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Strange Fortunes: 4. Chapter Four
The ballroom was large, so large that its ceiling had to be supported by columns: stone blocks carved to resemble apple trees, their capitals spreading into a lifelike canopy of painted leaves. It would have been the best-groomed orchard in Middle-earth but for the guests filling the space between the trunks like a mass of overgrown shrubbery. A successful party, then. Ecthelion took one last deep breath and walked in, his formal armour clanking with each step in pleasant counterpoint to the music and babble of voices.
"Ecthelion!" Egalmoth stood out even among the colourful crowd: his breastplate, studded with polished stones of every hue, was a gemologist's dazzling dream. "You missed all the fuss with the envelopes. Now, while this was undoubtedly fortunate, it does not seem like you. Has something happened?"
Ecthelion knew he should feel guilty for arriving too late to help with the opening ceremony of the War Games, but in truth he felt relieved that his next, potentially uncomfortable encounter with Glorfindel would not take place directly under the public eye. The relief provoked a twinge of guilt, restoring his inner balance.
"Yes, something has happened, although it is not particularly exciting," he said. "One of the fountains in the Lesser Market flooded."
Egalmoth tilted his head. "I know you take your responsibilities as Lord of the Fountains seriously, but perhaps you should learn to delegate. I hear this city has many skilled plumbers."
"This was not a plumbing problem, not really: the fountain's drain was clogged by waterlogged pillows. From Duilin's favourite chair, which someone had tossed into the basin, probably as a hilarious prank."
"Disgraceful. I cannot believe Duilin's favourite chair has multiple pillows, not when he is always lecturing me on my decadent, citified ways. But why were you— No, wait, I know: your men are the prime suspects."
Ecthelion nodded. "Well, they do like to throw each other into fountains when in high spirits, and at the start of the Games all spirits are running high."
"And flowing freely." Egalmoth glanced down into his goblet. "Although definitely not at these formal court functions. I swear the cups here get tinier each year. But come, surely you need a drink even more than I do."
They moved towards a bar stocked with decanters of sweet, fruity cocktails. Egalmoth rummaged around, and, with a sigh of satisfaction, pulled out a bottle of fortified wine. Then he inspected the glasses, picking out the largest for Ecthelion.
"You are probably unaware," he said as he poured, "that Salgant once managed something very similar to that fountain prank. And he has been looking particularly smug lately. I thought that perhaps he was planning to sing us a new song. If he is merely congratulating himself on a successful jest, well then, all the better." He refilled his own goblet, and reached for another. "Do you think it would be rude to take two?"
Ecthelion shrugged. "You could claim to be carrying one to a friend."
"What a brilliant idea! That would give me a great excuse for escaping awkward conversations. Speaking of which—I would advise you to avoid Pengolodh tonight. Our esteemed sage is investigating people's intuitions on Orcish irregular verbs."
"That does not sound so terrible."
"No? Please note that his current victim, Maeglin, looks as if he is undergoing the foulest tortures of Morgoth."
To Ecthelion, Maeglin appeared less tormented than thunderously angry. What is more, he was not even looking at Pengolodh, but at a small group Ecthelion had been aware of since entering the room: the cluster of revelers surrounding Glorfindel, who, presently, flashed a smile bright enough to match his hair and made some joke that set them all laughing. The cheerful mood broke when one of the women—Idril—noticed Maeglin's attention. She sobered and shifted closer to Glorfindel, prompting him to slip an arm around her shoulders and stare back at Maeglin, eyebrows drawn.
Ecthelion was tempted to round off the exchange of dark glances by glaring at Idril, but he suppressed this unworthy impulse. "I suspect," he said instead, "that Maeglin's unhappiness is caused by his own cousin, and not by Pengolodh's grammar."
"Ah, yes. That would be the latest Finwian family feud," said Egalmoth. "Entertaining, is it not? My favourite part is watching the courtiers bent on cultivating Turgon's heir scramble to make sense of the situation."
"You see the awkwardness we just witnessed as evidence of a power struggle?" To Ecthelion, it seemed more like an echo of the jealousy Maeglin had displayed in his apartment, although of course he could not say so. "Do you really believe that our lord's closest relatives would indulge in something so petty and unproductive?"
