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The Quick and the Dead: 1. The Quick and the Dead
"Worked out what?" asked Ecthelion. He finished pulling on his second boot and looked up to where Glorfindel, fully dressed, stood fussing in front of the mirror. "The Turgon situation?"
"No. The Glorfindel and Ecthelion situation." Glorfindel's reflection made a face. "Or should I say Ecthelion and Glorfindel?"
"Either order is fine by me, in general, but do you really have to bring it up in the changing room?" This close to the entrance, they could hear the clang of practice weapons in the courtyard outside, while deeper in a few guardsmen splashed about under the water streams, washing off sweat. Still, nobody was within earshot. A year ago, that would have been quite impossible.
"Why shouldn't I bring it up in here? Surely people cannot object to a discussion of our innocent friendship?" The last two words, though quiet, sounded surprisingly emphatic, but before Ecthelion could react--the matter they touched upon was complicated--Glorfindel continued. "Anyway, as I was saying, I have worked it out. It is my hair, isn't it?"
Ecthelion watched him tug at a few strands in an attempt to get them to hang straight. At its present length, his hair was obviously curly, and tended to fall into unfashionably asymmetrical shapes. "Your hair? I think it would look more even if you got someone to, well, even it out. But what does that have to do with… with anything?"
"Even it out? But that would mean cutting it even more, thus delaying its recovery. And so our innocent friendship would be prolonged."
Again, that emphasis on 'innocent friendship'… and Ecthelion understood at last. "You think I am physically repulsed by your short hair?"
"Exactly. We never had any problems until I cut it off."
"Yes we did." Ecthelion glanced towards the bathers, confirming that they were still disinterested. "There was the time we did not speak for--"
"Not serious problems… serious innocent-friendship-type problems. The attraction between us has always been strong, and very mutual, wouldn't you agree? And now, well… Not that I blame you." Glorfindel grabbed a strand and held it out straight in front of his face. "Eru, I hate the way it gets while damp."
Ecthelion considered this theory. Yes, the short hair had been a shock at first: though half of his own men had shorn their hair after the Nirnaeth, he had not expected Glorfindel to follow the Telerin custom. And it was true that, ever since, looking at his friend had failed to provoke anything more than vague affection. He sat back, and closed his eyes, reviewing memories of Glorfindel's hair in its greatest splendour, swinging halfway down his back… even sweeping across his own skin.
Ecthelion reopened his eyes. "I honestly think you are wrong. Besides…" He stood up and joined Glorfindel at the mirror. "I have told you that I am perfectly willing to do anything you want."
"Yes, you and your perfect physical self-control." The look Glorfindel sent him from beneath his damp hair was heated: accusatory. His face had reddened slightly. "Your newly gained self-control. I congratulate you on it. Now goodbye. I will see you tomorrow."
"Right, tomorrow." Ecthelion watched him leave, taken aback by this display of emotion. When they had discussed the matter in private, Glorfindel had been calm and understanding, almost irritatingly so. Of course, that had been before their wounds had healed; before Ecthelion had recovered enough arm-strength to win a sparring-match as thoroughly as he had won today's. Had Glorfindel's outburst been triggered by that? By a vanity hurt both by the defeat and by what he saw in the mirror? The vanity made him seem like the old Glorfindel, but the anger felt even more alien than the explosive grief that had led him to cut his hair.
Grief, yes. As he walked home, Ecthelion noticed, yet again, how empty the city seemed, as if the losses of the Nirnaeth had amounted to half its population rather than a few thousand soldiers. And yet the streets were busy enough… Busy, but not bustling. The crowds moved more quietly, more slowly than he remembered. It felt as if the song of Gondolin had changed key from major to minor.
But such fanciful thoughts were unproductive, so he dismissed them. After all, he had work to do. The battle had revealed much about Morgoth's forces, and few people understood that this new knowledge needed to be collected and preserved--and now even Glorfindel, usually a reliable ally in such matters, was acting strangely. Still, there was some hope that he would recover from his odd mood in time for their next meeting.
Ecthelion's hope proved vain. Glorfindel barely took the time to dump the papers he had brought onto a table before starting up once more.
