15. Chapter 15
Another delay, folks, but this chapter just simply wouldn't write! My muse took off, and my kids keep hogging the computer.
Mother of Horsemen - Chapter Fifteen
Elrond now spent many of his days in the library, coming forth only to go to his bed, eating seldom and at such odd hours that he usually was alone when he did so. The servants worried, and whispered that he had the mien of one facing the gallows, but he would speak to no one save Glorfindel. And to him, he would not speak of the very things that caused his heart to bleed. He chose instead to talk of history, and of the books he planned to write, and to re-write, and the volumes he would restore. With the help of the very ring that had cost his happiness, Imladris would become a haven of lore and learning, and the preservation of manuscripts and relics. Never would he leave it again, unless the One was found, or until the day his Elvish nature called him seaward.
The house was too quiet. The Éothéodias would come there never again, and Readfah had ridden away with her herds to where no one knew. Galadriel and Celebrían had gone the week before, but they would return, and the silverhaired princess who should have been Gil-galad's happy bride would now be his, to the misery of them both. He tried to think charitably of her, and could only see that he was to be yoked to a woman whose heart was already gone West; a beautiful and graceful girl-child who stirred in him no emotion save pity and despair. He would have to fight every day to remember to be kind to her, for his own heart lay, and would forever lay, elsewhere.
He thought of the children he must beget, and groaned inwardly. How could he overcome his natural aversion to bedding her long enough to do so? Why had Galadriel not been satisfied with the power she had been granted? Why did she have to discover the magical parallels between the marriage bond and the bond between those cursed rings, and that the getting of a son and a daughter would somehow place a seal on these things? And worse, the hateful spell was such that if the marriage did not take place, the power of the rings would slowly disappear altogether. In this, Elrond was much like Gil-galad had been; things known as the natural magics, such as the use of herbs and stones and colors as medicine, were understandable. But the twist and turn and mire and labyrinth of the kind Galadriel had been meddling with was beyond his knowledge, and part of him was relieved that this was so.
A few bleak seasons passed, and the news came from the North that Isildur had been waylaid and slain by Orcs. "Of what significance was the Ring he bore? For I regret it is lost," said Ohtar, one of Isildur's three surviving esquires, to Elrond. He had come, after a long, circuitous journey, bearing the broken remnants of Narsil, Elendil's sword, and nothing else, Elrond deemed, but more ill news.
The consensus of witnesses, Ohtar said, was that the Ring was at the bottom of Anduin, since Isildur had always worn it chained about his neck, suffering no one to handle it, and they drew his lifeless body from that river and found not the Ring of which he had been so enamored. Ohtar added "My lord had spoken often and at length that he thought you wished this Ring for yourself, yet I myself heard you beg him to destroy it. In any case, it is lost, and should be no further trouble between your Houses."
Just like a mortal to believe so, Elrond thought, tempted to cast the broken sword into the fire. Instead, he took the carefully wrapped shards and set them aside in a reliquary, then sank back in his chair to think.
What of this Ring? Lost, but not destroyed. Galadriel had spoken truly on this at least; that he would know if an end had been made of it. So now their fates were sealed in a torturous limbo so long as it lay undisturbed beneath the eddies and currents of the great river. It would be buried under mud, trapped and buried and never found, yet still exerting its hold on the bearers of the Three, and preying on the mind of its Maker who would not rest until it was found.
Elrond rose and paced, and swore as tears stung his eyes for what seemed like the thousandth time since Readfah had gone. She had made him swear not to follow her, and now he had the regret of that vow to add to all his other sorrows. He wondered again if it would not be simpler to cast his own Ring into the Bruinen and turn his back on Middle Earth forever. For a long time he entertained the thought...he would see Gil-galad again, and be at peace. And then he thought of Readfah's words, "Our days here are not yet fulfilled." He had been so distraught he had only half listened to her. And now that time weighed so heavily on him, he recalled her father's words also: "The very Sea will seem as a drop of dew..."
