The Old Grey Wizard
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The Kindness of Strangers: 19. Silver and Gold
Silver and Gold
August 22, 3019, IIIrd Age. Mid-afternoon. The Ruins of Isengard.
Sam Gamgee drew in thoughtfully on his pipe, newly filled with Longbottom Leaf salvaged from the broken storerooms of Orthanc. He sighed contentedly. It felt so good to be heading home. If he understood the geography correctly, once they left this narrow valley with its ruined fortress and solemn, looming black Tower, they would follow the bubbling river and head northwest. He'd be glad to leave all the towers and stonework behind. He'd seen enough Towers for the rest of his life, thank you very much.
But of course, leaving Isengard would bring its measure of sadness, for very soon the Fellowship would break apart, never to be reunited. Legolas and Gimli had announced their plans to go east from here to visit the Forest of Fangorn. The Dwarf looked mightily put out at the prospect, and the Prince of Mirkwood had a grin on his fair face that seemed likely to split him ear to pointy ear. They stood together, an odd a pair as ever, Gimli glowering and nervously twisting the ends of his plaited beard, and Legolas standing as tall and proud as a young beech. And the Elves of Lothlorien would all too quickly part from them as well. Sam gazed wistfully at the Lady Galadriel as she stood near Lord Celeborn and conversed with that incredible creature, Fangorn himself.
"More than ten lifetimes of wonders we've seen," he murmured as he stared at the ancient Ent. "And not even a year has gone by since we set out from Bag End…"
He spoke to no one in particular, and no one listened. He glanced around at his other companions. Merry and Pippin were perched on another Ent's shoulders—Quickbeam, Sam thought--laughing and carrying on. Mr. Frodo was sitting on a tumbled-down wall next to Strider…er, Aragorn…no, King Ellesar. Sam studied the new King's face, the same rugged, dangerous appearing Ranger who had so frightened them in Bree, and now wonderfully different, filled with such joy, wisdom and light. Strider would leave them this very evening, and poor Mr. Frodo would take that parting hard, Sam knew. His Master and the King had grown right fond of one another.
He studied Frodo's face. Hmm. That same light, like the light in Strider's face, but different—clearer, purer. And as he had so many times in the last five months, since he woke on the field of Cormallen and first gazed again on his Master's face, he worriedly searched Frodo's eyes. Try as he might to hide it from everyone else, Frodo Baggins couldn't hide it from his Sam. Beneath the light and the gladness, he saw the strain in him, the ache, the hidden pain… Would he ever really be whole and well, ever again?
Sam looked around again. That was odd. One person was missing. Old Gandalf was nowhere in sight. Just when he was finally getting used to the idea that Gandalf wasn't dead, he went and disappeared. The hobbit frowned.
"There's no call for the likes of you to be wondering about the whereabouts of someone like Gandalf, Sam Gamgee," he said to himself. But still, he wondered. After all, wasn't this Isengard, formerly the stronghold of Saruman the White, that nasty Wizard he'd never had the pleasure of meeting, and hoped he never would? From the sounds of things, not too long ago Gandalf had soundly humiliated that Wizard, in full view of dozens of witnesses—the very same Wizard who had once held him captive. And Saruman, they had learned just that day from Master Fangorn, had simply been released to wander about wherever he pleased. Perhaps he was lingering somewhere nearby, guessing it likely that Gandalf would come this way, waiting for an opportunity…
"He'd have plenty of cause to get back at the one who broke his staff in front of all those people," Sam thought, as he got to his feet and tapped the last of the leaf from his pipe. He kicked a pile of dirt onto the smoldering bits and chuckled. "Fool of a Hobbit! What are you thinking, Sam? That you're going to go search for old Gandalf and make sure he's not in trouble with an angry Wizard bent on revenge? And what exactly would you do if you found him in that sort of trouble?"
Sam Gamgee pocketed his pipe and loosened the ancient dagger at his belt. "Don't have any idea what I'll do if and when I find such a thing," he said in a mutter. "But search for him? Seems I'll be doing exactly that. After all, I've done lots more foolish things on this trip, and so far my luck has held. Guess I'll press it one more time."
The hobbit didn't have to search for long. He hadn't taken more than a hundred steps away from where the others lingered in the warm afternoon sunlight when he caught a glimpse of white through the trees. And he heard voices. Very peculiar, rough voices. One of the voices was Gandalf's, speaking in the oddest, coarsest language Sam had ever heard. And others were answering in the same rough tongue. But Sam couldn't see who, because as far as he could tell, Gandalf was standing all alone, in a clearing in the trees.
He used every ounce of his natural hobbit stealth to come as close as possible to the clearing. Sam hid behind a tree and peeked out on yet another wonder.
