Glorfindel methodically worked his hair into the ornately twisted whorls and knots currently favoured by society. The style pulled and was uncomfortable, but the right hair, like the right clothes, were a necessary evil. Outside the sun had sunk behind the mountains and the sky was deep azure sliding into indigo. The first stars would soon be heralded by bells across the city chiming Star-rise, and he thought he could hear the singing of bearers as the first curtained litter was brought up the hill and entered the courtyard on the far side of the house.
Stepping back from the mirror, he surveyed himself critically. His man Amathon had suggested a dove grey surcoat, its wide sleeves and facings banded with a tracery of gold thread, well-fitting pants a shade darker, blue leather boots and a tunic of sheer gold, startling amongst the calm shades and almost a match for his hair. His jewellery was minimal: a few rings, emerald ear studs, and looped lightly about his hips, a belt of mithril links joined by little golden flowers, each with an emerald heart.
He wore no sword, even though as a son of one of the great Houses he had the right and as a blooded warrior that right was based in fact. Amathon had advanced that it would ruin the line of the tunic, and anyhow he was disinclined to blend the legitimate side of his life with this evening’s farce.
He nodded at the overall effect, his mouth twisting slightly. Any resemblance to the warrior who had just returned from duty at the Gate that bore his family’s emblem, any likeness to the scholar who had been happy to spend long hours reading, was purely coincidental. Tonight he was all fashion and flash, wealth and position, a trophy tastefully on display. With his family name and connections, he should do rather well on the marriage market. This was good, because the primary purpose of tonight’s entertainment was for his father and some other equally ambitious parent to match him with a suitable girl, forming another tidy entry in Turgon’s ever-growing genealogical table.
Amathon came in, carefully carrying the box with the boot buckles which he attached, kneeling, while Glorfindel tried to keep still, impatient to be off and get it over with. The buckles were gold with little twinkling emeralds to match the belt and had been made for the occasion. They didn’t talk. Amathon had been trained by Lord Rínor himself and knew his place, which was to speak when spoken to. It reinforced one of the tenets of their society, that the Sindar were there to offer service, the Noldor to rule. That was the way of it in Gondolin.
He was late for the receiving line, if only by a fraction. His mother assessed his appearance with a worried little frown while his father acknowledged him with raised eyebrows. Lord Rínor seemed even more stiff and distant than usual, in ice blue and glittering white like the eternal snow on the peaks of the encircling mountains. Glorfindel joined them at the bottom of the steps down into the Great Hall and stood very straight while he was introduced to a blurring succession of older men, younger women, over-friendly matriarchs, all to a backdrop of tinkling flute music, soft voices and hissing candles. He had not seen so many candles burning in the same place outside of the palace since his childhood in Tirion.
The next hour was a montage of false smiles and barely registered conversations. There were narrow tables laden with edibles and he tried to keep something in hand because it helped him look busy. He covertly watched his parents, trying to decide from body language who they wanted him to choose for the first dance, the most prestigious moment of the entire ball. He was certain Turgon had expressed a preference, but his father would want it to seem spontaneous and not trust his acting skills, while his mother would hope for a pleasant surprise all round.
No one had asked what Glorfindel wanted. He had managed to avoid the marriage trap for far longer than most of his peers, exceptionally so for the son of a senior noble, but no one had thought to ask if perhaps that meant he preferred to remain single. Duty and responsibility were not negotiable for someone of his birth.
Faces came and went, the whole scene looked like an elaborately painted stage set. Someone’s wife, he couldn’t place her, praised the new entrance hall, and he smiled back and nodded even though to him it looked the same as countless others, just with a new coat of paint and some embossing. He was asked how things went out on the Gate, and if his patrols were sure that all was well on the flanks of the mountains that guarded their city. Several girls said hello. One, more innovative than her sisters, asked his opinion of an artist he had never heard of, but who appeared to be the latest fashion. He floundered till Aredhel, close by, turned with her haughtiest look and said, “Oh, no, Cousin. No need to familiarise yourself. He is quite forgettable.”
For an instant the world felt solid again in the face of her certainty, but then she was swept off into the crowd and he was back to prowling alone.
His mother took this moment to try and catch his eye. She was deep in conversation with a tall, grave faced woman who looked vaguely familiar. When a presence in soft teal joined them, with a winning smile for Lady Elthedis, he knew; the new arrival was Raithedir’s daughter, Míresgalel. His mother’s determined attempt to call him over told its own tale. A sudden rush of people passed between them, laughing and talking, and on instinct he took the opportunity to follow the tables along the wall and out the door into a service hallway.
