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Flawed and Fair: 4. Brothers In Arms
To any warrior who has spent centuries in hiding while his enemies roamed free, a chance for battle is a very special occasion. The smallest details take on great significance. Ecthelion hesitated over his choice of weapon, glancing from his spear to his mace to his old sword. At last, he decided that Aredhel's Orc warning had made him feel rather nostalgic, and picked up the battle-tested blade. He then joined the others at the edge of the forest where, half concealed by the trees, they watched some hunched shapes move across the valley.
"Four dozen," said Egalmoth.
"Running towards us. Good." Aredhel hugged herself happily, like a little girl preparing to unwrap a present. "Here, this big oak looks sturdy. Let us find good positions up there and string our bows. We will hold our fire until we can count their teeth; that way we can pick them all off, even if they run. The swordsmen will guard our tree down by the roots."
Reluctantly, Ecthelion had to acknowledge that it was as good a plan as any. Aredhel was clearly skilled at hurting things, whether they were game, Orcs, or Glorfindel's feelings—although Ecthelion was pleased to note that Glorfindel, at least, cheered up somewhat once they had assumed their positions under the tree.
"You know, Ecthelion," said Glorfindel, "this is what I meant, in a way, when I just spoke. Surely it is neither hideous nor obscene, to stand beside a worthy companion and fight creatures of evil? The desire part hardly matters at all."
Ecthelion could detect a certain tightness in his voice during that last statement. Glorfindel had never been a good liar, but if lies helped him get over his pain, who was Ecthelion to argue?
"Quite right," he said. "Let us forget all about unnatural desires and focus on our swords."
Glorfindel blinked and lowered the weapon he had been holding out in front of his body just as Aredhel, up above them, whistled a hunting signal. Off in the distance, the first Orcs started falling to swift arrows. The remaining creatures headed straight for the forest.
When the Orcs finally reached the oak, Ecthelion found them a disappointingly poor lot. For one, their tactics were atrocious. Instead of holding off until they could launch a concentrated attack, they arrived in small groups, so that Ecthelion and Glorfindel never had to deal with more than two or so apiece. And then, their fighting skills were underwhelming: Ecthelion never got a single chance to take advantage of his battle formation training by blocking a blow meant for Glorfindel. The only real challenge was the footwork, which got increasingly tricky as the pile of bodies at his feet rose higher, until it was, more accurately speaking, the pile of bodies at his knees.
Once all his Orcs were dead, Ecthelion glanced over to his right, where Glorfindel was dispatching his final attacker, fighting with grace and a smug smile. Watching him, Ecthelion felt elated by the victory, in spite of the disappointments of the battle itself. But Glorfindel did not seem to share his joy. His smile faded even as his opponent fell, and he stood there awkwardly, uncharacteristically reluctant to exchange the traditional congratulatory gesture of victorious warriors—a rough hug followed by a slap on the lower back.
"Well fought," he said instead.
Ecthelion had to admit that he was quite relieved by the break with tradition, for his elation was making the blood sing throughout his body. A hug seemed rather risky. "You too," he said.
"Are you injured?"
"I am not sure. You?"
"I am not sure, either."
They both began to check themselves over in the usual fashion, scrutinizing the weak points of their armour and running their hands over their lightly armoured limbs. Ecthelion's subconscious had only just presented him with the predictable thoughts that they should really be checking each other, and that clothes were only in the way, when Glorfindel let out a pained hiss. Ecthelion felt a pang of concern, which faded only slightly when he realized that the cause was simply a huge clot of gore caught in Glorfindel's hair.
Though unsettled by the Orcish origins of the mess, Ecthelion had a vision of other ways in which hair could be disheveled. Yes, his blood certainly was singing, and in some parts of his body more than in others. He could not look away from Glorfindel, not even when Aredhel and Egalmoth came down from the tree.
"Oh, do not stare at me in that disapproving way, Ecthelion," said Glorfindel. "I am not about to 'start braiding my hair like a normal warrior.' Now, if anybody wants me, I will be bathing in the river."
Aredhel laughed. "Well, that certainly is a tempting invitation! Who is it aimed at, I wonder?"
