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Mother of Horsemen: 13. Chapter 13
Sorry for the long wait, but changing work schedules, etc. As always, I hope you enjoy my story. I think some questions will be answered in this installment.
Say, does anyone know if Orcs are immortal?
Mother of Horsemen - Chapter Thirteen
An elf's life takes on a rhythm over the centuries; quiet times, war, travel , change, renewal. For Readfah, the time after the departure of the Alliance was a time of great change in the pattern of her experience. Those few, mostly women, who were left in the house turned to her for direction, and she became the mistress of a house of Noldorin Elves in spite of her distaste for formality that echoed both Elrond's and Gil-galad's.
Celebrían, on the other hand, had been reared in the tradition of the great Elven Houses, and, as she was to be the wife of the King, it seemed to Readfah that she should take precedence.
"No," she said graciously, "for this is Lord Elrond's house, not mine. Dear Readfah, you must really get used to it! Elrond says you very nearly built this house with your own hands, so it is yours as well as his."
"Too much to do," grumped Readfah. "I can't see to all of it. I don't even know how."
"You must learn to delegate responsibility," said Celebrían easily, her silver hair rippling as she sat down opposite Readfah. "This is not nearly the large household it will become when they return. I shall go with Gil-galad of course, to his own home when we are wed."
A strange feeling passed over Readfah. No one but Gil-galad, Elrond, and she knew where the Sapphire was hidden. A question had been asleep in the back of her mind...if Gil-galad took the ring with him when he left, where would that leave Imladris in the scheme of things? Would it still have the barriers? She suspected that Gil-galad meant to leave the ring with Elrond when he returned to the Havens. His last words on the subject plagued her; "You must not tell Celebrían where it is." Her natural question, "Why?" had been forestalled by his finger on her lips. "No, do not ask. Some day, heaven forfend, you may learn more of this than you wish to know. These things are a mixed blessing. I don't understand the half of it, but I know I must keep it safe. This I am depending upon you to do. Don't wear it, or handle it unnecessarily, and should we not return, tell only Círdan where it is hidden. No one else."
Something told her Galadriel was at the bottom of the mystery, and she kept her peace, but the simple, earthy part of her could not understand how he could keep anything from the woman he loved. Sharing their deepest secrets had been the core of her relationship with Elrond. Somehow, as she watched the Lady's daughter glide across the floor like a beautiful and graceful wraith, it was as if Galadriel herself was present in the room. She could not reconcile that similarity with Celebrían's obvious desire to be friendly. She tried to remember that Gil-galad loved her in spite of what appeared to be mistrust, and thus there had to be a part of her that only he was privileged to know.
Readfah had asked if there would be any dispatches, and Elrond had told her not to expect any, as the fighting would be fierce, yet he would see to it if opportunities arose. Gárulf, another of Éoghan's great-grandsons and one of the best riders Readfah had ever seen in her long life, then had volunteered to act as a dispatch rider between Sauron's realm and Imladris. Readfah had with her own eyes seen him raise a stumbling horse with a gentle uplift of his hands, and with whispered word give heart to even an exhausted animal. Elrond had agreed, though he hated to lose even for short periods a single warrior. And so Readfah, a month into the Siege, began looking East.
No scouts had remained to patrol the borders, and for a long time Readfah rode almost to exhaustion, for very few of the elf women could both ride and handle weapons. But within a month, there arrived unbidden a number of women, wives of the Éothéod, to volunteer to help guard the home of the elf-lord. Their faces were warpainted, and their shields were red. Most had been sheoldmaegden... shield maids, trained in exactly the same way as their brothers, with no quarter given or allowances made for their sex, save that when they wed, they no longer traveled to war for the sake of the children they might bear. Gil-galad had probably discovered by now that about ten of his Mark riders were women. These would be unwed, and by their silence and smooth faces, would have been taken for young esquires.
The eldest among them, a tall woman with a single silver braid reaching to her waist, rode up on a handsome grey horse, and acted as their chief and spokeswoman. Unable to find the entrance, as she had been warned she would not, she directed her followers to camp nearby until scouts found them. When Readfah rode up on them at last, they had been there two days.
