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A Mortal Life: 6. The Arlindon Market

Chapter 5         The Arlindon Market



June came, and Corli's friend Frin paid a visit. Frin was a healer from the other side of the ridge, and she'd driven three hours to purchase a fresh batch of Corli's famous herbs. The man watched from the barn. He paused from sweeping the used straw from the horses' stalls to wave as she arrived. He liked Frin. She was sharp-tongued and honest, and had a wicked, rather bawdy sense of humor. She had a wild mass of wavy brown curls and dark walnut eyes. Frin followed Corli out to the hut and emerged with sacks. He noticed the glint of a few coins drop from hand to hand. They stood laughing for some time after the business transaction was completed. Then their voices fell and the laughter ceased. Their faces seemed suddenly filled with worry. The women embraced, and the visitor climbed into her cart and rode away. 


He looked up. Corli headed toward him with a troubled scowl on her face.


"What is it? What did Frin say?"


"Is Nod here?" She looked around for the boy.


"He's taken the horses to the pasture. Why?"


"There's awful news. There's to be another market, next week. In Arlindon."


He couldn't see what was awful about a market in Arlindon.


"Market? What's wrong with that?"


"No ordinary market; a slave market, man!" Her voice fell to a hush. "They've brought a cartload from down south, Frin says. A dozen. They'll be sold next week."


His eyes smoldered. He'd been pondering for months how best to help the slaves still held in thrall on the farm of Bramblewood without causing too much of a stir. But now more were arriving. He couldn't waste time pondering any longer. That night when Nod was asleep he coaxed her outdoors and told her what was on his mind.


"I plan to go to Arlindon for this market."


She stared. "What? Are you mad? You'll be seen!"


"Corli, all your neighbors already know that I'm living here. No one will take the least notice…"


"It's not my neighbors I'm worried about. It's that gang from Arlindon! And why on earth do you want to go to the market, anyway?"


"Because I want to see it for myself."


"Just when I think I understand you, you up and say something half crazy. Why would you ever want to see such a thing?"


His face was stern. "Because I must learn about such things. It's time…" 


He stopped short of finishing his thought, which was it's time I got back to work.


"Time! Time to get yourself killed, is it?" she shouted. "What more do you need to 'learn' about men's evil ways? You didn't learn enough of that by the riverbank? Those fellows who tried to murder you will certainly be there! Their leader is kin to the slave owner, and he'll be all tied up in this dirty business, you can be sure…"


"We'll be in a public square. They wouldn't do anything with a crowd watching..."


"Wait a moment!" She sputtered. "'We!' Do you expect me to go with you, you madman?"


"We can't hide on the farm forever, Corli. You were saying yourself, just the other day, how we're running low of things you can only purchase in town. I'm in need of a new pair of boots. And you've been quite fortunate this spring, I suspect, having not had to make a single call on a bed bound maid or a woman due to deliver. That won't last. We'd better get used to going about again."


She admitted that at least part of his argument was sensible. If they had to go into town, better to go on a day when the whole countryside would be there watching and the ruffians would be less likely to attack them. 


"But that still leaves the way there and the way back, long miles of lonely road."


"True. But as I keep saying, we can't hide here forever."


He was determined to go himself, and he wanted her to go along. But that meant, of course, that they must leave Nod at home alone; even he agreed that they couldn't take the boy into town. Corli fretted about it until he took her face in his hands and forced her to look in his eyes.


"Corli, will you trust me? He will be safe. I promise there is no safer place for him to be for a hundred leagues in any direction than here on this farm."


She stared into the grey depths of his eyes and sighed. Her heart believed him, though her head couldn't imagine how he could be so certain. At last Corli agreed to go.


 ***


Arlindon's rude huts looked more like a sickly patch of mushrooms that had sprouted around a rotting stump than a town. It sat at a meeting of roads that trailed away south and east. The north and west paths were little used and overgrown with weeds, but there was plenty of traffic for the ramshackle collection of traders and shopkeepers that made their homes in Arlindon. Farmers and artisans from all around brought their goods to sell in the lopsided square twice every summer and once in the fall. On market days the town overflowed with people, and grimy little Arlindon turned festive and bright.


An old fortress was perched on a rocky hill just a quarter mile from the crossroads. The half ruined tower commanded a view of the countryside in three directions. Once it had been well kept and well manned. Old legend said it was a minor outpost of the King far away to the west. But the kingdom's borders shifted, and the king's men had abandoned it. Others had taken root within the stone walls. A string of chieftains had used it. Then a series of strong men occupied it: men with loud voices and rough ways who took pleasure in pushing weaker men around.


The latest of these bullies was named Jarek, who before "settling down" had made his living on the road as what he called a "toll-collector." He found it much easier and safer to collect "tolls" from the soft and feeble traders of Arlindon or travelers who passed directly beneath the fortress walls. Jarek's boys were always available to persuade anyone who objected to the payments. And Jarek gladly accepted payment of another kind. He made late night visitations to the huts of traders who were unable to afford his fees—as long as they had wives or daughters. Sometimes the toll-collector made his visits regardless of whether he'd been paid, and if he met resistance, well, he was bigger and stronger than any poor trader or frightened female.