A chill rain drifted across the moors between the great river Anduin and the mountains to the West. To the East, far across the river and barely within sight of Elvish eyes, rose the great forest of Taur e-Ndaedelos - the Forest of the Great Fear - that some named Mirkwood. The Forest was not as old as some, having sprung up from what had been swamp in the waning of the Elder Days, but it was broader and deeper than any other in the West, and was the equal of any in strange lore. Thranduil still ruled here, the only Elf left in Middle Earth to call himself king.
If any had been watching from the wood, water or foothills, they might not have remarked the passing of what looked to be a herd of wild horses, except they seemed to travel at a purpose and did not often slow down to graze. Unless the watcher had keen eyes, he would not have seen the riders flanking the herd along the right as they made their way over the grass.
Yet no watcher was there, for none but a few Naugrim - Dwarves - ever came to those stony hills, and they only to delve for uninteresting yet necessary ores they used to manufacture tools. None were there now. They would come when the ground was less muddy and the weather more to their liking. Had there been any Dwarvish miners watching the horses pass, they would have remained silent, for they had little to do with Elves and still less to do with the tall horsemen.
They disappeared over the Downs into the deep waving grasses, far into the shadows of the mountains and finally to the plains the Éothéodias called home. There was Brinhaw and her sons and daughters; Gárulf, Frida and their son, and a dozen more of their people. And in their midst, Readfah upon Ahliehha, with a new, gaudily marked roan colt foal at foot. Over and over she told herself it was a new life. She had been displaced before. Nothing new. She had people who loved her. Then her heart would crumple again, reminding her it wasn't torn from her breast, as it had seemed at first. Many times during the trip she wept as she rode, trying to keep from being seen, so she would not have to endure the pitying glances and the words, meant to comfort, that only seemed hollow.
Dryarrin had ridden with them too. Most of her family had been killed or escaped West during the years Readfah lived at Forochel, and her last surviving brother had died with Gil-galad. She had refused to stay behind, and Readfah gave up trying to scold her into it. She was glad of the company of one elf, at least, but the girl's long dark hair and tapered ears would always serve as a fresh and bitter reminder...
"What kind of name is Pachu for a horse, anyway?" Readfah frowned. "It sounds like a sneeze!" The gold and white youngster was finer boned than she liked, but handsome and well made. Still, she had had him gelded, and was not sorry she had done so. He would have been a merry handful if they had left him alone. Dryarrin handled him easily and had bonded with him soon after his birth, and as a mount for a slender elf who would never bear armor he would serve well.
Dryarrin - pleased to hear a bantering note in Readfah's voice for the first time in weeks - pretended not to notice.
"I'm surprised you don't know. It's from the Wood-elf tongue for Sun-beam, 'pachua'."
"Oh, yes," Readfah blushed. Though she had not forgotten the language by any means, her own Laiquendian accent was all but gone. The dialect Dry' spoke was not harsh with throatiness and clickings as hers had been, but the language was essentially the same. "I thought we'd meet with some of the Silvan folk on our way, especially since we passed so close to Thranduil's borders. But I suppose he's as much of a dictator as ever."
"Do you know him?" Dryarrin looked back, as if to catch a glimpse of the great forest, many leagues away, across the far riverbank.
"I saw him once and that was enough; that is one wood I seldom ventured near. I have known a few of his border patrollers, and have given them horses in trade for many things. He sent no soldiers to war, though many came of their own will, and he keeps to himself as ever he did. He makes me think of the Naugrim."
Dryarrin laughed. "Is he ugly?"
"No, he is quite handsome. He is kin to Celeborn, you know, and looks much like him, though his coloring is more like to Glorfindel's. It is his manner that reminds me of the Dwarvish folk. Close mouthed, close fisted, and overfond of precious stones. I suppose there are greater faults. His Queen seems happy with him, from all tales, and they have four children; three daughters, and a son just a few years old."
They rode in silence for a while. Dryarrin knew that the reference to children was an unfortunate one, and sought to change the subject.
