2. Chapter 2
They had had no trouble convincing her to have a bath, for she was anxious to be clean. So anxious that she would have stripped naked on the spot, but for the gentle suggestion of Leithel, an apprentice healer, that it would be warmer in the bathhouse.
Moments later there roared from that structure a volley of Nandorin curses, so riddled with chattering squawks it sounded like a henhouse complete with ravening fox. Elrond jumped to his feet and ran, at the same time that Leithel fled outside and stood panting and wild-eyed. Apparently one did not lay hands upon the newcomer without her permission, sobbed the gentle healer.
"That knife...I thought she was going to...all I did was offer to wash her back!"
Elrond shuddered. Readfah had shown him her knife, the handle formed of a section of antler she had called a "shovel." This was a piece that fanned out from the handgrip to the size of her outspread hand, ending in a series of bony hooks twisting this way and that, as deadly as it's queer, angled steel blade. He comforted the trembling woman for a few moments, muttering something inane about cultural differences. After she had gone, he frowned deeply at the bathhouse and wondered what, exactly, was inside.
Readfah emerged an hour later, smelling of herbs and wearing a long white tunic most of the Elves normally affected as winter nightwear in times of peace. None of the women's clothes fit her through hips or bosom - in that, she was obviously her mother's child. One of Elrond's aides had put together a piecemeal wardrobe for her from some of the larger things in the salvage pile, including a grey woollen cape and a pair of russet leather boots. The malodorous fur garments she had arrived in were steeping a few hundred yards from camp in a vat of wood ash and water: the ruined fur would slough off, but the leather would remain and be workable. She would not suffer them to be thrown away, nor for her bow, quiver and knife to be touched at all.
Perhaps the oddest of all was the behavior of her horse. The tall, hawk-faced roan mare would not leave her side, and stood vigil by the bathhouse the entire time her mistress was within. She would have followed her to the fireside had not Readfah turned and spoken to her conversationally for a moment. The mare even then did not join the other horses in the pastures above the cliffs next to the camp, but turned and walked over to an area not far off where the snow was thin, and began nuzzling and nipping the frosty stubble. Now and again she would turn her gaze toward the fire as if to say, "I am here." The mare's name was Wimowë, which was, in Readfah's mother-tongue, "Loyal."
Elrond had tried to ask a few polite questions as Readfah ate, but abandoned that idea when he discovered that she did not hesitate to talk with her mouth full. She was already hard enough to understand. Her Sindarin, which they all spoke now, was fluent enough, but so punctuated with clicks and throaty noises most of the elves who had gathered to meet her had to strain to make sense of her words. Listen they did, however, and with growing fascination.
Some of the stories she told them made them uneasy, particularly that of her mother's seduction by an elf - Noldorin, if her appearance was any clue - for she steadfastly avoided further mention of him. Then she startled them all by pointing to the very spot where Eärendil's star appeared mornings, telling them she was born "the same day the new star came." Many of them thought that had to be some sort of omen, but for good or ill no one could guess. They all spoke to her for a while, but at a look from Elrond that signified that he wished to speak with her alone, they drifted away.
When he was sure Readfah had finished eating - he had guessed as much, as she had stopped licking her fingers - he threw a few more sticks on the fire and sat back casually. The late afternoon sun had dipped behind the treetops, but it was not yet uncomfortably cold; Elrond and his followers had early learned the secrets of how to manage fire most efficiently.
"Readfah," he began at length, "you spoke of coming 'back' here..."
"Mmm..." she nodded, scrubbing her hands and face with a bit of snow. "Tribe of Green Elf people lived here, all up and down river, until Dark One woke up again."
She swept her arm toward the top of the eastern ridge. "Kept my horses up there. Had many. When trouble started, found mother's folk, gave all horses to them. Lame ones, weak ones, ckckckck!" She drew a finger across her throat. Elrond winced and she looked at him in wonder. "Many starving, then. Eating horse better than eating dirt, eh? Green Elf people wouldn't eat horses, ran off to find silly fruit. Many never come back." She stared into the fire with a stony expression for a moment. "Then I went to Ice Country. Dark One not bother up there."
Elrond couldn't help himself. "The Green Elves...were they your father's people?"
"No," she answered shortly. "He was one who came in the big ships."
At that Elrond's heart hammered a few beats with the shudder of recognition he had come to expect since the moment he first saw her.
The silence went on a tick too long for comfort. Elrond shifted his position slightly, leaning into the fire to disguise his reddening face.
"I live with Green folk after mother die," she continued. "Her people..." here she struggled to express herself "...become afraid, when I die not. Say I should live with Elvenfolk. How did you come to take the Imlad Ris?"
"The Imlad Ris. This valley. Narrow, steep, good hideout. Green Elf people came here after floods."
