10. Chapter 10
I have found it very difficult to write this chapter, as I didn't want this story to become an epic of the Second Age. I really did not want to just write, "and so, a thousand years went by, and..." I wanted to illustrate as best I could both the happiness and the sorrow of living forever. Critical review and suggestions (of all chapters) welcome.
Mother of Horsemen - Chapter Ten
Memories, for mortal men, are fleeting things, subject to flights of the mind, and live only as long as their bearers.
Readfah smiled as she recalled the days of Ux's wedding. She and Elrond were the guests of honor, and they lingered for many long days under the bright canopy of Autumn leaves and a sun almost as warm as that of Summer. The bride, Edgifa, was a tall girl, daughter of a dairyman whose family dwelt near the village, as gold of hair and blue of eye as her groom. Her family was delighted and half frightened at the prospect of entertaining two of the folk long thought to be descended from gods.
Two large and heavy laden blue roan mares, daughters of Wimowë, followed in the wake of their dam and Han, bearing many gifts for the new couple. The family had been stunned almost to silence at the richness of these; yards of fine cream linen cloth, a half hundred grey foxskins, a silver teapot (Ux had told her that their people were very fond of tea) and five pounds of precious tea leaves that had been mysteriously introduced into the baggage by Gil-galad, who refused to admit he had done it and equally refused to say where he had obtained it. Readfah suspected he had secretly bartered something of great worth to one of the nomadic tradesmen who often passed on the great road flanking the Misty range. Gil-galad had then departed for his own home, sending his friends sincerest regrets, for he had been quite disappointed that he could not attend.
There were other herbs, both for healing and for cooking, grapeseed oil and full wineskins. There was a stone jar of spikenard ointment, as a personal gift to the bride, and for Ux there was a large rainbowed crystal with slanted edges, like the ones he'd so admired in Elrond's house, large enough to set in the wall of his own house if he so desired. Last, a gift for the house, a magnificent wood carving of a rampant horse, made by an elf named Avor, who had designed most of the archways and pillars of Elrond's house.
"Readfah," he said later, in a state of shock when he was made to understand that the two blue mares were gifts also, "these are things for rich men, I..."
"You are rich, my friend. Never question good fortune!"
Thúr's house was the largest in the village, and the entire family had gathered there to greet them. Having two such visitors was even more exciting than the wedding itself, and the chatter and laughter and cries of "Wes hael!" were nearly deafening. Yet, there were many children running to and fro, and Elrond and Readfah looked at them and each other with almost painful longing. "One day..." ran their shared thought, and they smiled upon the little ones, never tiring of them, and sank to their knees to speak with them so they would not be frightened.
The elders who had never seen Elves before were quiet at first, until, upon introduction, Elrond greeted all the men with a firm warrior's embrace and the women with a handkiss. That, coupled with his silky, dark hair and exotic, chiseled features impressed them to no end. Readfah - whose deep auburn hair and sea colored eyes were themselves the subject of many a stare, covert and otherwise - hugged and kissed all of them indiscriminately. She told Edgifa that Ux was as a brother to her, and that she was now her sister. She could have said nothing more calculated to win the bride's confidence, for family was everything to the horsemen of the North.
The great house was built, as Hulwyf had once said all their houses were, entirely of wood, save for the forest of tile chimneys. The outer boards had weathered to a clear, pale yellow, like wheat, with dark knots, and had never lost the spicy smell of newly cut lumber. The door was tall, with a heavy frame, and the top came to a sharp point. The roof sloped steeply and was heavily thatched with sweet grasses. The chimneys were all in use, for the weather, while fine, was still chill in the mornings and evenings.
When they entered, Elrond made the surprising discovery that he had never walked upon a wooden floor in his life. He had known of them, of course, but among his people floors were of stone, clay tile, or cobble. His face was a study as he stepped cautiously onto the boards, his eyes growing alarmingly wide at the hollow sound and darting side to side as if he expected them to tip.
Indoors, the walls were made of the same wood, only darker, and shiny as if painted with honey. Sconces resembling bowls of clay on shelves held candles that illuminated the darker corners. The main hearth was much like Elrond's own, built of weathered rock, and large enough to roast a sheep. There were no divisions between kitchen and sitting and dining rooms, as there would be at Imladris; no walls divided the lower area, only pillars here and there to support the great beams that undergirded the upper floor. Later they would discover a veritable warren of small sleeping rooms abovestairs, with beds tucked into the walls and closed in with doors, like a number of wide clothespresses. A tiny hearth stood in the middle of the outer wall of each of these rooms, explaining the great number of chimneys.