Gandalf stood smiling in a ray of sunlight, his white robe, hair and beard simply glowing and his face beaming with pleasure. On each of his shoulders, a huge black bird was perched; the one on his right shoulder was preening his long hair with its thick bill. On his outstretched left arm sat a third bird, and every branch of every tree in the entire clearing was filled with birds—each one as black as charcoal, and big. The birds were croaking and cawing at him in the most raucous, rude fashion, and to Sam's amazement, Gandalf croaked and cawed right back at them.
"We saw your party ride up the valley, of course," Coräc said. "I told my people that if we called to you, you would seek us out, and I was right!"
"The other humans pay us no heed," Kruk said with a gruff laugh. "Two footed creatures don't bother much to look over their heads…but you are different, Gandalf."
"That's quite a steed you have," Morigian cried. "He is beautiful, for a horse!"
"He is no ordinary horse, Lady Morigian," the wizard replied. "His name is Shadowfax, and he is the chief of the Mearas, the royal horses of Rohan. He allows me to ride him as his friend, and I would not be so foolish as to pretend to own him."
Anann croaked from where she perched on his wrist. "But you haven't told us what you've been up to all this time, Gandalf! Why are you dressed in white? It is hard to get used to it…though it looks seemly enough on you, what with the change in your hair and beard…"
"Your eyes still have the same grey tint, old friend," Morigian said. "But my daughter is right, we want your news! Tell us about how you defeated the Black One!"
"No, no—start at the beginning! I want to hear where that dimwitted rascal Gwaihir set you down, and what happened next!"
"And those awful wraiths left here soon after you did. I've wondered if they caught up with you, and whether you showed them a thing or two with that sword and staff of yours…"
"Now wait a minute, I heard from a very reliable source that you were dead, so I want to know how you happen to be here at all…"
"…but the White One, what happened to him? We were all away south at the great Feast of Helm's Deep when his fortress was broken in pieces by the Tree Shepherds…"
"We know you must have had something to do with that!"
"Tell us, Gandalf!"
"Yes, tell us everything!"
The old man laughed again, and Coräc thought that for a moment the sunlight seemed to glow more brightly.
"So many questions! I hardly know where to start! It is a very long tale, and I can only tell you a small portion of it…"
"Not fair, not fair!" Morigian cried. "We want to know every detail!" She reached out and grabbed the old man's ear and tugged playfully.
"Ouch!" Gandalf cried in Westron.
Sam jumped at the sound of a word that he could understand.
"Here now!" he cried, as he stepped out from behind the tree. "What are those birds doing to you, Gandalf?"
All the ravens, except the one perched on his right shoulder, flapped noisily away to higher branches in the surrounding trees. The wizard smiled mischievously at the hobbit, and the enormous bird that had been biting his ear cocked its head to the side and looked at Sam with a most intelligent gleam in its beady black eye.
"Well met, Master Gamgee!" Gandalf laughed. "Have you been following me? You need not worry about my safety, Sam. Morigian and I are old friends. She was merely encouraging me to satisfy her curiosity about all that has transpired since I last saw her and the rest of her Clan."
"Morigian?" Sam said, awestruck. "The bird has a name?"
"Of course! She is no mere bird. She is a Raven, the Lady of the Raven Clan of Isen, and you had best have a care, Sam, for she understands Westron fairly well," Gandalf replied with a grin.
The raven flapped her wide wings and twitched her tail twice in response, and croaked rapidly.
"No, this isn't exactly the friend I was so worried about last summer, Morigian, but one close to him, and someone very dear to me. Allow me to introduce Samwise Gamgee, also known as Perhael, although I prefer to call him by his true name, Harthad Uluithiad. He is one of the famed pair of Pheriannath, the Cormacolindor who dared to enter the Dark Lord's stronghold to destroy the One Ring and thus bring about the downfall of Mordor."
Sam blushed as the ravens began to bob and nod. The air was filled with a strange cackling sound as the birds voiced their approval. Perhaps the birds had understood all the foreign and undoubtedly embarrassingly exaggerated names Gandalf had called him, but Sam hadn't, and his face went redder still at the thought.
Gandalf smiled widely. "They are very pleased to meet you."
The gardener of Bag End bit his lower lip and bowed awkwardly, keeping one eye on all those thick beaks that suddenly seemed aimed at him.
"Er, pleased to meet…them, as well."
"Sam, Morigian, her husband Coräc, their family and the rest of their Clan helped me last summer when Saruman had me trapped on the top of his Tower. It all seems so long ago now! But at the time I was quite desperate, and so worried about Frodo that I nearly wore a path in the stone platform from pacing. For ten weeks I spoke to no one but the Ravens of the Isen Clan…well, no one other than Saruman, and I did my best to speak to him as little as possible. If I had not had their friendship and their aide, I might well have gone mad."
"Not to mention starved," Coräc croaked as he returned and landed again on the wizard's shoulder.
