The Old Grey Wizard
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A Mortal Life: 8. A Sorcerer Revealed
Chapter 7 A Sorcerer Revealed
They had been on the move for ten nights when the Grey Man felt an uneasy prickling at his back. He turned. Was there a shadow in the north? He slipped from the saddle and pressed his ear to the ground. The earth throbbed with the pounding of many hooves. Arlindon was still less than a hundred leagues away. Riders with good horses and pressing hard could cover that distance in three or four days. He mounted and rode forward.
"There is a crowd on horseback behind us, riding fast. They could be anyone, but I fear the worst. I'm guessing that the citizens of Arlindon aren't going to let you go so easily after all."
Kutumi was driving the wagon on the left. He glanced back over his shoulder and saw the cloud of dust that followed them, obscuring the stars just above the horizon.
"Now what?" he said. "Mule-drawn wagons can't outpace horsemen, and we have no weapons except a few axes and flimsy little knives."
"Yes, that was my mistake. I should have purchased arms," said Incanus. "I only thought of it after I ran out of money buying supplies."
"And buying us," added Farased. But now comes the test, he said to himself. We'll see what his real plans are. We'll see how brave this Incanus is.
The guide pointed to a shadow looming to the right of the road.
"You must find some place to hide, perhaps behind that rocky hill…"
"Us? And what about you?" Ahmed asked as he flicked the reins over the team pulling the smaller wagon.
"I'll ride back and try to talk some sense into them."
"Are you mad?" Kutumi cried. "Talk to slave hunters? They'll kill you!"
"Or do you ride back to betray us? Maybe you're in league with them!" Ahmed snarled. "Maybe you've known all along that they were following…"
Incanus' eyes flared. "If you believe that, I need not waste time talking here. I'll have a better chance with that mob behind us. Give me some of that firewood." He reached out to one of the wagons. Someone placed a bundle of sticks across his horse's back. "If I don't return, light the rest of the wood and defend yourselves with fire."
They watched him ride away.
"Well, that's the last we'll see of him," Ahmed muttered.
"Be quiet," Farased hissed. "You'll call down bad luck on him!"
"He'll need more than luck. He didn't even take a knife! What can he be thinking?" Kutumi peered into the night and counted torches: a dozen, and the moving shadow looked thrice as large as it had just a minute before. "Brave fool," he said quietly.
Ahmed laughed. "You don't honestly think he's going to ride up to that mob so they can kill him, do you? He's not crazy! He's riding away from here as fast as he can, make no mistake."
Kutumi and Farased both glared at him. But they said nothing, and each one mused on his doubts. Even if he wasn't riding away as fast as he could, what could one man, armed or not, do against so many? Farased shook his head and cursed.
"Well, even if he is crazy, he's right about one thing. Let's get under cover before it's too late. Whether he's run away or dead, we have to defend ourselves!"
Morgo was paid just one gold coin each for his fourteen slaves when the Grey Man came to his house on the evening of the market day. He had trembled, alone and afraid at his own door. Not one of his men returned to the estate to guard their master that day. They'd all gone off and gotten drunk, or run away to hide and shake at the thought of the ghost who'd sent Jarek running with his breath. His wife and children watched from the hall. He felt them staring at his back, and flushed with humiliation all over again.
When the rich farmer woke up the next day and realized what he had done, he raged and stamped his feet.
"Why was I such an imbecile?" he cried to his wife.
She shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know what's wrong with all of you, so terrified of one man alone. What has this so-called sorcerer done that's so frightening?"
"You're right, my dear, you're right! The way that fool Jarek ran when he puffed at him you'd of thought he was a fire-breathing dragon! And what got into me? He barely touched me! I hardly felt it! One finger, one finger was all he laid on me, and like some dolt I shook and nodded, did what ever he said."
"Well Morgo, you got but one chance to set yourself right. Your name will mean nothing if you don't prove yourself to be other than a fool, and soon."
With shame and anger seething together, Morgo rode to the old fort in search of his cousin. The bully was trying to drown his humiliation in a bottle. The landowner grabbed Jarek by the front of his filthy shirt.