"It's raining harder. Do you think we should stop and take shelter somewhere?"
Readfah shook her wet braids out of her face. "We might, but we could be in Brinhaw's village by nightfall if we keep on."
"Are we that close?" Dryarrin looked about her at the unvaried landscape. "Och Yavanna, what a place to live!"
"Dull, aye, but good for horses!" Readfah's eyes had regained some of their sparkle. "Look, Dry', how their heads fly up! There are other herds close by. Let's catch up to the others."
But a smiling Tovig was already riding toward them. "We are but a few leagues from home!" he shouted happily. "None expect us, I'm sure," he added, as he drew alongside them. "But there will be a grand feast when they see you!"
"Do they ever stop thinking about food?" Dryarrin asked quietly.
"Never," Readfah replied firmly.
Elrond turned from the library window, which faced North, and shuddered. A hundred years had passed since she had gone from Imladris. He wondered if she still lived among the Horsemen, or whether she had struck out alone again. He felt dry as ash, as if a wind could make an end of him. He could not know that that day, the day he and Celebrían wed, Readfah had sensed it and had wept herself sick. Only Dryarrin really knew the whole reason why, for none of the Éothéodias now alive had known him.
The words had been said. Galadriel's sigh of relief had been audible. Those who loved him had watched grimly as the mockery was played out as if on a stage. And afterward...they had looked at one another blankly...and Celebrían went up to the room she had shared with Gil-galad and closed the door. Elrond disappeared into his study and called for a draught of wine.
It was Glorfindel who brought it to him, not Taenon as he expected, and his brows knit into a frown.
"If you have come to congratulate me I have nothing to say to you," he said bitterly.
"Don't be an ass," Glorfindel retorted in a tone that was almost affable. His fine golden hair caught the light from the window and for a moment was almost blinding, as he bent to pour the wine.
"I am not such an idiot as to think you could ever be happy without Readfah," Glorfindel continued. "but sourgrass made into tea is an excellent brew, if enough honey is stirred in."
Elrond shot Glorfindel a look of pure poison. "You are not suggesting..."
"I am suggesting, my old and dear friend, that you make an effort to at least be kind to her. She's upstairs crying."
"What else is new?" moaned Elrond, taking a long hard pull at the wine. "She cries at everything. I can't bear it, I tell you!"
"You have never been one to run from unpleasant duty." Glorfindel's softly slanted blue eyes were as filled with remonstrance as they were with pity.
"That's just it, curse it! Our lives have been one unpleasant duty after another! We waited and waited and took terrible risks...and all so that in the end I am tied to Galadriel's daughter and the woman I love is..is...Varda knows where!" He drained the goblet and poured another.
The elf-warrior pulled his tall body upright from the pillar on which he had been leaning, a golden shimmer seeming to follow him as he moved. "You know where she is too. She has been living among them since the day she left. And if I know her, she knows what has happened this day."
"Do not torture me further!" Elrond's voice rose unevenly.
And then, Celeborn came in.
He had stood like a stone through the reading of the vows, and now his face was grimmer than ever they had seen it. He stood opposite Elrond and regarded his unwilling son-in-law with silver-grey eyes blackened with shame. The front of his tunic looked wet - with a start Elrond realized that Celeborn had been weeping.
"I never thought I would live so long in this world that I would see what I have seen this day," he sighed.
"What's done is done," Elrond tried to be gracious and offer him a chair, but all he succeeded in doing was gesturing at one. "Please, have some wine." He hiccoughed gently.
Glorfindel brought two more stemmed silver goblets from a sideboard. Gil-galad's, he noted, seeing the crest surrounded by a radiant cluster of stars - exquisitely detailed smithwork worthy of Fëanor himself. He frowned as he caught his own thoughts, and poured from the flagon.
They sat in awkward silence for a moment, then all three started to speak at once. Another uncomfortable pause ensued.
"Galadriel and I will be leaving in the morning." Celeborn said at last, sipping the wine gingerly, as if he expected it to be bad. It was not, and he took a longer drink. "It is my hope that you will treat my daughter kindly, under the unhappy circumstances."
