Terrible Gifts: 3. TERRIBLE GIFTS

Reader Toolbox   Log in for more tools

3. TERRIBLE GIFTS

 

Well-named well-named, my brave one

It is his nightmare come upon him at last, the darkness, the choking slime, the webs of burning cold and icy fear that wrap his mind and flesh and drag him down beneath the surface of the mire, no longer the forebodings of a heart worn down with the dread of the hunted but a most present and palpable thing. The taste of blood is on his lips, not his own, as though dropped from the ravens' beaks that mocked his dead, — but warm, arterial, and fresh, liquid as the tears he cannot shed where it has sprayed over him in the struggle. It tastes no different from his own, strangely enough…

The cold that consumes him is that of deep, deep water, rising from the dark of stone fissures far from the sun's heat, and he can barely draw breath against the chill, as it were against icy water breast high, can barely force his dry throat and cracked lips to shape the sounds his mind remembers. But it does not matter. There is no beauty left to his voice, which is a thread so rough and ragged as to be indistinguishable from a moan of pain, to the outer sense. It does not matter. The song is in his thought, whether it achieve the tremors of the airs about them or dies in smothered silence. And in his thought it burns like a drawing flame, bright and high and clear in the changeless night.

It is not a question of him willing them to hear it, or not — he could not shield his thoughts from them now, willed or no. His thought is bare to them, beneath the veil of the King's protection, as theirs never is to him, unwilled, and nothing of his mind is concealed from them, unless they turn away in mercy, or in shame — or in fear. But this they could not turn from if they wished — as they do not: this gift of song that fills the dark with memory, the cold with dreams, strange dreams not their own, memories far in a distance illusory and deceptive, long past in time, or yesterday…

It is bitter to lie with bodies unmarred, uninjured, and helpless: if they were wounded, broken in battle it would be less grievous to them, for that at least would have meant some accomplishment, some payment exacted in return for their fate. But they were taken without a blow, to flesh at least, when the memory of evil done and innocence shattered with blood and fire broke through their King's defenses — but in truth they were doomed long before that, watched in lazy cruelty and allowed to make their way as they thought unobserved, until it suited the Master of Wolves to bring them in to his dominion, his stolen stronghold, and bow them as thralls before that which was once the King's own high throne … They cannot touch, and this is perhaps the hardest, that no warmth of friend's hand, no bodily mercy may be given, not the lifting of another's head from the cold stone nor the gentleness of a futile caress that eases no injury and alters nothing of fate.

The King's working has gathered them all in, Noldor and Sindar and mingled Kindred — and mortal as well, whose weakness and lesser race have been hidden from both outward sense and sorcerous searching, in a working so subtle and delicate that the Necromancer has not even noticed it, as he believes that all concealments were torn away in the triumph of his song over the King's. When they were first set here it was dreadful beyond word or thought, stricken with overwhelming power, held by blood-guilt not even their own more strongly than the claws of their captors. None had thought or heed for the other, only for his own despairing horror and shame, none took thought for the frailty of the least among them — save the King, who had already done so, for them all, still sheltering them from Sauron's worst workings and the full power of his dark vision, and who even in those brutal moments of binding worked to save them, still and silent to outward sense, yet bending his remaining strength to weave protection about them.

As once on the Ice of Helcaraxë he did a thing never before attempted, let alone accomplished, and as there with the aid of his sister and brothers and with many more in freedom, brought safely through many more than would ever have been believed, through that gulf of despair — so here he builds and shapes a working of power that is unlike anything ever told of, nor can scarcely have been imagined, even as the Necromancer stands before their naked helplessness taunting them with promise of pain to come and the far greater pain of possibility of freedom — at the price of faith betrayed.

Already they have been held in a weave of his making, the spell of disguising that changed them into the semblance of their foes, so that all now know the touch of his power, even the one who has never known magic ere now: from this foundation, crumbled to dust, he binds a shield to screen their thoughts from the Wolflord's burning gaze, hiding their names and selves from his mocking contempt … and this he strengthens most of all about the mortal who lies stunned beneath a blow that crushed one ancient beyond his understanding and wise beyond his ken, folding a guise of Elven beauty and age around this Sickly One, hiding the outlaw's infamous features from Orc and sorcerer alike, even as he hides the one other thing which would betray them upon the moment from hostile sight and touch: the golden Ring that is the badge of his own royal House and the emblem of their Doom.

When the flesh-eating bonds were first set upon the Man, he roused a little from his stupor, stirring to look up at the torch-lit vaults that loom high overhead in the darkness, horror creeping into his eyes as he came to clearer comprehension of their fate, and he twisted his arms in vain attempt to escape the power of the chains that seared him, and his breath came quicker in gulping gasps like that of a panting bird taken in nets, before his long-accustomed self-mastery reasserted itself and he recalled the skills of suffering in privation and danger, quieting himself to wait, though there be no escaping this time. But worse yet was to come, for the chains of iron spell-sealed with words of pain and burning were but the least of the bonds destined for them, Eldar all as their Enemy believed, and hence requiring additional bindings to chain hither spirit as well as flesh, prevent the fëa from slipping its house and fleeing like one hunted into the dark, away before the hunters have noticed his escape…

The web of death-wrought spells and evil power that now spread through the deep place of the Wizard's Isle was beyond terrible, tendrils of burning cold and strangling decay winding around each form that lay sprawled at pillar's footing, not stopping at body's bounds but seeping into the interstices of the hröa, setting bonds of stilling and changelessness upon the flesh, that so might endure without sustenance or exercise of limb, held in slow passing long past even Elven power to endure — and linking them flesh to flesh, so that what one knew, all should know, each in his own body. It was maddening, even to the Firstborn, even to the Noldor with their greater might of will that outmatched their lesser Kindred as those outmatched mortals: it was madness, to one who ere this day had never known the touch of magic that was not of kindness as well, never battled save with iron and edge against the power of the Void.

