How we think the fight will go
Sound spilled over them; hazy voices, male and female, spoke all at once. The occasional roar of laughter jumped over the din and splashed into their ears, though it was no clearer than the rest. The old wizard hummed along with them, considering the dark-haired stranger that sat across from him. The noise of the busy tavern hall at supper was their cloak as they sat at their corner booth, him tracing runes into the tabletop, and his guest cupping the scarred table’s light.
The little candle and its flame were held inside his hands, pulsing orange and amber across his sharp, slightly odd features as he stared into its depths. The man held it like he was cold, but he could not have been: The night was one of summer warmth, and the establishment was low of roof, thick of wall, and held many bodies. They sat under an eave too; the crook of Gandalf’s hat sat comfortably against the ceiling.
“There are places in the heavens you could never dream of,” the traveler, who called himself a doctor, said in a hoarse whisper. He looked about thirty, but his face was clean-shaven; it was too clean, as if it were magicked off his face, or he’d never had any beard to begin with. Part Elf? Gandalf found himself wondering. He was certainly cleaner than most humans tended to be. The mysterious stranger closed dark eyes; his hand momentarily drew through the air to indicate a vast expanse, before returning to the candle. “Beautiful worlds, of all water, as clear as the whitest wine. Or all grass, with gem-bright animals as large as castles. Air that smells like flowers, all the time.” He lifted his eyes from his eve-dream, and as they caught the fire, he smiled. “What do you think of that, man of science?”
Gandalf took a deep breath, and sat back in his pew, nodding sagely. He did it for effect more than a need to speak carefully; when one was not too sure about a stranger, it was best to have him or her think you were as slow as you were wise. “I dream of such things, sometimes.”
The man who called himself a doctor shook his head with a grin. He came forward, elbow on the table, a finger in the air, and passion in his voice. “I have had grand adventures at all corners of the galaxies. Even some beyond the Universe itself — beyond time! — though I had not thought it possible, in all my years.”
“Are we telling of stories now?” It was Gandalf’s turn to smile, eyes set a-glimmer in their clinging shadows. “As an old man, I have a few. Not too long past, I defeated a great Balrog in the great Dwarf city underground. On a bridge and through the air we fought. It is a demon from the hells of the deep earth, as high as seventeen horses, with fire on every limb. Great horns, and light in its eyes” — he waved his hand to the candle, causing the tiny, now-unprotected light to flicker — “that would put the tiny flame of your heart out in a beat.”
He grinned. “I have two hearts.”
“That must be very hearty for you.”
The traveler scoffed and rolled his eyes. “I am a man of magic, not of science, by the way,” Gandalf continued. “The wizards that dabble in science are most unfortunate creatures. Always taken by strange fits, by the end.” He shook his head in distaste.
To that, the stranger fixed his mouth with a wry smirk. “How much are you willing to bet on that?”
The challenge hung in the air for a moment; the lanterns scattered about the tavern seemed hotter, but the noise softer. They seemed close in, suddenly, the two of them. “What I want to know more,” Gandalf said, “is what variety of the two you are, good traveler.”
“Oh, you do not want to know who I am,” he said, smile frozen now. “If I tell you, there are usually problems. Can we not just accept peace?”
“Who said we are at peace, with you in our presence? Several strange things have occurred since you arrived. Mischief, is it, or …?” He raised his eyebrows. “Forgive me my imprudence, but I have learned some things about the need for preemptive defense these last few years, for the good of us all. Especially when considering those who … practice magic.” Gandalf let a smile curl from under his white beard. He hoped it seemed as feral as it felt.
“Yes, well,” the stranger said, putting his chin on his hand. His posture arched over the candle’s flame, throwing twisting shadows over his face. “If you can prove to me that one thing you do is magic and not science, I will tell you who I am, and why I am here.”
Gandalf gave him a long look, and then sat back, nodding. “I command eagles,” he said, flat.