"So, Ecthelion," he said, his voice tight. "Is there anything you would like to tell me?"
"What sort of anything?" asked Ecthelion while studying him closely, looking for clues. "Um… Your hair looks nice. Have you had it evened out?"
"Actually, yes, I have. Though I am surprised you'd notice, considering that-- You see, I went to The Silver Braid, on the Way of Running Waters. They were having a special on trims. And I heard the barbers talking." He straightened in a challenging way. "Turns out that one of them is married to the cousin of the sculpture teacher of the woman who runs your local linen shop."
Ecthelion tried to decipher this. "Which cousin? The one who sells tacky costume jewellery at the Southern Market--I think her name begins with N--or the one who works as a scout of Galdor's?"
"I do not know. Although it makes sense that *you* would."
"Well, yes," said Ecthelion, "indeed it does, seeing as I have lived in this neighbourhood for centuries, but going by your dark tone I must assume that--"
"There is no need to be snide. Anyway, do you truly have nothing to tell me? With regards to the linen shop, perhaps?"
The only connection Ecthelion could make between Glorfindel and the linen shop was that the shop was where he bought his bedsheets, but this did not seem like a very significant link, especially not these days. "No, I am afraid not," he said.
"How about if I were to inform you that people have seen you spending a lot of time there lately?"
"Then I would reply that you are probably right." The owner's son, a signifer in his second company--an excellent flautist, too--had died of an Orc spear to the chest. "But I am not sure how this concerns you."
Glorfindel flinched. "Ecthelion…" he began, then stopped, looking so miserable that Ecthelion decided to make more of an effort.
"I go there on my rounds," he said. "When I visit the dead men's families. And I really do not understand why you are this… troubled. Explain?"
"You do not?" asked Glorfindel. He seemed to pull himself together. "It is the daughter, of course. The barber said that you spend so much time with her that he hopes to hear of a betrothal soon. Apparently, you walk her everywhere, and--"
"I walk *with* her to choir rehearsals, because that is where we are both going. She is already betrothed to one of my men." Second company, too, now missing, presumed dead--hopefully dead, really, in Ecthelion's view. Not that he could share this bothersome thought with anyone else, of course. "And even if she wasn't, this is hardly the time for romance."
"So you seem to think." Glorfindel looked away, his face blank. "And yet, with so many people hurt and lonely, I cannot help feeling that--"
"Anyway, the mere idea of me getting betrothed to a woman is completely laughable."
"Is it? I know you believe that marriage is the desirable, natural state--you certainly suspect me of longing for it often enough--and of course right now you cannot even claim it would be particularly unfair to the woman. I mean, I am sure that in your generosity you would be able to do anything she wanted, and it is not as if you would be distracted by baser desires."
Ecthelion heard, again, the resentment behind these words, and recognized it as jealousy. So, this was the connection between the accusation and Glorfindel's unhappiness. Why had he not noticed it sooner? He felt as if he had been watching a bad, disjointed play when he should have been acting in it, and so had missed his cue. "I am sorry," he said. "I suppose I should have begun by saying that I could never do that to you."
Glorfindel did not seem satisfied. "Do what to me? Would a marriage of yours really make that much of a difference to my life as it now stands?"
So, he was back to that again. "Should I answer that seriously, or were you just indulging in your new pastime of dragging the act of bodily union into every conversation?"
"A serious answer would be most welcome. And I did not just mean sex, although I am not surprised that you assumed so. After all, you have never felt comfortable expressing affection in any other way."
"That is just not true." Ecthelion would think of appropriate examples soon, but first he had to answer Glorfindel's question. "Anyway, what I meant is that I could not betray you like that. I know we have no formal arrangement, but the way we have spoken of the future… I have all but given you my word."
"Your word." Glorfindel stared at him, unblinking. "Is that really what this is about, for you? Oh well, I hereby release you from any such obligation you might feel. How does that--"
"You cannot release me from my obligations," said Ecthelion, "not even if they concern you. Only the Valar can do so. Or Eru, of course."
"Then it is too bad for you that neither the Valar nor Eru seem to be taking much interest in the welfare of our people anymore, isn't it? Although it makes your attitude all the stranger: I would have expected this to make you all the more willing to act in ways the gods allegedly disapprove of, not less."