Once he made good his escape, the question was what to do with his freedom. Water, he thought. There were at least four wines available, almost unheard of in this time of rationing, and no one should be surprised that the host’s son might prefer water in a wine glass, an aid to a clear head. He had to reorient himself, turned around as he was now, and decided the kitchen was to the left. Two serving maids came out of the Great Hall giggling and chatting till they saw him, at which they bobbed respectfully and went more quietly on their way. He was about to follow when he heard a husky-warm voice from the other direction, the words low and vehement.
“Damn it into the Pit.”
Curious, he moved silently round the opposite corner, then stopped dead.
The landing that served the side staircase was lit by a single lantern. It was dim after the glittering Great Hall, but there was still pale light coming in the window, not enough to bring out the colour of the tapestry on the wall or the patterned inlay of the floorboards, but sufficient to illuminate the small mirror set above a spindly table that bore one of those alabaster globes his mother collected.
A young man, a stranger, stood in front of it, trying to rearrange his hair. Rather than the currently fashionable pastels and whites, he had on a dusty rose tunic under a coat of deeper rose with a faint pattern of black lines. He wore black leggings, the sheerest Glorfindel had ever seen. The belt of braided black and gold fabric almost but did not quite work – too bulky for his slender body – and he had an eclectic collection of jewellery: crystal-studded chains hanging to mid chest, earrings that were probably jet and a selection of bracelets on each wrist.
Trained to observe and with a natural talent for it, Glorfindel took this all in between one heartbeat and the next, before his eyes were drawn to the hair, a barely contained mane of long black curls. Then the young man – no, more like a boy – turned towards him and all he saw were those eyes, light brown, almost golden, and alight with a mixture of frustration and mirth.
The amusement drained at once on sight of him and the boy raised a horrified hand to his mouth. Glorfindel thought he was about to apologise for being in a private part of the house, but instead he breathed, “Oh I’m sorry, I never meant to swear, not out loud – I mean, not where someone would hear me.”
Glorfindel had already launched into, “There’s a convenience room set aside for guests, I’m sure the lighting would be better…” but stopped half way, both of them carried into rueful laughter.
“I shouldn’t be here, should I? Only my hair was coming down and I took the first door out before my parents saw. My mother wouldn’t be above doing it up in public – she thinks I’m still thirty.”
“I left thirty behind a long time ago,” Glorfindel confided ruefully, “and I’m sure my mother knows that, but she forgets. It’s what they do.”
They exchanged smiles, two people with a shared experience of mothers. Glorfindel, socially competent and court trained in the art of light conversation, reached for the next line and was startled to find his head empty. And he was staring. “Your parents are here tonight as well? We haven’t met, have we?”
Idiot. Of course they hadn’t met. He could never have forgotten those eyes, that hair, that flash of a smile.
The boy, still holding his hair in place, relaxed fractionally at the question. “You might know my father, Maendir? He’s one of your lord father’s advisors?”
Glorfindel frowned unconsciously, trying to put a face to the name. He finally dredged up an afternoon in the courtyard, when his arrival at the house coincided with his father speaking to what he first took to be a guest while they inspected the roses in the sheltered, sun-friendly side bed. His name could have been Maendir, and he advised Lord Rínor on… “Of course, horse breeding, am I right?”
His war horse was stabled down on the horse lines near the Main Gate. It came from the military yard, and this meant he had little to do with his father’s personal stable, though he knew there was a breeding program and a complicated regimen of trading and selling between Houses and arguments over breeding rights. He had never thought to ask more; horse races were fashionable and he enjoyed the occasional bet, but his father’s horses did not compete.
The brown eyes lit with pride. “Yes, that’s right. He keeps the stud book and decides who to breed and which new horses to buy. He’s also been given charge of purchase negotiations now – he’s happy with that, because sometimes he’s felt strongly for or against a horse…”
He stopped, and Glorfindel could see his thoughts running ahead, trying to see if this could lead somewhere indiscreet. “… and couldn’t be in a position to influence the final discussions? Yes, I can see how that would be frustrating. No doubt that was why my father decided to combine both duties.” That, or he had grown bored with the lack of agreement, or the negotiator – possibly Orchalon, his father’s house manager – was too busy elsewhere. “I’m glad he’s pleased.”
Earnest brown eyes met his forthrightly. “I think he felt that when something didn’t work out, it would have been different had he been able to talk with the owner’s representative. There’s more responsibility, he said, but also more satisfaction. I hope I’ll find something that makes me feel like that.”