Jarek's cousin Morgo owned the big estate of Bramblewood, which for generations had been a series of large fields for grazing placid dairy cows. But ten years ago, milk-fever had destroyed most of his herd, and anyway, the milk and cheese business had far too slim a margin of profit to satisfy the landowner's greed. Morgo was determined to grow sweet roots that could be made into sugar. As sources of sugar were scarce in the north, the earnings to be had in such an enterprise were great. But though the roots grew well enough in Morgo's manure-enriched soil, the crop required much crawling on hands and knees. From planting to cultivating to digging up the harvest, to the endless toil of boiling down the juice from mashed roots, his scheme required a lot of labor. He figured the cheaper the labor, the better. Cousin Jarek had contacts all along the road that led away to strange lands in the south, and friends of friends who knew men who traded in human beings. Morgo became a slave owner.


Over the course of too many hard winters Morgo had lost a third of his twenty slaves. Some had died as a result of the backbreaking work, and he'd sold a few in lean years. One he'd had to kill outright. He'd regretted that; the man was strong as an ox and valuable. But he'd been impossible to subdue. 


Only one had ever escaped from him: a child, the son of two slaves he'd bought and purchased with his own coin and thus indisputably his property. The slave boy had slipped from him not just once, but twice. It rankled that neither Jarek and his boys nor Morgo's crew had succeeded in retrieving the boy the second time he escaped. And the hired men were now refusing to even try, babbling some wild story about a magical spell that protected the runaway. Superstitious fools. 


He and Jarek shared a jug and boasted of going to do the job themselves. But that was just talk. They had more important things to think about. Jarek had found good cargo, and Morgo wanted at least half the shipment. He didn't care who bought the rest. He knew that others in the region were emulating his ways. Market day would be interesting.


 ***


The weather was fine and sunny, and the Grey Man soon had Corli laughing and distracted from her worries. As they bounced along in the slow-moving cart he convinced her to begin his apprenticeship as a healer, which they had discussed many times. At first she had scoffed, saying men, with their warlike ways, could not possibly learn such a gentle art. But he had worn her down with a dozen examples of male healers in other lands he had known. He had appealed to her sense of fairness, for, he'd said, he was hardly warlike, and would only fight in defense. She had agreed, in theory, to teach him, but somehow they had never found the time.


"What a perfect day to start, Corli! We have hours to ride, and the sound of your voice is music to me. Teach me, Mistress. Begin at the very beginning."


She tossed her hand. "I don't know where the beginning might be in such an enormous topic!" But once she started she kept talking all the way to the outskirts of the town. "My! Here we are already. I hardly saw an inch of the road."


His head was spinning with a jumble of cures and remedies and the names of dozens of plants, most of which he'd never known existed. He was going to have to write it all down or it would fade away. 


But while he'd listened he had also wondered whether he'd made a mistake in asking her to accompany him. He knew what he wanted to do. He felt certain that the presence of a large, curious crowd would discourage any who might want to interfere with his plans. He was more prepared this time; he wouldn't let down his guard or underestimate anyone. But why had he asked Corli to come? He could use her help, of course, if he succeeded, and he counted on success. But maybe he just wanted her to see him at work. Perhaps he was merely showing off for her.


And why hadn't he told her what he was planning? He hadn't wished to frighten her, it was true. He hadn't wanted more arguments or pleading. But didn't that really mean that he didn't trust her? He thought he trusted her. Or did he doubt, deep inside, the chance he would succeed? He'd never felt doubt before. He'd never wondered whether to confide his plans in anyone before. There had never been anyone before.


He shook his head, perplexed at his own pitiful humanity. He hardly knew his own motives. His heart was too confounding even for his own mind to read with any certainty. He really was a mortal man. It was rather embarrassing.


They reached a bare field on the edge of town where dozens of carts and wagons had already pulled off the road. The Grey Man hoisted a leather sack over his shoulder. She heard the clink of metal as he shifted it.


"What's that? You've brought coin, then?"


"Certainly. It is market day, after all."


Soon they were making their slow way through the crowded square. Men, women and children pressed in on all sides, and more arrived every minute. Hundreds of excited voices mixed into a rising din. They had to shout into each other's ears to be heard. 


Along the outside of the square stood displays of hand-made goods of every description: finely woven cloth, scented oils, tanned leathers, crockery, lamps, harnesses, tools, woodcarvings, hats and boots. On the next ring inward were tables laden with food stuffs of all kinds: smoked meats, aromatic cakes, dripping honeycombs still buzzing with bees, jams, pickles, spices, dried fruits, jugs of wine, and casks of ale. Next were the vendors selling food and drink meant to be consumed on the spot. The sizzle of roasting mutton blended with the aroma of toasted nuts and the yeasty scent of beer.


Down a side street were a dozen more traders with live songbirds, piglets, lambs, hens and roosters, fresh eggs, and hunting hounds; temporary stables were at the back. Along another, smiths had set up tables laden with glittering copper and silver jewelry. The smiths kept a sharp eye out for thieves while their assistants took orders for more practical items: buckles, daggers and the occasional sword. Performers drew a gaping crowd wherever they stopped: dancers, jugglers, fiddlers, pipers, drummers, fire-eaters, fortune-tellers and magicians. Drifting through the crowd were swift pickpockets and ragged beggars--and the hard-eyed, desperate ones, whose only item for sale was the use of their own flesh. As varied as the sights and colors, the sounds of the Arlindon market were an even more complex blend of laughter, hawkers calling loudly, the bleating of lambs, whistles, screeches, banging, clanging and ten different tunes playing at once.