Against its ingress he flailed frantically with all useless strength of body and of mind, wrenching in the witless panic of a beast paw-snagged in snare, the frenzy that rives limb from frame in its wild flight. Soul-breaking was nigh him, for all his disguise, and then the King did a thing beyond belief or comprehension, changing the Necromancer's working so that it became a part of his own working, without the sorcerer's least awareness. He wove a song of joining, of flowing as of tides returning, and a power to draw it at his will even as the Moon draws the Sea, and into that he bound their names, and wove it into his own fëa — and fastened it to his Enemy's design. And after that the torches went, and they were given into the keeping of the Dark.

And thus they were bound, body and spirit, into a terrible bond of Death and cruelty, and at the same time woven into a weft of Life and love, and their lives kept from the Void, but not enchained: for they could break from his holding if they willed it, and give over to the greater might of the Master of Wolves, and buy their own lives at price of his breaking, and the breaking of Nargothrond thereafter.

Into this weaving the mortal too is bound, held in torment and in mercy at once. He has no power to affect the weft, not even the power that the King has given back to them, to share among them all such strength and sensation as they will — to choose to give, or to withhold, for he will not take — but they give to their lord unstintingly as they are able, with which gift he in turn rebuilds ever the veils of protection that enmesh them all. Being but Mortal, he can only receive, cannot even understand what has been done to him, any more than a hurt hound understands the work that is done by its master to clean and sew and bind its wounds.

Yet he understands that it is a gift, and he marvels at the trust which the King bestows on them all, even upon himself, for he too is free to speak, for the King's power does not lie in mastery and domination, but only in sustaining and healing. It is something that they turn away from in their own minds, from their lord's helplessness and the fact that they could easily unmake his workings, as if from the nakedness of body that matters not, all being alike naked; but the mortal does not know enough, or has not the taint of the Revolt's guilt to shame him, and he wonders greatly and in great amazement, and so honoring them all he causes them to see that there is no need to shrink from this knowledge of frailty and gift of faith unbroken.

At first they dreaded most his weakness, and that he, having aught to gain, and aught more to lose, being so brief of life, would fail first of all. And now, to their sad shame, they know too well this is not so …

He has come to that one last thing, the fear at the back of all nightmares, the dread above all others that he chased death like a hound to escape, and is brought to in the end. And now that he is here, in bonds, a captive in the toils of his own worst enemy, it is not such a great matter after all — indeed, terrible as it seems to them and among those thoughts of his which they avoid in fear, it seems almost to be a dark jest to him, that after having risked such horror and danger to escape this Lord's power and wolf-shaped warriors, he should walk of his own free will into their grasp, and lie down meekly in chains who slew Orc and Warg without number that would make him thrall. It has the taste of Doom to him, and he is calm now.

He does not blame them for it, any more than they blame him for the dreadful Oath which has returned to strike them after so many long years of the Sun. He is in fact grateful for the mercy that protects him from recognition, masking him as one of them to the eyes of the foe, concealing his different form and fëa in the likeness of their own, so that none guesses here is the one for whom their Master hunted long years in vain. And from this knowledge too they shrink, finding it painful to bear, that he is content with so little, having enjoyed so little in his brief flash of life beneath the Sun.

The cold of the Pit deep below stone and river's surface would kill him and in short order, did not the weft allow him to receive their power in shared measure, replacing what shivers from him: the Master of Wolves knows not that he is mortal, but stone and iron cannot be deceived or tricked. It is not ease, any more than their own greater strength gives them ease or comfort, merely the ability to survive what mortal frame could not otherwise bear. Ensorcelled metal burns the skin in torment ever-renewed to swift-healing Elven flesh, but far more harsh to weaker mortality that does not repair as fast as it is seared; but he does not complain, though he could lose his hands did they not pour their strength and healing through the weft. And that is torture too, of another kind, the warring of powers in his body, rending and mending at one instant: that which is usually dispersed over long time, and subtle, now stark and present to the senses. Sometimes the madness comes upon him as it comes on them all and he struggles against the bonds, tearing his galls deeper until the King, if he has the strength, stills him with a touch of his will.

It is worst, strangely, to lie upon worked stones for him: if they were rough, unhewn, or better yet the uncovered earth, he would not mind it so much, but to die upon a slab of polished rock so far from the world of things that grow and change, no matter how smoothly-shaped, is torture to him as though he were one of their Sundered Kindred who haunt the woodland twilight, mourning the dim times of the Stars before the Sun and Moon, making no works of stone or metal. The only ease that the King can give him is to sever his awareness to great extent from his bodily self, so that pain is dulled together with all sensation … and this too is bitter mercy, for it is harder for him than all the rest to be in darkness, since he cannot see with spirit, and he is completely blind here, and even pain seems better than all loss of feeling when there is nothing to anchor the mind to the world. But of this too he does not complain, only sinks deeper into the morass of unmoving, isolate despair, unless they open to him Elven-sight through the weft and draw him into their circle that he may share their light.