"Are you she who is called Readfah?" she called in a clear voice that reminded Readfah of Gil-galad's, only a touch higher pitched.
"I am," Readfah nodded, with an unspoken word bringing Ahliehha to a halt.
The woman dismounted and dropped to one knee. "At your service, Modoréothéodias!"
Readfah could not get used to displays of vassalship for the life of her. "Oh, do rise," she blurted out, a note in her voice that was almost impatience. Modoréothéodias... Mother of Horsemen? That sounded almost like the title some primitive Men had given her when she yet lived among the Green Elves, when she brought to their starving tribes horses with deformities or incurable injuries, to use for food. She caught herself staring at the mounted women with dismay. That would not do, she thought, and bid herself smile.
Fortunately the tall woman did not wait to be asked any questions. "I am Brinhaw. You know my sons, Tovig and Held, and you knew my grandsire, Éoghan the Merciless."
Readfah's smile was now one of pleasure. "Merciless? I had not heard that one!"
"The name was bestowed upon him by orcs," Brinhaw said bluntly. "We are here to give you any assistance you see fit to allow, Madam. Our husbands will return here, if they return, and it would be fit to greet them here. We are able swordswomen and riders, and we await your command."
Brinhaw had given the speech, but it was Readfah who was a bit breathless. "Follow me, then," she said, and turned Ahliehha into the barrier and started down the path.
Even the most stone faced of them gasped in awe as the valley became suddenly visible. At least the ring is still at work, thought Readfah, enjoying as she always did the wonderment of newcomers. She led them past the rows of half hidden treehouses near the falls, and the cottages that were similar, but earthbound. Coming out from the forested bottom they drew their breaths sharply anew at the sight of Elrond's house. Modest in comparison to some of the great houses of the Elder Days, it dwarfed any house the Éothéodias had ever built, and they immediately judged Readfah to be a great Queen of Elves.
"Nay, ladies, this is the house of Elrond, vice regent to the High King Gil-galad. The King's home is much greater still, and near the Sea, though he spends much time here. His wife-to-be dwells here awaiting his return as well."
When asked what relation she herself was to the King, Readfah blushed. "None at all. I am Lord Elrond's betrothed." Funny, that was the first time she had ever said that, and the words sounded strange. Lord Elrond...betrothed...it was both strange and delightful.
"Then we are all ladies in waiting," Brinhaw guffawed, and Readfah winced until she saw the woman's merry grimace which told her that she knew her own wordplay to be dreadful. I like her already, Readfah grinned.
As they neared the house, a few of the elf women came to greet them, and Readfah could not help but remark to herself the vast differences in the two groups. If at first it seemed too improbable that they should ever get along, Readfah was soon reminded that in wartime, all women who had men to love had much in common.
It was summer again before Gárulf appeared at the borders, to his delight to be greeted by his own wife and escorted into the valley with as much delight by Readfah herself, for the news was good...as good as it could be.
"The Dark One is besieged, and we have suffered but little loss," he eased himself down into one of the great chairs in the small dining hall. He had been set upon by the women, elf and mortal alike, as soon as he had crossed the threshold, and had enjoyed a warm bath and a long nap. Now, Siddona herself insisted on serving him the evening meal with her own hands. Readfah, not for the first time, missed Taenon's cheerful service at table, and his musical voice. The master chef spoke little and her gracious, formal manner had never suited Readfah, though the food itself could not be faulted. She remembered Elrond throwing a breakfast roll at Siddona one morning in an effort to get her to smile, while Gil-galad, no doubt wishing he'd thought of it, laughed until the tears ran. All this succeeded in doing was shocking her back into the kitchen where she remained closeted for the rest of the day.
Gárulf quipped that he might easily get used to such pampering, smiling at his wife, Frida, who stroked his long wheaten braids as he ate. Readfah was anxious for news, but did not press him. Catching her eyes, he realized his own cruelty.
