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Mother of Horsemen: 16. Chapter 16
I had to decide whether to make this chapter longer or start a new one, and decided a new one would work better. Next chapter should be up well before Christmas!
4/24/2007 - Edited.
Mother of Horsemen - Chapter Sixteen
Readfah sat still for a long time, both she and the big, black roan stallion she rode staring ahead as if transfixed. Dryarrin rode up beside her but said nothing. The Golden Wood lay stretched before their feet, on a long, gentle downslope; a bright yet brooding presence in the late Autumn sun. It was still an hour's slow ride away, but close enough for Elvish eyes to discern movement in the foremost trees.
"They are watching us," said Readfah, with no trace of emotion in her voice save a whisper of sarcasm. "They guard their realm jealously."
They were near the Northeasternmost corner of the woods, within mortal sight of Anduin. There the river bounded the wood on its Eastern border. Though Readfah had never set foot in Lothlórien, she knew that there was a path along the riverbanks that travelers could walk unchallenged.
They rode further. Readfah never taking her eyes from the trees. There was a rustling, as if of a quick fitful breeze, though none blew. It was as if a flock of birds were moving toward them through the branches.
"Wood Elves, Dry'! I don't understand. I thought but a few of the Silvan folk sought shelter here when Morg- ... long ago, " she quickly amended. "This feels and smells like the Imlad Ris used to!"
She stopped again and narrowed her eyes. "Then why do we skulk about like a pair of lost orcs?"
"Because the Lady may be here, and you and the Lady are hardly on friendly terms?" Dryarrin suggested placidly.
"I think just the same I shall ride to the door and not creep to a window like a thief!"
"What of the horses?"
"They will be all right here for now."
Readfah had brought but few animals. Before her departure from the Mark she had ridden from herd to herd, simply pointing out the horses she wanted, one here, two there, sometimes none at all. They left off grazing and followed her as they always had done, and as always, the men who owned them said naught, amazement and not a little fear staying their tongues. For all that she might greet them at her door, her arms dusted with flour from a breadmaking, or coming forth from the coop with a squawking hen for the pot, they knew always who she was. She was never greedy, and never took any horses that were bonded to a rider. One time only in the memory of those living now did any man object to a choice Readfah made, and his own fellows turned on him.
"What? Do you wish to bring a curse on us? She is Readfah...and it is by her gifts that we have become who we are! In two years or three she will bring you a better one still! Do not shame us with your foolishness!"
Scarcely two dozen horses had followed her to Lothlórien, mostly mares, and the great stallion, Gamælen*, that she rode. Readfah usually was chosen by a mare - over the years she had only bonded with seven stallions - but this one had reminded her so much of Raha, the black stallion of the wicked humor who chose Gil-galad so long ago, that she almost violated her own rule of the horse's choice. The gift of speech was his, though he used it but seldom and only when he so chose. In this way, Readfah knew that he had come from the line of horses her father and uncles had brought with them from over the Sea, though in appearance he was like to the horses of the North.
Now, approaching the eaves of the wood, Readfah and Dryarrin beheld for the first time in their long lives the mallorn trees which grew only in Lórien. No stranger ever saw those trees without marveling at their great size and beauty, and the two of them were no exception. They guessed, correctly, that some of the trees contained dwellings, partly formed of their natural growth and partly of Elvish make - not at all like the tree cottages of Imladris, which were only a horse's height or so above the ground and wholly separate from the trees themselves. The pattern of the bark seemed to spiral up like twisted bands of silver, weathered to smoothness. The branches wove in and around each other like a great knotwork and the perfection of the leaves was breathtaking. They gleamed like true gold, bearing but a hint of green reflected from the leaves of lesser trees. It seemed to the travelers that they might have been wrought of those precious metals by giants in another Age of the world.
They rode under the shade of the first of those splendid trees, knowing well they were watched closely. Readfah decided that discretion was of no further use here. She threw back her head and shocked Dryarrin with a series of calls neither had heard or uttered in a thousand years.
"Brr-rr-rrrrrrre-eee-eee ck! ck! ck! wiwido! Ck wiwido! Zee! Zzzzeeeee!"*
The rustling stopped and the forest was silent for what seemed a long time. Then, from a distance, they heard a single clear reply.
"Zeeeeee! Chkchk - piuuuu pik! pik!"
As if revealing themselves on purpose, shadowy figures became visible high in the trees, though none approached.
"Zeeeee...Rr--r--! Ck! Ck! Wiwido!" she called again.
