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Strange Fortunes: 2. Chapter Two
The invitation, if it could be called such, seemed simple enough.
To Salgant, Lord of the House of the Harp,
Call on me in my private forge.
Maeglin Lomion Eolion, Lord of the House of the Mole, Grandson of Fingolfin High King of the Noldor, Chief Smith of the City of Many Names, etc., etc.
Perhaps it was even a little too simple: it failed to mention the time of the meeting or its purpose. Salgant placed the note above his plate, where he could continue to eye it warily as he helped himself to another kipper.
Could this be about 'The Mole in His Hole'? He had known the song was a mistake even as the first, half-formed verse left his lips, but several of his guests had found it so gratifyingly amusing that he had not had the heart to stop. Fortunately, it seemed unlikely that anyone would have dared to share the joke with Maeglin, and inconceivable that Maeglin would have reacted so coolly, especially considering what the song had implied about his mother.
The invitation might be a gesture of goodwill, then: an indication that the hard work Salgant put into pleasing Maeglin—the elaborate flattery, the bowing and scraping—was paying off. That would be most welcome news, not only because Maeglin would some day be almost as important as that elaborate signature implied, but because Salgant liked the boy and enjoyed his company. Being around someone so blessed by fortune, and yet so troubled, took Salgant's mind off his own shortcomings, while the awareness that his fawning cheered Maeglin made him feel useful.
One thing was certain: no matter what the note's purpose, it would have to be obeyed, and soon, for Maeglin hated to be kept waiting. Salgant resolved to pay his visit right after breakfast.
The Gondolindian smiths, who preferred to do their fine work in well-lit environments, had been happy enough to cede the gloomiest of their forges to the young Prince. Since then, Maeglin had darkened the place further by painting over several of the windows, and rearranged the fittings to match his father's supposedly more efficient system. Salgant found this attempt to recreate a childhood home either amusing or touching, depending on his mood.
Today, he found it a little disturbing. The room he entered seemed pitch-black at first, with Maeglin's wan face as the only spot of brightness. As Salgant's eyes adjusted, he spotted another: a glint of gold atop the workbench over which Maeglin was bent, tools in hand. But before Salgant could examine the golden object further, Maeglin pushed it aside and stepped out from behind the bench, his long dark cloak billowing behind him like a living shadow. Salgant, who could not wear such dramatic, flowing clothes without looking dumpy, concealed his jealous sigh by bowing low to the floor.
"Good morning, my Prince. I am honoured by your invitation," he said. "Indeed, it is a most fortunate coincidence, as I was just composing a song that might be of interest to you, an ode in which I praise the twilight to the skies by comparing it to your lovely mother."
"Yes, Mother was lovely, was she not?" Maeglin's tone implied both agreement and dissatisfaction with Salgant's tribute. "But I am not interested in your ode. She always said your serious compositions were slight and tedious, and I do agree. I might, however, be convinced to listen to your lighter pieces, such as your satires on Ecthelion."
Though the criticism cut Salgant deeply, that last comment salved the wound. Mocking Ecthelion was always pleasant; it felt like compensation for the unfair profusion of talents, musical and otherwise, that his rival had received at birth. And yet Maeglin's request sounded too good to be true.
"Why Ecthelion?" Salgant asked. "I thought you two were quite friendly."
"Friendly? Perhaps. He certainly feigned friendship well enough. At least until I discovered his treasonous plot to marry my cousin."
"Your cousin, my Prince? Lady Idril? But—" The thought of the audiences Ecthelion would be able to draw as the consort of King Turgon's only daughter made Salgant queasy. And yet Maeglin's announcement was not implausible; Ecthelion certainly possessed enough arrogance to pursue such a high-born maiden. "But that is appalling, truly appalling. I take it she is willing? What a pity that your honoured uncle has always said his daughter is free to marry whomever she chooses."
Maeglin's eyes smoldered like coals. Though they lacked the light of the Trees, their deep glow seemed to burn painful holes in Salgant's very soul. Salgant hastened to compensate for his blunder, tripping over his words.