When the King is strong enough it is not in question, for he does it without thought or hesitation, as he would change the fashion of his speech to the manner of whatever Kindred he came among — but during a dying, and after, when he is still shattered with the pain he has taken into himself, he cannot always do that, and it is as much as he can manage and more to hold the weaving of his protection around them at all, and it is left to them to maintain his workings in so far as they can — or will. And that is the hardest of all — to willingly open thought and heart to one foreign beyond comprehension, though friend, to allow such mingling of unlike spirits; it is repugnant without any conscious will or rejection, as to drink oil rather than water would revulse the body. And there are other burdens, beyond the strangeness and the disquieting tenor of his soul-light, for when he is within their hold they cannot shield their own pain of spirit and weakness from him any more than he can hide his mind from them at any time. 

And yet he does not despise them for it, these mighty Elven-lords who are fallen so far as to be indistinguishable from himself in the dark that clothes them all, fearing the wolf that is their death, fearing death, fearing the act of dying, fearing the Justice that awaits them upon their homeward return, ashamed of fear, ashamed of their very shame and loathing themselves for it — loathing him for witnessing: no more does he hold them in contempt for being less than either he or they had imagined than does their King … 

His anguish is like a sword, like a clear crystal spire or a single note of sorrow rising unbroken to the farthest reaches of the world, the deepest heights of heaven, it is not for himself alone, or for his sundered love, or even for his lost people merely: it mourns them too, making no distinction between Firstborn and Secondborn, Eldar and Atani, mourning them who lie here caught in his fate as he is caught in theirs, and all who have been caught in the Doom of the Noldor together — the dead of Ard-galen and the dead of Alqualondë, the sorrow of mortal mothers whose sons come not home from the long Siege and the grief of Elven-maids whose lovers are gone beyond the Western Sea … all are alike to him, he comprehends no difference in their sadness, and this is mystifying to them, and at first insulting, and now — after the long lightless hours without number, after the first dying and the second dying and the third, after every tangled merging of spirit half-unwilled — it is still strange to them, but they are only mute with awe now, and receive the gift unquestioned. 

He does not know — cannot know — what they do for him, how they have undertaken in most deliberate fashion to die for him, who is their King's life-price, though unpayable, unredeemable in end; how they take it upon themselves to call the wolf with its sharper sense for weakness, the sense that comes with wolf-shape, that would otherwise be drawn to him first of all as it is drawn to the least powerful among them, discerning with some mingling of powers both outer and of spirit that he is not able to seal his will as they are against its darkness … how they take it in turn to slip from the shield-wall of the King's working and kneel, naked in spirit, before the dark mastery of the wolf when it comes. Surely it is beyond mortal understanding, these contentions of fëa and fëa, battles of power that have no bodily measure, deeds that have no corresponding gesture. —Surely it must be so. 

Three are gone, and now the fourth's turn approaches with the slow radiance of eyes that stalk between the pillars of the tower's foundation towards them. The last taken was a Sindarin youth who came to wonder at the King's city and stayed to build it and left it with his King, his soul not bound to wroughten caverns but to that city's soul. He made no struggle, giving his pain into the King's care at once unresisting, and his dying was almost easy, nor for him alone. 

But he is proud, this Lord of the West, who once rode with great Tavros in Aman and in whose honor set forth to hunt the hellwolves many a time on this Shore, and deeming himself hardier in spirit than the child of Twilight born after the Rising of the Moon, he sets himself to stand the strain, and to fight by whatever means are yet left to him. Not entirely absent from his mind is the thought that when he comes before the Master of Spirits he will be able to return without shame, proud before his fallen fellows, and before their kindred-foes … nor indeed is there absent a certain relief, as one who goes out of a smoke-filled hollow to face death in the clean wind, that he is not bound to the mortal in spirit now but alone among his own kind at the last— 

He spurns at the wolf with his heel and hears the snick of fang on fang as the connecting blow jars down his leg, and the sickly lambence vanishes briefly as the beast's eyes close at the impact — and then quick as a swordsman's backstroke his ankle is seized and crunched between great teeth, and as the shattered bone is dropped to the floor his other foot is swiftly taken and crushed, before he can recover from the pain to strike again, and there is an end of that. The breaks try to rebuild themselves, setting stony webs across the gaps, sealing the torn vessels and purging away the misplaced blood, muscles working the ends into proper alignment as his soul-pattern demands — yet that is only more anguish, without hope of sufficient time for achievement. But he has known worse wounds in the field, stood against the Lord of Fetters' host for full this Age of the Sun, and he turns his thought from the ruin of his limbs and stands resolute in soul. The King urges him to surrender up his pain, but he ignores the request: it is his duty to serve, not the other way round, and he will do so to the end, he vows. 

But the wolf straddles him completely, coarse hair brushing against his calves as it waves tail in pleased anticipation of his anguish, while venom drips from its panting tongue warm and ice-cold at once, dissolving his skin like acid to bare flesh where it runs across his cheekbones, looming above him thrice his weight and more — and he is daunted beyond his power to comprehend by his own helplessness, the consciousness of which only now is made fully clear to him. There is no escape — save through those jaws. His soul cannot flee and fade: the spellforged mesh that webs him sees to that, as the corrupted chains that sear his wrists likewise hold his hröa fast. Until his body is too broken for his fëa to shelter in, like a house burnt and fallen under a darkened sky, he must remain here, utterly passive, yielding to the wolf's will in flesh however he strives to stand apart in spirit. 

