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Strange Fortunes: 5. Chapter Five
"Hey! You there!"
The guard patrolling the palace courtyard turned and focused his bleary eyes on Salgant. "My lord?"
"Have the lords Maeglin or Glorfindel passed through here this morning?"
"I think Lord Glorfindel is at home. My lord." The guard's voice was low and colourless. "At least, that is where he said he was going when the cooks threw us all out of the mess hall—was it only two hours ago? As for Lord Maeglin, I have not seen him, but I expect he is home as well." He glanced up at the towers of the palace. "Asleep, most likely."
That sounded promising. Before Salgant could report to Maeglin, he needed to understand the previous night's baffling events. Glorfindel, if cornered at home, might be impelled to answer a few questions. Questions such as why he had chosen to ignore—even to contravene—Salgant's request by trailing Idril all evening, or how Ecthelion could discuss their marriage plans with such nonchalance. Seriously, did these perverts' emotions work differently from normal people's? Perhaps Maeglin was right, perhaps they really were scheming to claim Idril's hand—but if so, then the dark secret Salgant held was all the more powerful.
Drawing on this hidden power, Salgant glared up at the guard, who had slumped against his halberd. "You know, you have no business attending drunken revels just before your watch."
The guard jerked upright with a loud clunk. "I can hold my liquor very well, my lord."
"You do not look too sober."
"I am sober enough to fulfill the duties of a man of the Guard. For instance, I am perfectly capable of pacing the streets and answering my fellow citizens' questions in a helpful and courteous manner. I would be equally competent at directing delivery-cart traffic, apprehending peddlers of fake Feanorian daggers, or retrieving over-ambitious kittens from trees. After all, it is not as if the Guard is a true military organization, even if most of my friends get time off to participate in training exercises."
Within this detailed response, Salgant recognized several phrases drawn from his own speeches. He scanned the man's face for signs of sarcasm, but only briefly: the mention of unguardlike training exercises had reminded him of Glorfindel's involvement in the War Games. What if he had left for the mountains already? Salgant dismissed the guard and hurried off towards Glorfindel's house.
He need not have worried. He had barely crossed the square when he spotted Glorfindel striding towards him, wearing a scowl darker than anything a hangover could explain.
"So, mere blackmail was not enough for you, then?" said Glorfindel without greeting or preamble. "No, you had to add fraud to your already impressive catalogue of villainies. How did you get hold of that map? Did you burgle my office? Threaten my men with your singing?"
"What map?" The only map Salgant knew about was the one he had given to Maeglin. But how could that act of military espionage be described as fraud?
"Forget the mind games, Salgant. I refuse to play them any longer. I am, of course, talking about the map you placed in the Fountain team's envelope in a wretched attempt to discredit Ecthelion." Glorfindel looked at Salgant with cold fury. "But your scheme is doomed to failure: this may be hard for a person like you to understand, but some people are above suspicion. Nobody could believe Ecthelion capable of such a thing."
Infuriatingly, Glorfindel was right. Even Salgant, with all his knowledge of Ecthelion's flaws, found it hard to imagine him abusing the games in such a stupid manner. How could Maeglin have failed to see this? Salgant felt like a bridge player partnered with an overconfident novice. Fortunately, not all was lost, for he still held one strong card in his hand.
"They might not believe such a thing given his present reputation," he said, "but when his perversion is made public, they will view him quite differently, I assure you."
Glorfindel took a step closer. "In that case, you will have to admit that it is all your doing."
"Or else what? You will betray your virtuous nature by doing me physical injury?"
For a moment Salgant feared Glorfindel would do just that: his eyes narrowed like those of a swordsman about to strike. But then, before Salgant had decided whether to cringe or flee, Glorfindel took a step back and deliberately unclenched his fists.
