20. Chapter 20
Sorry for the long delay! Muse on strike. No longer.
Mother of Horsemen - Chapter Twenty
Eorl's fury had not lessened. He had ridden hard on the heels of the white colt that had thrown his father to his death, and the longer he rode the more determined he was to capture him. He neither knew nor cared who the elvish woman and her companion were. If they thought to stop him they were fools indeed!
Willa's pregnancy had slowed her, and Readfah was content just to keep the men within tracking distance. They had paused for water and a brief rest, for their quarry had taken himself into the foothills below Caradhras, and it was in a small grove by a stream that she found them.
Eorl had dismounted and walked away from the rest of them swiftly, uttering stinging oaths to the air. Neither Donnic nor Hægir remonstrated with him, perhaps knowing from experience the futility of words when he was in such a mood. But Readfah followed him apart from the others into a shaded nook. She did not call to him. In his very movements she could read his overwhelming sadness, and pitied him - wishing she could say something to assuage it. At last he looked up, hands on hips, panting with exhaustion and rage, his very hair trembling like a waterfall of gold. Seeing her standing quietly near, his face reddened and he strode to her, drawing a hand back. As he did so he heard his father's voice - "Strike any woman and you strike your mother!" - a teaching so old in the Éothéod it never needed to be written as law. He lowered his hand with an effort, fist still clenched.
"Why have you pursued me?" he shouted. "You will not deprive me of my right to avenge my father!"
"A horse fears not death, only pain," she retorted levelly. "And I will not suffer you to inflict either on him!"
"You - will not? Who - are - you?"
"I am Readfah," she replied, as she had times without number replied to the same question over the centuries. "And the colt is mine."
Eorl's lip twitched as he looked down upon her - his first impulse to laugh and brush her aside.
"Readfah, is it? And the colt is yours? Well, if you are the Readfah I have heard so much about, then perhaps you will tell me what I must do."
She knew he was mocking her, but she replied in earnest.
"Make him your servant. It is just, it quenches anger and it wastes no life."
"Make him...?" Eorl turned upon her, his expression that of mixed incredulity and scorn. "What can a horse know of justice? If my father could not gentle him no one can!"
"There's where you are wrong. The horses of this line are different. You must speak to him."
"Are you mad?" he was past his anger now, and merely gave in to his desire to laugh.
She still gave him no quarter, and advanced a step, her eyes bright, her brow arched. "I did not live all these years under a bushel, young sir! And I did not survive the Dark One through madness! It is as I say. Speak to him, and tell him he must serve you and why, and he will obey."
He stopped laughing, and blinked. His eyes narrowed with a shrewdness well sharpened for one so young.
"Why would you give him to me, if he is yours? And what if you are wrong...about him obeying?"
Her lip curved upward and the glitter in her eyes became a twinkle.
"I give him to you because I choose to. And if I am wrong?" she shrugged. "What harm in trying, eh?" Then her voice became soft and serious. "If I am wrong, we will eat his flesh, you and I. But I am not wrong."
Eorl shuddered at the mention of eating horseflesh. Had his ancestors truly done so? Perhaps even she...He caught himself looking at her mouth, and with a shock realized he was beginning to believe her.
"Yes, I have eaten many horses," she bared her teeth at him. "Your fathers learned to eat the horses not fit for work. It wasn't a bad idea, when there was need. But now only the Wild Men take the culls of my herd for food."
She saw something in his eyes and smiled. "No, I no longer do so. Spring lamb is more to my taste."
She had read his mind, and not once but twice! His eyes grew round and for a moment, only a moment, he felt his knees quaking...no! There was no place for weakness in him now. He was the leader of four clans, maybe more, if the clan councils had their way. If there was to be a kingship in the Mark it would be his. He straightened and in the next heartbeat found his dignity. There was, after all, little to lose now that the father he had so loved lay dead.