“Animal intelligence. The animal might be smarter than you. That’s no magic; that’s science fact. Humans, always very confused about that one.”
“I am Wizard, not Human.”
“Yes, yes. Next.” The man crinkled his nose and waved a hand.
Gandalf made him wait for the next one, holding the silence until the traveler raised an eyebrow. And then he held his gaze for a moment, just to make sure he knew who held this conversation. The man fidgeted in his seat, and just as he opened his mouth, Gandalf said, “I dream the future.”
“Dream of it, or dream and make it happen?” This time, the man’s other hand waved. Seemed he was dismissive ambidextrously. “But anyway. Either. Just time fluctuations in your own time stream. Nothing. Next.”
“There are magic things that can control a person’s mind — twist their actions, their souls.” Gandalf looked off to the side. “Not that I deal in such things, mind.” He glanced back: what flavor of bait did this stranger nibble?
He shrugged. “Endorphin generators, better known as ‘desire modifiers.’ Some sugar here, some proteins there, some erratic firing of the Hippocampus and Amygdala, and someone thinks they’ve turned evil. Done.”
“If there is no magic in your life, then”— Gandalf took a breath, mouth tight — “what on earth do you protect?”
The wandering stranger leaned back in a crinkle of leather, and looked over to the bar. His traveling companions — one woman of sharp laugh and sharper temper, and one thin man of agitated disposition — sat there, their backs to the two of them. The woman, clad in a bright red gown, jostled Gimli, drinks in hand. A couple of women were hitting on the poor scholar of a man, and he didn’t know what at all to do. Gandalf smiled at that, but the “doctor’s” smile was a bit different: a longing perhaps, or a sadness — it was hard to tell. His smile turned into a tight frown for just a moment, and that was when he turned back.
Gandalf frowned; the stranger’s hand unfolded, to quietly drum his fingertips across the table in a steady rhythm. “You know, I fought a Balrog in space once. It was on an asteroid circling a black hole. That’s, er — an inescapable pit, to the center of the deepest, darkest depths of the sky, you could say. I wonder if they were related.” He looked at his lack of food, and traced a finger over the old knife-wounds in the table. “Well, that was the old me, one of the many.”
Gandalf’s eyes narrowed. He truly was a wizard, then. But of what sort? Another black wizard, with ill intent? Even Sauron had started as a simple creature, with just the slightest bit of longing in his heart.
“What do you know …” Gandalf began, “Of rebirth?”
The stranger came alert at that, though he tried to conceal it. “I —”
“‘Ere we are, gents!” The female companion, the woman of fiery tresses, burned straight like liquid sunset, came over with a jaunty smile and dropped two steins of beer onto the table. They were massive, and met the table with a slam. She wavered a bit, and then pressed into the doctor. He stared at her, bewildered, and tried to amble away. But as he moved farther into the seat, she only descended next to him. “‘Ow’s it coming now with your new friend, Raggedy Man?” She draped her arms around his shoulders, and pinched his cheek. “Don’ you be gettin’ sad now, thisss is a party!”
“Ah, that’s, uh … very nice, there. Amelia. Dear. Um.” He tried to pluck her hands off, to no avail. “You’re touching me …”
“That’s because I love touching people!” she all but shouted. She pushed him nearly over, then stumbled across the table and into Gandalf himself. She was warm, and squishy, and smelled of alcohol, and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “Especially old wizardy types!” Before he knew it, a warm, wet smeck was placed upon his chin hairs, and then her head was pushed into his cheek as she turned and pointed to her companion.
“I’ll have you know the Doctor here’s nine-hun’red and –” Her mind paused, but her movements kept going; she snuggled into him, like a bird to a warm nest. “— a lot?” She rocked back and forth, beaming at her memory success, dragging him with her. “You have the word ‘a lot’ yet?”
“Amelia, I would really appreciate —” the Doctor said, reaching across the table to guide her away. His hand was gentle, Gandalf noticed, even though he had to see it from under the weight and breath of a drunken human woman. Something here just didn’t add up.
