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Mother of Horsemen: 14. Chapter 14
Another rough one. The adventure begins.....
Mother of Horsemen - Chapter Fourteen
Winter came early that year. The birds deserted their feeding grounds almost as soon as the last leaves came down, and snow began falling with the last flutter of departing wings, blanketing the ground with a deep, soft powder. Noon was indistinguishable from dusk, for the skies remained leaden, as if they, as well as the house in the valley, were in mourning.
Gárulf had come home at last with the news that Elrond was alive, but had followed Isildur, Elendil's surviving son, to a small Númenorean outpost deep in the Northern mountains. There had been some sort of argument, and though as far as he knew swords had not been drawn, it had gotten ugly.
"Was he alone?" Readfah asked worriedly, for Glorfindel had come home weeks before and knew nothing of Elrond's whereabouts. Glorfindel said he had seemed to vanish the day Sauron was toppled, and for a long time they presumed him dead.
"I believe he rode with three esquires," Gárulf replied, holding aloft in his big hands a squealing, chubby boy-child, his and Frida's first, who had been born six months ago. "Two of our riders, and the young elf lad who used to help cook."
Readfah smiled at the gurgling baby, and also at Gárulf's description of Taenon as 'young'. She turned to Glorfindel, who sat to her left.
"We heard that he and Isildur had quarreled," Glorfindel added, his summer-sky eyes narrow with memories too close. "No one knows what it could have been about - Gil-galad dead moments before - and Elendil's body still burning, or so they told me. Círdan could possibly have told more, as he was there, but he was carried wounded from the field. Fear not," he added quickly, "he rests at home now, and will mend swiftly. But I was about a mile from the mountain at the time, for orcs still came as if churned from a great press, and then it all stopped, like blowing out a candle. There was a deathly stillness, and we knew it was over."
"And yet no one knows why he chose to follow Isildur?" Readfah's eyes met Galadriel's.
Galadriel kept her face neutral, but she had forever lost her gift of secreting all her thoughts from Readfah. She did not speak, but Readfah knew at once Elrond's absence was connected to the rings. Perhaps even that horrible One Ring of Sauron's, that somehow was bound to the others? What knowledge did Galadriel's inscrutable face still conceal?
"And why has Celeborn not joined us?" Readfah directed the question to no one in particular, and it hung heavy in the air. Everyone knew that the silver haired general had opted to take his troop straight home to Lórien before the encroaching weather made the mountain paths impassable, and if they thought it peculiar that he seemed to have no pressing desire to see his family, no one was rude enough to say so. Indeed, Readfah, with as much reason as she had to despise Galadriel, had no wish to start a public quarrel. She was grateful, therefore, when after a few murmurs from a blushing Glorfindel about the weather, the subject was dropped. But Readfah had already pieced together an accurate picture of the truth. Celeborn wanted as little to do with magical rings, and his wife, as possible; so little he had even denied himself seeing his beloved daughter.
The old black horse stood upon the terrace, facing the front door expectantly. His lips twitched, exposing long, yellowed teeth; the hollows above his eyes deep with age and wisdom. He walked easily still, though the snow slowed him down considerably as it had not when he had been a colt. He nodded when Readfah came to the door bundled in furs.
"I am here, old friend," she came out and stroked his greying nose. "What's troubling you, Mor?"
He turned and walked a few steps, his hooves making a soft clumping sound, then looked back at her.
"Are you missing him too?" she asked, smiling sadly. Mor had been Elrond's mount before Luinon, and he had enjoyed a fine long retirement.
Mor nodded again gravely, but he remained where he stood. Readfah thought that he had come to lead her to an injured horse, or a mare in labor too early, as he and some of the other older animals did when they pastured far from the house.
"Do you want me to ride you, or shall I call for Ahliehha?"
The aged animal swung his muzzle to his back, and Readfah mounted him gently, spreading the fur cape across his back. Shivering gratefully at the welcome warmth over his loins, he began to walk toward the falls path.
"Mor, we'll never climb that through all this..." Readfah stopped and frowned. The path had been much traveled, but by unridden horses. It was as if they had been keeping the path open by themselves, yet there was no need. The valley provided ample winter fodder for all of them.
