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Strange Fortunes: 8. Chapter Eight
"I still find it hard to believe," said Glorfindel.
"I know," said Ecthelion. "I do not entirely trust Maeglin, either, even if he sounded both confident and sincere."
"Well, we both know that he perceives the world in his own unique way, so he could easily be mistaken. There was certainly nothing about such things in the Marital Section of the healers' library—but then I saw nothing there about the Dwarves at all. I suppose I will have to go to the Laws and Customs, Cultural Variations Thereof section in the scholars' one."
"Wait—you were talking about seeking out erotic Dwarven scrolls?" Ecthelion felt disoriented in a very familiar way. Were the two of them forever doomed to misinterpret each other's words? "But why would you want to? I doubt they will prove helpful: Dwarves are short-limbed, are they not?"
"Ecthelion, you have no imagination. At least not while clothed, and in public. But I did not necessarily mean erotica, just any confirmation of Maeglin's claim. Do you not find it… well, charming?"
Glorfindel did, indeed, look charmed as he smiled broadly, his eyes exceptionally bright. Ecthelion forced himself to look away, towards the group of guards and horses gathered outside the stables. Amid all the confusion of their party's return to the city, a moment of private conversation seemed safe enough even out in the open, but standing about gazing into each other's eyes would never do.
He decided to nudge the conversation towards more serious topics.
"You know, it is possible that you will not have to depend on a theoretical essay to satisfy your curiosity," he said. "If Turgon throws us out of the city, we can go and ask the Dwarves in person."
"He will not throw us out," said Glorfindel. "This mess will resolve itself, I am sure: you saw how deftly Maeglin handled Salgant. Just as you must have handled Maeglin. You seem to have a lot of influence over him, though I suppose that is hardly surprising: he probably admires you greatly. Good thing I know where his real interests lie," he added, his smile losing some of its sincerity.
Ecthelion ignored this last bit of nonsense. "As I was saying, I am not sure I trust Maeglin, not in the long term. He can be quite volatile. I suppose he gets it from his mo-- Well, both his parents, really."
"So you believe that the only thing you gained us by speaking to him was time?"
"Exactly: time to decide upon the best way to tell the people who matter… If you are still amenable to doing so."
"Yes, yes." Glorfindel nodded impatiently. "Of course! I find the idea so appealing that I contemplated it all the way from the foothills—when I was not thinking about the Dwarves, that is. In the end, I decided that the best plan would be to begin by telling Idril… who, I feel compelled to remind you," he said with a look as pointed as a spear, "is like a sister to me."
It was such a relief to hear this, and to believe it, that Ecthelion felt light-headed and light-hearted both. "Like a sister? Are you sure?" he could not resist asking. "She is your cousin, and a Finwian, so it would make more sense if—"
"Once removed does not count for Finwian cousin purposes. But, please, hear me out. The people we must tell include those who are close to us, and those who are of high rank, and so might feel they deserve to know. Well, Idril is both, and what is more she is wise and kind, and thus inclined to be sympathetic."
"I believe you are right about that. When we spoke at the opening ceremony, she— Well. I did not quite realize it at the time, but she seemed to imply that I should be nice to you, and that you have, well, feelings for me. "
"See? She really is wise. Because you definitely should," said Glorfindel, "and, yes, I do." He raised his right eyebrow in a suggestive manner, but, as usual, failed to keep the left from slanting upwards as well. Ecthelion wanted to smile in response, so he turned towards the stables again, just in time to see the last horse disappear inside.
"So, Idril might help us," he said coolly. "We could tell her before tomorrow's meeting."
"That would be perfect. She asked me to come an hour early, anyway, in case Maeglin does."
"I will see you there an hour before noon, then."
This was it: the end of their important discussion. Well-timed, too, since the moment to inspect and dismiss the men grew near. And yet, tired as they both were, Ecthelion did not feel ready to say good night. "I fear," he said instead, "that Salgant's spies might be watching us still."
Glorfindel's grin faded. "That is true. However, given our plan, and the imminent danger we discussed earlier, I believe—"
"Yes, spies are certainly a problem," continued Ecthelion. "So much so that when I get home, I intend to search the place thoroughly, throwing out any I happen to find." He permitted himself a quick smile. "Perhaps you would like to help?"
