18. Chapter 18
Mother of Horsemen - Chapter Eighteen
"Father...who is Readfah?"
Elladan looked up from his perch on a footstool in Elrond's herbary, while his twin, more restless, amused himself outdoors in the sunshine of a beautiful spring morning.
"She is a horse breeder," Elrond said easily, after his heart stopped hammering. Too easily, for his son's deep grey eyes narrowed. For a heartbeat he looked away out the open windows, for Elrohir had cried "Whoa!" having closely escaped a dunking in the stream, playing on the slippery stones.
"I know that - did she not sent Elrohir and me a birthyear gift, and new horses twice since we have been old enough to ride? But why have we never seen her? Where does she live? Have you ever seen her?"
"So many questions, Elladan! Why the sudden interest?" Elrond fought hard for his eyes not to betray him, so he pretended to search for a seed bundle.
"It isn't sudden," the youth replied, nibbling absently at a shelled nut from a bowl on the table where his father worked, "I have often wondered about her. We have seen nearly everyone you have ever spoken of who still lives, except Círdan and a few others. But we know where they are. When the horses come, they are always brought to the portals by those tall Mortal Men who speak that queer tongue that almost sounds like Greenelvish."
"The Éothéodias," Elrond murmured. He often wondered if his sons, in spite of their youth, had guessed the truth about him and Readfah. He had done all he could to be kind to their mother. It would seem to anyone who did not know the secret of his past that Elrond and his family were the picture of domestic happiness. Yet Elladan had more than Celeborn's facial expression - he had the keen deductive powers of his grandsire as well, and a gift for reading unguarded hearts. Elrond knew that his son could sense that his heart was a closed door.
"Suppose you tell me just how much you already know about her, and I shall begin from there?" Elrond's voice was too light, but Elladan, if he noticed, said nothing.
"Well, of course she is an elf," he said, frowning at a strangely shaped nut in his hands.
"Ah...she is rather like me, half-elf," Elrond corrected.
Elladan's brows rose. "Truly?" So much like Celeborn, thought Elrond.
"Yes, Readfah is the daughter of Fëanor's eldest son, Maedhros, and a Mortal woman called Weil."
Elladan nodded, for he knew his history well. "I would imagine then her mother was one of the Éo-..."
"Éothéodias..." supplied Elrond. "You are correct."
"No others have such horses," Elladan beamed. "When Elrohir and I rode out with the guard to meet them, they talked of her as if she were one of the Valar. Father, why will they not come into the valley?"
"Readfah is indeed like a Vala to them. It was she who taught her people the arts of horsemanship from the Elder days, and still does so, I believe. Once she lived in this valley, long ago. And her mother's people came here often. When she left, they would no longer come, though they would be welcome..."
"You knew her, then." It was a statement.
"Yes, I did. Once. But where she has gone I do not know. She was once a wanderer, so perhaps she has returned to that way of life."
Elladan was silent for a moment. "Perhaps... she desires to remain hidden for her own reasons. I would like to meet her one day, though, and thank her for her gifts."
"Maybe some day you shall, my son." Elrond turned his back and clenched his teeth hard before his voice could break. Elladan said no more, but joined his brother outside.
Elrond went up to his room and went inside, closing the door behind him. Shaking, he paced for a moment, they lay down on his bed and stared at the patterned ceiling. He hated himself for what he saw as his own weakness. How could he have ever let Readfah go? He knew that she sent the horses as much to let him know she still lived and prospered as to give gifts to the boys. And how much more did Elladan know, or guess? He was still a boy, but he was sharply intelligent and maturing at an alarming rate. Elrohir, though perhaps a bit more bumptious, was just as quick witted. And if they did sense something amiss, and were keeping their peace, what could his beloved sons possibly think of their parents' silence?
Years passed, the twins grew into adulthood, and Celebrían was again with child.
The new little one, strangely enough, owed its life to Readfah: roots and herbs did not have the desired effect a second time. Celebrían had suggested that he close his eyes and conjure Readfah's image so that he might be moved to lie with her. She had said it half mockingly; it never occurred to either of them to try such a thing. But Elrond took her at her word and put himself into trance as he often did before a difficult healing.
It worked well, and he swore silently to himself afterward for not having thought of it much sooner. His response was immediate, and embarrassingly intense. Celebrían's spirit came very nearly leaving her body, yet, again, she was stronger than she seemed. She got with child right away, so unless another son came to them there would never be any need to do this again.
