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Flawed and Fair: 2. A Little Gathering
Ecthelion was busy. Happily busy. There was just so much to do. Lady Aredhel's impeding departure called for a reorganization of Palace security—possibly the whole guard, really, since she was taking one of its valued leaders with her, but he would not think about that now: deciphering the hastily-scrawled rota sheet left behind by the night watch was a far more urgent matter. Yes, Ecthelion was certainly very busy. And fortunate. Soon, he would finally be able to focus on his work without dreading the inevitable distractions.
He would not have to worry about anyone showing up at the training grounds with a fascinating new weapon, and insisting that they try it out together. And then, he would not have any cause to rue the Guard's wardrobe-protecting policy of fighting shirtless when trying out new techniques. He would not have to force his eyes to stay focused on his opponent's feet, eyes, or blade, instead of letting them drift to all points of interest in between. Certainly, he would not feel tempted to throw down his weapon and try his luck at wrestling. Or to give a completely inappropriate response when a sparring partner, bare torso flushed with exertion, walked right up to him and asked for help with his grip.
Ecthelion realized that he had spent the last few minutes staring at the wall where the officers of the Guard were listed. He had updated it only a few hours ago, and already he was wondering when he would be able to return that one name to its rightful place. Given how incredibly fortunate he was, his inability to concentrate on urgent business irritated him greatly. He decided to get help, with the cryptic sheet, at least—and there was always a chance that talking to a friend would help him clear his mind of unproductive thoughts.
After a quick word with the men on duty, he walked out of the guardhouse and into the streets of the city. It was midday, and sunny. The fountains were glittering with light, their music a subtle counterpoint to the daily hum of voices. As Ecthelion approached the eastern market, the hum turned into a chorus of shouts, drowning out the falling water. He crossed the market and took a staircase up onto the city wall, heading for the turret from which Egalmoth, friend and colleague, commanded his archers.
When Ecthelion entered, Egalmoth put aside the arrows he had been fletching and rose from behind his table to welcome his visitor warmly. He seemed unusually excited, or perhaps it was just his outfit: his leggings were canary yellow, his boots indigo, his shirt a grassy green, and his robe red velvet patterned with orange.
No doubt about it, Egalmoth was proud to be Lord of the Heavenly Arch.
Once they had exchanged greetings, Egalmoth held out an arrow. "Well, what do you think?"
Ecthelion considered it. "I see you have finally managed to get all seven colours of the rainbow into the flight. It makes for an interesting, multi-chromatic effect."
"You know, that is exactly what Glorfindel said."
Ecthelion winced at this reminder of Glorfindel's good taste and tact, and, indeed, his name and existence. But then he recalled his errand, and handed the rota sheet to Egalmoth. "And what do you think?"
Egalmoth's sharp archer's eyes swept over it. "Salgant's handwriting. Hmm. I am guessing the unhappy harpist has yet to forgive you for the Incident Of The Censured Concerto."
"I was just trying to offer constructive criticism! I do not understand why people will insist on asking me for my honest opinion on things when the last thing they want is to hear it." Ecthelion's eyes wandered guiltily towards the colourful arrows. "At any rate... you cannot really believe that this is some form of personal revenge? It hurts the whole Guard."
"He probably thinks it is just a harmless joke. You know what he is like." Egalmoth's eyes sparkled. He loved tales and gossip as Ecthelion loved fancy weapons. "Did you know he once put green dye in Glorfindel's shampoo?"
"No." Glorfindel's hair: one more thing Ecthelion did not need to remember. Still, Salgant's prank sounded positively blasphemous. "What happened?"
"Nothing, really. Glorfindel almost lost his temper."
"How very restrained."
"Oh, he noticed it just in time, something about the smell, and you know he prides himself on being nice to difficult people. He says Salgant's jokes are just a cry for help."
Ecthelion was torn. On the one hand, he disliked Salgant for reasons personal, musical, and, now, hair-related. On the other hand, that smug "help" comment was rather asking for it. It was almost as condescending as saying someone has had a difficult childhood.
"But that is stale news," said Egalmoth. "The fresh news is this: you, my friend, will not have to worry about Salgant, his jokes, or his music much longer."
"What do you mean?"
"Ah, have you not heard about the White Lady's planned trip?"
"Actually, I have. I was present when..." Oh, he should never have come. This conversation was clearly jinxed; everything came back to topic A. "...when Glorfindel received his summons. But what does this have to do with Salgant?"
"Surely you do not think that just one Lord of the Guard is an escort impressive enough for King Turgon's own sister? No, she is to have three."
