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Flawed and Fair: 3. Finwe's Grandchild
Turgon was a wise lord. He knew much about his subjects and their amusements, and he would, with foresight and compassion, make a point of keeping a decanter of pure water in his study on certain mornings.
"Please, do have another."
As Ecthelion accepted the full glass, he could not help feeling as if he were repaying openhearted kindness with a lie. He knew he was only confirming Turgon in the belief that his pained appearance was a result of wholesome, if over-enthusiastic, revelry. In reality, of course, Ecthelion was tormented by the memory of last night's temptation. However, he could never confess this to his lord, whose opinions on the matter of such debaucheries were widely known. Egalmoth still spoke of the music-hall incident of a year ago, when Turgon had thrown a harpist out of the room for singing a suggestive song about Turgon's brother Fingon, his cousin Maedhros, and their dueling swords.
But today Turgon was all gentleness, his speech soft as he offered Ecthelion advice.
"Be wary," he said. "For although Morgoth is besieged up North, there are many other perils in this land."
Ecthelion knew this already, but he also knew that it was Turgon's great love for his younger sister, whom he considered 'a shy, white woodland flower,' that made him so overprotective. Ecthelion, in turn, loved his lord—blessedly, in a pure way, uncomplicated by unnatural desires. And so he had accepted the position in Aredhel's escort, in spite of all his misgivings. Soon, he would be spending all his time talking to Glorfindel, eating with Glorfindel, sleeping with Glorfindel... it was difficult not to dwell on the possibilities. Mustering his fading willpower, Ecthelion listened to the repetitive warnings, and nodded sympathetically.
An hour or so later, Ecthelion walked out onto the palace courtyard. It was filled by the usual crowd of foppish courtiers, absent-minded scholars, and harassed pages, but one striking figure stood out among the common rabble.
Glorfindel looked quite well for someone who had, only twelve hours earlier, found walking unsupported difficult. Only the lightest shadows under his eyes betrayed him.
"Well met, Ecthelion," he said.
Here it came: the mutually embarrassing show of misplaced gratitude. Ecthelion braced himself. "Well met, Glorfindel. I suppose you have heard that I will be joining Aredhel's escort? I am told that Salgant could not bear to be away from his family for so long."
"Well, it is a hard thing to be separated from those you care for," said Glorfindel.
Ecthelion was irritated by the diplomacy of that statement; any other guardsman would have pointed out that Salgant, a man who spent all his off-duty hours in the officers' drinking hall was, presumably, quite used to not seeing his family.
Glorfindel went on. "Yes, I had heard the good news; I came here to congratulate you and also to, well... thank you for your assistance."
"Please do not mention it." Ecthelion meant every word.
"But I must. My state was inexcusable. I really want you to know that I do not normally drink anywhere near that much. It is just that everyone wanted to toast my departure, and—"
"That is understandable. You have many friends." Ecthelion really wanted this exchange to end. Still, there was something more that needed to be said, and, as uncomfortable as it made him feel, he knew that he was the only one who could say it. "You might want to be more careful in the future, though. You were barely conscious. What if you had fallen prey to a... practical joke?"
"Oh, that seems very unlikely. I was not so far gone that I would have accepted any assistance from Salgant. Even when drunk, I am still myself." Glorfindel's voice carried such confidence that Ecthelion felt almost convinced. He longed to be certain: to know that he could not really have fallen, that, if he had tried to fall, Glorfindel would have helped him by throwing him down the stairs.
"I suppose you were fairly in character," he said absentmindedly. "You have always been naturally affectionate."
"Affectionate?" Glorfindel paled. "Merciful Manwe. Ecthelion, I am so sorry. I thought... What did I do?"
"You rubbed my shoulder."
"Ah. Your shoulder. I think I remember that. Good. And, really, it was only natural, seeing as I had been hanging off it all the way home." Glorfindel, red-faced now, forced a laugh. "But I fell asleep immediately afterwards, right?"
"I do not know. I left... What do you mean, you 'think you remember that?' You just said you were not all that far gone."
