19. Chapter 19
This is a vast jump in time, but I wanted to get on with the story.
Read in the Appendix at the end of LOTR "The House of Eorl" and the timeline for the Third Age for some background on this.
Mother of Horsemen - Chapter Nineteen
In two thousand and more years, Men had often seen the great swathes left in the grass by Readfah's horses, but they had seldom if ever seen the herders. The size of the herd changed constantly, and some years they did not appear at all. Readfah, as always, gave away many horses, (and did not disdain to spirit a few away as well) but Men often thought her animals to be wild offspring of good quality runaways that wandered into their herds by night, and so she made it seem. She had never marked or branded her horses in any way, for she could call one out of a herd of a thousand, and it would come to her without hesitation. But, because unmarked, there was always the possibility of thievery. Readfah was usually quite glad to give a horse, or horses, wherever needed, but felt it should be her option. Not for a moment did she think her attitude unfair, for was she not the only one gifted so, to know by instinct where each belonged, when, and to whom?
"Mistress, I would speak with you."
A bay mare stood before Readfah in an almost formal manner. Readfah nodded first to Dryarrin's young great-grandson, who had been helping her that spring morning, and telling him to go play with his friends. He grinned and ran down the path to the woods. He looks so much like Dry', Readfah thought wistfully. Her decision not to take a husband still weighed heavily on her at times, even though she had never forgotten Gandalf - whom the Elves called Mithrandir - and his comforting words. I have plenty of time, she assured herself, should I change my mind, and the right man come along.
"Yes, Willa?" Readfah turned to the mare, who seemed anxious in spite of her tall dignity.
"There are thieves, Mistress. My son has been stolen."
"Stolen!" For a heartbeat Readfah froze in terror. "Not wolves?" Wolves had wreaked disaster in the herd more than once, usually in the Spring when foals were small.
The mare's eyes showed white and she shook her head. "Na-ay...human thieves. They are the tall yellowhaired ones."
She blew out her cheeks in relief, but this news was indeed strange."What? Why ever should they, when they may have what they need for the asking?"
"I know not the ways of humans," said the mare. "But perhaps his white coat drew their eyes to him."
"Are you not still nursing him?"
"I dropped him last Spring. I am with foal again, and my milk is nearly gone. But I knew you had said that it was not yet time for the seed of the Eärroch to leave your herd."
"That is so," Readfah agreed. "Do you know where they have taken him?"
"To the North. No time to go far."
With no further word Willa stood for Readfah to mount, though they were not bonded. Readfah's own mount, Hefera, was elderly and it was that transition time between retiring one and bonding with another. This white foal had looked promising enough, and he already spoke clearly.
He was the only known son of a white stallion who had wandered into her herd from the North a year ago. From the first Readfah knew him to be one of the immortal horses from West-over-Sea, though she had, strangely, never gotten close enough to him to learn more. He had never spoken, though she knew well that he could, and the others in the herd who had the gift called him only the Eärroch, the Sea horse, for Readfah had the odd feeling he had a name, and had never been moved to give him another.
And someone had come, and out of all her vast herd picked his only son. They knew horses, that much was certain. The longer she rode the angrier she got, until she was within sight of her house.
"He surely is a wild one, sir!"
A tall broadshouldered man with a a pair of long yellow braids smiled at his enthusiastic young servant. He unbuckled his leather leggings and let them fall off his thick, muscular thighs, enjoying the cool air on his sweaty skin. In a stout pen of lashed saplings a white colt paced, whistling in frustration, stopping to rear and paw the ground now and then. A light froth dripped from his supple flanks. He arched his neck, wheeling this way and that, but the horsemaster, Léod, knew his business too well. There was no escape.
"He knows what we're saying, Nica, I'll be bound! Look at his eyes! I have never seen one so full of fire...scarce a yearling and look at the size of him...best colt I've ever seen!"
"Sir!" called out another man from a distance. "The other horses have disappeared!"
Léod shrugged. "We have done a good day's work capturing this one. We have time."
"He should fetch a good price," commented Nica.
