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Mother of Horsemen: 26. Chapter 26
This chapter and part of the next, or at least the bones of them, have actually been written (in a notebook!) for a few years as part of a short story I was playing with. Integrating it into Readfah's story proved much harder, but it is done at last. I hope my loyal fans will let me know what they think of this latest development.
Mother of Horsemen - Chapter Twenty-six
Now Eormena of Westfold died, and Gram King fell ill with grief. He took to his bed for weeks, speaking to no one. Those who knew him knew of his great love for his Queen and sadly predicted that he would soon follow her, but though he grew thin and silent, he did not die at last. He had, however, weakened and he grew weary easily, and so he thought it best to leave the governance of Rohan to his eldest child and only son. Helm was reluctant to so early assume the kingship, but he was well respected in the Mark and called King from the day Gram left the crown in his hands. In his hands, for Helm refused any ceremony until his father was dead.
Helm himself had two young sons, Haleth and Háma. So much alike were they that they seemed like twins, but Haleth, at eleven, was by two years the elder. Their mother, Maevi, had died accidentally, or so it was said, at the hands of Dunlendish hunters while she rode with some of her women to inspect a mountainside dairy a few miles West of Edoras. Helm had loved her dearly, and neither forgot nor ever forgave her killers, though they were not at last found guilty of any crime and so went free. Yet, he was known throughout the kingdom for his unflappable demeanor and the scrupulous fairness of his policies. He rarely smiled.
When Readfah heard still further rumor of Gram's abdication, and that there was indeed a new King, she made ready to ride to Edoras at once. Until a few years ago she had had many traders interested in her animals, but now, visitors waned as the roads grew more perilous, while the horses waxed in the safety of the shadows of the Wood, and she judged it was a good time to give some away. Over five hundred warhorse prospects, broodmares with well-grown foals at foot, and fine stallions followed her out of the Wold and on to the road South.
It was a leisurely journey, for there was no hurry. The mid-Autumn weather was bright, clear and cool, and Readfah stopped often to enjoy the painted glory of the forest, like polished gold and jewels against an almost storm-dark blue sky. When she crossed the narrows of the Entwash, she could smell the leaves changing, and sometimes the scent of distant fires where farmers were burning the spent vines and stalks of the gardens and fields. She knew that the farm wives would be preparing huge amounts of food and the young ones would be making merry in anticipation of the greatest festivals of the year.
But when she neared the road leading into the city, where the Golden Hall shone in the late afternoon sun like a beacon at the summit of the hill, she was approached and called to account by three outriders bearing the Royal arms on their green tabards. Her horses lowered their heads to graze, and prudently she pulled the hood of her tunic over her head, which they took for a gesture of modesty.
"May a horse trader not ride freely in the Riddermark?" she chided with arched brow."Or perhaps you were hoping I would give you first choice of my fine herd?"
A young Captain with hair as red as hers blushed at that, for he had been visibly impressed with Readfah's white mare. He had seen many other splendid animals as he approached her and in truth wished that it could be so.
"His Majesty has commanded all strangers be brought before him, Madam." Then his eyes widened as he looked around him.
"How many horses have you, Madam?"
"Does the King wish to know if his visitors are wealthy?" Readfah asked, examining her fingernails.
The young man choked at that, and his companions chuckled at his discomfort.
"N-nay, Madam!" then lowering his voice, he added "I - I only wondered if you herded them all here by yourself." When she nodded, he looked amazed.
She looked up and saw for the first time the crimson sigil on his tunic, and she smiled. Without answering, she turned her face to the herd, and a fine chestnut colt, two years old and born to be a warhorse, threw up his head and came toward them.
"He is yours," she said, a bit startled at the frightening shade of red his face had become. "Now take me to your King before the Sun sets."
The others had grown silent. They legged their horses into a trot, not noticing, or perhaps fearing to notice, two other horses leaving the herd to join them.
"Bring her to me," was the quiet command from the shadows behind the throne. Readfah walked the familiar steps to the seat of Kings, flanked by the two young guardsmen. The ranks of pillars, each topped with a horse's head carved in stone above a flickering sconce, seemed to her as ordered rows of warhorses awaiting battle. But only she of all left alive remembered the days when they were set in this long hall, along with the great, ornate golden frames surrounding the high, narrow windows and every door. Each of these was surmounted with yet more horse's heads, all lavishly leafed in gold, with ears laid back, manes erect, necks arched, and teeth bared in fury.