There before the main fire was the cream-furred hide of the bull the Northmen had taken on their first visit to Imladris, which launched a lively discussion of the methods of preserving furs and leather. Elrond recalled the day Readfah rode into the valley for the first time.
Readfah laughed. "I was covered in every kind of dirt...fish scales, deer insides, and worse. In the Ice Country it was too cold to notice, but when I came South...it has always been a wonder Elrond did not chase me away! The fur could never be cleaned, but the leather was still good and made many fine and useful things. I regret there are no click-deer this far South. And seal...their hide is waterproof."
She suddenly noticed the company had gotten quiet.
"You lived in the Ice Country?" Thúr's wife Norga asked in a voice filled with awe. "We had always heard that the people there are demons!"
"Hush, wife, do not speak so foolishly!" Thúr chided her gently, yet his face too, was grave, and he looked over to Readfah as if for reassurance.
"They are not a friendly folk," she said, " as we would account it, though they are not enemies. They are generous, though, and will not permit a stranger to starve. The men are very proud and aloof, and speak very seldom to their women, who will visit and bring food. The women taught me their ways of tanning skins and preparing food, how to build a house of sod, or even snow when I had to travel after game. I was there for nearly...I was there a very long time, and in all that time I think men spoke to me maybe a hundred times at the most, often when I hunted, usually to tell me I needed a husband to hunt for me. They are few and their lives are very short, and hard." Readfah pulled her gaze from the fire, where she had come dangerously close to losing herself in bleak memories of the loneliest part of her life.
Before things quieted down too much there was a sound of greeting at the door.
"Faramir!" cried Ux as the door flung wide and a tall, cloaked,dark-haired figure strode in and embraced Ux like a brother. Behind him was a young woman carrying a nodding, dark-haired child on her hip. "Danica! Come, come! It's growing cold. Get by the fire."
Readfah and Elrond rose and turned to them, and great joy bloomed in Faramir's face. Readfah felt his tears run down her cheek as she held him close and gently kissed him.
"I thought never to see you again!" he sniffed, though his smile was wide.
"I see you have gone and gotten a wife, boy!" She teased, not sparing the girl a bit of her bright and curious stare. She was a pretty girl, of medium height and generous curves. Her hair was dark gold and her eyes were slanted and pale blue.
"This is Danica, my wife," Faramir was nearly stuttering, "and our daughter, Tana."
Danica hung back, shy, though she could not turn her eyes from the elvish guests. Faramir had said that the undying ones still dwelt among them, but never had she thought to see them so close. She felt warm and cold at the same time when Elrond bent to her hand with a smile and a few kind yet heavily accented words. Readfah, too, had a core of nobility that was just as intimidating in its way, though it was not as apparent. Even though she was less daunting than the elf lord, and she spoke the language far better, she still walked with the grace of a deer and had eyes as compelling as a hawk's.
The little girl woke, and Readfah remarked to herself how much like Faramir she looked. Among the Northmen there were few heads among them so dark of hair, even fewer than the red-gold ones said to belong to the descendants of a single clan. The child gripped Readfah's finger with a good show of strength and looked up at her with her father's smile.
"Danica and I were wed not long after I came here," Faramir said, then added almost sorrowfully, "I am sorry that we did not send word, but we dared not, then."
They talked long into the night, and were in no hurry for their beds, for according to custom, the wedding would take place close to sunset the next day. Only the bride and groom to be were ushered out early, to separate houses, by the elders of both clans.
"Madam," Edgifa stammered to Readfah as they departed, for she was still in awe of her, "I am honored that you stand as one of our witnesses."
"The honor is mine."
She smiled shyly once again, bowed, and started out the door, but then turned back. "I want to thank you, Madam, for coming to our wedding. Ux loved you once, and I am happy it was so. It made a man of him, where when we were young he was his father's despair!" She allowed a smile to break through at that, and she tremblingly took Readfah's hands. "Still I am happy for all of us that you are loved by another, a great lord of the Ælfenkind, and," here Edgifa stifled a giggle, "so well-made he is too! I wish you all happiness, Lady."
"As I do you, but you really must call me Readfah, if we are sisters," Readfah replied warmly. She wondered absently, as the women left, if Ux had ever told her of the episode with the arrow.
They spent the night in beds of unmatched comfort - smooth linens and goosedown as fine as any the Elves ever made. True enough, they felt a bit closed in in the cupboardlike bed, but soon slept well and woke refreshed.