Ecthelion wanted to slap her for the cruelty of toying thus with someone she had just rejected. He tried to send Glorfindel a sympathetic look, but Glorfindel would not meet his eye.
"I meant 'if anyone wants me to slay any more Orcs'," he said with dignity before walking off.
Ecthelion was in need of a wash himself, but the recent victory, the hair-related visions, and Aredhel's innuendo made even the thought of bathing anywhere within a league of Glorfindel far too dangerous. He settled for cleaning his sword, and helping the archers collect their spent arrows. They had some sort of a bet going as to who had scored the most kills, but Ecthelion retired before the matter was fully resolved.
Ecthelion dreamed that he was standing opposite Glorfindel in a landscape of gently rolling hills topped with silver shrubbery. He knew it was a dream because Glorfindel's presence was a source of simple pleasure, unmingled with shame. The fact that the hills were actually piles of dead Orcs, and the shrubbery—a tangle of broken Orc weapons only confirmed his suspicions. The fact that the dead Orcs were all singing the Orc-Slaying Ditty was a completely superfluous clue. Finally, the fact that both Glorfindel and Ecthelion were nude made perfect sense, because the two of them were supposed to check each other over for injuries. Ecthelion circled Glorfindel, but he could see none on his flawless body.
"Those Orcs were running away from something in the valley, you know," said Glorfindel. "They practically ran onto our swords."
At the mention of swords, Ecthelion was shocked to realize that he was unarmed. This made him feel twice as naked. He looked down at himself.
"Yes," said Glorfindel. "I know your sword is long and keen. However, I do not know if it can compare to the White Lady's gently arching bow." His hand drew a curve in the air, and he turned away, towards an Orc-hill. "We must count all these Orcs, and see how many have been slain by arrows. Only then will I know which of you two is capable of the greater acts of valour."
Ecthelion, used to singing songs written by the finest poets, found the clumsy symbolism painful. But then, he had always known that the dream Glorfindel was far worse company than the real one, in spite of his frequent willingness and even more frequent nudity. Still, he was all Ecthelion had, and so Ecthelion started to count arrows.
The process went on all night; in the end, the only thing a frustrated Ecthelion took away from the dream was the conviction that the Orcs had, indeed, been running from something. When he shared this insight with the rest of the group, Aredhel, predictably, insisted that they follow the Orc tracks towards the source of danger. They rode out across the plain, and, after fording a river, entered the Valley of Dreadful Death.
The valley was a barren, rocky place, only occasionally broken by dark streams, which twisted among the stones as if in torment. Even their gurgling had a tortured sound. Ecthelion had never heard water sound so discordant, had never seen it look so black. But then, everything was shadowed here, and the shadows seemed longer than they should be.
And then there was the smell.
"What a very strange aroma," said Aredhel.
Ecthelion found it less strange. "A bit like the sewers under our city," he said.
"How do you— Oh, right," said Egalmoth. "I keep forgetting that 'Lord of the Fountains' is code for 'Lord of the Plumbing.' I suppose it makes some semantic sense, but I will never understand why you chose to supervise such an unpleasant aspect of city planning instead of helping out with the concert halls, or something."
"Some people," said Glorfindel, "simply do whatever needs to be done."
"Yes, Ecthelion is very noble, is he not?" Aredhel sounded flirtatious, and probably looked even worse, but Ecthelion kept his eyes on the ground.
"A tree!" said Egalmoth. "I see a tree in the distance, one bearing strange pale fruit."
Ecthelion could see only a blurry mushroom shape but, as they rode towards it, this shape did, indeed, resolve itself into a fruit-laden tree. As they got even closer, the fruit started to resemble the cocoons he had once seen in a silk-making workshop —only these cocoons were filthy, and large enough to conceal a warrior. Spider work, for sure. Ecthelion decided to check whether they hid the spiders themselves, or their dead prey. He lifted his spear and rode ahead of the others, hoping they would have sense enough to hold back. Once he was within reach of a cocoon, he tapped it lightly with his far-reaching weapon. The movement it made was not entirely due to the prodding, and, through the threads, he could just discern a familiar shape.
"This one contains an Orc," he said over his shoulder. "A living Orc." As he looked around, he realized that the other cocoons held similar captives. In a few cases, he could even make out faces trapped beneath the thread, contorted in anger and fear. "They all do, I think."