As the time of her confinement drew near, it seemed to them that Celebrían indeed carried a girl-child, and this included the twins, for they spoke with no note of doubt that it was a sister. Amused, their mother charged them with finding a name for her. Elrohir it was who blurted out "Arwen! For she WOULD have been the daughter of a king!"
"Whatever do you mean?" Elrond frowned while Celebrían blushed guiltily.
Elrohir looked at his father fearlessly. "You said that long ago, when Gil-galad made you his heir, you accepted all from him but the title of king. If you had, we would be a royal family, and our sister a royal maiden...Arwen."
Elrond's relieved eyes met Celebrían's briefly, and he nodded. "So it is, then. I see you remember your history quite well - Prince - Elrohir!"
Elrohir giggled and buried his nose back in the book of verse he had been reading. The next night, the last day in May, as Eärendil made his bright progress through a soft and varicolored evening sky, Arwen was born. And though he loved his sons well, there was a special place always in his heart for his daughter whom he called Undómiel...Evenstar... for she had been conceived, in spite of everything, in what had been for Elrond an act of love.
The spell proved true - an almost palpable shield rose around both Imladris and Lothlórien, even surpassing the strength of the barriers that had existed before the rings' powers had been altered. Celebrían and her children spent most of their time in Caras Galadhon while they were still young. In due time after Arwen's birth, there arrived at Imladris a beautiful grey mare, escorted as always by a troop of cheerful Éothéodias. And Elrond, as always, was both grateful to know Readfah was well, and deeply frustrated that he could not find her. Readfah had predicted that Lothlórien would the last place he would dream of finding her, and it was true.
As they grew, Elladan and Elrohir became friendly with the Edain, the Númenorean remnant who lived in Imladris, and often rode errantries as esquires to their knights. For though they were the sons of Elrond, their father gave them no special favor, and they expected none. They were seldom separated, and together their individual gifts formed a formidable whole, as warriors, as speakers with the gift of persuasion, or as lovers-of-the-ladies who mended hearts rather than broke them. There was no task too high or too low for them, and they lived life fully and merrily as Elves should.
But Lothlórien was too tame for them, so they visited rather than made a home there. Their sister, meanwhile, had grown into what her people said was the most beautiful elf maiden since Lúthien, but she was mostly satisfied with the quieter arts. Though like all women of her house she was trained in swordsmanhip and archery, she excelled rather in needlework and fine silversmithing. Life under the shadows of the great mallorns suited her, save for two things which irritated her grandmother to no end; she missed her father (who would not leave Imladris) and she loved to ride; two things that daily reminded Galadriel of that halfbreed granddaughter of Fëanor who, like it or not, ruled her Southern border. So far, Arwen had never strayed in that direction, and there was a tacit agreement between Celeborn, Readfah, Haldir, and all others involved that it was best that the children of Elrond be kept from wandering there if possible. Of this agreement, Galadriel was glad, and she was grudgingly thankful to Readfah for her silence.
Galadriel need not have worried, for Readfah as well had no wish to be found. Whenever word came that Elladan and Elrohir were visiting, or Arwen was riding abroad, she usually took her herds South across Calenardhon to the Limlight where so far none but a few Elves had ever ventured.
In the hundreds of years that passed since the twins' and Arwen's births, she traveled far and made many new acquaintances. She had brought her herds among the Gondorrim, who, like their ancestors, tended to emphasize rather than blur, as most Elves did, the differences between the roles of men and women, and who looked at her with undisguised shock when they met her. Her reputation preceded her, for a few Men of the North still spoke of her with reverence, and they had expected a freakish, manlike apparition instead of the modest looking creature she was.
Once she was known, she had her supporters among them, who disregarded her sex and treated with her as they would have with any man. But they could not understand her refusal of the fortune they would have heaped on her for the fine horses she gave them. Preferring, as most of them did, the sedate greys and solid colored coats, deeming them of more dignfied appearance, Readfah's own herd became by default flashier than ever. In later years, the rider of a well made, white-splashed warhorse, particularly a roan, was said to be riding a Readfah, though in truth almost every blooded horse in Middle Earth owed it's existence to her intervention.
Unlike the Éothéodias, the descendants of the Númenoreans tended to think in terms of hierarchies and wealth when confronted with the philosophy of power, and at first could not understand the near worship she commanded from their goldenhaired kinsmen. She was unwed and had no lineage and no family. She was no real beauty to their eyes - their traditions giving greater homage to small and delicate women. She was by no means fashionable, her plain garments of linen and leather scarcely different than those she wore when the foundation of Imladris was laid, though now they were more likely to be green and brown rather than undyed stuffs.