Two servant women brought soap and rough white towels, a great empty copper tub and many buckets of steaming water, which they placed next to the fire."You may use these according to your own custom" one said, "but we usually stand inside the tub and use the water a little at a time, so as to have plenty for a good rinse. Our soap is...harsh...to those not accustomed to it. If you wish, one of us will be happy to help you dress your hair, Madam."
She thanked them, but told them no, that her toilet was the simplest kind. Elrond watched, amused, as they left. "You will indeed be beloved of my household, Readfah!"
"I'm not accustomed to being waited upon!" she groused. "Thúr is head of his clan now, so it's not unusual that he should have servants, but very few others do. And even then, they're not really servants, but members of the family who work in exchange for a home, more like a vassalship."
"It's not far different with us," Elrond shrugged.
"I still prefer to do things for myself. though I will admit, I'm grateful someone else carried all that water up those stairs!"
"I am too," he agreed, and came to join her as she undressed, pulling off his own clothes.
The day was one of long and tedious anticipation, with no sign of movement in either house. Then, at the normal time for afternoon tea, a horn sounded, echoing back and forth across the village. Voices shouted, and grew louder. Music began, at first awkwardly, but then in concert, and the sound was at once merry and noble, as though for the wedding of a king. Their voices pitched and rolled like a ship on waves stirred by storm, and indeed, set amid the waving grasses of the prairie it seemed that Thúr's house was a ship asail under a sky so deep blue it too looked like the sea.
Readfah and Elrond were swept into the crowd of revelers who were making their way to a thatched building in the center of the village, which served as a meeting hall in times of peace, or for gathering of warriors at other times. It was large and empty, save for a silk-draped table in the center, toward which they were urged. On the table stood two candles, a bowl of water and a smaller bowl of oats. Behind the table stood a short pillar with a metal bowl upon it, and within it burned sweet smelling herbs.
Ux stood before the table, motionless, his crimson-robed back to the assembling company and flanked by Sig and Godan, his nearest unwed kinsmen. Thúr and Norga, draped in white, stood behind the table. Presently, Edgifa, wearing a gown of deep green, was escorted in by her father and two elder brothers, followed by the women of her family, who appeared to be protesting. (There was a legend that the first of their people were Béma's children by a woman he had kidnapped). The young woman's hands were tied with a slim red band, and she was veiled so heavily she had to be guided to stand beside Ux.
Even with the gift of Elvish hearing, it was next to impossible to make out the exact words of the ceremony over the din, which never abated. The couple was sprinkled with the water, then the oats. Readfah saw Ux remove his bride's veil, untie her hands, and speak a few words (which made Edgifa blush deeply). He placed a ring on the first finger of her right hand, then knelt before her. In horror, Readfah watched as Thúr drew a thin dagger, gripped Ux's ear, and with speed born of practice pierced it through the upper side. Blood trickled down his neck, but he did not cry out or flinch. Then, Hulwyf stepped forward and placed a small gold band through the fresh wound, and clamped it together with an instrument of some sort.
When he rose, there began a cry for him to take his bride, and for a brief moment the two Elves' eyes met as if to ask, "Here?" But in moments, Ux and Edgifa were swept out the door and down the path to Thúr's house, where the doors stood open and to which every table in the village had been carried and laden.
"Do they ever stop eating?" Elrond wondered.
"I don't think so," Readfah answered in quiet amazement. She had breakfasted heavily, to please her hosts, and could not imagine taking another bite. She looked around her and realized that the bride and groom were nowhere to be seen.
"Perhaps it would be best if we were to...retire upstairs for a time."
"Ah yes. There are other hungers to satisfy, are there not?"
"Wench!" he whispered, and there was far more than mere desire in his eyes.
Elrond took her hand and they went upstairs. Before long they were lost in their own love, and only briefly did they realize that they were quartered next to the new couple. So from that corner of the house there rose that night a blended song of joy, the topnotes in the very Music of the world.
Memories, for elves, are everlasting and living things. Every moment of the past is as only yesterday, and as clear as a breath ago.
Readfah walked through the familiar halls of Elrond's house, glancing at this stone and that, remembering with clarity the days when they were set. She never passed the tall archway in the Hall of Fire without looking at the many-paned windows, added when the process of making water-clear glass had been perfected. Sunlight spilled through onto the floor, creating a slow dance of bright dapples among the stones. The touch of her hand, over time, had worn a smooth hollow in a clear green stone embedded in the corner of the mantel nearest the hall. The patina of age had settled gracefully on the House at Imladris, that Elrond had named "homely" in its kindest sense...homelike and a place of rest and refuge. No vast and imposing gilded palace was the lamplit house beside the Bruinen. Magic of a quiet kind had infused itself into the walls, and change, when it came, was slow and more often was that of growth rather than decay.
