23. Chapter 23
We are back! I have been pretty sick, off and on, and job seeking (and finding) has occupied most of my time these days. Readfah has been busy, as you will see. Do join us and stay tuned!
Mother of Horsemen - Chapter Twenty-three
One summer day Readfah and Ponder sat quietly in a tree overlooking the Anduin and watched as yet another detachment of Eorl's people came down the river path seeking camp on the way to their new home. They had been passing that way for weeks - the Elves complained, merrily, that the paths would never look the same again - and still they came. The Northmen had prospered and increased over the years, and Readfah could not help but be happy as she watched them pass.
At the foot of the tree stood Faran*, her new bond-mare, a large yet speedy blue roan daughter of the Eärroch. In body she reminded Readfah of Felaróf, but in spirit, she was much like her beloved Wimowë, as witnessed by her insistence on remaining by the tree instead of seeking grass even when Readfah indicated she might do so. The many horses that passed sparked the mare's interest not at all, though Readfah was gratified to see that they too had done well.
Readfah had ridden with Eorl and his warriors to meet with Cirion, who granted them the entire section of land from the Limlight all the way to the River Isen, for their own if they would have it. No better land was to be found for horses in all of Middle-Earth, and they accepted their new home thankfully. Readfah remembered how so very different - and difficult - it had been between the two races of Men in the days of the Alliance.
"Cirion gave them Calenardhon....all of it!" she had reported breathlessly upon her return from the amazing meeting between the two leaders, whereat an even stronger alliance had been made. She sat ahorse along with the shieldmaids and soldiers, quiet and hooded, and watched the two noble and kingly men embrace as brothers and swear an oath that might endure test but would never be broken.
But Ponder was saddened, for Readfah had soon announced her plan to leave the Wood and take up residence in the new Riddermark, that the Gondorrim called "Rohan." Eorl and his family were even now awaiting her, resting mere yards from her own talan, and paying their respects at Donnic's cairn.
"Cheer up, my friend! I will be but two days ride away! It will be once again like it was when Gil-galad lived, and the Northmen were our allies and close at hand."
"Readfah, is that wise?" Ponder spoke aloud the fear they all had when she first told them her plans. Some of Eorl's kinsmen were rebuilding for her the remains of a cottage she and Ponder had once discovered on the border of Fangorn, near the Entwash."The Onodrim...there is rumor of their changing...even we must be on our guard."
"I shall not disturb the dear treelings....but you know that I must leave," she reminded him quietly. Though her heart was wrenched when she learned that Taenon had come during her absence to ask her to come back to Imladris, she knew that Elrond himself, in spite of the danger, might make the journey next. "And when I take a husband, he will be of the Rohirrim," she said, using the name she had heard among Cirion's men.
Ponder's lip twitched...noticing that she used for the first time the word 'when' instead of 'if.'
"Does anyone take your eye, then?" he smiled.
"I thought the young one..."
"Oh, no!" Readfah shook her head vigorously. "Even were I so inclined, he is plighted to another. And he is royalty now, don't forget!" she added piously.
"And you are not?" Ponder leaned back on the tree-bole, smiling.
"What is it like, Readfah?" he said after an awkward pause, moving smoothly as the shadow of a cat and curling up beside her.
"What is what like?"
"Being Peredhel," his eyes, half-lidded, mocked her gently. "There are times when you seem just like us, and others when you seem more child of the Mark than the young one himself."
"After all this time you ask that?" she blinked, unsure whether to be annoyed or amused. Ponder shrugged. Time meant little to him.
"Because, when next I see you, you may be wife to a Mortal man...with a belly out to here," he teased, extending his hands as far beyond his own flat belly as he could reach. "He will die some day, you know. And so will the children.Will you follow them?"
The bantering tone was gone, and Ponder's voice betrayed but a hint of a break.
"I never thought about..."
"Liar," he said, bluntly, but without anger. "You have the Choice, have you not? As Elrond and his brother had? You have thought about it, and often, I daresay. I would."
"I suppose I do. But I have already lived so long..."
"What I fear, Readfah, is that your love for whatever husband you choose will sever you from us..."
"You have Isiel," she reminded him. "And your son. I have no one."