“Really now, almost a thousand?” Gandalf interrupted, training his eyes on the foreigner and wrapping his arm around the woman. “I’ll have you know, I’m over two-thousand,” he said lightly. “And not a day over 1,300 in bed.”
“I hope you won’ look like thiss when you’re two-thousan’, Doctarr.” She laughed. Gandalf got the impression both he and his tablemate felt insulted.
“I actually seem to be getting younger,” the doctor said, sitting up straighter and primping the ribbon around his neck, which he insisted was a bow tie, not a ribbon. And that it was cool, which didn’t make any sense, unless it was enchanted to lower his temperature.
“Like some Time-Lord Alzheimers?” she asked, spilling alcohol breath into Gandalf’s ear.
The last word was so odd that the first part almost slipped by Gandalf.
This was no longer a game of easy stakes.
Suddenly, a kiss upon him again. And it lasted … and lasted, and took a second drag. When it did not end, and his face was flushing, Gandalf’s hand found its way south and goosed her, a pinch enough to hurt.
She yelped and jumped up straight. Her eyes were wide, and for a moment Gandalf thought she might hit him.
“Try not to put spells on me with your kisses, goodly woman.” He grinned, sweetly.
The redhead’s ire suddenly whisked away, and she giggled, as if the foam of all the beer she’d had were bubbling up to the surface. “Ohhoho, you randy old man! Doctor, why don’ you do that to me!”
The other man coughed once, and looked around, and then ran a heavy hand through his hair to smooth the black strands back. He adjusted his strange ribbon in silence, and then scratched at his ear. He was still trying to avoid her gaze by looking through his hand, as if the bar held something of great interest, when suddenly he frowned, more strongly than he had at all before.
Gandalf only saw the man’s mouth fall open before his vision blurred, and he was wrenched out of his seat to dangle from unjustifiably thin arms.
Silence descended on the room, and then at once, Men and Elf and Dwarf alike stood from their seats, weapons drawn.
“Hands off my wife!”
The skinny traveler’s eyes were wild, his hair disheveled, and there were rouge kisses on his cheeks, which had not all come from women.
Did he not know those Elves were men? Gandalf found himself wondering, absurdly.
“Rory!” the woman named Amelia shrilled. “Not the old man!”
“Not this time, Amy. Ohhhh, not his time. I feel strong and good and this guy’s gonna get it, old or not. I can see in his eyes every bedpan I’ve ever changed!”
The thin man did not notice the silence, it seemed, as he heaved angry breaths in his drunken haze; but it suffocated every one of Gandalf’s senses. The old wizard held up his hands, putting on his best innocent-old-man smile. “Now, now, no need for that, it was just —”
There was a high-pitched, shrill sound warbling through the air.
The doctor, the dark traveler, rose halfway from his seat, a silver wand in outstretched hand. A green light glowed from the stone at its end. “Rory, put the legendary wizard down, and not give a certain someone anything to write home about.”
It was the woman who moved. She sidled over to the doctor. Gandalf watched her, carefully, but all she did was query: “That doesn’t work on people, does it?”
His mouth ticked, a chagrined smile. “They don’t have to know that, do they?”
There was a breath where no one moved. And then a fist hit Gandalf’s face, and he found himself smiling, even as he hit the floor.
* * *
“Who would have known, Rory! Tolkien’s world! Real! And through just a psychic link!” Amy said, leaning toward him, even as a man with a beard too thick for comfort — and a sword at his side too long for comfort, for that matter — held her hands behind her back. He put a hand on her shoulder; Rory eyed him from his own captor’s steel embrace, trying to decide whether or not to bite that hand, or kick a shin. How much could he get away with before they stabbed him? They’d already hit him over the head once.
“You really want to touch the wife of a man who isn’t afraid to strike a wizard with his bare hands?” Rory said, icy.
