The Old Grey Wizard
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The Kindness of Strangers: 18. Last Gift
January 25th, 3019, IIIrd Age. Morning. Near the Peak of Zirak-Zigil.
Hrafn loved the high mountains. He had come from the egg in a nest his parents had built of gnarled sticks and tufts of sweet-scented lichen gleaned from the barren, high lands of everlasting winter where his family made their home. Few other creatures braved these frigid altitudes—voles, marmots, wooly sure-footed sheep and thick-coated goats, wandering packs of wolves and the rare and secretive mountain cat. A few bears slept each winter away up here, though most denned lower down. And an occasional Eagle would soar overhead, of course, although they did not nest at these heights. They left the thin bright air above the loftiest peaks to the ravens, and both were happier for the arrangement.
High on the side of the mountain the ravens named Shining Beak, strange sights had been seen for two days and nights: green and blue lightning, red flames, and billowing smoke. Loud thunderclaps and the echoes of deep voices could be heard for miles around. The creatures of the high mountains had been rather disturbed by all the unsettling commotion. Hrafn himself had been awakened very early this morning, before dawn, by a tremendous crashing noise echoing from Shining Beak and from the nearby mountain known as Red Tooth. The raven had startled awake and stared as a fireball seemed to fall and smash into the side of the mountain, then fall again, this time to plummet and disappear into a valley he knew was a thousand feet deep. The bottom of that narrow valley was filled with broken spires of rock, as sharp as spears. Whatever had fallen there had wailed and roared all the way down, and then the roaring had suddenly ceased. Hrafn had shivered and watched for a while; nothing more seemed to happen, except billows of ash floated upward in the pre-dawn darkness, obscuring the glinting stars. He closed his eyes, shifted on his perch, and slept peacefully until sunrise.
In the morning, Hrafn made note of a slowly rising plume of smoke and ash coming from the side of Shining Beak. He was determined to explore the source. He was an experienced raven, and knew to associate smoke with three things: fires ignited by lightning, the molten rocks that spewed forth from certain mountains, and humans. Where there were humans, there was often bloodshed, murderous creatures that men were. And if blood had been spilt, well, a raven's duty was to clean up the mess.
Hrafn flapped and glided in wide circles, his glossy black feathers sparkling in the brilliant sunlight. From his lofty vantage point the Misty Mountains looked like small wrinkles of grey and brown, covered with a blanket of pure white. A black, filmy spire wafted upward; something was slowly burning deep within the shadowed cleft between Shining Beak and Red Tooth. He could smell it: an acrid, poisonous stench, as though a dark ooze of rock oil had been set afire and was belching out its smudged smoke.
He wasn't much interested in whatever nasty thing was smoldering down there, but he was curious to see if he might discover what had happened to cause it. Down and down he spiraled, flapping once or twice then banking and gliding, all the while keeping his eye sharp for the sight of anything unusual.
There! That ledge, high on the shoulder of Shining Beak. The snow and ice was trampled and blackened, the rocks were tumbled and cracked… and the ledge was stained with great red blotches. He soared lower, avoiding the smoke billowing up from the valley below. Finally, Hrafn flapped and landed on a bare pointed rock that jutted out from the side of the mountain. He peered down at the ledge.
A man was sprawled on his back in the snow, near the sheer edge. Ravens are expert in judging whether a land borne creature is alive or dead. Their livelihood depends on making an accurate judgment, for to attempt to consume a living creature was not only dangerous, but could be rather unsettling. Hrafn could tell the man still lived, though he guessed that he would not have long to wait.
He took off and spiraled down to another rock, closer to where the man lay. Hrafn hadn't seen as many humans as his cousins farther south who lived in the valley of the Isen River, but he knew enough to see that this one was very old. Odd, that such an aged human would have wandered so high into the mountains. His hair and beard were long and grey…at least, what remained of his hair and beard. A goodly portion of the man's face and head were blackened, and amidst the swaths of black were cracks that glistened red. He seemed to be clothed all in grey, too… Well, again, what was left of his clothing was grey. Large sections of fabric had crumbled, and the exposed flesh beneath it alternated between oozing red and charred black. In fact, he looked as though he had fought a fire by diving head first into one, and that the fire had fought back with sharp claws.
The noises and flashes of the last days and nights seemed to have an explanation. Some sort of battle had occurred here, by men—if indeed this ruined creature was a man--whose chief weapons seemed to be fire, although why the battle had happened in this unlikely, bleak place, Hrafn could not guess. As in many battles between humans, only one opponent had survived; the loser was most likely the thing smoldering down in the valley below. This fellow—it was difficult to call him the victor, but that's apparently what he was--also had a sword, and by the looks of it he'd put it to use. It was stained red and black, and he still clutched it in his badly burned right hand.