Still, her presence seemed to radiate a warmth the more discerning of them recognized as of far more worth than mere appearance. In spite of this, they soon discovered that she had no time for or patience with any who would maltreat or neglect a horse. And even the few Lórien Elves who traveled with her seemed to have more confidence in her earthy directness than in all the magics that the Mistress of the Wood was purported to wield.
The proud Haradrim to the Far South she visited but once - for they had even stranger notions about women than the Gondorrim - and was amazed at what had become of the horses there. For a thousand years and more they had bred a small but sturdy animal that seemed deceptively light boned. They were enduring, and very beautiful, with large eyes, broad foreheads, and tiny velvet muzzles. She walked among them and saw for herself what had become of the too-small animals she had stolen from Gil-galad to trade for warhorses. Here in the desert there was no need for great size or brute strength; only endurance, will, and intelligence, all of which they had in plenty. They had found a home.
And here and there, pockets of primitive tribes who still lived as their ancestors did, in caves and hollow places under great trees, still bowed their heads to the ground when the great herds of Readfah came to them and would not meet her eyes when she spoke to them. Fewer and fewer horses were born halt or deformed, and fewer became ill, but there were always some who asked for the quick mercy of death at old age, or painful injury, and she never forgot the promise she made to the forefathers of the Wild Men that so long as she lived they would not go hungry.
Readfah was busy and content, but still had not wed, though she assured her friends that some day she might do so. Over the years, there had been a few, as had been predicted, who did not mind the prospect of childlessness, but Readfah always said that "not minding and really wanting are a mile apart and parallel" so nothing ever came of any of it.
After Dryarrin wed and had a daughter whereat she no longer traveled far from the wood, Rúmil's youngest son, Ponder, became Readfah's helper, and later her constant companion. It was he who had accompanied her to Harad, and had gone with her to the Gondorrim in the time of Rómendacil I and many times since. He was a nimble witted yet taciturn fellow; of few words but of decisive action. His family nicknamed him Galvorn, for he wore a horseshoe shaped amulet of the black metal of the same name first forged in the Elder Days by Eöl, known in legend as the Dark Elf. Too, he somewhat resembled that strange Elf, for he was tall and dark, with dark eyes and brooding good looks, and still preferred the black garments he wore from his days as a night raider when Orcs had been many. He had lost his beloved wife and infant son in one of those many nights of terror long ago, so many thought he and Readfah might someday wed. Yet, though they might share the talan by the stream after a few years, they were but friends, and they seemed content to leave it as such for neither had the heart for more.
"So, who is he?" Readfah asked.
"I do not know."
Haldir slumped into a fur lined hollow in Readfah's talan with an offhand grace that belied his agitation. Galadriel had asked that Readfah come to Caras Galadhon at the earliest possible moment. She would not say why, and Readfah was tempted to ignore the summons, but her friends were seething with curiosity and truth to tell, so was she.
"He just looked like any old man," said Rúmil, chinning himself on a branch. "Maybe more travelworn than any we have seen of late."
"He got past the sentinels, Readfah," said Ponder, as always coming straight to the point. "He rode straight into Caras Galadhon on a bony old horse you wouldn't have given the Wild Ones for soup."
Rúmil's wife, Vëa, concurred with her son. She said little, instead once again silently giving thanks that he and Readfah seemed to be of no mind to wed. She loved Readfah as a friend, but had no wish for her Galvorn to mate with such a woman, and one reputed to be barren.
"Lord Celeborn was beside himself with rage," Haldir said, while Readfah tried to picture that. "But as the stranger came alone, and declared himself a friend he decided to listen to what the old fellow had to say. The Lord and Lady drew apart with him for a time, and not long after she sent a messenger to find me, and tell you to come to the City as soon as you may. More I do not know," he concluded.
After all this time of truce, to ride into the City. Readfah sighed, leaned out of her window and whistled for Drædnawit*, a young red mare who looked as if a bucket of whitewash had been upset upon her head. She was a bold animal, and a fluent speaker, as more and more of the herd were these days.
"An old man, you say?" she spoke aloud. "Was he Éotheodias?"
"On such a beast?" Rúmil chuckled. "Then he was an outcast! But no, he - he looked like no race of Men in particular. It's funny...his eyes...I would want to swear he was one of us. But that cannot be. He was a Man all right. Still..."
"You will hang from that branch all day and know no more than you did when you came in," snapped Vëa, though good-naturedly. "Why don't you go with Readfah and find out?"