The moment the words left his mouth, he realized how ridiculous they sounded—but then he realized it hardly mattered. Still, he could not blame Glorfindel for hesitating before finally asking, "Your house?"
"You think the risk too great? But did you not just say—"
"No, no, no," said Glorfindel with increasing firmness. "I approve of your idea. I just meant that… my house is closer, both to here and to the palace."
"True. Besides, nobody could resist an invitation to explore the secret crannies of your quarters. Who knows what we may find: a long-forgotten shirt of mine? That dagger Egalmoth lent you six years ago? Dinner? The Silmarils?"
But Glorfindel had stopped listening. "You must know, Ecthelion, that no specific invitation is required," he said, raising one and a half eyebrows again. "No, indeed, you can explore my secret cra— Wait, wait. That sounds terrible. But I am sure I can think of a phrasing that is clever, yet tasteful… Give me a moment."
"Take your time," said Ecthelion without much hope, and turned towards the edge of the square, where the Games volunteers were gathering, as expected. What he had not expected was the unfamiliar man in Palace livery who had joined them. A messenger! Ecthelion put on his most official expression before calling him forward. It must have worked, perhaps a little too well: the man looked worried as he handed over twin notes.
"From Prince Maeglin, my lords," he said with a deep bow.
The lower four fifths of Ecthelion's note were taken up by a lengthy, elaborate signature written in a practiced script that reminded him of wrought iron. Scrawled across the top were the words, "Call on me in my private forge immediately upon your return!!"
"Mine is the same," said Glorfindel over his shoulder. "Though the punctuation is even more emphatic. But Eru, first Maeglin's visit to your room, then that paint-filled pit, and now this… it is almost as if we were doomed to have our plans ruined by Moles. Let us hope this audience with our Prince ends quickly."
A glimpse of Maeglin's forge was enough to prove that he truly intended to depart. While its fires had been extinguished, darkening the gloomy chamber even further, the shadows could not conceal a disorder that spoke of hasty packing. As Ecthelion's eyes adjusted to the darkness, he was able to identify the shapes cluttering the workbenches and the floor: strange tools, metal nuggets, and even an anvil wrapped up with rope. One particularly large and dramatic shape resolved itself into the black-cowled, black-gloved, yet pale-faced figure of Maeglin.
"Oh, it is you two," he said. "Finally!"
"Good evening, Lord Maeglin," said Ecthelion. This attempt to teach manners by example proved vain, however, since Maeglin ignored the greeting, and even Ecthelion himself. Instead, he turned towards Glorfindel.
"I wish to plan my journey," he announced. "Thus, I need to see your maps of the Valley."
"And see them you shall." Glorfindel pushed his hair away from his face and squinted in Maeglin's general direction. "I am planning to bring them to—"
"No, no, that will not do. How can I discuss them insightfully without proper preparation? You must show them to me tonight."
Ecthelion did not even try to meet Glorfindel's eye. There was no choice to be made here: all three of them knew this request—this order—had to be obeyed. Still, Glorfindel took his time before coldly saying, "All right then."
"And how am I to help prepare?" asked Ecthelion before Maeglin could overreact.
"You? Oh, I do not need your help today," said Maeglin. "No, I summoned you here only because I have a gift for you." He pointed to a small, glittering item lying on one of the benches.
"A gift for Ecthelion?" Glorfindel's voice sounded even colder than before. "What is it?"
Ecthelion approached the bench, carefully stepping over several obstacles, and picked up the item, which proved to be a golden locket etched with the geometric designs Maeglin favoured. He pressed the catch; it sprang open. Inside, upon a lining of dark satin, lay a thin ring woven out of several bright yellow strands.
"It seems to be," he told Glorfindel, "a locket containing some of your hair,"
"Truly?" A metal object rolled across the floor as Glorfindel hurried to join him. "Well. So it is. Where did¬— Was this your idea?"
"Of course not."
"What do you mean, of course not? Are you not attached to my hair?"
"I suppose so, but only while it is attached to you." As it was, the twisted, orphaned hairs reminded Ecthelion of a recent conversation about imminent dangers. He shut the locket and weighed it in his hand.