It took them over an hour to push through to the back of the square. There, a large platform had been raised. Stairways led to its surface from the right and the left. On the stage stood a small wooden shack with no windows and one thick door, bolted and padlocked. Those who peeked under the platform could see that a ladder rose from the packed dirt of the street to a trapdoor in the bottom, also bolted from the outside. On either side of the platform were posts, and at the top of each post a heavy iron ring had been affixed. Two wooden benches sat near one of the posts.


The Grey Man stood watching the platform in silence. He seemed deaf and blind to the frantic, colorful cacophony that swirled around them. Corli stood in front of him, the top of her head just fitting beneath his chin. She leaned into him, feeling rather than hearing his deep slow breaths. He had one hand on her shoulder, and with the other he held fast to the leather bag. 


Corli soon realized that he'd never intended to do any shopping for supplies today, not even for boots. This was why he had come: to see this. And she didn't understand it any better, now that they were here, than she had the night he'd first spoke of his urge to witness it. Why would anyone in his right mind want to see this ugly display? Surely he wasn't one of those who found such things entertaining--or was he? How well did she know him, after all?


She wanted to pull his ear down to her mouth and shout questions, but she didn't. Something told her he wouldn't answer. So she stood and waited, as the market day wore on and the sun beat down on their heads and others who had come just for the spectacle packed in around them. 


They had been standing silently for half an hour when the sound in the square faded; the hawkers ceased shouting, the babble of voices fell to a mutter. The music faltered and quit. She felt him press against her as the crowd surged forward and jostled to get the best view. The slave market was about to begin.


The Grey Man recognized the man who strutted up the stairs, a ring of keys in his hand. It was the big man, the gang leader of the mob who'd been hunting Nod: the one with the cudgel. He swaggered to the shack and banged on the door with his fist.


"You! Heads up in there! Get up off the floor, you lazy louts. You'll be coming out soon, and you'd better behave, or you'll feel it in your skins."


Lost to everyone in the square but the Grey Man, whose hearing was keen, was the muffled clanking of iron as a dozen chained people struggled to stand inside the shack. How long had they been shut in that airless box? He shuddered. Maybe Corli was right, maybe it was madness to be here. Even if he succeeded, what good would it really do? He could do nothing to stop this same scene from playing out in other towns, other markets, from the ice bound sea of the north all the way to the bottom of the world. Why had he come? Then he thought of the people in the shack, and his jaw hardened.


"Coming through, let us by, coming through!" someone shouted.


A half-dozen burly thugs, a few of whom he recognized from his day at the riverbank, forced a way through the crowd. A corpulent but finely dressed man, an oily, nervous looking fellow and three other sullen men arrived and climbed up. The oily man slithered to join the big brute while the others took their seats. Buyers and sellers, he thought. Well, they don't know it yet, but they're missing someone. Most of the guards arranged themselves around the outside of the platform, arms crossed, clubs and knives at the ready. Two went to join the big man near the shack. Both had whips tucked in their belts.


The oily man glanced at the fat one; he nodded. Oily signaled Big. He unlocked the door to the shack and opened it. The crowd fell silent. Shadows moved in the darkness.


The big man stepped into the shack and loosed a string of invectives. When he emerged he had an iron ring in one fist. It was attached to one end of a long chain. Sections of chain connected two dozen smaller rings that were bolted to two dozen heavy shackles. Within each shackle was a human wrist.


Six men, four women and a girl and a boy shuffled out, blinking in the glaring sunlight. All were naked. Wave after wave of whispering and muttering voices reached them. Hundreds of pairs of eyes stared at them. The big man and his two assistants affixed the ends of the chain to the posts on either side of the platform. They arranged the slaves every few feet, shoving and slapping them if they weren't standing correctly. The whips were uncoiled and snapped threateningly. Corli saw that on several shoulders and legs, the whips had already been tested.


The Grey Man had traveled south for more than a century in search of evidence of Sauron. It had been his first long journey. Though he'd heard only whispers of the Enemy, and no tangible trace, he had spent his time well, learning of the peoples of the south and their ways. What was it they had called him? The word meant 'pale northern spy' or 'inquisitive traveler from the icy north;' the only folk who had named him for the tint of his skin and not his robe or his hair. But he'd had no grey on his head then. 


He scanned the faces. He recognized the presence of at least two entirely different folk in this group of twelve. No one else had noticed, apparently, for the two unlike types had been jumbled together. 


Two of the men and two of the women were several inches taller than the rest. Their limbs were slender, their noses were narrower, and their skin was a shade lighter than the others. The women wore their hair in long braided strands, and the men shaved their scalps close. One allowed a beard to grow on his face. He knew that these were the herders of the great grasslands, proud and fierce people who counted wealth in the number of cattle and wives their men could keep. They measured a young man's courage by his age when he killed his first lion. He remembered long spears and elaborate beaded jewelry, clothing dyed in startling shades of red and purple. He studied one woman's narrow face. Her cheeks were dotted with evenly spaced scars in rows that encircled her eyes. How strange, he thought, and yet, how interesting. The memory of the vile drink they relished, of cattle blood and milk mixed together, rose in his throat.  