Barely she heard the murmur of soft voices. Suddenly, or so it seemed to them, a tall archer appeared in the clearing and several more shimmered into view after a space. Carefully, Readfah threw back her dark green cloak and waited.
The archer did not lower his weapon until he was nearly upon them, but he was smiling as he approached. Readfah dropped to the ground and walked toward him in disbelief.
"Orophin?" she almost squealed. "Praise be to Béma! you are alive!"
The handsome elf's hip length fall of night black hair swept around her as they embraced. Then Dryarrin dismounted and he looked up at her, his heart-stopping, slanted, dark-lashed eyes kindled into flame as he acknowledged Readfah's introduction, and greeted her in flawless, clicking Laiquendi.
"Readfah!" he turned back to her after an awkward pause and exhaled her name as if satisfied she was no vision. "When last did we see each other? You were threatening to go live with the Lossoth. We took it as a joke, but we never saw you again!"
"I did go up there! My own chattering mouth woke my curiosity. It was dull at times, but I learned much. But all that later! Are the Lord Celeborn and Lady Galadriel here now?*** Do you serve them?"
His face became grave and he spoke carefully. "The Lord Celeborn, yes.We went to war at his side. He and the Lady are here now. We are free to do as we like, as long as we protect the Wood from enemies. Readfah, there is something wrong, is there not?" Orophin's sensitive grey eyes swept her face and body, for Wood Elves read the whole being, not just the face.
The Lady Celebrían," she began.
"Ah yes. And so you know what has happened? She and the Lord Elrond have wed, and we have heard that the match was made unwilling by both! Can this be so?"
"She was betrothed to Gil-galad," Readfah continued. As she told the story, the other Elves gathered around to listen in shock, for none of this had been made known to them.
"You were Elrond's betrothed, and he wed the Lady's daughter in your stead?" another Elf spoke up, her voice raspy with the Green accent. Readfah looked up quickly, but saw that she was far too young to have known her. Her face was pale with disbelief. The same question hovered on all their lips - why had none of this been made known? Why was Readfah's name never mentioned, so that those who had been her friends and brothers could have known she was still alive? Had she been that great a threat?
Before she could reply, Orophin looked up, deeper into the wood. Another archer strode toward them noiselessly. He was clad in the same changeable grey finewool cloak they all wore - a hair's breadth taller than Orophin but greatly resembling him, for they were brothers.
"Haldir!" Orophin called. "It is Readfah!"
"Well met, sister!" cried the newcomer, who had already shouldered his bow and replaced the arrow in the quiver with a graceful turn of the wrist.
"Haldir...I had never thought to see any of you alive again." Readfah's eyes filled as his slender, strong arms encircled her. "And Rúmil? Is he...?"
"Alive and well, and scouting along the river about two hours hence. I have sent out signals. But you! When, where, why?" he grinned.
"I should ask the same of you! How came you to these woods, and when? Galadriel has almost always wintered here, hasn't she, save for during the War? She has known me since before Elrond built his house, and she has never spoken of me?"
"Readfah was betrothed to Elrond," Orophin interjected, and Haldir quirked a brow.
"Nay, no word of you, not even from the lord Celeborn..." his voice slowed and he looked up at Orophin in wonder.
Then no further talk was possible, for more of their people arrived, some who had grown up with Readfah, and some who had even set eyes on her mother. So few, far too few, for a great number of the Silvan folk who were survivors of Morgoth's ravages had followed their Grey-Elven kin into the West.
"Enough of this for now!" Haldir's voice carried a note of command. He turned back to Readfah. "We have sleeping platforms all round the borders of the Wood, where our scouts rest on patrols. Choose one if you will and take your ease there, and feast with us tonight."
"What of the Lady?" Readfah frowned. She must surely know by now that I am here."
Haldir shrugged. "It is not by the leave of the Lady that you may stay. None of us will trouble to tell her you are here, unless you wish it. She has ways unknown to us, and she may discover you are here on her own, but I deem that it will not be so unless she has reason to expect you to come."
"That I cannot guess, Haldir. We are not - truly - enemies."
"Though you have cause to be," he reminded her needlessly.
"Will this cause any trouble for you?"
"How? We have no orders to hold you prisoner, or forbid you entry. You are an elf...or elf enough, and kin to the Silvan people through language and adoption. We have welcomed you. I account you my sister and tribeswoman." Haldir shook his head firmly. "I will have no part in raising a weapon against you."
Readfah sat back, a small smile playing about her mouth. This was going to be far more interesting than she had at first thought.
