The Old Grey Wizard
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A Mortal Life: 26. A Stranger Passes Through
Chapter 25 A Stranger Passes Through
It was late afternoon on a fine clear autumn day. A copper-haired girl knelt in a field of herbs, pulling weeds, when she heard a muffled clip, clop. Her head popped up. A horse, and coming up their lane! A visitor! They never had visitors. She sat up and stared, open-mouthed, at a long-bearded man on a magnificent black horse with a splash of white on its forehead. The man had dark hair with wide streaks of grey at both temples and down the middle of his beard. He wore a grey cape and strange looking broad-brimmed hat with a tall crown that came to a point.
The man had a stern look on his face. He gazed back and forth across their fields. He even searched the treetops. Whatever was he looking for? She worked up her courage and got to her feet. She curtsied low and called out.
"Good day, sire. Good health upon you and your family!"
He pulled up on the reins and stared down at the girl. He had been so intent on studying the property and marking how unchanged it was in eighty-seven years, that he had not noticed the youngster at her work. Her red hair shone brilliant in the slanting sun, and her eyes were golden-green. She smiled up at him.
"And good health upon you and your family," he said softly. "What is your name, young Princess?"
She giggled. Princess! She was as far from royalty as anyone could get!
"My name is Corli, sire, but I am no princess!"
She thought the look he gave her was very strange. He had smiled at last, but there was sadness in his sparkling grey eyes.
"Ah!" he said. "Do not let anyone ever tell you that, for you are a princess among princesses, and are as royal as any queen who ever bore a crown of gold...and as beautiful! If I may, Lady Corli, I would like to speak to your mother. Is she at home?"
The child's smile vanished and her face fell.
"Mama died...last fall," she whispered.
"Oh, I am so sorry."
The man dismounted and took off his hat. He crouched onto one knee near the girl and placed his hand very gently on her shoulder.
"It is hard, isn't it, to lose someone you love?" She nodded. "Take it from me, an old and seasoned traveller: you will never truly forget the one you have lost, because it wouldn't be right. And you don't really want to."
She looked up. "Have you lost someone, sire?"
He nodded solemnly. "I have. It was many years ago, but I still miss her very much, and I think of her every day."
Corli flushed and bit her lip. "Papa says that the past is done, and that I should forget...but I can't."
He frowned at the ground for a moment before he looked up again. His gaze was intense, but he smiled gently.
"I have always believed that we should honor our loved ones who have died and think of them as often as we can, even if doing so hurts. If you remember her and love her inside your heart, then your mother will live on in your memory. Perhaps your Papa loved your Mama so much, that he can't bear to think of it, because of all the pain it brings him. But not all tears are an evil."
He brushed away a few of the sparkling drops that had begun to stream down the girl's face. Then he stood and caught his horse's reins in his hand.
"I should go and find your father, Corli. I'll come back and speak to you again before I leave."
Mithrandir mounted his horse and rode forward. He was astonished at how little the place had changed. Everything looked and smelled nearly the same as he had left it. The scent of herbs, so sweet! But smoke, too, more than seemed usual--and some deeper odor, reminiscent of the concoction that tanners used for hides. Many trees had been felled, some had rotted. Someone was trimming away the dead branches of the few that remained, probably someone who did not share his fondness for crows. The cottage seemed unchanged, still thatched and snug. But the cozy little hut was gone, replaced with a tired looking shack of wooden slats. And he had to admit the old barn was looking rather the worse for wear.
A man with curly hair and thick limbs appeared from around the end of the barn.
"You there! This lane don't lead nowhere. What's your business here?"
The man looked a little like Schlain--maybe a great-great-grandson. But his gruff voice was anything but friendly.
"Greetings, sir. I was just passing by. I once lived in these parts, and I was curious to see if my old friends still owned this property."
The man eyed him warily. "This property's been in my wife's family for years and years. Ain't no one else owned it. I never heard her talk of no friend like you."
"Ah. Well, I may have made a mistake."
"You have. Good day, then."