"Where are we going?" she wondered, as the horse pressed resolutely up the path. She had only expected to find an injured horse nearby, not to take a trip. Besides, she would not have thought Mor strong enough for any real journey. As they passed through the thinning forest that would lead to the plain where the Éothéodias lived in Ux's day, she could hear the hiss of sleet falling ever faster through the ice-stiffened branches.
Her heart skipped a beat. Elrond. He's taking me to him. Her keen ears had picked up nothing yet over the sound of the old horse's hoofs, each step compressing the snow with a dull, crunching squeak. I cannot hear him, but I can almost smell him. And then she heard his voice.
They were perhaps no more than two arrows' flight away. Four of them, their horses struggling through the drifts high as their knees. Pity overrode happiness, and she cried out to them, hot tears turning to ice on her cheeks. Even so far away, she could see their faces, Elrond's beautiful eyes agleam as his hope took form before him. Taenon's lyrical voice, and those of the goldenhaired brothers - older now, bearded, stern of face - grew dim as the lovers' world compressed for a few beats in time, to disallow any presence but their own.
Jubilation. There was no other word to describe the high hearted bliss of Elrond's homecoming. There was no room for mourning that day, even as those who loved him best found their eyes sweeping the dimmer corners of the house in the insane hope that Gil-galad would materialize and make the household complete again. And each time they did, the disappointment of the reunion thwarted threatened to spoil the reunion that was, so with effort they turned their attention to the joy they were permitted.
Brinhaw was unrecognizable. The shieldmaid of old was now the beloved mother, flanked by her sons, who had been overwhelmed with surprise to find her and their sisters in Imladris. Ale flowed freely, and Elves and Men alike sang lustily and told such wicked stories Readfah could easily tell they had been Gil-galad's friends.
Siddona immediately ordered the makings of a feast, and the two sons of the Mark shocked her by hauling to the back of her kitchens the carcass of a wild sheep they had shot not long after Readfah found them. They sang a brisk hunter's song as they carved the unfortunate animal into manageable pieces, and impressed Siddona to no end with their knowledge of spit roasting meat.
"We ought to know, my raven haired lovely!" Tovig exclaimed, squeezing her tightly around her slender waist, brute regardless of her startled glance. "T'is many a bloody raw haunch we've had to gnaw upon until we learned, nic, broðor?"
Held grinned and agreed, then began grabbing herb boxes and applying their contents liberally over the slowly turning joints of mutton.
They dined sumptuously that evening. Though little wine had been pressed since the war began, Siddona had managed to hoard some of a butt of a rich, ruby colored vintage that defied all attempts to identify it. It was, Elrond said, remarkably like the wine they had enjoyed so long ago, when Ux and his companions had brought down the white bull of Araw and dragged it back to the valley for a summernight feast the Elves still talked about. The story was new to the Mark-folk, and doubly enjoyed because it was about their ealdes-fædern - 'long-fathers' - and the ancestors had apparently liked a good party as much as they!
Elrond would not be separated from Readfah. They sat together on the deep cushioned chaise facing the fire, her hands enfolded in his, and her head cradled in the crook of his neck, their hair entwined, dark with auburn, a very portrait of contentment. Celebrían sat apart with Taenon, whom she had known from her childhood, and who had known Gil-galad from his, and was soothed to hear him speak softly of her beloved.
Only Galadriel, who had wandered alone into an adjoining sitting room, was quiet. How to tell the Peredhel that his days with Readfah were numbered? How to tell him that, in spite of everything - bonds, promises, even love - he must set that aside and wed with Celebrían? And how to tell Celebrían that whatever she had shared with Gil-galad was set at naught, and in order to preserve their lives she must now wed with one who was only as a well-loved brother to her?
Galadriel swallowed hard. She who was seldom afraid looked at the tableau in the greater hall and saw not merely man and maid, but one who had stormed Barad-dûr and lived, and the daughter of one of the few living beings she had ever feared with all her heart. It had to be done. And she, who was author of this madness, must be the one to tell them. She had to decide whether to tell them right away, or allow them a day, two days. The better part of her wished nothing more than to go home and leave them in peace. The part of her which had created the dilemma by which many Elvish bodies would be saved at the expense of a few of their souls cried out to tell them now. At last, looking at them again, she decided to wait until morning.
The silver circlet, badge of the office of vice-regent, struck Galadriel above her brow, sending her staggering back a pace.