His companions joined him, and the four of them wandered together under the giant tree, among the bound Orcs.
"A spider's larder," said Egalmoth. "Very interesting. I expect our Orcs were the ones that got away—or, more likely, the ones that got tossed back. They did look a bit scrawny."
"It is a fitting end for such creatures," said Aredhel. "Evil feeding on evil... it is almost poetic, would you not say, Ecthelion?"
Surprised by the question, Ecthelion said what was on his mind. "If you think about it that way. And yet, what a horrible death."
"You feel for the Orcs?" asked Glorfindel. "Can you not sense their evil? I certainly can."
Ecthelion might have taken that statement to heart, only he knew very well that Glorfindel was incapable of detecting evil even when said evil was sitting on his bed. "I am sure they all had terrible childhoods," he said.
"What would you have us do? Free them?"
"I think I would like to kill them. Give them a merciful—"
"Kill them. Yes," said Aredhel. "Ecthelion, you are a warrior after my own heart."
"Of course," Ecthelion continued, "killing these Orcs might upset the spiders."
They debated the matter. Egalmoth, who had found some fresh spider tracks, was against upsetting the spiders. Ecthelion was leaning towards 'against', too, because of his duty to protect his lord's sister; he calmed his conscience by telling it that he would not be doing the Orcs any active evil. Glorfindel was undecided.
"Well, I am all for it," said Aredhel. "I am not afraid of the spiders. And we would not want these Orcs to escape and kill any innocents, would we?" Ignoring the others, she strung her bow and started shooting. Ecthelion joined her, sword in hand; it would have been hypocritical to stand aside.
Their grim task done, the travelers turned eastward and set out across the rocky plain. As they rode, the clouds above them thickened until they hung heavy like Orc cocoons, and a murky fog started to drift off the mountain. They passed strange stagnant pools, where darkness played upon the surface of the water as light might play upon the surface of a clear lake. Up ahead the fog was denser, with patches of solid blackness.
"Unlight," said Ecthelion.
"My grandfather died in unlight," said Aredhel. "The spiders must be close." She looked at the cloud as if facing down a despised enemy; then, perhaps judging that it had been sufficiently intimidated, she started to move her shying horse towards it.
"We should probably lead the horses through the fog." Glorfindel caught up with her and dismounted. He placed his hands on the two animals' necks, so that they stood in place, calm but wary.
"Actually, " said Egalmoth, "I think we should lead the horses around it. Preferably towards the forest. Call me a coward, but I have no wish to practice archery inside a cloud of unlight. I cannot aim for a spider I cannot see, no matter how giant it is."
"I think I can see them," said Aredhel. "Inside the cloud."
Ecthelion stared into the unlight. At first, all he could see were vague shapes, reminiscent of childhood nightmares, but then the shapes got clearer, until he could see legs like twisted tree trunks, and multi-faceted insectile eyes—but no hairy spider bodies. He strained, trying to guess whether the visions were real, or a trick of unlight, until the edge of the cloud tensed and billowed, like the surface of an overfilled water-skin. His fingers closed on his spear as the darkness burst, releasing a shadowy shape far more repulsive than a spider: instead of a rounded, regular abdomen, it had a shapeless mass, in places dark as unlight, in places revoltingly pale.
Glorfindel slapped Aredhel's horse, causing it to back away. "Get behind us!" he shouted, before grabbing for his own saddle. Ecthelion tried to ride forward to cover him as he mounted, but both their horses were panicking now. He fought to regain control.
The dark shape towered over Glorfindel as he faced it on foot, blade raised high. Ecthelion yelled and threw his sword at the monster's head. He did not see the effect: his horse had reared, spinning in place. As they turned, Ecthelion could see other, smaller, spiders approaching. One lurched, pierced by a white-fletched arrow. He saw Glorfindel again, briefly—still standing—and felt increasingly helpless. While his horse trashed around in terror, he could do nothing more than keep the animal from bolting. He could not even prevent the spiders from killing his mount beneath him. Ecthelion would not let that happen: he tossed his spear clear away and half-jumped, half-fell from his saddle and into a shoulder roll.