When its eyes bore down into his own, and the green light of them shines down on his breast, revealing his own pale body to him after time unmeasured, he falters, and in weakness he arches back his neck, so that the lifebearing vessels will be pressed closer to the surface of his skin, and perhaps the lure of the beating blood will draw the beast-nature to a swift kill. The snuffling nostrils blow against his throat, before the burning tongue licks at his ear and into it as an affectionate hound will do, and he jerks away as the delicate structures within are melted like wax in a flame, though his fëa strives to rebuild them according to its innate pattern from his enormous reserves of strength. Half-deafened to its panting breath now, he cringes, offering his throat yet again … but the wolf is, he begins to perceive, far older in spirit than he himself, no matter when its hröa was shaped, by fell sorceries as well as birth of blood, and it laughs at his pitiful effort to tempt it. 

Still in mockery of dogs' affection it nuzzles his cheek, carrion breath shivering his hair as he strains for breath himself in his terror, and then carelessly sets razor-tips behind his scalded ear and rips free the side of his face from hairline to chin. Doglike, it jerks muzzle up to bolt down its prize, and the green glow vanishes again for a moment as eyes close in the swallowing. He cannot even scream — agony courses over his skull like a flood of molten ore, irrevocable, undeniable, and in the shock his will slackens and his grasp fails and he allows the King to draw away the pain from him, and with that greatest part of the burden lifted some large part of the dread goes, too, and his mind is yet his own. 

But it serves him nothing to stop the wrecking of his body, nor the wolf's evil glee at his disarray, and it noses curiously along his frame as one might linger over a tray of sweetmeats, pausing before making choice of this dainty before that. His heart is hammering with the slow, forceful strokes of hammer upon anvil, indeed slamming his ribcage against the stone with every blow, and the waves of fear coursing through his veins and flesh have driven out even sensation of pain from his wrists and ankles. He grits teeth as the venomed muzzle nudges into his unarmored belly, shamelessly between his thighs, and then he grunts in surprise as his leg is gripped high and he shaken as a small animal might be shaken, with no more effort than he might shake water from his hands. Blood wells from the punctures, warm on his chilled skin, and it is no more than a dull ache thanks to the King's power, but he begins to sink under the unfolding revelation of his doom… 

Twisted half-sideways, blinded by the poison running into his eyes (or is it his blood? or both? he cannot tell) — he does not know what the wolf is about at first, when he feels the hot breath on his back and hip together, and then a growing pressure until he thinks that he must break like a dead twig in it, and then a pulling that is as sharp as it is swiftly over, and he is tossed down flat again, uncomprehending, until he feels the sudden wet heat dropped heavily upon his thighs, hears the snarling snap of jaws closing again and feels the rent torn wider, hears his own skin ripping like silk and knows, most terribly, knows— 

The Enemy's beast delves deeper into his entrails, dragging out more of that which never should have been uncovered, feasting greedily upon his soft parts while silent tears course down his face, uselessly diluting the coating of venom, running into the low heat that marks his head-wound — for it has come to this: that all of his valour, his deeds and workings in the Leaguer, and the still-dearer works of his hands all these long years of his life, the songs and the crafts and the fair works of knowledge, fairest of all, are worth nothing in the teeth of the wolf. He is nothing, no more than a carcass yet warm, a lump of meat that has not yet stopped twitching, and his brave thoughts of defiance melt away like frost beneath hot breath… 

Now, little one, will you heed? Will you give my Master what he seeks? Ere it grows too late, and yet your life may safely keep— 

He laughs, then in his heart, despite it all, that the Master of Wolves should be so foolish as to judge him such a fool, that saw the Light of the Trees, for he knows only too well that his body is past mending and that soon his spirit will be evicted from this dwelling, the only and the first it has ever known, and gone beyond the ken of Middle-earth's shadows… 

Not so, child, not so, ancient is our Master and wise beyond your little wisdom: no need for fëa to bide in flesh first-formed!

The seduction of the wolf-being pours into his opened mind like the venom that drips into his opened body: 

Need not be thus, weak and fragile of flesh — rather be fleet of form, swift-strong and nothing-needing, free of all care, even as us— 

He knows it for lies, even if truth: even if made wolfshaped in form his spirit would not be free but further fettered, doomed to tormented Unlife without ending for the ages of Arda, no hope of rest and mercy in Mandos' Halls — but the dream encloses him of might and dark-maned muscle, cold eyes pitiless seeing all in darkness, strength of jaws to rend as now he is rent and taken— 

Help me! he cries, to whom he does not know: the Powers from whom he turned his face so long ago or the King who already spends what he has not to shield him from the worst of the storm, or the comrades whose strength stays the King in his Workings — but the Stars are gone from him, the Sun unthinkable here and the Moon beyond sensing in this abyss, and his friends recoil aghast at his temptation — one who fell not back before Balrogs is retching in horror at the thought of being offered such a choice himself and knowing not what answer would follow — and the King has no more strength left for sharing past what he expends already. 

Shadows charge down stony banks heedless of the night's bitterest cold, too cold for snow even, hurtling upon the warm-light-lure that summons them faster than falcons' flight to fall on the spirits that fumble at bowstring and spear-haft, poison melting soft flesh as fangs rip and sunder soul from body, the hot heart's blood a slaking and a maddening to thirst at once, and best and most savory of all, the fear that satisfies as no fleshly taste ever may— 

Help me, he whispers in the Void that surrounds them, knowing there is no help and that he will fail this test, fail of his pride where if he had kept silent and fought not he might have won through to the last, his heart weeping in shame and sickness at what he knows he shall do. 