Glorfindel nodded and moved to the window, looking out over the city while he got his balance back. It was past dusk now, and the plain spreading out to the foothills was a grey, indistinct mass. What he could see nearer to hand were pale walls and towers studded with lights, dark patches that he knew were open parks, the shapes of trees and occasional touches of almost-colour on roofs and terraces. “You say that as though your future’s still undecided. You’ve not started your training then?”
Life followed a predictable pattern, more stringently observed here than it ever was in Tirion. Education and finding one’s place in the world involved group and private tuition and was scrutinised by senior family members, or in the case of the sons of lords, by the king himself. After Majority there were two paths open, either the duties and responsibilities of a warrior or further study in necessary disciplines like literature, art or the sciences. Such matters were not left to chance, not amongst the well born, and there was no place for personal likes or fancies.
The boy opened his hand and curls cascaded through his fingers and over his shoulder. His hair was the kind of black that often threw back sunlight in rainbow hues and Glorfindel was struck by a desire to see it in daylight. The boy looked at himself ruefully in the mirror and started over. “I don’t know why it won’t stay up – my sister’s doesn’t dare move. No, I’ve finished with school now, but I only reached Majority last summer and Father said I could try a few things, see what spoke to me. I’m working with horses at the moment.”
His mouth open on a soundless ‘Ah’, Glorfindel found he had nothing to say to this. The work of a groom was too far outside of his social experience, all he could guess was it would involve rubbing down horses and spreading hay.
The boy read his silence as though they had known one another for years and burst out laughing. “Oh no, no, not as a groom, my mother would be mortified. She reads to your mother sometimes, and the ladies would give her no peace about it. No, I’m working with the Winter Children. It’s a new idea of Princess Idril’s. We match them with horses too old for real work but still healthy and patient – that’s important – and we teach them to ride. They gain confidence and the horses teach them about trust…”
As he spoke, he wound locks together into something not unlike a braid and stopped to give it a critical look before sighing and unravelling it again. “I think the idea works quite well,” he went on very sincerely, “and she’s excited by it. I – only fell into it by accident when my cousin couldn’t get away one afternoon, but I’m enjoying it. When it’s over I think I want to do something that involves helping people, rather like that, but I’m not sure what. I like people,” he added, rather unnecessarily.
The Winter Children were a known commodity: born in the isolation of the White City to parents also born on the Hither Shore, terrified at the threat of Morgoth, withdrawn and uncertain, they were a matter of whispered concern across the city. It was like Idril to turn her hand to finding a solution. In her way she was almost as practical as their mutual cousin, Artanis.
Falling into something accidentally though, and not being sure where life would take one, was a new concept entirely. Well, new for him and his peers. For the good of the city and the community at large, their lives were mapped out from the cradle by the power of convention, something beyond their control. The Sindar, for the most part artisans and servants in the White City, gave their children far more liberty, but the man he recalled had seemed as much Noldor as his father – Glorfindel had his Vanyar-fair hair from his mother’s side of the family, while Lord Rínor was Noldor to his fingertips.
Ah. His mother. “Oh, you’re Sídhel’s son, aren’t you?” he exclaimed as the next piece fell into place. Sídhel read for his mother, had a similarly low, interesting voice with perfect diction, and was Sindarin, apparently from one of their old families. His mother insisted she be treated as equal to her ladies, even though her duties were occasional. No mention was made of her other work, assuming she had any.
“They say I look a little like her,” the boy said by way of agreement.
Glorfindel shook his head. “I think it’s the voice that made the connection for me, there’s – similarities. I’m surprised we’ve never met.”
The boy gave the rebellious curls a frustrated glare in the mirror then met his eyes again and laughed. He had a warm, personal laugh that shivered Glorfindel’s nerve endings, making him want to provoke it again. “I was only here once or twice when I was small, which I don’t remember very well. I think I was left to play in the courtyard while she read. And – you’re a warrior and away from home training all the time, aren’t you?”
He said it with the guilelessness of someone to whom military service was a mystery and Glorfindel grinned despite himself. “More or less? We train to keep our muscles and reflexes in tone, I teach swordsmanship, and I have my shifts on the Gate as well – I’m not there all the time, but a captain should take his turn like anyone else. So no, I’m not at the house all that much.”
He never called it home. This was not home.