The rocky ground slammed into his back. He looked up into the sky, too stunned to breathe, until the spider loomed above him, now larger than ever and far more hideous, clawing at the air with upraised limbs.
There was no time to think about how hard it is to move while winded; Ecthelion threw himself in the direction of his spear, and got it pointing nearly upward by the time the monster struck. Soon, he was crouching under a hideous flopping thing, every spasm threatening to rip the spear from his hands. He held on, pelted by gore, until the creature shuddered and stilled. Then he crawled out, dragging his spear behind him, and stood up. He staggered, stabbed at something small and nasty, staggered again, and saw Glorfindel.
The sight made him feel like singing. Glorfindel was radiant, a golden figure in all the murk, dancing quickly in and out of the reach of several spiders, some of which were starting to resemble archery butts. His brightness was a beacon of hope; the spiders seemed to shrink from it, just as they shrunk from his sharp sword. But there were so many of the creatures! It was the archetypal battle of light and dark, the battle Ecthelion himself longed to join. He did start singing then—a song of the first coming of the sun-—and he leapt forward to take his place at Glorfindel's side.
They made their stand together, not side-by-side or back-to-back, but both turning in place; Ecthelion, with his greater reach, poked at the bigger spiders, while Glorfindel sliced at the smaller ones. Although this was not a technique they had ever practiced, they worked together well: trusting in each other's skill, aware of one another as good warriors should be, thrilled to be moving in such harmony. The moment when all their opponents were finally motionless came as a shock. They looked out over the valley, at the disappearing shreds of dark fog, and turned towards each other, grinning.
This time they did embrace, fully and in genuine happiness. Also, in a sort of innocence, at least at first: after a few seconds Ecthelion became aware of Glorfindel's hipbone against his body, of the strong back beneath his hands. He could never understand why, when all warriors had the same tapering shape, Glorfindel seemed to look—and, apparently, feel—particularly good. He would have to ask Glorfindel whether he did any special back exercises.
"Oh." Glorfindel froze. Ecthelion drew back in a panic, afraid that he had betrayed himself somehow; but he saw that Glorfindel was looking past him, and turned to see a horse motionless on the ground, raked by spider claws.
"Yours got away, I think," said Glorfindel. Ecthelion remembered his fall, and noticed the pain in his back. It was true: his horse was nowhere to be seen. There was a hope that it had escaped being webbed and dragged off somewhere. But no such hope for Glorfindel.
Ecthelion put his arm around Glorfindel and squeezed his shoulder lightly. They stood there together in silence until the others joined them.
"Thirty spiders, including those two huge monstrosities," said Aredhel, once they had collected all the arrows and other scattered equipment. "Not bad, considering we suffered no real injuries. Pity about the horses. We will have to double up on our way back to the forest."
The forest! This unexpected evidence of common sense surprised Ecthelion.
"Yes, we can rest in the forest, find fresh water..." Aredhel was looking very thoughtful. "Perhaps catch some wild horses. Or deer. Or even moose." She remounted. "Come on then, Ecthelion."
It took Ecthelion a moment to realize that she meant for him to ride behind her. He handed her his spear and climbed up, placing one awkward arm around her waist, while Glorfindel joined Egalmoth. Ecthelion thought he saw him glance at Aredhel with longing, as if he were wishing himself in Ecthelion's place.
"Tell me, Ecthelion," said Aredhel, a few minutes into the ride. "Is there anyone you... care for, waiting back in Gondolin?"
"No," said Ecthelion, regretting the truth of that statement for more than just the usual reasons.
"You and Glorfindel both, then. You virtuous warrior types... I daresay you find it difficult to relate to most women, who share none of your interests. Oh! But I am overjoyed that you are my brothers-in-arms on this great adventure..."
She continued in this vein for some time, her voice disturbingly playful. Ecthelion distracted himself from her chatter, and from the pain in his back, by watching the dark clouds overhead turn into ordinary rainclouds. By the time they reached the north edge of the woods, it was beginning to drizzle.
They made camp. To keep the rain off as they slept, they wove branches together to form two hunters' shelters: one for Aredhel, and one for any sleeping members of her escort.
"Right, then," Egalmoth said when they were done. "I might as well take first watch; I want to straighten my gleaned arrows." He sat down beside Aredhel, who was already looking through hers under a makeshift canopy made out of cloaks.