The others, including the children, were thicker boned, more muscular and darker in the hue of their skin. Their faces were rounder, lips fuller, noses broad, hair worn in a tightly curled cap. The men were clean-faced without a trace of beard. These people were much more numerous than the others, and spoke dozens of variant tongues. They were traders, farmers and forest hunters, fishermen and craftsmen. Some built great cities of sun-baked brick, while others lived in networks of villages. There were interlocking kingdoms bordered by swift brown rivers and lakes that seemed as wide as the sea, and as salty. Some of their realms were ruled by kings, others by a council of noblemen; still others by election of the most capable, regardless of his parentage. Their artisans created giant masks and intricate carvings of black wood and stone, baskets so tightly woven they were used as water vessels, cloths as beautiful as the finest northern tapestry, and far more brilliantly colored. The women walked with serene elegance, carrying their burdens balanced on their covered heads. He remembered how his heart caught when they smiled.


They weren't smiling now. They'd been torn from their homes, mistreated and brought here like so many cattle. An ignorant slaver had mixed them randomly. There was animosity between some of these people in their native lands. Some, in fact, traded in slavery themselves, selecting victims from enemy tribes for the first sale in the long terrible path toward the north or the east. How had they fared, far from home, flung into common adversity because of a similar skin color? Had old hatreds survived enslavement? If the chains were released, would they work together or fight among themselves?


While the Grey Man studied the captives and pondered their origins, the oily slave dealer walked down the row. His voice rang out over the square.


 "These savages of the wild and sultry South are more animal than human! Have any of you heard them speak? It sounds more like hooting and howling than language." He paused for the ripple of laughter that ran through the crowd. His voice fell to a hush. "Their gods require human sacrifice. These folk eat the flesh of children—the lighter skinned, the better," he whispered. A gasp of horror came from the square. "Left to themselves, they are as bloodthirsty as ravening beasts!" The dealer looked scornfully along the line of chained people. "And they were caught like beasts, in traps and nets, by brave Northern hunters risking their lives to tame the barbarians and put their uncanny strength to use." The Grey Man looked away in revulsion. 


The slave dealer watched the crowd, gauging his audience. He'd done this before; he knew how to perform. At each individual he stopped to declaim. Height and weight, strength, temperament, number of intact teeth, prior pregnancies, proven virility: these were the attributes discussed. No names were used--no names were known. The buyers leaned forward in their chairs, making marks on scraps of parchment, huddling together to discuss prices. The finely dressed man sat back and yawned.


The Grey Man noticed him and leaned down to Corli. "That one: who is he?" he muttered into her ear.


She sneered. "Morgo, the master of the estate."


"Hmm. I thought so."


The preliminaries were finished. The auction was about to begin. Now the buyers had the opportunity to take a closer look at their potential purchases. They rose from the chairs and began a slow promenade down the line. The murmuring of the crowd grew louder. The buyers had the right to look in mouths, examine nostrils, pinch muscles, and fondle whatever they liked. 


The estate owner lingered long in examining one woman whose breasts were full and whose belly was beginning to swell. Around and around her he paced, leering and touching. The Grey Man watched her face, as rigid and proud as if carved of wood. A few snickers and whistles broke out from the crowd; others clucked their tongues or made faint sounds of pity. Most remained silent. Morgo smiled for his audience and gave a broad wink. Half the crowd erupted in laughter. The rest looked at the ground.


"That's enough! I've seen enough," the Grey Man said roughly. 


He grasped Corli's shoulder and faced her. His eyes had never looked so fierce. 


"Don't follow me, Corli. Don't try to stop me. If I succeed, I shall need your help. But if things go ill, get out of here as fast as you can."


Her jaw fell. "What are you going to…"


But he was already gone. She stared as he pushed through the press of people. He took the stairs two at a time and in three seconds he stood on the platform. The thugs, hired to prevent just such a disruption, stood gaping from the level of the street. The muttering of the throng grew louder. The buyers and the slave dealer pointed and snarled.


"Who's that?" 


"Get him out of here!"


"Jarek, do your job! Get this intruder off the stage!"


The big man approached the stranger.


"Here now! You can't come up here, only registered buyers allowed…"


He stopped, white-faced and open-mouthed, as he saw who stood before him. 


"You!" The big man's voice was a husky whisper.


Grey eyes flickered. The Grey Man raised his voice so that even those pushed to the corners of the square could hear. Silence fell as all listened.


"How nice to finally learn your name, Jarek. I didn't catch it at our last encounter; we were so busy exchanging other forms of greeting." 


His tone dropped low so only Jarek could hear him. 


"I didn't get a chance to thank you for stopping your bloodthirsty friend from filling me with pins, as he put it. But then you showed yourself to be as bloodthirsty as he. Aren't you the man who broke my nose before you left me skewered to the ground to be eaten by wolves? That wasn't very kindly of you, was it, Jarek?"


They had not found the stranger's remains the next morning, it was true, but Jarek and the others had seen the blood stains on the trampled grass and concluded the wolves had been well satisfied. No one could have survived those arrows, all those wounds! He'd come back from death! Jarek was sure he stood before a ghost—or even worse, some sort of sorcerer, and one of great power. His hands jerked with terror.


"You…you…get away! D…Don't touch me!  I…I was just doin' my job!"