The great tapestry of Eorl the Young still hung in a place of honor halfway to the dais, candles flaring before it. Little worn by time, it hung in mute reverence to Rohan's first King, and Readfah's dear friend. Alive still he looked, mounted upon Felarof, lifting his great horn, bright hair rippling in the wind. As Readfah passed, tears sprang to her eyes which she hastily brushed away as they approached the throne. There behind the great carven seat hung another great tapestry, a white horse rampant on a field of deep emerald; the arms of the House of Eorl, which she had seen made.
A tall figure, as tall as any Readfah had ever seen in her long life, stood beside the throne, half turned from the light. His powerful neck and shoulders were huge - as were his arms and hands - and rippled slowly as he moved. It hardly seemed possible they belonged on a man...a bull, perhaps. He was much like a bull - slow, deliberate, even languid - still, just underneath the skin, another beast lay twitching; asleep, yet dangerous to the core. His bright, wheaten hair was almost mane-like, shaggy from forehead to crown, the rest braided in the warrior fashion that had not changed since the days when the Riddermark was named. Dozens of plaits swept back from his face and hung to his hips.His right ear bore the piercing of a wedded man, but it held only the black horsehair loop of the widower. His legs were long and thick with saddle muscles, and she could only imagine the size of the horse he must ride. His beard was cropped close, and he had the strong chin, long jaw and the high, sharp cheekbones common to the Westfoldmen.
When he turned to face her, as she mounted the three steps before him, she was drawn to look at his eyes; deepset, unsmiling, the blue of a winter sky. Then, unabashedly, they crawled minutely over her body, and his finely sculpted lips parted a hairsbreadth. For a moment her knees weakened, and this confused her, for she had for ages now only associated that response with fear.
Helm was not a young man, but he looked younger than his near twoscore years. He was clad in unrelieved black, as were most of the household, out of respect for the late Queen. He wore no coronet, nor any badge or device of rank, yet had the great Hall been filled with men all in black, Readfah would have unhesitatingly picked him out as King.
"Leave us," the deep yet soft voice spoke again, his mouth barely moving. The guards backed away silently. He stepped closer to her, and brought his eyes back to hers.
"My Captains tell me," he began without preamble, "that they found you riding into the vale of Entwash with a half-thousand horses. Who sent you here?"
"I came on my own."
"You traveled alone? That is dangerous for a woman." The suspicion had left his tone to be replaced with concern.
"I have been safe enough in the Riddermark in the past."
Suddenly he seemed to realize she was speaking unaccented Rohirric, and he peered even more closely at her.
"It would be safe indeed, if only men of the Mark rode free within our bounds," he said, with a trace of bitterness. "But too many have come who seek only to profit...to fatten their cattle and horses on our lands and return to their homes with more than a few of our own beasts, to make jest, no doubt, about what blind fools we are." He turned his eyes to hers once more. "But I tell you, Mistress, they haven't fooled us since my grandsire sat here, nor will they."
There was a long silence. "But you are no Dunlendish thief, I warrant. A thief scarcely dares to ride openly into the City, instead of away from it, with the spoils near to hand. Nor are the women of that land so fair."
She cleared her throat to cover her sudden blush. "The horses, some of them, are a gift for you," she said. "It has always been my custom to bring horses to the Kings of the Mark."
She had thought nothing could disturb his placid expressionlessness, but his fine gold brows rose perceptibly and pinpoints of light kindled in his eyes.
" 'Kings' of the Mark? You can't be older than I am! What is your name?"
"I am Readfah."
From long experience she waited for the doubtful words, the disbelieving laughter, or the blank look of non-recognition. She blinked in surprise when he stepped closer, lifted and drew back her hood with his great hands and let it drop.
"Béma..." he whispered.
He stared for a moment, taking in the wealth of dark red hair braided much like his own, and the softly pointed tips of her ears just barely peeking through, then backed away a pace, and knelt before her with head lowered. The last man of the Mark to do that had been Donnic, Eorl's elder kinsman.
"Your servant, Modoréotheodias," he said simply.