The space they were in felt secure and close, a little world of its own away from the music and chatter that he could hear behind him, coming from the door he had pulled over but not quite closed. People were laughing and he heard polite applause and assumed one of the entertainers was performing. He felt no curiosity. The Great Hall held nothing to compete with this sparse, dimly lit landing.
“I don’t know any warriors, I don’t think,” his companion confided. “I’ve watched the Battle though, and for days after it made me want to be part, though I think mainly for the chance to ride outside the walls like you all do.” Only the warrior class and farm overseers rode the plain. Everyone else with business outside the city had to walk.
“That’s one of the privileges,” Glorfindel agreed, leaving the window. “And the Battle exercises that set us against a mock enemy might look more fun than they feel. We all end up covered in bruises at the least. Can I help you with your hair? It’s easier with two hands. If you don’t mind…” He was close enough now to see the flecks of gold in those sparkling eyes and the tracing of freckles across his nose.
“Would you? You won’t think I’m hopeless?” The relief was palpable. “Mother helped me and Emlineth both to put our hair up properly but hers is much easier than mine, it’s almost straight.”
“Is Emlineth your sister?” Glorfindel asked. “And what is your name? I’m not sure it’s appropriate to stand this close to someone without an introduction.” He tried to make it a joke, but it sounded heavy-handed to his ears. The boy seemed unconcerned though.
“I’m sorry, I should have said. My name’s Erestor. Yes, she’s my sister. The idea was for her to come out in Society tonight and for us both to perhaps get noticed…”
He sounded as thrilled by that idea as Glorfindel had been, though there was amusement as well. It occurred to Glorfindel that no one would be forcing the half Sindarin son of a decent but probably unremarkable gentleman to marry for dynastic purposes. Though if they wanted to breed for looks…
“Oh, then we have something in common. I’ve taken altogether too long to pick a wife, so tonight my father has every eligible girl in Gondolin here. Ostensibly I’m free to choose, but he and Mother will make quite sure I know the king’s preference.” He turned Erestor to face the mirror while he spoke and took time to see how the rest of his hair had been styled and fastened. He was a full head taller than Erestor, and could look down at him comfortably.
In the mirror, Erestor looked startled. “The king would care who you married? Oh, I suppose so though. You’re – related somehow, aren’t you?”
Glorfindel gave a crooked grin. “Well, yes, my mother is – was – Elenwë’s first cousin. We’re not royal, though Idril and I are related by blood. And he always takes an interest in marriages. He likes charts, likes the right Houses to be connected.”
Erestor looked blank for a moment, then his eyes went wide. “Like the horses in the stock book?” he asked, and his mouth didn’t seem to know whether to be alarmed or amused.
“Exactly like that,” Glorfindel assured him, quirking an eyebrow. He had guessed rightly, the black hair slid between his fingers like strong silk. “In the end we’ll all fit together nice and neat.” Not that the rest of the world would ever find out, he thought, but knew better than to say.
“But – you could end up marrying someone you hardly know. Don’t your parents mind?”
The simple twist-and-knot he was doing was totally at odds with the other side. Glorfindel paused, soft hair wrapped around his hand, then passed clips to Erestor and began unfastening the rest. “You hang onto those and give them to me when I ask. I’ll have to redo it all to make it match. Don’t worry, it’ll stay up. I’ve been putting my own up since before the Darkness.”
He had not been all that much older than Erestor when the world changed irrevocably and sent them across the Ice and later through the mountains to this place that Aredhel had aptly, and discreetly, called the Birdcage.
Erestor gave him a worried look but reached his hand out for the pins and tried to stay still while Glorfindel let down the rest of his hair. It tumbled loose and Erestor shook it out and laughed. He looked young and carefree, all shining eyes and wild hair, and Glorfindel knew then absolutely and unambiguously why it was he had never been drawn to the idea of taking a wife.
Their eyes met in the mirror and the laughter trailed off. He rested his hands on Erestor’s shoulders, still watching him, and nodded. An accolade. You’re stunning. Mouthed, not spoken aloud.
“If I marry, it will likely be to someone I barely know, yes,” he said in a level voice, more honestly than he had risked to anyone in a long while. “It will be a dynastic match that will satisfy everyone in its tidiness. That’s the way things work. Not for you though, I’m guessing? You’re just meant to look around tonight, aren’t you? See if you meet someone nice?”
Erestor looked uncertain for the first time. “Yes, that’s what my parents said. Just see if there was someone I had things in common with and who seemed to like me. Mother said if we laughed a lot, it would be a good sign? I think that was mainly for my sister, but me too. And Father took me aside before we left home and said that if there wasn’t a girl, maybe we could talk about a Gentleman’s Agreement if there was someone….”