The Grey Man leaned forward. His eyes twinkled as he pursed his lips and blew a puff of air at Jarek's face. 


"Ei! No!"


Jarek shrieked, turned on his heel and ran. The crowd roared and jeered as he pushed his way through the throng and fled. The Grey Man placed his fist on his hip and watched, smiling crookedly.


Now the dealer and the remaining guards closed in on where he stood. The buyers were close behind, all yelling and shouting at once. The slave dealer pushed to the fore. Six men with knives drawn or clubs in hand circled around him.


"All right, what's the meaning of this? Who are you, and what do you want?" 


At that moment, Corli, who had been watching in horrified fascination, realized with a shock that the Grey Man had left his staff in the cart. Her heart froze. He was defenseless, though what good a staff would be against knives and clubs, she wasn't sure. What to do: run to the cart and fetch it, or stay and watch? She stared, unable to move.


"What I want…" he boomed in the loudest and clearest voice anyone there had ever heard, "…is to buy these people. All twelve! I will pay ten gold coins--each." 


He tossed the leather bag at the dealer's feet. The thin strap that held it closed unwound itself. Gold clinked and slithered out. The crowd gasped and surged forward.


"Look at that!"


"All that gold!"


The other buyers began protesting. "See here, he isn't properly registered. He can't just come up here and bully his way in!" 


"Not fair, not fair at all." 


"Most irregular! This man ought to be taken away at once." 


The last comment drew a few snickers from the crowd. From the vantage point of the street it was clear how uneasy the bearded stranger made the guards feel. Their boss had shrieked in terror and abandoned them; what were they supposed to do? They shuffled their feet and cautiously backed away.


Morgo elbowed his way to the front. The slave dealer knelt on the boards, excitedly counting coins. He had expected no more than ten gold coins total in profit this day. His hands shook with delight. The estate owner looked down.


"Sentus, you greedy bastard, you can't take his money. You know what he'll do with them, don't you? He'll let the lot of them go!" 


Sentus glanced up and laughed.


"He can do whatever he pleases with them! His gold's as good as yours--better, since there's considerably more of it!"


Morgo spat on the floor next to Sentus; he ignored it. Morgo glared into the stranger's face.


"You must be the one I been hearing about. You've taken up with that witch. You got my slave boy out on her place!" 


He swung toward the crowd and pointed straight at Corli. Everyone standing near her took a step backward and stared. She glared at Morgo, hatred on her face.


The Grey Man reached out and placed one long finger on Morgo's shoulder. With no apparent effort, he turned the man around until he was facing him again. Morgo's eyes widened. He glanced down at his shoulder as if expecting to see an iron hook impaling his flesh. His jaw fell as he stared into glittering eyes. The Grey Man didn't raise his voice, but it was so quiet now that he could be heard to the back of the square.


"Allow me to clarify a few things, Master Morgo. One, I will not take it well if you ever point at Mistress Corli again, or indeed if you ever speak her name aloud, or even think anything but kind and generous thoughts toward her. Two, there are no slaves on Mistress Corli's farm; there never have been, and there never will be. Three, I advise you to find a different crop. From what I hear, the price of sugar is about to plummet. You'll soon find yourself with a useless investment that I think you'll be only too happy to be rid of, and at a bargain price. Do you understand me, Morgo?"


The man's jowls trembled as he nodded. He moved sideways and slunk back to his bench. No one laughed. Morgo was the richest and most important man for a hundred miles around. The crowd watched in silence.


Sentus had finished counting. He stuffed the coins back into the leather pouch, clutching a handful like a child unable to let go of a few precious sweets. Sentus grinned widely and dragged the heavy sack toward the head of the stairs.


"Fair price, sir, fair price! You got yourself a bargain, Master! A dozen excellent workers, and promise of generations of labor to follow. Good breeding stock, sir, excellent. Fair price!"


The Grey Man looked at Sentus with distaste. The dealer's grin evaporated and he began to shake. Gold fell from his fist and rolled off the platform. A dozen men shouted and dove for the coins, scrambling and fighting.


"There is no such thing as a fair price for twelve people," the wizard said. "But for that much gold I expect you'll be accommodating?" The dealer flinched and nodded. "Good. Included in the price was the cart that brought them here, and the horses that drew it. If you have a second cart or wagon, I'll take that too, and the horses for it. You will also provide their clothing." 


Sentus now shook so strongly that he could hardly stand. 


"It seems that the gentleman with the keys to those chains—Jarek, I believe--has taken leave of us. Poor Jarek, perhaps he wasn't feeling well in this heat. I need those keys, Sentus. You will get them from him immediately." 


The dealer nodded vigorously. The crowd laughed nervously, and a few clapped. Jarek had no friends in Arlindon, except those he bought


"Oh yes, one last thing. Water. Bring plenty of water."  The slave dealer stared as if rooted to the spot. The Grey Man's thick brows rose. He jabbed his finger toward the square. "Go!"


Sentus hurried off with the sack of money clutched in both arms. Morgo had already slipped away, and the remaining men on the platform retreated in confusion. Soon, only thirteen people remained on the stage.