Readfah's memories of her life with the Silvan folk were some of her earliest and most enduring, having come to live with the Green Elven branch of that people in her early youth. It was not long before the ways of the Elves-Who-Chose-the-Woods, known in this realm as the Galadrim, came back to her. There was a kind of oneness with Arda, deeper it seemed, than that of other Elves. The Noldor had become royalty - artists, craftsmen and historians - living in palaces and even the warriors among them wearing rich garments and jewels. The Sindar were hardly different, but the Silvan Elves lived with an elegant, primitive earthiness, only the pale shadow of which still touched their "higher" kin. Every breath was taken with an almost savage joy. Food was eaten and love made with a rich and hearty appreciation. She thought, not for the last time, that they were more like to the Éothéodias that any other Elves she had known.
She had lay down to rest and fallen asleep, and awoke to the crisp, smoky smell of freshly roasted pig. She sniffed the air, but something was odd about it. Sliding off the flet and down to the ground, she met Orophin who had come to fetch her.
"When did you start eating meat?" she teased, the puzzle resolving itself all at once in her mind.
"When we nearly starved!" laughed Orophin. "That was one time the Green folk were wrong, at any rate. But even they began to hunt at need. There are still those who prefer not to touch flesh, and will not unless they must. But we no longer get into arguments about it. Where is Dryarrin?"
"Seeing to the horses, I think," she replied, then catching his expression, smiled. "You like her, don't you?"
His grin was nearly impish, and he nodded. "Very much."
Unbidden, Readfah felt a pang of envy. She might have known that sooner or later Dry' would find a mate. And she, Readfah, must go without one all her days. She cursed silently and turned away.
"You mustn't feel that way," he said gently. "You were not wed, but betrothed only. You may yet find someone else."
Just like a Wood Elf to cut right to the heart of the matter. "I really don't think so, Orophin. I don't see how. Not now...perhaps never."
He regarded her a long while, just to the point of making her feel uncomfortable and no further.
"Readfah, why did you come here?"
"Why? The Lady took my home and my mate from me and bestowed them on her daughter. Now I am come to take for myself a home of my own choosing."
Orophin hid his surprise well, but could not help but be amused at Readfah's boldness. "The Lord Amroth will care not, but the Lady will undoubtedly object!"
"She might. But I think she would find it preferable for me to live quietly in a corner of this wood where she need never bother with me again, than to risk my return to Imladris."
"But you have no desire to do that, do you?"
"Of course not, but she need never know it. You see, all my life I have been sent to places not of my choosing. I will not go to Taur-e-Ndaedelos, for that forest is beset by strange evils. Nor will I go to the Havens, for there dwell too many who do not forget the ill my father has done. This wood is the only other elf-haven left, and even Galadriel cannot deny that she owes me for what she has done. And," here she lowered her voice, "I can probably get anything I want of her as long as I can make her believe I will go back to Imladris if she has me banished from here."
Clever, thought Orophin. I would not want her for an enemy...
They walked toward the clearing where some others had gathered. The split carcasses of two young pigs were propped ingeniously at an angle before the fire. This was obviously a place where they met to feast often, for the fire was built in a stone pit, and even the light tread of Elvish feet had worn many paths to and fro until they were indistinguishable one from another. A spring, very old from the look of the smooth, worn basin where the clear water spilled, bubbled up from a fissured rock, at the sides of which grew two young mallorns.
Haldir called out a greeting and another elf, clad in the dark tunic and leggings worn by all the archers of Lórien, turned and broke into a wide smile. It was Rúmil, the youngest of the three brothers, and the merriest.
"Brother, do my eyes play tricks? I'll be speared and trussed if it isn't the russet-haired wench who broke my heart and ran away! Come to beg my forgiveness, have you?"
Readfah laughed out loud at this nonsense, for a gold ring on his right forefinger glinted in the dappled light. He was the only one of his brothers to have wed, but that, and the fathering of two sons and two daughters and the births of several grandchildren had not quenched his mischievous spirit. He was much like Gil-galad, thought Readfah - though he was as comely as his brothers - he had the same quick wit and marvelous flashing eyes that the Elvenking had had. Rúmil was somewhat shorter than the other two as well, and for a brief instant, it seemed to Readfah that she saw Gil-galad, flanked by the two who had been his brothers in all but blood - Elrond and a dark-haired Celeborn. Her heart caught...would the tears never cease springing to her eyes?
He strode to her and spun her off her feet, kissing roses into both her cheeks and lifting her high off the ground with a wild laugh.
