The Old Grey Wizard
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A Mortal Life: 22. An Ordinary Life
Chapter 21 An Ordinary Life
Nothing very interesting happened on Corli and Olorin's farm, except the things that happen in many lives. Nothing marked that anyone unusual lived in the cottage. A heavy grey cloak hung on a peg by the door, worn only when the weather turned frosty. Each morning a man could be seen outside the cottage, whetting a razor and scraping the night's growth of beard from his jutting jaw. The proud red stallion that had drowned at the ford was replaced by a mild mannered brown mare that didn't mind taking her turn pulling the creaking cart.
Due in part to Schlain's gentle prodding—he in his turn encouraged by Frin—a ceremony was held to mark the joining of Mistress Corli and Master Olorin. A midwife, a silversmith, and an infant girl-child were among those in attendance. The bride wore a silver necklace with a pale green gem, a wedding gift from her new husband, hand-crafted by his friend the silversmith. The husband proudly received a tall staff of polished ash from his new wife as a present to replace the one he had lost in the crossing of the river.
No one but the groom noticed an eagle soaring in the twilight overhead, but everyone jumped at the sudden splash of water as a crockery pitcher overturned without provocation. His new wife gazed in awe as a star seemed to unhitch itself from the evening sky and tumble to earth with a brilliant white flash just as their vows were recited aloud. The witnesses blinked in confusion when the new husband looked up with joy on his face, raised his hands and called out in a language none of them had ever heard before. They could not understand the beautiful, musical words that he spoke. But somehow they knew that thanks had been given: thanks for blessings bestowed by air, water, and night itself, as if these things were not part of the enveloping universe, but rather were honored guests attending the wedding.
The infant became a toddler. Her mother conceived again, this time with twins. They were born without as big a fuss as their older sister, and every healing woman for miles around did not gather to attend their birth. Their father assisted Frin instead, as he had begun to assist his wife as she went out on her duties as midwife. Indeed, the only truly interesting thing about the family was the oddness of Corli's apprentice in the healing arts.
"Why on earth someone as powerful as you should be apprenticed to me is a mystery! You have more healing talent in your hands than in all my potions put together…"
"Ah, you are mistaken, Corli. You have much more skill, and far greater knowledge. My skill in this matter is of a different sort, and is really quite limited. And besides, I must take care to keep such things as you have witnessed held in reserve, unless in great need."
She stared at him. "Really? Why?"
He smiled gently. "There are many reasons. One is that I was asked to do so, by those who sent me. And it makes sense to use what 'talents' I have with great caution, only in the direst circumstances. My true identity is known to a few. Some of the Elves, for instance, know whence I came, and why. But I can accomplish and learn much more among mortal folk when no one suspects I am anyone other than a wandering vagabond in grey. A second reason is that I might grow too accustomed to my powers, and be tempted to use them too often, and in the wrong circumstances. I didn't come here for that." His smile faded. "And there is prudence. The one I came to find and hopefully banish from Middle Earth need not know any more about me than he already does. It will be to my advantage if he thinks I am…less than I am."
Corli shifted uncomfortably at the thought of her husband's shadowy adversary, of whom she had heard only the few hints he was willing to give her. She didn't like to think about the long future full of danger before him.
"It will be very useful for me to learn about ordinary healing, and particularly from an expert." His eyes twinkled. "I'll be a good student." He leaned close and whispered into her ear. "I'll bring treats to the teacher…"
She giggled. "Well then, the teacher has a special assignment for her best student," she said, and there was no more talk of apprenticeship that day. But in the morning, she agreed to teach him.
Olori was four when she fell from the tree branch where she'd been dangling. Despite his explanation about the use of his skill only in direst need, Corli had to restrain her frantic husband from placing his hands around the broken limb.
"Let it be, it will heal. It's just a broken arm! If you magically heal every little hurt of theirs, they'll never learn a bit of sense, man."
She instructed him instead to carry his daughter to the house where she supervised as he splinted the bone. Corli crooned at the squealing girl as he worked.
"There, child, I know, I know it hurts. But whatever were you thinking, girl? Did you think you could fly?"
Olori's whimpers faltered and stopped. She looked up and beamed.
"Yes, yes! I was swinging as hard as I could, Momma, and everything looked different from upside-down. I think I could fly if only I could go fast enough."
But as Olori grew, she showed no signs of being capable of flight. Her twin brothers Mithra and Gand, two years younger, never attempted to speak to the crows that still roosted every night in the oaks, nor did they appear to be able to draw out the wind, or light the fire just by muttering a few words into the hearth. They were all quite ordinary children.
Olori had her mother's red hair. Her green eyes were a subtler hue, more like a deep forest of fir trees than the golden-green of the spring meadow. She was as smart as her mother, but she wasn't as tough minded. She had an intensity of feeling that left her open to slights and jokes. It reminded her Uncle Schlain of her father's soft-heartedness, and Schlain restrained his teasing. But her brothers pestered her mercilessly until she'd run crying to her Poppa, who would hold her and rock her in his arms until the tears ceased. She knew better than to run to her mother.
The boys had wavy auburn hair that darkened as they grew up, and eyes that appeared to be a different color in different lights: sometimes grey, sometimes blue, sometimes green. Gand was quieter and seemed a bit tender-hearted and timid, though he could be fearless. But he grew confused and ashamed when he began to realize how his Poppa was unusual. Mithra, in contrast, thought his Poppa's strangeness was wonderfully curious, even amusing. The boy was quick-witted and talkative, and had a pealing laugh that sent a thrill down Corli's back each time she heard it, it was so like Olorin's. Mithra had a temper to match his laugh, and an angry streak that led him more quickly than his brother into tussles with other boys, and often with Gand. Like Olori, the twins healed their little hurts in ordinary time, not in some strangely sped up fashion like their father.