"Please forgive me, my Prince. My mind is not as sharp and quick as yours. I know that this must not be allowed to happen. And if you believe that my satires will help to discredit him in her eyes, or the King's, then I—"
"Do not be foolish. I believe nothing of the sort. You have been trying to slander Ecthelion for years, and, in all that time, the best thing you have come up with is that he has the emotional capacity of a block of wood. Which is not sufficient for our purposes, since Idril clearly—" Maeglin glanced towards his workbench and blinked a few times, like a child trying not to cry over a grazed knee. Then his face hardened. "But her feelings are irrelevant; we must put an end to this nonsense, for her own good. Perhaps if you tell me what you have learnt about Ecthelion over the centuries I will be able to discern some helpful detail you have missed."
This was a great opportunity, a chance for Salgant to prove himself more useful than any of Gondolin's more beloved lords. He was sure that none of them had studied his rival as closely as he.
"My Prince, I will be delighted to tell you all I know. First, there are his so-called virtues: courage, diligence, self-restraint where expensive jewelry is concerned. But these are all public knowledge, the very bricks that he has used to build his cast-iron reputation. Then there is his interest in the art of war, which appears rather excessive given how secure we are here under your uncle’s leadership, and—"
"Yes, yes, yes. Surface details, all. We must dig deeper." Maeglin paced up and down the room, his shadowy cloak trailing faithfully behind. "Given how well he has disguised his political ambitions and... marriage plans, it seems plausible that he may be concealing much more beneath that false mask of his. Perhaps he routinely steals money or supplies from the Guard, or kicks his dog when he is angry. I know Idril hates that."
"He does not have a dog."
"You know what I mean! Have you even tried any means of investigation beyond listening to common gossip?"
"Why, naturally, my Prince. I have made many attempts to coax information out of those who know him best, but this has proven difficult. You see, he keeps his followers on a very tight leash. My agents have been cursed and threatened with kinbeatings for making leading statements that were only very broadly derogatory. Even I was gravely insulted when a certain Captain Elemmakil informed me where I should put my harp."
Had Maeglin's unconventional upbringing not included any instruction in low humour? "Er, in a place untouched by Anar's rays," said Salgant.
"What, in a forest like my father's?" asked Maeglin. "These anti-Sindarin jokes are as unfunny as they are offensive."
Salgant gave up. "Yes, my Prince. They are indeed. At any rate, I have also instructed my agents to listen in on his conversations. Now, this is surprisingly easy, as he prefers to meet people in relatively public places: in courtyards, restaurants, and the like. However, the topics he picks tend to be legitimate to the point of boredom."
Maeglin stopped pacing and squinted. "That sounds exactly like the behaviour of a man determined to remain above suspicion, does it not? I wonder... does he ever let his guard down—while drunk, perhaps?"
"He gets drunk seldom, every five years or so, and remains dull even then. All he seems to do is sing. Not that historical, epic stuff he is so very fond of, but sentimental drivel about the warrior bonds that exist between brothers-in-arms. Facing death together, that sort of thing. The men appear to enjoy it; they often join in. Indeed, I sometimes suspect him of faking drunkenness in an attempt to recruit warriors for those insane, unnecessary training programs he sets up with Glorfindel." Salgant shuddered at the memory of that detested clear voice, cutting through the guards' alcoholic haze, inspiring them to get up at cockcrow. "The main problem with my theory is that Glorfindel, instead of encouraging him, seems to be in a great hurry to walk him home."
"Ah yes. Glorfindel." Maeglin readjusted his cloak clasp. "He is a kinsman of Idril's, you know. I would not be surprised if he was the one who had somehow arranged matters between her and his close friend, to further his own ambitions."
It made sense: to court discreetly, Ecthelion and Idril would need a go-between. "You are wise, my Prince," said Salgant. "I have long felt that Ecthelion and Glorfindel hold private conference a little more frequently than their work calls for. If they meet out of innocent friendship, why not go to an inn?"
"We might be able to find out." Maeglin sent Salgant a subtle look. "I happen to know that they will be meeting at Glorfindel's house tomorrow, just prior to the Council. Ostensibly to discuss the War Games, but who knows."
"Would that we could listen to them there! Unfortunately, my Prince, Glorfindel's house is a private residence."