"I forged it myself, you know," said Maeglin. "Of course, you two should really wear golden rings, which would make your status apparent to all the maidens, but this will have to do for now. I intend to make another one later, and send it back with my letters; you can fill it with hair yourselves. Now hurry up, Ecthelion, and put it on."
As Ecthelion slipped the locket's chain over his head, his fingers encountered another's: Glorfindel had reached out to touch one of his threatened braids. He let the chain fall into place, and allowed his hand to linger, all too aware that this was likely the only physical contact they would have tonight.
"Is this a Dwarven custom, then?" asked Glorfindel. "Carrying each other's hair around? Do they use that strange hair they grow on their faces?"
"What? No, it was my own idea," said Maeglin. "I know you warriors do not really understand such things, but try to view it as a symbolic reminder of your partnership."
"I see. In that case, perhaps I could fill mine with sword grease rather than hair? It would be much more practical."
Ecthelion considered giving Glorfindel hand a punishingly painful squeeze, but decided that such a gesture might be interpreted as encouragement—probably at least half-correctly. "Please excuse Glorfindel and his jokes, Maeglin," he said instead. "He certainly did not mean to criticize your thoughtful and meaningful gift, for which we are both very grateful."
"You are welcome. And do not worry, Ecthelion," added Maeglin with splendid condescension. "I understand that your partner is obsessed with weaponry, but I intend to explain the importance of other matters to him tonight. Come, then, Glorfindel. Take me to your maps."
Glorfindel's fingers slid down Ecthelion's arm, and then he was gone, picking his way across the dangerous floor.
Left with no other options, Ecthelion went home. The walk calmed him, perhaps too much: he soon found himself yawning, stumbling a little, and so realizing that Glorfindel's presence had made him feel unnaturally awake. Well, perhaps this frustrating separation would have one good effect: it might allow him to sleep peacefully, as he had not done for days, and so better prepare him for the challenges ahead.
Unfortunately, the first challenge appeared before he could sleep, as soon as he reached his apartment. The bed, which had stood against the western wall for centuries, now held a diagonal position in the center of the room. Had Salgant moved it during his dishonourable search? At a cursory glance, nothing else had been disturbed. Could the crooked bed be a deliberate message, an indication of what Salgant thought of the activities that took place in it?
Ecthelion could not bring himself to care. He slid rugs under the bed's legs, so as not to scratch the wooden floor, and pushed it back into place. Soon after, he lay on his familiar lumpy mattress, the scene of so much sleeplessness—both pleasant and unpleasant, depending on whether he was being visited by Glorfindel, or by dark thoughts. This time, sleep came easily.
The dawn light woke Ecthelion as always, its rays sliding across his bedsheets like strands of golden hair, and he rose feeling so cheerful that he did not even cringe at this too-obvious simile. He busied himself with work until it was almost time to head for the Palace, then left, intending to arrive outside Idril's audience chamber a little early. His hopes were rewarded: Glorfindel had had the same idea.
"Ecthelion!" he said. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes, actually," said Ecthelion. He wondered at the meaninglessness of this question until he saw the shadows under Glorfindel's eyes. "I take it you did not?"
"Oh Eru, no." Glorfindel slumped down onto a bench and ran a hand over his face. "Maeglin kept me up all night, talking about maps and Dwarves until I am not sure I can still tell them apart. And also about you, but fortunately I am not likely to confuse you with either." He glanced up at Ecthelion.
"Hmm." Ecthelion joined him, though he knew that sitting so close, all too aware of the impropriety of touching, would only cause frustration. "I had been thinking that you should do the talking today, given that Idril is like a sister to you, but after that comment I am not sure you are coherent enough."
"I was only joking." Glorfindel straightened, edging a little closer. "I am fine, really."
"Are you sure? Did you remember to bring your Dwarves?"
Glorfindel made a sound that was half a groan and half a laugh, and raised his hand to touch Ecthelion's shoulder. Then, clearly recollecting himself, he pulled it away—and punched Ecthelion there instead. "Do not steal my jokes," he said.
Ecthelion's arm burned; he felt the thrill of the practice grounds. He gave in to it, and avenged himself with an elbow, twisting away so Glorfindel's retaliatory blow barely touched him. At that point, the only reasonable option was to close the distance until there was no room for further strikes, and concentrate on shoving his opponent off the bench. He made good progress: while Glorfindel's strategy of kicking at his shins was certainly a distraction, it also destabilized him and made him easier to push.