"I seem to be giving everyone the impression that I plan to beat her," Elrond tried to catch Glorfindel's eyes, but by chance or design the bright blue eyes were turned elsewhere.
"Not at all. It is just that...she expressed a desire to come back to Lórien as soon as," here Celeborn fidgeted a bit, "as soon as her duty here is fulfilled."
Elrond thought he would be sick. "That of course is her choice," he managed to say. He recalled Readfah's words about him not being able to turn his back on any child of his but refused to think about it.
"When there are children, they will come with her," Celeborn continued.
Elrond nodded automatically. He had rehearsed for this. "I shall remind myself only that in spirit, they are my King's children."
Glorfindel peered at him as if he had not heard aright. Even Celeborn looked startled.
"Well," Celeborn cleared his throat, "that certainly is one way of looking at it. I had not thought...well!" He finished the wine and fell silent once more.
After a space they rose and Celeborn embraced Elrond sadly. "I am sorry things turned out this way. I hope you will always consider me your friend."
"Of course," said Elrond, though his insides felt cold and hollow as one of the snow houses Readfah used to describe in her tales of the Ice Bay. A sharp pain accompanied the echo of her name in his mind, and tears welled.
When Celeborn had gone, Glorfindel turned on Elrond. "What was that about the 'King's children'?" he demanded.
"The only way I could make myself do this was to be doing it for him. If I believed it was only for Galadriel I would have ridden to the Havens with Readfah that day!"
"You are doing it for all of us," Glorfindel reminded him.
Elrond turned from him and walked over to the fire. In it's red glow he could almost imagine, if he peered from just the corner of his eye, that Readfah's dark, autumn colored hair glimmered next to his shoulder. "Ai..." it was the barest of whispers, but to Glorfindel it carried all the anguish of the Elder kindred in one soft syllable.
Celebrían came down the stairs of Elrond's house for the first time a week after her wedding day. Her husband had daily sent polite enquiries as to her health, but had not himself gone to see her. Was this what life in Imladris was to be like? She did not love Elrond, but by some peculiar twist of logic, or perhaps a stray bit of vanity, she thought he ought to behave as if he loved her. She was prepared to make the best of things...and felt as though he ought to do likewise. It did not occur to her that he had not the advantage of Galadriel's daily advice and encouragement on the subject of duty.
Having discovered that weeping incessantly did nothing to stir his pity, she thought that perhaps a show of spirit might spark his interest enough that their marriage might at least be tolerable. She made a point of disagreeing with him on some small matter at table that evening.
"Please, Celebrían, do not try to be Readfah. You are not she, and any such attempt on your part only worsens what lies between us."
"And what lies between us, milord, but her shadow?"
"I wish it was her body!" he snapped, then sighed. Elrond had promised to be kind, but the words seemed torn from him and he bit his lip as soon as they were said. To his surprise, she did not burst into tears, but regarded him stonily, as if she could not believe he dared speak thus to her.
"I am sorry," he said lamely. "you do not deserve that."
She shook her head. "We are both bereft of the ones we truly love, milord," she said, with a grace that made him feel ashamed. "We dishonor them if we become enemies."
He looked at her closely then, as if in that moment at last discovering what Gil-galad had loved about her. Suddenly, he felt more comfortable in her presence. He would never love her, but perhaps, given time, they could live in some degree of harmony.
He poured her a glass of wine and bid her take a seat closer to his. Taenon moved efficiently from the shadows and assisted in removing her cover to a chair at Elrond's left, then disappeared with uncharacteristic silence. He had heartily disapproved of the marriage and saw no reason to pretend otherwise. He had stayed in Imladris only because Elrond and Readfah both had begged him to.
"I suppose I was trying too hard to prevent misunderstandings from arising between us, milady," Elrond said more warmly.