The raven watched for several minutes, monitoring the cadence of the man's breathing. His air moved slowly with a tight, wheezing sound. He must have inhaled smoke and heated air, the bird guessed. His eyes were closed, and his mouth had fallen open. Hrafn waited again. The man did not move. The raven dared to hop down to the ground. He stepped closer, then flapped upward. He landed on the man's chest.
Nothing happened for five seconds… ten… and then the man opened his eyes. Hrafn could tell by the film of red and streaks of white that covered his eyeballs that the man could not see. He had been blinded by the fire.
"Who… who is there?" the man whispered.
Interesting, thought Hrafn. The man had spoken in Corvidian. How did he know the tongue of ravens? And for that matter, how did he know that a raven had landed on him? He took two steps toward the man's chin and peered down into his face.
Hrafn flicked his wings in surprise. Coräc was Hrafn's third cousin, twice removed. Ravens are as meticulous about their genealogy as hobbits.
"Coräc, is that you?" the man said hoarsely.
"No. My name is Hrafn," the raven replied. "Where did you learn to speak Corvidian, old man?"
"…Where did I…? …How strange… I don't recall…"
"How do you know Corac?" Hrafn moved one step closer to the man's face. He studied him, trying to ascertain if he was lying.
"…met him…and Morigian…last summer…dear friends…" The man's voice was growing weaker.
Hrafn didn't know what to think about this turn of events. The man claimed to be a friend of his cousin and his cousin's wife. His face was rather difficult to assess, what with all the burns, but he didn't have any of the usual signs of a liar. Hrafn was puzzled. Ravens never ate their own dead. Such behavior was strictly forbidden by long established tradition, and a raven who broke such a law could be banished by the court. On the other hand, there certainly wouldn't be any witnesses, all the way up here. But then again, ravens almost never ate a corpse alone. Feeding was a communal event, a cause for celebration and bonding. Hrafn had met his mate at a feeding; that was rather common. One raven found a source of food, sampled it to make certain it was edible, marked the spot and flew away to summon their clan. If a raven was trying to impress a prospective mate, he might tell her about the location first, and make certain she got all the tastiest morsels. He felt very odd, almost guilty about the possibility of failing to inform his clan about this corpse…well, about this man who was about to become a corpse. But the rest of the situation was just as confusing. Should he break with one tradition, or another? Did the proscription about eating one's relatives and friends apply to creatures of an entirely different sort, like this human, if they happened to be a friend…or a friend of a relation?
"…I don't mind, Hrafn…"
Hrafn looked at him sharply. What was he saying?
"…I won't be needing…this…for much longer… You are welcome to it…"
The raven watched as the man's left hand twitched upward, and he seemed to attempt to point to himself. "What are you saying, old man? Are you trying to tell me that I have your permission to…"
"Yes… Come back tomorrow… It will be over." The man tried to raise his head to gaze blindly at the bird. He only managed it for a moment, then his head fell back again. "…A gift…to the ravens…in gratitude for the friendship…of the Clan of Isen…"
Hrafn studied him for a minute. The old man was correct. It would not be long, and a good thing, too. It would be a relief for this one to die, he thought. He must be in terrible pain with all those burns and slashes.
The raven hopped off his chest and stepped up toward his head. He bowed formally. "I shall leave you now, old man. Unless you would prefer that I stay with you and keep you company…until the end…"
"…No…no need… I'll be all right…"
"Very well. My clan and I shall return tomorrow morning. I believe that will leave sufficient time," Hrafn said. He felt a bit odd, conversing with the being he would soon return to eat. But then again, it was rather comforting to know that he had been given consent to do so. It seemed right and fitting, somehow. And it was, after all, what a raven was meant to do.
"Goodbye, Old One."
The man's blind eyes had closed again. He did not respond.
The raven sprang into the air. Hrafn glanced down once at the figure sprawled on the icy ledge as he soared away. Without the teeth of wolves to tear his hide open fully—for of course, no wolf could climb to this treacherous ledge--the ravens would have access only to a portion of the corpse. This one might provide food for four or five days, at most, for surely some of that flesh was too charred to be nutritious. But in winter, one ate what was available, and his clan would be grateful.
He would have to remember to send word to Coräc about this. He was certain that his cousin would be interested in the strange tale.
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