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Mother of Horsemen: 21. Chapter 21
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Mother of Horsemen - Chapter Twenty-one
"My my my, ain't this a pretty piece of elf flesh?"
Celebrían moaned, trying feebly and vainly to avoid the foul smell of the orcs hovering over her. She knew she would die if they touched her. They hadn't yet, not really - they seemed to be waiting for something. They had so far done no more than torture her with lewd mimeries of what they were going to do to her, and they had ripped her gown to shreds so she had little more than strips of cloth to protect what dignity remained to her. Their voices hurt her ears; their tongue felt to her like a kind of poison that crept into the spirit and did it's work slowly.
"Bah! She won't last for all of us! And she'll be dead before it's our turn, as usual!" one complained.
"Shut it, or I will!" snarled another, larger and fouler one. "Kargbaf's out looking for the other one now. She can't have got far, and when we haul that tasty piece in we'll have ourselves some sport!"
"I don't see why we should wait for Karg..." yet another reached toward Celebrían's foot.
"Because he's chief o' you pus-gummed lot, and he said to wait!" roared the big one, drawing a blood-caked short sword. "What's more, he said he'd take my head off if I let you touch her...he's to have her while she has the best fight in her."
"Arghh, she ain't got any! Elvish wenches droop and die straight off!"
"That black haired one won't. She's got a drop of Man-blood in her I'll wager," he said, licking his fingers in an obscene gesture peculiar to his race."This one's her mother, if I know any Elvish. What did you do, dearie?" he taunted Celebrían, though she understood none of it. "You part them pretty thighs for a Mortal, did you?"
Just then a birdsong floated into the cavern, unnoticed by the orcs, but Celebrían's eyes flew open. It continued a moment, then ended on a questioning note. It couldn't be Readfah, she thought wildly. I'm dreaming. But the song recommenced, somewhat louder. If it was not Readfah it was still an Elf, a Wood Elf from home, most likely, who had heard her screams. How could she reply? She lay in desperation several more moments before an idea came to her.
She giggled, at first softly, for she had no idea what they might do. Then she rolled her eyes and laughed aloud.
"Eh? She's going mad on us!"
"Thirty spiders webbed me here!" she trilled, putting the words to a familiar tune any Elf would know. "They will slay my little girl...if they can only find her!" she continued.
"Har! Get up and do a dance!" one said, mimicking a few steps and motioning for her to get up.
Celebrían made as if to do so, still singing and making wry grimaces, which seemed to amuse them.
"She's lost her mind!" one laughed.
"As if you had one of your own!" spat the big orc, going over to kick Celebrían in the ribs before she could rise. "This sly bitch is signaling her people! Idiot! We should have killed them all!"
"We did! There were only a dozen, not counting the wenches. We got them all! I stabbed two in the back myself!"
"Well, one got away," the big one said in disgust. "Or maybe more, trusty as the pack of you are! Tie her up! Let's go, all of you, move! No one stays... you'd be on her as soon as my back was turned! Let's hamstring that cursèd twittering songbird before he brings an army, and roast him alive! And as for you," he grinned at Celebrían with greenish, foul smelling fangs. He lowered his voice a little and spoke a broken Elvish she understood all too well. "Kargbaf or no Kargbaf, I'll see to it you're awake for what I've got to give you!"
"They figured it out," Ponder said gloomily, when Celebrían's song was cut abruptly short.
Readfah gazed up into the hills. "We know their number, and that Arwen escaped. I always knew Celebrían was far more keen witted than even her own mother suspected! I just wish I knew what to do now."
Although she wouldn't have expected to find her in the hills, Readfah was not too surprised to find Celebrían on the way to Lórien; for many a year she had planned her life around travel or for otherwise being away from the Wood when she knew anyone from Imladris was there. Now, it seemed, Celebrían's life might rest in Readfah's hands. Only for a moment did Readfah allow her baser thoughts to surface...let her die. I've heard the stories - Elrond turned into a recluse - Celebrían pining for Gil-galad to no good end. Let her die and join him, and then I could go home to Imladris.
