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Strange Fortunes: 1. Chapter One
The hidden city of Gondolin dazzled the eye. Sunlight brightened its white walls, flashed reflections in the high windows of its many towers, set its golden rooftops ablaze. Down in the courtyards the fountains glittered, every spout a fall of diamonds adorned with tiny rainbows.
Maeglin found it all rather gaudy.
Gaudy, and overwhelming. As he walked through the city, the sun's inescapable rays stabbed at his eyes until he was forced to adopt a semi-permanent squint. Granted, he liked the way this made him look—deep, inscrutable, and mature-—since people had an alarming tendency to view his too-wide, dark eyes as evidence of childlike vulnerability. But what was the point of all that brightness? Even the most glorious things looked best when viewed not under the noonday sun, but in dimly lit gloom. Dwarven gems certainly did, as did gold, and that quintessential example of glory, golden hair.
Feeling a familiar, pleasant tightness in his chest, Maeglin sighed. Yes, undeniably, of all the alleged wonders of over-decorated Gondolin, none were as heartbreakingly lovely as Idril's hair on a moonless night, its soft glow easily outshining the flame of the candle in her hand. How he longed to see her in a torchlit cave or mine, perhaps clad in a bright white dress like the ones Mother used to favour...
The reverie was so engrossing that Maeglin almost walked past Ecthelion's house, noticing it only just in time to turn towards the door without losing his dignity. He mounted the steps, tossed his cloak over one shoulder, and knocked before returning to his subtle thoughts.
Oh, Idril. Cousin Idril. 'Cousin.' What a beautiful word that was. A treacherous one, too, for while it linked him to Idril it also marked her as forbidden—or so it seemed, under Gondolin's laws. But then, whom should he love, if not family? No-one else was worthy. Maeglin had no time for the nonsensical laws of an illogical people who gave their only city seven unnecessary names and then called it The City of Seven Names, which was clearly an eighth name and thus made a mockery of the whole system.
Yes, Maeglin had much to teach the Gondolindrim. It was his duty as well as his birthright; what a pity his uncle did not see it the same way. Although Turgon had welcomed Maeglin warmly enough, he still treated his nephew with the sort of condescending pride an adult might show a promising child. Fortunately, Maeglin knew exactly how to prove his maturity. Nobody could possibly consider him a child once he was married, possibly with children of his own. And he was not without resources, such as friends—no, not friends. One of his high birth could not expect true friendship. What Maeglin had was influential followers who could be manipulated into helping him achieve his goals.
Provided they could be manipulated into opening their doors. Something Ecthelion seemed in no hurry to do.
Maeglin did not mind waiting; he was not an impatient person. But making King Turgon's nephew wait was an insult to King Turgon and his city. Since he doubted Ecthelion meant to give such offense, he knocked again.
"It is I, Maeglin!"
He might have listened at the keyhole, but such behaviour, which had been acceptable or even expected while he lived at Nan Elmoth, under his father's eyes, was less appropriate in the second-most powerful man in Gondolin. Besides, the door looked thick and soundproof. He was about to rap on the door once more, louder this time, when it finally opened.
"Good day, Maeglin." Ecthelion bowed, which was proper, but he did not invite Maeglin in at once, which was less so.
"Yes, good day."
Maeglin stepped into the cool, dim hallway. Summoning his natural air of authority, he pushed past Ecthelion and headed up the stairs that led to Ecthelion's private rooms—or, rather, to his one, abnormally large, private room. While the acoustics were supposedly outstanding, the high ceiling and overabundant windows made the place feel far too much like part of the great, bright outdoors. At least the furniture was pleasantly simple, sparse, and well ordered, even if the bed did not look as carefully made as it usually did.
"Ah, Maeglin! Hello."
Glorfindel stood a few feet away from the bed, leaning against the wall with an entirely inappropriate degree of nonchalance.
"Glorfindel." Maeglin nodded in greeting. "I thought you were out of the city."
"I was. I returned only this morning."
"I see." Maeglin had to admit that Glorfindel did look like a disheveled traveler. For one, his tunic was hanging open. It seemed disrespectful of him not to have laced it up in expectation of Maeglin's visit, as he had certainly had plenty of time. Maeglin stared at him—and at the offending garment—pointedly.