"We found it by chance, mostly," he admitted. "We had far too many losses. We needed..."
"A hole to hide in," she finished, and Elrond grinned in spite of himself.
"I never knew the place had a name," he cocked his head to one side, the dark queue falling over one shoulder. "We've just been calling it 'the valley.' Celeborn...that's a friend I hope will return soon...came here first, and we scouted it out together later. We were in luck, we didn't have to take it from anyone. So, this was your home?"
She nodded. "Many hundreds of years. Longer than I stay in Ice Country. You are all soldiers, then?"
"We have had to be," he answered swiftly, even a little defensively. To someone like Elrond, the glory of war would be only in its end. He was a capable and fearless leader, but he hated every moment of battle. Not many knew it, but his fondest dream was to sit beside a brook with his feet dangling in the water, enjoying a warm breeze and getting a delicious bellyache from eating too many ripe peaches. He had done that once, as a child, and as with most memories the pain was muted and the pleasure intensified with the varnish of time. Time. Now, all his time was occupied with giving orders, taking orders, stitching and blood and comforting and burying. He sensed, rightly, that Readfah was no more interested in war than he was. She had spent most of her life unashamedly avoiding it, and for a moment he envied her.
He caught himself talking disjointedly about battles and treachery, about the relentless wars that had led the pitiable remnant of the High Kindred to refugee in this deep, well hidden vale of the Bruinen. Imlad Ris, he mused, turning the words silently on his tongue, his silver eyes softening as dreams took over. No, it was not really a war camp. It was, as she had said, a hole to hide in. A place to recover and rest, and in time, if peace ever came, a home. He looked over at her - she was asleep. Of course she was, he thought, an amused glint replacing the mist in his eyes. There was no better way to put someone to sleep than to provide a full belly, a warm fire, and a dry lecture. He sat back and sighed, thinking, as was his wont, of the past. The familiarity of her profile needled him. Who of the Noldo could have taken a Mortal woman that way? Or would have? He shrugged, but the question still teased. He looked at her again, and felt a sudden wash of remorse for allowing her to lie in the snow while he sat captivated by his own thoughts. He rose, lifted her into his arms, and carried her, still asleep, into his own tent and closed the flap behind him.
Readfah sat bolt upright on the narrow cot as if wakened by a nightmare, sucking in her breath and looking about her wildly. She groped for the knife. Panic set in when she did not immediately find it and she thrashed toward the thin line of light at the tent flap. Ripping it open, she squinted and relaxed as the disorientation ebbed. I've been asleep all night, but where? There was Wimowë, barely a stone's throw from the spot she had left her. She looked back into the tent. There were the clothes she'd been given; no dream, then! And there was the knife, placed next to the pillow as if someone had known how she would wake. The bow and quiver were hung reassuringly on pegs within her sight.
She closed the flap against the cold and inspected the clothes. Will I ever get used to flax and wool again? she smiled. Nearly a thousand years of Men have passed since I have worn anything but leathers. Then again, it had been that long since she had had a horse beneath her, and all she had learned as a child came back after the first day.
The horses of her childhood had been little more than ponies. The majority had been used for food by the tall. yellow-haired herders, though a few were trained to pull baggage-laden poles from place to place. The thought of riding them, or regulating their breeding, had never occurred to them until the Noldor returned to Middle Earth and established realms among them.
The immortal stallions that had come from Aman with them were swift, invariably white, and few. By Readfah's time, many had fallen to war and orcish depredations, and if any were left alive it was a well kept secret. No secret, though, that they had indelibly left their stamp on the native horses. Accidentally or by design, they bred with the mares they found (or were introduced to), and though the foals were mortal they were infinitely superior. No mares had come from the Blessed Realm, for the first thought of the Exiles had been for war, not for matters of husbandry. But the tribe Readfah was born to gave thought to these things, first of all Mortal Men to do so.
For many long years the arts of horsemanship eluded them, for the Elves who possessed these skills had little patience with what they deemed the clumsiness of Men, and scorned them when they did not learn quickly. But Readfah could and did, and over time taught the tribe the arts in a way they could learn. Saddles, bridles, and other like equipment were the result of her dedication, and evolved into relative sophistication before she went to live among the Laiquendi. In the same span of time she learned the secrets of farriery from the Elves and taught them to Men, to whom the art of ironwork was old, but the idea of shoes for horses was new. As for breeding, Readfah made a study of that as well, and within a few human generations the animals were uniformly taller, heavier, sounder and swifter, and with better disposition. The development of separate herds of dray animals and ponies was also her doing, something even the Elves had not considered. And, too, the tribesmen long thought that when Readfah was among them in the leaf-fall season, that the large amount of an especially tender and succulent meat she provided for their feasts was magically produced. If they had thought to look carefully, they would have seen that it was meat that only stallions could supply.