After a brief venture into his natural skin tones, Glorfindel was red again; he seemed to be turning into one of those flashing lamps the Palace put out on holidays. "I was not. I do remember the shoulder incident. I just thought it was part of a dream. Truly, I can remember everything. Falling down the stairs. And the key." Glorfindel touched his hip. Ecthelion hoped he was recalling some bruise sustained in the fall and not the trauma of the key search. "Getting into bed, and... undressing... which is, again, only natural. It is healthy to sleep in the nude."
"Why, certainly it is." Ecthelion could just picture it. The dark green sheets, and Glorfindel upon them. Knowing it was horribly cliché, he thought of shafts of sunlight in a murky wood. At that thought, the green sheets turned to moss, a surface they might both be sleeping on in a few days. Ecthelion was getting increasingly worried about the logistics of this trip.
"Except, perhaps, while on a mission such as ours," he said. "We would not want to frighten the lady."
"Frighten Aredhel?" Glorfindel looked doubtful. "You do not know her very well, do you?"
"No," said Ecthelion. But of course Glorfindel did. Had not Egalmoth implied that there was something between them? How else could Glorfindel have known her attitudes towards nudity?
"You will." Glorfindel sighed, exactly as a wistful lover might.
They rode out of Gondolin the following morning, under the envious eyes of a cheering crowd. No doubt they made a splendid sight, clad in their fine mail and flowing cloaks: Ecthelion in silver, Aredhel in white, Glorfindel in green and gold, and Egalmoth in an outfit Ecthelion could not bring himself to contemplate. The trip through the valley passed without incident. Aredhel seemed giddy, delighted both with the journey itself and with her companions. Ecthelion discovered that he was expected to sing, just as Egalmoth was expected to discuss the finer points of archery and gossip, and Glorfindel—to amuse the lady by being teased. About his hair, his clothes, the length of his sword; about anything, including the invariable cheerful politeness with which he deflected all comments. Ecthelion himself would have considered this torture rather than flirtation, but then, he was not Aredhel's admirer.
Once they were outside the Encircling Mountains, the mood changed. Aredhel rode out ahead and turned to face her escort, her back soldier-straight, her face imperious.
"Now that this journey begins in earnest," she said, "I want to make a few things clear. First of all, the purpose of my trip is to visit my cousin Celegorm in Himland. I would prefer to have your company, but it is not vital. Secondly, as long as we travel together, I am in charge. It is only right, as I am Finwe's grandchild. And, thirdly, I expect all three of you to answer to the name Huan. I have always wanted a faithful servant called Huan, and I cannot be bothered with all these Sindarin names."
The first two statements had not been unexpected, but the third... "My lady, you may be Finwe's grandchild, but we are your escort, not your servants—"
"Ecthelion, no," Glorfindel whispered.
How could he defend, even admire, such an infuriating woman? Ecthelion, at any rate, would not fall for her wiles. "And you certainly do not have the right to rename us on a whim. I intend to answer to 'Ecthelion', or 'Ehtelion' if you really insist, or even 'Hey you!' in an emergency. But definitely not to Huan."
Aredhel smiled. "Oh, very well. I will forget the renaming business. But I am glad the rest has all been settled." She rode off a short distance. "Are you three not coming, then? Never mind. Finwe's grandchild needs no escort."
They followed, of course. They owed it to Turgon.
They made camp just before sunset. The guardsmen built a fire while Aredhel stood some distance away, practicing her archery skills on a dead tree.
"Truly, I am glad to be on this journey," said Egalmoth. "It has long been my life's ambition to visit every Elven realm in Beleriand."
"That is rather ironic," said Ecthelion, "considering that you live in a sealed-off city."
"Many of life's ambitions are tinged with irony. Do you have a life's ambition, Ecthelion?"
Ecthelion quickly rejected the first idea that popped into his head, the one about Glorfindel, the forest stream, and the shampoo. Not only was it not an actual ambition as such, but it was utterly shameful. Striving to focus on virtue, he devised a nobler option. "Yes. My life's ambition is to defend the innocent. In Gondolin, or anywhere."