And then as though from the hands of the Kementári there is a gift of gold, leaf-gold, treelight as from Laurelin, bright as hope in the dreadful dark of the Crossing, defending him if only for an instant by shaking the wolf-vision's grip on his mind and allowing his soul to pull away. For one deaf to the voice of the wolf in their minds and blind to the visions shared helpless between them has yet heard his faint whimper of breath, calling aloud in foolish weakness, and has answered from his own weakness in the feeble imitation of the King's working that is all he can offer, a song that is all he can remember in this hour, whispered back with memories of life and warmth and love… 

It is a little song, a foolish song, a song for a child much younger even than he whom the memories show hearing it, singing of the seasons turning; and the gold is not the true light of his birthplace after all, not even mallorn-gold, but only the plain yellow-gold of birch and beech in autumn remembered with the clarity of childhood, not so bright in truth, only by comparison to the dark around them, the dim gleaming of a mortal soul— 

Like a houseless ghost he turns to that faint strange light and lets it enclose him, not shrinking from the foreign timbre and hue of it, asking nothing now, accepting all as a wounded warrior fallen from blows accepts the gift of a fellow's shield, shared against the lethal arrow-hail of an Enemy that will break through in the end, regardless. The wolf-song of slaughter and cruel betrayal fades into the sheen of a fire-warm evening, where a tall woman, taller still in the remembrance of childhood and gold as a Vanyar lady but with mortality written in her planed bones, her face that is already lined with sun and wind, moves about the hall, singing softly but steadily as she works … she comes now to sit beside the low pallet where he rests, unsleeping, sick with anxiousness that has no cure but time, and not even that is sure, and calls one of the great hounds to come lie down beside him, and he puts his arms around the friendly beast, and as she sits she sings of harvest and the Sickle swinging to reap the sunlight's sheaves… 

Yet her hands are busy with less peaceful tasks, for she sharpens swords as she sings, the ring of the blade like a bell-note chiming slow upon each stroke of the whetstone, and her hair is not woven in fairness or falling free as an Elf-woman's would be, but drawn back in a single simple braid like a warrior's before battle, and the steady strength of her arm in its moving tells that this is a task she knows most well, (and a fearful thought comes to him, and thus to them all: Should someday the Vanyar turn to war, what then? what dread befall?) and thus her song of comfort seems belied … yet still she sings of golden fields and forests gold— 

—but the wolf shakes him as a fox shakes a hare in its jaws, and his will is shaken too, and the golden leaves are swept away in an icy blast of North wind, and darkness, eye-haunted, pours over the land with its wailing song … Winter takes hold of the earth, the winter of Angband, where the creatures of Morgoth may roam its night in strength and inflict their own deep torment on the small frail lives that struggle through its cold… 

But the song speaks of Winter too, of snow bright as silver under the Moon, and stars that burn like silver flames in a still clear night, and a deep shelter for the little squirrels that sleep and dream of Springtime loves beneath the snows, beneath the earth, until the time to rise and run like melting snow… 

(…and down a hill of pearl and silver under a sky where the Moon is ringed with a blue-green crown and every twig is wrought of wonder, comes One more lovely than the stars above her, uncaring of the dark, and fearless in her mastery of the ways of going, and praise and love of all things living are set forth in her dance…) 

But Spring is hunger-time as well, when the deer starve, too weak to gather from the growing plenty, and the wolf grows sleek, and the sad winterkill lies like discarded rags beneath the greening branches, and the sodden rains wash down little tufts of fur into the mud, and on the lintels of the house-door the holy symbols painted there fade softly, melting into the gray stone of the doorposts to fall like white tears onto the great stone of the threshold… 

But after when the granite glitters in the morning sun, the tall woman comes with white clay in hand, to renew the Stars on either side, and to reach easily the lintel-stone where memory sees the Eagle-shape before her strong fingers sweep out the wings above the door, and she gives him the clay too, so that he may trace the Kindler's Gifts on either post where the stone is low to the ground, showing him how to work it into the rough surfaces where lichen has eaten away — and it comes to him that symbols not carved in cavern rock but painted in soft earth may be repainted elsewhere, and borne more easily perhaps that way to many lands, and it seems to him a strange wisdom too late learned — yet one that his King has long whiles known… 

And Spring is planting-time as well, and the heft of wood for fallen fences now rebuilt, and songs of readying and hope, and a dark man, gray-eyed, broad of bone, laughs as he hoists his plough upon his shoulder and leads the way to the far field, where friends wait with the steady oxen and at his side his hounds bound and bark, and coming to the runoff stream that spills where hill and hill converge, hounds leap over, and the man catches him up in a quick embrace and in one long stride bears him easily across to the planting before setting him down so that he may race the dogs to the fallow land— 

—but comes the remembrance that would not willfully be given entrance: the strong arm stilled, hand-hacked in the rank mud of the lakeshore, the singer lost beyond war and mountain, all songs and smiles ended— 

He falters, not in his chanting but in his thought, which is all of pain now, and only stern determination presses forth the words that have lost all meaning to him, and he cannot give any longer what he does not have, can only keep with barest edge from being swept beneath the Shadow himself, and ironically he must wield pain to counter pain, setting his mind upon the fire that leashes his hands, the dull press of cruelly-cold stone against his bone's weight, to bolt the doors of memory against that sight, that recollection— 

But now he can return good for good: he gives back a memory of a time of fire and hell when that lost hand dragged him up, stumbling, from thick mud and the snares of reeds, in an hour when all his Firstborn power failed him, when hope itself failed him, and all he dared look for was to be slain before capture — and mortal might shattered their foes and saved them there that hour. 