The crowd slowly dispersed as music and the calls of hawkers began again. The show seemed to be over, and they were losing interest in gaping at the naked slaves. They had been given much to discuss, and most were pleased with the public humiliation of Jarek. No one really liked Morgo, either, although few had ever dared to say so aloud. Everyone was talking at once as they went to find some of that food and drink they'd noticed earlier.


Corli forced her way forward against the flow of people. She reached the stairs, climbed up and began crossing the platform toward the Grey Man. She wasn't at all sure what she was going to say. Her head was bursting with conflicting thoughts: he was mad, he was a wonder; she loved him for doing such an amazing thing, she hated him for taking such an idiotic risk. But she stopped short. 


He stood with his arms stretched out, trying to encompass the twelve captives but unable to, because they were chained and he couldn't reach wide enough. She caught words--lilting sounds that were entirely unfamiliar. He was speaking a language that she never knew existed. And some of the people in the chains were listening, nodding, their faces rapt.


She waited, transfixed. Now the sounds changed; the words seemed sharper, crisper. Was it another tongue? Yes, she could see different heads turn toward him and stare, startled, and begin to nod. The woman chained right in front of him reached out and clutched his hand, weeping. She fell to her knees and pressed his hand to her face. He shook his head and frowned. He tried to raise her, but she refused to move. Corli smiled faintly at what he did next. He knelt next to the woman, leaned forward and embraced her. She trembled in his arms and buried her face in his hair.


 "Incanus?" one of the men called to him. Corli saw the Grey Man turn and beam, nodding. She heard him whisper.


"Yes, Incanus! That was the name, that's what they called me. By the stars, someone still remembers!"


 Sentus returned with keys jangling. With him were two of the guards, who hung back, wide-eyed. They carried bundles of ragged clothes and four jugs of water. The slave dealer spoke in a wavering stammer. 


"Your carts'll be brought round to the square, sir. Mules, not horse, sir. I hope that'll do. Hardier beasts, I've found. Best load this lot through the trapdoor, that way none of 'em can make a run for it. And I thought you might be wanting this, sir." 


He extended his trembling hand. In it was a braided leather whip.


If the Grey Man's eyes looked fierce before, they were calm compared to the fury Corli saw in them now. He glared at the slaver until she wondered if he might melt into a puddle. The murmur of talk among the captives fell into silence. Everyone turned to watch. Finally his eyes dropped. He took the whip, examined it, and handed it back.


"I won't be needing this. And if I'm not mistaken, you won't be either. Now go away, Sentus, and find another profession. A hundred and twenty gold coins is the fresh start you've been waiting for, isn't it? You've done enough of this kind of work."


Sentus turned pale and choked, then turned and ran. Whether he gave up slaving or not, Corli never heard. She stepped forward, and without a word she picked up a water jug and gave each captive a long drink while he began at the opposite end of the line, unlocking the chains and shackles. They met in the middle.


"Corli, I didn't want to frighten you even more by trying to explain…"


"Hush, there's too much to say, and no time to say it. There's folk here needing water and others needing their bonds unlocked. Keep at it, man!"


He pulled her to him and kissed her. She blushed at the wink and grin the next captive gave her as she brought water to him. Soon all were unlocked from their shackles. They sorted through the clothing, trying to find the right sizes and shapes. The Grey Man moved among them, speaking softly. Corli noted as he stood with a group of men, their heads drawn together. One nodded enthusiastically. The others looked at him and the Grey Man shook his hand. He'd been singled out--for what?


Now the Grey Man crossed to where she stood, bringing the other man with him. 


"Corli, this is Farased." Farased, a short, wiry and very dark-skinned young man, smiled widely and bowed. "He knows how to handle mules and has driven a cart. He'll drive the others to the farm. They'll follow you."


She stared. "But…but where will you be? Where are you going?"


"I'm going to pay a visit to Bramblewood. I'll take the second cart. When I get back to the farm I suspect your skills will be greatly needed, for no doubt the captives from the estate are in worse shape than these poor folk. You'll have to do what you can to soothe any hurts or sickness they have, so they can take the next step in the long journey to come."


There was more. She heard it in his voice. 


"Journey? What are you saying? Tell me."


He smiled sadly and placed his hand on her cheek. 


"They are going home, to the south. I am taking them home, and I cannot--I will not leave fourteen others out on Morgo's hateful property. They are all going."


She felt faint. "You're taking them…going away with them, away south, and leaving me behind…"


"I…I thought of asking you to come, Corli," he said hesitantly. "But you have responsibilities here, and a farm, and animals to see to, and the journey may well be perilous…" He continued in a rush. "You mustn't worry. The road south is as likely… more likely to be long and dull as dangerous. I will do everything I can to avoid trouble. And I will only go as far as I must to see them safely through…"


 "You knew all along!" she whispered as she turned her head away. "You've been planning this!"


He caught her hands and held them between his. She refused to look at him.


"We don't have much time. Morgo will only be cowed enough to sell the rest of them for a while before he comes to his senses…"


Her green eyes glittered as she finally turned toward him.


"Why didn't you tell me?"


It was his turn to look away. Maybe this was what Curumo had warned about: this confusion, these entangled choices. He was still so inexperienced. He had so much to learn. But he knew one thing with absolute certainty. His eyes met hers. 


