The Old Grey Wizard
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A Mortal Life: 9. The Grey Man's Friends
Chapter 8 The Grey Man's Friends
Corli's farm hadn't known so many visitors in years past. Each day brought another knock on her cottage door, or another unfamiliar face waving to her as she worked in her gardens. Never before had so many come directly to her farm to seek her advice and skills. She was grateful for the distraction. Each morning she had to force herself to eat and drink. She prepared herbs for herself that she had made for so many others, and was a bit chagrined to learn that, as other women had complained, they did not always suppress the sickness. By noon she felt better, but she had to take care not to allow herself to become overly fatigued. She was amazed at how quickly she tired.
Her friend Iorla stayed with her for a week in July. Having Iorla with her was a great comfort, but the other healing woman was busy and couldn't stay any longer.
"I'll stop in on my way back through. But you'll still be months from your labor then. Who will attend you, little one?"
Corli bristled slightly at the term she had once found so endearing. She tossed her head. "I haven't thought so far ahead. Perhaps Frin could come, or Tessel. I'll get word to them, later in the summer… when I have time."
Iorla's eyes narrowed. "I know what you're thinking. You think that man will be back by then, don't you? Corli, I'm warning you. Don't count on him. He's gone, and who knows if he's coming back, much less when. You must fend for yourself, as you always have. Count on your friends; they're more reliable than any man."
Corli's chin thrust forward. "He said he'd be back."
"They all say that. And don't tell me this one is different."
Corli looked at her old friend. Her once shining black hair was growing dull, and silver now streaked above Iorla's brow. But the healing woman's blue eyes were as bright as ever and still gleamed with as much piercing skepticism. She and Iorla had been lovers for a while a few years back. How was she to explain to her just how different the Grey Man—Olorin—was? Where would she start? With his eyes, his smile, the warm glow in his heart that pulled you toward him like the earth pulled fruit from the trees and rain from the sky? It was no use. Iorla had never trusted any man, and would never understand. But Corli had no doubt that beneath Iorla's gruff manner, true concern for her, and perhaps still love, flowed deeply.
"All right. I won't delay. I'll ask Frin to attend to me in the fall."
"It will be winter, little one. Have you forgotten how to count?"
"Winter, then. Get on, now," she grinned. "You've got miles to cover today."
That evening Corli stepped out into the yard to gaze south. It had become her nightly habit. She would look into the sky and try to imagine where the wagons might be, and whether they were safe. She smiled, wondering what her dreams had in store for her tonight. Quite often she woke with a remarkably vivid sense that the Grey Man had been with her. She was glad no one else lived in the house now, for she was sure she cried out in pleasure during these delicious nighttime visits. She'd told Frin about these passionate dreams. Her best friend had howled with envy, then congratulated her.
Other times she had long dull dreams of wagons jolting along a dusty road leading away to a strange land. In each dream the road would look different: the landscape would change from fields to forests, hills to bare flat plains, from moonlight to bright sun to endless rain. But then days would pass and she would be less and less able to picture them in her mind. She had never traveled farther south than the swift cold river that was a few days ride by cart from her farm. Her grandmother had come from south and east of that river, but Corli had never crossed it.
"Leave the past in the past," her grandmother had said. "Down that way the folk get worse and worse for long leagues. We've turned our backs on that land, and good riddance to them."
Corli shivered, pulling Olorin's cloak tightly around her as she brooded on what evil places he must be journeying through on his way to the south. And where exactly was "the south?" How far did he intend to go? How long would it take to get there, and how long to get back? And would he be changed when he returned?
As the light faded, Corli saw a flock of crows flap silently overhead. She'd noticed them for the first time a few weeks ago and then again last week. Here they were again, gathering to roost in a gnarled oak on the edge of her woods. The top half of the old tree was dead, and she knew crows liked to spend the night in exactly that kind of spot. She watched them as they shuffled and shifted, clacking softly as each found its particular branch.