And true it came to naught at ending, for are they not here? but it was good while it lasted, and well-done, and in the workings of Eru it may be that a twelvemonth, a year, a score, an Age are no different in their worth, and the gifts that have been given back and back again, of faith, of help, of rescue, of wisdom, are so deeply woven together that there is no separating them to lay in balance-scale — this debt for that, this gift weighed against that one, deed for deed in uncaring calculation — that is for strangers who do not trust each other, for strangers whether of one blood or not, knowing that they will wrong each other, and laying up store of deed-words to justify themselves in that day. He has not abandoned them, as they abandoned their own in Aman so long ago, as they too were abandoned on the northern shore; there is no room for blame or reckoning between them, he sees that quite clearly now, and shows him so— 

—and the song strengthens, rhyming of the turned earth and the green shoots rising… 

And this time the wisdom is clearer, though fragmented, as though seen by lightning-flash, sharp and stark and piecemeal: It does not matter. Everything wears to an end in its time, and most things end swifter than slower, and the stars that Elbereth set ages past are no less real, and no more so, than the white stars of the dogwood blossom in the woodlands of a spring morning, that are measured in days and fall to earth, and whose place will be taken anew by others in future springs, for ages of the world. If he had but time — but time shall be his, to understand these things, and to set all that he has been given into its proper accord, until he is no longer bound by grief and confusion to cling to what he could neither comprehend nor grasp forever in this hröa … the Halls of Awaiting hold no dread or sorrow for him now: he has already entered them in thought, only the thinnest threads yet binding him to this darkness, and almost in bored disdain the wolf gives up the assault on soul and puts all its attention to its meal. 

But there is no triumph here, no pride of victory: his mind is mazed, crushed with the struggle, barely more of reason left than an animal's, he longs only for peace, for escape, for rest from the confusion and pain — but it is not yet for him, and still he must endure his dying, though it cannot be very much longer. His body is consuming itself from within, too, in its vain efforts to repair what could never be remade this side of the Sea, and there is more cold than pain left, more strangeness than anything else, that seeps through the muted link to his own flesh, and the soul's image and understanding of its dwelling that every being — Eldar, Atani, kelvar and mayhap olvar — holds from earliest days, is destroyed. 

But in the light he clings to there is gentleness and grace of that pity that can only look on hurts and lacks power to undo or ease, but does not turn away: as a boy cradles a hound, bear-broken, while his father waits with tear-wet gaze and unsheathed knife for farewell's end; or as the man lays a stone-smashed falcon whose shattered wing has reft it violently of its high dominion, sling-shot wrecked for no good reason save that it lived, and was, and flew free, down beneath the cover of the heather where the earth and the life that it holds will take its ruined dwelling back to fashion others, as it will someday take his own… 

…or as, perhaps, more like, one who sees the dread lord of the forest, the red stag, mighty as a storm wind, with fell branched antlers full a tall man's armspan wide, brought low and staggering with venom from a chance-loosed arrow, sent without thought of need nor followed upon as a true hunter will follow through hardship and danger to bring to completion the kill, still dangerous though purblind from the arrow-poison, terrible in his slow failing until pity's sure hand sends a clean dart clear through the glazed dark eye with a single sung note of passing— 

He clings fast to the pity that is given him, to the thought of shelter under the strength of earth, deep-dug holts beneath the roots of trees, worn to smoothness by the flickering generations of woodbeasts whose lives are measured in seasons, not ages; the narrow safety of a badger's den, musky and rough with the tumbled dirt but not foul as venomed slaver and cruel sorceries. Panting, he rests in the hold of friendship that scorns not fear nor weakness, as when the starveling fox, dragging on three legs with snare-severed paw, lies foam-muzzled in the shadow of its own den, safe from the clamor and ruckus of ravagers, though death's stilling cold creeps through its blood inescapable; until at last he can attend the music again and receive the last gift of memory that may be given, the recollection of peace, of quietude, of… 

…twilight falling like amber, no fierce brightness of Sun to leap across the sky like trumpet cry, no white Moon mithril-bright to reproach with memories of stolen sails, but a soft haze of warm-cool dimness, not dull or livid but a shading from brightness to shadow that is like the dreaming of all colors, and all beautiful. Ferns deep and sheltering in a shadow that is the sleep of greenness, as far from the 'bright' of that name as might be, and yet still latent that gemlike hue, to return born anew in the distant dawn… 

…it is a memory of finding, a dream of waiting, of rest without anxiety, moving through the hushed woods as the light changes from rich and heavy golds to a still-richer cloud of periwinkle and dim azure without fear of losing the way, to a place well-known, where the water runs beneath trees like pillars of living stone, gray and warm in the familiar shade, where the leafy vaulting overhead is so dense that the moss grows deeper than the finest carpet, and the little hillocks that make inlets of the stream beside its swifter passage are overwhelmed in softness… 

…there one waits, in perfect trust, in the deepening of evening, reclining among the fragrance of growing things, the gift of greening that flourishes and changes and dies and is ever renewed, giving food as it is food itself, taking sustenance from that which is sustained by it, mystery amid Mysteries of the wounded world that cannot be Denied for all its pain, while small salamanders creep over the hills to them vast, hollows and handfuls of rich dark soil under ancient carpet of leaf-litter to hunt still-smaller insects, and the little owls flutter from their day's sleep to wakefulness, and the slow unmeasured time draws on to the longed-for moment, when Love beyond all hope or deserving comes to bid him rise and dance… 