“And is there?” Glorfindel mocked himself for allowing it to matter. They had never met before and by the nature of things were unlikely to meet again unless his father decided to give another major ball and invite half of Gondolin. Who this boy might end up aligned with had nothing to do with him.
Colour touched Erestor’s cheeks faintly. “No, no, there’s no one. I’d not thought of it before really. He just wanted me to know I had the choice. I don’t think he’d like it, but he wouldn’t prevent it. He wants us to be happy, me and Emlineth.”
The Gentleman’s Agreement was peculiar to Gondolin, designed by Turgon or someone close to him as one more incentive for his subjects to remain childless without having to embrace celibacy. Two men in a partnership akin to marriage were a rarity in the old days and quite likely still were beyond the mountains, but here in the confined space of the White City it was endorsed and even acknowledged by means of a civil contract, though any suggestion of two men, or two women if it came to that, binding was a little more than most people were ready to tolerate.
The Agreement was not open to the nobility. They were required to marry and continue the higher bloodlines of the Noldor, so amongst them any such relationship was not just frowned upon but actively opposed.
“I’m glad your parents will let you follow your heart,” Glorfindel said, working steadily on carefully sectioned hair. “Eternity is a long time, so the first priority when you have free choice of a partner should be whether you still want to wake up next to them when these mountain walls have crumbled.”
Erestor stared determinedly past the mirror and thought, then shook his head. “I can’t picture the mountains worn down like an old horse’s teeth,” he said at last, obediently letting his head be moved left or right as Glorfindel needed. “Sorry. I’ll keep still.”
“Oh, it’ll take a very long time, but in the end wind and rain will do it.” He reached for another clip and Erestor passed it to him hastily. “The very shape of Endórë would have changed by then. Where we stand now might all lie under the Great Sea.”
The air was suddenly chill with foreshadowing and he shivered. Another burst of applause reached them and Erestor looked aside, his face more serious. “They’ll be looking for me…” he said, but without too much conviction.
“I believe the entertainment’s very good,” Glorfindel told him. “It should have everyone occupied. I won’t keep you from it much longer. Just a few more twists.”
“Oh no, I don’t mind, it’s wonderful talking with you. I mean – well it is, but Mother fusses and Father said the eligible girls have so many to choose between. I don’t know how you just go up to a girl and ask her to dance or even who it would be all right for me to ask, but I suppose they’ll show me.” He stopped abruptly and considered what he had just said, then met Glorfindel’s eyes again, his gaze troubled. “That’s – the same as it is for you, isn’t it? Really?”
On the edge of saying yes, it was, Glorfindel stopped himself, thinking of Erestor’s pride in his father, the way he smiled when he spoke of his mother. It was not his place to destroy the boy’s faith in the world on his first major social encounter. “No, it’s not like my situation at all,” he said firmly. “They’ll just help you meet daughters of people they know or know of, so there won’t be any awkwardness or need to explain who you are and which House you’re attached to. The rest will be up to you.”
In fact, Erestor’s father would be guiding him to meet girls in his social strata whose families would not be averse to their daughter seeking a future with someone who was part Sinda, which was socially awkward in certain quarters. Personally he had always thought that ridiculous, but knew that Gondolin worked on privilege and elitism.
He finished off Erestor’s hair and studied their image in the mirror, his broad-shouldered blondeness behind Erestor with his dark hair and fair skin. He was paler than Glorfindel, who spent a lot of time outdoors training or patrolling. They made a good contrast. Drawing a breath and forcing his mind away from the impossible, he gave his handiwork a last look. Erestor’s hair was now dressed in a style popular amongst the younger siblings of Glorfindel’s peers, twisted and lightly knotted, randomly braided, all neatly fastened with clips that were invisible against the soft darkness.
“It needs – something,” he said, frowning a little. As Erestor instinctively raised a hand towards his hair, he added, “No, it’ll stay up even if you get quite wild on the dance floor. But there’s something missing…. This.”
Reaching up he removed an ornamental comb from his own hair and slid it into Erestor’s, near the back and just before the main height he had created. Smoothing his hair he smiled at Erestor and nodded. “There. It finishes things off properly.”
“I – I can’t. How will I return it to you?” Nonetheless Erestor was turning his head, letting the light pick up glints of green and gold, and his smile said it all.