"The King is well, and so is the Lord Elrond," he said hastily, "and your father, milady," he nodded to Celebrían. We are slaughtering orcs at such a rate, Madam, it seems a pity they can't be eaten."
Celebrían coughed politely and turned pale, while Readfah chuckled. A pity he could not stay long. A few days, perhaps, and he would be gone again. But for now, they would enjoy him as they would a fair day after a week of storms.
The news Gárulf brought through many turns of the seasons was ever the same; Sauron under siege, long periods of quiet, as if he were building orcs with his own hands and loosing them when he felt he had enough. There was a strange power that ebbed and flowed about the fiery mountain, and kept the troops from resting. Men complained that they could not sleep at all, and Elves were disturbed with nightmares that seemed to them real whether they kept their eyes open or not. Gárulf himself seemed overly quiet, and dreaded to return to the battleground far more than usual.
Readfah rode with him to the path, as was her custom, but instead of his usual cheerful farewell, he turned to her and gripped both her hands painfully.
"Readfah, I did not wish to frighten your household, but as you are its head, I must not keep this from you. There is a sorcery at work in the Dark One's land, far greater than we supposed."
Readfah could not betray the secrets of the rings even to so dear a friend, and she hated it. "Gil-galad suspected as much, but would not speak of it."
"He has become fey, and speaks little these days. You would scarcely know him. This war has changed all of us, but the King is no longer the same at all. It is as if the devilry has touched him, as if he has taken it unto himself to spare the rest of us. I do not like it, Readfah. I am not yet an old man but it seems as though I have been at the foot of that mountain for a hundred years."
"So it will seem, when fighting alongside elves. The King will not keep you against your will, for he will not swear mortal men to his service."
"We have so sworn of our own will, and will not desert him until our usefulness deserts us! But see, Readfah, we have been living six years now in the evil land, and we fear greatly that if something does not happen soon it will become a part of us that will never wash clean."
Six years. A blink in time for her. A very eternity for those young men.
"I must ride. If I do not return, all the blessings of Béma on your house."
He caressed her face briefly, and was away.
A day came that started out as any other fine day, but within minutes had become unbearably hot. Midsummer was long past, well past time for mornings to be this warm, and the valley had always been cooler than the surrounding land. Now late blossoms seemed to wither even before fully opened, and young fruits wrinkled and dropped unripe. Readfah's ears, attuned as always to the most minute shifts in the collective mood of her great herd of horses, picked up a wave of nervous whinnies that did not abate. She called them toward the house, but as on the day when the news of Númenor's fall reached the valley, they were slow to obey.
Just as Readfah thought things could not be much worse, Galadriel arrived, unannounced, with an escort of two elf-lads deemed too young to go to war. She was grim and spoke little, and barely greeted Readfah civilly before bidding her daughter to come with her to her accustomed room.
"Nice manners..." muttered Dryarrin, one of Readfah's assistants, in a voice laden with sarcasm. She was a young woman of mostly Wood-elf parentage who never had much liking for "the Lady," even though many of her people now made their home in Lothlórien.
"Please don't start anything, Dry'," Readfah cautioned, even as she herself stared up the steps in amazement at Galadriel's bold rudeness. "It's better she doesn't speak...I have more of her attention than I wish at any rate!"
"Listen!" Dryarrin's dark head jerked toward the door. "Is that thunder?"
They opened the great main doors to a gust of wind that took them by surprise. Readfah had never seen a desert...but Elrond had read some poetry that spoke of the hot, dry winds that sculpted the sands into wondrous yet deadly shapes; deadly, for they changed the landscape so that a traveler might easily become disoriented and lost not far from his own door. Readfah thought of the verses and shuddered, for it appeared that Imladris would be buried in the selfsame dust. Yet again, within moments, it stopped, and the thunder rolled again.
Then all was still.
Readfah and Dryarrin scarcely had time to look at each other when Galadriel emerged from her room, a frightened Celebrían behind her.
"Readfah! I would speak with you!"
Readfah bristled with dislike. Arrogant, snobbish...
Quite deliberately she passed the staircase, walked over to Gil-galad's accustomed chair and sat in it, by so doing forcing Galadriel to come to her. Dryarrin grinned until Readfah shot her a warning look.