When the vast jaws close with exquisite, taunting gentleness about his spasming heart and tear it out in a sudden snapping recoil, his soul does not even mark its severing, for his mind rests beside an eddy of a stream he has never known, a calm pool of Esgalduin deep beside the mossy banks, clear upon stones, and before his dreaming eyes is the first vision of his people, returned to him far beyond any memory of his own holding, for he sees in the sheltered water the deep, deep blue that is the vault of the free heavens, not dark of stone, and Night that is without shadow of fear, and — beyond any taint or wounding or harm — the faint clear light, reflected, shivering in the slight breath of the water's slow stirring, of the first Stars… 

Only slowly does the realization come to him that there is nothing to ignore, nothing to turn from now, no din of pain and darkness beating at his will, that he is free now of the Necromancer's chains, that no longer does his fëa inhabit that over which the wolf still snarls and gulps. He is too weary for fear, for horror, at being unhoused — it does not seem to matter much just now, after the horrors that have tempted him — but there is a wrongness, akin to coldness were he in flesh yet, a sense of being naked beyond the nakedness he has worn these long hours without number, that troubles him deeply. 

He sees the lights now of his friends, those who remain, the warmth of body and soul together as should be, of which he has been so harshly robbed. He longs for the same shelter, but theirs are defended against him by the nature of their existence: to contend with them in such attempted robbery he would have to be far other than he is, one raised in nobleness and the paths of wisdom, who while yet forsaking them in folly has not forsaken all, nor forever, and who has been long led by one whose wisdom and nobility is beyond compare in this sorrowful land. Reluctantly he turns away — and his mind is drawn by another light, unfamiliar yet oddly not so, a light that shines out flaring in the mirk of the Pit like the flaring of a banner in the morning sky— 

How could they have been blind to his brightness? to the clear unwavering light that reminds him of the mingled light of the Trees, when Laurelin closed her golden blossoms and Telperion's brilliance slowly waxed to fullness, neither silver nor gold but both together, the most beautiful of hours — the lure of it is irresistible, drawing him to itself, his own light mingling with the mortal's now without any sense of difference to repel him. Before he was too wounded to care of the difference or to resist, when flesh blinded him and breaking, broke his spirit. Now he is stronger than his rescuer, even unhoused in this unnatural state: his advance cannot be repelled by the younger will — and he is drawn, not repulsed. The mingling of their lights is intoxicating, luring him to drink deeper, forbidden or no—

But unresisting the other permits him free entry, would not bar him even from full possession of his hröa, fearing nothing of his spirit after all that they have endured. He is welcome, though the welcomer does not know what such trespass would do to him, no more than does the naked ghost that longs for entry. —Perhaps, unresisted, uncontested, there would be no harm done even to a mortal body, perhaps not even to the soul, where another, freely harbored, might rest without injury to either until both be at last cast forth by fanged hunger. It is tempting — but he is no creature of the Shadow, nor unreasoning raw appetite and hunger, to take what may not rightfully be given nor accepted: he will not like a reckless moth dash out that which draws him, destroying himself in the doing of it. Reluctantly he withdraws into the Voidlike cold of the pit—

Hither, friend

That call is like the rising of the sun — his soul cannot but turn to it, and be caught by its warm radiance. To the King's measureless spirit he flies and is taken therein without harm on either part, he is held and thanked and blessed, and his name returned to him from safekeeping, as one might take a messenger bird in hands and bespeak it with a caress before sending it forth in freedom to follow duty. There is no reproach for the folly of his pride, no silent demand for shame in the memory of torment taken — only boundless gratitude and joy at victory over the Shadow, and the brilliance heals his confusion and loss so that though incomplete he is not wounded, and his fëa forgets its nakedness as though he were one of the Beautiful Ones who never took bodily form in Arda.

Free, he wings forth from the light that once he followed through a darkness terrible beyond thought, through coldness of flesh and spirit that he had thought would never be matched upon this earth — and as this last dark was so much the worse than the other so much more glorious has the light which guarded and guided him through become. It is Mystery, complete and comprehending him, and he understands that which he cannot explain, that the weakness of Love and Life is beyond all power of the calculating Dark to measure, and the strength of its helplessness, infinite.

He returns to the strange other light one last time, still drawn beyond his willing — yet not without it — to merge one last time before final parting forever, not to take, but as a traveller, not thirsty, well-equipped, may slip hand softly beneath the surface of a clear welling spring and fill palm, not to drink but to marvel at the wonder of that living crystal, before returning it to its source undiminished, unpolluted, stirring no trouble from the depths of the sand to cloud its purity. There is no resistance this time either, neither fear nor aversion, only kind welcome as spirit merges — yet in that touch he perceives a stain like a swirl of black mud tainting the dancing waters, a darkening shame and sorrow that he has tasted blood — not at the involuntary contagion, the accidental press of unwilled matter against his own, but at something that is far other: the knowledge that he most willfully accepted that taste, and relished it, and swallowed what he might of it, the blood of his comrade spurting from torn limb in sacrifice to his quest…

He finds it strange that he should be so consumed by such a little thing: but it is torment that he who has forsworn all flesh in honour of Life should not merely taste it but relish it, seeking not only any sensation in the diminishing of the dark, but also the red savor so long forgone, hungering in his famine like a hound straining at the kill before the hunts-master tosses its due … Yet he does not seek to conceal it before them, neither his taking of the lawless pleasure nor his self-disgust, vain though such attempt would be.