Readfah felt as if time had rolled back, to a day when Men and Elves dwelt together, if not always in harmony then at least mutual understanding. She was so fascinated, listening to him speak learnedly and quite accurately of tales in which she had had part, she scarcely noticed where they were going. In Rohan there was no rigid court etiquette to observe, and the King could go where he would without entourage. So, as they turned to the lane leading away from the hall, his men looked at each other, uncertain, until Helm signaled to them.
"Have rooms prepared," he ordered, then looking at her with a look that was almost merry. "The ones abovestairs from my own. And an extra cover beside my own at table." This was nothing unusual, but his servants could not know that the rooms he had ordered were the very ones Readfah had always occupied when she visited Edoras from the day the Golden Hall was completed.
"How is it that you seem to know me, and yet none other?" she asked as they walked slowly through the center of the city with two of his gentlemen at a discreet distance behind. Little had changed since she was here last, and she found herself commenting, with an air of familiarity, on this or that structure as they passed.
"When I was a boy I paid heed to my lessons and learned to read and write." He stopped beside a public horse-trough, dipped his finger in a few times to scrawl his name in Fëanorian characters on the flat, porous stones that edged it. "As you likely know, except for old runes carved on swords and tombs we are mostly an unlettered people, but our Kings, at least, have always been required to be somewhat literate." Here he smiled a peculiar half smile, as though thinking of something that did not altogether please him. "The education of most of our young people begins and ends with horses, and our history. Those in charge of our granaries and dairies have some use for mathematics, you know...weights, measures and the like, but not much more. At any rate, while your stories were being told as tales to amuse us as children, I considered you history."
"But why? I mean, if no one else believed in me..."
He stopped and looked at her intently. "Because the stories made sense. Other heroes of other tales were shadowy figures painted by imagination and the stories varied with the teller, but though some called you a daughter of Béma and others the daughter of an elf, you were always a woman with blood red hair, deathless, like us and yet not like. What manner of letters are these," he gestured, "and why did we know them even before the Gondorrim showed them to us? We have little or no dealings with the Deathless Ones in the Wood above the Wold, yet we use their writing and some of our words are like to their own. Well, the stories have Readfah teaching two of our long-fathers to read and write! Other stories have you teaching our people more about horses than any other family of Mortal Men; how to breed them, how to care for them, the bonding tradition where the horse must choose his master. Why are so many of our horses pied and roaned, more white than dark? Because of old we kept to the prairies rather than the woods, and this Readfah knew, and gave us horses better camouflaged in the speckled shrubberies and grasses of our fields." He turned to her and took her hands.
"And now you have come, and told me your name, and you know this city well though I have never seen you before. I knew the tales were true. Come, I want you to see this."
She followed him to a large stone fountain, fed by a spring. The water filled a mossy bowl which spilled into a channel and meandered it's way down the hillside to join a larger brook. The fountain was surmounted by a carven niche on a level with Helm's head. Inside appeared to be a small, oddly shaped figure also of stone.
"My great grandfather was given that stone when he was a young man. He was told an old woman carried it from the North when Eorl brought our people to Rohan. Father gave it to me and I had it set here when my first son was born. Look at it closely."
Then she saw it. Though much weathered and worn, it was the same figure, or one very like it, that she had seen on her travels with Ux and his companions so long ago. A woman on a horse, her hand raised, though the details were indistinct now. Readfah was so moved she could not speak, and when he saw her tears he could not forbear to gently embrace her, heedless of the stares of his men and of the passersby, till she composed herself.
The rich smells of roasting mutton, baked vegetables and fresh bread filled Readfah's nostrils as they returned to Meduseld, and reminded her that she had taken nothing since the night before. The evening shadows had grown long and dinner was being taken off the spits. They walked through a short passageway and down two steps into the dining hall, which rivaled the throne room in size if not grandeur. Tall, narrow windows flanked each side, plank tables stood about in no particular order, save that the King's table stood on a dais one step above the rest at the head of the room. The King's court, his nobles, officers and their wives and older children were already there, waiting. Helm offered Readfah his arm and escorted her to a place beside him.
The lower ranking soldiers, who dined separately with their men, watched silently as the strange woman mounted the dais with their King. They alone had seen that Readfah was no ordinary woman. Helm called for attention, introduced her as the "kind lady from the North who has brought to Rohan a mighty gift of horses" and gave himself the trouble of seeing to it personally that she was seated comfortably and served with a flagon of ale before even himself.
