The Old Grey Wizard
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The Kindness of Strangers: 2. An Intruder
A raven soared in a lazy spiral in the clear morning sunshine. His eye was trained on his favorite perch: the southeast spire of the great black Tower that stood in the steep-walled vale, source of the river men called Isen. Why this black spike stood here in the midst of rock, iron-works and smoke, the raven knew not, nor cared. Being of bird-mind and spirit, he didn't trouble himself to wonder which two-legged, land-bound creatures might have built the Tower and its surrounding walls. He was not bothered overmuch by the petty dealings of the stern-faced old human who dwelt within the Tower or the ugly changes he had wrought upon the once-green lands below.
The raven simply liked to sit upon the highest perch, and he preferred the southeast spire so that he could gaze north and west, toward the peaks. It pleased him to balance on the very tip of the knife-edged stone. In truth, he was a rather vain bird. He was fond of imagining that from the perspective of the clumsy, vicious creatures who scuttled about on the ground far below, he would appear to be carved of the same glittering obsidian as the great Tower itself.
The polished surface of the platform between the four horn-like pillars at the corners of the Tower reflected a few drifting clouds in the summer sky. From here, Coräc could see for miles in any direction: south to the green rolling plains of the Horse-Masters, north and west to the rising Mountains, and to the sullen and tangled Forest that carpeted the hills to the east. Whenever he had a chance, he came here, alone and proud, to survey what he thought of as his realm.
Alone. He was a raven, cleverest of all feathered kelvari, and more than that, he was the chieftain of the fiercest clan of Ravens of the Southern Mountains of Mist. He appreciated solitude, as all ravens do, and as all of his kind, he was a creature of habit. His habits had served him well in the three decades since he emerged from the egg. But as he curved in his final descent, he saw that his long habit was about to be disrupted.
Today, he was not alone. A stranger stood on the high platform: a human, and to Coräc's eye, a singularly unattractive one. He was wrinkled, bearded, long-haired, and grey-draped, and his nose looked like the beak of a hawk. But worse, he was intruding in Coräc's favorite spot, five hundred feet above the valley floor.
Coräc landed on his perch and stared down at the man, who appeared not to have noticed his arrival. The man in his turn stared at the smooth, apparently seamless vertical surface on the inner side of one of the pillars of stone. The raven cocked his head and listened. The man in grey was muttering to himself. He reached out and ran his fingertips lightly over the stone. After a few moments of scrutiny, he snorted and abruptly turned, striding swiftly to the next pillar, where he repeated the same actions.
The raven studied his efforts. Humans were reputed to have a certain level of intelligence, though one could not prove it by the actions of this fellow. Either he was a madman, or the old one was searching for the doors, and in characteristically stupid and fruitless human fashion. Coräc had seen the doors opened at times, on those rare occasions when the white-robed human made the long climb on steep stairs to this platform. He knew within which two opposing pillars the doors were cleverly hidden. Apparently this grey-robed fellow did not. Perhaps, the bird considered, the man might have been accidentally locked out of the Tower. Perhaps he sought an escape from this high place.
The man reached the fourth pillar. He shook the long stick he carried at it and cried out in a tongue Coräc thought sounded something like Elvish. Nothing changed. The shiny black stone remained perfectly smooth and impermeable. Finally the old man spat out what even the raven understood as a curse. He tossed his staff to the floor and slammed his fist against the pillar. He cursed again, shaking his hand, and turned away.
But there was nowhere for him to go. The distance from one side of the platform to the other could be paced out in exactly five-twice-plus-two of his long strides—Coräc amused himself by counting as he watched. The black pillars, marking the corners of what seemed to be his prison, loomed over him. Between the pillars, the edges of the platform fell away and vanished. No rail or curb would stop a misstep into thin air, and nothing but the stony earth far below would catch his fall. Smugly, the raven considered the natural superiority of wings over arms.
Coräc croaked out a small laugh, tinged with a wisp of pity. "Caught like a fly in a web," the bird muttered aloud.