Her face burned with shame as soon as the thought came to her. Even were Celebrían to die, it should not be this way. 'No elf should die,' she recalled Gil-galad's words from a night long ago, just before he rode to his own death. She recalled his bright eyes gone black and empty with fear, like those of a fox when the hounds bay outside his den, and knew as she had loved him she could not let his beloved die without a fight.
"We don't have long to make up our minds," Ponder said dryly, his wit, like his father's, at it's sharpest when death hovered too close. "We should move toward the river before it gets dark and draw them away from the cavern...hide the horses."
"You're right. Live horses would give us away." Readfah permitted herself only a blink of time to think sadly of the dead ones they had passed on the way, horses and Elves alike. She had seen no Elf she recognized; the guardsmen were far too young to have been born when she left Imladris. It wasn't much comfort.
Arwen, afraid to run for fear of being seen, afraid to hide for fear of being sniffed out, made her way toward the Anduin slowly, conserving her strength. Still in shock over her mother's abduction, the reality of it had not set in and she was still able to think.
She had been alone when the orcs came, and too frightened to do anything else, ran blindly away from the others.One or two of them had seen her, sounded the alarm and given chase, but fell dead with the last arrows to fly from Elven bows. She knew enough about them to know they avoided the Sun when they could, but the shadows were growing long.
She had stopped only long enough to strip off her skirts, so that she might run unencumbered. She wasted precious minutes looking for a sword, before realizing it would do her no good against so many, and the weight of a sword would slow her as well. If I can reach the river path, I know how to reach the wood, she told herself. She kept looking over her shoulder - no sign of her captors - yet. Many times she almost weakened and stopped moving, but the thought of her mother's fate renewed the strength of her limbs.
When the ground under her feet became level, she dared to stop beside an outcrop of rock and breathe. It was then she saw two horses an arrowflight away, nearly hidden even to her eyes, in the shadows of a few trees. Silently she crept closer.
How Arwen missed the rank odor of the big orc she never knew, but a huge, dirty hand clapped across her mouth and muffled her scream while the other squeezed her breast, then slid the rest of the way around her, clamping her tight to his body. In the next breath she heard a thump, and she felt him pull back from her, choke, and fall like a stone with no further sound. "Shh!" a voice hissed as she drew a breath to scream. She looked around in time to see a sweep of blood colored braids straighten up before her, pulling a broad, angled blade from the dead orc's neck, and her other hand from his dying mouth.
For a heartbeat's time the women stared at one another, Readfah having the advantage of Arwen, for she would have known Elrond's daughter anywhere. She is beautiful, Readfah thought. Could I ever have given him a daughter so fair? But Arwen took a step back, for Readfah, despite her elvish features, looked dangerous and wild, and Ponder, who had moved noiselessly up beside her, was no more reassuring. They urged her forward, and they moved like swift shadows toward the horses.
"They are coming," he said in Laiquendi, which Arwen barely understood.
"Get her home," Readfah urged.
"No! You take her and I will bait them away from the cave!"
The corners of Readfah's mouth turned down.
"Do you think that my mother is dead?" Arwen clutched at Readfah's sleeve.
"No," Readfah replied in Sindarin. "For we would be away to the Wood if I knew that for certain. But it would be better for her if she were. Ai, if only there were more of us! We are not far from Lórien, a day's ride or less. Why did they take this Béma-forsaken path?"
"It might not have mattered. Our road home will be dangerous either way. There are more of them everywhere now, more than I have seen since Gil-galad died," Ponder remarked, paying no heed to the look in Arwen's eyes at the mention of that name.
"They feared him like they have feared no one since," Readfah said, with grim pride. "And to this day I miss my friend sorely."
Readfah helped Arwen up behind her and they were off. The younger woman had never ridden such a large beast, and she clutched at Readfah's waist almost by instinct. His daughter...Readfah thought, clenching her teeth at the touch. Their daughter... his and Celebrían's. She shook the thought from her and leaned low over Hwistlan's plunging shoulders, Arwen leaning with her.
"They're coming!" hissed Ponder. "Go!"
They made for the river, but suddenly Ponder wheeled away from them into a thicket, bow drawn.