"The idea is tempting, but I would rather do something less likely to incur public disapproval. Let me think... I could encourage my guards to laugh whenever you fumble during training, instead of frowning upon their amusement. I could tell your own men embarrassing stories of your childhood. Or, of course, I could try damaging the city's sweetmeat supply. You see, just because I rarely stoop to petty cruelties does not mean I am incapable of them. Especially now that..." He looked away, towards the Great Fountain, and exhaled slowly. Then his head snapped back. "No, wait, I have a better idea! I am sure that King Turgon would be appalled to discover that you have been trying to blackmail me. So, unless you admit to the fraud, I will tell him the whole story."
Though this piece of circular reasoning, with its attempt to fight blackmail with blackmail, was impressive, it was not impressive enough. "Sadly, your 'whole story' won't seem believable unless you explain the grounds for my alleged blackmail."
"I have every intention of doing so."
"And how do you think the King will treat you, a self-confessed pervert, once you are done?"
"How, a self-confessed pervert? I would not call myself one even if I were planning to admit that your claims are true."
"So, if the King asks you outright, you are prepared to meet his eye and—"
"And swear that I am not physically involved with Ecthelion? Why, yes." Glorfindel grinned, a little too widely. "Besides, I am not afraid of anything Turgon might do, should he believe you. At worst, he will throw me out of the valley; and then I will be able to go somewhere else. Somewhere I get to kill things." The odd, feverish glint in his eye made his declaration convincing. "So, shall we speak with our lord now, or wait until after the Games?"
Logic seemed useless against someone so deranged. Perhaps emotion would work; perhaps Glorfindel needed a taste of the disgust he would encounter if his inclinations were made public. Salgant glanced around the square, and discovered a likely subject: Egalmoth. A shout and a wave brought him closer.
"Good morning to you both." Egalmoth glanced from Salgant to Glorfindel. "How can I be of help?"
"You can listen," said Salgant. "I have a new song I would like to sing for you two."
"Really? What is it about, Duilin's soluble chair?"
"No. It is about your friends Glorfindel and Ecthelion." Salgant pulled out his harp and quickly checked its tuning. Satisfied, he began to sing.
Two burly men behind barred doors
Seeking to spar unsheathe stiff swords,
Circle the room, cast off their clothes.
But when they duel they land no blows.
He paused for a moment. "Well? What do you think?"
Glorfindel shrugged and looked towards Egalmoth—who would not meet his eye, but stood motionless, hand raised to cover his half-open mouth. Salgant felt triumph reverberate through his body as well as his harp when he continued.
Eager they seize each other's blades
Seeking a place to pierce with haste
Oil from a flask will feed their flames
They pour it on to ease their pains.
"Hold it, Salgant. I think I have heard enough." Egalmoth lowered his hand to rub his chin. "You know, I think I see what you are trying to achieve—a sort of epic feel, to fit your subjects—and in a way you almost succeed. The tune does sound like something of Ecthelion's. The lyrics, however... the kindest thing I can say is that they are more sophisticated than the Idril poem that has been doing the rounds. However, your alliteration is inconsistent, and you use far too many weak words, like pronouns and prepositions."
The criticism hit Salgant like a slap in the face. "That is unfair!"
"Sorry, I thought you were asking for commentary. And even if you weren't, surely you realize that you open yourself to it whenever you share your work with others?"
"I do, but you overestimate my goals. All I tried to do was write a simple ditty," lied Salgant. "A trifle meant to amuse--and enlighten--the public."
"Enlighten the public? About what?" asked Glorfindel. "As I have already told you, Ecthelion and I are not involved in any such manner. And why should we be?" He folded his arms across his chest. "Friendship is superior in every respect: much more stable, and unlikely to be withdrawn at the first sign of trouble."
Egalmoth stared at him, no doubt surprised by this irrelevant outburst, then patted him on the shoulder. "Oh, I am sorry. I mean," he said, turning back towards Salgant, "I do apologize for getting so caught up in analyzing the awkward form of your song that I forgot to comment on the content. Which I find to be in poor taste."