"You have Elrond."
"An arrow in the dark! Maybe! Or maybe Gil-galad and I will have forever to watch as the Valar force Celebrían on Elrond a second time! Who really knows what it's like there? 'You may do this, you are forbidden that...you are held to a vow you never wished to take...' "
"Galadriel..." Ponder began, but Readfah fixed him with a stare.
"And she left as soon as she could! Now she may never go there again! She who is as a Queen...while the lowliest Mortal may go where he will, as easily as falling asleep..." she sighed as she remembered Ux, clasping her hand as he bid her his last goodbye. An old man by then, but as cheerful and unafraid on the very day of his death as he had ever been in life. On the other hand, the departure of Elves going West seemed always a time of unutterable melancholy.
"They do not see it as such a gift," Ponder murmured.
"The Rohirrim do. Or more so than other Men, at any rate. They have little fear of death, and tell many stories of the tables at which their fathers sit feasting in Béma's very halls. Why not indeed sleep for a time and wake in Béma's house, rather than take a rocking, quease-making ship to an island where we may not even be free?"
Ponder gazed at her for a moment in silence. "I have never heard you talk this way," he said at last.
"Perhaps I have never before really thought about it. Being able to choose, that is. It hardly seems fair to those without such a choice, you know. Being governed by your natures instead of your hearts." Here she paused, and seemed to dream for a bit. Presently she said, " I'm going to live among them for a long while, Pon', perhaps forever. I truly do not know which path I will take in the end. I do not know why I, of all people, should be granted a Choice, or even why I was granted the life of the Eldar at all. I am not a person of any importance. I am illegitimate. My father was a rebel and my mother, though a medicine woman, was hardly known outside her clan. But it seems to me I should have died ages ago, if I was going to."
Without waiting for a reply, Readfah slid from her perch and onto Faran's back. Ponder watched her ride away and spoke no word to stay her.
The White Council, as the gathering of the Wise was called, had formed years ago when some unseen force had moved them to do so. The Ringbearers had all felt it. It was as if the thought had been planted in all their hearts that the One Ring had somehow been disturbed from it's watery grave and was once again being used.**
It was the first time they met in Imladris, at Saruman's request.Gandalf had merely touched Elrond's sleeve as they stood at the entrance and watched as Galadriel's horse was led away, and Elrond responded with a grimace. It was easier, now, than the first meeting when he had all he could do to be civil, but the resentment still showed or Mithrandir might not have been moved to remind him of his manners! In silence he escorted Galadriel into the Hall where the others of the Council waited.
In an open door near the herbary stood a figure so like to Gandalf they might have been brothers, save that he was cloaked in the soft brown of a hickory shale. Birds flew near and perched on his shoulders fearlessly...even kinds which were enemies in the forest forgot their quarrels in his presence. Radagast rarely spoke, for his love and care was for the lesser - if they might be called so - creatures of Middle Earth. An unwise observer might have scoffed, and considered the gentle Radagast to be a lesser brother himself in this company, but for all his silence he was greatly respected, for his sharp senses were alert as a deer's and as discerning as those of a fox.
Two others of the Wise, Alatar and Pallando, had come and gone a fortnight ago, and did not join the Council. Their mission was to the East, and of the blue-robed companions never another word was heard. Not one member of the Council knew if their quest succeeded, but it was guessed whatever they accomplished had been at the cost of their lives.
Saruman, robed in pure white, arrived shortly before dusk. He wasted little time, insisting that they hold Council while dinner was still being served. Between courses he told of Sauron's latest capture of yet another of the Seven Dwarvish rings, leaving only one free, and urged that the Three be even more closely guarded.Then he surprised everyone by adding:
"Anyone, Man, Elf, or otherwise, who is even aware that the Rings exist, should be brought here," he said, his black eyes piercing Elrond's, which had been reflecting only the candlelight. But Gandalf, who had been watching Elrond also, detected a different, deeper light beginning to glow, and sighed inaudibly, his own eyes narrowing.
Very little else was debated that night, and further talk was postponed until the morrow. Long after the rest of the Council members had been shown to their apartments for the night, Elrond stood out on the terrace lost in thought, gazing at the network of stars over the valley.