"Now," she said, when she was satisfied that he would at least consider her words, "let me tell you what you must do..."
The colt stood in the open, unmoving, and watched them warily, poised for flight. He seemed to recognize his dam, who stood with the others further off, for he responded to her soft nicker, but he never took his eyes off Eorl, who had dismounted. He walked forward slowly and stopped as soon as he saw the colt tensing to make a break.
"Come hither, Mansbane!" he cried out, "And get a new name!"
The colt's expression told Eorl he was understood. He was bonded to no one, so any name he might have been called was not a true one. His proud head flew up, and he stood very still. Then, to the wonder of the men, the colt stepped cautiously toward the youth.
When at last the colt stood before him, Eorl spoke to him again.
"You threw my father to his death for your freedom, and I would have killed you for it. You may thank the lady you see yonder for your life, for she says you are an honorable beast and must be spared. Therefore, Felaróf* I name you..." he said in a voice loud enough for all to hear, and declared the horse's freedom forfeit in return for the loss of his father.
He then mounted Felaróf and rode him to and fro in the manner of Elves, with no harness or bridle, and, as Readfah had said, the horse was placid and biddable beneath him. They looked magnificent, thought Readfah, watching them learn from each other like dancers taking their first tentative steps together.
Ponder stepped near to Readfah and spoke softly to her while Eorl's amazed kinsmen ran to his side.
"You're going to make him a gift of that horse after all?"
It was hard to tell whether Ponder was frustrated or merely amused. Readfah did not turn at his words, but nodded.
"They are both the first of their lines, so it is fit they should bond."
Ponder had seldom concerned himself with the doings of men. "Do you think that his people will make him their king?"
"Look at him, friend Galvorn!" she exclaimed, as Eorl rode past them at a collected gallop, the quality of both man and beast evident in every sinew of their strong and faultless young bodies. "Look at him and tell me that he is not already King of the Mark!"
Later, Readfah called Willa to her side.
"Yes Mistress?" the mare nodded.
"I wish for you also to go with the Men of the North, along with your son."
"That would give me joy, Mistress, but great sorrow as well, in being parted from you."
Readfah stroked the mare's glossy neck and they stood for a long while, muzzle to cheek, bidding each other farewell.
"You will be treated with all kindness, fear not. I would not part with you otherwise. But, Willa, they need you. A new nation of my mother-kin is soon coming to birth. My gift to their new king must be a rich one indeed, richer than any I have ever given the sons of Men. You carry a sister to Felaróf within you now. Her line with their stallions and his with their mares shall begin the line of the kings of horses. My mother's people called the first sons of the elf-horses from over Sea the Mearas, and so shall the children of your children be known."
The mare then turned and went to stand with her son. Eorl, who was grooming him, looked up, puzzled. But Readfah had walked swiftly away, so that no one would see her weep.
They tarried there for another night, Eorl spending most of that time speaking to his new horse, and Readfah riding hers, for upon learning that she had bestowed Willa on him, and further learning that argument with her was as useless as it was with him, he insisted on giving her Hwistlan, his stallion. She found his gold and white pied coat attractive, his demeanor amiable and spirited, and she was pleased with him on the whole. But she knew that she would not bond with him, for the choice had not been his. Felaróf, on the other hand, had chosen Eorl, even if the choice had been influenced by his sense of duty, and they were well on the way to becoming brothers.
In the morning, as they prepared to follow their separate paths, she embraced them all, one by one. Donnic asked Readfah if they would ever meet again.
"I am no soothsayer, my dear Donnic, but I think we shall, and very soon."
"Think you so, Madam?"
"Yes. Yes I do. It has been long since I have traveled very far, and too long since I have seen my mother's people. In the next year or so, after the foals are come, I will see you again."
Little did she know how true her words were, and still less did she dream of the manner that they would come to pass.
