Ascension of Swords: 1. Ascension of Swords

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1. Ascension of Swords

A sour, warm wind plucked at his sleeve cuffs, tugged his collar against his throat, and teased his hair into uncomfortable tangles. The cumulative sensation was like being wrapped inside two large hands and shaken, gently but quickly, until he vibrated with maddening motion. The sleeper's moans did not quell the determination of his antagonizer, nor did the halfhearted wriggle he gave in rebellion against the airy grasp. The wind had the appetite of a young child—nothing would satisfy save that which it demanded. Therefore the incessant dream-induced rattling ceased only when the dreamer reluctantly shoved himself upright and blinked at the world around him in an expressive language of body and face that wordlessly berated his surroundings for being drastically unsuited to his tastes and comfort anyway.

Damn the wind.

He flexed and stretched his shoulders; leaned far forward; pressed the hollows behind his knees against the hard, dry ground; announced his unwelcome wakefulness with a wide yawn; and wrinkled his nose. He found the smell of the wind distasteful: putrid. It minded him of something too-long dead that ought to have remained buried and forgotten. Perhaps it had been burned first in a fire too cold to eat its insides and now was table-scraps for maggots. It was a yellow stench to match the parchment pre-dawn. He looked up at the foreboding sky. Its heaviness hinted of a coming storm.

He got up and began to walk.

***

Hours later, the sky had not changed. How many hours he could not say—there was no distortion of shadows by which to estimate. Furthermore, the surrounding landmarks had not apparently deemed his feeble migration an expense of effort enough to warrant any alteration on their part: the haze-blurred woods, the mountains beyond, the low rocky mound far to his left all appeared the same relative distances from him and each other as they had when he set off.

He couldn't remember what it had been like before that. He supposed, by elimination of all other possibilities, that he had walked, and slept, and walked, and slept. Because he was walking again. Neither origin nor destination seemed especially important. He had been walking towards the tallest peak beyond the dark grey-green forest because it was the most obvious landmark; but now that he paused to reconsider, he wondered if it was an overly optimistic goal. Perhaps the mound was a more worthwhile destination at present. At the very least, it would provide a lee from the wind where he could rest, and an elevated vantage point where he could survey his surroundings, coax from the knolls and brambles evidence of a path, a cottage, a campsite, anything other than the bleak monotony of grass before woods before mountains.

He changed his course accordingly and proceeded.

***

An hour later, he thought he could make out the suggestion of a tree atop the mound.

Two hours after that, subtle irregularities in the stone and earth began to define themselves in pale shadow. (Still though the sky was unchanged.)

The passage of minutes unveiled something on the tree trunk that caught the light in a series of fractured flashes.

By the end of the next hour, he stood at the base of the mound looking up its side at the curious disfigurements. The hill was higher than he had anticipated; but then, he realized, it would have to be high to be visible from so far away.

He began to climb.

***

At the end of the final hour, he planted his feet between the roots of a hunched and twisted tree. No leaves clung to its knotty twigs, not even skeletal stems of long-dead buds. He could reach on his tip-toes the point where the trunk fountained into sprawling branches, sending its diminishing mass out beyond the edges of the flat top—a few sentinel twigs guarding the route he had taken, but more perched precariously over the side he had not seen or even considered until the instant he realized it was different: the lee was a steep fall, unscalable and threatening. This was no giant, but he could tell at once that it was Old—unspeakably ancient.

Nine swords were wedged into its wood, one atop the other, parallel, the flats of their blades mirroring the horizon.

***

Countless miles of insatiable flame devouring the grasslands, and fire-haloed demon Balrogs in its wake—it should have been enough to stale a man's taste so that as long as he lived, the sight of a candle would curdle his stomach; but three years after Ard-Galen had turned to ash, winter still came like a beast with iron fangs, not remotely hesitant to sink them into the warm flesh of any who spurned the campfire. Men still lived as they had done, and did not dwell upon the cruel irony.