"Well, I do not know how it is among your father's people, but in this city people tend to lock their doors." Salgant chose his words with care; explaining things to Maeglin always felt a bit risky. "I suppose they distrust their neighbours—a sad commentary on the state of Arda marred. If that were not the case, I would have searched Ecthelion's belongings for incriminating evidence long ago."
"And it is mere locks that have held you back? Contrary to what you believe, my father knew more about locks than any Gondolindian locksmith."
"I am sure he did, my—"
"There was a game we often played together." To Salgant's relief, Maeglin did not look angry. Instead, a faint, nostalgic smile played over his lips. "It involved locks. You see, Father enjoyed locking things up—my toys, books, sometimes even me. My role in the game was to figure out how to open the locks without breaking them. As I grew older, and better at this craft, the mechanisms he used increased in complexity. I ended up winning the whole game in the end, of course—he never expected me to open his sword case." Maeglin reached down to caress the hilt of his weapon. "At any rate, I believe I can say that the locks of Gondolin are child's play to me. Quite literally. In fact, most can be opened with just a few skeleton keys."
"Oh, yes." Maeglin's dreamy expression cleared, and his sword hand slid along his belt and closed around a dark metal object. "But I do believe it is time I was going. Goodbye, Salgant. Do lock up behind yourself." With a dramatic sweep of his cloak, he strode towards the exit, pausing only to toss the dark object in Salgant's direction.
Although Salgant threw up an arm to protect his face and tried to duck, the thing still hit him on the wrist before falling to the ground with a loud jangle. He sought it out while bowed in farewell; it was a key ring holding a wide selection of generic-looking keys.
If Salgant could not catch a flying object, he could certainly catch a hint. After locking the door, he pocketed the key ring.
Salgant spent the rest of the morning alternating between testing the keys on every lock in his house—they worked perfectly—and fretting over the task Maeglin had set him. A large helping of pudding helped to calm his nerves, as did the thought that sneaking into a house to spy on two excessively muscled warriors was not all that different from sneaking up on them to subject them to a practical joke, and nowhere as terrifying as facing them in combat. He hoped that the one would not lead to the other—but surely hitting poor, pathetic Salgant, whose only wish was to entertain people, would prove below any true warrior's dignity.
To be on the safe side, Salgant waited until Glorfindel was at lunch, and until the street outside his house was clear, before approaching his door. Maeglin's keys worked their magic again. Salgant stepped into an apartment much like his own, but where the musical instruments and crystal bowls of candied fruit had been replaced with sharp metal objects and jars of sword grease.
At first, the wrongness of the situation disturbed him, but after a few moments he began to feel a perverse little thrill. There was something delightful about being free to rifle through someone else's clutter, through the piles of books and crumpled clothing that spoke of a lived-in house. It was rather like the pleasure one got out of reading a secret journal. Salgant even looked for one among the books, but the only interesting things he found there were some sheets of music signed "Ecthelion"—which he pocketed in case they contained some hidden message—and a sketchpad filled with drawings of duels, wrestling matches, and other athletic pursuits, followed by a series of anatomical studies. Bored, he tossed the pad away and sought out the washroom, where he sniffed at Glorfindel's shampoo, to his disappointment failing to detect the scent of bleach.
When he stepped back out into the main room, planning to have another go at the private papers, he heard a familiar creak: the downstairs door had just been opened. He found himself scrambling under a nearby table, seemingly without any prompting from his panicked mind.
His hiding place resembled the inside of a very small army tent: the light filtering in through the yellow tablecloth was much like the dawn that had woken him far too rudely on every campaign, and the rubbish already present under the table—an odd leather glove, an oily sword rag, a few crumpled bits of parchment—resembled the usual military detritus. He shuddered with disgust and turned his attention to a small chink between the tablecloth and the wall. If he pressed his face against the plaster he could see the door and, presently, a brief glimpse of Glorfindel as he stepped into the room. He could follow Glorfindel's further progress by lying down flat and tracking his boots, which were of a warm, brownish shade that reminded Salgant of caramels.