"What is this that you have done to us?" Elrond's voice shook with fury. "what unnatural league with Sauron have you made? Answer me, woman!" he shouted, but the shout was lost as his voice dissolved into a sob, which frightened Galadriel more than his anger. She hardly dared raise her hand to the growing welt on her forehead.
Readfah stood behind him, pale and sickened. Earlier that day, Galadriel had watched as Elrond and Readfah had removed the ring from it's hiding place, embedded in a crystal set deep in the library hearth. The last few moments in which either of them would ever trust her again. She had mentioned Galadriel's desire for the ring to Elrond that morning, and he had told her that Gil-galad had named him his heir. "In all things save his home at the havens, which he bequeathed to Círdan. So worry no longer, my love, this troublesome bit of gold shall be my care." It had been a joke then, only to turn on them in the end.
"Even if I were so inclined, and did not love Readfah, I could not do this thing! Celebrían is wed in all but blessings to Gil-galad! I cannot interfere with that!"
"And yet if you do not, we are all enslaved! You say the One was taken by Isildur. It will be only a matter of time before Sauron will return to claim it, from him, or his heir! Gil-galad is not here to give Celebrían children..."
"Do you mean to say," Elrond strode over to her, and she put her hands up before her face, for she fully expected him to strike her, "that not only must I wed her unwilling, but that I am also expected to get children with her? No! I will not do it! Readfah will bear my children...we have waited too long for this day."
"Readfah cannot have children." Galadriel said quietly. The news she had once hoped to keep secret came forth as a whisper.
Readfah sat down hard, and she and Elrond looked at each other in mute horror.
Elrond spoke first, and his voice was again deadly, "And how do you know that?"
Galadriel could not face him - her eyes flickered to floor and window, but not to his own eyes, dilated and fixed on her, ready to strike.
"You. You did this to her?"
"The line of Fëanor could not be allowed to continue," she said quickly. "He placed a bond on all his sons that is still not quenched. As long as his line survives...children, by you, with the blood you carry, could bring all that horror back to life! She could not be allowed..."
"Allowed! You speak as though you had authority over us! You will lift this curse and get hence, or I shall remove you from here myself!"
At last Readfah spoke.
"Am I then to be turned from my own house?"
"Of course not!" Elrond said defiantly, embracing her and kissing the top of her head. "This - this woman shall take her daughter to Lórien as soon as the snow melts and never darken our door again."
"Elrond..." Galadriel began.
"Do not let me hear my name again in your mouth!" he roared, rising to meet her.
"You cannot just turn your back to this! I see things you do not," Galadriel beseeched him, "You must..."
"I - said - NO! Now get you from my sight!"
"I will say what I must though you strike me, half-elf ! If you do not wed with Celebrían and give her children, it will happen! And sooner than later, Lórien will fall as well. Anything you do otherwise will result in the loss of both realms and countless lives! I sought only to strengthen the original properties of the rings, which I did all too well! The ring was Gil-galad's, not yours, when I did it. All it would have taken to complete it and assure our safety was the recitation of the blessings and the begetting of children.You are his heir. It falls to you to do what he now cannot."
Elrond had gone to stand in the deep embrasure of a window, his heart as cold as the wintry scene outside, and gazed unseeingly at the frosted and lifeless garden. Galadriel stared at his back, seconds ticking past like hours, hardly daring to hope he might be considering her words.
"Does Celebrían know of this devilry?" he demanded hoarsely.
"Yes. Since last night."
"What had she to say?"
"She will do as she is bid."
"That is not what I asked."
"She does not wish to wed with you, yet she understands why she must." Galadriel omitted to tell him that Celebrían had thrice mentioned willing herself to die in the hysteria that resulted from this news.
They had not noticed Readfah, who had risen behind them. Breathing hard, fighting a strange feeling that swam in and out of her consciousness like a fish in a lilypond, now gliding lazily, then darting furiously. Her face worked, and she fingered the hilt of her father's blade which as ever hung at her side.
When at last they looked at her again, Galadriel drew a sharp breath and even Elrond stepped back in amazement. Readfah seemed taller somehow, the features of her face and her body thinner and sharper, all the rounded rosiness of her mother's blood gone. The braids of her hair seemed to bristle and her eyes held pinpoints of flame.
Elrond started to speak, but she turned to him with no recognition in her glance, only a soft snarl warning him off. Only when she saw Galadriel did the look of sheer hatred bloom in her face.