"Believe me, my friend, I have not forgotten your generosity," Gandalf replied in Corvidian. "Well, Sam, there is an old saying," he went on in Westron, "One your Gaffer might know. One comes by two sorts of friends in a lifetime: old friends, and new ones. One must cherish the one and treasure the other, for both are worth more than their weight in priceless metals. If you will be patient, I would like a chance to tell a brief version of our tale of a year of wonders to my raven friends."
Sam nodded and sat on the ground at the base of the tree. He propped his knees up and leaned back against the trunk as he listened to the queer noises coming from the old wizard's mouth. He frowned, for almost immediately he began to understand the strange language. Pictures formed in his mind, first of a very high, windswept stone Tower lit by moonlight, and on the platform were at least a hundred ravens, an enormous Eagle, and Gandalf. In a moment he felt himself aloft, atop the Eagle's back, and the ravens swarmed all around. Then he was riding a magnificent silver-white horse, speeding through the night. A moment later he shivered as he realized he was upon the flat peak of Weathertop, surrounded by Black Riders. He could see their awful, haggard faces as they rushed forward, only to be swept back by a sudden streak of fire.
Scene after scene played out as Gandalf spun a brief but vivid account of his dealings since the 18th of September last. The ravens sat utterly still as they listened. The bird he had named Morigian cawed softly and leaned into the side of his neck when he told of the Bridge of Khazad-dûm and the fiery, ten-days-long battle with the Balrog. Sam listened carefully, for the wizard had left it to the others to explain his reappearance as Gandalf the White to Frodo and Sam when they awakened on the Field of Cormallen. He tried to remember every detail, so he could recount it later to Mr. Frodo.
Gandalf's tale sped onward, underplaying, in Sam's opinion, the wizard's role in the events leading to Sauron's fall and emphasizing the deeds of others, including, to the hobbit's chagrin, his own.
Finally Gandalf told of the new King and that the Tower of Orthanc and the Vale of Isen was now under his guardianship. "But he is a very wise man, and he has respect for the rights of all free creatures, including the Winged Kelvari. His Queen is none other than Arwen Undomiel, granddaughter of Galadriel, of Lothlorien, and of the West. And as I am sure you are aware, Galadriel has long been devoted to Yavanna Kelementari, and has deep affection for all Her Children, both the olvar and the kelvar. So too does her granddaughter."
Anann was the first bird to break the silence.
"You will not be long among us, will you, Gandalf?"
Sam's ears perked up at that. A layer of sadness floating atop ripples of joy appeared on the old wizard's face.
"No, my friends, I will not. I must return to my home soon. I have lingered here much longer than I ever expected."
"Will we see you again before you depart?" Coräc said.
"Who can say?" the wizard replied. "Let us take our leave now, my friends, in case our paths do not cross again on these shores."
"Gandalf," Morigian asked, "Are there Ravens across the Sea?"
His face beamed. "Oh yes, my Lady. Indeed, the Ravens of Taniquetil are renouned…though none are so clever and beautiful as you! And none are more loyal and courageous than my dear friends, the Ravens of the Clan of Isen."
As the wizard bowed low to the assembled flock, the three ravens that had been perching upon him flew off and circled, calling loudly. Soon the air seemed thick with glossy black wings and the rush of wind through feathers, and the noise of their croaking was nearly deafening. Gandalf raised his arms and called just as loudly to them. In a moment, the clan had departed, and Sam thought how silent the forest suddenly seemed.
As they walked back toward the ruined wall of Isengard, Gandalf laid one hand on Sam's shoulder.
"Well, what did you think of that, Sam?"
The hobbit sighed. "I think there's no end of amazing sights in this world, Gandalf," he said. "I never expected to see any of it, not an ordinary gardener like me. And yet, it seems to me that the most wondrous things of all are those that are hiding in plain sight, if you follow me… Like these ravens, if you like… Why, there are birds and creatures like that most anywhere, so common that you'd never take notice of them, indeed might disrespect or even dislike them, for not understanding who they really are… That's the real wonder of it, Mr. Gandalf, those marvels that are right in front of us, all the time."
The wizard smiled and squeezed his companion's shoulder. "Indeed. Sam, you are very wise…and, if I might add, you yourself are a case to prove your point. Aragorn is absolutely right about you, you know…"
"Strider?" Sam said, his blush rising again. "What has he been sayin' about me?"
"He says your name should have been Panthael…Full Wise…and I agree with him. And now, let us return to join the rest of our old friends, before those of us remaining from the Fellowship that set out from Rivendell so many months ago must say our farewells. Let us treasure these last few golden hours together."
And as they walked into the cleared land surrounding the tumbled walls of the fortress, now bright with green and growing things where just last year had been only bare stone, Sam heard in the distance a harsh croaking call. He looked up and saw a pair of ravens flying, playfully looping and twisting as they passed overhead. He knew he would never hear the voices of ravens again without remembering this day, and the true wonder that was friendship, precious above any gold.
Harthad Uluithiad: Hope Unquenchable
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