"You find that unlikely? Oh, Ecthelion." Egalmoth looked at him with fond exasperation. "I admit that I am surprised by their blatancy, especially Idril's. However, we must remember that they are both Finwian, and as such have an impressive feuding tradition to maintain. Just look at them! If you squint, they could almost be Indis and that other tragic orphan, Feanor. A pity Turgon is not here: he could play Finwe."
Ecthelion followed Egalmoth's oddly compelling suggestion. It was true that Maeglin, when seen through half-closed eyes, had a Feanorian air—probably due to his smith's build. As for Idril, however... Glorfindel stood beside her still. Squinting robbed them both of personality, transforming them into the blond couple from Glorfindel's Vanyarin scroll. Ecthelion gripped his goblet tightly, so that the carved crystal dug into his skin.
"Yes, quite," he said. "However... Are the courtiers really trying to determine Turgon's heir? It seems a little premature, and not just for the obvious reasons. Maeglin is so young that it will be a while yet before his uncle gives him any great responsibility, and a longer while before we know if he is competent."
"Maeglin is a gamble, true, but a gamble with the possibility of a high payoff. After all, people tend to place their trust in those who selflessly befriend them before their star rises. Also, betting on an outsider is always more exciting than going with a favourite." Egalmoth sipped his left-hand drink. "Now, you and Glorfindel seem to have hit on a good strategy: positioning yourselves on opposite sides of the split."
Coming from anyone else, such a comment would have been cause for worry, but Egalmoth had known Ecthelion's dark secret for years. His ability to refer to it so casually brought comfort—but the fact that even he had noticed Glorfindel's recent tendency to position himself close to Idril was anything but comforting.
"If that is Glorfindel's plan, then he has forgotten to share it with me. Although perhaps," said Ecthelion briskly, annoyed by his own petulance, "perhaps he realized that I would be uneasy about attempting such a thing. While I am aware that all this court nonsense can be helpful—I doubt that we could have established the War Games without Idril's support—I have neither the time nor the talent for it."
"And I suppose you treat Maeglin kindly because you think it is the noble thing to do. I hope he appreciates it." Egalmoth glanced towards Maeglin again, as if weighing the odds. His face sank almost at once.
"Fires of Angband, I fear I have caught the wrong eye. Still, there is no need to panic, he might still... Ah, Pengolodh!" he said with impressively well-feigned good cheer. "Greetings! No, no, I really cannot stay: I was just about to deliver this drink to Duilin. The poor man needs it badly. He is having problems with his furniture."
Pengolodh blinked with confusion as Egalmoth's broad back disappeared into the crowd. Then he turned to Ecthelion, who shrugged and greeted him with a genuine smile. In spite of their diverse interests, the two of them usually managed to strike upon some topic that appealed to both. This time, it was Orcish battle cries. Ecthelion could remember a large number of such utterances, which, according to Pengolodh, provided many fascinating examples of the imperative form. Meanwhile, Pengolodh's translations, more precise than anything Ecthelion could have derived himself, revealed a great deal about Orcish battle tactics.
"I really should write this down," said Pengolodh at last. "Will you excuse me? If I hurry, I might be able to complete a small essay by morning... Although, wasn't there something else I meant to ask you about?" Pengolodh looked up, his eyes flickering from side to side as if reviewing some interior catalogue. "I have it! Not something, someone: Lord Glorfindel."
Ecthelion hid his misgivings under a helpful expression. "What about him?"
"Well... Even I, who rarely follow court gossip, know our princess has a new admirer: one of my assistants accidentally discovered a draft of a poem dedicated to her." Pengolodh grimaced. "A very early draft, I think. Also, I recently ran into Lord Glorfindel at the Healers' Library. He was leaving the Marital Health section, no less. And now that I see them standing together so faithfully, I cannot help wondering if Lady Idril wasn't the reason behind his visit."
"Glorfindel has said nothing to me." Not directly, at any rate.
"Still, would it not be a wonderful thing for your friend? Marriage is the natural course of life, after all, and they do look so harmonious together, like book-ends."