"My lords?" asked a female voice.
Ecthelion spat out a strand of Glorfindel's hair and looked up at one of Idril's ladies. How could they have failed to notice her approach? And what would she think of them now that she had seen them acting like thirty-year-olds—or worse, like a roughhousing courting couple? He sat up and tried to look dignified, while, beside him, Glorfindel muttered something about high post-Games spirits.
"Of course." The lady's expression was disturbingly neutral. "Now, if you are ready, the princess would like to see you."
Ecthelion avoided her eyes as he stepped through the door. Inside, Idril rose up from behind a large table covered with books arms outstretched in greeting.
"Good morning, Glorfindel. And Ecthelion. Tell me, was it your influence that led Maeglin to his latest decision? If so, I am most grateful."
"I spoke to Maeglin, yes," said Ecthelion. "But he was the one who decided that finding more ore would be best for the city."
"It would indeed." Idril smiled tightly. "For the city, and for everyone in it. Even for the Games, perhaps: I now suspect that Maeglin is the one behind the confusion with the maps. After all, he has already proven himself unable to respect the privacy of my bedroom."
"I do not doubt he is capable of such a thing," said Glorfindel. "But we know that it was Salgant. And speaking of Salgant… I want to tell you more about his recent activities, but there is something you need to hear beforehand. Something that concerns Ecthelion and me."
"Really? What is it?"
Glorfindel glanced at Ecthelion, seeking confirmation, before turning to face Idril. "Cousin," he said then, "you have always been a friend to us. So I hope you will hear this news with a friend's sympathy. Ecthelion and I… are lovers."
"No! Surely—" Idril raised her hand to her mouth, and took a step back, eyes darting from one of them to the other. "You must forgive my astonishment; it is just that the three of us have spent much time together, and, while you certainly mention Ecthelion frequently, I never noticed…" Her gaze settled on Ecthelion with an almost accusatory curiosity. "I can, of course, understand that prudence would lead you to keep such a matter private, and yet… Surely romantic feelings cannot be concealed completely? Not from attentive observers."
Well, she was certainly an attentive observer, at that moment at least, and Ecthelion could not fault the motive behind her scrutiny: concern for Glorfindel's emotional wellbeing. How could he reassure her? Give a physical demonstration of his feelings? The embarrassment in the waiting room had robbed the idea of its appeal. He could, of course, say that Glorfindel was beautiful and good, but would a declaration of such obvious facts really count as romantic? Although, if it did not, what did?
Perhaps Idril's concern was justified, then: perhaps his attitude was sadly inadequate. He glanced over at Glorfindel, and felt relieved to see him looking not disappointed, but amused.
"Come on, Idril," said Glorfindel, "You must remember that different people show emotion differently. Ecthelion is rather reserved, especially in public, but I assure you that I do not find him cold. Besides, he does make some affectionate gestures worthy of a romantic tale. For example, he writes me songs. And he unobtrusively helps me with my work when I am overwhelmed. And…" his smile widened, "he wears a locket with my hair in it!"
"He does? Really?" Idril peered at Ecthelion's neck until she spotted the chain he had forgotten to remove. "Ooh, that is sweet."
"Yes, it is," said Glorfindel. "Meanwhile, all I ever do in the name of love is let him win sometimes when we spar."
While Ecthelion appreciated being rescued from an awkward situation, he had not enjoyed being cooed over like an adorable puppy, and this was really going too far. Especially considering that he'd definitely been winning, out on that bench. "Yes, Glorfindel is very generous that way," he told Idril. "In fact, he lets me win far more than half the time."
"What?" asked Glorfindel. "How do you fig— But never mind. We will resolve this later, I hope. For now, there are a few other, related matters we should discuss. Such as Salgant, and Lord Turgon."
"Father?" asked Idril, somber again. "Oh no! Has he found out about you two?"
"Not yet, but we believe that he might, soon, and from an unsympathetic source. We have been thinking about informing him ourselves, but we are unsure as to—"
"No, please do not!" said Idril. "Father prefers to ignore malicious gossip, but he could not ignore a direct admission. And the issue of romance among men weighs heavily on his mind, both because he believes that Manwe and Varda disapprove of all unions other than marriage, and because he despises all those songs about my uncle Fingon and Maedhros Feanorion… Songs that seem to have given him a rather odd idea of what two male lovers might get up to."