"Price! That colt is going nowhere but under my own backside and between the haunches of my best mares!" Léod laughed . "It isn't every day that a stud like that is to be gotten free!" The others in the horsehunting party smiled at the earthy words, and prepared to set up camp.
"Young Master Eorl may fight you for him, sir!" Nica dared to say, though her tone was bantering.
Léod beamed with pride even as he chuckled indulgently. "He may indeed! But my son loves me - he may spare me this one and settle for his first son!"
Soon the smell of a hearty game stew was tempting their appetites, and they gnawed some leathery but sweet dried apples while they waited for it to finish cooking. The store of ale was low, so they drank water they had collected that morning not far from the Golden Wood.
"Blodige'll!"* sputtered one as he took a long draught that reddened his already ruddy face."T'is as cold as when we first filled the skins!"
"I have heard strange tales of that stream, Fahru," said another, older man named Donnic.
"Phaugh!" Léod huffed, though good naturedly. "Next you'll be telling us of the Sorceress and her Elves!"
"Elves still live in that Wood," asserted Donnic,"Though perhaps not as many as before."
"Oh what can you expect from a 'red-shield' but rumor of Elves? Half his people believe Readfah still rides, if she ever once did!" snorted Fahru, whose people had lived in villages for generations and did not share the beliefs of those whose ancestors had lived along the Anduin before Frumgar gathered them all to the North. Donnic had descended from Éoghan the Merciless through Brinhaw and her son Tovig, though the stories of Tovig and his brother Held riding to war with the Ælfenking were looked upon now as fairytales.
Léod frowned. "I believe she did. Once. Too many of the tales agree. But if she did, she must be long dead. And if she was, as some say, an Elf who lived in what was called the Lady's Wood, she must have departed with her people. No one alive claims to have seen her as our grandfathers' grandfathers say they did."
"No," Donnic still spoke softly, but there was fire in his pale eyes. "For no man lives who is brave enough to dare the borders of Dwimordene."
Oddly, for the Éothéodias loved nothing better than a good argument, no one felt like disputing with him, and they went back to their ration of apples. Léod glanced uneasily at the picketed horses, and the colt, now standing almost unnaturally still in the pen. Did his imagination deceive him, or did the colt stare balefully back at him? Or was it merely the indignity of being captured reflected in his large, dark eyes? Léod watched him for a moment. He does not yet know he will be treated as a prince among horses...the best of fodder, safeguarded pastures, and all the mares he can cover. He is young and wild, but I will teach him well, he thought. He then turned appreciatively to the savory bowl of stew handed him, and forgot about the colt for a time.
Elrond stopped to give some instructions to two outriders as Celebrían prepared for yet another trip to Lórien. He was usually glad to see her go, but now, with a pang he was surprised to feel, he realized he would miss her. Over the years her companionship had been a comfortable thing, though they had led essentially separate lives. Elrond might have been surprised to know that his wife felt the same way, for she had always regretted the loss of the easy friendship she had shared with him when Gil-galad was alive and Readfah was still the jolly mistress of a house ringing with laughter and song.
Arwen was to accompany her, and return when her brothers were expected back from a year-long expedition with the Edain in South Gondor. They would be taking the mountain passes, for bands of orcs had been seen along the easier paths by the river.
Orcs...that worried Elrond. Mithrandir had warned of a coming time of trial. The strange pilgrim who bore Círdan's ring had prophesied all too often of doom if they were caught unprepared. The increase in the numbers of orcs, the growing unrest among Men, and the strange presence in Dol Guldur all were related, he was sure. The weariness he was just beginning to feel - the sense of having landed at the bottom of yet another mountain that must be scaled - was stronger today. If only he could once feel that his sacrifices had not been, and would not be, in vain.
He watched as several large chests were brought down the stairs. Why is she taking all that? he wondered.
"Mother does not intend to come back," Arwen's musical voice came from behind him. He turned to find his daughter standing by the great fireplace, her hand on the smoothworn green crystal in the mantel-edge that had been Readfah's touchstone.
For a moment he did not speak, stung with guilt. Arwen's hand on THAT stone...as if she knew.