At Tarn Aeluin, more than one fire kept the fangs at bay. A heavy contrast of light and shadow danced over the features of the men whose faces had become hard and pale as the hills that hid them. Thirteen in all, and most noticeable of these was the tall silhouette at the high cookfire whose bearskin cloak cast a wild shadow still not as fearsome as the warrior's spirit. He was Barahir, son of Bregor. If any man could have been counted King of this forsaken land, it was he.

Beside him was his son Beren: too young to have yet developed his father's easy air of royalty, he was nonetheless as proud and noble a man as ever rode to war under any king's banner. When Barahir's deep laugh rolled over the camp like a wave, Beren gave only a low chuckle. He could scowl true fear into his enemies and tame feral rages with his soothing voice and careful words, but next to his father's magnetically social nature, he seemed shy and introverted.

The laugh settled over the camp, shaped itself against the forms of the hunched men, and Barahir's strong voice was saying, "To our children," his ale-filled mug raised to the centre of his small circle. His hand fell on his son's shoulder. They shared a smile, and Barahir continued tenderly, "wherever they may be."

Two voices echoed the sentiment, two mugs clinked harmony: Baragund and Belegund, nephews of their leader, sons of Bregolas, both fathers of daughters who had fled with Barahir's wife Emeldir (called Manhearted) and all who remained of Dorthonion's women and children. Neither would ever know their children's fate, but their faith was strong that the girls they had raised with the hard fire of Ladros in their bloodsong had persevered and found peace and safety in Brethil. Their faith was well-placed.

The two brothers drank deep to the memory of their daughters—gentle Rían, Belegund's child, who had been less bold, but like Beren in her youthful grace and willing service; and Morwen Edhelwen, she who from Baragund's seed would one day be known as the Lady of Dor-lómin, as much a Queen as her great-uncle Barahir was a King. Both women took after their fathers.

These were the lords of the falling house of Bëor, and to them nine men remained faithful. They around three smaller fires gathered, watchful against the night.

First was Radhruin, honored by Barahir and by star-carved fate as a man of fortune whose sword was an assurance of victory. Years of war and exile had been hard on him, but when his brother Dairuin was at his side (as he was now), they were a force to be reckoned with. They moved with one mind, inseparable under all but a single confounding force whose company they kept both in battle and by the glow of their fire. He was Urthel. Cunning as a fox, he stroked his alliance with the brothers. The others had learned that as long as he was with them, any attempt to seek council with them would prove a fruitless enterprise.

While Urthel tended his friendships, further on Gildor tended the fire. A solitary and introspective man, few could claim to know much about him; yet many times he had come forth in battle with an unexpected reserve of strength or a key observation others had missed in their haste. With him were Arthad and Dagnir—an unlikely pair nonetheless perfectly suited to one another. While men like Radhruin were blessed by luck and victory, Arthad had been born unlucky. His defeats bore down heavily upon him, written across his face in the scarring from a Balrog's fire that would disfigure him for life. Now he sullenly nursed a wounded arm with help from the talkative traveller Dagnir. He, sixth sword pledged to Barahir's service, had eagerly taken up arms in the Dagor Bragollach with the hope of seeing the world. He had journeyed from Hithlum to Himlad, far South to Nargothrond, and would have followed the retreat into Ossiriand had his people's need not been greater. He had given up reaching for the horizon without regret. His cheerful talk of future campaigns, laced thickly with an indomitable hope that this war would end, kept Arthad's spirit up; and Arthad's solemn groundedness kept foolhardy Dagnir in check.