"Ponder!" Readfah cried.
"Who goes there?" replied a clear Elvish voice.
"Elrohir?" Arwen nearly slid from her seat.
"No!" Readfah held her back as the horse leaped into the brush.
"It is my brother, I'm sure of it!"
They came out on the other side of the grove, deep in shadow now, to find a number of Elves, including Haldir and his brothers, on horseback, led by two Readfah had never seen before. As they dismounted from the dusky-coated stallions she had given Celeborn, she had her first look at Elrond's sons; tall, lithe, with dark hair pulled into tight queues in the manner of the Gondorrim archers, and Elrond's large, Moon-silver eyes. Elladan and Elrohir turned to face her as one, and their likeness to their father made her heart contract. She spared no time to greet her friends with more than a nod.
"Orcs have our mother!" Arwen blurted out as she all but fell into their arms.
"I knew it!" swore Elladan.
"And they seek your sister!" Readfah interjected. "Quickly! If we are to save her life you must do as I tell you!"
"At your service lady," he looked up to her, his curiosity quelled but not quenched, while his brother merely looked stunned.
"First we must get the lady Arwen safe to the Wood. Haldir? Choose two of your best scouts and have them take the river path home. Give the lady your horse and take her place behind me. This horse could carry six of us!"
Haldir nodded grimly. Arwen, after a swift embrace from her brothers, mounted Haldir's tall grey horse.
"You should go with them, Readfah," Ponder said, a little line of concern knitting his brow.
At the mention of her name, Elladan, Elrohir and Arwen all exchanged startled glances, but Readfah did not allow them to ask questions.
"No, Ponder. Celebrían will need a woman, if they have... harmed her."
She spoke delicately, adjusting her quiver as she did so, but her mind was prepared for the worst. As Arwen and her escorts moved off, and Haldir leapt lightly up behind her, Readfah nodded to the brothers and urged Hwistlan forward into what fate she could not guess.
Elladan studied Readfah in silence as they rode, and despite the immediacy of his mother's danger, could not help but wonder about the strange woman who had rescued his sister.
Despite her features, she was unlike the women who had surrounded him from his birth. Elf women were supple, slender creatures, their strength hidden...whereas Readfah's face was still streaked with dirt and orc blood, and looked as far from elegance as could be. Elladan was thankful to her, of course, but he was anxious to know more.
She was clearly good friends with his grandmother's head border-guard, Haldir - had she lived in Lórien all this time? Her Sindarin was fluent, but accented. Her clothing was foreign altogether, like the riding tunics, boots and breeches of the Northmen, though cut to her figure and slightly longer in the hem which transformed the serviceable garment at least somewhat into feminine lines. Her hair was pulled back from her face in braids, and what was left unbraided fell shaggily to her waist.
When he guessed his father's secret, long ago, he kept his thoughts to himself. But now - what had he seen in this woman? Mere physical beauty would not have captured Elrond's interest for as long as Readfah had; Even so, her father's arresting face, though softened into the curves of womanhood, was not the radiant beauty his mother had been. Yet, Elrond had never been one to judge by appearances, and the way that her companions soundlessly obeyed her was testament to their trust in her. She was wise, fair, brave, and honest. Reluctantly, Elladan had to admit that his father had not loved foolishly.
The orcs had not reckoned on Arwen's strength, for they believed she couldn't have gone far, and wasted much time peering behind rocks and up trees. The Elves heard the orkish curses, and they were not far away.
"Your mother is somewhere in that cleft between those two walls. I will fetch her, and you go below and keep the vermin off," Readfah whispered, so close to Elladan's ear he could feel it. He felt sick, for he felt surely by now his mother must be dead. No elf could survive violation of that sort - he had seen that firsthand. Readfah read that in his face and shook her head.
"She responded with song, when I signaled to her, and that was an hour ago. It is my thought they have not yet harmed her, for if they had, they would still be at sport, not wandering about looking for Arwen." Elladan winced at her forthright words, but he knew them to be true. "It is to our advantage that they hate and mistrust each other as much as they do us; they wouldn't dare to leave any behind to guard your mother, for they know any guards would render her useless to them before they returned. It is my belief that your mother is alone, for now."