"Glorfindel, Salgant, and..." Ecthelion had been right: Egalmoth was looking unusually excited. And there had to be a reason for all those freshly fletched arrows. "You!"
Egalmoth nodded. "Interesting choices, do you not find? Though I believe I can follow her thinking well enough. I was chosen to give her someone to hunt with, Salgant the harpist to give her someone to listen to, and Glorfindel—to give her someone to flirt with."
The theory seemed plausible enough, but that last part still bothered Ecthelion, and not just because it marked yet another return to topic A. Possibly because it was somewhat unjust. "At least Glorfindel can fight," he said.
"Must you always be so fair? You do not even like him," said Egalmoth. "Certainly, he can fight. But that is not why the Lady asked for him."
"You think there is something between them, truly?" Well, Glorfindel had confessed to lustful thoughts. Perhaps they did concern the White Lady, who was highborn, beautiful, and, really, almost worthy of him. And it was easy enough to believe that she might return his interest. "They would make a fine couple, one dark and one fair." To Ecthelion's displeasure, his voice sounded tense, not as light and amused as he had hoped to make it.
Egalmoth seemed to read some subtlety into his strange tones. "You are right, my friend. The Lady has always been fond of blond men." After a quick glance around the empty room, he leaned forward slightly. "Lord Turgon gave us one rather strange instruction. Can you guess what it was, I wonder?"
"I doubt it."
"He asked us to use all our influence to keep her on the northern road."
The northern road led to Lord Fingon; the southern road—the only real alternative—led to the wood elf realm of Doriath, and to the lands beyond. The sons of Feanor lived there, among them Celegorm the Fair, Aredhel's half-cousin and longtime friend.
"Ah," said Ecthelion. "Your task is difficult indeed."
"Yes, for how can our influence succeed where her brother's has failed?" Egalmoth gave a mock sigh before breaking into a grin. "But imagine: a chance to observe a Feanorion in his natural habitat. And to visit Doriath. They say their Queen is a Maia, and her daughter is the most enchanting maiden in the world."
Flawed as he was, Ecthelion could not be moved by tales of enchanting maidens. But he could be happy for his friend. "Congratulations, Egalmoth."
"Thank you. It is a great opportunity, is it not? A cause for celebration. Which is why," said Egalmoth, "I am organizing a little gathering. At my house, during the night shift. You must come! We are planning to sing."
Having attended several of Egalmoth's "little gatherings", Ecthelion knew very well that they were anything but little. He also knew what the singing would be like, and what popular guardsman was almost certain to attend. Possibly even to co-host. Still, friendship had its duties. He promised to make an appearance.
Ecthelion thought the celebration started off well enough, even if he himself preferred less rowdy occasions. Of the officers not on night duty, almost all were present, and there was plenty of wine. Not that it was truly needed: some of the men, especially the younger ones, who had been born in the city, seemed to be drunk on the mere idea of the mission even before Egalmoth and Glorfindel stood up to make the first toast.
"Welcome, friends," said Glorfindel. "We are—"
"Very lucky!" shouted one youngster.
"Yes, lucky to be getting away from you, Voronwe," said Egalmoth.
"I'll drink to that!" yelled Voronwe's neighbour. And so he did. Many followed his example. Soon, all pretense of order was lost as the crowd deluged the hosts with requests.
"Bring us back some news!"
"Yes, Lord Egalmoth! Bring us back some gossip!"
"Gossip about the orcs!"
"Just bring us back some orcs!"
That particular request was rewarded with a loud cheer and much drinking.
"We will bring you back a Balrog!" Glorfindel shouted over the crowd, and the cheer turned into a roar.
As he listened to all the suggestions, Ecthelion wondered at Salgant's absence. Had the harpist repented of the ridiculous rota joke and put himself on duty? Eventually, he walked away from the heckling crowd and spent some time chatting with Duilin and Penlod, only to lose them to the loud game of winecups that was in progress in the middle of the room. Alone again, he sipped his drink and watched the chaos. It was not just the youngsters, he realized: almost everyone in the room was jealous of Aredhel's escort. Of course, this was completely natural, considering the strangeness of living in this closed-off city, in a valley that could be crossed in a day. If he himself had not yet succumbed to envy, it was only because he was so unnatural that his mind had been otherwise occupied.
Unable to help himself, he glanced in Glorfindel's direction. To his surprise, their eyes met over their cups. Glorfindel blinked and drained his in one swallow.