"Cousin, we've been tricked and tricked good. And if you and me don't do something and do it now, neither one of us will ever raise our heads within a hundred miles of here!"
Between them they found nearly fifty men. It took them days of bargaining, wheedling and bribing to raise such an army, and Morgo had to put out all fourteen gold coins, and many more. But by the seventh morning they were armed, horsed and ready to set out in pursuit. Morgo vowed he would not return without his slaves and the sorcerer's head in a sack.
Their scouts reported the location of the creaking wagons jolting slowly along. The mob rode at a canter into the darkness.
"This'll be like spearing fish in a barrel," Morgo said. "Even if that so-called sorcerer was stupid enough to give them savages something to fight with—and I'd lay odds he didn't--we still outnumber 'em two to one. This whole thing'll be over in no time!"
Jarek's boldness had returned, bolstered in no small part by the contents of a flask he carried in his pocket. He uncorked it again and took a drink. He wasn't thinking of how difficult it had been for twelve men to subdue one wizard, or how the sorcerer had risen from what surely were deadly wounds. He seemed to have forgotten his terror at the sight of a ghost on the platform. He'd been thinking of nothing but revenge since Morgo had demanded they stand up and claim what was theirs. Blowin' on me, laughin' at me, he thought. At me, Jarek! I'll show him.
"Over in no time?" he snarled. "I'm plannin' to take plenty of time with that one. You can have your slaves. Just lend me some of these boys once we surround him."
The last scout returned and reported that a fire blazed in the middle of the road, a mile ahead and just over a rise.
"That sorcerer is standing near it. Leastways, I think it was him, long beard and all. He ain't even got a horse. Just standing there all alone in the light of that fire."
"It's him," Morgo growled. "I'd lay odds on it. Now remember, take 'im alive! I want my slaves back, and he knows where they're hiding. I don't want him killed until after he talks!"
"Don't worry, cousin. He'll talk," Jarek sneered as he fingered a whip coiled over the horn of his saddle.
Fifty men on horseback rode up out of the darkness and arranged themselves in a loose ring around the bonfire. A dozen carried torches; ten spear points glittered, and four swords were unsheathed. Five bows were drawn back with arrows nocked. The rest had clubs, knives and ropes in hand.
Next to the fire stood the Grey Man. His eyes sparkled as he watched the flames. He made no sign that he noticed their approach. But though he stood motionless, and appeared to be unarmed save for his rugged staff, the crowd of men slowed to halt thirty feet away, and an eerie silence fell. For several long moments, the only sounds were the crackling of the fire and the creak of their leather saddles. Someone coughed nervously.
Then Morgo cursed and spat. The landowner gripped the reins with one hand; in the other he held a length of heavy chain. He let it dangle, swinging it slowly back and forth. Jarek uncoiled the whip and got it ready to swing. They rode forward.
"Where's my property, you cheating bastard?" called Morgo.
There was no answer. In the silence, the wind picked up and fanned the fire. Flames blazed upward and a shower of sparks danced into the night. A stronger gust roared over the men, and at once all their torches sputtered and went out. Only one figure could now be seen in the sudden darkness: the wizard. His shadow grew until it blocked out the stars. Horses and men shifted anxiously as a murmur went around the circle. Morgo shouted.
"It was the wind! Hold that circle!"
The wizard raised his head at last and fixed his gaze on Morgo.
"Why have you followed me, Morgo? You were paid, more than you deserved, and it was a price you seemed glad to accept the other night. You won't get another copper piece from me, no matter how many men you've brought. You might as well go home right now and take these gentlemen with you, before you all get yourselves into a lot of trouble."
Jarek laughed and raised his arm. "I'll give you trouble, you lying fake!"
The whip whistled and sailed right at the Grey Man's face. He reached up and caught the snapping end of it in his fist. He jerked it, and the whip came flying. Jarek gaped at his empty hand. Morgo roared.
"Get him, boys!"
At once, he spurred his horse forward and swung the chain. The circle of men yelled and closed in. There was a loud crack and a blinding blue flash. The fire was suddenly extinguished. Everything went black. The wizard vanished.