Outside, time had slowed also. Old trees were still flexible as if in their prime. The little spring behind the high terrace still flowed unchangingly from its crystal lined source, though the stones were a little smoother now. The river had neither diminished nor widened, and the horses still grazed the wide swathes of grass both in the valley and on the ridges above.
Readfah remembered the tents that had dotted the clearings like green and brown mushrooms, and the big one with the pennants that had been Gil-galad's. All gone now. Those of Elrond's house who did not choose to live in the main dwelling had built for themselves houses among the trees, similar to those, it was said, in the realm of Galadriel and Celeborn to the South in Lothlórien. The old dwelling places had greened over, and gardens grew where the great fire pits and the rough wooden bathhouse once stood.
The voices of the elves had not changed. Elrond; passionate, melodious and deep. Gil-galad; clear as a battle cry, yet still charged with humor even at his most serious. Taenon; singing his words merrily as he went about the kitchen tasks. Leithel; soft and lilting, speaking to the plants in her herbary. Galadriel; when she and her family were there, brought with her an elusive note of the sea. Celeborn;
sometimes whispery, sometimes resonant, always deliberate, as a voice will sound coming from one who thinks profoundly before he speaks. Celebrían; whose speech was as a delicate rustle of new willow leaves on a cool Spring morning. Readfah herself; the lively, rolling tones of her mother's people, still bearing the merest touch of Laiquendian staccato in a tenor as rich as velvet, as strong as leather.
Imladris, like Lórien and the Havens, had become not only a refuge, but a haven of preservation. Time slowed there, to match the slowness of the Elves' aging. It was a good thing, but the price was either further withdrawal from the world, or great sorrow. Outside the barriers, the world seemed like a ravaging hurricane, ever changing, moving forward. Almost, an elf could watch a stalk of corn grow trembling before his eyes, ripen, die, and drop its seed for the next to take root.
She walked out into the sunshine of a day that matched the first day of her life in this valley. Cold, but bright, with a breath of warmth more a promise than a reality. She passed the rows of fair stables without stopping to speak to the horses within, as was her custom. Following the river, she walked a short way until she came to a number of low mounds covered with frosty white flowers. She sat down on one, and for a long time looked out upon the Bruinen, sparkling in the Sun, and allowed her mind its freedom.
Kings had come and gone. Friendships with mortals kindled, ripened and rotted, and grew again. She thought of the great rebellions, Númenor growing ever prouder and more envious of the Elves, then repenting and renewing alliances, then failing in their trust yet again.
And in all this time one thing among the Secondborn remained steadfast. Sometimes it took the shape of a strip of cloth tied about an upper arm, sometimes an embroidered device on a tabard, at other times a sigil upon a warrior's helm or his own body. Whether only twenty, in times of doubt, or a thousand, when hopes were high, the men of the Mark remained true to their promise, even if only a splash of red paint dotting a shield was the sign.
Readfah tried and failed to push from her mind the sadder memories, but they were too woven with the happy ones. Not only weddings and births, but illnesses, funerals and bouts with enemies crowded her thoughts. Ux, for one, had lived to see his great grandchildren and had clasped Readfah's hand with a smile upon his very deathbed, and so had Faramir, but many of the children of that clan had died betimes. Some met their end through mischance, some died of strange fevers even Elrond could not cure, while others, luckier, had gone to war and honored the clan with blood. Men and women both went to war when the orc raids began again, and always within the Circles of the Dead at the end of day lay at least one warrior of the Mark.
She fought her tears, and again failed, when the names and faces of all the mortal children she had known and loved began slipping through her consciousness. Tall, stern warriors, strong and lovely women, living and dying even as she sat by the river; they were all her children, for she had as yet none of her body. She knew the time drew closer, either of ultimate defeat or great joy, and then she and Elrond could begin the next phase of their lives.
Then, hearing the sounds of visiting Northmen's voices as they were welcomed at the Western pass, she whistled, and as if she had been waiting nearby the whole time, a bright red two year old filly marked liberally with white came bounding up, enthusiastically nosing at Readfah, who laughed through her tears.
"Hello, Ahliehha*! Have you been waiting for me?"
She slid from the mound where she had been sitting; the mound where Wimowë's bones now rested these many hundreds of years. With the filly trotting happily beside her, she started back toward the house.
* Ah-lee-AY-ha. From the proto-Rohirric "ahliehhan" - "to laugh at." This filly's facial markings gave her a look of perpetual comedic one-upmanship.
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