3. Chapter 3
His troop had ridden in on the heels of Celeborn's, many of them wounded, often riding two to a horse, weeping with relief as they scrambled to safety of the valley below. The enemy did not follow them, the first wide-eyed arrivals jabbered, but seemed to lose sight of them as they neared the cliffs. Healers flowed from the tents in trained precision to tend the wounded, who tossed and mumbled with waking nightmares. Raised voices, shouted orders, cries of pain and the screams of terrified horses created a hellish din.
Readfah did not at first hear Elrond calling. She had been distracted by the arrival of his horses, but she at last snapped out of her trance and turned to see still more of them pouring down the Western cliff-path. Wimowë, anticipating Readfah's command, wheeled and galloped back to where they gathered, and Readfah slid from the mare's back almost before she had stopped, staring in wordless horror at what she saw. Wounded horses, some with flanks flayed apart, orc-arrows throbbing, jutting from bleeding holes, some dragging limbs, some slowly dying where they stood among those merely frightened and exhausted, pleading with white-rimmed eyes and weakening nickers for mercy. Readfah muttered a curse and drew her knife...
Moments later, eleven horses, their throats brutally laid open, lay dead before Elrond's tent. The shocked elves who saw her stood in silence, all asking the same question: "Who is she? By what authority does she slay our horses even in mercy, and handle the rest as if they belonged to her?" Sheathing the bloodied knife into the ground, she threw them all a contemptuous glance, knowing their thoughts and caring not. She began tearing the face-plates and armor from the other animals and casting all of it into a pile.
"Worry not," she told one soldier who had barely opened his mouth in protest. "Yours has no wound. Rest you."
On she labored until, at a nod from Gil-galad, a few of his soldiers undertook to aid her. She thrust a pail into one pair of hands and, ignoring the indignant sputters, instructed their owner to find a horse making water and catch it, then set it on the fire to boil for a healing ointment. The young elf, one of the King's Captains with his rank insigne barely tarnished, looked at his liege in mute appeal. Gil-galad only nodded again, mouthing the words, "Do it."
"Who is she?" he nudged Elrond, his eyes, never leaving her, alive with interest despite the uproar around them.
"I know little but her name, liege, and that is Readfah," Elrond replied. "Her mother was a 'Rochellon' of the North, her father..."
"...from the look of it, was one of us," Gil-galad finished wryly. "Hmm. Say, my friend, have you any to drink besides water in this place? Even a draft of ale would do."
"No ale, but we have a good store of wine. Healers make fair medicines as well as foul, as we both know." They laughed at that, and Elrond called to a passing esquire and sent him to the stores for a full wineskin.
He had to turn to hide the sudden displeasure in his face as he saw Celeborn approaching. He did not really dislike the tall elf of Doriath, but he knew that he would not give any of them a chance to catch their breaths before he would be chafing to call council. Every army had to have its sticklers, he supposed, and he reckoned Celeborn was theirs.
Gil-galad, briefly diverted by the arrival of the wine, now turned his attention back to Readfah, who was seated on a log by the fire, staring into the pail of horse-water, as if willing it to boil faster.
"At any rate," Elrond was saying as Celeborn came up, "She seems to know a great deal about horses." He realized the words were unnecessary as soon as they left his mouth, for even Celeborn grinned.
"Your pardon, sir," he began after a pause, while Elrond hid a smile. "But there are many matters to be discussed ere we..."
Gil-galad knew there was but one way to deal with Celeborn, and that was bluntly. "We will go into all those matters anon, my good friend, but I need rest. Another drop of wine would not be amiss either." He raised the mug to Elrond, who still absently held the wineskin. He glanced back at Readfah, who studied the simmering pail with an air of absorption. He smiled a little and turned his back on her to go into the tent, heedless of her sudden, baleful stare.
"I know not how it works, but that it does," Gil-galad was saying, hours later, when he called council. "I cannot offer any more than to say that we are safe here in...Imladris," he ran the words together, as Elrond had done when telling him of the name. " There are barriers here, and in the realm of milord Celeborn, whose lady wields a similar ...gift. I will answer no more questions on this matter, for in truth, I know little more than what I have told you."