She turned her gaze to the forbidding path. "I must be swift," she said. "Go now!"
The two brothers followed the sounds of an ambush echoing far below. Ponder especially hated orcs, and he slew many that day. But Readfah had the grimmer task.
At length she found Celebrían where the orcs had left her, bound and naked save for the shreds of the gown she had worn, which she clutched pitifully. She regarded Readfah with mute terror, and relaxed only when she had gazed at her for several moments
Readfah cut her bonds and looked around for a castoff garment to cover her, and finding none, removed her green cape. She helped Celebrían to sit up, and dressed her in it. With her small knife she cut arm holes in it, and fashioned a sash from a strip cut from the hem.
"There, then. That will serve until you get home."
Celebrían made no reply, nor did she rise. There was silence form the rocks below...either the orcs were all dead or everybody was. Readfah went to the mouth of the cavern and whistled, and the swift reply told her they had nothing more to fear, for now.
"We shall ride for Lórien..." began Elrohir, lifting his mother to sit before him on the big dark horse, but Readfah looked up, horrified.
"No! You must take her back to Imladris! And quickly!"
Readfah hesitated. "Only your father can heal her. Your grandparents could easily enough deal with the poison in that wound on her leg, but what they have done to her mind requires someone who has... known her."
The brothers' silence and the question that provoked it burned between them. They turned their eyes to her, divining somehow that asking aloud was unnecessary.
Readfah had seldom before minced words and she drew a breath. "I knew your father, lived with him, when Gil-galad was still alive, before he wed your mother. I learned much from him about healing, though I have little enough skill. After the war, Elrond healed many whose minds were attacked by the Dark One. Of Elves who had been tortured this way he always called for their mates to be present. Go now...if you love her!"
Elrohir turned wordlessly from her and rode ahead. Elladan just stared at her.
"One thing only I ask, son of Elrond," she said to him quietly, "and that is that you not tell your father you have seen me or even know I exist."
The twist of sympathy that played around Elladan's mouth was Elrond's, so much so her heart leaped.
"I will say nothing, and Elrohir shan't either."
She swept him a courtesy that outgraced many he had seen in the noblest houses, and he bowed low in return. He then turned and ran to his horse, leaping astride and riding to join his mother and brother. The last Readfah ever saw of Celebrían was astride the great black horse with Elrohir, supported carefully in his arms, winding their way back into the hills going North with their windblown capes fluttering, dappling in the last Sunlight of the fading day.
Elrond knew as soon as he saw Celebrían that it was hopeless. They will blame me, he thought. They will say I didn't try hard enough. But her spirit all but cries out for release. The best thing I could do for her would be to let her die... he called servants to fetch what he needed. He could treat the wound, and at least destroy the poison in her body.
Only an hour ago they had come...an hour more until dawn would break. Celebrían was put to bed in a quiet room next to the herbary, for she would need constant attention for days. His sons he had barely spoken to, for they had ridden straight from the mountains, stopping only to rest the horses. All he knew was that Arwen was safe in Lothlórien, and that some person, quite correctly, knew that the best hope for an elf whose mind had been violated was the presence of her mate. How could anyone have guessed that her true partner was awaiting her elsewhere?
Elrond dressed her wound and gave her a sleeping draught, and came from the room, closing the door gently. He went out into the large hall, and smiled at his sons, who had refused beds, yet slept soundly in chairs outside the library door. He was thinking of how thankful he had been when the women who had bathed Celebrían said she had no other wound. Absentmindedly, he had picked the green cape up off the floor from where it had dropped when they undressed her, and was now surprised to see it still draped over his arm. Not much more than a rag, but he noticed that it had once been made of fine linen...a summer cape, really, the kind they made in Lothlórien, such as a rider might wear to keep the rain off.
He started toward the scullery to bid a servant burn it, but then in the waxing light he saw that it was green, and Galadriel's scouts wore grey.
"Some of Thranduil's messengers, perhaps...?" he mused.