"Not coming back? Why, whatever..."
"Father, you have never lied to me before. Don't begin now." Arwen's luminous, dove colored eyes, so much like his own, met his with a depth of understanding and reproach that made him tremble. "I know, and so do Elladan and Elrohir, that you and Mother did not wed for love."
Elrond's eyes closed and he sighed, both in relief and sadness. My little girl has grown up. He turned away from her.
"Father..." Arwen's voice did not break, but he could tell it was close to doing so.
"Why have you waited so long to speak of this?" he asked the wall before him.
"I could ask the same of you," Arwen said with the barest hint of reproach. "My brothers never wanted to say anything, for they felt it was none of their concern. Elrohir has taken it well...or hides it well perhaps...but Elladan has always carried a thorn in his soul about it. And so have I."
He turned to her then, and her tears spilled when she saw his tortured eyes. "Mother will say only that you both loved others. She will not say more. Please, Father! You must tell me...are we... yours?"
A smile twitched his cheek for an instant. "You may rest easy, if that is what troubles you," he embraced her and kissed her forehead. For all her years, she was still very young indeed if she could not look into a mirror and see whose daughter she was. And if his sons did not resemble him quite as much, with Gil-galad's very smile perpetually on Elrohir's lips and Celeborn's wise and sometimes weary patience flickering over Elladan's brow, there was still enough of Elrond about them to mark them as his.
"But that is not all that troubles me!" she exclaimed angrily, as he turned from her and toward the library, ever his refuge. "Will neither of you say what is in your hearts? Do you think we are still little children?"
"Come in here, where I may speak to you in the way you would have me," Elrond matched actions to words, opening the doors wide. No scribes were at work today, so they were alone. He indicated that she should sit, but she was too upset to do so.
"This woman you love, is she still, are you..." Arwen babbled unhappily. "Have you been...with her all along, even wed to Mother?"
The question seemed almost laughable to Elrond, whose struggle to resist the temptation to pursue Readfah was still as new as if she had left yesterday. "No. When I had to wed your mother she left Imladris."
"Had to wed Mother? What do you mean 'had to'?"
"Your mother was betrothed to Gil-galad. You and your brothers are his heirs, through me. Your grandmother, no doubt thinking she was helping...placed a bond on them that only I could fulfill, being his heir, once he was dead. I had to marry her, and the one I loved left me." Elrond's tone was dull, as if he had repeated the story to himself so often as to believe it. "The bond Galadriel wove had to do with the safety of the Elven realms, and if we refused to wed all our kind would have been lost. There was no choice before us."
Arwen listened in silence, more attuned to her father's grief than his words.
"I have said enough," he , after a long pause. "Go with your mother, now, child, and may the Valar protect you both."
"Go!" It was the only time in his life he had ever raised his voice to her, but he could not bear her presence any longer. Arwen rushed from the library in tears, and Elrond sank into a chair and covered his face with his hands.
"Well I like that!" Readfah whispered to Ponder as the two of them lay side by side on their bellies on a rise behind some rocks, spying on the men they had tracked to the Northern Plains. It was now late summer, and Willa's white colt, now a year and a half old and of near full stature, stood trembling, saddled and bridled. He pawed the ground while a tall horseman patted his neck and spoke patiently to him.
"Are you going to ask to have him back," chuckled Ponder, "or will we steal him?"
"He will come to us on his own. He's grown quite a bit, so I have no doubt they will attempt to mount him soon, to get him used to his trappings," she replied, ignoring his jest. "In truth, I had expected he would have scented us by now."
No sooner had she spoken than the colt's head flew up and he whistled frantically in their direction. The man looked their way too, but saw nothing, as they were out of range of his sight.
"What do you see, lad?" Léod spoke softly. Indeed, had this colt been one of his own breeding he would have been gentled long before now, for horses loved him and he loved them. This one had so - much - will, though. It was far too easy to break their spirits and force them to accept a rider, which was contrary to the traditions of his people. He smiled as he thought of the conversation he and his assistants had had about Readfah a few months back. Whether she had existed or not, whether she was a daughter of Béma himself or merely a great teacher of her time, he knew only that his ancestors had been more gifted in horsemanship than any other Mortal men and the credit was hers. Either way, if he had known she was watching him from less than two arrow flights away, he would have fainted.