Glorfindel spent a few moments moving around the far reaches of the room, all the while whistling a well-known gay tune-—and annoying Salgant greatly by carelessly slurring the more elaborate phrases. Then the boots drew closer; annoyance gave way to apprehension, and then to panic as the tablecloth twitched aside. Fortunately, Glorfindel did not even glance under the table as he tossed in some more papers, a heap of dirty laundry, and a basket holding a half-eaten chicken. After edging away from the clothing, Salgant examined the bird and found it warm still; Glorfindel must have cut his lunch short to prepare for his scheming session. It looked like a tasty meal, too, but Salgant did not have time to confirm this theory, for a rhythmic, precise knock forced him to return to his door-watching position.
A few moments passed—enough to make him worry that something was amiss—before Glorfindel flashed by again. Ecthelion followed and paused on the threshold, head tilted to one side. His stance seemed oddly relaxed, and his eyes blazed with life; this was not the wooden Ecthelion of Salgant's song.
"I thought we should look at the maps first." Glorfindel sounded remote. Sure enough, he was by the far wall, kneeling before a large chest as if he were retrieving something. "Just in case we get interrupted again."
Ecthelion smiled in an artless way that nevertheless suggested complicity. "Good idea, although I doubt Maeglin will be seeking me out anytime soon."
"Why not? And what did Finwe's Great-Grandchild want yesterday, anyway?
"He never quite said. He asked me some odd questions, and then..." Ecthelion raised an eyebrow, a trick Salgant had never been able to master. "Well, I think I have a good idea of what is troubling him, but as it is both unconfirmed and personal I would prefer to discuss it with him before sharing my theories with you."
"Is it about his mother? Just joking; I do understand." Glorfindel walked up to the table and threw something down right above Salgant's head. "Poor Maeglin. I wish I liked him better."
"I like him well enough." Ecthelion stepped inside the room, out of Salgant's sight. Luckily, his boots were different from Glorfindel's: dark, almost black. They came to a stop close beside the caramel-coloured ones. "I see you have already drawn up some possible scenarios."
"Yes, I prepared them last night, to save time." Glorfindel spoke over a rustle of paper. "I suggest we place the prize-flag in this copse. The surrounding terrain is varied and should make for an interesting contest."
"It does look like a reasonable spot, as far as that goes, but will there be enough fair starting locations for all the teams?"
"I think so. Look here..."
There followed a lengthy discussion of 'approach routes' and 'cover' and 'concealment.' Now that he knew the secret conversation would take place afterwards, Salgant found it all profoundly uninteresting; it reminded him of those stupid childhood games of Elves and Orcs where he had usually ended up playing an Orc—in part because Glorfindel, one of the more common team leaders, would often good-naturedly agree to take the Orcish side, and would then equally good-naturedly choose Salgant for his team to spare him the humiliation of being picked last. Salgant wondered whether anyone could fail to realize that such obvious condescension would spark resentment.
"Glorfindel." Ecthelion's voice was strangely abrupt; Salgant realized that he had heard nothing for some time. The two pairs of boots were closer now, arranged as if Glorfindel were looking over Ecthelion's shoulder. "Glorfindel, please. I am trying to concentrate. Dealing with the War Games first was your idea—and a good idea, besides."
"Ah, but we are almost finished. I am just trying to be efficient. Anyway, looking at all these maps reminds me of all the nights I spent sleeping on the rocky ground of the foothills. A lot like your bed, that rocky ground."
Salgant recalled that Ecthelion had, in a typical fit of show-off virtue, laid claim to one of the lumpy beds that had been used in the barracks while the city was being built, before their drain on morale was noted. So, in all, Glorfindel's comment seemed accurate, if a little irrelevant.
"Nobody is asking you to sleep in my bed." Ecthelion spoke very quietly; perhaps that is why his words sounded so odd, as if the emphasis had been placed on 'sleep' and not on 'you.'
"Of course not. Eru forbid. Virtuous, unmarried warriors like us must sleep alone." Glorfindel sighed. "But never mind that. If you really think that replacing your bed with a wider one, perhaps with a useful slatted headboard, would give rise to suspicion, then it is high time the old one met with a little accident."
"What sort of accident? My bed is perfectly sturdy."
"I know. I thought I could shatter a couple of the legs with that new flail of yours, while sparring."
"Mmm. But surely such a clumsy act, when performed by a fine warrior like Glorfindel of the Golden Flower, would seem suspicious as well?"