When they were small the children all loved to sit on their Poppa's lap and hear his wondrous stories. He told them of the lovely lady from the land across the Sea who had made the stars, and how the Sun and Moon were really flowers from two bright shining trees that had lived long ago, carried by people in flying chariots. He spoke of the ship that carried the Evening Star through the sky on the very top of its highest mast and the man whose glorious and often lonely task was to sail through the night forever.
There were stories, too, of brave men and women who stood up and fought for what was right, and how sometimes heroes lived, and sometimes they died. Gradually as the children grew older the tales turned more ominous. They heard that the world could be an uncomfortable place with very mean people in it. There was always hope in the tales, but the hope might be far off in an uncertain future. Somehow their father was bound up with that future.
"And someday, when all of you are older, I'll go and help do what I can to stop those mean people. You see, some friends of mine have asked me to help, and so when you are all grown up and don't need me anymore, I'll be part of it again."
"Part of what, Poppa?"
"Part of the struggle to bring back better times, Olori."
"But Poppa, we'll always need you! You can't go away, ever!"
"Ah, Mithra, when you're older you won't feel that way. And someday I must go away. Don't worry, there is nothing to fear. I will be here for as long as you need me, I promise."
"Tell us the other story, Poppa. Tell us about the Lady and the Stars again."
The children grew restless, wanting to hear the reassuring stories about the Trees, or the faraway land with pearls and jewels on the shore, and he would happily comply.
Corli would listen to Olorin's deep gentle voice from the next room. Her favorite tale was of the great and mysterious music that had woven the world together. It reminded her of the time she had been embraced by a shining shadow and had felt her being fill with music and light. One night it came to her with a start that he wasn't telling stories at all; he was telling what he had seen with his own eyes. She wondered whether his voice had been part of that music, and then she knew beyond all doubt: it had been. Tears started in her eyes as her heart caught again like it had the first time he looked deeply into her soul.
Corli saw the confused sadness in his eyes when his children began to be too big to sit in his lap. She saw how he tried to hide his hurt when nine year old Olori, thinking she was out of range of his hearing, scornfully informed the twins that none of the queer stories were true, just made up by Poppa for bedtime tales. And she was shocked at the depth of his sorrow when later he overheard Mithra and Gand arguing loudly with the coarse logic of seven year olds.
"Poppa's been lying to us all this time! D'you think anything he says is true?"
"Stupid. He's not lyin', he's just a little loony, is all."
"Loony! He ain't so!"
"He is! He's no liar, that's sure!"
She stood beside him at the window where he was resting his head on the frame, his eyes shut tightly as he listened.
"They're just children, Olorin. They mean nothing by it. They hardly know what they're saying. And listen--each is stalwartly defending you in his own little boy way."
"But it is gone already, whatever belief they had in me."
"It is not. You are still their father in the usual way, and they still love and trust you and depend on you."
"Nod had more faith in me than my own sons."
"Because he saw who you are with his own eyes, as I did."
He managed to put these things aside. Whether his children realized who he was or not, he still loved them. Corli encouraged him to teach them to read and write. He began to stock the house with books and scrolls that he would buy at the market in Arlindon or from passing strangers. How he always seemed to know which stranger had a book in his bag, she never knew.
Every year the children looked forward with wild excitement to their birthday celebrations. Their Poppa had begun making things that sparkled and fizzed with dancing lights that flew up into the air and crackled, and he would only bring them out and set them off on the nights of their birthdays. Each year, the display of fiery flowers and colored lights became more elaborate and beautiful, and they would begin to pester him about them weeks before the day actually came.
But soon Olori wanted nothing more than to spend each waking minute by Corli's side, learning her mother's healing arts. And Gand and Mithra had their own secrets between them and spent more time with each other than with their father, who sometimes made them uneasy with the urgency with which he held them close. The twins would nod and listen seriously to the stern and gentle lecture that always came after they made Olori cry. They'd wait until he was out of sight and then they'd roll their eyes at what they termed Poppa's mollycoddling, starry-eyed ways.
Corli learned to get used to the nights when her husband would slip from bed and creep from the house. She followed him sometimes, to sit beside him upon the rock they had shared on their first day together. She would hold him as he stared into the darkness, refusing to speak.
"You've got to stop looking too far ahead, Olorin. What will happen will happen. It is the way of things. Even for you, someday."
"But everything is moving too quickly. They'll be gone—you'll be gone—before I even know them. I cannot slow it down!"
"No, you can't. Nor can anyone." She hesitated. "Maybe that's why you are here with us. Maybe this is what you are to learn from your time with us: what it means to live a mortal life."
"You're right. I know you are right. I'll try to learn. I'll try to get used to it."
She sat behind him and rubbed his shoulders where his muscles knotted up at times like this. Corli shook her head, thinking of how her wise and powerful husband was sometimes more like a child.
"I know you'll try. And I know you'll never be able to get used to it. Your heart is too open, my Grey Man. It's too big, too warm. You've never learned how to shield it to protect yourself when you have to, and I wonder if you ever will." She paused. "Are you sure you want to stay, Olorin? Are you certain that you want to go through all of this? I would understand if you did not. I would understand."
He twisted from where he was sitting with his back to her on the bench-high stone at the edge of the oaks and drew her into him. He buried his face into the side of her neck. She felt a warm glow fill her, not as strong as it had one night nearly ten years ago, but with the same sense of joy and wonder.
"Oh yes," he whispered. "I want to stay, Corli. I'm sure."
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