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Mother of Horsemen: 6. Chapter 6
"It's like a palace, only far homelier," he said to Readfah the following morning, as they made their way arm in arm around the perimeter, a not inconsiderable walk. He would have to remember to have the pathways made wider.
"I thought you would like it better," she said. Her Sindarin had become much more fluent since the day she arrived, though she still lapsed into excited Nandorin clackings when most annoyed. She stopped and put her arms up around his neck, stroking the pair of braids that swept up from his ears and fell from the crown of his head to melt into the rest of his dark, rippling hair.
"I do. You will be in it now," he cupped her face in both his hands and kissed her, then continued walking.
Though she knew little about the science of architecture, she bedeviled those who were expert to help her plan a more comfortable home for Elrond. The crew of stonemasons and carpenters had agreed, and over many pots of tea, trays of sweets, and the occasional flagon of wine filched from Gil-galad's private store in the cold grotto up under the falls, the sketchmakers had finally produced their masterpiece. "It will not be just a roof to keep rain off. You will shelter and feed many, here," she had said when he came home at last, and stood staring at the new, sprawling house-to-be.
They had not talked overmuch of wedding. Like many Elven couples of the time, they had decided, as Gil-galad had, not to take permanent vows or oaths until the ultimate defeat of their enemy. When Sauron took prisoners, his chief delight was not to slay them, but to keep them alive and torture them forever. He took especial pleasure in capturing only one member of a bound couple, knowing that the other would suffer the same torment in addition to eternal separation. This had happened too many times before, with Morgoth in the Elder days, and now with Sauron. Both had hated the Elves with unyielding hatred, and so many lovers postponed their vows, and brought few children to birth in those dark days.
"This is but a lull, not the end," Gil-galad had warned them. Though Tar-Minastir, the Númenórean king whose aid had helped bring the "lull" about, would be dead many hundreds of years before it did end, a seed of alliance had been sown between the Eldar and the Edain that would not soon die. Stay in readiness for war, he told them, do not relax vigilance. The enemy is weakened, but not dead. For Elrond this had meant service at Gil-galad's right hand, as well as the training of healers and the manufacture and distribution of medicines and surgical tools. For Readfah, it was not only her accustomed work of obtaining, breeding, rearing and training horses for war, but the sometimes delicate job of training their riders; showing them how to make use of the movements the horses had been taught to make them effective warriors in their own right.
Most Elves bonded naturally with beasts, and so were not hard to instruct, but the Númenórean horsemasters who came to Imladris now and then were not easy students. Many found it a slight to their pride to be taught by a woman. They would argue with her until they found themselves on their backs in the dust, thrown by their mounts at her silent command.
"Be footsoldier then!" she shouted on more than one occasion, looking down from her perch on Wimowë. Some would relent, others presumed to complain to Gil-galad himself, who would merely express sympathy in a voice edged with tactful concern, though he was struggling hard to repress the mirth in his fox-bright eyes, and inquire politely if her suggestion might not be for the best.
"Since," he continued, "I have yet to meet another who has over a thousand years practice in the art. I have myself been instructed by Readfah, and consider it an honor."
The unspoken words "and you would do well, sir, to do the same" hung in the air after all such exchanges, and usually marked the end of the discussion.
In the end the Men of the West, though certainly competent, never became as renowned for their horsemanship as certain others of the mortal kindred whom they deemed lesser than themselves. There were notable exceptions, but for the most part they were mariners and swordsmen, masters of lore, craftsmen, and statesmen of far greater stature than ever they were horsemen. That privilege was to be reserved for another race of Men; unlearned, unlettered, but the most honest and stouthearted of all Men to call Middle Earth their home.
Readfah led Elrond to a higher terrace that had another path rising behind it. A small bit was sheltered by a grove of trees where a spring bubbled up and tumbled to the stream below. She was gratified by his surprised pleasure, for the spring had been found only recently, and rose from a dazzling bed of clear rock crystals to form a tiny pool of shimmering colors in the dappled shade.
"It's beautiful," he looked up at her, the play of colors reflected in his eyes. "Did you...?"
"No, it was like this of itself, just covered over with dirt. I cleaned it off, and I had the path made so it would cross the stream."
Elrond then saw how the path was placed so that it crossed the little stream that joined the larger one further downhill. A stone bridge, just two steps across, spanned it quite charmingly, and there was even a seat for two, formed of large, flat stones between the tangled, moss-cooled tree roots. The whole was a cozy and restful shaded nook tucked just out of sight of the house.
He reached for her hand and pulled her to sit beside him. He regretted that he had not taken the time to remove all his armor, for the mail shirt still clinked uncomfortably under the bright blue brocaded tabard bearing Gil-galad's device of silver and white stars. He kissed her just the same.
When at last he pushed away from her, he was panting slightly. "Readfah..."
"I know," she trembled as she spoke.
"I want you, now," his hot breath tingled in her ear, and his hand moved up to slide across her breast. She groaned, blushing hard as his arms encircled her and brought her so close she could hear his heart beat.
"No...please...tonight, when the Moon is up."
He sought her lips again. "Hang the Moon! It's been nearly a year since I've even seen you, and even then we didn't have a single moment alone!" he whispered, almost angrily.
"I know," she said again, "but I want to be with you like we were the first time. Do you remember?"
His eyes narrowed, his lips slackened with an intake of breath and he stared hard at her, forcing himself to back away. Reluctantly, he rose and followed her, with difficulty, back down the path.