Rúmil dropped to his feet before her and kissed her swiftly with a grin.
The stranger was indeed an old man, with a long, shaggy beard, a large nose, and laughably bushy eyebrows. He was as ragged as any beggar, wrapped in a grey cloak full of thorn-picks and clumsy patches. He walked with a tall, straight staff of a light colored wood, knurled and twisted at the top, set with a small, water-clear crystal. On his head was a battered grey hat with a wide brim and a tall, pointed crown - unlike anything any of them had ever seen. He smelled of burnt leaves and cider.
The horse, Readfah noted immediately, was a sorry sight - with a hollow neck, too-large ears, and a pendulous lower lip. She stroked his cheek and spoke softly to him before greeting anyone else. His saddle bore several deep scratches though it was well made, possibly in the North, and the bridle and bit, though now grass stained, had once been fair. Though he inspired pity from most of the Elves, she could see he was not ill-treated, for his lop ears pricked forward at the sound of his master's voice, his coat was groomed and he had a kindly and contented eye. He was not lame, in spite of the alarming number of bumps and knobs on his crooked legs, and his big feet were well shod.
Galadriel, whom Readfah had not seen in almost a thousand years, was little changed. She wore a slim gown of silver stuff, and her hair was unbound. She regarded Readfah impassively, though Readfah knew that the Lady was no happier to see her then than on the day she first rode into Caras Galadhon. Yet, her aura seemed far quieter, as if she had at last mastered herself. She was, in truth, more at ease than she might have been had Celebrían and Arwen not been in Imladris, and Elladan and Elrohir not gone months ago with a troop of Gondorrim.
Celeborn greeted her far more warmly, which did not pass unnoticed by anyone. Was there a flicker of comprehension in the visitor's eyes? Readfah had been struck at once...no elf he, but no stranger to their ways or their wisdom.
"I see that you indeed have a gift for horses," he said nodding to her, and his voice was deep and rich, overlaid with but little of the rasp of age. The statement would have sent any of the Éothéod into fits of laughter, but Readfah merely thanked him. She had the feeling that he already knew who she was, what she was, and everything she had done since she was born.
He turned to Galadriel. "Lead us to the place you have prepared, Lady."
Readfah followed meekly, for she had been inside the gates but once, and the City of Trees was as breathtaking as ever it had been. Scores of Elves lined the balconies of the great dwellings to watch them pass, and as always, even in midmorning, the lights were aglow deep in the heart of the wood. They did not go far, for Galadriel brought them to a secluded nook sunk next to a mallorn root, as large as a room. There she had chairs brought and set beneath the tree, and a lamp was brought and hung from a low branch. The stranger wasted no time with preliminaries.
"I have sent for you, Mistress Readfah," he began, "To ask if you have ever seen an object like this."
He drew from his bosom a ring, and held it on his palm and then upon the tip of his finger. Readfah's eyes grew wide, for it was nearly the twin of Gil-galad's - no - Elrond's ring, save that the stone in this one glowed a rich, warm red, like embers in a fire. Like the Sapphire, the stone was cut and set as a curved cylinder that took up where the burnished gold left off in it's graceful sweep around the old man's fingertip, then seemed to flow into the gold again. Where the pale gold of Elrond's ring was a band of raised cloudlike shapes, this one had layers of rose, yellow and white gold in a staggered pattern suggesting flame.
She leaned forward as far as she dared - her eyes tried to follow the warm red light into the core of the gold band. The blue ring had been just as fascinating, though it evoked pictures of a clear evening sky with a tiny star that tantalized by disappearing when looked at directly. Memories began to assail her, and for a moment she forgot that she was not alone in the dell under the tree.
Suddenly he snatched the ring from her view and regarded her sternly. "I see that you have. No, no words are necessary!"
"Where did you get that?" she demanded hoarsely.
"Answer my question first...the Sapphire...have you ever handled it? Or worn it, even for a short time?"
Readfah grew sullen and jerked her chin at him. "I don't even know who you are!"
Galadriel spoke for the first time, and her gentle tone surprised Readfah. "Please, Readfah, tell him whatever he wishes to know! I have not been your friend, but neither do I wish you ill!"
"First, say how he comes to bear Círdan's ring!"
"Harrumph! You know more of these things than even I supposed! Círdan met me at Lhûn, and entrusted this ring to me himself. More I cannot reveal now."
Readfah gritted her teeth. "Am I to take your word that you are not a robber, and that Círdan does not lie dead at the Havens?"