The night seemed darker than usual, and cooler than a summer night should have been. Elrohir pulled his soft, grey finewool cape a bit tighter around his shoulders. He leaned closer to the tiny fire Elladan had started in a small hillside hollow just big enough to shelter them.
"They are denning everywhere," he whispered, more to himself than to Elladan, though his brother looked up through a thatch of shining dark hair, brows raised.
"I don't smell any orcs here...haven't scented them for some miles."
"There are more of them than I remember. Something is far wrong."
"Father will know," Elladan said confidently. "If not Grandmother."
Upon a stout green limb he spitted the young grouse he had shot earlier, and set it to roast. He studied the fine line of smoke that rose, hoping it wouldn't attract anything. He nodded slightly as it meandered into the shallow cave behind them. At last he relaxed.
"If our timing is right we will probably meet Mother in Grandmother's wood," he glanced over with some satisfaction at the horses they had obtained in Anórien. Northern animals, best to be had, the horse merchant had said. Elladan had ridden the very best all his life, and he had merely smiled, but they were certainly good, more than adequate. His own mount had been shot, and Elrohir's sorely lamed in a fierce ambush that lasted only minutes yet left six of their company dead.
Easterlings, their Gondorric friends had called them - with grimaces that had lined faces and narrowed grey eyes to angry slits. They had not declared war, but it was coming swiftly. Ambushes, mysterious fires, an increase in numbers of orcs all pointed to the inevitable. A wave of evil was spreading over the land that seemed to have no single source.
"Yes, she usually does go in summer. It's been two years since we have been in the Wood," mused Elrohir. "Funny, how that seems like a long time."
"We should be there early tomorrow morning, if there is no trouble."
A long silence fell while Elladan watched the bird's skin sizzle and blister over the fire, turning a deep golden brown with a rich smell that reminded him how hungry he was. That morning they had broken fast with a bit of fruit and had not touched the remains of the lembas, the elvish waybread that Galadriel had given them when they last visited her. Still fresh in their mallorn leaf wraps, the cakes had, by mutual agreement, been saved against utter starvation. The sons of Elrond had always been resourceful, and their father's lessons in the finding and preparing of edible, as well as medicinal, wild plants had saved their lives and those of their companions more than once. Thus, the store of waybread was still mostly uneaten.
When the bird was done, they ate it quietly, sipped water, and settled down to rest with no further words. Fleetingly they each thought of how good it would be to be home again, in a comfortable bed and the world outside forgotten for a time.
Home soon, Elrohir thought drowsily. From where he lay he could not see the stars, but he knew they shimmered overhead as they always had. Some things never changed...
The joy that had illuminated Galadriel's face upon seeing Elladan and Elrohir riding into Caras Galadhon had subsided to a quiet satisfaction, but now her eyes held a flicker of confusion.
"Where is your mother? I thought you were to escort her."
"She should have been here by now," Celeborn added worriedly, as he swiftly embraced his grandsons.
"Mother?" Elrohir turned to Elladan, just as confused. "We have ridden straight from the South of Calenardhon, not Imladris. We thought to come here before going home."
Galadriel's eyes met Celeborn's with a shock of premonition.
"There is evil in those mountains now. They are coming through the Redhorn Pass, and that road has never loved Elves. The messages said Arwen would be journeying with her, too."
"The passes are full of orcs! Better they should have come by the river road, or even traveled by water. We will ride straightaway to meet her." Elladan swept past and toward his horse.
"These days they would have done better to stay where they were," Elrohir's expression was grim as he followed his brother.
"You must rest," Celeborn advised. "You look weary, and you must have fresh horses. These look as though you have ridden them to death." Without consulting them any further, he called for food and wine, and sent for two horses.
Reluctantly Galadriel agreed. "Yes, take your ease here for a while. We will all be together soon enough."
"We will rest here, milady," a tall outrider named Cereg called to Celebrían as the horses were called to a halt. Before them, the mountain passes wove up and up out of sight, and she was grateful they would push no further that day. She did not tire easily, but the road had been hard through the foothills, not the wide smooth paths she had been accustomed to take, and they had not made good time.