Yes, the wine was certainly flowing freely tonight. Even the drunken singing had started much earlier than usual. Ecthelion, who knew that most of the men, especially those of his own House, were competent musicians of solid taste, had never understood why drunken singing had to be so very bad. The harmony line would wander all over the place, and most of the favoured songs either had a hideously nonsensical refrain, or mentioned dead orcs. Or, in some truly unredeemable cases, both. He tried to block out the sounds, concentrating instead on the gentle slosh of the wine at the bottom of his cup.
"Here, let me refill that for you, so we can drink a toast of farewell."
Glorfindel had taken the seat on his right, a large bottle in his hand. Ecthelion passed him the cup, and watched him pour dark liquid into it with the deliberate, controlled motions that suggested much of the contents of the bottle had already been poured into Glorfindel. While a formal toast sounded like a great idea—just the sort of thing that might force Ecthelion's subconscious to realize that it should go temporarily off duty—he could not help feeling mildly concerned.
"Thank you, Glorfindel," he said. "I will drink to you gladly. However, I will not be offended if you yourself hold back. That bottle must be half-empty by now."
"Half-full, I would call it." Glorfindel held the bottle up towards a lamp, so that his face was bathed in blood-coloured light. Ecthelion felt the foreboding before he could remember that he had never put much faith in omens.
"To your safe return, then," he said, much to his own surprise. Embarrassed, he gulped down the wine so fast he almost choked.
"You meant that." Glorfindel smiled a little. "You do want me to return, in spite of our recent difficulties." His growing grin brightened the dimly lit room, and Ecthelion felt the full force of the detested Glorfindel charm. The charm that was, allegedly, why he had been chosen for the escort in the first place.
"Certainly I do," said Ecthelion. "Unless, of course, you wish to stay with the Lady."
Glorfindel shook his head. "Lord Turgon says we must return as soon as our task is done. Anyway, my place is here, in the city."
Suddenly, the wall between them was splattered with wine, the casualty of an ever-rowdier drinking game. Ecthelion did not care: being practical, he had chosen to wear his least favourite, ill-fitting, formal robes. Glorfindel, meanwhile, checked his hair over for signs of damage. Ecthelion could not see any, but he supposed one would have to touch each strand to make sure. It occurred to him that none of his disturbing dreams had ever been set in a cosy pocket of quiet at the center of a noisy party. The idea was terrifying, for the two of them were in plain sight of the whole guard. It was also oddly intriguing. Ecthelion resigned himself to having such a dream in the near future.
"Do you think it very wrong of me," said Glorfindel abruptly, "to look forward to adventure in the outside world, when it is my sworn duty to protect the city?"
"No. I had not even considered the matter." Ecthelion's dislike of Glorfindel flared and burned with a wine-fueled flame. He wanted to hate Glorfindel as someone self-righteous, as certain of his goodness as he surely was of his beauty and his prowess, but these recent signs of an active conscience—the morning's confession, and now this question—were ruining everything. And then, he despised his newfound role as Glorfindel's confessor and bright beacon of morality. He knew it did not fit his flawed self any better than the uncomfortable robes he was wearing.
Yes, the role really was much like the robes; right now, he could not have discarded either without revealing to Glorfindel something rather disturbing.
"It is hard, when duty and desire conflict."
Glorfindel's quiet complaint made Ecthelion panic at first, until he realized that the hard thing mentioned was a situation and not anything disturbing that might be present under anyone's robes. Then he felt angry, for what did Glorfindel really know about conflicts of duty and desire? When he spoke, his voice was sharp.
"Glorfindel, you are getting maudlin in your cups. There is no conflict. You want to go; your lord tells you to do so. You can leave the city quite happily."
"Wait, you are right," said Glorfindel. "I knew that. So why do I feel strangely unhappy?" He looked at Ecthelion as if Ecthelion held, or was, the answer to this question.
Ecthelion glanced around the room, seeking an avenue of escape. He was in luck. Egalmoth caught his eye, and waved him over to the corner where he was currently conducting a disorderly cluster of guardsmen: an impromptu choir.
"Ecthelion, come along! Sing!"
This, surely, was his duty as a guest. Ecthelion got up, abandoning Glorfindel, and attempted to salvage the drunken singing. At first, he merely sang along with the crowd, hoping that his voice alone might make a difference. When this failed, he got a bit more ambitious: he launched into an inspiring, lyrical song about the Glorious Battle. It was not a technically difficult piece, so he found it rather annoying that no-one else would follow his lead, and that, too quickly, he found himself singing alone. Still, when he was finished, a few of the listeners—the more drunk ones, he supposed—had tears in their eyes. He was feeling rather pleased with himself for raising the tone of the gathering, when, without warning, the sentimental crowd launched into a different tune.
Our arrows are flying,
Our swords brightly glowing.