This display of solidarity among muscle-bound idiots irritated Salgant. "You cannot tell me you were not amused, you who have always enjoyed similar songs about Maedhros and Fingon!"
"Yes, I suppose I have," said Egalmoth. "But humour is so chancy, isn't it? A small change can make or break a joke. And I suppose the reason why I find this song distasteful rather than amusing is that, while Maedhros and Fingon are remote and pretentious figures, I know and like Glorfindel and Ecthelion. As do many other people in this city, of course."
"You will all like them less once you realize I am right, no matter what Glorfindel says."
Egalmoth rubbed his chin again. "And how do you plan to prove your claims? By singing?"
"Well..." With the map business, and Glorfindel's wrath, hanging over his head, Salgant did not dare mention the table incident. "I..."
"Right," said Glorfindel. "You have no proof. Now, if you two will excuse me..."
He strode off. Salgant waited until he was out of earshot before saying, "It is true that I have no tangible proof, but a witness has seen them going at it like—"
"What witness?" asked Egalmoth. "Where?"
"A reliable, respectable one. At, er, Glorfindel's house."
"At Glorfindel's house? You know, Salgant, I am not inclined to trust this witness of yours. I suspect that a person who admits to spying on people during intimate acts, in their own homes, no less, is also likely to enjoy making up lewd stories for personal pleasure."
"I never said the witness enjoyed himself! He was simply concerned for the city's moral tone. It is all horribly disgusting, two men together—or don't you agree?"
"Is it?" Egalmoth grimaced. "I suppose it might be, if one considers the details. But then so are many other things, such as the digestive process. And we certainly don't despise people just because they eat, do we?" He looked at Salgant's midriff pointedly. "You know, perhaps this 'witness' of yours should worry less about moral tone, and more about muscle tone."
Other than pulling in one's stomach, there seemed to be no appropriate response to this misguided rudeness. So, Egalmoth knew Salgant was the witness, and probably believed him—and did not care! Clearly, befriending deviants did strange things to a man's morals. Or perhaps... Perhaps he actually participated in their activities. Perhaps this was how all the muscle-bound idiots amused themselves, out of Salgant's sight.
"Sorry, Salgant." Egalmoth clapped him on the shoulder. "I could not help myself: it was too good—or, rather, too bad—a joke to miss."
Salgant shrugged off his tainted touch and looked away, preparing to deliver a lecture, but what he saw on the other side of the square knocked all such improving thoughts out of his mind. Glorfindel was climbing the stairs leading to the palace! The palace! Why was he going there? Did he intend to tell Turgon right away? In his strange mood, anything seemed possible. Alarmed, Salgant gave chase.
Closing the distance proved a bit of a struggle. Glorfindel walked at full stride, forcing Salgant, with his much shorter legs, to trot in an undignified and exhausting manner. He was on the verge of giving up when his quarry disappeared through the door to the eastern terrace. Recalling that the terrace had no other exits, Salgant took a moment to regain his breath before creeping up to the doorway and peering out.
Glorfindel stood at the northern end, engrossed in conversation with Idril and one of her ladies. Both maidens held practice staffs. Of course! This was the place where Idril customarily did her morning exercises. Idril, who, in her soft-heartedness, might make a far more forgiving confessor than Turgon; who might even be willing to protect Glorfindel from her father's wrath.
But was Glorfindel, in fact, confessing? Maddeningly, Salgant was too far away to hear. He felt fortunate not to have been noticed already; he could not very well move closer.
The wall on Salgant's right was obscured by a long free-standing sculpture representing the Glorious Battle: a dense mishmash of Elves, Orcs, and Dragons, which had been banished to the terrace for being either too martial or too hideous, depending on whom you asked. The space behind this monstrosity appeared to be vaguely Salgant-sized.
Astounded by his resourcefulness, and determined to use his courage before it faded, Salgant wriggled in behind the statue. Viewed from this new perspective, the tangle of limbs and weapons looked less like a solid block of marble and more like leafless shrubbery: numerous gaps provided a perfect view of the entire terrace. Salgant selected the densest part of the statue and peered through a hole that seemed particularly well camouflaged, by a rather deflated-looking dragon corpse.