Galadriel said it for him. "It is Maedhros..."
With a voice deepened to masculinity, Readfah muttered an oath in the ancient tongue and drew the blade. She strode toward Galadriel, all her motions seeming to slow in time, a step, another Quenyan epithet, the raising and throwing back of her arm, the swing of the shining oxblood braids. Elrond had seen it once before, long ago, but Galadriel stood frozen, fascinated in spite of her peril. She had only been voicing a fear that Fëanor and his sons were not quite finished in this world, but never had she thought to see it for herself. Elrond was barely able to hold her off - twice she pulled free and ended by throwing the knife at Galadriel's head, and missing by a hairsbreadth.
"You - will -not...my daughter - unjust! Unjust!" Readfah screamed in heavily accented Sindarin as Elrond wrestled her to the floor. Her head shot up and her eyes bored into Galadriel's. "All your works will come to naught, in spite of you! And you!" She turned at last to Elrond "You will keep your promise to her or the very Sea will seem a drop of dew beside the tears you will shed!" She then gagged, her body stiffening, and just as suddenly went limp in his arms.
Galadriel looked up at Elrond; in spite of her trembling the merest hint of triumph was in her voice.
"Would you truly wish to have children with this one, Peredhel?"
But Elrond did not seem to hear. He sat on the stone floor with Readfah in his arms, rocking, too deeply wounded to weep, too overwhelmed with sadness to care if he lived to see another day.
All the household of Imladris knew by now what had happened, and only out of respect for Elrond did they refrain from voicing their opinions of Galadriel to her face. The Éothéodias, to a man, were for turning her from the house, and not a few were angry with Elrond as well, understanding nothing of his dilemma and only seeing that he was going to wed another in Readfah's place, and one whom he did not love. It seemed to Elrond that a cold wind swept the corridors while Readfah bundled her few belongings up in the room she had shared with him since the house had been built.
He had wept and entreated, cursed Galadriel and swore he would never wed Celebrían, but in the end he knew he had no choice. He had been gifted with great insight, and like it or not, Galadriel was right. Gil-galad's words, too, came back to haunt him; 'you are my heir, and if I die my obligations rest on you.' But even Gil-galad could not have foreseen this horror. Elrond would not even assume the kingship, and forsook any titles he might have borne. Even the modest honorary title of "Lord" was not to his liking.
He had defiantly torn the sash from his waist before a shocked Galadriel and all the rest of the house, and retied it with a knot above each hipbone, a fashion that signified that he would not wed as a sign of mourning. This was rare, and he knew only a temporary measure, 100 man-years being the usual interval. And yet, Readfah turned from him, and prepared to leave him.
The bitter question, unspoken on his lips, she answered with a quiet resignation so unlike her that it made him weep anew.
"Why?" she smiled bitterly. "Should I remain here while you take Celebrían to wife, and watch her belly grow big with the children that should have been mine? What will I be to you? A mistress? Such things are not done among your people. And I would remind you that Celebrían is grieving also. It is none of it her fault, and she does not deserve to be shamed that way. I can accept that you are trapped, or even that you must wed her for Gil-galad's sake. But that I must remain here and see it would be a punishment to me."
"Then I will do what I must with her and she may go back to her mother! She would be happier that way, and the Valar know I would also!" Elrond's voice was urgent, the note of despair rising. "Readfah, I cannot bear not knowing where you are!"
But Readfah shook her head. "You could not get a child and then turn your back to it, no matter what you say. And I can never give you an heir..."
"Heir?" Elrond turned on her almost angrily. "What need have elves in these days for heirs? Every day more of our people are sailing West. There they will wed and have their children, not here. Readfah...we could go thence too...leave it all. Leave this hateful ring in Galadriel's hand and ride to the Havens this night!"
Her eyes closed, the temptation almost too much. But she again shook her head.
"I am not ready to leave, and neither are you. Our days here are not fulfilled."
He bowed his head. At last no words would come. Readfah went to him and with both hands turned his face to hers.
"This I will promise you. I will not leave these lands until and unless you do. As long as you abide in Middle Earth here I will be also."
"I love you, Readfah," he said, and his love for her was ablaze in the light of his eyes behind the brimming pools of tears. "Please, don't leave me."
"I love you also, Elrond," she replied, her own tears spilling. "And for that reason alone, I must."
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