"I suppose you are right." Glorfindel sounded vexed. Such an intense interest in a friend's bed puzzled Salgant until he remembered the theory that Glorfindel was the mind behind the Ecthelion-Idril marriage. Meanwhile, Glorfindel continued. "But returning to the War Games: do you have any more comments, or shall we adopt this arrangement?"
"No more comments."
"All done, then." Glorfindel's pleased announcement was followed by faint rustling sounds suggesting that the maps were being rolled up.
"Where does this old scroll go?" Ecthelion asked. "It looks like a collection of... wresting poses."
"Ah, that! It is a Vanyarin work I found in the Marital Health section of the Healers' library. I wanted to show it to you."
Salgant could remember looking at similar scrolls in his youth; some of the positions shown did look a lot like wrestling moves. It amused him that Glorfindel had only just discovered the scrolls' existence—and that his first impulse had been to share them with uptight Ecthelion, who was surely the last man in the Guard to appreciate them, Idril or no Idril.
Ecthelion seemed to agree. "Why to me, of all people? I mean... look at all these women!"
"Well, I thought it was interesting. Several of these diagrams show positions we have never—"
"In my case, all of them. Are you saying that you—"
"Oh, come on, Ecthelion, do not be so literal. The basic principle is the same. In many cases, only a very small adjustment is needed. Look here, at 'The Congress of the Spider.' Or at 'The Stallion in Springtime.'"
"'The Stallion in—' 'Climbing Telperion?' 'The Mingling of the Lights?' Who made up these descriptions, Salgant?"
Salgant had, in fact, always loved those poetic names, but he felt too confused to take offence; it appeared that Glorfindel was not offering love advice after all, but planning to convert sexual positions into wrestling moves. Even Ecthelion sounded skeptical when he continued.
"And this one, 'The Ripe Fruit of Laurelin': it involves a tree! What is the point of that?"
"Well, actually, the tree is very useful, there. If you would look at 'Climbing Telperion'... See, that one is stable only because the woman is so much smaller. It does not work as well for two people of equivalent size."
"Well, the tree branch she hangs from in 'The Ripe Fruit' helps with the balance. Try to forget the scroll and imagine how it might work for us. Does it not seem appealingly athletic?"
Salgant could not have answered that question, as he was trying not to imagine anything. The bizarre subject matter, with its disturbing implications, was bad enough, but much worse was the way in which Glorfindel's voice grew muffled from time to time, as if he were speaking with his mouth full.
"Yes, well," said Ecthelion after a short silence, "the chances of us ever finding a discreet tree branch are slim."
"There are plenty in the foothills. We might— No, wait! You have a pull-up bar in your room, do you not? We should try that. It might even prove more comfortable than using your bed."
"Will you stop bringing that up?" Ecthelion's boots turned around so that they were facing Glorfindel's. "I am sure the makers of this scroll had very comfortable beds in which they spent days and nights on end together, and look how they ended up: so bored they had to invent new sexual acts with ridiculous names."
"One does not need to be bored to seek new experiences. Some of the Vanyar believe that attempting complicated positions with deliberate concentration will help them discover the true pleasure of the bodily union."
"Do the Vanyar truly find it so difficult? I suppose that explains why they are the smallest of the Three Kindred, if they need to hang from a tree branch just to—"
"Be careful. Those are my ancestors you are insulting."
"On the contrary, I am very impressed by your Vanyarin ancestors. They married into the Noldor, did they not? Clever of them."
"Well, I would appear to have inherited their good taste in such matters." Glorfindel sounded particularly muffled. Meanwhile, the two pairs of boots moved closer together until they were hopelessly mixed up. "But not the difficulties you suspect them of. As well you know."
"That," said Ecthelion in a very distracted manner, "is a good point."
Soon afterwards, the whole situation deteriorated altogether. Salgant tried to ignore the garments dropping to the ground, and concentrated on imagining that the sounds he was hearing were not the consequence of anything unspeakable, but of an ordinary wrestling match. This worked for the fast, irregular breathing and the groaning, but the occasional moan broke the illusion. Skilled wrestlers did not moan like that.