At the last fire only two sat: wise Ragnor and Hathaldir the young. Among such a small band, all men were fathers, sons, and brothers to each other in whatever capacity they could be; but though Barahir had quite naturally embraced Hathaldir as a second son (at least in theory), Ragnor in practice had defaulted to the role when Barahir was concerned with the multitudinous matters of a leader. An old mountain cat fighting with his last yellowed tooth and dulled claw, Ragnor had done and seen quite a bit in his time. It was he more than Barahir who, during these long evenings, spoke at length with Hathaldir—reflecting, guiding, observing the past, and most of all, illustrating for the boy the possibilities of the future. He never shrouded the truth: that their situation was indeed difficult. But he was certain to remind that no difficulty was insurmountable as long as one had tried. The lesson worked like magic on the inexperienced warrior, who, without the elder's guidance, would have been lost as one blindfolded in a maze of swords.

***

One by one, he had with hand and eye explored the hilts protruding from the tree. One by one, he had remembered, from the sword closest to the ground (so deeply forced into the bark that barely a sliver of the blade remained) to the eighth with thin blade gleaming. Now he stopped. The ninth sword pointed its pommel at his heart accusingly.

He breathed deeply. He bowed his head. He raised his hand. His fingers closed around the moldy leather.***

At the tips of the fingers of the farthest fire's straining light, the last and best of Barahir's men huddled in lonely thought, standing with his shoulder pressed to the trunk of an alder as if he meant to force its roots from the ground. Though he would have been welcome at any fie, he was in a dark mood, and preferred the comfort of a wordlessness even silent Gildor could not cater to. None dared question his sulking disdain for them this eve—he was known to suffer fits of melancholy for which the only balm was time.

He was Gorlim, son of Angrim, who would be named the Unhappy. Whatever else was recalled through the Ages when songs of the exiles were made, the minstrels would sing in the stillness that precedes the telling of the foulest tales, murmuring low with thick tongues to an audience pregnant with anticipation, how Gorlim was a man of valor—most fierce and desperate of his Lord's companions. And they would tell of Eilinel the White his wife, beloved maiden! Sighing, the bards would lament that their love was perhaps the most tragic of all casualties of Morgoth's ceaseless warring.

But here in the failing evening, Gorlim was not thinking of valor, of future songs or lamentations. Filled with hope and doubt, his eyes chasing the murky shadows spied ghosts in the windy branches, faces in the alder-bark. Whether visions of benign spirits or nightmare-prophesies of enemies lurking ever closer to their lair he knew not, but knew that the forest was alive with other souls than theirs. The shades seduced him with their teasing dance. Mysteries half glimpsed displayed a momentary view of some suggestive curve, then darted away, teasing with the promise that they would reveal all if he would follow. Just follow. Just come into the next clearing, just over the next stone, just behind the next tuft of grass.

How big was the world—how immense this little piece of highland named Dorthonion. How endless was time. How near—near enough—the dark earth that once he had worked with his own two hands, the woods he had dreamed of exploring with his children, the house that had kept them warm and safe, yet now stood roofless and abandoned...

No—not entirely abandoned. Hope still lived there. Returning from war upon the marches, he had found no body, no signs of a struggle—only the wanton destruction left ever in the wake of the servants of darkness. If thirteen men could survive so long in the wild, why couldn't there be others? Why couldn't one of the others be her?

These thoughts and more were planted in his imagination and would not be uprooted. Therefore tonight, as on countless nights before, the unknown Beyond found a willing bedmate in Gorlim. He pushed himself away from the tree, his eyes harboring a fire and a hunger brighter and more insatiable than the Bragollach had been, and willed the forest to yield to him her secret places.

He began to walk, his departure unannounced and unnoticed.

***

He flinched away from the sword as if it burned him. "You fool, you fool!" he cried, knowing no one would hear him. He turned away from the tree.

The past was an unforgiving answer to the present. He knew where that walk would take its victim in his ignorance and denial. Merciless memory hounded him, sleeping or waking. Even here, in this world of wind and dead grass, he could not escape them: the clear, flawless recollection of—Every. Single. Step. He could close his eyes and count the branches on any tree between Tarn Aeluin and his old home, though he couldn't count the times he had forsaken Barahir to seek that empty might-have-been.

