet again, upon the other side of the perilous days before us, my deepest thanks! May Manwë's breath lift you toward the Sun, and may your magnificent black feathers shine for many years to come. Farewell!"
The Lord and his Lady sprang away from his shoulders and took to the air. All the ravens were soon aloft and circling the Tower. Coräc looked down and watched as the greybeard placed his hat firmly on his head and climbed atop the Eagle's broad back. He tucked his staff beneath one arm and clung firmly to the great bird's wing.
"Here now--don't pinch," Gwaihir screeched, and with a tremendous spring of his thick legs, the Lord of the Wind took off.
Gwaihir and his passenger soared upward, quickly gaining speed and height. The clouds shifted, and the great Eagle's broad wings and wide tail of dark golden feathers gleamed. All around him, circling, spinning and croaking with glee, were the Ravens of the Isen Clan, their glossy black feathers sparking like flakes of moonlight. But this time they were not mobbing an enemy, but escorting a friend.
* * *
A/N: I learned how to pick up a flailing bird by volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center.
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