The mob was thrown into pandemonium. No one could see anything. Soon screams of pain were heard amid the scuffling and shouting. Some of the men accidentally prodded or stabbed or shot arrows into one another. The blue flash blazed again. A horse whinnied and reared, and its rider fell.
Another rush of wind blew in. It swirled right in the center of the mob, on the exact spot where the fire had just gone out. A shower of sparks twirled up and rose higher and higher, spreading out over their heads in an enormous flickering cloud. Then the sparks began raining down on them.
Four dozen men shrieked and wailed. Everywhere a spark landed, a tiny fire blazed. The men beat on sleeves, hair, beards and bare skin. But the fires would not go out. The harder they tried, the fiercer the flames burned them. The horses bucked and screamed.
A third time, the blue light appeared. A bolt forked and crackled. Two more fell from their horses and crashed to the ground. The armed gang turned into a panicked rout. Men spurred their horses and howled, fighting their way out of the press. No one gave another thought to the two wagonloads of slaves or to revenge. Everyone wanted to get out of there as fast as they could.
Just when it looked like things couldn't possibly get worse for the hired men, they heard a high pitched undulating yell. Out of the darkness came twenty-four men, women and children, each one carrying a burning branch. The men saw the looks on those faces. Any that had an ounce of resolve remaining in him felt it melt and vanish.
When the dust finally settled, seven bodies lay sprawled on the road. The freed slaves piled their branches together into a flickering bonfire. Fifteen wavering shadows walked in a single file past the bloated, singed body of Morgo the slave owner. The first blue flash had killed him instantly. His former slaves leaned over and spit on him. A boy came at the end of the line. His small face was twisted with hatred. He spat three times.
"For my mother, for my father, and for me," Nod hissed.
Three other men had been shot, speared or accidentally sliced apart by one of their own. Three more smoldered, brought down by blue lightning.
The ground was littered with weapons that had been dropped in terror. Some of the men began gathering them, and others stripped the bodies of clothes and useful belongings. Then Mgeni noticed one more: this one was slowly crawling away.
"Hey!" he shouted. "Here's one that's still alive!"
A crowd of men gathered, several holding burning branches aloft to light the scene. In the dust at their feet was one of the hired men. He shivered with terror, and held both hands over his head. The southerners gloated and laughed at the cowering figure. Rassu and Mobasu grabbed him by his arms and raised him off the ground.
"Please, no! Oh please, don't hurt me…" the man sobbed.
The gathered crowd shouted back.
"Why should we show mercy to you, slave hunter?"
"You'll be begging for death before long, northern scavenger!"
"Where did that whip go? Let's show this one what it feels like!"
Ahmed stepped forward and pulled a knife from his belt. He grasped the man's greasy hair in one hand and brought the point of the blade to his cheek. In the torchlight, a thin scar could be seen on Ahmed's face, running from the corner of one eye to his jaw.
"Now it is my turn. Shall I take his eyes first, or his ugly nose?" he hissed.
"Oh, no, not that…" the man pleaded.
The others laughed. Ahmed plunged the tip of the knife into the man's skin and began to carve across his face. The man screamed and writhed. Then, someone clasped Ahmed's wrist and pulled it back. He turned, furious. It was Incanus.
"What are you doing?" Ahmed shouted.
"Let him go."
Ahmed jerked his arm from the wizard's grip. He waved the knife as the others gathered in a circle.
"Let him go?" he said. "Why should I? He would not have shown us any mercy! He would have killed you without a second of hesitation, and taken us captive!" Ahmed moved toward his victim with his knife raised. "I want revenge!"
Incanus stepped forward swiftly. At the sight of the wizard's icy glare, Rassu and Mobasu released the man's arms. He slid to his knees. The wizard placed himself between the groveling man and Ahmed.
"He is alone now, and helpless. He cannot harm me, or any of you."
"Please, let me go…" the man said faintly.
"You'd be better off to remain silent," Incanus snapped. The man crouched behind him and trembled, both hands clamped across his mouth.
The former slaves pressed inward, their voices murmuring angrily. Ahmed brandished the knife.
"Get out of my way, Incanus," he shouted.
The wizard's grip on his staff tightened as he stared back.