Sobered a little as he set her down, he peered at her intently. "You have become so serious, sweetling! Has it to do with what Haldir has been telling me?"
She nodded, but put a finger to his lips. "Speak no more of it now. This night should be one of merrymaking and new meetings!"
As if her words had been a signal, (or perhaps it was the irresistible smell of roast pork) more Elves began to come forth from their hidden places. Even a few children were to be seen peering around trees and finally venturing into the clearing with that peculiar dawdling gait common to bashful children everywhere - hands clasped behind, eyes on the ground, suddenly finding a leaf or a twig to be of immense interest and squatting to study it. But at last the ones who were cooking began to slice the meat into portions, and baskets of nuts had been placed about within easy reach of all, with good flat stones for cracking. Carved wooden bowls of fruit were at hand, as well as plenty of wine.
There was another innovation aside from the meat, and that was the addition of tall foaming pitchers of spring-chilled sheep's milk, obtained from the finewool flocks that grazed the meadows. Readfah had never known Elves to have dairies, though those who had lived among men certainly knew of such things. Elrond had spoken of the lavish use of butter at the wedding feasts they attended in the Mark with something akin to awe, and the second most important industry among them, after horse breeding, was the manufacture of a great variety of rich cheeses which sold for a good price to traders. So far as she knew, Elves had not yet widely adopted that art, but Readfah had some knowledge of it. Perhaps, if she stayed here...
She looked around her. This was the life and contentment Eru had meant for his Firstborn. Orophin sat apart with Dryarrin near the stream, reminding her of her first meeting with Elrond. They were so happy Readfah could not remain bitter. Maybe Orophin was right. Maybe some day she would be able to bond with another, but right now she could not conceive of being able to give her heart to anyone, so firmly was it in Elrond's keeping. With an effort she shrugged off these thoughts and turned her attention to a little girl who had wandered up to stare at her and finally ask how her hair came to be THAT color.
The children, sensing as they always do those who love them, forgot their shyness and begged her to play with them and tell them stories. And she did. Interesting ones that made them wiggle, their eyes shine and their little mouths pop open in surprise. And far into the night, long after the little ones had been tucked to bed in the high flets, their elders ate, drank, danced, and sang, while Readfah met many new people and renewed many old friendships. But it was to the three brothers who had been Celeborn's trustiest Captains she spoke most.
"Ulm's fish, Readfah!" Rúmil exclaimed, serious for once. "You would ride into Caras Galadon unheralded?" He whistled softly.
"I will not wait for Galadriel to discover I'm here, as if I have aught to be ashamed of," she replied. "Caras Galadon is eight leagues from here? Then I think we should take a little rest, then ride before daybreak."
"Ride?" Haldir looked up bemusedly.
"Of course. I will not leave the horses." She looked from one to the other, comprehension growing in her mind. "Can it be that you do not ride?"
"Horses are few here, Readfah, and seldom used," Orophin replied softly, with a tinge of embarrassment. "We can ride at need, but we..."
"...are sorely out of practice!" quipped Rúmil, grimacing and arching his back as if to relieve an ache. "You have always been one for the horses, sweetling. I'll wager you're hard as iron on your..."
"I agree with Readfah," Haldir interrupted smoothly, betraying his annoyance with Rúmil with the barest twitch of one corner of his mouth while Readfah laughed. "It is best that we go to the city at dawn. I do not foresee civil war in Lothlórien, but if it is to be, let us take all the advantage we can get."
"Do you think that Lord Celeborn will see our helping Readfah against Galadriel as a betrayal, brother?" asked Orophin.
Readfah noticed Orophin's omission of Galadriel's title, but did not remark on it. "I think not," she answered before Haldir could. She remembered too well the many times she had seen Celeborn's mouth drawn tight in anger over something his wife had done. "In truth, I believe quite the opposite."
Haldir only smiled. "Sleep now," he said. "We will find it out tomorrow."
They had ridden since the dew was still cold on the grass; Readfah, Dryarrin, and as many of Haldir's scouts as there were horses to mount them. Those in Caras Galadon were roused too late by he sound of hoofbeats, and now Readfah was without the newly wrought gates almost before the Sun had fully risen. Confusion reigned, and questioning voices grew louder until someone thought to fetch the Lady.