They had crowded into Elrond's tent, which, despite the addition of two extensions, was still full to overflowing with thirty of the King's officers, and Readfah, who was there at his request. She sat most unwillingly on Elrond's cot directly opposite Gil-galad. Her face was rather too carefully neutral, thought Elrond, who had not known her long, but knew her well enough to know that she was very seldom neutral about anything.
"As to the matter of the horses..." Gil-galad's voice rose but a fragment of an octave, yet enough that any whisperings were silenced. "I am satisfied that what was done, and what is being done, is for the best. You will advise all your troops that the lady..." here he hesitated. The name was quite foreign to his tongue.
"Readfah," she said raspily.
"Readfah, will have complete freedom to do as she sees fit with any of our horses."
"Cook and eat them would be best," she muttered.
"What say you, lady?" Gil-galad's eyes glowed dangerously.
"I said, cook and eat them would be best!" her anger, which had been seething nicely all day, erupting in his face. "Spindle-legged..."
"Those horses, madam, are descended..."
"Ai! You speak truth! Descended! Come down, mean you? Pretty enough horses! You ride to war, not to picnic!"
He blinked, enraged at his own silence as well as her withering appraisal of his cavalry. She strode forward until she stood over him. It had been said of Gil-galad that he could look down his nose at someone even from a seated position. Now, he merely looked as though he was trying to maintain his dignity.
"I work like bee for hundreds of years to make good horses. Give to man, give to elf, what do I ask? One to ride, maybe? So what happens? I come back to find all good horses back with yellowhairs, and elf-soldiers on pretty white ladies' horses! Silky mane get you out from under yrch sword? Pretty face bite yrch bellies out for you? You need good horses, king, horses like my Wimowë. You see what happen with wrong horses! Soldier die, horse die. Not made to fight! You give me time, you will have good horses fit for army!"
Gil-galad stood up to face her. "And how do you propose to do that?" he demanded. His voice had gone deadly soft, and those who knew him knew he could have cheerfully struck her.
"Ah! Do I ask how to get good soldiers? No. I trust you because you know war business. I know horse business. You trust me."
She stalked out of the tent. Accustomed as he was to deference, if not diffidence, Gil-galad so far forgot himself as to pursue her - at least as far as the tent entrance. Then, realizing too late what he had done, he stopped, inhaled sharply, and turned back to the rest of the company who sat tense, silent, and amazed.
"Whatsoever she tells you to do, in the matter of horses, see that you do it, " he ordered crisply, knowing full well he had just been trumped, and he left the tent with no further word.
Readfah sat astride Wimowë among the other horses, out of sight of the camp. She had made a rash promise to the High King of the Elves, and she knew it, but she was determined to keep it.
What she planned to do no one would countenance, least of all Elrond and Gil-galad. She would be leaving the Imlad Ris tonight, and she would be taking, without permission, all the best horses. She would have to ride hard and swiftly, and brave more dangers than she had ever been used to. Once she had known this land as well as she had known her name, but all was changed. When she came back, the valley might be empty again, or full of enemies. But she had chosen to come back to a life seasoned with risk rather than live the lonely existence of the Ice Bay a day longer. A thousand years of Men she had fished, hunted seal, shot click-deer and great white bears, made clothes from their hides and tools from their bones, and lived in mud houses, or those made from blocks hewn of snow. One day, during a bad time when the game had simply disappeared and the dour people of Forochel, as was their custom, did the same, she had felt the pull to go back to the green country. She yearned to ride horses again, and to see her people, no matter the danger. And just like that, with the clothes on her back, her weapons and some food, she began to walk.
And now, though she appeared idle, she was at work, studying the merits and flaws of the Elvish herd. Thinskinned and delicate, yet enduring and intelligent, they were not useless, merely not suited to the climate or the uses of war, and they were too small to carry armor. There was but one use for them, and that would be in breeding herds, to refine the coarseness out of the native stock. If all went well, the herdsmen of the North would be happy to acquire such fine animals in trade, but if not, they would find themselves bereft just the same. Beg, buy, or burgle, Readfah would bring horses fit for an army to Gil-galad.
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