She would have wanted him to stay by his Captain's side—but it had never mattered to him then what she would have wanted. What mattered was the hope—the possibility, however small, that things could be the way they once were. For all his strength, he was not strong enough to face a world without Eilinel. So great was the love they had shared, the void left by its dissolution would have killed him as surely as a stroke from an enemy's sword. Thus to preserve his life, his sanity, he had subscribed freely to any lie that would justify the enormity of his self-deception.

"You fool!"

The wraith on the windswept plain shuddered and shook his head. Even now, the battered heart sought an argument that would absolve him from guilt despite the truth: that he was Gorlim.

"...Gorlim I am," he said slowly, a bitter half-smile twisting his face like a scar. "And am I not fierce and desperate? What's in this land to frighten me?" he demanded, his voice hollow against the rotting sky. "What sort of prison is this, that it lacks both lock and keeper? There is nothing—" his yell repeated itself on the wind, "—NOTHING to keep me here!"

Having so declared, and without a glance backwards at the strange grave marker impaled by the blades of the dead, he launched himself into a fumbling, sliding descent from the mound. When once more the parched ground was beneath his boots, he set off at a run, heading again towards the highest mountain.

This is the place where dead grass grows
And where the dead awaken.
This is a fine and private place,
A home for the forsaken.

This is a cage that has no bars,
The prison with no keeper.
This is a dream whose prisoner is
The self inside the sleeper.

This is a death that is not death,
A hell of your own shaping.
This is the place where dead grass grows,
And there is no escaping.

He ran until his lungs threatened to burst and his muscles fly to pieces. Then he walked until his feet could no longer feel the earth. Yet the mountains came no nearer, and when he stopped, he found that the beginnings of a gradual slope leading up to the mound of swords was at his heels. So finally, weary and defeated, he turned and climbed back up the unsteady hillside.

When he reached the top, he knew what this place was, and what lay below the shallow earth and loose stones. Shivering, he realized that he'd always thought Haudh-en-Ndengin would be smaller—though this was a dream, he Knew with a dreamer's Knowing that this vision at least was true to its waking reality. He didn't know whether the Mound of the Slain on the featureless face of Anfauglith had been the final resting place of his betrayed companions. He thought it likely not, but the dream had its own agenda and its own means.

Because the way up was hard and demanded vigilance in the direction of handholds and footing, only when he stood panting at the top did he cast his eyes upon the tree for the first time since his attempt to flee it. What he saw drew a cry of horror from his lips. Ten men hung from the thin branches, their faces hidden under heavy hoods. An eleventh noose swung empty—his own death absent from those he betrayed. And a coil of rope lay unused at the base of the tree: Beren's death had come later, far from the backwash of treason, his father's death avenged and himself a hero in his own right. But most fearful was the figure of his friend and brother-in-arms, and the act his position seemed to demand:

Barahir was lashed against the tree, his arms wrenched into a painful backwards hug around the arthritic trunk. Ropes secured him also at the waist and neck, chafing his throat under the unbowed head and fixing his legs in lock-kneed support, pushing hard against the roots. A careless slouch would choke him at the neck, throttle nauseatingly into his stomach, and threaten to dislocate both shoulders. His shirt had been torn open and the expanded collar pulled down to expose his chest at the spot where a well-placed blade would bypass the ribs and bite straight into the heart. This one target fell against the tree above the ninth sword, which with its brothers had become translucent and immaterial.

The implication was clear: Gorlim would have to accept his role and commit his treason. Nothing else would free him from the spell of the dreaming. This place, this experience, had no other purpose and could not be deceived by lies. The dreaming was a prison made to instigate the captivity of despair that ruled and crippled him. The only way out would be to separate himself from his despair, define his identity independently from it.

Gorlim he was, but who was Gorlim?

He looked upon the figure on the tree, and he knew.

Traitor betrayed.