The man raised an eyebrow, looking over Rory’s slender frame. “A fool of a man is a quickly dead man,” was all he said.
Oh, right: lack of disinfectant. Rory frowned. All the alcohol in the tavern was sweet beer; nothing astringent.
“Are you Aragorn?” Rory asked the man holding him.
The man eyed him. “Name’s Faramir. And the wizard is a friend of the Men of Middle Earth, traveler. You and your wifely one best be ‘ware of that.”
“Can you believe it, Rory?” Amy said, unfazed. “And my Raggedy Doctor’s fighting Gandalf.” She bounced on her heels, delighted. “Oh, how exciting!”
He frowned, and slowly turned his head to her. “Who’s side are you on?”
They stood in ring of spectator rabble of various classes. Their stage was a quiet knoll, just off the tavern’s edge. Gandalf stood to one end, warm wind to his face. He could hear its whisper: of animals and trees and growing things; of peace in the forests and hunting in the grasses. He could hear as well, at times, the thoughts of those around him. But from this man, this … creature, he heard nothing. Just four beats, over and over, and the question: doctor Who?
The man who called himself the doctor watched him carefully from across the way, slightly apart from his captive companions, and with a ring of drawn swords at his back. They glinted in the moonlight, making it all that much harder to see the man himself, in contrast.
It was a beautiful night in a beautiful place, all in all; the sky was ripe with stars. And yet, the peace that permeated the air was not that of comfort, but that of tension.
“You know, it doesn’t have to be like this.” The outlander said. He held his wand in-hand, occasionally flipping it over his fingers. He was nervous, and calculating.
The old wizard’s beard whipped in the wind; his long robes fluttered around him. “Indeed, traveler of far lands, perhaps even of the sky lands, we have much we could teach each other, much we could do.”
“Indeed.” The man’s dark eyes narrowed. He looked around to the people assembled: Hobbits, Elves, dirt-encrusted Men, and Dwarves, all ravenous for entertainment. And then to his companions. They cheered him on, hopeful. “But the crowd will have its way, when one is labeled the ‘evil foreigner,’ I suppose.”
“So it will.” The hard edge in Gandalf’s eyes turned into a glimmer. “So are you ready to tell me why you’re here, man of science?”
Across the field, a smile grew on the Doctor’s lips. He raised his wand, arm out straight. “All right, all right. I said settle with chess, but this rabble insisted on a ‘real’ fight, whatever that means. Don’t they know a battle of wits is best? Ah well. So.” Words and blood rattling about, he began to circle, but Gandalf did not move. “Let’s see what a ‘wizard’ is worth here! A test of our own abilities first? Because it’s best to see what merits a man — or a wizard, or Time Lord — has first, yes, wouldn’t you say?”
“Indeed.” Gandalf raised his staff, and a shockwave burst across the ring.
His prey coiled inward, shielding his eyes. But a sound followed him: roaring; the ripping of air.
The doctor dived aside and rolled. He landed on his back in the mud, heat and light spilling onto him. An arc of flame moved over him in a reverse rainbow. It threw light at him, the crowd, the ground, even the trees; heat no doubt swept onto his face. The flame dragon coiled and snapped and then, after crashing into a section of the audience, evaporated into the air to join the thin clouds that sat about, watching them. The crowd cheered, once the screaming settled down.
The stranger scrambled to his feet with an exhilarated whoop. It was something like an exotic bird’s mating cry, and Gandalf wondered if everyone of his kind did that.
“Now there’s a nice trick,” the doctor hummed to himself as he tossed burnt locks from his face, making himself look only more wild. “Manipulation of molecules in the air to cause friction, superheating, and spontaneous combustion.” He tipped his chin, and called to the other: “I like it!”
“Really,” Gandalf sniffed. “I simply take the spirits of things already extant and muster them to action on my cause.”
A smile was his only response.
“So which one of us will muster the other for his cause?” The doctor’s smile split into a grin. “Science, or magic?”
Gandalf leveled his staff.