At once the man whirled and focused on the raven perched above. Coräc felt the intensity of his grey-eyed gaze, and saw fury on his pale, aged face—and, curiously, a rather large purplish stain on his right temple.
"Tell your Master that I reject his choices—all of them!" he snapped.
The bird flicked his tail in surprise, for the man had spoken to him in his own tongue! Badly accented, it was true. But so few bothered these days to learn the tongues of other beings. Why, hardly an Elf could speak Corvidian nowadays, and as for a Mortal Man! He had only heard of such things in legend. And that voice! There was power in that voice, enough to send a shiver through the bird. Still, the man had insulted him greatly. 'Tell your Master,' indeed!
Coräc raised the thick feathers on his shoulders and neck, and opened his great glossy wings. He leaned forward and shouted. "I have no master but myself, ignorant human! Confuse me not with the dull-witted crebain. I am Raven Lord of the Isen Clan, and I shall waste no more time in converse with an old fool like you!"
With that, the raven sprang from his high perch and flew away on strong wing beats. Dratted human! The excellent mood he'd enjoyed this morning was utterly spoiled. Faintly, he heard the man calling after him. Coräc ignored the sound and sped off toward the south. The plains were busy this summer, with frequent skirmishes between the golden-haired Horsemen and the black-haired Hill People. Perhaps one or another of them had murdered someone during the night. It was a raven's right, after all, to claim what remained once blood was spilled.
Coräc avoided the Tower for a week, his mood growing gloomier and nastier as he considered what had happened. He nursed his resentment toward the invader. What right had that old greybeard to be standing upon his Tower? He forgot all about his earlier supposition that the man might be trapped there. Despite the whisper of fear he felt toward the stranger, he vowed to return. Maybe the old man will be gone tomorrow, he thought, as he settled in to roost on the edge of Fangorn Forest with his wife, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews and sundry friends and relations. The comforting cacophony of croaking and cackling died down as the night fell, and soon every one of the few hundred birds was asleep, except those dozen or so on guard duty. Coräc himself slept peacefully. He was far too important and had too high a rank to merit guard duty.
The morning dawned hot and humid. Coräc sharpened his beak on the branch, croaked a goodbye to his wife, and flew west and a little north. The land rose swiftly and the forest thinned. He was high in the air when he passed over groves of felled trees. He glanced down. The stinking Orcs were already at work on this steaming July day, hewing and sawing and trampling everything in sight. They were not all that far from his clan's roost. He'd have to remember to keep an eye on things, and move to a safer location if the Orcs came closer.
The raven caught a rising shaft of heated air and spiraled upward. Soon he was circling high above Orthanc. Looking down, he sniffed in disappointment. The man was still there, on the platform, standing and gazing to the north. Well, there was nothing for it but to confront him. Coräc croaked twice, just for the pleasure of hearing his beautiful voice echoing through the valley. He folded his wings and descended steeply, flapping in time to land lightly on the top of the southeast pillar.
The grey-bearded man turned toward him at once, bowed, and spoke in northern-accented but passable Corvidian.
"Well met, Master Raven," he said gravely. "I apologize for my error at our last meeting. Any insult was most unintended, I assure you." He squinted up at Coräc and shaded his brows with his hand.
Coräc did not reply immediately, but took his time to study the old fellow. This meeting was getting off to a better start, but the Raven Lord was no trusting young yearling. What did the greybeard do up here all day, anyway? What manner of human was he, that he knew the speech of birds? Where was he from, and what did he have to do with the cold white one who dwelt inside the Tower?
A week in mid-July exposed on the top of the Tower had worked a few changes. The man's face was red-bronzed, as were his hands. The purple stain was gone; perhaps he had wiped it away. He had shed his heavy cloak and undone the collar of his thick robe. Beneath his arms and in a wide swath down the center of his chest, his garments were dark with sweat. The raven saw that a wide-brimmed, grey-blue hat sat atop the neatly folded cloak, and both were stacked at the base of one of the pillars. Standing upright against the pillar was a tall silver sword, the wooden staff balanced beside it.