Pengolodh was right: Glorfindel and Idril did appear well matched, a storybook couple as well as a Vanyarin scroll one. Even their outfits complemented each other—surely by design. Ecthelion felt a little unsteady.
"I see what you mean," he said. "Well... I think I need some fresh air. Good luck with your essay. "
He turned his back on the revelry and approached a nearby window. The music played on behind him: familiar songs all, but distorted by the noise of the crowd so that the melodies sounded new and strange. Outside, the real trees of an orchard echoed the room's sculptures. There was a grim joke to be made here, something about facing reality.
Pengolodh's words had revealed nothing new, except the existence of some awful poem that had an alternative explanation. Pengolodh's theory, however, echoed Ecthelion's worst suspicions. It explained so much: Glorfindel's odd behaviour at the fountain, his unwillingness to meet or even touch Ecthelion, that ridiculous story of his—a story about a man putting aside vice in order to marry. Ecthelion suppressed a groan. And before that, there had been the Vanyarin scroll, which implied long-term doubt. True, Glorfindel had been fairly enthusiastic at the time, but ardour can be a cover for uncertainty. If only they could speak plainly...
Ecthelion felt a touch on his elbow. He turned around and blinked in surprise, for there, as if summoned by magic, stood the focus of his thoughts.
"Ecthelion. Here at last." Glorfindel leaned in closer, his hair brushing Ecthelion's shoulder. "I know we are both riding out into the Valley early tomorrow. Still, perhaps we might meet later tonight, after this nonsense is over?" His fingers slid up Ecthelion's arm, holding on lightly. It was a perfectly innocent gesture, but under the circumstances it made Ecthelion feel stupid with hope.
"Yes. Yes, of course," he said.
"Good." Glorfindel smiled. "In the meantime... It seems that some of my recruits are outside, asking to see me. Would you mind keeping Idril company for a moment?"
The shock hit Ecthelion like cold water, so that he found himself sympathizing with Duilin's drowned chair. "Certainly." He shrugged off Glorfindel's grip and stepped around him to face Idril.
"Good evening, Ecthelion," she said with a smile.
Ecthelion forced himself to smile back. "Good evening, my lady. You look lovely tonight." He scoured his mind for a less inane statement; pride demanded that he get through this encounter with as much grace as he could muster. "Your... your hair is especially radiant."
"Thank you." Idril inclined her head in solemn acknowledgement of his courtesy, then looked up, eyes sparkling. "You know, Ecthelion, I do believe every compliment you have ever paid me has involved my hair."
"I cannot be the only man in the city who finds your hair more beautiful than any other woman's, my lady," said Ecthelion sincerely. "Also, surely your claim is not quite accurate. I know I have often commented on the skill you have brought to organizing the Games—and successful gatherings such as this one."
Idril looked around with obvious satisfaction. "Yes, I think we can both congratulate ourselves. The Games grow ever more popular: most of the court is here. It is a pity Father had to leave early," she added smoothly. "He is so very busy, this time of year."
"Oh, I know King Turgon does not entirely approve of such martial contests. And I am most grateful for your own patronage."
Idril smiled again. "I certainly remember you saying that before. Only you usually say 'we', meaning both yourself and Glorfindel. Of course, you two do work very closely together." She rearranged the drape of her long sleeves. "He thinks the world of you, you know."
"And I think highly of him."
"Do you?" Above her charming smile, Idril's eyes narrowed in appraisal. "It is not always obvious. Sometimes you seem cold—as you did a moment ago, when you barely acknowledged his departure. I suppose that a person of your serious nature cannot help being exasperated by someone more frivolous and shallow—"
"Shallow? Glorfindel?" If losing Glorfindel was painful, losing him to someone who did not appreciate him was harder still. Ecthelion tried to keep his voice calm as he spoke. "I know some regard him as such, citing what they call his mindless optimism. However, consider this: when facing an enemy who deals in darkness and despair, hope is a weapon more powerful than any sword. You come from a family of charismatic speakers who banish fear with stirring oratory; I try to do the same with my singing; Glorfindel does not need to do either. His bright presence is enough. That is why he is the most beloved lord in the city."