Glorfindel glanced down at himself. "Ecthelion and I were just sparring," he said.
As an apology for his appearance, or even for the long wait, this comment left much to be desired. Maeglin decided to needle Glorfindel a little, in retaliation. "I suppose it is true then, what they say about you two."
Glorfindel's hands fumbled with his tunic. "What do they say?"
"That you choreograph your sparring matches in private, to make them look more impressive."
"Oh, that!" Ecthelion strode past Maeglin to stand beside Glorfindel. "Yes, I have heard that we move together too well for spontaneity, but the boring truth is that we are simply very familiar with each other. Anyway, surely anyone who knows us at all is aware that neither Glorfindel nor I would ever fight to lose?"
He sent Glorfindel a challenging look, which was returned in kind. Maeglin wondered who had been winning that interrupted sparring match. They were both impressive: well-built yet graceful, two of the finest fighters in the city. Of course, their shared tendency to call him 'Maeglin' and not 'Lord' or 'Prince' was a bit irritating, but, as Mother used to say, horses and hounds are worthless unless they show some spirit. In all, Maeglin understood why she had chosen them for her honour guard, and felt grateful to her for bequeathing to him two such potentially useful followers. Today, however, he wished to speak to only one: Ecthelion, whose half-Telerin ancestry was a match for Maeglin’s own, and who might therefore be expected to see sense.
"Ecthelion, I need to meet with you. Alone."
Ecthelion arched an eyebrow. "Right now?"
"Naturally, right now." Why else would Maeglin have walked all the way across the city? That was the problem with these impressive warrior types: they were even less rational than the average citizen. In spite of Maeglin's clarification, Ecthelion and Glorfindel took a moment to exchange questioning glances before Glorfindel stepped away from the wall and gestured to a nearby table.
"The thing is, Maeglin, we are rather busy. As you know, I have just returned from the foothills, where I was surveying the prospective site of the War Games. I would very much like to discuss my findings with Ecthelion before he meets with the Plumbers' Guild."
Typical Gondolindian logic! While it was undeniable that the table was covered in maps, Glorfindel's excuse was clearly nonsense. "How urgent can this be? You were sparring," said Maeglin patiently.
"We thought we had time. My meeting is not for half an hour." Ecthelion frowned. "Will half an hour suffice, for your business? Perhaps we could make an appointment for some future date."
The constraint was not ideal, but Maeglin would not wait any longer. "It will suffice."
Ecthelion turned towards Glorfindel and gave a slight shrug.
Glorfindel nodded. "We will have to finish this later, then."
"I suppose," said Ecthelion carefully, "that your first few days back are likely to be extremely busy?"
"Yes, it does look rather grim. And with all your rehearsals, we cannot even get a drink of an evening." Glorfindel's eyes darkened with thought, then brightened again. "Look here, how about tomorrow, before the officers' council? I was planning to spend an hour or so on a surprise inspection of the palace guard—my men are on duty-—but it has just occurred to me that I always inspect the palace guard after a trip out of the city." He grinned broadly. "The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of doing a surprise non-inspection, instead."
Ecthelion met his grin with a small but heartfelt smile. "Till tomorrow, then."
"Till tomorrow. Come by my rooms. Lucky they are so close to the palace; we can walk to the council together. Maeglin, farewell."
After watching the door click shut behind his friend, Ecthelion exhaled and rolled his shoulders as if willing his body to relax. Maeglin was aware that some strange tension had left the room.
"A close fight, was it?" he asked.
"It usually is." Ecthelion moved off towards the table. "Would you excuse me for just one more moment while I put all this away?" He bent over the maps, rolling them into a tube.
"Are those the plans for the War Games, then?" asked Maeglin. "You know, Ecthelion, there is no need to be quite so careful with them when I am around. As Turgon's close kinsman, I should be trusted with the city's secrets."
"It is not a question of trust; I find it hard to believe that one of my fellow officers would seek to ruin the Games by cheating. I am simply trying to keep the information to as few people as possible so that, if any details are revealed too soon, we will know whose carelessness is to blame. At any rate, there is nothing to see here: I hid the real secrets when we first heard you knocking." His task done, Ecthelion straightened up. "Is that what you wanted to talk about? The War Games?"