Nine of Swords...
associated with failure, violence, cruelty, and deceit of a profound nature.
emotional addictions and thought patterns that lead to our own self-destruction.
What is before us now is the result of many past errors in judgment.
will have to wake from his nightmare and straighten out the circumstances of his life.
Only then may he move forward.
A great loss...
...from which he has not yet recuperated.
he is paying the price for his errors in judgment.
The destruction of what has been created is likely, but under the present circumstances, destruction may be the only way out of the situation.

The catalyst of his own destruction. The choice of treason. He would escape from a dream of profound and eternal hopelessness to a reality of complete ruin. Was that really an escape? If so, was it worth what he would have to face to get there? Why—why—would the dreaming give him a riddle whose answer was worse than the penalty for not answering? To just refuse to answer, to let his sleeping body fade away towards a painless embrace of oblivion and himself embrace the fate of an eternity wandering in despair across a field of dead grass... it would be easy, and there would be no more choices or battles or blame or mistakes. Only the wind.

...and yet...

Despair so complete that it encompassed every other aspect of his being could only be born of the self-pity that festered in the spirit of a victim. Gorlim was not a man suited to passive antagonization. It was his nature to meet his enemies with teeth and blade bared, no matter how daunting the odds, and to fight to the death.

A new resolve hardened in him.

True, the final words of his betrayal had been forced from him by the same magic that had fooled his lovesick wits and delivered him into his enemies' hands. And yes, the dark deed that had hurled him now into this prison of sleep was likewise some manner of contrived madness. But even after Sauron drained the life out of his body, he had reached out to Beren with a warning. Death had not stopped him then, why now should a dream? Given the choice, he would face his own mistakes and be held accountable for them, not crawl away, beaten, and cower until his wounds became his identity. As long as he had the strength to dream, he would fight, fairly or otherwise (and by now, circumstances were suggesting that this was going to be an "otherwise" situation).

He would fight.

"Gorlim I am," he said slowly, looking into the tormented eyes of his captive Lord. "Forgive me."

He drew his weapon, and his hands marked steadily their target. Not for an instant did he waver. There was no time for that now. He plunged the sword into the body which, dreamed or not, still resisted with the hardness of human flesh, and arched its back in a convulsion of pain, and groaned a long flat note as the lungs relinquished their breath and collapsed. He kept pushing until he felt his blade meet wood, kept pushing until the sharp tip slithered through the bark and sliced into the grain and held fast.

"Forgive me," he pleaded again. Staggering backwards, he held his head in his hands and surrendered himself to the grief made no easier by knowing he was dreaming. The experience was just as real, and he was certain he would remember it when he awoke.

Yet though he grieved, even this surrender was not complete—not so complete that it drowned out all else. A sharp crack, like a scream beside the whisper of his tears, ordered him back to this world for one final reckoning. He looked up obediently to see that the weight of the body full upon the sword digging into a wound already nine swords deep had cracked the tree from roots to zenith. As he watched, the tree uttered a second snap and split in half.

It was the last thing he saw before pain blinded him. He felt ten swords bury their blades in his back—ten spokes in a wheel, ten swords in his spine, the cumulation of strength, the circle unbroken, the traitor betrayed.

Smiling, he fell upon his face.

There is sorrow in the person's life. This pain may be associated with the realization that his motivations and ideas are neither correct nor creatively powerful in a positive sense. Self-pity and doubt are causing the person to become disassociated with the people with whom he felt the most intimate. Betrayal and mistrust often accompany the situation...

If we have associated who we are with what and how we think, the results are totally devastating. The Ten of Swords provides the opportunity for a person to disidentify with the mind as the highest aspect of who we are, in order to search for a deeper meaning in life. It is only the lower self of the personality that is devastated; the Soul stands free and ready to be contacted. In this respect, any type of failure can become a catalyst for growth if the person is willing to face his weaknesses and change them.


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: Halfwest

Status: General

Completion: Complete

Era: 1st Age

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 11/11/05

Original Post: 11/11/05

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