Ecthelion sought out a stream and washed off the spider gore, wincing whenever he touched his bruises. His stiff shoulder needed attention, if it was to be of any use tomorrow; as it was, he could not even get his shirt back on. He crawled into the shelter to fetch his medical supplies before remembering that they had been inside his saddlebag.
He was considering alternatives when the branches covering the entrance rustled and parted, revealing Glorfindel.
"Ah, Glorfindel—I was just tending to my shoulder," said Ecthelion. "You would not happen to have any balm, would you? Mine is probably inside a spider by now. Or at least inside a spider cocoon."
"One moment." Glorfindel slipped in and rummaged around in his bag. "Here, turn your back towards the light." His touch was gentler than Ecthelion's own had been. "Well. Interesting. It must have been all those rocks. Do you want me to... I mean, perhaps you should ask Egalmoth to help you. He would enjoy seeing all the colours you have on here."
It was a terrible joke. No wonder Glorfindel had sounded so uncomfortable when he made it, almost as uncomfortable as Ecthelion himself was feeling at his touch. Egalmoth seemed like a much safer option, until Ecthelion remembered that he was sitting beside Aredhel. Considering her recent behaviour, it was almost certain that she would offer her assistance; he did not want to put Glorfindel through the jealousy this would, no doubt, elicit.
"Egalmoth is busy," he said. "Would you mind?"
Glorfindel settled in behind him. Ecthelion was really happy that eye contact was impossible. The physical contact was enough to contend with, both because of the unavoidable pain of it, and because of the equally unavoidable pleasure of being touched by the object of his sick desires. He tried to focus on other, less attractive, things. Well, there was one such topic he wanted to discuss.
"Glorfindel," he said. "I just wanted you to know that I find Aredhel's recent attentions... puzzling. I mean, I have done nothing to encourage them, and I am not interested in her."
"I did not think you were." Glorfindel's hands moved down his back, pressing so lightly that the pain was easy to ignore. "But why do you want me to know this, exactly?"
"Well, I am quite aware of your... feelings." The pressure ceased; Ecthelion was almost sure that Glorfindel had paused in mid-breath. He realized that bringing up his friend's unrequited passion was inconsiderate, but it was too late to stop. "I mean, I know that you have some interest in the lady, and I just wanted you to know that I—"
Glorfindel laughed, a little oddly. "You believe that I am interested in her? Valar, but that is too strange. I mean, Finwe's Grandchild... I would sooner court a Balrog." He exhaled, and his hands resumed their motions. "No, wait, that was discourteous. Would it be better to say that I believe Aredhel would sooner court a Balrog? She is always saying that you cannot have true passion without irritation."
Ecthelion felt dizzy. His mental landscape was shifting confusingly, and then there were the hands on his back. "But the way you have been acting: paying her so much attention, speaking to her of love..."
"Well, I do know her quite well, and what I know evokes my compassion. She has ambition, but no direction. She is proud, and all the more lonely for her pride, because she views her brother's vassals as her inferiors; so, she has no-one to love except an overprotective older brother who will not let her seek the excitement she craves, and a niece who is happy with the sort of life that bores her."
Ecthelion's back tingled as the balm began to work. He shivered. "You do sound fond of her."
"I understand her, but... Ecthelion, she is risking all our lives for a frivolous reason, traveling to visit a cousin she vaguely likes in the hope that time has intensified her feelings. It is, of course, quite possible that recent historical events have made a Feanorion more irritating, but I do not believe love works like that. And surely you have seen how she baits me?" Glorfindel sighed. "Truly, she has taught me that it is possible to feel irritation without passion."
The pain of the bruises was almost gone now, its memory growing as faint and ridiculous as the memory of Ecthelion's suspicions. "In that case, you have been demonstrating remarkable restraint. As I have not. I suppose that explains why she shows interest in me now; she must have noticed my irritation."
"Perhaps. More likely, it is your fighting skills." Glorfindel shifted. "And that aloof and slightly rude air of yours. A lot of people find that attractive. And your looks, of course."
"What about my looks? Do I remind her of some other cousin?"
"No, I was referring to, you know, the whole 'fairest of the Noldor' business," said Glorfindel evasively.