"This man might well have chosen to kill me, or to take one of you captive. But that did not happen. As it is, he is guilty only of poor judgment—of agreeing to work for Morgo for pay. And if the punishment for stupidity were death, more than one of us should face that doom." His fiery gaze swept the circle. "I do not take his side against you. Yet, he does not bear the guilt of all that Morgo and every slave owner and slave dealer have done since the beginning of time. He is merely one man, alone; the battle against him and his companions is over. To kill him now, when he is defenseless, would be nothing but murder. You have seen what I can do." His voice was quiet but as stern as steel. "I will do it again, if you force me. You will have to go through me to obtain your revenge."
A gust of wind twisted into the circle of men, picking up the dust. Ahmed coughed and rubbed his eyes. The other men began to slowly back away.
Kutumi came to Ahmed's side. "Revenge against such a sniveling coward is without honor," he said loudly, pointing to the man shaking behind Incanus' knees. "And it isn't worth crossing a sorcerer over such a trifle," he added in a low mutter.
Ahmed frowned and let his arm fall. The wizard turned to the man behind him.
"Get up! Run, while you have the chance. And don't ever let greed lead you into something like this again!"
The man rose trembling to his feet, looked around with wide eyes. He sped off into the darkness.
The others stared silently while Incanus moved slowly among the dead men, studying each one. Here was the corpse of the red-faced archer from the river, his mouth contorted in a scream, his chest pierced by a spear. He walked a few paces. This one was just a boy, perhaps fifteen, his throat sliced open. The wizard felt sick. The next body was blackened and smoking. He looked at the face, and his eyes widened. It was Hasman, the archer who had refused to shoot him. Why? Hasman alone of the slave hunters had seemed to have a glimmer of wisdom. What had driven the man to join Morgo's gang? Was he that desperate for pay?
In the three and a half centuries since he had arrived on these shores, he had seen so much death—and had been the cause of some of it. Yet the sight of it never failed to shock him. Once, he had believed without doubt in the meanings given to this mystery by others greater and wiser than he. Death was release from the ties of time and mortality, they promised. Death had a purpose: death led elsewhere…or did it? He gazed at Hasman's ruined features. This was random, a harsh and senseless betrayal of life—and he had done this. Death's only clear function, he thought, as a wave of icy cynicism flowed over him, was to return a few bucketfuls of borrowed substance to the earth from whence it came.
Yet he also knew immortality. Was such a life truly better? Did eternity itself imbue a higher purpose? The enemy he sought was immortal, and had proved otherwise. And so many immortal folk retreated from life, hiding from the whirling change wrought by time that they could not control. His doubts were replaced by deep sorrow, for his solitary wisdom was not great enough to solve these mysteries. How he longed for another of his kind with whom to speak, for another soul born before the stars were made to turn to for solace. Loneliness engulfed him.
He wrenched his eyes from Hasman's smoldering corpse and moved on to the next. The others saw him gazing down at Morgo's lifeless face. Ahmed, standing nearby, saw the troubled look in his eyes. His anger flared again. The knife came back up; this time the point hovered an inch from Incanus' neck.
"You grieve for him? This evil…! What kind of man are you?"
The response was almost inaudible.
"No one is born evil. While there is life, there is hope of change… That hope is now gone, destroyed by my hand. Whose hand now can give it back?"
He turned, ignoring the blade at his throat. He walked away from the torches and disappeared into the night.
Nod ran after him. Kutumi caught the boy and held him, struggling.
"Let him be, boy."
They didn't travel further that night. They huddled in the wagons, listening to the snarls and yelps of the wolves as they gathered and fed on the slain. No one felt sleepy. The travelers talked for hours. Many had witnessed the flying sparks and the jolts of lightning, and the story was passed to those who'd been too far back to see. Everyone had seen the men lying dead in the road.
Rumors circulated, that Incanus was a powerful sorcerer, or a madman, or both. His remarkable feats were discussed again and again. His perplexing behavior, standing against all of them to protect one of those who had just moments earlier been an enemy, confounded them. Someone had a wild theory that soon he would spirit them away with the south wind and they would all be arriving home tomorrow, or the next day at the latest. Others wondered whether he might be planning to appear out of the darkness and incinerate the lot of them with his blue fire.