This theory made perfect sense to Ecthelion, who had found inspiration in those songs himself. Turgon, a widower, would understand how compelling acts of the flesh could be—while his unmarried daughter might not. But a daughter was, at least, likely to understand her father.
"You believe, then," he asked Idril, "that your father would punish us for something we do off-duty?"
"Not explicitly, no: he would see that as unjust. But I do believe that he would worry about your moral fiber, and your influence on your people, and then he might lose faith in you, which could be disastrous to our shared cause of defending the city. No, no question about it: you will have to continue being discreet."
"We can do so, of course," said Glorfindel. "But what if he finds out, and asks us a direct question?"
"Oh, Glorfindel." Idril looked at him fondly. "Then you must lie, of course."
Glorfindel frowned. "Lying to our lord. I do not like it. What do you think, Ecthelion?"
Ecthelion's mind was full of conflicting duties, leavened with a general dislike of politics. "Well…" he began, but before he could formulate his thoughts the door swung open.
Turgon strode into the room, closely followed by Maeglin. Neither one looked happy.
Idril reacted first, with a diplomat's reflexes. "Father!" she said winningly. "Good morning. This is a rare pleasure."
"Good morning, all," said Turgon. "Idril, your cousin has just informed me about a rather serious matter, one I would like to discuss with you. And with the two of you, as well," he said to Ecthelion and Glorfindel, "since it concerns you both."
"So you wish to speak to all three of us?" asked Idril. "About the Games, I presume?"
Ecthelion could not tell whether she meant this, or whether, like himself, she suspected the worst. And yet, it was hard to believe that Maeglin would have betrayed them so quickly: the boy looked neither remorseful nor defensive, and he met Ecthelion's eyes full on, nodding as if in reassurance.
"The Games?" asked Turgon. "No, nothing to do with that. Unless… I have heard about some irregularities in the way this last contest has been run. Perhaps the two things are related."
"They are not, Uncle," said Maeglin, "According to my investigations, the mix-up at the Games was just one of Salgant's pranks."
"I see." Turgon raised his eyebrows a short, dignified distance. "You know, Maeglin, it is good to see you finally taking such an interest in the daily affairs of the city. Feel free to deal with the culprits responsible for this minor issue. But as for that other, more serious, rumour… Ecthelion, Glorfindel." He turned to face them, tilting his head back so that he seemed to be regarding them from a distance greater even than that granted him by his exceptional height. "Is it, or is it not true, that you have been indulging in the Feanorian Vice?"
"The Feanorian Vice?" Ecthelion felt a surge of relief—after all, he was not in the habit of attacking his kin, or even of threatening them—but it faded when he recalled which of the stories about Maedhros, that prominent Feanorian, had distressed his lord the most. Still, to be sure, he asked, "Which one?"
"The one that— Well, some people call it the Telerin Taint."
"Do they?" asked Maeglin. "I disapprove of this Noldorin tendency to blame things on the Teleri. I think the correct, neutral term is the Dwarven Custom."
"Neutral, indeed. Too neutral for my liking," said Turgon. "However, we can avoid singling out any race by calling it simply Unnatural Desire."
"I feel," said Idril, "that this discussion of terminology is distracting us from the real issue. Which to me seems to be that neither Glorfindel nor Ecthelion would have done anything to dishonour the posts they hold. Is that not right?"
She smiled encouragingly. Ecthelion followed her gaze towards Glorfindel, expecting to find him eager to defend their shared honour, but instead was shocked by his uncertain, tormented expression. Shocked, and yet pleased that Glorfindel was not following Idril's lead¬—and then dismayed by the pettiness that led him to feel such pleasure. But all these shifting emotions were routine, superficial; somewhere beneath them, he felt a deep-seated tension, as if awaiting a decisive battle. His heart raced.
Well, he had promised to fight for what they shared.
"I see," said Turgon, "that you two finally understand my question. Now, answer it."