The ground rumbled and split. The man stumbled and faltered; his wand almost fell from his hand. Angry swirls of magic leapt from the crack that had appeared between his feet, showering the air with sparks of color that caused a low noise of admiration from the audience.
Hungry hands rose to greet the foreigner, but his feet were fast. Over mounds and into holes he leapt; around rocks and tree stumps he stumbled. Gandalf opened the earth in front of him as he ran, and he was forced back, into the ring of men well-armed, who pushed him back with the flats of their swords and angry shouts. “Why don’t you use your wand, dark wizard!” Gandalf called, as the hole finally caught him and he jumped … and dropped. He managed to hit the edge of the crevice and cling there, but it was a scrabble more than a firm grip. The miniature canyon was only ten feet deep: enough to maim, and to trap, but not to kill. At least, for a normal man.
“That’s not really how it works!” the doctor cried, a feeble voice. The green light of his wand had flickered, and then gone off altogether, as he pulled himself out of the hole. He was covered in mud now, scorched, and stained. Half his face had turned dark with splattered earth, and Gandalf wondered if he wouldn’t soon metamorphosize, if pushed hard enough. And he wanted to see that. He did: the shape of the creature, so that he could assess its full threat and then destroy it, if need be.
Which he really hoped he didn’t have to; he did have so many nice stories. And another old man with a mind that still worked was something few and far between these days. But something just didn’t add up here. And he needed to find out what, before this man got away, and years later came back to haunt him. To haunt them all.
“Then how does it work?” Gandalf goaded, to the upset shouts of the redhead and the skinny man with the tough right hook. He raised his staff to the air once more. Wind whirled all around them; it circled the wall of mortals twice, whipping off hats and buttons and gloves before it dove into the earth’s gouge and pulled the traveler out. He was whirled around and around until he fell to his knees. Gandalf let the spell evaporate, to a great cheer from the crowd. The clattering of metal on metal was his fanfare as he stalked forward. “Tell me.”
From his knees, the man shook his head; he raised his hand to his face and pressed it there.
“Speak! Or would you lose more than friendship for your silence?!”
The doctor’s hands ripped away from his face. “It’s a screwdriver, okay!” He shouted, voice cracking. “It doesn’t work on wood!” He thrust a hand toward Gandalf’s staff in explanation.
“Is that what you call your wand? ‘Screw Driver’?” Gandalf stopped a few feet away, setting his shoulders.
The man stared, desperate, and then ran his hands over his hair like he was clawing at his skin. “Oh sweet TARDIS, you haven’t invented screws yet, have you?!” He supplicated the air, and then held out his wand, pointing to it. Gandalf immediately went into a defensive stance, and sent out a shockwave of light.
The man doubled over in pain, hiding his face with a cry. But still he held out the instrument — in a flat palm. “It’s a little metal turny, screwy thing! It unlocks things and fixes things!” he shouted. “I’m a fixer! I help people!”
“Ahh, so there’s the truth,” Gandalf said, stepping close. “Or half of it.” With the butt of his staff, he knocked the tiny metal wand out of the man’s hand; it skittered to a halt on the ground a few feet away, inert. The man flinched back, but, blind, he was easy to anticipate. “There is many an evil man who started out with good intention.” Gandalf turned his staff so the bulb was almost at the ground; he slid the warm stone through the man’s folded arms and brought his chin upward. Sightless black eyes, streaked with water, blinked hard at him, over and over, no matter how hard they tried to stay open. “What element do you command, then, if not earth and living things? Death?”
From his knees, the man said: “Time.”
Gandalf snorted, knocking him in the chin. “That’s impossible.”
“To magic maybe,” he said quietly, blinking down the pain. But this time, his eyes did not waver; his body did not shiver. “But not to science.”
For a long moment, they watched each other, even though there was nothing the one could see. The wind slid by, carrying with it the heartbeats of many mortals, their anxieties, and their bloodlusts. Their confusion.