"I know what you are thinking, and you must not do it," Gandalf's voice. pitched low, came from the shadows behind him.
Elrond did not waste breath arguing that Gandalf was wrong in his guesswork. "Why not? You heard what Curunir has said."
"Never before have you agreed with all he has said," Gandalf now stood beside him, but Elrond did not meet his eyes nor did he move. "You just want her back."
"Of course I do."
"He is right in one way...all who have touched the Rings are forever changed by them, each in their own way. Círdan...of all Elves he is beginning to show age like a Mortal, for Narya could not consume his spirit so instead turned to his body. Gil-galad forsook the Sapphire to keep Imladris safe, and I deem he would live yet had he kept it, for if the stories are true, for him t'was like armor."
"At what cost would Vilya have left Imladris, Mithrandir?" Elrond asked softly, the mention of his friend making his eyes sting.
Gandalf shrugged."I know not. And Readfah...who can say what the touch of Vilya has done to her?"
Prompted by Elrond's continued silence, Gandalf stepped closer and lowered his voice even further. "She is safest among her mother's kin. We....wizards...are not without flaw, Master Elrond. Sometimes it is those who are granted the greatest power who are flawed the most." He glanced significantly toward the stairs. "She is in Rohan. Allow her the peace to do what she must do to be fulfilled...I think when all has been said, that you wish her happiness above all. The Men of Rohan are like their forefathers of the Mark...stout and worthy Men withal, and Readfah is, I think, the gift of the Valar to them. Let her bear children among them if she may, so that her Elvish blood might be the blessing to them as that of your line was to the sons of Numenór."
Elrond still did not speak, but his heart, though sore, was touched, and at last he nodded. At length he moved toward the stairs, and Gandalf too went up into the candlelit passageway to the rooms prepared for him.
Several moments passed, and there came from behind the hangings near where Elrond and Gandalf had been standing a soft sigh. A tall, white-robed figure stepped forth, gazing thoughtfully at the receding shadows at the top of the stairs, and shook his head. "Olorin...." he said almost regretfully, pulling his robes closer against the night chill. Saruman was still not accustomed to the constraints of such a body and it annoyed him. There was little about Middle Earth and its inhabitants that did -not- annoy him. He could scarcely remember why he had agreed to come here, though at the back of it all was the sense of power and more power. He paid little heed to it, though, save for the satisfaction he took in surprising everyone when he knew more than they thought he did.
"Rohan...." he mused aloud. Someone who had handled the Sapphire lived in the newborn land of Rohan. He had not heard the whole exchange word for word, but he correctly guessed it was that woman Elrond had loved long ago. Such things were ordinarily of no interest to him. The Rohirrim themselves were to him an insignificant lot, save for the fine horses they bred. Still, what his grey-clad colleague had said was true in reverse as well: often those with the least power may prove to be the best - and safest - allies.
"Rohan...." he said again. Perhaps, in time, the land of the Horse-Lords would prove a good place to lay hold of still more power, and, unseen and unsuspected, begin to build a means to at last unseat Sauron...
The gaiety of the Rohirrim as they rode across the windswept grasslands to their new home was infectious. And to while the hours Readfah taught them entire songs of their fathers of which they had only remembered fragments, and stories likewise, so that her company was in much demand around the night fires. It was almost with regret that they reached the spot that Eorl had chosen for his capital.
Edoras, they named the place, and called it a city though it was little more than a cluster of tents scattered beneath a snowcapped mountain. Readfah thought of Imladris in its infancy and smiled. She watched men hewing long beams for a sort of building that would be large enough for horsedrawn wains to be driven into and unloaded, and later would serve as a sheltered marketplace. She marveled at how quickly they worked. She helped women build hen-coops and dairy byres of stone, watched the smallest children while their mothers planned gardens and planted late vegetables. She churned butter and made great wheels of cheese, which they stored to ripen in small, cool caves they discovered in the hills. She rode with the herdsmen and with them marveled at the quality of the grasses on the endless prairie rolling beyond the hills surrounding the blossoming town. The land was perfection.