The distaste betrayed by his down-turned mouth was entirely understandable, of course—but this was one battle where Ecthelion had to fight against, not beside, his lord. He exhaled deliberately, to slow his heart rate. Then, like an archer taking aim, he waited for the silence between beats before saying, "Yes."
There was a moment of silence. Then Idril said, "Do you mean that yes, you have done nothing to disho—"
"I mean," Ecthelion told Turgon, "that yes, the rumour is true. However," he continued, "I do not believe that this should be more important than someone cheating at a contest. It is not even as if we have been lying to you about it," he added with a glance at Idril.
"You were concealing it, though," said Turgon. "And so lying by omission, at least."
"We were keeping it private. Perhaps we should have informed you, my lord, but aren't such personal affairs below the attention of a king? We did tell those we are close to. Lady Idril knows."
"As do I," said Maeglin. "Obviously."
Turgon ignored him. "While I agree that this sort of failing should be kept from the general public, who look to their leaders for moral guidance," he said, "I want to remind you that no affair is below the attention of a king if it affects the running of his realm."
"I do not believe that our involvement has done so," said Ecthelion. "At least, I certainly do not believe that it has led us to neglect our work. Duty is far more important to us than our personal affairs; on that I give you my word, my king."
"You speak that oath lightly—another Feanorian vice." A frown distorted Turgon's composed face. "And yet, as your liege, I feel obliged to help you keep it. Now, the best way to do so would surely be to free you from temptation. There is much work to be done outside the city: you already spend time at the gates, but there are the hill patrols, and the mines… Then, of course, there are the realms outside, which would surely welcome the aid of an enthusiastic and skilled warrior such as one of you."
"Father." Idril stepped closer, so she could touch his arm. "You must do what you think is best, of course, but please remember how useful Ecthelion and Glorfindel are to us, here in the city. They would be hard to replace. Also, they are both very popular. If you send one of them away, or separate them, people will notice, and wonder; some may hit upon the truth, and even take their side. Ecthelion in particular has many followers who consider themselves Telerin, and who do not always respect Noldorin laws or leaders as much as we would like them to."
Turgon took in these arguments. "That is true," he said. "You speak wisely, as always. Fortunately, the measures I mentioned may prove unnecessary… If my captains find they do not need them," he said coldly, turning back towards Ecthelion. "So, yes, I suggest you put an end to your shameful involvement at once, of your own accord."
This was the choice Ecthelion had dreaded, and yet hearing it caused him no great distress. His earlier tension had disappeared; he now felt as if he were filled with a light bright enough to blind him even to his inner doubts, as he sometimes felt in bed, or when caught up in combat.
"I will gladly make another promise, to do just that," he said, "once I understand just how our involvement has hurt the city. Have you been displeased with our performance, my lord?"
Turgon frowned again. "I admit that your devotion to your various duties has been admirable, historically speaking. However, now that I think about it, things seem to have been running less smoothly recently, since my sister's re— Since Maeglin's arrival. There have been several small signs… The problems with this year's Games might be such a sign—an indirect one. I suspect your involvement is to blame."
The accusation rankled, especially since Ecthelion could see all too clearly how Turgon's judgment had been affected by his own personal affairs: by his feelings about the Feanorians, and their influence on his brother. Unfortunately, pointing out this irony could only hurt his cause; fortunately, there existed a much simpler and better response.
"Our involvement," he said, "began before your nephew was even born."
Turgon stared, taken aback; and so did Idril. Maeglin looked vaguely insulted. Glorfindel smiled.
"It is true, my lord," he said. "And as for our devotion to duty, well, I believe that, in seeking to be worthy of—"
"Right," said Ecthelion. Glorfindel's theories of love could only annoy their lord, especially if he brought up Maedhros and Fingon, as was his habit. "Lord Turgon, surely you recall that you have, over these last few dozens of years, complimented us both on our discipline and efficiency."
Turgon kept staring. Ecthelion suppressed the desire to say more, and concentrated on looking disciplined and efficient.
"You know," said Turgon at last, "I do believe you are right. But this failing of yours…" He grimaced. "Even if it does not visibly hurt your work, it is still immoral, and a poor way to live one's life. I do hope you will rediscover the right path. And wed." His face softened. "Children are a joy you do not want to miss."