The old man chuckled. "No, he is alive and well, do trust me! I would that all Elves were as careful as you, though you are not all Elf, are you?" He smiled at Readfah' startled gasp.
"You have handled the Sapphire wrought by your cousin Celebrimbor, yet I see you have not worn it," he continued. "Gil-galad and Elrond chose their guardian wisely. Yes, I have been to Imladris, as you named it, and I have seen Elrond. Vilya is still safe in his care. He told me...all. Yet because you have handled it, indeed, only because you know of it's existence, I had to speak with you to see how the knowledge affected you. Because of this ring I now bear, I know whose child you are, where you have lived, with whom, and whom you have loved." His dark eyes clouded with sorrow as he saw the pain in her face.
"Who ARE you?" she choked.
"The Men of the North have named me Gandalf," he said carefully.
" 'Walks as do Elves'?"** she hastily translated into the Sindarin which they had been speaking.
"A true daughter of the Horsemen!" he said approvingly. "You see, when I am among Men, they think of me as a strange species of Elf, and Elves take me for a Man, at least at first. But who I am is of little consequence right now, and what I am is of even less. It is why I am here that should concern all of you. Troublous times are coming to the West, though they will not come to fruit for many a year. Know that I am your friend and ally! Your people, that is, the Horsemen, already look at me askance, for it seems I am fated to bring ill news! Dark times will come. And Elves are leaving the Mortal Lands for the Undying as we speak, and soon they will be left for Men to rule."
Galadriel was silent, and Readfah thought she saw a change wash over her like a gentle wave.
"Are you then come," Galadriel asked softly, "as harbinger of the end of Time?"
Gandalf smiled ruefully. "It is to be hoped not, Lady! But indeed the time of Elves draws to a close."
Gandalf remained among the Elves of Lórien for a long while, and they gathered around him as children do a kindly grandfather. He did not reveal who he truly was, or whence he came, but they knew in their hearts he had been sent to aid them in the coming time of trial, and they loved him.
Readfah did not return to her home for several days, for she was not immune to the pull he exerted. Sometimes he seemed to know everything, yet other times he was forgetful and funny. Many nights they spent by the lodgings he was given, sitting by a fire telling tales. One such night, Ponder and Orophin rode in from scouting, and Gandalf was filling his pipe preparatory to settling down after supper. He had what the Elves deemed a strange habit, that of stuffing crumpled leaves into a wooden pipe and sucking the smoke into his mouth. It appeared to do little harm to him, and it accounted for the peculiarly pleasant smell his clothes bore, but it amazed them all the same.
"It grows wild," he explained, showing them some of the leaf, "but no doubt some day it will be cultivated. It grows well in the North, near the Hithaeglir."
Readfah was only half listening, her one experience with the weed several nights ago having left her breathless and the butt of jokes the rest of the night, was studying Gandalf's staff. No runes were carved upon it, but there were a thousand ripples and twists in the top, near where the crystal was set, and pictures seemed to suggest themselves. On a flat area near the front it was plain, but outlined was what appeared to be a horse's head in silhouette.
Without thinking, Readfah took a metal arrowhead from Ponder's quiver and gave the crude profile features; an eye, a flared nostril, an open mouth. She was just finishing the details of a mane flowing into the grain of the wood, when she noticed that Gandalf had stopped talking and was looking at her with a jaundiced eye.
"Elves," he announced, "are by far of all beings the most inquisitive..."
He strode over to her and grabbed the staff. "Let me see what mischief you have wrought," he said in a tone of exasperation. "Hmm...not bad. But do ask leave before decorating my things!"
Seeing that she was contrite, he softened, and looked at her for a long time, thoughtfully. "Readfah it is...'red guilt'...bloodstain...it is your father-name, no doubt. Come, talk to me."
She drew aside with him into a bower, still in sight of the fire. For all her long years in the world, she felt like a child in his presence. Before long she had poured out her whole story, but she had the feeling he already knew it all.
"Of course you still have a purpose in this world!" he exclaimed. "You have been hiding here, from what...or who? Elrond? He has not forgotten you! But if it is children you wish, then there is but one thing to do."
"The Lady..." she began, then stopped, for she at once knew that she had no secrets from him, and he knew what Galadriel had done to her. Yet she could not feel ashamed or dishonored in his presence.
"Has it not occurred to you that the barriers she placed upon you have no effect on Mortals? You might have taken a husband at any time, from among Men."
** Gan - from the OE/ proto-Rohirric "to march" or "to walk", + dalf or d'alf, "as Elves."
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