How to begin? Maeglin could not mention marriage between close relatives explicitly, not until he knew that Ecthelion was a sympathetic ally, but learning his attitudes on the subject would be a delicate matter. It was most unfortunate that he had not been able to think of any other example of controversial marriage to bring up. He would just have to be vague, and hope for a lucky opening in the conversation.
"Ecthelion, we have often discussed the ways in which laws and customs differ between cultures. Here in Gondolin, among my father's people... among your Telerin relatives."
Ecthelion nodded. "It is something we are both aware of, that the underlying rules by which people live their lives are not the same everywhere. Of course, they can differ not only from culture to culture, but also from person to person. Even in this Noldorin city, there are some who habitually break—or at least ignore—the laws and customs of the Noldor." He threw a grim glance towards the bed, as if he considered the slight asymmetry of its cover unlawful. "I have come to believe that, ultimately, everyone must live their own life in accordance with their own conscience and moral judgment."
Although Ecthelion's voice was pleasant and soothing—famously so—such overly earnest hair-splitting bored Maeglin. "Oh, never mind the lecture on comparative morality. I wish to discuss the ways in which the Noldorin views on marriage differ from those of the Sindar."
"Marriage? I suppose that some Sindar might be slightly more open-minded about romance outside of marriage, but I believe that the institution itself is viewed the same way in every Elven culture I have encountered, as a union that binds a man and a woman together until the end of—"
"Of course the obvious, basic stuff is always the same! But, well... it seems to me that the Noldor constrain the choice of appropriate marriage partners more than other cultures."
"Hmm. In what way?"
This conversation was even more difficult than Maeglin had expected; he needed time to think. He moved towards a large freestanding harp and plucked at the strings, absentmindedly wondering at their metal composition.
"Maeglin." Ecthelion joined him and laid a hand on the instrument, silencing it. "While I do not want to jump to conclusions as to why you are so interested in this subject, perhaps it might help you to know that King Turgon has said his daughter is free to marry whomever she chooses. I cannot imagine it would be any different for you."
At this mention of Idril, Maeglin's chest contracted with the usual pleasurable pain. He moved away again, turning to inspect a nearby weapon rack, which held several swords, artfully arranged: Ecthelion displayed his weapons the way other people displayed flowers. It reminded Maeglin of his lovely cousin as she looked when fussing over a vase, her hair pouring forward like a fall of molten metal. The image heartened him and, inspired, he found the right question to ask. Yes, it would be a bit of a risk, but Ecthelion had a warrior's mind, unused to dwelling on hidden meanings, and was therefore unlikely to make the obvious connection.
"Anyone she chooses? Are you sure? What if Idril wanted to marry her own uncle?"
"Her uncle? Lord Fingon? That seems improbable." Ecthelion's eyes glittered with a private amusement.
"What is so funny?"
"Oh, have you not heard the rumours? It is only gossip, of course, and so I daresay we should pay it no mind, but your uncle is said to be... close in friendship with Maedhros Feanorion. So close that Maedhros might disapprove of any marriage he chooses to make."
Maeglin hated revealing that he did not grasp these Gondolindian jokes. "Maedhros Feanorion has no right to constrain Fingon in any way, friend or not. He is not High King: that is my grandfather's job, now. At any rate, he should be happy to see his friend wed someone suitable. Which brings me back to the question of—"
"You are right, of course. He has no real hold over his friend." Ecthelion's voice now sounded crisp instead of thoughtful. "But why all these concerns? Has Idril developed a sudden passion for her valiant uncle? Or are you speaking of yourself? If I recall correctly, your own father had no sisters."
Maeglin felt a surge of panic. While he was almost certain Ecthelion's comments were meant in jest, they were hitting far too close to his secret. He turned his face away, towards the weapon rack—and, miraculously, found just the distraction he needed.
"Did you know that there is something stuck behind this rack?"
"A crumpled garment of some sort, it looks like."
Maeglin reached over and pulled it out. Intrigued by his find, so incongruous in Ecthelion's neat room, he draped it over one arm and shook out the folds. It was a formal robe of heavy velvet, dark grey braided with silver. No, not just silver: there was some gold embroidery there, too, near the collar. Typical, tasteless Noldorin excess. Maeglin scowled and picked at the thread.