—How shall he begrudge him such small ease, or turn away in disgust from one who stayed him through bitterest temptation and the shock of his breaking? There was blood in the water of the Fen, but they drank from its puddles regardless, even as they steeped hair and surcoat in it to ward against the flying cinders and shrags of nameless coal, once alas named indeed! that hailed against them on the North Wind.

With the impress of this memory he allays the shame, pouring his gratitude and pity out like cleansing tears to wash away the clotting filth, easing the hurt of spirit which in turn eases the taut efforts to draw breath against the chill — he remembers that, distantly, that sorrow was as harsh upon the body as any injury, while he yet lived. And in that thought he recollects again those who cannot depart as he, and his fëa is troubled for them, and he lingers as though he might accomplish something of defense or rescue, rather than risk ensnarement in the dark meshes of the Wolfmaster's sorcery.

Fly home, dear friend! Do not fear for us for me —and so strong is the command that he cannot refuse it, not in dark overmastery but in the surety of faith that burns through it. His soul turns from the place of its dispossession without further trouble and hurtles towards the West like a bird of passage but far swifter, along roads that no wolf shall stalk nor arrow cleave, safe and free of the black night that encompassed it.

And still the mortal sings, his voice a tuneless tattered thread in the darkness, his spirit a steady-burning flame like the light over banked coals in a hearthplace, chanting the childish song of a land as vanished as those days of his life, of the small birds settling to their nests in the brier, and the frogs making merry in the mud of the marsh, and the Boat of the Moon sailing overhead to fish back the stars where they fall into the lake from the summer sky … yet somehow it is not unfitting that one born before the Sun and Moon were sent forth should be sung home by a children's song, by one but a child himself, and though they pass his kind may yet endure though he perish — for that is the truth of his song, not a foolish certainty of winning or returning in glory, but only a quiet hope of enduring, of doing as well as might be during the brief day, and resting at evening in the end. 

The golden woman sings in his memory, but her hands sharpen sword blades, and her smile is gentle in its sadness, thinking of her lord who readies with her aid to go to the King's War for this season, and perhaps he will come home to her again, as after past seasons … the dark-haired man who comes to kiss the nape of her neck beside her warrior's braid, stilling the stone and the iron in her hands with his own, to reach then to where his son and his faithful hound lie sleepless and to smooth the troubled faces of each, taking the boy's right hand in his own right hand and smiling into his worried eyes, his own gaze promising nothing false of the future save the unending strength of his love…

Until at last the song is ended, and the singer shudders in his bonds and gasps for breath in darkness, and they bow before him in spirit but dare not touch the flame that burns in lonely brilliance in the Shadow, to their great shame and heartsickness; until their King gains back so much of his strength after time unknown that he can speak, flesh shaping breath with more effort than ever shaped stone or metal, and whisper his acclaim:

Well-named well-named, my brave one

…and one of them again finds courage to reach forth, extending his will to draw the mortal into their circle, not left without to be wondered at, but sharing their thought and dreaming and wordless speech. There is the inevitable shudder of the foreign touch, the sad recoil that they regret as they make it, but then it is over and he is one with them again, as it should be. This time it is easier, and again they do not know if it be the oftener doing that makes it so, or if each time it changes him, so that he is a little less strange to them and the otherness of him lessened. And this time some of them wonder, so that they all must, if perhaps it does not change them as well? so that as the younger becomes more like the Firstborn, perhaps they too are more akin to this Secondborn child, and so the distance grows ever less…

It does not matter.

They hold him, swathing his tormented shell in bindings of warmth and sleep so that his pain is more of memory than presence, stilling the tremors and muting the flames of endless healing that scorch his wrists, weaving runes of peace and warding about his flesh that will last for a little while at least, until the King recovers enough to remake the working properly. He is their treasure, theirs to defend against wolf and works of evil power and despair, the last child of those who looked to them once almost as gods, trusting their leadership and laying down their lives at the King's command, and they will not let him go into the dark before they have fallen to the last, futile though it be in ending.

And they are eight now in the pit beneath the tower, the place where the foundations of the high place sink into the stone of the once-fair island, bound in earth and water past the hope of air and fire ever again, King and Companions, High-Elven and Grey-Elven, Mortal and Undying, all alike — refusing to curse the Light, though they will die for it, gaining nothing, in the place where wisdom and strength and age and renown mean nothing — they are one Kindred now, at least for a little while, at least so long as they live in this broken land of Middle-earth…

And when they die, though they lose him from their company forever, his name will not be lost, nor those of his people — they will remember, so long as Arda endure, though they will never be able to explain to those who remained behind, what perilous beauty they found the other side of the darkness and the Ice, never those to know what worth had the dreadful price, nor to share in what they received there, the terrible gifts: awareness of brevity, and the preciousness of a moment; joy between sorrows; and strangest and most terrible of all, understanding of death from one mortal yet Elven-wise, acceptance of death as a gift given — the Gift of Men, which is now also theirs—


This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: Philosopher At Large

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Era: 1st Age

Genre: Drama

Rating: Adult

Last Updated: 03/15/04

Original Post: 07/11/02

Go to Terrible Gifts overview

Comments

No one has commented on this story yet. Be the first to comment!

Comments are hidden to prevent spoilers.
Click header to view comments

Talk to Philosopher At Large

If you are a HASA member, you must login to submit a comment.

We're sorry. Only HASA members may post comments. If you would like to speak with the author, please use the "Email Author" button in the Reader Toolbox. If you would like to join HASA, click here. Membership is free.

Reader Toolbox   Log in for more tools