“It’s not as valuable as it looks,” Glorfindel demurred. “That’s just gold plating and the stones are emerald chips, there for the glitter. Keep it, it looks wonderful against your hair, far better than mine.”
Erestor gave himself a final, delighted look, then turned round. Face to face they were closer than they had seemed in the mirror. His breath was warm and sweet on Glorfindel’s cheek, long lashes shadowing those gold-flecked eyes. “You’ve been so kind to me,” he said softly. “My hair looks right now, and the comb is beautiful. Thank you.”
“You are the most remarkable person here tonight,” Glorfindel replied quietly. “Utterly unique.” And then, without conscious volition, his eyes moved lower and settled on Erestor’s mouth. The world went quiet and shrunk to that promise of soft fullness, to Erestor’s smooth neck that was somehow under his hand and the scent of geranium and pepper. Then a burst of laughter from the Great Hall invaded the landing, and he remembered himself and where they were and stepped back.
Erestor’s eyes were on his face, wonderingly, his lips slightly parted. Even in the dim light, Glorfindel could see the flush that touched his cheeks. Taking a firming breath he placed his hands on Erestor’s shoulders and gave him a gentle shake. “Now, you are going in there before your family comes looking for you and you will enjoy every moment of your first ball. Right?”
The look lasted a trace longer and then Erestor lowered his lashes and nodded. “Thank you, my lord.”
One hand still on his shoulder, Glorfindel gestured along the passage to where the door back into reality stood ajar. “Findel,” he corrected softly to the back of Erestor’s head. “Friends call me Findel.”
A fire eater and two dancers in transparent drapery were busy when they returned to the Great Hall. They stood near the door for a bit and watched, acclimatising, then Erestor said quietly, “I see my family – over there,” and waited for Glorfindel’s nod before he slid off into the crowd.
Glorfindel’s eyes followed him to a group whose attention was on the fire eater – Maendir, a tall girl with unremarkable dark hair and the woman he recognised as his mother’s Reader. She turned and said something that was clearly the usual maternal ‘Where have you been?’, no doubt followed by, ‘and what have you done to your hair?’ Belatedly he wondered how Erestor would explain the comb, but then he saw the eternally loquacious Lord Rog approaching and there was no more time to speculate.
The sharpened focus, the sense of being utterly alive that he had known on the landing talking to Erestor left, and in its place was the now-familiar feeling of walking through water or a dreamscape filled with indistinct faces and voices that seemed to blend into one another. He managed to escape Lord Rog eventually and went back to the earlier routine of meaningless social banter and the occasional hopeful greeting. The press and motion of the crowd tried to push him back to where his father held court, but that felt like defeat in a way, as though he had tasted freedom for a short time and was now being drawn back to – to what? The expectations of his class? The tyranny of noble birth?
The entertainers who had been wandering the room and putting on impromptu performances drew back finally, either leaving or finding discreet corners, and there was a distinct shift in mood and expectation. Even in his cocoon, Glorfindel could sense it. People began moving towards the sides of the room as the musicians gathered under the canopy set up for them and began to tune their instruments to one another. It was time to join his family and find out whom it would please the king to hear he had danced with. Somehow he found it hard to care.
As he crossed the room, he caught sight of Erestor, who was with his father and another man. Glorfindel stopped in his tracks at the expression on the boy’s face, a combination of distress, confusion and embarrassment. A conversation was in progress, mainly between Maendir and his companion, but some of it was directed towards Erestor. Glorfindel searched his memory and placed the man, a quite wealthy connection of Ecthelion’s family, not well-born but successful – something to do with procuring fine fabrics. And there had been some scandal…
A sense of urgency gnawed at him, so intense that he looked around for someone who would have the answers, someone with the right connections and an ear for gossip. Ecthelion was deep in conversation with two beauties, but he strode over anyhow and caught his arm.
“A moment of your time – excuse me, ladies,” he said curtly, almost dragging his startled friend to the side.
Ecthelion, lord of the House of the Fountain since his father’s death just before they left Vinyamar, crinkled his forehead but complied. “What in the world is wrong with you? And where have you been? Your mother wanted to introduce you to Cólien’s cousin.”
“Míresgalel, yes, I know. That’s not important now. Look over there, the one talking to my father’s stock man, Maendir. He’s one of yours, isn’t he?”
Ecthelion frowned. “What, next to the dark-haired beauty? Yes, that’s Laidhron. Silks and brocades – at a price. Why?”
“There was some scandal and I need to know what it was.”