"That is possibly the least interesting ambition I have ever heard of," said Egalmoth. "And not even a bit ironic. Ecthelion, you may be righteous, but you are also very boring."
Even without looking, Ecthelion knew that Glorfindel was scrutinizing him thoughtfully. He braced himself, waiting for the inevitable compassionate words.
"I think," said Glorfindel, "that Ecthelion—"
"Please do not say that it was my childhood. I mean, I know I spent a large part of it living in Alqualonde, and... " Ecthelion could still recall the sickening shock of arriving at the city after it had been sacked by the Feanorions. His lord's allies. He remembered looking for the music school and finding only a dark outline filled with twisted shapes. "Fine, Glorfindel, you win. I admit that the kinslaying might have upset me on some level. Happy now?"
Glorfindel looked far less smug than he had expected. "Well, no, of course not. I think—"
"I think we all have mixed feelings about the Feanorions," said Egalmoth. "However, seeing as we are on our way to visit one, perhaps this is not the best time to explore them."
"I could not agree more," said Ecthelion.
"Good. In that case, let us discuss your ambitions, Glorfindel. And your heritage. You are part Vanyarin, are you not? Plenty of ironic possibilities there, I think. Do you want to go back to Valinor?"
"No, of course not. As long as there are dark forces afoot in Middle-earth, my place is here. But if you want to know my non-boring ambition, it is to somehow convince one of the Eagles to take me up into the sky."
This was exactly why Ecthelion had to hate Glorfindel: because he could say something noble, and mean it, and then, suddenly, laugh and give a light answer to a bizarre question. It was fortunate that they slept on opposite sides of the campfire, and that nobody seemed in the mood to explore the health benefits of nudity. Still, Ecthelion spent far too much of his watch staring over the fire and realizing that clothes were no impediment to one gifted with a perfect memory—although the reflection of the flames on naked skin might have made for an interesting effect. He knew such thoughts were wrong, but they were the only way to keep his mind off Aredhel and all that flirtatious teasing.
The following day, when they reached the fork in the road, Aredhel turned south without a moment's hesitation. Her escort followed, and soon all four were riding among the trees of Doriath. Ecthelion felt happy to be in a proper forest again, even if the sunlight shining through the branches reminded him of a certain inappropriate fantasy. Or perhaps because of this, for the others seemed slightly uneasy.
"There is something strange about this place," said Glorfindel.
"Well, we are definitely being watched," said Egalmoth. "But I am not sure how strange that is. We are crossing a border, after all."
Not being a skilled hunter, Ecthelion could not detect any watchers; he was, however, aware of the forest's enchantment, and he did feel that there might be something unusual about it, something that was due to more than the familiar magic of nature. This impression was confirmed when the trees thinned, and they found themselves back at the spot where they had first entered the woods.
Aredhel said nothing. She simply turned around, and waited for the others to do the same before heading back inside.
The next time it happened, she growled and doubled back without waiting.
It was only on the third attempt that they finally met the border guards. As they rounded an ancient oak, they found their path barred by two grim-faced Sindar. The dark-haired one carried the largest bow Ecthelion had ever seen, while the pale-haired one held an interesting longspear.
"Hail, Noldor," the bowman said. "Halt and tell us why you persist in trying to enter our forest."
Aredhel rode forward. "I am Aredhel, daughter of High King Fingolfin, grandchild of—"
"I know who you are," the spearman said. "We have met before. Although I expect I was below the notice of such a high Noldorin lady."
From her high seat on her horse, Aredhel studied him as if inspecting the trail of a strange animal. "Ah. I believe you came to my father's council," she said at last. Judging from her expression, she had just decided the animal was below the notice of a serious huntress. "Now, will you show us the path that leads to the eastern edge of these woods?"
"Why would you want to go there?"
"I wish to visit my cousin Celegorm."
"The Feanorion! Curse him and his kin." The spearman took a step back and spat upon the ground. The bowman followed his lead; and a rain-like sound coming from the trees suggested that they concealed many more warriors, all of whom shared the anti-Feanorian sentiment.