He had been dismissed. He wondered why he had come. Even if someone had remembered, he didn't look the same as when they knew him. No one would remember any stories about a bearded man dressed all in grey. Only Corli—his Corli--knew him that way, never his children, except for the youngest, and he only briefly. He was about to turn the horse and ride back up the lane when he happened to notice what it was that the man was doing near the barn. He was dragging a carcass: a thick-furred, short-legged, striped carcass. He was about to skin it.
Mithrandir leapt from his horse and crossed to the man in a flash.
"What are you doing?"
The man started and scowled. He held a skinning knife in his hand, now raised.
"What business is it of yours?"
The wizard's eyes glittered with fury. His voice was low.
"Why have you killed that badger?"
The man snorted. "I killed the whole lot of 'em. Been trying to rid this farm of that menace for over a year. Stubborn beasts, damned hard to kill. Finally poisoned 'em. Got the last one out of that old den today. And poison don't spoil their pelts, nor their claws. I'll get something for 'em. Now, get off my farm, before I call my dogs on you!"
The wizard stared at the dead badger, his fists clenched. Then he retreated, mounted his horse and rode back up the lane. As he approached the field where the child Corli worked, he slowed his horse to a stop.
Corli watched as he reached into his saddlebag and withdrew something shiny. She saw a flash of green as he dropped it into the dust of the road.
"What was that, sire?"
"A gift, child. A remembrance." He looked down at her from high up in the saddle. "Not a remembrance of me. I would that you think of it as a memento of your mother. Do you know, Corli, who your mother was?"
"Er..." The girl hesitated. "She was a healing woman, if that's what you mean..."
"Yes," he said solemnly. "And she was very skilled in her art, wasn't she?"
"Yes, sire, that's what all the neighbors say."
"Did you know that your mother was descended from a long and famous line of healing women? Her mother, and her grandmother, and all those who came before her were the most skilled healers in all these lands. And you, child, are of that line. You have your mother's blood, and her ancestral skills are in you." He regarded her sternly. "You must seek training, so that you too can hone the skills you have and become another great healer. Do not let anyone, or anything stop you. Become a healer, Corli, in honor of your mother." He glanced down at the token he had left in the road. "There may come a time when you are in need. Do not hesitate to trade this gift's value to achieve your goals. It is more important that you find your life's true path than that you cling too tightly to something that is but a symbol."
The girl got to her feet and began to walk toward the road. She was burning with curiosity to see the shiny thing up close.
"It might be best to wait until I am gone," he said quietly. "And if I were you, I might consider keeping this gift to myself. Keep it as...our secret."
She stopped and waited.
He smiled slowly. "The green stone is called beryl, Corli. I believe it is quite valuable. And know this: the beryl is a token of hope, to the Elves. May it be the same for you."
The man in the grey cloak bowed his head to her. "Goodbye, Princess Corli. May Sun and Moon safely light your path, and may Starlight always bring you joy. And may the blessings of the One be upon you."
H reached around behind him to where his hat hung from the back of his saddle. He swept it up, plopped it on his head and grinned.
"One last bit of advice: never travel far without a hat!"
And with that he flicked the reins, and his horse cantered away.
Corli waited until he had reached the curve in the lane. Then she scampered to the road and reached down quickly. She looked back toward the cottage and the barn. Her father's back was turned. He hadn't seen anything. Her heart raced as she placed the object in her pocket. She would have to study the silver necklace with its green gem later, at night, when Papa was snoring.
The girl looked up the lane. The man with the grey cloak was already gone. She hadn't even asked him his name! She hadn't thanked him at all! She felt in her pocket and sighed. She would always remember him--her Grey Man—and she set her resolve to do exactly what he had advised.
As Mithrandir reached the edge of the property, he looked up. A web of fine blue strands still hung around the farm, completely surrounding it. Only a few filaments had broken over the years, leaving just a few holes in the finely woven net.
He raised his hand. He muttered to himself and closed his eyes. When he opened them, the strands shimmered in the early evening breeze. He commanded the protective net to remain until the girl, Corli, left the farm for the last time; then the filaments would dissolve.
He rode away, and he never returned to that part of Middle Earth again.
The End... at least, of this part of the story...
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