He shook it out and held it up to study it and his eyes riveted on a small bit of embroidery over the heart, done in bright red silk thread. A horse's head - just the suggestion of one. Had they been aided by the Éothéodias, it would have been unusual enough to mention. An Elven-cape, with the sigil of the Horse Lords...
His heart began to pound. Slowly, he lifted the soiled garment to his nose and inhaled, and through the smell of horses and Celebrían, he found what he sought. Readfah...he knew her scent as well as he knew his own.
"Elladan! Elrohir!" he cried, and they awoke and ran to him, thinking their mother was worse, but they stopped when they saw his eyes, and what he held.
"Where is she?"
"Where is who, Fath-?" Elrohir began.
"Stop it, curse you! Where is Readfah?" The guilty look they exchanged and the ensuing silence infuriated him as it never had when the provocation was mere childhood mischief. "I will ask you once more and I want the truth! All of it!" He shook the cape at them, wild eyed. "Whence came this? I smell her on it..."
Elrohir's own temper was short and fiery, but his only reply was a pained and puzzled glare. Neither he nor Elladan had ever seen him this angry.
"Will neither of you speak?" he shouted.
"She made us promise..." Elrohir began.
"The truth at last!" muttered Elrond bitterly. "You saw her? You spoke with her?"
"Yes, Father," said Elladan. "We left Lórien with over twenty scouts to ride and meet Mother, for Grandfather and Grandmother were anxious, and she was late. We were less than half a league from where we found Mother, when Readfah and her companion rode up with Arwen. Arwen told us they had saved her life. Readfah sent her to Lórien with two scouts. She knew them like brothers...she must dwell there...or near there, somewhere. I'd never seen her before. All those horses we always saw below the Celebrant must have been hers...now it makes sense."
Elrond nodded. "Go on."
"She bid us follow her...she insisted on going with us, though her friend objected..."
"This friend," Elrond interrupted softly, his anger suddenly quenched. "Was he Mortal?"
"No, an Elf of Lórien. One of Rúmil's sons, I think."
"She has taken a husband then..." Elrond said softly, almost too softly even for Elvish ears.
"I saw no rings," Elrohir began, but stopped at Elladan's warning look. "But I know not all the Wood Elves' customs."
"Indeed," Elrond had grown chilled, and he stepped nearer the fire. I used never to feel cold, he thought. What is happening to me?
It is the fading, Master Elrond, came a voice from a distant past, which had belonged to a greybeard with eyes deep as the Sea. You will not grow old as Mortals do, but you will come to an awareness that you may not abide here forever and you will begin to feel weary. He remembered Readfah's promise, that she would not leave Middle Earth until he did. His eyes closed.
Find her! Find Readfah! cried the voice inside him, but he knew his duty.
He looked at his sons sadly. "Go to your beds, and rest. There is nothing more to be done now, but I will do all I can for her." His last thought he kept to himself - 'and when you see what becomes of her, you will be the readier to say farewell.'
That Spring, dry-eyed and deep in thought, Elrond watched as the last of Celebrían's escort vanished over the ridge, going West. With the last of her strength, she had pleaded with her children not to ride to the Sea with her, so she might have the memory of seeing them safe at home. To Elrond she said, pressing his hand, "you have been good to me, milord. Now send me home, and at last be good to yourself." Then she turned from him and spoke no more in Middle Earth. The litter he had prepared for her rose gently from the ground in the hands of her servants, and was borne away.
Glorfindel had come home the night before, and he stood beside Elrond now. "What will you do?" he asked.
Elrond's eyes were full of a strange light as he turned to his friend.
"I will find her."
They could not know that as they spoke, war had come to the very borders of Lothlórien. All of Calenardhon was overrun, and in a matter of days the Field of Celebrant, Readfah's undisputed grazing ground for centuries, would be dark with the blood of men and orcs. They could not know that Eorl and his men had come riding from the North to join the armies of Gondor to rout the invaders. Nor did they dream that, because Readfah remembered the friendship of Gil-galad and Hulwyf and the birthing of the Mark, the Southern edge of the Wood would soon be alive with bright haired horse-warriors who would descend upon the unsuspecting enemy from the forest home of their oldest legend.
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