"This scroll of yours..." Ecthelion's famous voice was hoarse, but Salgant was too traumatized to feel happy about it. "Does it say anything about tables?"
The table creaked as a substantial weight was placed upon it. Now Salgant wanted to moan himself. It was easy to laugh at this sort of thing when it was purely theoretical, but now that it was going on a few feet above his head he felt nauseous rather than amused. He put his fingers in his ears, but even so he could see that the table was swaying. Then something landed on a nearby pile of clothing: one of the sword-grease jars, now lidless. In horror, Salgant watched it wobble a bit, and then roll lazily down the pile and under the table, coming to rest by one of his feet.
Ecthelion made an exasperated noise. "One moment," he said.
Afraid to kick the jar in case it rolled in some unfortunate direction, Salgant glanced around while his heart beat out a syncopated tattoo. Could he conceal himself under Glorfindel's dirty laundry? He would certainly do his best.
"Ecthelion? Leave it. It was almost empty anyway. Come, there is another one by my bed."
"Your bed? Why so unimaginative? After all the fuss with that scroll, you—"
Salgant did not want to think about why Ecthelion might have stopped speaking so abruptly. Meanwhile, the awful sounds resumed as the two deviants stumbled away and out of sight.
Left alone, Salgant took several deep breaths and forced himself to evaluate the situation: he was locked in an apartment containing a variety of sharp implements and two highly trained warriors who would undoubtedly be enraged by his intrusion. He waited until the noises became more rhythmical. Based on what he knew about such matters, he estimated that he had about three minutes in which to make his escape, before Ecthelion and Glorfindel reemerged from the bedroom, hungry enough to look for that unfinished chicken.
Salgant crawled out of his hiding place, trying to use the horrifying sounds to mask his own movements. He was about to make a run for the door when the maps jumbled together on one end of the table caught his eye. He slipped one into his pocket.
The horror of the scene he had witnessed clouded Salgant's wits: it was only once he was settled in a nearby pastry shop, eating a restorative slice of mushroom pie, that he realized his attempt to discover a way of discrediting his rival had succeeded beyond his wildest hopes. The depth of Ecthelion's hypocrisy took his breath away, as did the extent of Glorfindel's involvement. And he had spent years envying those degenerates! He might have found this thought depressing or infuriating, but the realization of the power he now held made him dizzy instead, as if he had drunk too much liqueur. Salgant gulped down his meal and headed straight for Maeglin's rooms.
The sense of power stayed with him as he walked down the palace corridors. Every guard he passed jumped to attention upon hearing his footsteps, and then, as he drew near, stared at him in confusion. After the sixth such encounter, Salgant paused to think. It was almost as if the guards had been expecting someone else: perhaps the usual Salgant, the one who ambled instead of striding and greeted taller inferiors with a grin, not an imperious glance. But if that old, weak Salgant was now gone, why was the new Salgant acting as if he were Maeglin's creature and not a lord in his own right? The moment he told Maeglin, the wondrous secret for which he had risked life and limb would cease to be his. Even worse, the truth might cool Maeglin's useful hatred of Ecthelion.
No, Salgant would not part with his newfound source of strength so easily. He could not abandon Maeglin altogether: he would give the boy the War Games map, together with the suggestion that he share it with the team of the House of the Mole. He might also mention that Ecthelion had contemplated purchasing a larger bed, which should fan the flames of Maeglin's hatred nicely.
No doubt about it, Salgant's fortunes were on the rise.
0. I welcome all comments: praise, criticism, questions. And I wanted to thank those who have already provided me with helpful feedback: AfterEver, Dagmar, Lyllyn, Nol, and especially my fearless beta Maggie.
1. Salgant is a character out of 'The Fall of Gondolin.' He is described as "a craven [who] fawned upon Maeglin," and who is "heavy and squat." He spends much of the Fall cowering in his home.
2. Now, about that scroll. The way I see it, 'Climbing Telperion' is one of the positions in which one person holds up the other. This is much easier when the 'climbing' partner is smaller, or able to take on some of their own weight--for example, by hanging off a nearby object such as a tree branch.
3. For the purposes of this fic, Glorfindel is related to Idril through her Vanyarin mother. While not strictly canonical, this is consistent with canon.
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