"But, Uncle," said Maeglin, "Even if they do wed, as I have suggested, Ecthelion and Glorfindel will not be able to have children."
"I am confident about this. Of course, the Dwarves I have mentioned sometimes adopt orph—"
"Maeglin," said Turgon, "be silent. I meant that they should wed women, of course. What you speak of is a depravity, and I never want to hear another word on this subject. From anyone. I hope this is understood?" He looked around the room before focusing on Ecthelion and Glorfindel again. "I will not insist that you find the strength to overcome your failings at once; I will, however, insist that you behave—that you keep behaving—in a way that will make it impossible to guess whether you have succeeded. Now leave, both of you."
His cold voice suggested that, even if he had decided not to order his errant captains out of the city, he was glad enough to order them out of his presence. Glorfindel laid his maps on the table, bowed, and left; Ecthelion followed. They did not look at each other until they stood, again, in the empty waiting room.
Glorfindel's eyes seemed a bit unfocused. "Ecthelion," he said breathlessly. "Ecthelion, you were magnificent. Whenever you annoy me in the future, please remind me of this moment."
"Thank you for the suggestion, which is sure to prove helpful," said Ecthelion, "but… magnificent? I admit I got the result we wished for, or close to it, but I suspect I will come to regret my behaviour… Indeed, I am starting to regret it already."
"Of course you are." Glorfindel smiled. "But I promise you will forget your regret as soon as we get home. Or even sooner. Here, follow me."
He took Ecthelion by the elbow, and pulled him down an empty corridor. Ecthelion did not try to shake off his hand. The relative privacy, combined with the slight anger he felt over Turgon's decision—an order to keep lying by omission—made him feel reckless. He decided to speak of private matters.
"Turgon does not agree with your crippled Orc theory, I noticed," he said. "He expects us to begin normal, married lives someday."
"Turgon is wrong." Glorfindel stopped, and turned to face Ecthelion. "I know you are suspicious of me—so annoyingly suspicious that I have considered giving you a certificate proclaiming my lack of interest in all the women of Gondolin, renewed periodically as new ones come of age. But you have to understand that I am different from you."
"Different, how?" asked Ecthelion. "I thought you… I thought we wanted the same thing."
"We want complementary things from each other, of course. However, a part of you still longs for a conventional life, or at least thinks such a life would be best: why else would you keep assuming that I would leap at any chance to have one? But your assumptions are entirely unjustified. I have never sought to be normal, believe me." He looked at Ecthelion intently, his gaze open, inviting trust. "I remember sitting under the table in my grandfather's kitchen as he cooked, and hearing him say that those who do not marry early have strange fates. And that sounded so exciting to me, and so glorious, that I knew at once that it was what I wanted. It is what I have found with you."
"A strange fate?"
"More the excitement, and the glory. Both of which I have just experienced." Glorfindel reached up to caress Ecthelion's upper arm. "I do not find much strangeness in this, do you? No, even you have admitted that it feels natural, even if it could be called abnormal. Not completely unusual, though: remember that soldier of the Harp? Anyway, I plan to make it seem more common."
"How could you possibly accomplish that?"
"Well, you know my Vanyarin scroll?" Glorfindel's fingers slid higher. "I am drawing something very similar, only involving two men."
"I know." Ecthelion ignored the hand now creeping up his neck. "You have been doing it for years."
"Not like this: I am trying to reproduce that distinctive Vanyarin style. When I succeed, I am going to bury the scroll in my roof garden for a few weeks, to age it. And then, finally, I will sneak it into the Healers' Library. Now," he said with a smug smile, "is my plan not an excellent one?"
"No," said Ecthelion, ducking away from his touch, "it most certainly is not. Why would you want to show everyone the worst aspects of an involvement like ours: its depravities?"
"As I said, I want to help them get used to the idea. But I am less concerned with easily offended people than with those who have stumbled into a fate like ours. I want to make them feel less alone."
"I see." Ecthelion could still remember that sense of loneliness. He rubbed his neck, which suddenly felt cold. "Oh, I cannot think about this now; speaking with our ruling family has ruined my judgment. For now, let us go home. And yes, I do realize that you were pulling me towards a linen closet, but under the circumstances, I do not think we should risk it."