Ecthelion was surprised to hear Glorfindel express such dark sentiments about the gods--surprised, but not unpleasantly so, since it was a real relief to have his own misgivings echoed by someone he respected so deeply. "The Valar. Yes, yes, I do think they may have turned away from Middle-earth, certainly, but as for what this means for us…"
Ecthelion took a moment to think of the best way to resolve Glorfindel's moral doubts. "Well, I am sure you would agree that doing the right thing just so that other people can see one do it is not particularly laudable. I believe this applies to the sight of the Valar as well, so even if they have stopped paying attention, we still have a duty--"
"Duty!" Glorfindel shouted, before regaining control and continuing in a low, but still angry, tone. "While of course I am glad to find out what I am to you, at last, I would like you to know that you can take your duty and shove it up your arse. Luckily for you, you will not even have to pretend to enjoy it."
This quip seemed to bring him some satisfaction, so that for a moment he looked almost smug. Then he turned around and strode out the door, slamming it so hard that it rebounded and remained ajar.
It was a good dramatic exit, Ecthelion knew that much, but beyond that his sense of drama left him. Should he have yelled back? Run after Glorfindel? Or would that have ruined things even more? He did not know, so he sat down at the table, and, after a few moments, started leafing through Glorfindel's abandoned notes, which were, after all, important.
He found many drawings, which was unsurprising: Glorfindel was, as usual, responsible for the illustrations of the book they hoped to produce. Over time, he had developed a simple but lively drawing style, suitable for turning into exciting etchings of Dark creatures in action. These sketches, however, were different. Instead of preparing to strike, the monsters simply floated at the center of the page, amid diagrams of their preferred weapons. Even the Elf who appeared in every picture as an indicator of scale no longer reacted to his natural enemies at all, but just stood there looking stoic. The changes made the illustrations seem tactfully safer; Ecthelion approved. He picked up the topmost one--an Orcish archer--and tried to recall how he had seen such troops used in the battle.
"You went straight to work." Glorfindel had returned, no doubt to retrieve the notes. He stepped though the half-open door and closed it. "So calmly, too. Oh, Ecthelion. You really do not feel anything anymore, do you? I know, I know, argument is ugly and pointless; I should go home. I just hope it is all right if I sit here for a moment, until I calm down."
"Of course." Ecthelion watched him choose a window seat, lean back in it and glance around the room as if lost. How could he imagine there was anything wrong with his hair? It shone brightly as ever, especially with the sun behind it, and the strands that fell against his eyebrows and cheekbone were like little arrows pointing out his fine features.
"I really do like your short hair just fine, you know," he said.
Glorfindel did not respond to this, but his scan of the room became more deliberate, until it looked like he was cataloguing all its contents--well, all its contents besides Ecthelion. This non-scrutiny felt oddly uncomfortable. Without fully considering what he was doing, Ecthelion rose and walked over to the window. Since standing there above Glorfindel felt wrong, he crouched down beside him. "You are right," he said. "I really do not seem to feel anything anymore. I am so sorry this hurts you, but by the Valar--wherever they may be--it is nothing to do with you."
Glorfindel looked at him at last. "Thank you for letting me know. Perhaps you should take some of my feelings? I have far too many, good and bad both… But seriously, perhaps it would help if you were to grieve properly. Cut your hair as I have, even."
"What should I grieve for? I am alive, and newly healthy. Everyone I love best lives still. I have lost nothing."
"Haven't you?" Glorfindel's face softened. "I lost a third of my men. I knew most of them well: the ones who had not come over the Ice, I had watched train up from raw recruits."
"Of course. It is the same for me. But surely their families--"
"Perhaps their families' pain is greater than mine," said Glorfindel, "but that does not make my grief meaningless. And then of course I seem to have lost, well… something a bit more personal."
"What? No, I was talking about you."
Ecthelion laid a hand on his friend's thigh. "But, as I keep telling you, you have not lost me."
"I feel like I have. I mean, of course you are here physically--though not very physically, and sorry, I will stop bringing that up now--and intellectually… and morally, I suppose. But otherwise you are somewhere far away, and on the whole you just do not seem to be the Ecthelion I remember."