It struck her for the first time that evening that she hadn't noticed many crows on her farm until this year. What were they after? She didn't grow any seed grains. She never noticed them rummaging about in her fields of herbs, or in the small patch of vegetables she grew for herself.
"Maybe there's something dead out there in those trees," she mused. "Crows eat carrion; maybe there's a hind or a stag lying out there."
But she searched the woods the next day, and knew even before she began that she would find no carcass. For one thing there was no odor of decay, and in her current state of near-constant nausea she would surely have smelled that. And for another, the crows followed along after her, flying above and chattering and calling as if they mocked her. They showed no sign of interest in anything on the ground but her.
"Dratted black birds!" she muttered, looking up and frowning. "I wish they'd be off and leave my farm alone. They give me the shudders."
That night Corli woke with a start to a snuffling sound outside her window. She had heard it a few weeks ago and had never found the source. It seemed louder tonight. For comfort more than warmth, she picked up the Grey Man's cloak from where she kept it folded on the end of her bed and pulled it around her.
"Quiet, woman. Whatever's out there, you can catch a glimpse tonight; the moon's near full," she thought as she crept to the door. Carefully she opened it and stepped as softly as she could.
As she rounded the corner, she stopped short and gasped. There in the moonlight, just beneath her window, crouched a striped badger. He looked right at her, his eyes aglow; then he shuffled away into the shadows.
Corli had never even seen a live badger before. She'd seen their skins and claws on display at the Arlindon marketplace. Badger fur was felt to be exceptionally warm, and some men liked to wear necklaces strung with their thick black claws. But a live badger! It was big, as big as any dog she'd ever seen. What was it doing under her window?
Just them Corli heard a rumbling growl from the woods. Above her head the crows shifted. One called out with a single coarse caw. She shivered with fear. Was that a shadow moving? No, it was two shadows! One large and lumbering, the other smaller and waddling. They were moving in and out of the trees. They seemed to make for the tumbled pile of boulders that concealed her hiding place. The shadows blended into the mass of stone and disappeared.
Corli watched until her heart stopped racing. There was no more movement in the woods. Had she seen any of it, or had she imagined it all? She clutched the cloak around her as she turned and ran back into the house. She bolted the door and shut all the windows tight. Her dreams were filled with swirling black wings and growling shadows. She woke in a sweat.
Why was this happening to her? Her farm had always been safe! The Grey Man had promised she was safe here. But now he was gone, and wild animals had come to terrify her! The crows must be after something. Were they waiting for her baby to drop so they could peck out its eyes? And badgers: weren't they reputed to be as clever as trained dogs, and twice as fierce as wolves? The lumbering shadow and the deep-throated growl in the forest she could hardly stand to think about. She knew it must be a bear; nothing else was that big.
It wasn't until four days later, when the badger was sitting right in the middle of her yard apparently waiting for her in the morning, that another explanation dawned on her. She stood staring at the creature when words came back into her mind. My friends have agreed to guard you. You might see them, and then again you might not, for they are very shy and clever.
"The Grey Man! Could it be that these are his friends?"
The badger seemed to hear her thoughts. He sat back on his thick hindquarters and let out a dull bleating. Then he dropped to all fours and waddled toward her. Corli watched, astonished and suddenly no longer afraid, as the badger sniffed her feet. The animal looked up and let out another strange call; then he shuffled away toward the back of the barn. Before he vanished behind the building, the badger turned and blinked at her.
Corli raised her hand hesitantly. She smiled at the thought that if anyone could see her they would know she had lost her mind.
"Master Badger, if you are here because of the Grey Man, I thank you."
The animal bleated one last time and appeared to bow his head. Then he was gone. But at the word grey the crows that had been waiting quietly in the trees broke out into a raucous chorus. Corli looked up and grinned. Of course. Of course! Why had she been frightened? She was the safest woman in the world. Her farm was wrapped in an enchanted net, and for guardians she had no less than twenty crows, a badger who could almost talk, and an enormous bear! She laughed out loud for the first time in a long while. That night she unlatched the windows to the summer night breezes and slept peacefully.
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