It came away in his fingers.
Brightness flashed before his eyes like a lightning bolt headed straight for his heart. Treachery! He turned towards Ecthelion and held up his right hand.
"What is this?"
Ecthelion stared. For a moment, his normally composed expression revealed shock and even guilt, feeding Maeglin's darkest suspicions. Then he blinked and reached forward, his face immobile as a carved mask. "A hair," he said.
Maeglin jerked the hair away before Ecthelion's fingers could profane it with their touch. "And whose hair is it?"
"Obviously Glorfindel's. He must have lost it during one of our sparring sessions."
Treachery and lies! Ecthelion's pallor and flat tone of voice had made his deceit plain. But even if he was not a skillful liar, he was a surprisingly quick thinker, for his story almost made sense. Almost, but not quite.
"Sparring in your formal clothes?" asked Maeglin.
"Well, no. Clearly not. Judging by the location of this robe, I suppose I must have removed it and given it to Glorfindel, who naturally shoved it behind the nearest piece of furniture." Ecthelion was warming up to his lies: he smiled, a little ruefully. "Now, I admit that such an action would make no sense to you or me, but Glorfindel—"
"None of it makes sense!" Maeglin raised his voice, feeling the weight of logic gather behind his words. "How on Arda did his hair get onto your robe while you were sparring if you took your robe off to spar? Do not tell me it just drifted there during your bout—there are several other hairs here, right on the shoulder, trapped in the embroidery."
"You are right. I suppose—"
"Let me guess. You are going to tell me that Glorfindel just happened to lay his head on your shoulder before you disrobed. Perhaps it is a little habit of his?"
The sarcasm worked: Ecthelion was struck speechless. "No, I most certainly am not going to tell you anything of the sort," he said at last.
"Well, then?" Maeglin thrust the robe in Ecthelion's general direction.
"Well, then... What are you suggesting, exactly?"
"Stop playing games. This hair is obviously Idril's."
"Idril's?" As he said the name, sounding it out like a melody, Ecthelion's face unfroze. Presented with this evidence of affection, Maeglin fought down nausea as Ecthelion continued. "I see. I suppose it is possible, yes. After all, I might have danced with her the last time I wore this. Now when—"
"Danced with her?"
"Yes. Why, what were you implying?"
Ecthelion's calm question made Maeglin doubt the truth of his suspicions. After all, Idril was wise and pure of heart; perhaps Ecthelion's admiration of her was perfectly innocent. Maeglin met his gaze, hoping to find it clear and honest. But Ecthelion's eyes were guarded, the eyes of one with something to hide. Maeglin remembered the earlier flicker of guilt, and reluctantly admitted that his theory made perfect sense.
For one, it explained why Idril could not see that Maeglin was her destiny, as she was his: she was investigating other, lesser alternatives. And, as far as lesser men went, Ecthelion was one of the better options. He had power: though most of his supporters were Telerin nobodies, they were numerous. He was talented, too, both as a warrior and as a singer-—two professions women seemed to find particularly appealing. Mother, for one, had considered him attractive enough, if a little dull. True, he was boringly dark, but not everyone preferred blondes.
Ecthelion must have read Maeglin's silence as capitulation. "A few hairs do not prove anything," he said.
"Ah, but it all fits so well. It explains why you are not like most of the other bachelors in the guard: why you have this vaguely satisfied air, even though I have never seen you pursue a woman. And then there are your own words about Idril, spoken just minutes ago. The way you emphasized her freedom of choice and the low likelihood of a marriage to Fingon—"
"Who is... well, her uncle."
And thus, the question Maeglin had wished to ask was answered. He hated Ecthelion then, not just for the betrayal, but also for being just as close-minded as the others. It pained him to think that he had ever viewed such a person as a potential friend. "Yes, her uncle! So what? At least he is a man of high birth. As for you—who are your ancestors? Common troubadours and designers of fountains! I doubt you would even have a lordship if you were not so competent and so popular with all the little peasants. And now you seek to climb even higher—is there no end to your ambition? She is your High King's granddaughter! She is so far above—"
"Maeglin." Ecthelion's commanding tone made Maeglin think of his parents. "While I am very flattered by your positive opinion of my abilities, I would like to ask you to refrain from shouting at me in my own home."