The Orcs are all dying!
Their black blood is flowing!
To slay orcs is jolly!
Ecthelion had not drunk enough to cope with the thought of having inspired this. He said goodbye to a few half-sober friends and walked out of the building.
The evening breeze was cool and brisk. He felt heavy by comparison, dazed; he supposed he was slightly drunk, after all. When he paused by the doorway, getting his bearings, he encountered an unexpected sight.
Glorfindel stood out front, leaning on a statue as if on a friend. His hair glowed faintly even against the pale marble. Ecthelion felt sorry for the sculptor. The artist had obviously attempted to capture some ideal of beauty, and here some insensitive twit was making it look rather plain.
Glorfindel turned his head towards the door. "Oh, it is you," he said. "You sing well."
How would he know? He had walked out long before the real singing had begun. Ecthelion had been irritated by that sudden departure, and doubly irritated at being affected by it.
"Too well," Glorfindel continued. "You make even the Orc Ditty sound like a song of valour, you... I have never seen you wear that shade of red before."
Ecthelion looked down at his despised robes. Just as he had expected, the already too shiny satin was even shinier in several places, damp with spilled liquid. Unfortunately, the outfit did not look entirely ruined. Still, his dubious fashion choices were surely none of Glorfindel's business.
"Yes, I am blathering," said Glorfindel. "I must go home." He disengaged himself from the statue and patted it on one smooth arm in farewell. However, after one uncertain step, he was soon leaning on it again.
Now here was an interesting moral dilemma. It was quite clear to Ecthelion where his duty lay: he should get his fellow officer home before any of the men saw him in this disgraceful state. His own desires, base as they were, seemed equally clear, and they began, innocently enough, with getting Glorfindel home. However, there seemed to be a third factor at work, for Ecthelion's conscience told him that this course of action, the one indicated by both duty and desire, was horribly wrong.
However, it was too late at night to hold lengthy debates with one's conscience. Ecthelion relieved the statue of its burden by pulling one of Glorfindel's arms over his shoulders.
"I will help you," he said.
"No!" Glorfindel swayed against him. "You see, I am in this very strange mood—"
"Precisely why I should help you."
Glorfindel peered at Ecthelion. "Right. Always so responsible. I forgot."
Soon, they were stumbling along through little-frequented streets. In every court, the fountains played their music, for once unaccompanied by the choir of voices. It was a soothing sound, and yet Ecthelion could not relax, for, over the falling water, he could hear Glorfindel's breathing, even the beating of his heart. The resulting composition was disturbing. He sought to drown it out with idle chatter.
"So," he said. "I noticed that Salgant was not at the celebration."
"He does not want to go," said Glorfindel. "Poor Salgant. Had a difficult childhood."
Ecthelion groaned to himself.
"I wish," said Glorfindel, his voice clear, "that you were coming instead of him."
"Yes," said Ecthelion, surprising himself again. "I mean, we all wish we were going."
They moved on in silence, Ecthelion not trusting himself to speak for fear of more surprises. The arm thrown over his shoulders was warm but light; Glorfindel walked home mostly under his own power, his free hand swaying out to help his balance.
But the staircase up to Glorfindel's private apartment was narrow, and there he finally faltered, stumbling, so that Ecthelion had to pull Glorfindel close to save him from falling. He was surprisingly heavy for one who normally moved with such grace. It had to be all those muscles, long watched in the training hall, in the bathhouses, and now shifting beneath Ecthelion's fingers. A few strands of golden hair brushed against Ecthelion's face, getting into his mouth and eyes. It could have been a scene from a dream, only Ecthelion had never dreamt of an unconscious partner. There was a wrongness here beyond the one Ecthelion despised in himself, a wrongness that killed desire. He let go of his burden.
Glorfindel slid down onto one of the steps. "Sorry," he said. "See? Not perfect." His head rolled back against the wall, his eyes closing.
Fortunately, the door was right up ahead.
"Glorfindel, if I could just have your key..."
There was no response. Ecthelion knelt down on a step. He could see no keyring. He checked Glorfindel's sleeves and belt. The tailored robes showed no obvious pockets; finding any concealed ones would not be easy. Very, very carefully, he started to move his hands over Glorfindel's body, searching for anything out of place. He felt obscurely horrible: although this situation was one he had longed for, the wrongness was still there. He was just beginning to search the general hip area when Glorfindel's eyes opened.
"What are you doing?"
Ecthelion tried to summon all his dignity. "Looking for a key."
"But the door is unlocked," said Glorfindel.