"Yes, I can understand that. But, to be fair, you are not exactly yourself, either."
"I take it you do not mean only the hair?"
"No." Ecthelion reached up to touch one of the strands framing Glorfindel's cheek. "I mean the bitterness, as evidenced by snide comments and, now, the shouting. And the lack of trust, in me and the gods both--that seems very unlike you."
"I do not always feel like myself these days, but, well… I am still me, of course. And I am here, talking to you."
"Yes. Me too." The statements sounded meaningful, but felt vacuous, since Ecthelion's emotions remained missing even as the two of them gazed into each other's eyes. Glorfindel must have sensed this. He looked away, mouth twisted with sadness, prompting Ecthelion to conclude with, "But this will pass, I promise."
Glorfindel's mouth untwisted and even formed a faint smile. He sent Ecthelion a sideways glance. "Now I am sure you are not my Ecthelion, giving me such hopeful advice. It is just that…" He looked away again. "While we wait for this passing to take place, I do so hate being a mere burdensome duty to you."
"Surely you know you are never that! You must. If nothing else, you have to admit that I tend to handle my duties well, and I have not--"
"Have not been handling me much at all? No, sorry--and thank you for your reassuring words. Still, it seems strange, being the only one here who wants anything. Strange, and unbalanced. Don't you want to feel alive?"
"No, why should I? How could I, when the whole city is grieving?"
"I am sure," said Glorfindel, "that most of the grief-stricken would like to feel alive, and happy, themselves."
"Perhaps they would, and I hope they do, in time. However, as for me… I suppose I do not think I deserve it."
"When have you ever felt otherwise? But perhaps I know what you mean, there. I feel some guilt myself. After all, men died by my order, and--"
"Oh, I do not mind that," said Ecthelion before realizing that it was not quite true. "No, I do, of course, but it is an aspect of war I am prepared for. I am sure we both did everything we could, both at the time, for the men, and for their families since. But, as I look at all the bereaved, I do not understand why fortune has been so much kinder to me. I will not add to this injustice."
"Powerful words, but wait a moment." Glorfindel leaned forward, looking pensive. "Are you really trying to compensate for being in a better situation than all these grieving bereaved people by avoiding personal happiness? And if so, why? Is there some law stating that nobody is allowed to be more miserable than you?"
"Of course not! That would be absurd. It is more that I should not be happier than other people--do you not see?"
"Um, no. I think those two statements are equivalent. I also think that you are disregarding one important fact: that your unhappiness affects others adversely." Glorfindel did not indicate himself, but the message was clear--and thought provoking. "Finally," he continued, "I must deduce, with regret, that you would feel more interest in bedding me if I were dead."
"What?" asked Ecthelion, torn from his musings on common good versus universal moral justice by the image Glorfindel's words had evoked. "No, no, please do not say that."
"Why not? I do not mean it in the tasteless way, you know--though surely even my acting skills might be up to faking death, if you believe it might help. I mean that, if I had--"
"I know exactly what you mean."
"Well, do you think I am wrong?"
"No idea." Ecthelion focused on getting his heart rate under control. "I think it is pointless to speculate."
"If you say so. But I am convinced that I am dead right. And so-- Oh, do not look at me in that disgusted way. I know this is not the time for punning… In fact," Glorfindel grinned to himself in a self-satisfied and rather familiar way, "I will declare a moratorium on puns. But as I was sa--"
"I did believe you were dead," said Ecthelion for some reason. "When your banner went down near the end."
Glorfindel's eyes widened, then dropped to his right hand, which Ecthelion seemed to have grabbed during this latest exchange. He turned his wrist until Ecthelion's fingers touched his pulse-point and felt its strong beat. "See? Alive," he said. "Very much alive. Anyway, I told you I was not going to die."
"Obviously, I did not quite believe you."
"Obviously. But tell me, what did you think when my banner went down? Was it anything like 'No, Eru, not that, anyone but him?'"
Ecthelion shook his head, confused.
"Well, that is what I thought," said Glorfindel. "Several times. It's quite shameful, really. But I expect you prayed for the noble, selfless thing instead."