"Look!" Readfah said, "he is going to mount him! Alone...where are all the men he had with him?"
"Hunting, on foot I think," Ponder replied. "There he goes, he..."
They both sat up in alarm as the colt reared, screamed, and bolted in their direction. The man had an excellent seat, and seemed to expect this behavior, for he remained calm and crouched low over the animal's withers.
"Pon', he will try to stop him below!" Readfah exclaimed. There was no way to move without being seen. Shouts rang out from a distance...two of the assistants had appeared, carrying what looked like several rabbits. Their horses danced on their tethers.
It all happened so fast Readfah scarcely had time to breathe. The colt screamed again, stumbled at the base of the ridge and, throwing his rider headlong, clambered in three strides up to the top and stopped just yards from where Readfah and Ponder huddled together behind a boulder.
The man had fallen heavily, striking his head on a sharp rock, and was still. Ponder gathered his wits first and leapt down to him, while still afar off, his companions were just mounting their own horses. Readfah shouted to the colt in Sindarin, and he disappeared into a wooded draw where Willa, and Zee, Ponder's horse, stood hidden. Then she followed Ponder down to where the tall horseman lay.
"He's dying," Ponder murmured in Laiquendi. Readfah did not gainsay him, but knelt beside the man and pressed his hand between hers.
With an effort Léod tried to focus his eyes on her. His fading consciousness took in the russet hair and the tapered ears, and he smiled. The tales were true. "Readfah..." he rasped.
She swallowed hard and clasped his hand tighter. "Help is coming," she assured him in his own tongue. But Léod was beyond hearing. He died, and his last thought was that Béma had favored him with a vision of the Modoréothéodias, the Mother of Horsemen whom he had never quite believed in.
His men rode up silently, divining what had happened. They could not conceal their wonder at the presence of two who were obviously Elvish folk, but as yet no one spoke. Behind them dismounted a stout, handsome youth, who pushed his way toward the fallen man.
"Father!" he cried, and knelt opposite Readfah, clutching at the other stiffening hand. He did not turn his flaming blue eyes from his father's until Readfah gently took both of Léod's hands and folded them on his breast. He looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. Grief and amazement warred in his boyish face.
"Who are you?" he demanded of Readfah, ignoring Ponder's sudden, indignant intake of breath. Without waiting for a reply, he bent over his father again, his hair a river of gold across the broad, still chest, his clenching fingers groping for his father's cold hands. For several uncomfortable moments there was silence, save for the boy's weeping, which was all the more heartrending for his fierce effort to control it. Readfah would have liked to comfort him, but she knew the traditions of the Horsemen; they would have scorned such a gesture unless he had been far younger. Indeed, had he been a year or so older, he would have been expected to bear his father's death as silently as the men around him, some of whom had loved him scarcely less than he had.
One of the men pulled his gaze from the tragic scene and trained it on the two strangers. As Léod had, Donnic grew pale when he saw they were indeed of the Deathless Ones- and wondered what omen their presence bespoke. And then, he saw the little red embroidered horsehead on Readfah's tunic, and his own heart pounded.
"Master Eorl," he said softly. "Young master..."
The boy looked up with red rimmed eyes. "He should have died in peace in my mother's arms fifty summers from now!" he blurted angrily. "Not by the work of that accursed horse and under the hands of strangers!"
He looked at Readfah again, his youth perhaps not allowing him a clear mind-picture of his people's oldest legend. "Madam, I would pursue that renegade! Did you see whence he escaped?"
She met Ponder's eyes briefly, and shook her head in the negative. She had only told the colt to run - she had not watched him do it.
"Do you speak our tongue, Madam?" the boy persisted.
"Ic gemæle't mearc-geþiod' gelic'ceaste',"** she replied. If they had known of a certainty who she was, her reply would have seemed mocking, but it was lost on the boy. Donnic swayed, finally able to hold his peace no longer.