"I... I am so sorry that I hurt you… I never meant to.... But now that we come to it, Corli, what other choice is there? They could each make his or her long way to the south lands alone, but that wouldn't be the best chance for most. Think of these children trying to find their way alone! Yet if they all go together, it seems clear that someone must go with them. Can you imagine two cartloads of these folk—some of them weak and sick, unable to speak the language--traveling south from here, through these parts, or half a dozen other dismal countries through which they must pass? Odds are they'd be taken and sold again in no time. I've done this much. It only makes sense that I help them get through the rest of the way. I'll come back as soon as they are safe."


She stared at his hands clutching hers. Her voice sounded hollow and thick with unshed tears.


"When will you go, then?"


She winced as the answer came.


"Tomorrow."


 ***


Corli drove up the lane to her house with the sound of a wagon full of laughing and singing strangers right behind her. She couldn't remember a single moment of the road from Arlindon to her farm. All she saw was the Grey Man's sad smile as he looked down at her and explained that he was about to leave on a dangerous journey of who knew how many hundreds of miles, for who knew how long. 


She slapped the traces over her mare's flanks in exasperation. "You'd better be back! You'd better!" Then she burst into tears. "No time for sniveling," she scolded herself. "There's a mountain of work to do." 


With a wide-eyed Nod at her side, she opened her storeroom and larders to them and brought out all the blankets and linens she owned. The yard between the house and the barn was filled with people and their voices speaking odd jarring languages and singing haunting music. It looked like the encampment of a small army. Cooking fires were lit, and strange smells wafted from her pots and kettles.   


 It was well after dark when the second wagonload of newly freed slaves arrived. Corli watched from her window as the others gathered around them and stared. Nod stood among them. The Grey Man loomed like a great shadow in the light of the fires. One by one he helped the newcomers climb out of the wagon. They were terribly thin, their eyes downcast. Some limped or staggered instead of walked. All had chafe marks on their wrists and ankles, and many were scarred from the whip. Corli the healer drew back from the window and sighed deeply.


"He said it true. This bunch is a sickly looking lot. Thank all the gods that Nod escaped from that vicious place. Go on, woman, get out there and do your best for them."


She and Nod worked together. The boy was eager to help his old friends. He scurried to bring cloth for binding their wrists when she called for more, and tried to guess which salves she'd want. Two of the women from the Arlindon slave market came forward to lend a hand. One had tiny scars encircling her dark eyes. Corli gazed at the pattern, amazed at how unusual, yet comely it looked. The woman caught her staring and a broad smile flashed. Her front teeth were rather crooked.


"Nelika," she murmured, pointing to herself.


Corli smiled and nodded. She tapped her breastbone. "Corli." 


With gestures and nods they managed to see to the hurts of all fourteen of the overworked and malnourished newcomers. Every last one was finally tended and fed. Corli straightened up at last, pressed her hands into the small of her back and groaned.


Corli looked around. Everyone was either already sleeping or was making ready to bed down for what remained of the warm June night. Her eyes scanned them. Nothing but dark faces, dark hair, dark eyes. Where was the Grey Man? She'd been so busy and distracted by the mass of need that she had failed to notice his absence. Where had he disappeared to? She remembered seeing him lifting the last one down from the wagon. Then where had he gone? 


She looked up; the stars had shifted. It was very late. She frowned, and walked quietly around the sleepers. She searched the barn. The sickest from Bramblewood were housed here. A few pairs of eyes shone from the darkness. No sight of the Grey Man. She went to the hut. It was empty. She walked to the edge of her fields and peered out toward the oak trees. She put her hands on her hips and scowled. Was he sulking out there somewhere? He'd hidden this elaborate plan from her; what else was he hiding? Was he afraid to come and talk with her before he went off on this horrible journey?   


Corli went into her house and lay on her bed, empty for the first time in months. She clenched her fists at her sides and stared at the ceiling, certain that she would never be able to sleep soundly again. 


She woke to the feeling of bristling hair brushing her cheek. It was light, and the Grey Man was leaning down to kiss her. She pushed him away and sat up. Her eyes stung as she glared.


"And where were you all night, you deceitful bastard?" she hissed.


He recoiled as though she'd slapped him. His eyes filled with pain. Instantly she hated her words.


"Oh, I'm sorry…sorry…" 


It was all she could get out as sobs shook her. She felt his arms wrap around her; she buried her face in his chest. He held her until it was over. His voice was hoarse.


"I am sorry that I deceived you--that I hurt you by keeping what I was planning from you. It was a mistake. I should have trusted you. And if there was any other way, you know I wouldn't do this. I wouldn't leave. But I must."


"Can't they go alone? Can't someone else do this?" she groaned.


"You know they cannot, Corli. And there is no one else."


"Why? Why must it be you?"


"It is why I am here," he said gently. "I came to stand against things like this. I was sent to try to help turn the tide toward better ways."


Corli clung harder. 'Why he was here?' 'Turn the tide?' What was he saying? His words made no sense. She was filled with confusion, suddenly afraid that the last few months had been nothing but a wild dream—one that was about to come to an abrupt end.


"Will you come back, Grey Man?"


"I will. I promise."


"Tell me…tell me your true name before you go."