But where had he gone now? The quiet talk grew louder. Arguments broke out between those who assumed he had abandoned them and those who defended him. Farased and Ahmed found themselves agreeing for once; they were both convinced that Incanus had left, never to return. Kutumi's fierce wife Nelika scolded them.
"And what do you think he was doing with all that fire and wind: playing? Better go and poke those bodies before the wolves finish their meal, to be sure they're really dead, if you dare. Why would he bother with all that if he were simply going to leave?"
"Well, then where has he gone?" Ahmed shouted.
"Don't ask me to explain the ways of a sorcerer!" she said hotly.
"Kutumi, I thought you herdsmen knew how to control your women. Doesn't your wife know how to hold her sharp tongue?" Ahmed said.
Nelika looked as though she were about to spit at him.
"I let her talk all she wants, when she's right," Kutumi laughed.
His wife turned her icy stare to her husband. Ahmed and Farased laughed until Kutumi glowered at them. They fell silent.
At dawn, when most of the others had fallen asleep, Kutumi saw the wizard walking toward them. He slipped down from the wagon and went to meet him. The stench of smoke and singed hair hung about him. His face was grim.
"Where did you go?" Kutumi asked.
"For a long walk," Incanus replied.
"You weren't injured in the fray, were you? Foolishly, I didn't think to ask last night. After you left I said, what if he was hurt, and we let him go off like that?"
The wizard closed his hand, hiding an ugly wheal and a gouge in the skin of his palm. Jarek's whip had been laced with sharp fragments of metal.
"I am unharmed."
Kutumi saw how tensely the wizard held himself, how carefully he kept his emotions in check. What a poor liar, he thought. "What is wrong, friend?"
Incanus looked west to where a single star lingered. "Nothing that isn't always wrong when men kill one another."
Kutumi's brows rose. "Don't tell me this the first time you've killed!"
"No." He laughed coldly, a hard glint in his eyes. "I have quite a bit of experience with murder."
"Murder!" Kutumi scoffed. "You were defending yourself, and us! This wasn't murder, it was justice!"
"Justice?" said the wizard harshly. "When the death of murderers restores life to their dead victims, then I will call it justice!" He glared at Kutumi before turning away. "It doesn't matter. They are still dead—and I killed them."
Kutumi shook his head. What an odd thing to say. Of course it mattered. What choice had there been? Would he rather be dead, and all of them in chains again? He hardly knew whether to be appalled by this sorcerer's bizarre ideas, or awed by his power. Then his nose wrinkled. He sniffed, and looked more closely in the growing light. Suddenly he grinned.
"Well, well," he laughed, pointing at Incanus' long beard. "The sorcerer got a taste of his own magic. All those sparks got out of hand, I'd say."
Incanus looked down. In the growing light he saw that his beard was singed and blackened in a dozen places. No wonder the stink had been so strong. He'd been unable to escape it all night, despite walking long through a cold wind. He touched it; brittle handfuls came away in his fingers.
"You hair, too," Kutumi snickered as he inspected him. "You're going to need a barber! I know just the man."
The others began to waken.
"See? I told you he'd be back!" Nelika crowed.
While Kutumi went in search of the barber, a crowd of men gathered. They all spoke at once, reaching out to touch the wizard's hands or slap his shoulders.
"I didn't have a chance to thank you last night, Incanus…" Mgeni said quietly.
"Glad you came back!" declared Ahmed. "I guess you must be telling the truth, although more than half of me didn't quite believe it until this morning…"
"What a display!" Rassu said. "Impressive! Incanus, have you ever battled elephants? They're much fiercer than lions. I'd pay gold to see that!"
"We don't need to hide during the day any longer, don't you think?" said Farased eagerly. "It is summer and the nights are too short, and besides, who would dare attack us with you at our side?"
They hardly noticed that their guide said nothing in response to all the comments. He looked from one to the next, smiled stiffly and nodded. He protested only feebly when Kutumi appeared with Mobasu. The morning sun was full above the horizon now, and everyone gathered to watch. Not one of them had seen a man with such long hair and such a long beard before, and now they were all to witness as both were removed.