"It was a broom closet… But yes, I suppose you are right. I do not even know the Palace cleaners' schedules." He looked dejected for a moment, then brightened. "Very well. Let us go to your house."
"Mine? Just yesterday, you pointed out that yours is closer."
"Well, yes, but…" Glorfindel glanced away. "I want to get far away from this place. Besides, we can visit Salgant's office on the way, just to tell him that Turgon knows all, and has forbidden people to talk about any of it."
"That would be safest, yes." Ecthelion almost pitied Salgant: his dastardly schemes seemed as poorly timed as most of his grace notes. "Come on, then."
They walked across the city, discussing the official excuse for their meeting: the Games report they were to write. Ecthelion found the pretense harder than usual. While only days had passed since they had last met in privacy and safety, those days had been so eventful it felt like years. He was glad when they reached his house without incident.
"You know," said Glorfindel as they stepped in. "I feel like celebrating. How about opening some wine? Perhaps a good Nevrast vintage? I believe you have some in the cellar. I will, er, get things ready upstairs."
His expression was as shifty as his words: Ecthelion suspected some pleasant surprise. However, when he finally climbed the stairs to his room, cradling two hastily picked, cold bottles to his chest, he saw no evidence of preparation. Glorfindel sat on his bed, true, but he was dressed just as fully as before, and had not even fetched any useful supplies. He smiled when he saw Ecthelion, still a bit unnaturally.
"Here, give me the bottle," he said, brandishing his dagger, "and let me break the seal."
But Ecthelion was sick of delays. "Later," he said. "First, we must settle this alleged letting-me-win-at-sparring business." He placed the wine on the table, and sat down beside Glorfindel just as he had done in the waiting room, ignoring the unexpected way the bed creaked under their combined weight.
"Fine, then," said Glorfindel, sliding closer. "But how do we settle it? With a rematch of our interrupted contest? But wait, we should get rid of our knives first, for safety." He let his fall to the ground, and then reached for Ecthelion's belt, or at least the area below it, with the confidence of one used to handling such weapons.
Ecthelion had been expecting something like this, so he kept his wits well enough to hold his ground when Glorfindel shoved him. Unfortunately, the bed emitted another distressed creak, distracting him; and the next shove landed him on his back, looking up at Glorfindel's self-satisfied expression—but only for a moment. The next creak was more of a crack, and then suddenly the mattress he lay on was no longer horizontal, but tilted upwards towards his feet, while Glorfindel looked not self-satisfied, but pained.
"Ow," he said. "Trust a headboard to hit people on the head."
Ecthelion left him to his atrocious punning, and knelt on beside the bed to inspect the damage. There was surprisingly little: the violent headboard had separated itself from the rest of the frame with a minimum of splintering.
"Strange," he said. "It looks as if the bolts holding this bed together were loose."
"Why is that strange? Your bed is old, and poorly built," said Glorfindel with as much smugness as can be mustered by a man half-trapped under a headboard. "To tell you the truth, I expected something like this to happen."
"Did you? I suppose I should have expected it, as well," said Ecthelion darkly. "But if you want to know why I find it strange, it is because the bolts were in quite firmly when I last looked."
"Well, that must have been a while ago, surely?"
"It was last night."
"Ah. Well, perhaps someone loosened them while you were out this morning. I suspect Sal—"
"I am tired of suspecting people, and, anyway, it is not a grave matter. I am sure the bed can be saved."
"What?" Glorfindel finally levered the headboard off himself and joined Ecthelion on the floor. "Oh. I see. Right. An hour's work, I would say," he said glumly. "I expect that you will insist on fixing it now?"
"Well, your knife does look like the perfect tool for the job." Ecthelion smiled at Glorfindel's stricken expression. "But no, absolutely not. Only an idiot would waste our time together playing with my furniture."
"Yes, I think you are right about that," said Glorfindel unsmugly. "So, what shall we do? Pull off the mattress, or—"
"Well," Ecthelion told him, "there is always the pull-up bar. What did your scroll call it…'Climbing Telperion'?"
0. As usual, feedback is encouraged, especially clever, critical feedback. And thanks to: Eveiya, Maggie, Lenine, Claudio, and Dagmar for all the comments!
1. Speaking of Lenine, this chapter is dedicated to her, as a late birthday present. Happy Birthday!
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