The man seemed aware that the raven was inspecting him. Coräc noted a look of amused challenge on his face, as if he was saying, go on, look all you want. I'm not going anywhere. Even in the shade of his hand, his eyes gleamed with something Coräc recognized as a raven-like roguishness.
"Why don't you wear your hat?" Coräc asked. "This much Sun cannot be healthy for a pale, feeble old creature like you." The raven could match nearly anyone insult for insult, if he was in the mood for such play.
The man dropped his hand and crossed his arms. One thick brow curled upward, while he squinted with the other eye. "For your information, the hat is too hot. I'll wear it again once the Sun climbs higher, but for now I'll enjoy the breeze—while it lasts."
Coräc took off without warning. The man's eyes flew open in surprise, and he opened his mouth to protest. But the bird landed again in a moment, on the pillar to the northwest. The old man smiled slightly and inclined his head.
"My thanks, Master Raven, for moving out of line with the Sun," he said. "Your magnificent blackness against her dazzling light made it impossible for me to see you clearly. Now we can converse in greater ease."
Coräc gazed down at him imperiously. "Who are you, Grey One, and why has the White One imprisoned you here?"
The man's smile vanished and his eyes grew hard. "I am called Gandalf the Grey," he replied frostily.
Of course, even a raven had heard the name of Gandalf the Grey. But Coräc had only the vaguest sense of what the name meant—a human, one of a few who seemed to live on and on, century after century, and somehow akin to the ancient white beard who had settled in Orthanc many years ago. He seemed to recall hearing that this Gandalf was a friend of eagles. Since ravens regarded eagles as large, dim-witted thugs, this wasn't necessarily a positive attribute. He decided he must judge this one for himself.
"Never heard of him," the raven said.
The man grunted. "Perhaps you know my...cousin, Radagast the Brown..."
"Never heard of him, either," Coräc croaked. "I pay no heed to the names men call one another, Old One. I know not what you or other men call the Cold White-Beard who lives inside this Tower, either, and I do not care to know. You haven't answered my second question."
As the man glowered up at the bird, he clenched his hands into fists and placed them on his hips. "What led you to conclude that the Cold White-Beard, as you so accurately describe him, has imprisoned me here?" he said. "Perhaps I am a guest who enjoys the fine view..."
Coräc tipped his shaggy head backward and laughed a long, croaking laugh. "I am sure you are thoroughly enjoying the burning summer heat and relentless Sun along with the view." The man sniffed and crossed his arms again. "And I happen to know that all the way up here, even in July, the night wind blows with teeth of ice from those peaks. Anyone silly enough to stay up here all night to watch the stars would shiver with the cold." The glare the greybeard shot at him confirmed that Coräc had guessed right about that. The raven had never actually come to the Tower after nightfall. "Well? What have you done to annoy the White One, that he leaves you up here without shelter, friend?"
The man crossed the platform and stood on the edge, gazing north and west, into the heart of the peaks. "It is not what I have done," he said. "It is what I have not done."
Corac knew little of men, and what he had observed of them did not impress him much. They were deceitful, murderous creatures, toward every living being, including their own kind. They appeared to have none of the integrity of his own folk: no loyalty, courage, or endurance. This old greybeard was probably no different. Whatever it was he had refused to do for the whitebeard, he would likely soon relent. But then again, he did speak Corvidian. And for that alone he was a bit interesting.
"Well, Grey One," Coräc called, "You have amused me a little, this morning. Perhaps I will visit you again." He fluffed his feathers and shook himself from beak to tail. "My! It is already beastly hot, and the black stone will soak up heat so well, this platform will soon feel like one of the great ovens the Orcs use to turn solid iron into red-hot liquid," he said. "I believe it is a good day for a dust bath, and then I shall take a long drink of cool water from the springs of the Isen." He glanced down at the top of the man's head. Sunburned scalp showed through the grey hair. "By the way," the raven said. "The doors are in the northeast and the southwest pillars."
As Coräc soared away, he looked down and saw that the man was grinning, and his hand was raised in a wave.
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