And so it was. Still irritated by the whole episode, Ecthelion half-dragged Glorfindel inside and over to the bed, which, he could not help but note, was large and comfortable-looking. His task was done—or was it? He was not really sure how to attend to someone so drunk, at least not beyond the vague thought that boot removal might be a good idea. Shrugging to himself, he sat down to take off Glorfindel's boots. After a moment's hesitation, he removed Glorfindel's belt, as well. Although he had tried to be gentle, that final action did not go unnoticed.
"Here, let me—" Glorfindel sat up and grabbed for his shirt. Soon shirt, robe, and all other similar garments were half off his body and tangled up around his head. Ecthelion stared at his bare stomach and flailing arms for a few moments, thinking dully that this was one sight he had never encountered in his dreams, before his better nature finally took over. He helped Glorfindel free his hands, then his head. The hair tumbled free, sliding through Ecthelion's fingers. He sat back and looked.
Ecthelion had, of course, seen Glorfindel in far less than this before, both in reality and in the dreamworld, but here, in the dark room, Glorfindel's skin shone almost as brightly as his hair. And he was clearly no longer the dead weight he had been on the stairs. His eyes looked alert. Only a few small gestures still betrayed his befuddled state. For one, he had placed his right hand on Ecthelion's shoulder, and was now moving it in a way that could almost have been a caress. Perhaps he was mistaking Ecthelion for Aredhel—although the resemblance was far from striking. But, of course, he was naturally affectionate, and this must have stayed with him even now.
Desire returned. The darkest, most flawed part of Ecthelion's mind was asking tempting questions. Questions like, "How much of this will he remember?" Their faces were a handspan apart; all Ecthelion had to do was move forward, and then... If explanations were asked for, well, had he himself not been drinking? He did not long for much, only heat and pressure—or was it just that he knew he could expect nothing more from one barely conscious? But of course he could, he could try for a response. How wrong would it be to give pleasure? Let Glorfindel read it as he would, mistake him for Aredhel, for anybody. And then Ecthelion would know more. His memory would drink in sight and sound, and his dreams would be better, more accurate.
Glorfindel, swaying, shook his head and blinked. "Is this a dream?" he whispered. His fingers slid across Ecthelion's shoulder, touched his neck. Naturally affectionate, naturally trusting. He leaves his door unlocked, thought Ecthelion. He thinks I am a natural ascetic. He asks me stupid questions about duty and desire.
Two things that no longer coincided. Ecthelion, recalled to his senses, saw just how wide the gap between them had grown. And he had almost failed to spot it. He felt sickened, dizzy, but he would not fall.
"Not yet," he said, and left Glorfindel to his dreams.
In need of a sanctuary, Ecthelion headed for his office at the guardhouse. His weapons would be there; handling them would ground him further. If that did not work, he could try the flute he kept in his desk. And then, there would be a hundred tedious tasks to attend to. He would have no further trouble from the incomplete list on the wall, for what was a mere name when he had just escaped from the real thing?
The night shift, very surprised to see him, scrambled to stand at attention. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw dice swept under a mug, and there was something roasting over the fire, quite contrary to the regulations. Ecthelion scanned each guardsman's face in turn as he searched for just the right words of sarcasm to put in his reprimand, and watched pair after pair of eyes turn to the floor. It was strange, to know his gaze still seemed righteous. But then, Ecthelion had to believe that the difference between thought and deed truly mattered, else he would have given up on himself long ago.
Only one of the guards held his eyes. A brave man, then, especially considering that he was wearing a beer-jug instead of a helmet.
"Um, Lord Ecthelion," he said, "a message was left for you. From Lord Turgon. We were just going to send it on to your house; you will find it on your desk." He cast a helpful, hopeful look towards Ecthelion's office door. When Ecthelion failed to move, he attempted a smile instead. "Congratulations, my lord. The messenger said that you are to replace Lord Salgant in the White Lady's honour guard."
1. Yes, Elves really do get drunk like that, at least in the Hobbit. And they do sing atrocious songs: the Orc-Slaying Ditty is a rewrite of the Rivendell Welcome Song from the same book.
2. Egalmoth of the Heavenly Arch, Salgant of the Harp, Duilin and Penlod are characters from The Fall Of Gondolin. And, yes, Salgant was rather unpleasant. He lived out his days as Morgoth's jester.
3. As for who really did escort Aredhel out of Gondolin-—it's not certain. Tolkien did, at one point, say it was Ecthelion, Egalmoth, and Glorfindel, but his son states that he later recanted, perhaps because it is hard to imagine all those Balrog-slaying types getting into so much trouble. Me, I figure that, as long as I am destroying all their reputations anyway, I can conform to the original vision.
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