He pulled back from her and took her face between his hands. He searched her eyes intently, and at once she remembered how he had searched the eyes of the men on that platform, as if he could see into their souls. Perhaps he could. Being caught in that fierce gaze was like falling backward off a cliff, endlessly falling, effortless and unstoppable. For the first time she saw the grey for what it was: a layer of fine ash covering a steady blaze within. Then his face softened and he smiled. Warmth flowed into her; she stopped falling. She felt her soul hook and catch on his smile. She thought she could be caught there forever.


"I shall tell you four things before I leave, Corli. First, Nod is going with us." 


Tears stung in her eyes, but it made sense. She'd known it, before he said it. Of course the child should go with them. She wiped her face and tried to smile.


"He is waiting to say his goodbyes when you come out. He is very sad to leave, for you have been mother and best friend to him. But once he learned where we were going, he begged to go along."          


He stood up and raised her to stand beside him at the window.


"Look, up in the trees, at the edge of the farm." He pointed with one hand and laid the other on her shoulder. "You see? Something shining in the sunlight?"


Corli had looked at the trees that surrounded her house every day of her life. She knew every trunk, every branch. What could there possibly be to see that she wouldn't have seen already a thousand times? She blinked. There, shimmering in the morning sun--she could see it now. A blue filigree web hung in the trees and enclosed her entire farm! How had she missed it before?


"What is it?" she whispered.


"A net. I wove it to protect you on the first night after I awakened. The net is enchanted. It will not allow anyone to pass who intends you ill. No one else can see it. That's how I kept those men away, Corli."


She gaped at him. "You really are a wizard!" 


He smiled sheepishly. "I suppose I am."


Corli looked back out the window and stared at the gleaming blue strands swaying slowly in the breeze. She reached up and clasped his hand as it lay on her shoulder.


"This is the second thing I have to tell you. I was away on an errand last night to make sure you will be as safe as can be while I'm gone. Stay within the boundary of the net as much as possible. But if you leave--as I know you will, to tend to one of the women who'll need you--I've arranged for some friends of mine to help. My friends have agreed to guard you. You might see them, and then again you might not, for they are very shy and clever. Not one of them will say a word to you, but if you do meet them, you may speak to them and they will understand. Don't be afraid of them. They would never harm you, and if you must leave the farm they will go with you. And if you are in trouble, just tell my friends and they'll do their best to help you and get word to me."


She frowned. Who were these friends? What on earth did all this mean? She opened her mouth to ask, but he went on.


"Third, when I return I promise I will tell you everything about me. I would do it right now, but there isn't time. It is a long tale, and one that most would find impossible to believe... I only hope you will believe it. But when I come back I will answer truthfully any question you ask, and speak as plainly as I can."


She squeezed his hand and closed her eyes. Clearly it was not in this man's—this wizard's--nature to speak plainly, however he might say otherwise. Corli wanted only one thing, one promise.


"Will you promise not to deceive me again by purposefully hiding something important from me?"


His other arm came around and enclosed her. He closed his eyes, buried his nose in her hair and took in a long slow breath before he responded.


"I promise. And last, dear Corli," he whispered into her hair, "let me tell you this. The closest I have to what you would call a proper name is Olorin. It is my oldest name, and only a handful in all of Middle Earth know it. Now I give it to you." He pulled back, and she saw that his eyes were shining. "And take this." 


He unfastened his cloak and swung it around her.


"It won't protect you. There is nothing of what you'd call magic about it. But it will do me good to know that some part of me is wrapped about you."


He stood before her and took both of her hands in his. "In my 'family,' the proper words to say when taking leave of someone is 'May the blessings of the One be upon you.' I leave you now with those blessings, Corli." He leaned forward and kissed her. "Until we meet again."


Corli watched from the window in the loft of her barn until the last sight of the two wagons and the dust they raised had disappeared. The road settled and still she watched. The sun crossed over noon and she was there, looking out. Finally when the sky turned red in the west she sighed and climbed down the ladder. She was hungry and thirsty, and it was foolish to be standing up there all day, doing nothing but moping.


Any other time, any other month, she would have argued vehemently for the right to accompany him and the escaped slaves. They would be needing her just as much as they would need him, wouldn't they? But she hadn't protested when he'd hinted it was too risky for her to go along. There was good reason she shouldn't make such a journey, a reason that would only become more obvious as the miles passed and time went on--a reason she wasn't about to reveal now.


When she reached the bottom she pressed her hand to her belly. She couldn't tell him, not like this, not when he had to leave. It wasn't the same kind of deception as he had tried on her. No, it wasn't like that at all. This was for him, wasn't it? Yes, and for all those people—for if he knew, he might decide not to leave. It was necessary, this slight lie, this hiding of the truth.


She understood this much about him. Revealing the truth would have been like asking her to stand by and do nothing while a woman screamed in the agony of a failing labor. Telling him now might have pulled him in two. Besides, it was too early to be absolutely sure. She wouldn't truly know for a few more weeks. So she had said nothing. Though the evening was warm, she pulled the grey cloak around her shoulders and walked back to her house, alone.



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Last Update: 29 Mar 13
Stories: 7
Type: Author List
Created By: Aiwendiel


Stories of mine that center on Gandalf, either gap fillers or alternate universe themes.

Why This Story?

An imaginary early life for the visitor from the West.

 

Story Information

Author: Aiwendiel

Status: General

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - The Kings

Genre: General

Rating: General

Last Updated: 04/07/12

Original Post: 04/07/12

Go to A Mortal Life overview