"I know," Celebrían nodded, again with grace. Elrond winced. He saw the dilemma in a flash...if he was not careful he would despise her for not being Readfah, yet any attempt on her part to be more like Readfah would likewise meet with his scorn. Above all he wished to be fair.
"We don't really know each other," he began cautiously. "I spent too much time looking for a way out of this, and now that it has happened I want you to be comfortable here. It is what Gil-galad would have wanted."
Celebrían looked up at him, the candlelight reflected in her eyes making her look even smaller and more vulnerable than she was. If she hoped for more she would be disappointed. But, she was her mother's daughter, and had her mother's inner core, though seemingly wrapped in more fragile fabric. She knew where she stood, and always would stand with Elrond. Like him, she found comfort in the notion that what she now did she did out of love for Gil-galad. She preferred not to think of what Gil-galad would have had to say about the outrage that was Readfah's lot.
Life among the Éothéodias had changed little since the name of Riddermark was conceived, when warriors rode herd on the vast plains above the Misty range and the Elf-king first became their friend . They had several times scattered apart and reunited, creating differences in dress and dialect, but they had essentially remained the same people. Many had migrated South so far as to put them within a day's ride of Imladris, and a few had gone as far as the Gladden, though no real settlements were made. The clans that had come that far preferred a freer life than that of the villages, and were destined to become the fathers of great families of seminomadic herdsmen. They would live much as Readfah's mother and her family had - traveling from pasture to plain - living mostly on game and an occasional sheep or goat from the flocks, making food and drink from their abundant milk and that of the mares. They no longer ate horse flesh unless they were in danger of starvation, for over time they had come to regard their horses as family, and buried them when they died with as much ceremony as if they had been human.
Readfah came back to live with the yellowhaired ones much as she had in the past, and was treated by them as she had always been, as a revered and loved sister and mother. She had her own house, her own herds, and even a milch goat and some hens. Soon her life had settled into the day to day rhythm of any woman among them, though she spent more time with her horses than any of them.
They did not dream that she could be lonely, for their houses were open to her, and anything she wanted was hers if it could be gotten. Only the older women, wisest as always, understood her sadness. She was as a childless widow to them, and though they understood how old she really was, still their eyes saw a young woman who would never marry or bear a child, and they pitied her accordingly. Each generation in turn learned that it was of no use to suggest that she choose a husband for herself from among their sons.
Every evening she watched Eärendil's slow, majestic progress in the sky until the Sun was gone. She sat and watched the vast herds of horses coming up from the river, looking toward her as if to a talisman, then making their way up to the fields where they spent the night. They were her pride and joy, for were they not all hers? No deed of ownership could deny that had it not been for her work, horses would still be the flighty, string-fleshed meat animals they were in her mother's day. War horses with legs and lungs of iron; placid, biddable draught beasts; ponies, eagerly sought by Dwarves and the strange and reclusive little people called the Holbytlan; sleek and mettlesome hunting steeds; all would still be a dream had she not given herself so completely to her task. And as she watched, she again grew sad, for she saw herself becoming less and less necessary as time passed. Was it Elrond who had once recited the fate of Elves to her, in the shape of a bit of informal verse he had translated:
We are born to perfect
Instruct and direct
To serve as the beacon, the banner unfurled
To mold and to guide until
We are no longer part of this world
Or had it been something singing in the back of her mind since the day Maedhros and Weil conceived her, deep in the long grass, so much like that which waved in the night breeze before her now?
"I have to confess I am restless too, Readfah," Dryarrin looked at her mentor with no little concern. "But if we leave here, where shall we go? You do not intend to go back to Imladris?"
Readfah shook her head violently. "They are wed, Dry'! I dare not see him again or I will surely break. That cursèd woman!"
Dryarrin knew she did not mean Celebrían, for Readfah pitied her as much as she did Elrond.
"Then where will you go?"
Readfah rose from the bed upon which she had been curled - upon which she had wasted too many hours since she knew that Elrond was taken from her for good. She set her jaw, and narrowed her eyes, and met Dryarrin's with all the mettle she possessed returning to her at last.