Treachery, lies—and now insolence! Maeglin wanted to slap the arrogant upstart, but he was aware that, no matter how high he drew himself up, Ecthelion was taller. He consoled himself with the thought that the contest for Idril's hand would not be won with brute strength, but with wits, and there he was clearly superior.
"I promise you this: you will not wed her," he said.
"Well, yes, I can promise you the same thing."
Ecthelion smiled, as if his words had been an attempt at reconciliation, and not a challenge. With a great effort of will, Maeglin refrained from throwing the vile garment in his face. Instead, he let it fall to the ground, but not before picking out all the precious hairs.
"I shall keep these. As evidence," he added quickly.
He turned on his heel and strode out, remembering to slam both the upstairs and the downstairs doors.
By the time he had reached the palace, Maeglin felt much calmer. He sought out a favourite dark nook beside an iron portcullis and examined his left hand. Wound around a finger, the golden hairs looked like a promise-band. Well, he had made a promise to Ecthelion; now he repeated it, speaking to the hairs as if addressing his dear cousin.
"He will not have you. He does not deserve you, and I will make you see it."
So what if Ecthelion was well respected? He had to have vices. Everyone did; well, everyone except Idril. Whatever Ecthelion's hidden faults were, Maeglin would find them.
Beyond the palace windows, Gondolin still glittered like an enormous, vulgar suncatcher, but this time Maeglin did not mind the brightness. It seemed like a good omen for one seeking to expose deep-hidden secrets.
0. To those who do not know me (and those who do, too): I love constructive criticism. Actually, I love all feedback, but I am particularly interested in comments that will help me improve the story and my writing in general. They don't even have to be all that constructive. A question like, "What was going on with Glorfindel and Ecthelion, and whose hair was that, anyway?" would be most welcome, too. Puzzling, but welcome.
1. The title is a roundabout reference to Tolkien's essay on the Laws and Customs of the Eldar, where we are told that
"Marriage, save for rare ill chances or strange fates, was the natural course of life for all the Eldar. ... their time of generation was in their youth or earlier life, unless strange and hard fates befell them."
2. Yes, Gondolin sure had a lot of names.
"Tis said and 'tis sung: 'Gondobar am I called and Gondothlibar, City of Stone and City of Dwellers in Stone; Gondolin the Stone of Song and Gwarestrin am I named, Tower of Guard, Gar Thurion or the Secret Place, for I am hidden from the eyes of Melko; but they who love me most greatly call me Loth, for like a flower am I, even Lothengriol the flower that blooms on the plain.'"
This is why it was also called 'The City of Seven Names'. In addition we have 'Loth-a-ladwen', the Lily of the Plain. And that's all just Sindarin; it was Ondolinde in Quenya. I am sure that Morgoth had a few choice names for it, too.
3. A Gondolinnel is one of the Gondolindrim.
4. When the Elves first awoke, there were three Elven kindred or races: the Vanyar, the Noldor, and the Teleri. The Silmarillion deals mostly with the Noldor, who seem to have had a real adventurous streak. All the assorted wood-elves (e.g., Maeglin's father) are descendants of the Teleri. The Vanyar are living back in Valinor. In "The Fall of Gondolin", Ecthelion of the Fountain(s) is described as a Noldo. However, given that the Teleri were famed for being the finest singers, and fond of water besides, I feel that making him part Telerin is reasonably consistent with the canon. Many prominent Noldor were of mixed ancestry: for example, Turgon was part Vanyarin, and had a Vanyarin wife. (For the purposes of this fic, I have decided that Glorfindel was related to her. Well, he is blond.)
5. Regarding the whole "wedding customs differ" conversation. While the Silmarillion does say that
"[Maeglin was] moved the beauty of Idril and desired her, without hope. The Eldar wedded not with kin so near, nor ever before had any desired to do so."
in the essay on Laws and Customs of the Eldar we read that
"‘First cousins', as we should say, might marry, but seldom did so, or desired to do so, unless one of the parents of each were far-sundered in kin."
This is why Maeglin's theory that the Noldor (or at least the Gondolindrim) are stricter than other Elves sounds somewhat reasonable to me.
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