Eorl's betrothed, Berengitte, a very pretty girl who reminded Readfah of Celebrían in her youth - all eyes and pale, shimmering hair - arrived a fortnight after the first tents went up, and there was a grand wedding feast on the open plains. It was fitting, thought Readfah, that they should wed thus, as their ancestors did when she was a child, surrounded by naught but the waving gold-green grasses, their wealth in horses, and the people they loved. It was a simple wedding for a King and his Queen, but one of the loveliest she had ever witnessed.
Autumn came, then the snows, and Readfah was persuaded to remain until Spring, and finally until the Queen gave birth to a son, named Brego, in mid June. Eorl, only half reconciled to her departure, rode with her for several miles, followed at a distance by two of his warriors and the two young couples who had received the honor of becoming Readfah's householders. A pair of cottages had been built a quarter hour's ride from hers, and their other animals - cattle, sheep, goats and pigs - had already been taken ahead for them.
"After all, why should you go at all, Readfah?" Eorl argued cheerfully. "It is time that you chose a husband, and not many men will come your way if you insist on removing so far from us!"
He was teasing her of course, but Readfah allowed that he was right. Not a few young men, discovering she was not wed, had already intimated that they would not be averse to courting her. And though she made no serious response, she had allowed herself to enjoy the attention.
"I will spend much time in Edoras, young sir," she said lightly. "But I do wish to have my home close to my other kinsmen as well."
Eorl was silent, but he was thinking about Lothlórien, and how it's mysterious aether had affected them during the Battle of Celebrant. Readfah herself was so familiar a friend now it seemed difficult to reconcile the very Rohirric woman he saw before him with the gifted elf-woman he also knew her to be. He surprised her, then, by posing the very same question Ponder had but in different words.
"Readfah....have you hesitated to wed among my people for fear you will die?"
She sighed and shook her head. "I do not fear death," she said, "but the greater pain of uncertainty. Men know their fate, and so do Elves. I do not."
He looked at her with pity then...of all emotions the last Readfah would have ever thought a Mortal would feel for her, and it seemed that a cloud passed overhead. They stopped, preparatory to his turning back.
"I will come to Edoras so often you will beg to be quit of me!" she grinned, and the cloud disappeared.
Eorl threw back his head and laughed his marvelous laugh until the hills rang and Felaróf danced beneath him. "Never!" Then, more quietly, he added, "Béma has given me a great gift in the Kingship of my people, but an even greater one in allowing me to be Readfah's friend."
The silver light of a full Moon and the banked embers of a fire were all that kept darkness from Readfah's cottage one night a few weeks after she came to live there. She had been sleeping soundly, until a footfall, then two, woke her. Her fingers closed slowly around the new handle of the angled blade that had never been out of her sight or reach since she was a child. She sat up slowly, her eyes flicking through the darkness. She held her breath. None of the horses had made a sound.
Her bare feet had scarcely touched the flagstones when her heart leapt at the sight of a tall figure with it's back to her, bent slightly to the fire, and casting a wavering, almost transparent shadow on the floor and walls. It seemed to be trying to warm itself, though the night was mild. Then it turned suddenly to her.
Though she nearly swooned, she saw in less than a heartbeat the slender curve of an Elvish ear in the dim light. He was strangely dressed...yet Readfah remembered garments like his if only dimly. Her breath grew rapid and she gripped the knife handle more tightly. His face was in shadow. He stretched a hand toward her as if he would approach her, but he saw the knife and stopped. He did not retreat.
Then he spoke...
In a halting voice with accents long forgotten, he said, "I have given much and fought much to see you." There was a long pause. "I have not long to speak with you. Do not raise my own weapon against me....daughter."
* OE/Rohirric v. = "Go" suggesting speed.
** This would be the approximate time of Sméagol's fateful Birthday. In the Appendix it is not stated that the White Council was formed AFTER the One was found, but it seemed to make sense for it to happen this way, given the symbiotic relationship of all the Rings. It mentions a couple of times that "The Istari and Chief Eldar" became aware of this or that movement of their enemy over the centuries, but tells of no meetings, so to me, the formation of a Council seems to suggest the first of such. The meeting I describe in Imladris is my own invention, but a plausible one, I think.