"What noble, selfless thing?"
"'Please, Eru, let him die before me so I am the one who gets the loneliness and grief?'"
"No!" Ecthelion shook his head again, more vehemently this time. "Glorfindel, this conversation is getting ridiculous. I did not pray for anything. I did not think that much. I just… got on with my duties."
"Of course you did," said Glorfindel almost fondly. "And of course that is what you are doing even now, right? Getting on with your duties?"
Though he no longer sounded bitter, this question was certainly reminiscent of a recent misunderstanding. Ecthelion decided to ensure it was not repeated. "Honestly, you are not a duty to me, I promise. I meant my work."
"I know. I was talking about your work too, about how you use it to keep everything else away. Because that is what you have been doing lately, I am convinced of it. And I am equally convinced that you should stop doing it and think about the battle instead." Glorfindel nodded to himself. "It might take several days, or weeks, even, but I bet that in the end you would feel some proper emotions again."
Ecthelion found this very unlikely, but saying so, and thus destroying Glorfindel's hopes, seemed discourteous to the point of cruelty. Besides, he was not interested in proving his point, not as long as even thinking about thinking about the battle made him cold and shivery inside. He decided to try a diversionary tactic. "You know, Glorfindel," he said. "I think we could do it now, if you wanted."
A frown disrupted Glorfindel's smug expression. "Do what?"
In answer, Ecthelion rose up, put his free hand on Glorfindel's face, and leaned in to kiss him--but Glorfindel twisted away and grabbed his shoulder, keeping him at arm's length. "I told you I do not want your pity," he said.
"Pity? Why should I pity you? No, no, I am truly interested." This was not a complete lie: Ecthelion's body, at least, felt eager, especially those parts of it that were touching Glorfindel… and a few that, apparently, hoped to be touching him soon. Strange. "Perhaps you are right, and talking about the battle is causing my feelings to come back?"
"Really?" asked Glorfindel warily. "But, surely, nobody gets over their problems through a single illuminating conversation?"
"Did I say I was over my problems? No. I am sure that they will return. The question is, do you want to come to bed before they do so, or not?"
Glorfindel did not respond at once, but in the silence that followed mistrust faded from his face, replaced by a hope so obvious that Ecthelion felt almost guilty. His body's sudden readiness could not be described as desire, at least not simple desire. It was more as if the recent, agitating turn in the conversation made him long to act, to do something he could not quite define but which undoubtedly needed to involve Glorfindel.
"Well?" he asked.
"Well, come on, then." Glorfindel rose, and pulled Ecthelion up after him. "We are wasting time."
They kissed hurriedly as they stumbled over to the bed, then broke off to undress with the usual efficiency, developed during hurried meetings so numerous that they had become routine. Glorfindel kept the lead as they lay down together, rolling them both until he was stretched out beneath Ecthelion. As he looked up, his eyes held, again, an element of mistrust--and a challenge, a test: do you actively want this?
Ecthelion found that he did. Glorfindel's wariness had stirred him in a complex way. It was wrong, unnatural for him to have doubts, whether about Ecthelion or about the Valar--the two matters felt confusingly intertwined. Ecthelion raised himself on his elbows, using his arms to construct a sort of shelter around Glorfindel, a place of safety. It seemed silly, but when Glorfindel reached up to caress his shoulders and pulled him down for a kiss he knew his silliness had not been noticed.
There was some leftover salve on the bedside table, fortunately not of the impractical numbing kind. Ecthelion used it on both of them while Glorfindel continued running his hands over his upper arms and chest, as if to relearn their shape, or perhaps to accustom himself to the new scars. No doubt he was already accustomed to the jagged line that marked his own left side and that, thankfully, moved out of Ecthelion's view when he shifted closer, allowing him to focus instead on the physical sensations as they joined. Still, he rebuilt his safe arm shelter before beginning to move. A few moments later, he noticed how easy it was: he did not have to concentrate on staying interested at all. He paused, surprised.
"I am really not pretending, you know," he said.
"Good," replied Glorfindel rather breathlessly.
"I want you to regain your faith, to--"
Glorfindel's fingers dug into his lower back. "Do this like you used to," he said, "and I might. Now shut up or get on topic."