Her mind came floating back into the present. She garbed herself in the unfamiliar clothes, marveling at their lightness and warmth, and went outside. It was still cold, but she could sense as all Elves could the greening under the melting snow. In a week or two it would all be gone and the trees would appear to be wreathed in yellow-green smoke. As she watched, a squalling cloud of birds thundered high overhead, heading North, swirling and diving like a swarm of bees. Readfah reveled in the pleasure of the oncoming Spring.
Looking around her, she sobered quickly. It had to be even harder on the fully Elven, to have the joy of the stirring season subjugated to the demands of war. Always, the Firstborn were pulled to the rhythms of Arda, always there was the struggle to remain in the present when dreams and memories could invade one even while open eyed. Mortals who experienced the pale shadow of this phenomenon were called woolgatherers and daydreamers; Elves who did not walk the line between both worlds were thought to be ill.
Everyone seemed busy at one task or another, and the one called Elrond was nowhere to be seen, so Readfah talked to Wimowë, then vaulted onto her back. She rode but a little way out of the camp, and not up out of the valley at all. Once the falls had not been as high, the pool beneath them not as deep, and the river was fed by countless tiny springs dotting the valley. But the world had changed, and trees she had known were dead, and springs dried or gone underground, and new trees had come and gone and new springs rose in different places. Different birdsongs came on the faint, cold breeze than she had ever heard, along with some familiar ones, while others she only noticed because they were no more.
Wimowë had a long, swinging stride that covered ground smoothly and swiftly. Readfah looked down at her with approval. She had only acquired the mare two months ago, having come out of Forochel on foot. Though she would not have chosen to travel in winter, her timing couldn't have been better. A small band of horsemen had been sheltering in a patch of woods on their way South, and her first thought was to take a horse from the herd while they slept, for the men were large and fierce looking, and she wanted no bloodshed. But, while she stood watching them from far across the downs, the roan mare had whinnied excitedly and galloped straight towards her. The men roused themselves, prepared to fight thieves, but the small single figure set them at doubt. For long minutes they watched each other, and no one moved but the mare, who trotted up to Readfah and blew the steam from her nostrils into her face. When Readfah reciprocated, the mare nodded vigorously and stood still.
The men began talking among themselves as Readfah started toward them, the mare following at her heels. When she came close, fully expecting to be challenged, they upset her calculations entirely by falling on their knees as one and bowing their heads to the ground.
They offered her the mare without even being asked, and Readfah, never one to question good fortune, accepted. Her confusion was compounded when they finally raised their voices above a whisper and she heard them speaking what sounded much like her mother's tongue, and among the flow of words she caught her name several times.
"Yes, I am Readfah," she had said, and they bowed again. This made no sense, so she smiled, thanked them for the horse, and rode away. It was to be many lives of Men before she ever fully understood what she had seen in that hour on her way to the Imlad Ris.
She heard many excited voices far off, as she rode back to camp. At an unspoken word, Wimowë broke into a relaxed gallop until the tents came into view. Many horses were clustered on the path, with many elves in armor beside them. One of them was Celeborn, a tall elf with silver hair and a serious expression. He was talking to Elrond in a voice barely above a whisper.
"Now we shall see if this thing Gil-Galad spoke of is worth it's salt," he was saying."All we can do is wait and see. If not, we shall be like rats in a cage. They are too close. It is nowhere near over!"
Elrond looked up and spotted Readfah, but there was no time for introductions. Seeing her made him think of the horses. The horses that had not been ridden to battle now grazed on the plain east of the valley, and he had mentioned that to her yesterday."Readfah! The horses! You know where they are..."
The silver haired one grabbed his arm. "There is no time! The protection surrounds the valley only. It would be death to ride for them now!" He stared up at Readfah with the same shock of recognition Elrond had felt. "Who..."
" I need not ride!" Readfah interrupted. Wimowë snorted and danced to one side, her head lowered, baring her teeth and snapping. "Yrch, my friend. You know the smell, eh?" She looked eastward, eyes following the narrow path up into the hills.
She threw up her head and suddenly the valley was filled with her voice, her tongue vibrating at the back of her throat, which was like unto the war call of the Northern horsemen. The newly come elves cried that she was mad, that she would draw the enemy to them. But she sent the cry up twice more, then was silent.
There was the sound of a great thundering, as if a storm hovered over the cliffs. No one spoke for long moments, until Celeborn said, softly, "Look at that!"
First one, then a dozen, then a hundred horses streamed into the valley, and Readfah rode to meet them lest they wreak destruction in the camp. Pawing and snorting, they gathered around her as if they knew her and loved her, and she spoke to them, and straightaway they were calm and put their heads down to search for grass. And she was again lost in her dreams, and did not hear Elrond calling to her.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.