He knew he sounded too intense and hoped Ecthelion would put it down to too much wine too early. They weren’t close enough friends for him to know how unlikely that was. “Scandal?” Ecthelion looked as confused as Erestor for a moment, then his face cleared. “Oh, yes. Yes, there was a nasty bit of business with him and one of his suppliers’ sons. Seems he was rather more eager to improve their acquaintance than the boy. It might have gone worse, but it was the word of a weaver’s son against his. He was cautioned and I think paid damages to the father. That says it all really. Why?”
“Just caught my eye and I wondered what it was I’d heard about him,” Glorfindel said, his mind busy elsewhere.
Ecthelion gave him a strange look, then shrugged. “Yes, well – there were hints of a few other lapses, though nothing definite. If that boy is your stock man’s son, you might want to suggest he keep an eye on things. Unless I miss my guess, there’s something afoot there.”
“Would you do me a favour? Could you tell that fine example of pond scum to keep his distance? I’ll not have him preying on my people and that boy is – he’s still an innocent. Please? I’d do it myself, but I can’t very well make a scene at my father’s party.”
Ecthelion looked from Glorfindel to the family group across the room and then back. His expression became serious and he said quietly, “Far too young and nothing there that your mother would find suitable. But you know that. Very well, I’ll see to it. Just – stay out of trouble, Findel. It’s not worth it.”
He went off across the room with the confidence that came naturally to the high-born and could never be faked. Glorfindel moved off more slowly, watching out the side of his eye. The conversation was short, and at the end of it Laidhron said a few words to Maendir before heading in the general direction of the nearest wine table. Ecthelion caught his eye and gave an infinitesimal nod just as the orchestra started tuning up in earnest.
Satisfied, Glorfindel hurried on to where his parents waited with Aredhel and a favoured few that included Bredhril, her husband, and her marriage-ready daughter. His mother pounced immediately he was within earshot.
“Glorfindel, I have been looking for you everywhere! There are so many people I wanted to introduce you to.”
He stationed himself next to Aredhel, always reliable in a crisis, and smiled politely all round. “Yes, I had that impression, Mother. I believe I’ve met Lady Bredhril before?” He widened his smile then brought one of the basic tenets of warfare into the social world and launched a defensive attack against his father. “I was just talking to Lord Rog, Atar, and he mentioned…”
He managed to keep talking until it was time for his father to make the welcome speech, perhaps their longest conversation ever. He then opened the dancing with Aredhel, much to the disappointment of Lord and Lady Raithedir and probably their daughter, too, though she was as much a commodity as he and might have found it a relief. After which, he did his duty and was a charming and tireless dance partner, working his way through female relatives first and then dancing no more than once each with a succession of high-ranking ladies, both married and single.
And finally, shortly before dinner, he danced with Erestor. He saw him through a gap between dancers standing near one of the tables, and as though drawn by a lodestone, Glorfindel walked down the alleyway and asked him to dance. He looked startled for a moment, then the smile came back and his eyes sparkled. With a wordless nod, he put his hand into Glorfindel’s and followed him out onto the dance floor.
He fitted perfectly into the curve of Glorfindel’s arm, as no one else he had danced with did, and the scent of flowers and spice was more pronounced now, as much a part of him as the star-bright eyes and shining hair. Glorfindel only asked him one question, and his laugh was soft and a touch relieved when he answered.
“He’s an acquaintance of my father’s and wanted to dance with me. He was – quite insistent, but then Lord Ecthelion needed him for something and so he left. After, Mother was cross with Father and asked where his mind was, even considering someone like that for my first dance. That’s the important one, isn’t it? It sets the tone for the evening, she said. I saw you danced first with Princess Aredhel.” He sounded a little in awe, but then Aredhel’s reputation went before her.
“Aredhel’s my kin by marriage and a good friend,” Glorfindel explained gently, reluctant to underline the difference in their station. “More to the point, she’s safe to dance with. No assumptions there. The rest were family and courtesy requests. My parents aren’t pleased with me, but that’s how it is. You need to keep your distance from Laidhron. There are bad stories about him. I’ll have a word dropped in your father’s ear about that.”
Erestor’s eyes spoke trust and gratitude. “Thank you, my lor – Findel. He made me feel – uncomfortable, I don’t know why. Something about how he looked at me.”
Glorfindel drew him a little closer. He felt an almost irresistible urge to break out, do something wild and reckless, but he thought like a soldier these days, and that meant he looked for consequences to actions. They were living in a city under siege, and order had to be maintained in society. Even in the face of his father’s determination, he had not picked a wife or indicated any interest in a prospective partner. As rebellions went, it was small but would have to be enough.