Idril's attendant was gone. Looking back the way he had come, Salgant caught a glimpse of her as she stepped out through the door. But Idril and Glorfindel stood closer together than ever, his head bent forward to catch her words.
"Surely you see," said Idril, her tone urgent, intimate, "that the last thing we want is to draw attention to the problem. If Father hears of it, it could jeopardize everything. He doesn't entirely approve, you know."
So, Idril was trying to dissuade Glorfindel from sharing his story with Turgon! But what was this jeopardized 'everything'? Her planned marriage?
"Yes, of course," said Glorfindel. "Still, Ecthelion thinks that—"
"With all respect due Ecthelion, he is not always right."
"I know that. Only too well." Glorfindel folded his arms, exactly as he had done back in the Square. "In fact, sometimes I—"
"Good. Look, why don't you ride after him and try to change his mind? I think you stand a fair chance. Tell him what I said: that Elemmakil is the only person who knows the truth, and that he is not likely to tell anybody, and also that—"
"Right." Glorfindel nodded. "Don't worry, I know how to argue with Ecthelion. Well, as long as I can get him to pay attention—but I expect he'll be willing to discuss this, at any rate. He's had a couple of hours' start, of course, but I am the better rider on a better mount, and more familiar with the War Games area, so if I leave now..."
The words poured over Salgant, the meaning of individual sentences clear enough, and yet he could not make sense of the whole. It sounded as if Ecthelion had, upon hearing about the blackmail, lost his nerve and decamped in the night—cowardly behaviour that would have thrilled Salgant, if only he could have believed it. But why was Idril acting so concerned? Was she an active member of Glorfindel and Ecthelion's conspiracy? And what did Elemmakil and the War Games area have to do with anything?
"Wait—what was that?" Idril tilted her head in the direction of the terrace door.
When Salgant did the same, he became aware of the muffled sound of two voices, one female and soothing, and the other male, tense, and loud enough that Salgant could identify a few words, such as "command," "aside," and "Prince."
"Maeglin!" said Idril.
Glorfindel took a step towards the doorway. "Let me get rid of him for you."
"Oh no, you mustn't." Idril placed a hand on his elbow and took a few steps back, pulling him along with her. "Haven't you heard what people are saying about you and me? If he sees you here, he will become utterly unreasonable, and remain that way for hours." She glanced around the terrace. "But look—the sculpture! I believe there is a gap behind it. Why don't you slip in there while I deal with Maeglin?"
Salgant flattened himself against the wall, heart thumping wildly, while Glorfindel's eyes swept over the statue, for a moment seeming to gaze directly into Salgant's own. But then Glorfindel looked back down at Idril, a mulish expression on his face.
"No," he said. "I am tired of hiding."
"What?" Idril gave him a small push, but he remained immobile, as if he were carved from stone himself. "Come on, we have no time for this."
"Sorry, I just cannot do it. But perhaps..." Glorfindel regained mobility and strode off towards the edge of the terrace. After casting a quick glance downward, he swung first one leg, and then the other, over the balustrade—annoyingly, he was tall enough to do so with ease—and turned to face Idril.
"You know, this is the fastest way to the stables," he said. "Oh, do not worry," he added when she ran up and touched his arm. "This carved, vine-covered wall—I've climbed far worse in the mountains."
He laid his hand over hers and smiled comfortingly. With the glow of the early sun behind them, casting a halo around their heads and turning their golden hair to liquid light, they made a nauseatingly attractive couple.
Then Idril pulled away and hurried towards the door, while Glorfindel grasped the railing and lowered himself down, quickly disappearing. Salgant listened for a scream and a thud, in either order, but instead heard a familiar imperious voice.
"Whom were you speaking to?" Maeglin stalked into Salgant's field of vision, eyes squinting about suspiciously.