"I will see to the horses, Madam," she said in a stilted tone that would have convulsed Readfah at any other time. Right now she was just too angry.
"Thank you, please do so."
Dryarrin could not resist a low bow, and Readfah took a deep breath and studiously ignored her as a seething Galadriel descended the stair as regally as her offended dignity would allow. She was accustomed to having her way, but in this house, with this...this affront to Elvendom seated before her, she must needs defer, and she did so with little grace.
With a slight motion of her hand, Readfah indicated the chair opposite, then folded her hands and assumed an attitude of interest.
"I will come directly to the point. Gil-galad entrusted a ring to you when he left."
By neither word nor gesture did Readfah betray yea or nay. She studied her opponent impassively and did not take her eyes from hers for an instant.
"A gold ring, set with a sapphire," Galadriel continued, her discomfort increasing, though she did not show it.
There was a long silence. Cursed whelp! Galadriel raged within.
And for the first time since Readfah met Galadriel, she was fully able to read her face. She blinked, twice, and her heart went suddenly chill.
"And what of it?" Readfah spoke at last, and Galadriel exhaled sharply as if she had for some reason been holding her breath.
"You must, no, I ask, that you let me have it."
Readfah snorted at her audacity. "Why ever should I do that?" she almost barked. "I have the King's instructions concerning that ring, and in no wise did he name you!"
"Then he is a fool!" Galadriel spat back. "None of you understand how important it is!"
"Then I suggest that you wait until he returns and make your request of him, milady. For I will not betray Gil-galad's trust even at sword point! I swore to him..."
Galadriel no longer bothered to conceal her disgust. "Ah, yes, the House of Fëanor is well known for oaths...and madness! Your own father..."
"You will not bring my father into this discussion," Readfah said coolly, though her heart raced.
Galadriel smiled as if she knew she had hit home. "Your own father was the maddest of the lot! He took no thought of anything but that accursed oath...he killed innocent people with his own hands to fulfill it, even children! And if that were not enough, he seduced a mortal girl into becoming his lover because no elf-woman would have him!"
And despite all effort to remain calm, Readfah snapped back. "I notice that you were none too afraid of him when you offered to buy your kinsman's freedom with your hips!"
"One will do what one must," Galadriel spoke through clenched teeth, "to save the life of a loved one!"
"He wouldn't have you at any rate," Readfah replied, the momentary lapse past, "so the question is moot. And of the sapphire I will say no more. You must talk to Gil-galad when he returns."
Galadriel's patience broke. "Fool!" she shrieked, "Gil-galad will not return! I have seen his fate! He will not return!"
"No!" Celebrían, who had quietly descended the stair during the heat of the argument, wailed aloud. "Noooooo!" she burst into tears and collapsed on the bottom step. Her mother whirled around, immediately ruing her words, but it was too late.
"I don't believe it for a moment!" Readfah said hotly, even as she rose to comfort the sobbing princess. "And if it were so, you are doubly treacherous, Lady! To know him dead and to try to steal the ring from his heir!"
Galadriel was silent, and suddenly Readfah knew the truth. As she held the keening Celebrían in her arms, rocking her as she would a child, memories assailed her like the fiery wind that had scorched Imladris this very day. Her tears fell like a rain with no hope of ever seeing the land grow green again. Gil-galad, dead! Nevermore to see those merry bright eyes, or to hear the clear ringing laughter, or to know the warmth of his brotherly embrace when he came on one of his many visits. Save for Elrond, Readfah had loved no living person more than she had Gil-galad, and now he was gone.
Galadriel passed them on the stairs, seemingly unmoved, but with that regret that always came to her when the spell that bound her was at its ebb.
When it was all over no one, not even the surviving mortal soldiers, could mark the passage of their time in Sauron's unholy realm. A few at a time they came, most of them on foot, for many horses had been killed. Readfah tried to listen to their stories, but they were too many, and contradictory. The only common thread was that Gil-galad had indeed been slain, and so had Elendil - both of them fighting Sauron himself, who, though possessed of some sort of overpowering magic, was overthrown at the last himself. No, they told her, they did not think Elrond was dead, but the last they saw of him he was running from the fire pits screaming the name 'Isildur' at the top of his lungs. The weary soldiers could not tell her more.