The music slowed, paused, and he kept hold of Erestor who had taken a step back but then waited obediently in his arm. The next tune started and they danced on. This time he was aware of heads turning, of eyes following them speculatively. One dance with the male child of one of his father’s advisors was a curiosity, a second was enough to set tongues wagging. He was Glorfindel of the House of the Golden Flower, and this was perilously close to forbidden territory.
They talked while they danced. Watching the expressions chase across that young, hopeful face was a delight and Glorfindel indulged himself by encouraging him. He heard about the sister’s prospects this far into the evening, which were better than expected, about the horror of asking strange girls to dance and the equal horror of asking his sister’s friends, who he was sure were gathering in corners to laugh at him. He told the stories cheerfully and with humour, all part of a grand new experience.
When the dance ended the supper bell sounded and there was no further excuse to stay together. They stepped back. Erestor touched the comb in his hair, looked up at him with suddenly mature eyes and said, “Thank you. For the dance and the help with my hair and the comb and not laughing at me. I won’t forget. You helped make tonight perfect.”
“Never dance with anyone you wouldn’t ask yourself – which means no dubious cloth merchants,” Glorfindel told him, tone light, face serious, eyes devouring his face. “Otherwise – just be happy.”
He found he had meant few things more sincerely in his life.
He kept his distance when they came back from supper, especially since his mother went out of her way to ask who the good looking young man was he had danced with. The word Sinda had hung between them, unsaid but implied. The last he saw of Erestor was near the end of the night, flushed and smiling with his sister and a mixed party of other young people. He looked happy, which was what mattered.
True to his word, he would have Maendir warned about Laidhron. There was always a chance the whole thing had been pre-arranged – a rich admirer, an ambitious parent, these things happened – but he chose not to believe it. There had been too much pride and love in Erestor’s face when he spoke of his parents.
It was so late the sky was already light in the east when Glorfindel finally retired to his rooms for the night. Amathon had roused and offered to help him undress, but he sent the man off to bed, mortified that it had never occurred to him that he would wait up. There was a whole world outside his circle of privilege that he had given less thought to than he should, and he made a tired promise to himself to try and be more aware in future.
Dressed in a loose nightshirt, he stood by the open window while he let his hair down to brush. He placed clips and decorations on the sill as he removed them, noting the missing comb and wondering if Erestor would wear it again. The chance of them meeting socially was small, but it was nice to think the gift would link them together for a while.
The city and the plains beyond still slept, but the peaks were already kissed with light, the eternal snows tinted soft pink by a sunrise he could not yet see. The air smelt fresh and cold with the promise of new day. Glorfindel began to brush absently, his eyes on the mountains where nothing moved, not even the huge, intimidating eagles.
In a way it was liberating, this having a name for the slow reluctance that had built in him since the subject of marriage had first come up years ago and an ocean away. Not picky, not hard to please, not lazy, just inclined towards something he was legally denied. He heard an echo in his head, a husky-soft voice saying, “I can’t picture the mountains worn down like an old horse’s teeth,” and half smiled. After he told his father he would not be filling a line in Turgon’s stock book, it might well be an Age before he was forgiven.
Always assuming Gondolin lasted that long. Some strange, fey voice occasionally whispered to him during training or on late night watches that there was less time than he knew. Be that as it may, Lord Rínor’s annoyance might well outlast it.
Meanwhile, sounding almost embarrassed to wake its brothers, a bird had started calling on a low, wistful note, and he needed to sleep. Tomorrow would not be all right, but a day would come when it finally was. A day when, somewhere beyond those brooding mountains, another future lay in wait.
AN: Written for Mawgy for My Slashy Valentine 2013. With grateful thanks to Pandemonium’s roses.
Beta: Red Lasbelin
List of names:
Amathon – shieldman – Glorfindel’s manservant
Rínor – remembrance – Glorfindel’s father
Elthedis – dreamer – Glorfindel’s mother
Maendir – skilled man – Erestor’s father
Sídhel – peace – Erestor’s mother
Emlineth – yellow bird – Erestor’s sister
Míresgalel – hidden jewel – girl
Raithedir – he who strives – Míresgalel’s father
Bredhril – endurer – Míresgalel’s mother
Laidhron – spinner – merchant
Orchalon – lofty one – Rínor ‘s house manager
Cólien – Daughter of Gold – Ofc