Ecthelion had heard that description applied to himself often enough, but this was absurd. "Come on, you know as well as I do that Pengolodh only calls me that because I always pay my share of the beer money."
"You mean that!" Glorfindel sounded almost outraged. "Do you never look at yourself in a mirror?"
"Certainly, when I need to fix my hair or my clothes. So, I am well aware that I look quite normal."
"Normal? But what about your jawline, and the way your... Never mind. If you do not believe me, ask someone else. Ask Aredhel herself. At any rate, I think I am done here." Glorfindel's hands came to rest on Ecthelion's shoulders. "You know, there is one thing I have been meaning to ask you—do you do any particular exercises for your lower back?"
They discussed the finer points of weight training while Ecthelion dressed again, his arm moving freely now. Then, they stretched out on the ground and fell silent.
Lying beside Glorfindel in darkness and privacy, their shoulders almost touching, Ecthelion realized that, even though Glorfindel was clearly mistaken in his interpretation of that ridiculous 'fairest of the Noldor' epithet, the nature of his mistake implied that he found Ecthelion objectively attractive. Ecthelion was disgusted by how happy this made him feel. Worse, his joy was making him delusional, for he was beginning to think that he had detected a certain sensuality in Glorfindel's touch. He replayed their conversation in his head, giving it inappropriate, warm overtones. The fantasy made him long to reach over and take Glorfindel's hand.
And do what? What disturbed him about this impulse was that he had not even intended to put the hand anywhere specific on his body. Of course, on one level, grabbing another man's hand was far less unnatural than grabbing any one of several appealing alternatives—just a friendly gesture between brothers-in-arms—but Ecthelion knew he had not meant it that way. Lust is bad enough, but lust is a hungry creature that can be fed and satisfied for a while. The more tender emotions weave an entrapping cocoon from which there is no easy escape.
No, far better to feel lust, unnatural as it may be. Ecthelion summoned forth his usual irritation, knowing that, for him, like for Aredhel, irritation was close to passion. Rather like friction, which is, after all, a form of irritation. He turned towards the wall of the shelter, pressing himself into the hard ground, firm as another warrior's body, and mustered his harsher fantasies. How often had he longed to say, "Kneel down before me and let me grab you by the hair?" To shock Glorfindel out of his complacent virtue. To see him helpless before unnatural advances, overwhelmed with dark pleasure. Flushed, but not with embarrassment. Or even with embarrassment, for there is a thrill to be found in discomfiting one normally so smug.
The fantasies worked; Ecthelion could not longer remember what he had been trying to forget. He decided to go outside for a bit. He crawled to the entrance, taking great care not to disturb his tentmate, and stood up in the drizzle.
"I am so glad to find you awake!" Egalmoth was heading towards the shelter. "I think I can see more spiders heading our way. I told you we should have left that tree alone."
His words checked Ecthelion's excitement; a single look out over the valley quenched it entirely. The spiders were clearly visible: a mass of unpleasant shapes, darker than the night.
"I have been watching them for some time," said Aredhel. "They are smarter than yesterday's Orcs. I think they are mustering their forces before attacking."
Glorfindel joined them. "Perhaps they are simply attempting to keep us out of the valley. We could try moving away along the edge of the wood. Could they follow us in here, I wonder?"
Aredhel's nod was barely visible in the darkness. "There are old spider-tracks in this wood."
"Yes, that is true," said Egalmoth. "Now that I know what to look for, I see their traces everywhere. There must be hundreds of the creatures living in the valley. This trip could turn into a serious military campaign."
Ecthelion reviewed the odds. "We cannot risk it," he said, certain that his friends were reaching the same conclusion. "We must fall back towards the city."
"What, give up?" Aredhel's eyes glittered. "Never."
0. In case anyone cares about the geography of all this, the Orc battle takes place in Dimbar, near the Brithiach. So Glorfindel washes his hair in the Sirion. The crossing of Dimbar, which probably takes a while, is dismissed in a single sentence. The story ends in the forest of Neldoreth.
1. The "fairest of the Noldor" business: this is how Ecthelion is described in 'The Fall Of Gondolin'. Which of the possible meanings of the word 'fair' was intended is left up to the reader.
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