The bowman toyed with his quiver. "These woods are not open to the friends of the sons of Feanor." Again, he spat after saying the hated name. This time, Ecthelion tried to count the sounds made by the concealed Sindar, arriving at two dozen.
"In fact," the spearman said, "they are closed to all Noldor." He replanted his spear.
Aredhel rode forward a bit further, ignoring the implicit threats. "Yet I am quite certain that my cousins Ingoldo and Artanis have traveled through these woods."
"Certain, perhaps, but mistaken," the spearman said. "None have entered our realm bearing such hideous Noldorin names."
"Mablung," said the bowman thoughtfully. "I think she means that man who is always asking strange questions, and who loses so gracefully when we play cards. And that sister of his with the stare, the one who always wins. They have some Noldorin blood, I believe."
"Oh, them," said Mablung. "Well, they are relatives of our King. These travelers clearly are not."
"Ecthelion is part Telerin," said Egalmoth.
"Ecthelion? The one with the spear?" Mablung looked at said spear in a most insolent way, obviously aware that his own weapon was both larger and scarier. "He looks like a typical Noldo to me. And even if he does have Telerin blood... how would that help your case? I could never trust a Teler who, of his own free will, wished to visit one of Feanor's kinslaying, um... kin."
The spitting that followed seemed more profuse than before, but Ecthelion would not be intimidated. "I travel as I do in the service of my lord, King Turgon."
"King Turgon?" the bowman asked. "Is he the one who rescued the Feanorian leader?"
"No, he is the one with the hidden city," said Mablung after the usual Feanorian-inspired spitting was over. He was still staring at Ecthelion. "Tell me, Noldo, is your city near here?"
Ecthelion felt annoyed. And reasonably confident that he could take down this judgmental, over-inquisitive tree-dweller, no matter how their spears compared.
"We cannot speak of this." Glorfindel edged forward on Ecthelion's right. "We must protect our city, just as you protect your realm. I am sure you understand. After all, we are warriors with a common cause. Are we not all simply obeying the commands of our lords? And, since it is your king's law that keeps us out of this forest, might we not at least petition him in person? Our errand is... urgent."
Listening to him speak, Ecthelion felt strangely proud: of his composed beauty, of his reasonable words, even of that slight hesitation on 'urgent' that revealed his honest nature. For a moment, he even thought the speech would work. The spearman smiled.
"Perhaps. If you agree to give up all your weapons, travel blindfolded, and then pay homage to King Thingol as king of all Beleriand."
"As king of—" Aredhel's horse danced and backed away. "Come, men, we are wasting our time here."
Glorfindel persisted in his diplomatic efforts. "If you will not let us through, will you at least tell us if there is another way?"
The Sindar exchanged glances. Then, the bowman spoke. "Your path must lead around Doriath, to the north or to the south, but the northern road, the one leading through the Nan Dungortheb and the Fords of Aros, will be faster. Though perilous."
"To you Sindar, perhaps. We Noldor laugh at peril," said Aredhel.
The spearman jiggled his spear again. "Do you also laugh at orcs and giant spiders?"
"Speak not of giant spiders to a grandchild of Finwe, Dark Elf!" said Aredhel. "Long have I despised their smaller brethren, and killed them on sight, ruining many a fine slipper and scroll. Filling them with my arrows will be both a solemn duty and a great pleasure. Indeed, now that you have spoken of them, I am impatient for our first encounter."
For once, Ecthelion sympathized with her. He sought Mablung's eye again, warrior to warrior. "It is quite true," he said. "We Noldor like killing large spiders."
Mablung's expression was only half-mocking. "Well, give it a try then. But..." he appeared to struggle with himself. "Do not drink any of the water that comes off the mountains. It is poisonous. Stick to the edge of the forest; you will find sweet water there."
He would say nothing more. Ecthelion gave him a nod before departing.
As they rode out of the woods, Aredhel refused to talk about her travel plans. "The trees may have Sindarin ears," she said.
Her escort trailed behind her, discussing the matter in low voices.
"I would not mind shooting a giant spider or two," said Egalmoth. "Do you think they twitch much, when they die?"