"Nobody." Idril crossed the terrace behind him and retrieved her practice staff. "I was rehearsing my War Games prize ceremony speeches."
"I distinctly heard more than one person." Maeglin's gaze settled on the statue. Salgant's heart, which had only just recovered from Glorfindel's scrutiny, began to pound again.
"You probably heard me interjecting the winners' responses. It amuses me to do their voices," said Idril. "But please, feel free to check behind the sculpture. It is the reasonable thing to do, after all."
"Do not mock me!" Maeglin spun around, his dark cloak swirling. "I am not here to crawl about behind statuary!"
Salgant bit down on his knuckles to suppress a relieved whimper. Idril, meanwhile, hefted her weapon as if testing its weight. "Well, why are you here?" she asked.
"I am here to tell you that I am not fooled by the show you and Glorfindel put on at the party. Did you really think I would fail to notice that you left at the same time as Ecthelion—whom I spotted leaving your tower in the small hours this morning?"
"Ecthelion? Leaving my tower? You must mean Elemmakil, who brought me a message from Ecthelion: their uniforms are similar."
"Ah." Maeglin's shoulders slackened with relief before tensing again. "But what was the nature of this message?"
"That is not your business. Actually, none of this is."
"Oh, but it is, my fair cousin. You see, I know about you and Ecthelion—he all but admitted to me that he plans to wed you."
"Ecthelion is interested in me? Oh." Idril glanced towards the railing where Glorfindel had begun his descent. "How awkward. Although..."
"Although nothing!" Maeglin paused for a moment. When he resumed speaking, his voice was softer. "I am glad you did not know of his plans. Now that you know—are you not appalled by the presumption, by the insolence, of someone like him hoping to woo you?"
"Of course not! Why should I be? He is one of the most eligible men in the city."
"Idril, you are kind and gentle and innocent." Maeglin advanced towards his cousin, who reacted by moving backward, matching him step for step as if performing a courtly dance. "I expect this is why you cannot see his base motives."
"What base motives?" Idril's tone was sharp. "You think he pursues me out of unwelcome lust?"
"No!" Maeglin paused mid-step, his face reddening. "At least, I hope not. Even he must know you are not to be thought of like that. I meant excessive ambition—the lust for power, if you will. You must understand that someone so far below you in blood has much to gain from such a marriage."
"I do understand that, Maeglin, quite well. As Father's heir, I was raised in the knowledge that the man I married would share my inheritance. But that does not mean—"
"It does not mean that you must marry an inferior. Not when you could choose someone of equal birth."
Maeglin had spoken as if his words were fraught with significance—and Idril seemed to receive them as such: her eyes widened in shock. For a moment they stood motionless and silent. Then, both spoke at once.
"Maeglin." Idril held her staff out in front of her body in a defensive pose. "Please, say no more!"
"But I must! I have waited too long as it is. Besides, why should I remain silent when what I want to say is no secret to you? You understand me, I know you do. I have sent you my finest works: my poems, my lembas-cutting machine, even the schematics for my new self-lubricating hinge. You must have seen the stamp of my craftsmanship upon them, and known them for tokens of my love."
Salgant's mind swam with confusion. While Maeglin's words explained a great deal, including all those rumours about Idril's strange new admirer, they could not explain why everyone in the city was suddenly full of unnatural lusts. Or had this sort of thing been going on the whole time, not just among the warriors, but among all the beautiful people? If so, Salgant felt glad to be ill supplied with beauty. Moral values were far more important.
Idril, at least, seemed to agree. "Maeglin, you must not say such things! We are close kin, you and I—"
"We are not siblings, nor are we mother and son... nor father and daughter. No, we are merely cousins. Among my father's people, cousins may wed."