"So you think he deserves all that love?"
"Yes, of course."
"Good." Idril's tone had been playful; now it was confidential, as if the current topic was one of intimate interest to them both. "Please keep this in mind should he say anything... unexpected to you."
So it had come to that: some shared understanding Glorfindel was supposed to announce to his friend, perhaps even tonight. Was Idril expecting Ecthelion to decipher her hints and offer a covert blessing? The unconscious cruelty of it was breath-stopping.
"My lady," said Ecthelion, "all this talk of one mutual friend makes me think of another: your cousin, who appears to be rather lonely. Is there anything we might do to help?"
"Yes, I have noticed that he misses his mother," said Idril. "And I think it might help him make peace with her memory if he took up some of her old pursuits, such as riding or hunting. You know the Valley well. Perhaps you could take him out there and show him some of her favourite spots?"
Ecthelion was glad to see Idril deflect his tactless question with such skill. He had briefly forgotten a lesson learnt on the training field: that it is unfair to hate another for causing you unintended pain, or for beating you in a contest.
"Good idea, my lady," he said. "Even if Maeglin does not like hunting, being outdoors would surely cheer him."
They were still discussing the matter when Glorfindel re-entered the room through the front door, visible just above Idril's ear. Ecthelion tried to view him dispassionately, ignoring his hair and the shape of his shoulders—to see if he had the serenity of one who has just changed his fortunes for the better, or at least the more ordinary. But Glorfindel seemed, if anything, unusually troubled: certainly unusually rude to Salgant, who accosted him at the door. Glorfindel barely acknowledged his greeting, interrupted him several times as if eager to get away, and then walked off into the crowd without a farewell.
He reappeared close by a few moments later, still looking tense.
"Is everything all right with your men?" Idril asked.
"Yes. Just fine." Glorfindel glanced around as if on the lookout for danger. "Now, why don't the three of us take a walk in the orchard?"
"Oh, I think we're comfortable here." Idril's eyes flickered towards Maeglin, now glaring murderously from a stone bench on the other side of the room. Ecthelion was struck by the intensity of his pain, the all too understandable, shameful torment of a man longing to keep something he loved to himself. Perhaps their concerns were the same, in this instance. Perhaps they should be allies, working together to somehow remove Idril from Glorfindel's reach...
Appalled by this dark temptation, Ecthelion pushed it from his mind.
"The thing is..." Glorfindel rubbed the back of his neck. "Salgant has just offered to sing us all a new song. And I know this is uncharitable of me, but I am not in the mood for his singing."
"I see." Idril smiled slightly. "The orchard it is, then."
Glorfindel offered her his arm and half-turned towards Ecthelion. "Will you come with us?"
Ecthelion followed them outside, very aware that he was providing the well-matched pair with the perfect opportunity to make that dreaded announcement. What was he to do? He could try to guess what Glorfindel had found with Idril—what men found with women—and then attempt to give it to him: be more generous with soft touches and glances; say more than he felt, instead of less; submit more, or differently. But would such details matter, when the essentials—public acceptance, family—were not his to give?
They started down a lane shaded by walnut trees. In no hurry to begin the conversation, Ecthelion trailed a few steps behind. Glorfindel's continued vigilance made him feel wary, as if he were on rearguard duty. He even found himself scanning the path behind them, taking in the windows of the ballroom—all, bright, and tapered like candle-flames—and the darker outlines of the receding trees.
One of the shadowy trunks made him pause. It looked odd: lumpy, as if someone were trying to hide behind it, unaware that it was far too thin to offer true concealment. When Ecthelion approached it, the lump took on a familiar shape: Salgant's. He was filled with the usual mixture of pity and irritation.
"Salgant?" he called. "If you are training for the War Games, you are too late. The teams have all left."
Salgant straightened up. "Was that supposed to be a joke? I am afraid that I, like most people, have always found your humour a little obscure. And as to what I am doing, surely it is obvious. I am observing the lovely couple." He gestured towards the end of the path. "They *are* a lovely couple, are they not?"