"It would be interesting to find out," said Glorfindel. "And, of course, it would make a fine story, once we are back in the city."
It was up to Ecthelion to say what needed to be said. "You are right, spider-slaying sounds most amusing," he began. "And yet... Nan Dungortheb: The Valley Of Dreadful Death. If I recall correctly, it lies just south of the Mountains of Terror, and, of course, just north of a forest inhabited by some Sindar who do not seem to like us very much. Is this really the sort of place where we would want to take our lord's only sister?"
"I was wondering who among us would have the courage to bring that up," said Glorfindel. "Of course, now I am wondering who will have the courage to bring it up with the lady."
Egalmoth took up the challenge once they reached the edge of the wood. "My lady!" he said. "As those Sindar said, the road through Nan Dungortheb is perilous—"
Aredhel threw him a furious glance. "You are either a coward, or a fool, if you doubt my courage."
Ecthelion could think of nothing to say to that; but Glorfindel rode forward.
"My lady, we value your courage highly. It is just that you travel under our protection."
Aredhel turned around. "I did not ask for protection, but for an honour guard. If you think me weak, then you are blinded by my gender."
"No, my lady, I do not think you weak. Your prowess with the bow is often discussed among the men of the Guard. However, the risk—"
"I do not ask you to risk your lives for me."
"No. But you will risk your own, just to travel to Himland." Glorfindel spoke gently. "Will you not, at least, discuss the matter?"
"Oh, very well."
The two of them dismounted and began a debate. As far as Ecthelion could tell, it was immediately going round in the expected circles.
"I suppose," said Egalmoth, "that Glorfindel will do his best, even if the odds are not good. Let us set up camp."
Ecthelion took charge of the horses. When he next looked over towards Aredhel, she was sitting on a fallen log, and talking earnestly. Glorfindel was seated close beside her. Ecthelion felt strangely pained, for they did make a fine couple, a pleasingly contrasting one. He touched his own dark hair, decided that he was a perfect idiot, and turned away.
He had only just started the campfire when Egalmoth joined him, carrying a small handful of wood.
"Poor Glorfindel," he said. "I accidentally overheard a bit. They were discussing the effects a long separation might have on the heart. I had only just heard Celegorm's name mentioned when Aredhel spotted me and told me to stop skulking in the bushes."
Poor Glorfindel indeed, since soon he might be separated from Aredhel, with whom he was speaking of love. Ecthelion could not decide whether to pity Glorfindel, or himself. Or, indeed, Celegorm, if he really was the object of Aredhel's affections.
Glorfindel certainly looked rather pitiable as he assumed his usual spot by the fire.
"The Valley Of Dreadful Death it is," he said.
Egalmoth wasted no time. "So, what did Finwe's grandchild say about Finwe's other grandchild? Celegorm, I mean?"
"Why not ask her yourself?"
While Glorfindel's answer was diplomatic, his tone was less so. Ecthelion winced at this obvious sign of pain.
"Of course," said Egalmoth, "We all know what they say about half-cousins in our ruling family. Has either of you heard Salgant's latest song about Fingon and Maedhros?"
Ecthelion had not, but then, he did not want to. Or rather, he wanted to, quite badly, but he really did not need to. He would have to distract Egalmoth, and quickly. Perhaps he could...
"I have not," said Glorfindel. He seemed eager for a change of subject. "What sort of song is it?"
"Oh, a hilarious one. It is titled 'Where Is His Other Hand?'"
Ecthelion had expected something more erotic. But this was a mockery: of Maedhros' disability, certainly, but, even worse, of his own innermost desires. "But that is obscene," he said. "Hideous."
"It is rather a strange song, yes. I cannot remember it exactly, but in the first verse—"
"Egalmoth, I do not want to hear this."
"Do you truly think it so hideous?" Glorfindel was looking at Ecthelion intently. "Why do you judge it so harshly? Desire is not always given where one chooses, is not always wise."