The Men of the Mark had never done anything by halves, and the cheers that greeted the King's short speech were deafening. Readfah had only heard rumor of the Dunlendish raids on the Rohirric herds until this day; she could not know how timely was her arrival or how appropriate her gift.
Across the dais sat the King's sister and her family. Hild was a tall and handsome woman who greeted Readfah warmly but studied her with undisguised curiosity. Like her brother, she had pale blue eyes and wheaten hair, but her braids were woven in an intricate pattern with black ribbons down her back. Readfah had never paid much attention to fashion before, but she couldn't help but notice that the women's clothes were more refined than she had ever seen them.
Hild wore a simple yet stunning black silk gown. Had Readfah come any other time that gown might well have been livened with gold braid and lace, or more likely she would have seen the hall alive with color, for the women all had silks, linens, velvets and fine cottons of corn-yellows, pale roses, soft greens and sky blues as well as the deeper shades affected in winter. But even in mourning, Helm's court could not seem too somber, for the fair heads, blue eyes and ruddy complexions about her made that impossible. Beside them, Readfah felt almost dull. She stole a glance at her own dress, and her only thought was thankfulness that it was dark enough not to stand out.
Unlike the loose tunics and breeches she had worn since she was a girl and still wore for work, this one was of elf-make; warm brown velvet edged with tiny golden leaves, meticulously tailored and cut to fit, with a matching cloak and hood lined in heavy emerald silk. Her glistening leather boots were of the same brown, lined in soft doeskin. With her deep red hair and sea-colored eyes she looked the very spirit of Autumn. Many years ago, when Eorl was still living, a Rohirric seamstress had designed a gown that looked like a fine dress when the wearer walked, but disguised, with a long peplum waist and cleverly turned pleats and drapery, a split that allowed the wearer to ride comfortably.
Readfah, as the friend of a king, decided it might be a good idea to have at least one real dress for court visits, and had one made of smoky grey finewool with bright yellow facings. She liked it, for it accomplished with finest needlework and a bit of color what many a more elaborate gown failed to do with billows, ruffles and yards of lace, and that was to look well and be comfortable. She liked it so much that she had others made now and again - some in Rohan and some in Lothlórien - from the same pattern with differing details, fabrics and colors as her whim and the season dictated. The ladies of Rohan eagerly adopted the riding gown, for they had not (except for the most formal of ceremonies such as riding to her wedding or to a coronation) adopted the woman's saddle popular with noblewomen of Gondor, which allowed a lady to wear the most elegant and sweeping of gowns ahorse. Readfah had seen one of those saddles and thought it the silliest of inventions, remarking in her blunt fashion that if one wished to sit on a parlor bench in one's best dress then one had better do so and not try riding.¹
When she had satisfied herself that she made no untoward appearance, she turned her attention to Helm's sons, who were late coming back from a horse fair at Snowbourn with their governess's family, and who ran to the dais to greet their father and to stare at Readfah with undisguised curiosity. When he introduced her, Haleth and Háma looked at each other and before much more time had passed they were talking to her excitedly and as confidently as if they had known her all their lives. They seemed to be singularly unamazed that Readfah was real², and it was evident that their father spent much time with them.
Each King of the Mark had obviously had his own personality, and the tenor of their households usually reflected it. But not since Eorl's day had any been so lively, in spite of Helm's own passionless demeanor and their present sorrow at Eormena's passing. Readfah could not help thinking of Gil-galad, and how, though he commanded the greatest respect, could never have been said to rule a somber House, try as many of the Exiles might to make it a House "fitting" for one so exalted. Listening to the boys' chatter she thought of what a father Gil-galad would have made...should have made, as she should have been a mother, and suddenly into the path of her memories stepped a tall half-elf with Moon-silver eyes and a regal, graceful stride...
She was jolted back to the present when she looked up to see Helm's eyes upon her with a thoughtful expression, but then he averted his gaze and took another draught of ale. And when the young princes finally settled down to eat, the men and women around her soon distracted her with eager questions about the new horses. She did not notice when he again turned his eyes to her, and kept them there until long after the meal ended and he called servants to light her to the guest chambers.
¹ "Anyone who is concerned with his dignity would be well advised to keep away from horses."
- Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
² The equivalent would be a modern child discovering that there really is a Santa Claus.
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