But she was already flying through the main corridors from her apartments and peering over the edges of balconies as she made her way down the complex maze of steps that spiralled to the ground. Readfah? With Haldir and his brothers? She pulled her cloak tighter and bit off an oath. She broke into a run. Only when she had nearly reached the bottom did she compose herself. It would not do to appear afraid before such an insignificant intruder. But afraid she was - afraid and angry and more with herself for being so. What if I did wrong her? Of what consequence is a single, misbegotten halfbreed in the greater scheme of things? But she knew the answers even as the questions formed themselves in her mind. The answers lay in the autumn color of Readfah's hair, the lift of her right brow, and the square of her shoulders. She was her father's daughter, and Maedhros had feared nothing and was capable of anything.
Standing alone at the bottom of a broad, smooth stair that appeared to be at once the work of silversmiths and the natural growth of the mighty tree of which it was a part, Galadriel trembled in fury and amazement at the sight before her. Readfah was still seated upon the big dark horse, who himself regarded the Lady with a bland look of indifference. The scouts were mounted on Readfah's horses, and were clearly her friends. Excited whisperings flew among her ladies and the armed vassals who dwelt with her in the great mallorn that was house and city in one. And Celeborn was nowhere to be found.
"What seek you here, horse-maid?" The Lady turned a suspicious sidelong look at Readfah, who merely shrugged.
"A home, if it please milady." Or if it please her not, I care not either way, she thought. Readfah could not help but look up, past the white-clad Lady and her frightened handmaids, into the network of stairs and platforms. Thousands of lamps cast pale golden light into a city of perpetual dusk. Indeed, thought Readfah, marveling, this is how I imagined the cities of Valinor. Perhaps Galadriel has sought in her way to bring the Undying lands here. She regarded the Lady again, with grudging respect.
Galadriel, for her part, thrust her chin up in what was almost defiance. "You see, then, horse-maid, what can be done with - small - gifts by those who truly know how to wield them."
Much of this, then, was the work of her ring, but Galadriel had many powers that were hers alone. There was no denying that the Lady had created an Elf-haven of dazzling perfection...and it was yet unfinished! No wonder the Galadrim respected her. She was not easy to love, but she was creating this for them, to keep them safe.
"You seek a home?" Galadriel's voice became languid. "What, have the Horse Lords disowned you?"
It was blatant bait, but Readfah did not rise to it. "Nay, madam. Say rather that I am of two Houses, and need two homes."
"Why should you be permitted to come here?" the note of anger had crept back.
"Simple justice, madam. And I think your people would agree, if they knew the truth."
Galadriel was naturally pale, but Readfah thought the Lady's mouth grew a little whiter.
"I think, too, that milord Celeborn would agree as well," Readfah was almost, but not quite, ashamed of the pleasure she was taking in Galadriel's discomfort.
Galadriel stifled the impulse to order her own servants to remove her, for she possessed an unfailing sense of the mood of those about her and she could not be sure such an order would be followed. She could not risk losing face that way.
"Surely you do not wish to live here?" Galadriel gestured at the great tree behind her.
Readfah shook her head, though her eyes were drawn unbidden to the wondrous work of the woman she despised. "I wish only to make my home at the edge of the wood," she said at last. "Next to grass and water of course."
"The grasslands outside the wood are not the Elves' to give."
Readfah looked at her with the crooked grin that made her heart go cold. "Then I shall take it."
Galadriel fell silent. The two of them locked eyes once more. Galadriel turned hers away first.
Readfah then spoke the last words she would speak to Galadriel for many years. "If we are agreed then, I will take my horses and trouble you no further."
Galadriel nodded stiffly, still angry that she had been forced to give in. No one had more pride than she had...no one. As she watched them ride away, she heard Readfah speak to Haldir, shifting easily from the barely accented Sindarin she had been speaking back to the Silvan tongue. That alone would have made her a far better ruler of these half-wild folk than she. Thankful that such a thought had not occurred to Readfah, or if it had, had been met with her incredulous laughter, Galadriel turned and slowly made her way back up the long stair.
* Gamælen = "(He) speaks."
** No translation possible for any of this...I have attempted to show that they identified themselves to each other as Silvan Elves this way. Readfah's bird calls, specifically that of the Chuck Will's Widow (a Southern relative of the Whippoorwill) and the Cedar Waxwing (zee!) identify her (in Middle Earth) as coming from the North. Obviously too, these birds would have had different names in that world.
I have treated Nandorin, or the Laiquendian, as a dialect of the more common Silvan tongue, and basically the same language, mutually understood. The Elves of Lórien speak all dialects, and many speak Sindarin, though very few do so fluently.
***Lothlórien did not "belong" to Galadriel at this point in Middle-Earth history, but I am having her establish Caras Galadon just the same.
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