She dismounted gracefully, wanting no more than a soft bed on which to lay herself. She wasn't even hungry. Those about her could not explain the lady's melancholy, for going home to Lórien was usually an occasion of joy to her. Even her daughter, who often brightened a long trip with song and laughter, was quiet. Only mother and daughter knew a reason for sadness, and for Celebrían it was made yet more bitter by guilt.
She felt selfish and ungrateful, for in spite of loving another, Elrond had given her everything her heart desired. But he could not bring Gil-galad back. Nor could he soothe what she knew to be her vanity and fall in love with her himself, though if he had she would have been horrified. So, she had decided at last to leave Imladris for good. The beautiful home, the loving children, the comfort and safety from the mortal world - none had been enough for her - but how could it be, without her true mate? And what did she hope to find in Lothlórien save the soothing familiarity of her childhood?
"What is that horrid smell?" she wondered as she walked along the edge of a small stream where they had earlier drawn water. Some kind of rot, she decided with a shudder of disgust, but there was with it a burnt-hair odor. As quickly as she had smelled it, it disappeared.
Cereg's face darkened when she mentioned it, but he said nothing, fearing to frighten her.
"Set an extra watch around the ladies," he murmured to two bodyguards, "while I..."
A short, black arrow quivered in his throat and he fell forward into the first guard's arms. There was a whistle, and low cackling noises.
"Orcs!" the guard hissed, lowering Cereg's body to the ground and shielding Celebrían, who had frozen in fear. She had never seen an orc in all her years, so well protected had she been, but she could smell and hear them now. And they were sorely outnumbered. Not even the best of Elrond's guardsmen had a chance, though many orcs died before they did.
They came laughing from the hidden crevices, like a swarm of ugly insects. No no no....her fear mastered her, her teeth chattering, she felt bound and helpless in the long traveling gown. Her legs melted, and she wet herself. The horrid black shapes converged in her blurring sight, but not before she saw the blood spurt from the throat of the last guard between her and death. Another arrow twanged and struck her above her knee, through her skirts, and she felt the blood run.
"Arwen!" she screamed as they took her, their smell burning into her nose, making her chest hurt and her stomach revolt. They were not going to kill her - not right away. They would not even pause long enough to allow her to be sick, and presently her dress was a ruin and she smelled as bad as they did.
Celebrían did not go to her fate easily, and she fought valiantly until, exhausted and overwhelmed, she collapsed and was dragged up the mountainside. She could only think of Arwen, and that her lot would be the same. She was too afraid even to weep. At last they came to a well hidden cavern and she was thrown inside onto a pile of refuse. Her attackers wasted no time. She closed her eyes as they slavered and plucked at her clothing with their filthy fingers.
Oh no no no not like this, and her mind went dull in a futile attempt to shield itself. The long suppressed vision of Gil-galad's last tortured moments of life attacked her mind and lay it open, with Sauron's laughter as backdrop.
Far below the reeking cavern, less than a mile from where Celebrían was taken, Ponder and Readfah were riding back from visiting some of their friends who lived near Mirkwood. They exchanged puzzled glances at the echo of a woman's scream and the babble of voices bouncing from the rocks. Being Elves, and being armed, they turned from the River path and rode up into the hills...
*Felaróf - (OE) fel = skin, hide. ar = honor. óf /of = of or from. In the Éothéod skins were often used as blankets, so this may mean "covered in honor," or, if Eorl was of a more figurative turn of mind he may have meant that he was taking the horse's hide (his physical being) in payment of an honorable debt. Or, it may have been both. Elves were not the only masters of double entendre.
(The "fel" syllable may also have been a slurring of "feld"= field; "field of honor" upon which the horse, having the understanding of a man, was called as an equal to forfeit his freedom to pay for Léod's life.)
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