Not being in the mood for inappropriate conversation, Ecthelion shut up, and did it like he used to. Again, this was far easier than it should have been: after all those years every effective touch, every movement was familiar, so that it felt as if his body could have enacted them even in his absence. But that seemed unfair, somehow, so Ecthelion made himself remember the falling banner, green and gold, and saw again the empty sky it had left behind.
The memory chilled him. He closed his eyes to block it and pressed his face against the side of Glorfindel's neck, where he should have been able to bury it in warm, bright hair. The few strands that brushed against his cheek and forehead only served to emphasize the overall absence, and yet he was so happy to find them there that the happiness felt as tangible as Glorfindel's body beneath him. The combination proved too much to bear. The next time he moved, his body spasmed, the pleasure that rushed through him almost painful--and not entirely welcome, since he was aware that his timing was bad: far too fast.
Before raising his head, he blinked a few times. His eyes felt moist. He must have squeezed them shut far too hard.
"Sorry," he said. "So sorry."
"No, no, this is a good thing," said Glorfindel with a sincerity so shiningly transparent that Ecthelion briefly thought that he must have misjudged the situation, but when he slid out from between Glorfindel's now relaxed legs and reached down below he realized that, unfortunately, he had been right about his inadequate performance.
"Truly." Glorfindel patted his shoulder. "It is."
Ecthelion rearranged himself so that he lay on his side, and let his hand continue its explorations. "We can try again, if you do not mind waiting a moment."
"Hmm," said Glorfindel as Ecthelion's fingers found a rhythm. "No. Waiting… is bad."
"Or we could switch, I mean--"
"No." Glorfindel shook his head, half in negation, half in passionate reflex. His hair flew about more than it had used to, but his eyes remained locked with Ecthelion's. Oddly, Ecthelion found that he could meet them without any guilt or worry. This was good, too, watching his beloved get lost in pleasure without getting distracted by sensations of his own. Almost as good as feeling it all himself, once more. He relaxed into the moment.
Glorfindel did not shout his name as he came, but there could be no doubt that it was what he had been thinking. Ecthelion kissed him, and withdrew his hand.
"I should clean up the mess," he said.
The noise Glorfindel made in response was completely disinterested, and so, since the mess was almost entirely his problem, Ecthelion did not get up. Instead, he shifted closer and laid his head on Glorfindel's chest. "Or we could have another go." He let his fingers trace patterns over a hipbone, occasionally brushing that new scar. "Just let me know."
Glorfindel laughed a little, causing Ecthelion's head to bounce. "Can we rest for a bit, first?" he asked.
Ecthelion tried to, but his ridiculous happiness made it impossible to stay quiet. "You know, I do feel slightly better," he said.
"Oh, yes. No doubt you will feel even better once you know," said Glorfindel, "that I love and worship the Valar once again."
"Do you?" Such hyperbole was both disturbing and implausible. Ecthelion tried to change the subject. "No thanks to me. Again, I must apo--"
"Ecthelion," said Glorfindel into his hair, "you are an idiot."
"I realize that, believe me. But you cannot really mean that, about the Valar. Your bitterness sounded so grim, so great, that surely something as small as--"
"Not so small… You should be less modest. Seriously, though, I know this does not solve everything. But at least at the moment I feel like it does, and you have to admit that it at least gives us something to do when we cannot think of anything useful to say to each other. And it makes a wonderful reminder that we are neither of us alone."
"Yet," thought Ecthelion, but he did not say it. It might have ruined the moment.
0. As always, I welcome all forms of feedback, and cherish constructive criticism. And I want to thank Maggie, Claudio, and of course Lenine for their beta help, and Dwimordene for extensive comments.
1. One general comment that seems worth making is that the Elves of Gondolin were relatively inexperienced at dealing with battle. At best, they would have fought in one right after getting off the ice (as one version has it) and then participated in some minor skirmishes: they sealed themselves off before any other battles took place. They must have trained as warriors, else they would not have been as good as they clearly were, but surely no training would have prepared them for the aftermath of an utter rout.
2. And a random point: the text of this story contains exactly 5,000 words, which pleases me. I like to amuse myself in such silly ways.
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