"Perhaps they may, but under the laws I live by—"
"What are laws to love? Especially to those of our blood? Our parents challenged the Valar themselves—surely we can challenge something so insignificant as the laws of the Noldor? Think of how glorious we could be! Between the two of us, we combine the three kindred. Our children—"
"No, no, no!" Idril's staff clunked against the floor; she had raised her hands to her ears. "Maeglin... please, stop this. What you speak of is wrong. And even if it was not, I do not love you."
"Not at present, perhaps. But it took Father a while to win Mother's heart. They fought a lot, at first... well, and later, too. But Mother always said that irritation was close to passion. And she used to look at Father just as you look at me now."
Idril grimaced. "Maeglin, your parents..."
"I do not deny that your glances hurt me. In fact..." He tossed his cloak back and cleared his throat before declaiming,
Oh noble, proud, and sweet Idril
Though your fair hair my heart does thrill,
Your coldness is a bitter pill.
At times it makes me feel quite ill.
"Maeglin!" Idril clapped her hands over her ears again. "Oh, please spare me this, at least!"
Maeglin's response was to raise his voice.
Your words so chill anneal my will.
Idril made a small sound of pain and fled from the terrace. Maeglin followed, rhymes like 'quill,' 'skill,' and even 'zeal' dropping freely from his lips.
Even left alone, Salgant found it hard to calm himself. Fortunately, he recalled the bag of caramels he carried in his harp case, as a remedy for sore throats and frazzled nerves. It took five before he could think clearly enough to decide that he had to drop Maeglin, and two more to realize that it might be safest to drop almost everyone he knew. The day's events had shown that nobody—not even Idril, an active member of the conspiracy of perverts—could be trusted to have principles. From now on, Salgant would put his trust only in the man whose opinion she feared: in Turgon.
But before he could share his findings with his king, Salgant would need proof; the conversation with Egalmoth had made that clear. Well, he still had Maeglin's keys. He would start by searching Ecthelion's home for evidence.
Although Salgant had never been to Ecthelion's private apartment before, the size of the main chamber did not surprise him: after all, Ecthelion probably needed a lot of room to house his overgrown ego. What did surprise him was the bed which, in contrast to the other, carefully-ordered furnishings, stood at an awkward angle right in the middle of the floor. Yet one more indication that Ecthelion's life centered on perversion. Repulsed, he circled it at a distance to reach Ecthelion's desk.
He had only just bent over it when he heard a creak, and glanced up to see that the door that presumably led to the washroom was now ajar. He scrutinized the opening for several moments, but, though he had the distinct sense that it was scrutinizing him back, nothing further occurred. He returned to the desk, telling himself that his footfalls must have disturbed the door.
A loud bang of wood on plaster, followed by the clatter of many booted feet, proved him utterly wrong. He turned around just in time to see several young guardsmen—it looked like three or four, even if it sounded more like a dozen— tear out of the washroom and down the main stairs.
Salgant crumpled to the floor, weighed down by his overburdened imagination. How could the presence of all those men in Ecthelion's washroom have anything but a debased explanation? And where had they gone? To tell one of Ecthelion's lieutenants—perhaps the clearly well informed Elemmakil—about an unwelcome intruder? Salgant could not take that risk. He forced his shaky legs to take up his weight again, and stumbled out into the streets of his astoundingly immoral city.
0. Thanks to betas Maggie and Eveiya, and Dragonlady and Lyllyn, for their comments.
1. About Salgant's bridge metaphor: I am assuming that my Elves play, if not bridge as we know it, then something similar. I had them gamble using cards even in the prequel, so the anachronism of card-playing is in the universe already.
2. I know that Tolkien says Maeglin lusted after Idril. However, for the purposes of this story, I have decided that it would be more fun to make his feelings a bit more innocent and complex. He can still come to lust after her as a result of later events.
3. Maeglin's parents did have a rather complicated relationship. Tolkien hints that Eol drew Aredhel in with enchantments. They did seem to argue a great deal. Eventually, she left him to return to Gondolin; he followed her there, and killed her with a poisoned javelin. (It was an accident: he was aiming for Maeglin.)
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