"I have heard that you are interested in the lady yourself."
Apparently, Maeglin had decided to share his suspicions. "So have I."
"Of course, I know better than to believe such rumours. What I do believe is that, as an intimate of Glorfindel's, you must be wishing the lovely couple every fortune."
Salgant's smirk was knowing and self-satisfied; his words were meant to wound. And yet, hateful as he was, he was also right. If Glorfindel wished to take his life in a more natural direction, then the honourable course of action was to encourage him. And it was not just a question of honour, but of doing what would ultimately be best for Glorfindel.
"Yes," said Ecthelion. "I do wish Glorfindel every fortune, including a happy marriage."
Salgant's smile faded slightly, but he pressed on. "Well, in that case, I look forward to hearing you sing at his wedding."
"I look forward to doing so."
"You do?" Salgant looked bewildered, like an expert archer whose arrow has failed even to nick an easy target. "I mean, of course you do. You would never miss a chance of flaunting your skills in public, would you?" His smirk looked a little forced. "Well, goodbye." After casting one final suspicious look at Ecthelion, he sidled back toward the hall.
The orchard path was empty now. Ecthelion laid his forehead against the cool, smooth bark of the abandoned tree and tried to force his thoughts to a similar smoothness. It went without saying that he was willing to sing at Glorfindel's wedding. If he could not be generous in this manner, then his feelings were no more than selfish lusts. But 'willing' is not the same as 'able' and, try as he might, he could not imagine getting through a single song.
Disgusted by his weakness, he was about to leave when he noticed Glorfindel returning down the path, alone. Well, here was his chance to find out the truth from the one source that truly mattered. Ecthelion leaned against his tree, and waited.
Glorfindel paused a step away, as if afraid to come closer. Though his posture was awkward, he looked so beautiful as he stood there, golden in the half-gloom, tinged with the glamour of the inaccessible.
"Thank you for covering our retreat," he said. "Now Idril has gone home, and I... I saw you speaking to Salgant. Did he say anything interesting?"
"We talked about you."
"He has told you, then." Glorfindel gave a small, guilty smile. "I must admit that this comes as a bit of a relief. I hated keeping something so important from you, but I was afraid of your reaction."
The ground beneath Ecthelion's feet seemed to shift, but thankfully the tree at his back remained steady as he took in this confirmation of his fears. He replanted his feet and reminded himself that he had no claim on Glorfindel, that this change of heart only felt like a betrayal.
"Well," he asked, "how do you find my reaction?"
"I do not know yet. You were calm when the two of you spoke, which is promising. Now we have much to discuss. Not here, obviously."
Ecthelion looked around. Yes, of course, they were out in public, but surely this was for the best. He could not trust himself in private: he might start to argue against Glorfindel's choice, or even, Eru forbid, try to physically demonstrate that it was the wrong one.
"What is there to discuss?" he asked. "Whether we will still be able to work together? I certainly hope so. Our work is important, and we are friends under all the other nonsense, are we not?"
"Of course. Oh, of course." Glorfindel reached forward, fortunately stopping himself before he could make physical contact. "What should we do about Salgant?"
"About Salgant?" Ecthelion struggled to concentrate. "Are you hoping to stop him talking? I do not see how you can. I think the best course of action would be to tell the important people before he does. Turgon, in particular. Do not act as if you are ashamed. Why should you be?"
"Oh, I am not." Glorfindel smiled, his pride and happiness as tangible as the weight of Ecthelion's armour. "All this secrecy... Watching every word I say, even among friends. Every year it gets a bit harder; you must have noticed. At least now—"
"Please stop. Just stop."
Ecthelion wanted to hit him. "Because this is not easy for me."
"You believe that we must stop being more than friends." Glorfindel turned somber, grey, as if his blaze of pride had burnt down to ashes. "That we must forget 'all the other nonsense.' I thought you might react that way, judging by the way you responded to my ridiculous blackmail story. It is exactly why telling you was so hard."
"How else could I react? Your views have always been more liberal than my own, yet I never suspected—" But no, Glorfindel could not be so debauched, so vain, as to suggest... what? That his lovers operate according to a rota, like guards on different watches? "Look, Glorfindel, this is an emotional moment. When things are calmer, you will realize that parting is the right thing to do."
