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Quo Vadis?: 1. Quo Vadis?
Salgant's throat was dry as an old musical scroll, his skin damp with sweat. Was it because of the fear, or the heat? Both, most likely. Today, he had plenty of cause to feel both: for once, enough cause that nobody could call him oversensitive, or quick to frighten. Today, everyone would feel the fear and the heat, even the cool, calm warriors who fancied themselves heroes, and who wore their shiny armour as if it were a light summer robe.
His own armour lay scattered on the floor of his chamber, right where he had cast it off. No point in putting it away, or even wiping off the soot that had stained it out in the streets, before he had realized that hope was folly. Arranging the suit on its stand would make it look too much like a corpse. Like his corpse. So he merely watched the armour from the safety of his bed, taking in how it reflected the red-tinted light coming in from the window.
The city was on fire. Maeglin had betrayed it to Morgoth. They were all going to die.
Salgant was going to die.
The thoughts seemed too large to be real, more like a dream brought on by some strange delicacy eaten too close to bedtime. Meanwhile, the air heated up further and thickened with an unpleasant smell, like burnt meat pie. A final sort of smell. And, dream or no, while Salgant had no wish to die as a soldier, something he was not, neither did he wish to end up like a pie, baked in his own house.
He wished to die he had lived: as an artist.
His limbs shook so much that standing up seemed out of the question, so he rolled himself off the bed, landing on all fours, and used the bedpost to pull himself to his knees. Holding onto the wall, which trembled as if in sympathy, he made his way to the trophy case. He opened it and reached inside.
His hands steadied the moment he touched his prize harp, a masterwork wrought in gold and silver. How proud he had been the day he had received it from High King Fingolfin himself! The king was long dead now—a typical messy warrior's death—but the harp remained, enchanted into permanent tune. He lifted it out, and reached deeper, to pick up the gold wreath awarded to the city's finest composer. Once, only once, had he won that honour: an injustice, no doubt, but on this terrible day a fortunate misfortune. After all, he had only one head.
Salgant donned the wreath. Its weight reassured him, anchored his thoughts and his courage, but his throat was still painfully dry. So, he reached into the cabinet for the third time, straining to grasp the earthenware bottle concealed at the back. It held the finest Nevrast vintage, saved all these years for the day of his next triumph. He broke the neck and drank deep, remembering Nevrast: rolling vine-covered hills rather than looming mountains, and not an Orc in sight. He drank until his throat felt Elvish again. Then, harp cradled in one hand, bottle grasped in the other, he climbed the stairs to his roof garden.
No doubt about it: the city was dying. Wherever he looked, he saw fire and ruin, but no people. Was his last song to have no audience? Never mind. He took another swig of the wine before setting the bottle aside, and began a song, one about flickering flames that licked the streets like a hungry beast.
The song was not a success: he realized it at once. Few of his serious compositions were ever received well, but this one sounded feeble even to his own ears. So, when something bounced off the wall beneath him, it came not as a surprise but as justified criticism. Salgant looked down, and saw a group of Orcs armed with spears. Hungry beasts, spreading through the streets like flames; though it felt better to think of them as an audience, if a hostile one. At this height, their weapons could not reach him. He played another verse as the Orcs attempted a few more futile throws, but stopped when the largest shouted something that caused them to try climbing upon each other. A clever idea, in theory: in practice, a bit undermined by the fact that no Orc wanted to be at the bottom of the pyramid.
Inspiration bubbled forth. Salgant drank more wine, and began a song about Orcs, clumsy as ponies on ice, slipping and tumbling at every step, falling upon the ground like goat droppings. The music worked its magic: the Orc-pyramid swayed and scattered, turning into a moaning Orc-pile.
Salgant's audience might have been hostile, but nobody could claim that they were unaffected by his performance! Perhaps he could have his own feeble victory: defend his house against the foul creatures of Morgoth, and even his flames, until they all dispersed. It seemed possible for a few moments, as he gazed down at the fallen Orcs; but then a shadow fell across them. Salgant looked up to see an enormous snake-like body, each gleaming scale the size of a shield, and followed its coils to a long neck and higher, to look into the red eyes of a fire-drake.
The mind behind the eyes was large, and a thousand times stronger than Salgant's own. But was this really so different from being regarded by a thousand expectant minds? That was one source of fear Salgant knew how to conquer. His fingers played on; he sang his verse again. The Orcs who had started climbing up the drake's coils slipped off like raindrops.
Then, the drake roared, and Salgant's fingers faltered. The legends made death-by-dragon sound so noble, but all he could think about was the sharp teeth, the flame-hot throat. He decided to run: but then he saw that the drake was laughing, laughing from deep inside its fiery belly, coils shaking and scattering the last Orcs into the ash-strewn streets.
Salgant waited until the beast's eyes met his again.
"A good trick, and a fine song." The dragon-mind boomed inside his own. "Do you know any other songs, little trickster?"
"Yes, many, and I can always write even more. But..." Lying was impossible. "All my songs are like that one: foolish, and lacking in epic scope."
"That is for the best." The drake's tail twitched, knocking a dazed Orc aside. "Can you sing one about Balrogs?"
A flicker in the mind-voice betrayed something Salgant, a long-time courtier, understood. It seemed rivalries were universal. He had never seen a Balrog up close, but the lore he had read allowed him to improvise a new composition appropriate to the situation: a song about a fire-demon with fiery digestive problems.
And the drake laughed until steam came out of his eyes.
"Yes. Oh, yes," he said. "That should bring some cheer into the dull halls of Angband. Come with me, little trickster."
A few of the coils twisted upwards, until one segment of the serpentine back lay just before Salgant. What could he do? He climbed on and clutched at the rough scales, his mind roiling with half-formed escape plots. If he could think of nothing better, he would run. The thought of death-by-dragon was not half as terrifying as the thought of Angband: slavery, torture, severed limbs and tongueless mouths and sightless eyes...
"Be at ease, little trickster," said the dragon-mind. "Keep us amused, and you will be safe. Has that not always been your lot in life?"
And so it had been, Salgant realized. The perils might have been less at Turgon's court—humiliation rather than mutilation—but the competition had surely been tougher. Angband was famed more for screams than for singing.
He rode out of Gondolin astride the fire-drake's spine, an improved version of the Balrog song running through his head.
1. This fic is deeply, deeply canonical. 'The Fall of Gondolin,' in The Book of Lost Tales 2, describes Salgant's fate as follows: 'But none could say where Salgant was, nor can they now. Mayhap he was whelmed by fire upon his bed; yet some have it say that he was taken captive to the halls of Melko and made his buffoon - and this is an ill fate for a noble of the good race of the Gnomes.'
2. The title of the fic, 'Quo Vadis?', means 'Where are you going?' in Latin, which is surely appropriate. However, there is more to it than that: this fic was inspired by a wonderful drawing of Salgant playing the harp, where he looks a little like Nero from the movie 'Quo Vadis'; Nero, who harped while Rome burned.
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