Yes, Glorfindel was ever the defender of difficult people. But even he would not be speaking with such sympathy if he had any inkling of just how unwise desire could be. The temptation to simply slide over there and show him was not particularly strong, but it was there. Ecthelion turned away from the bright gaze and looked into bright flames.
But Glorfindel would not give up. "Indeed, unwise desire is rather common. Just think of all the men you know who long for an unavailable woman."
Ecthelion understood then: this was no idle sympathy. This was about Aredhel, who loved her cousin, and so was not available to other men. He stared unblinking into the fire until his eyes watered.
But now Egalmoth was speaking again, eager. "You think that it is true about Fingon, then?"
"I do not know," said Glorfindel. "It is none of our business, surely."
"I doubt it," said Egalmoth. "They both seem rather competent. Surely a forbidden attachment of that type would affect their ability to perform their duties?"
"No, I cannot believe that," said Glorfindel. "Two people who are both of valiant, honourable heart, who feel for each other—surely such people will strive all the harder, so as not to shame themselves in one another's eyes. Hone their battle skills and their honour together. Inspire each other to deeds of surpassing courage and greatness."
His voice had grown richer and deeper as he spoke. Now he shone: eyes, hair, skin, all were shining with the strength of his belief. Ecthelion shifted, painfully roused by this sudden evidence of passion. He thought of Aredhel who was surely valiant—and, even more surely, foolish to reject someone so irritatingly glorious.
"Even when the situation is impossible, when desire is not returned..." Glorfindel smiled sadly. "Even then, something good can, I think, come of it. That inspiration will still be there, even if it is only one-sided."
How could he torment himself so over someone so unworthy? Ecthelion wanted to do Glorfindel violence. Throw him on the ground, weigh him down so he could not breathe. Shut him up. He knew his anger was an ugly emotion, but he could not hold it back.
"That certainly sounds like a useful sort of bond," he said, "if it will 'inspire' that Feanorion to ever greater deeds. After all, we know what his other hand will most likely be doing. Killing a Teler."
Glorfindel flinched slightly. Egalmoth raised his eyebrows.
"That was a bit abrupt, not to mention over-wrought," he said. "But it does seem appropriate. You should ask Salgant to put it in the song."
"I see what you mean, Ecthelion—I was not thinking." Glorfindel had recovered from his shocked silence. "Is that why you thought it hideous and obscene?"
Ecthelion considered saying that it was, objectively, hideous and obscene and wrong, but the hypocrisy of that statement gave him pause. It was a difficult moment. Relief came from a very unexpected source.
"Come quickly!" Aredhel stepped into the firelight. Her smile was so joyous that, for a moment, even Ecthelion could see that she was beautiful. "And bring your weapons. There are orcs out in the valley."
0. In case anyone out there does not know this, Maedhros and Fingon are arguably the slashiest elf couple in all of Tolkien's works. I can recommend some amazing angsty Maedhros/Fingon stories.
1. The name thing: back in Valinor, the Noldor spoke Quenya and had Quenya names. In Middle-Earth, they took on new, Sindarin names, and started to speak Sindarin, in part to appease the irritated Sindar. So "Ehtelion" is supposed to be Ecthelion's Quenya name. Oh, and Huan was Celegorm's magical dog.
2. Among the Elves, cooking is more commonly done by men. Women usually bake the bread, though.
3. Regarding my heroes' heritage: in canon, both Ecthelion and Glorfindel are described as Noldor. However, Ecthelion's affinities for water and music just scream 'some Telerin blood' to me. And there has to be some explanation for Glorfindel's yellow hair. (All the blond Noldor we know of have some Vanyarin blood.)
4. Ingoldo and Artanis are the Quenya names of Finrod and Galadriel. Aredhel uses them because she is feeling increasingly Noldorin and snooty.
5. The name "Ecthelion" can (possibly) be derived from the Sindarin word "Ecthel", meaning point of a spear. That is how Mablung picks Ecthelion out: he is the only one with a spear.
6. Glorfindel's little outburst is based (very loosely) on the immensely slashy speech of Phaedrus in Plato's Symposium. Sample thereof:
"And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; and when fighting at each other's side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world."
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