Glorfindel stared at him. "Will I?"
"I hope so." No, Ecthelion had more faith in him than that. "I am sure of it. Now, good night. And... good luck."
His strength exhausted by that last statement, Ecthelion pushed away from the tree and left the orchard.
When Ecthelion got home, his first priority was his armour, which he arranged on its stand, making sure it was clean and in good order. His second priority was... his boots? He tried to sit down on the bed, and ended up standing over it, arms folded across his unarmored chest, seeing not a piece of furniture but a cloud of painful memories. The chairs were not much better, and neither were the tables, or the rugs. No, home was not a haven. It was a museum, just like the room where Turgon had gathered items carried out of Valinor. Everything here evoked a lost way of life, even the pull-up bar Ecthelion had never used for any unconventional purpose.
Who could sleep in a museum? Ecthelion went downstairs to his more public office, and tried to read a report on the quality of the fish kept in the city fountains. But even this room was a place where he had felt happiness glide through him like fish through water, sometimes in plain view, and sometimes as a flicker at the edge of his mind when, working alone, he had let a thought stray in Glorfindel's direction. That could never happen again. He sat there, blinking, as the words of the report swam before his eyes.
A knock on his front door saved him. He was out of his seat and rushing towards the entrance before he could think. When he saw it was only Elemmakil, his disappointment was bitter—yet easy to swallow, for here was a real problem, something to take his mind off his trivial personal troubles. As the captain of the Fountain team, Elemmakil should have been far out in the Valley by now.
"Lord Ecthelion." Elemmakil bowed. "I would like to report that there was a mistake on my team's War Games map."
Ecthelion rubbed his eyes. Had Elemmakil ridden all the way back to complain about a cartographical error? "What sort of mistake?"
"The map was... a little too informative. But see for yourself, my lord."
Ecthelion took the proffered map. He did not need to study it very closely to notice that it was not an official one, but one of the earlier hypothetical sketches marked with the starting positions of all the teams. "This was in your envelope? And you bring it to me? Elemmakil, I am the last person you should have come to when your team has received extra information from some illicit source. Surely you can see that, as both your commanding officer and an organizer of the War Games, I am the prime suspect."
"Nobody could suspect you, Lord Ecthelion."
"Who else?" The envelopes had been prepared by Glorfindel. Ecthelion suppressed the treacherous thought that love makes people careless. "I cannot understand how such a thing might have happened, and I do apologize, Elemmakil, to you and your team. It must be such a disappointment to lose your place in the Games, after all the hard training."
Elemmakil brushed at the mud on his breastplate, as if noticing it for the first time. "Oh, the team is still out there. I copied a description of our starting position onto the back of the envelope and gave it to Voronwe."
"Oh Eru. The integrity of the whole Games has been compromised." It was a total disaster. Ecthelion felt much better already. "Let us go try to set things right."
0. I welcome all forms of feedback, and cherish constructive criticism. And I want to thank Maggie, AfterEver, and Eveiya for the beta.
1. Egalmoth, Duilin, Elemmakil, and Pengolodh are all canonical inhabitants of Gondolin. Pengolodh shows up throughout Tolkien's writings as a sage, Elemmakil is the first guard Tuor meets upon his arrival in the city, and the others are leaders of two of the twelve houses mentioned in "The Fall of Gondolin." Both are described as fine archers. In addition, Egalmoth was, in one version of Aredhel's story, named as one of the three lords who escorted her out of the city—and that is the version I have adopted in my fics. Oh, and he really did dress like that: "The men of the Heavenly Arch [...] were arrayed in a glory of colors, and every single soldier had arms covered and encrusted with gems. Every shield was blue and its boss a jewel built of seven gems, rubies, and amethysts, and sapphires, crysoprase, topaz and amber, and an opal of great size adorned every helm."
2. Pengolodh's comment regarding marriage is based on the statement that "Marriage, save for rare ill chances or strange fates, was the natural course of life for all Eldar," to be found in the Laws and Customs of the Eldar.
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