They sat him down on the bench of one of the wagons.
"Just trim away the singed parts, if you please," he muttered.
Farased stood grinning nearby. "I've been thinking that this long hair and beard would have to be shorn down sometime, Incanus. Think about it: people must know you, sorcerer that you obviously are, and the sight of you invites curious eyes. When we meet someone on the road and they gape, maybe they are staring at you as much as at us!"
"Yes, you're right!" Kutumi laughed. "They're saying, I know him, isn't that the famous Grey-Robed Wizard? What's he doing out here with all those dark savage slaves?"
They were doing their best to distract him, for Mobasu was no barber at all, but a butcher who'd been freed from Morgo's farm. Kutumi hoped he had some skill with a blade. Mobasu stood behind Incanus and quickly chopped off great swaths of his hair, letting it float into piles at his feet. The wizard felt the tugs on his scalp and heard a sharp blade slicing what seemed very near to his head.
"Hear, now," he complained irritably. "How much are you taking?"
The wizard's eyes widened as two strong hands wielding a knife came down around his ears. The steel was a mere fingerbreadth from his jaw!
"Wait, that's too close! I said just the singed part!" He reached up to stop him. Several sets of hands grabbed and restrained him.
"Oh, no you don't!" Farased cried. "Let the barber do his work. He knows what he's up to, don't you, Mobasu?"
"Indeed, I do."
Incanus struggled half-heartedly against the men who held him tight. He struggled even more to keep himself from laughing aloud at the ridiculous situation. He imagined haughty Curumo watching aghast, and his lips twitched.
The "barber" moved to face his victim. From one of the fallen men's bags, a razor was produced. Mobasu had sharpened the dagger, but there had been no time to hone the razor. The wizard winced as the blade scraped against tender skin.
Farased, who had been laughing harder than anyone, suddenly became serious. "Look at him--he could be anybody now." He frowned worriedly. "You know, I've heard legends of strange men with great abilities or strength, who lost their powers when their hair was shorn..."
"That's right," Mgeni said softly, his eyes widening. "I've heard that, too…"
"Incanus, you're not…that kind of sorcerer, are you? You still have your powers, don't you?"
The wizard's grey eyes flashed. "I have no idea," he snarled. "No one has ever dared cut off my hair and beard, until today! We'll simply have to wait and see until the next murderous gang of slave hunters attacks."
The crowd watched in silence as his face was revealed.
Kutumi crossed his arms and studied the pale features of their guide. He wasn't fooled; he could tell that Incanus was toying with Farased's silly fears. But still, the white man surely did look different now. For one thing, the sorcerer no longer looked like a sorcerer at all. He looked like any other man who had seen four decades or so of life. But then again, something about him looked older--much older. Kutumi couldn't explain it, but he felt certain that whatever else Incanus was, he was far older than he appeared. And he had none of what Kutumi's people would call beauty: the jaw jutted out to far, cheekbones too prominent, the nose too long and crooked. This face had too many angles, not enough smoothness. And the oddly tinted eyes, like a thunderstorm threatening to burst from beneath those thick brows, seemed all the larger now.
"Hmm. Farased is right. You could be any ordinary fellow now. But it's too late! No one will ever recognize you: not those men who were trying to kill you, or anyone else, for that matter; not even your woman will know you. Why, you're even uglier than I thought you'd be under all that hair!"
The hoots and jeers resumed as Incanus scowled. Nod sat beside him on the bench. He looked up at the Grey Man's glum face and giggled.
"Corli won't think you're ugly. She hates your beard and your long hair."
He turned toward Nod in surprise, and Mobasu accidentally sliced his cheek.
"Ouch!" he cried as he reached up. The "barber" grabbed his jaw and wrenched it forward.
"Watch it, or I'll trim your crooked nose, too."
Everyone roared. Finally, Incanus himself began to laugh.
"She really hates it?" The boy nodded, grinning. "Why didn't she tell me?"
A chorus of women's voices erupted in squealing laughter. Nelika called out mockingly. "Tell you? Why should she tell you? You were supposed to read her mind! What kind of sorcerer are you?"
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