Did he remember? His loins thudded with remembering. They had waited for the camp to drift asleep, and the Moon to rise to its peak over Imladris before they stole away back to the grassy stream bank where he had first kissed her in earnest. Though they were both far past the age when most elves wed, they were still in their youth, and they were virgins, and they could not wait. No vows were made, no rings changed hands, no friends stood by, but they had been happy then, if briefly, before he had to ride away yet again to war.
Readfah too, was full of her own memories of the day she returned. A stallion with a coat like new-minted gold had flown past her as she descended the path into the valley - the black of his legs, muzzle and mane gleaming as if polished, whistling in his eagerness to reach Elrond. And she had felt the same fierce eagerness, knowing in her body and spirit to whom she was bonded. All the other memories of that day, from the honest pleasure in Gil-galad's eyes as he clasped her hands, to Galadriel's rage, and even to Celeborn's surprisingly eloquent defense of her, faded before the recollection of Elrond's loving face above hers in the silver light that shone upon them like a blessing, and the sound of joy bursting from their throats like song.
"I don't care. I don't like them," Readfah said, scowling as Gil-galad broke the news that 100 Númenórean horse soldiers would be arriving in a few days to bivouac in Imladris for the remainder of the summer and through autumn. She tried to ignore Elrond, who paced restlessly, now and then catching her eye with a look that made her feel weak. He had discarded the mail shirt, and was clad now only in tunic, breeches and boots, all of which accentuated his height and the hard ripple of muscles in his long body. She had to force herself to concentrate on Gil-galad, which didn't help, though the discomfort she felt from looking at him right now was of a different sort.
The king detested formality, and often worked stripped to the minimum necessary for modesty when summer was at its height. Just now he was dressed much like Elrond, and sat bent over a pile of very formal looking parchments and papers and looking very much like he wished a strong wind would come and blow them away.
"They are our allies. We don't have to like them. Grudging though their approval may be, that they continue to send their horsemen to be trained here is a compliment to you, Readfah." Gil-galad only seldom reproved her, mostly because she was not officially under his command, but also because he agreed with her.
"They are nasty," Readfah replied fearlessly. "They ride like mealbag with string tied in middle. They don't have any idea how to care for horse. And you want to send them some of mine? I say no! I would never sleep again!"
"That is your decision," he said. Readfah swore under her breath. Gil-galad always did that when he failed to get his way...replied with a studied indifference that screamed of his disappointment. She hated to say no to him, but this last request was just too much. Her horses, ridden by men who were bound to be like all the others of their kind; disrespectful, arrogant, and conceited past bearing? The thing was impossible.
"I wish we were allies with Men of North," she grumbled, fidgeting with the long, dark red braid she now kept her hair in most of the time.
"I wish so too, from what you have told me and what little I've seen, I think they would be remarkably useful. But, they are too few, and too scattered, and no two clans are of the same opinion about anything."
"Mmm," she grunted, wishing she could get him to talk about something else, but there simply hadn't been anything else to talk about. The days had run together for so long they seemed like one. Elves did not generally think in terms of what day it was, but what time of year it was, only resorting to calendars when forced to deal in precise measurements of time. Even the sundial had been an invention of Men.
"I'm going to go for a ride," she announced at last. "I need to get out for a while."
"Splendid idea," agreed Gil-galad, glad to find an excuse to leave off shuffling papers for a while. "I'll go with you. I haven't ridden that hellion of mine since I got back and he'll be bound to think he's gotten away with something." Seeing Readfah's look of dismay, he smiled and added, "I promise not to talk about anything unpleasant!"
Elrond looked a bit stupefied, until Readfah turned to him with an invitational twitch of the braid she now let drop. "You come too, eh, tall one?" she said in perfect mockery of her own early speech.
He nodded uncomfortably, restraining himself from her by force of will alone. Riding would be torture right now, but Han, the black and gold stallion who had bonded with him, did need his daily run or he would be unruly. He stepped out into the bright sunshine, and forced himself to think of other things than the coming night.
The Moon was low in the Western sky, and Elrond lay intertwined with Readfah in the grass, holding her close to him in the sweet stillness before dawn. Her arms were still around his neck, as they had been when she had cried out his name, woven with incoherent Laiquendi words that needed no translation. She seemed to sleep, but she didn't. He found himself wanting her again, though he knew that he had already exhausted himself physically. It was a longing that only a full bond could ever satisfy, and he knew that could not be, not yet.
He sighed and shifted his weight off of her gently, but her eyes opened.
"Leaving me so soon, long legs?" she teased.
"Never," he growled, playfully nipping at her neck. "Do you never tire, shameless one?"
"Never!" she laughed. "But morning comes and tomorrow is another day. And unless you want everyone to see your backside with nothing on it..."
He laughed too. "I can think of worse things!"
"Getting caught making love like horses, maybe?"
Elrond rolled his eyes and moaned. That had been the most unabashedly sensuous experiences he had ever had, but no, he would not have wanted to be observed in such a raw display of nakedness, physical or otherwise. He stooped to kiss her.
"You're terrible, and I love you."
"You are too and I do too. I want to get in water. It will be warm today and I don't want to be sticky."
They walked down into the brook, and after a few false starts - the water was very cold - they found a deep place and sank down gratefully into it. Their hands swept each other under the gentle current, and they kissed again and again until, in spite of time and the delicious tiredness they felt, they found themselves joined once more. The Moon's light, now a pale gold, reflected off their bodies and for a moment in eternity they looked like a pair of the original Firstborn, discovering each other at the dawn of all time.
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