"It is Readfah!" he said loud enough for all to hear, and his men all looked at him as if he had gone mad.
Readfah rose and looked pityingly down on Eorl, who still looked at his father's face, his fleeting hope turning swiftly to anger. Then she turned to Donnic, whose eyes shifted to her feet as if he feared her.
"My name is indeed Readfah, and I am gratified to know I am remembered." It was an old speech for her, but a trusty one. All the men but Donnic simply stared at her, while he, who had championed her all his life, sank to his knee and bowed his head.
"Time is wasting!"growled the impatient youth, rising to his feet. "I will find the horse who carried my father to his death. Two of you follow me! The rest of you take my father home, and say to my mother that I will come soon."
Readfah marveled at the air of command in one so young. Donnic, seeing this, forgot his shyness and spoke quietly aside to her. "His father is chief of four clans, as close to a king as our people have ever had. He is - was - two and forty years of age, the youngest to hold such high office, and his son is but sixteen."
Sixteen...Readfah looked up on the top of the ridge where Eorl and Ponder had climbed. She could not help but compare the two. The elf stood but little taller, slim, well muscled, dark hair in a queue...the mortal youth ruddy and thickset, yet slender waisted, with loose, honey-colored hair and eyes like the sky. Memories again...Faramir of Númenor and Sig of the Éothéod, facing off warily like two young stallions before deciding on friendship.
"He should go home and bury his father," Readfah said bluntly.
"Yes, Madam, he should. But he is headstrong, as his father was in his youth. Please tell me how you came to be here." The abrupt change of subject made her jump.
"I have believed you were real all my life," he said simply. "Even when my friends made fun of me and said I must believe in the Yule-Father as well. I was never sure if you had remained when so many of your folk went to the Sea, but I knew you were real. But why are you here now? Is your coming an omen of Eorl's passage to manhood? There are those who would make him our King."
"No indeed," said Readfah, "for I have known nothing of my mother's people for many years."
"Emissaries have come North from Cirion of Gondor. He means to make alliances, or perhaps I should say renew them, for there are troubles away South. At first some of us feared they meant to make us subject to them, for we have no ruler, and the clans seldom agree on anything."
"I wish them good luck trying!" Readfah smiled. Then, looking back, and seeing Léod's body being lifted up onto a litter between two horses, her face grew sad again.
"The boy should go home," she repeated.
"He will not, until his father is avenged. He means to kill that horse, if I know him. Here is his cousin Hægir now," he indicated a slim young man with light auburn hair and bright eyes who was leading the horses in their direction.
Readfah went numb...kill the colt? Not while she lived!
Eorl and Ponder were still several yards ahead of them, and the horses were still in the wooded patch, out of sight of the men, but well visible to Readfah. As the Mark horses came up from behind, she signaled to Willa and Zee to come to them, and the colt to go home. This created enough of a stir that she felt he might safely get away. Even young Eorl, in his anger, stood in awe as she and Ponder mounted their unsaddled horses gracefully. It was then he began to really notice Readfah for the first time. His face grew even redder when she turned to him and spoke sharply.
"Dol, forheardes' hafelad'e cnabe'!*** Your place is with your mother!"
His chin stiffened and he threw back his head proudly as he mounted his own horse, a well made gold and white stallion. "With all respect, madam, my mother is a woman of the Mark, and she understands what I must now do!"
Out of the corner of his eye he spied a white flash - the colt, no longer hidden by the trees - speeding South on seemingly winged hoofs.
"There he is!" Eorl shouted, shouldering his bow and legging his horse into a gallop. "Run if you will, Mansbane! It will not serve you!"
They were away then, the three of the Mark, and after exchanging a startled glance, Readfah and Ponder followed. Away into the plains they gave chase. He was tireless, and most of the time was out of their sight, but Readfah knew she dared not allow the boy to reach the colt before she did.
*Bloody hell! A common epithet, but not a spiritual term in Éothéod. Hell = refuse pit.
** "I speak the language like a native."
***Foolish, stubborn (hardheaded) boy!
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