And from this one, only one sound: four beats, in a rhythm.
Gandalf withdrew his staff and planted it in the ground. He took a deep breath, and schooled his voice, quiet but stern. He didn’t need everyone hearing this; he didn’t need men relishing in their foe’s pain, as Humans, so very young, were so very apt to do.
“Leave us, and don’t come back, man of the stars.”
The man dropped his head and sighed, rubbing his hand over his eyes. The air ionized from his magic settled, leaving a chill in its wake. Gandalf waited, the silver wand sat in the grass, and the rabble was as still as stone.
“Pardon me, that’s it dear. Move aside. Oh yes, I like your rump too, thank you.”
The doctor’s head turned, even though he could not see; Gandalf raised his eyes to parse the crowd, just in time to see it part, and a woman with a shock of curly hair and a long, dark coat step daintily into the ring. Her boots compressed the grass and sank into the dirt: she was dressed like a man.
“Why, if it isn’t my other favorite old man who never dies!” She waved at Gandalf. She hustled over, and, unsure, Gandalf backed up; she came to the side of the doctor and gave him a quick pat on the shoulder. By the arm, she lifted him to his feet, and then gave him a fierce embrace. A good portion of the crowd jeered, but the doctor merely blinked hard, and reached out to her shoulders.
“River!” He yelled. “So it was you that was bringing tech to this planet!”
“You wouldn’t believe the mine-able resources the inside of Tolkien’s mind has,” she said. “The narcotics are incredibly high-price to the creative crowd. Sorry, I stole the TARDIS, Sweetheart.”
“About an hour ago.”
“You are a fine strumpet of a woman, but I have a duel to complete please,” Gandalf shouted across the ring.
“Oh yes, that’s it you geriatric. Come to Mama.” She gave the doctor a smooch. He turned bright red, and ran a muddy hand over his eyes.
She laid her head on his shoulder, and smiled at the wizard. A curling hand reached out, to beckon Gandalf closer. He did not move. Only a fool would.
“River, what are you doing here?” the doctor asked.
“I was reading a book of unfinished tales, and a strange story came about in it,” she said. Her finger pointed upward. “But I couldn’t let you be defeated, not my Sweetheart. Why, Doctor, I brought all your other friends as reinforcements.”
Shadows fell over the field, blocking out the moon and stars. At first, Gandalf thought they were clouds, but they were too dark and uniform for that: giant disks and wings, glittering with flashing lights. A few landed in the fields afar; they were so awash with lights that even the forest was awakened. Gandalf could see beasts appearing, and armies in black. They spread into formation, ready to swarm. The men around him had dropped the stranger’s other companions, and were crowding together, each head looking at a different target.
By the time he looked skyward again, the night was dark as if with a thunderstorm.
“I even brought a deathray, Sweetie!” The new woman pecked her captive again. “Cook the whole planet if we need to.”
Gandalf did not like the sound of that.
“River! This is a Level Four planet, we can’t use that!” The stranger hissed.
“You can’t. But I can.” She shrugged. “Convict, remember?” She laughed, detached from him, and sauntered out into the field. Gandalf watched her, staff out, careful. “Now. You’ve got an entire planet, but we’ve got Galaxies.” She held out her hands, a happy theatric. Behind her, the Doctor groaned, even as he smiled. “Defeat us here, and they automatically start a war you’ll never win. Whoever here thought the Doctor was here to become your next overlord was wrong, because that’s going to be me. Stand down.”
The Battle: Gandalf
The War: The Doctor
NOTE: THIS MATCH ENDS ON Friday, March 15th, 2013, AT 5 PM, EST
Gandalf image courtesy of MGM/Warner Bros. The 11th Doctor from Doctor Who image courtesy of BBC.
Cage Match fans: We are looking forward to hearing your responses! If possible, please abstain from including potential spoilers about the books in your comments (and if you need spoilers to make your case, start your comments with: “SPOILER ALERT!”