So it was true - Gil-galad was dead - and there would not be even a scrap of a garment left to enshrine in his memory. Aeglos, the great spear, had been consumed like a stick of kindling as it pierced Sauron's body, said one of his Captains morbidly. He could not stop talking about it, and Readfah was glad the healers had begun to return, for all but simple illnesses still baffled her - those of the mind had always been Elrond's care. Readfah wondered if she would not go mad herself. No sign or news of Elrond; wild-eyed men and elves arriving at all hours, needing food, needing rest, and winter fast approaching; Celebrían weeping unceasingly, and Galadriel still ensconced in the house.
At night, when it was quiet, Readfah would often sit with a single small lamp burning, or sometimes just near the glow of the fire, and remember Gil-galad. It was hard not to cry, and sometimes Brinhaw and some of the other women who had not known him, would join her and sit quietly while she spoke of him. It was the best thing that they could have done for her, and Gil-galad would have approved of the sort of eulogy they gave him far more than all the weeping and hand-wringing that would have been done had his body been brought home to lie in state.
For the stories she told of Ereinion Gil-galad were not of heroics, or battles, or kingly deeds and stirring speeches. Rather, she spoke of how his jewellike eyes sparkled, how he could spring to his horse's back with muscles whipcord strong and lithe as a cat's, and how his dark hair rippled and flowed like the ocean sea under a night sky. She told of his quick temper, as easily roused as his matchless wit; how with a word he could command silence from a crowd, or with a smile give them good cheer. She recalled the day they met as easily as the last day she saw him alive. She told his favorite stories, most of them hilariously funny, and as often as not the ones he had loved best had been at his own expense.
And finally, she told of his love for Celebrían, and most of them did weep then, in pity for the sweet elf-maid who would know her lover's embrace no longer, nor be fortunate enough to bear his child. They felt this perhaps the most keenly, for to the Éothéodias, children were the very purpose of life. They knew little of magic, and Readfah did not try to explain the little she knew, but she helped them understand that the Elvenking had not fallen by any natural means, and that the thing that had taken him from them was the very heart of evil.
Only two people in Elrond's house knew whence came that evil magic, and only one understood that somehow the One Ring had escaped destruction. She knew it, for Nenya, the ring of Adamant still pulsed as powerfully as ever, chained beneath her garments over her heart. Who had the One, now? Where was it? For several long moments Galadriel forgot entirely about the other rings. It was obvious that Sauron no longer had it, yet it survived. She caught herself drooling. Impatiently, she remained in her room, pacing. Vilya was somewhere in this house. If she had to tear it apart...
She shook herself, and tried to think more rationally. Briefly she thought of Nárya, the Ring of Fire, the smooth red stone set in such a way that it appeared to be glowing from it's heart. On the one hand, of course, possessing all three rings would be perfection, but somehow, she was content to let Nárya rest in Círdan's hands. She sensed that it had a purpose apart from the others, even while it was joined with them. Of this purpose, Galadriel knew nothing but a vague premonition that in the far future, it would be surrendered to someone of even greater knowledge and power than she. She was surprised that she did not resent this, but she was experienced enough to know it was for the best.
But Vilya! She pursed her lips and thought of the irreversible bond she had forged between the Sapphire and the Adamant. Useless now. Gil-galad was gone. For all practical purposes Readfah was his heir. No matter how much Galadriel might have interfered with Nature in the past, she could not expect a marriage between two women. Over time, the unfulfilled bond would weaken the power of the Rings until they became mere ornaments. She paced anew and cursed her own stupidity. Lórien, lost. Imladris, lost.
Then, suddenly, her eyes narrowing, she ran to the window which faced East. Hope sprang anew as she rapidly considered an alternative that no one had ever thought of...that no one but she would have considered even in their most fevered dreams.
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