4. Chapter 4
"Elrond," he began, "you must stop blaming yourself. We were all fooled."
"I think she will come back," Elrond insisted, though in his heart he was sure of nothing.
"I think not. She deceived us..."
"She did not lie!" snapped Elrond, though the fabric of her possible deceits enveloped his mind like a web, he pushed it away impatiently. " I believe she will come back. She would not lie to me."
The emotion playing across Gil-galad's face changed from anger to pity. He had just returned from the Gulf of Lhûn, where another of his officers, Círdan, maintained yet another haven of safety. To his vast disappointment, Elrond had done very little in Imladris in his absence. An air of lassitude hung over the valley, and the soldiers, though healing well, spent too much time in idleness. Even the piles of stones remained untouched, as if Elrond had lost interest in building the house he had long dreamed about. He was thinner, too, and bore the look of sleeplessness that his mortal blood made sharper than if he had been all elf.
Gil-galad's voice was soft with wonder. "You are in love with her, aren't you?"
Having never been in love, Elrond looked up him with a haunted expression. "I know that something changed...in here..." he placed a hand flat on his chest, "the first time I ever looked in her eyes. I thought I was one of those few who would always remain alone, but now, I don't know."
Gil-galad was silent for several moments, and his hand passed over his face and into his long, wavy black hair in a gesture Elrond knew of old betokened deep frustration. "You must try to forget her," he said at last in a voice full of sympathy.
"Surely you see how I have tried!" Elrond rose and stepped to the tent-flap, his fine brows knit into a deep V and his eyes darkened. "Even should the worst come to pass, it will not change my heart."
"You are in the same predicament I am in, Elrond. You are a leader of your people. You cannot always follow your heart." Gil-galad sighed, dreamt for half a moment, then faced Elrond again. "Have you seen the blade she carries?"
That question was unexpected, and Elrond cocked a quizzical brow at him. "Of course. Why?"
"I do not mean the handle, but the blade."
"What of it? It's an odd shape, but..."
"You did not see the proofmark near the haft?"
"I never looked that closely. What of it?"
"It's a Valinorean "M" rune. The blade was made by Mahtan...I know because Celebrimbor had one exactly like it. The last time I saw him alive," Gil-galad lowered his voice, " the night he gave me the rings, I saw it hanging, as if an object of reverence rather than use. I asked him about it. It seems Mahtan disapproved of the forging of weapons, but he knew that anyone could have use for a brush chopping tool or even something to use for defense while hunting dangerous game, like boar. The shape also makes it, coincidentally I am sure, ideal for beheading one's enemy at close range."
Only by a clenching of his teeth did Elrond betray his feelings. He still had waking nightmares where the roar of wind from dying horses' severed throats, the spray of hot blood, and the flash of polished steel arcing from the downswing of Readfah's arm made him sweat.
"Mahtan only made seven of those blades, Celebrimbor told me. Naming-day gifts for his grandsons," Gil-galad went on earnestly.
"She is innocent!" Elrond felt like a fool to still so insist, yet he did, wanting to believe taking the place of believing.
"Our horses are gone!" Gil-galad shouted. " This place is falling apart! Are you so besotted that you can forget what she has done of her own accord, let alone whose blood she may carry? You are no stranger to treachery! Celebrimbor died because he believed blindly in something. I would not see your fate follow his!"
"Nay," Elrond said heavily. "I do not forget, but Readfah is not Sauron."
"Yet her designs may serve his, even unwittingly."
When Elrond did not reply, Gil-galad looked up at him, his sharp, bright eyes searching his friend's large and luminous ones."If it is any comfort, I hope I am wrong. I liked her - quite well. She had...nerve. But I cannot waste time or make decisions based on hopes and neither can you. We must do now on foot what we had hoped to do with cavalry, and we have precious little time to do it. I need your help."
For a long moment, Gil-galad was certain that Elrond would turn away, but instead he sighed, nodded, and prepared to join him. "For," he said with a small smile, " whatever Readfah may be doing right now, it is most assuredly not sitting on her hands. It shames me that I have done little else."
Up through the shadows of the Hithaeglir came Readfah, riding until Wimowë was lathered and the other horses, who had nowhere near her stamina, were past exhausted. She fully expected to be pursued, for Gil-galad, she had surmised, would not take kindly to what she had done.
"Good king," she thought, "with bad side."
There was a scarcity of orcs, which was of course all to the good. The day before, she had bypassed two small bands of them, traveling East. They either hadn't noticed her or had decided one miserable elf wasn't worth getting their heads chopped off. She had swung into a tree on that occasion and waited until they passed, loosing the horses from the mental bond with which she had drawn them, just enough so they appeared wild. Wimowë, of course, insisted on remaining at the foot of the tree in spite of the barrage of chitterings and scoldings raining down on her.
When she was sure that she was not being followed, she slowed the pace, though they moved constantly. Two weeks it had taken to reach the open downs West of the Atan-mere* range, where she had met the herders who had given her Wimowë. Her persistence was rewarded, for all along the windswept grassland was fresh sign of horses: hoofmarks, grazed areas, droppings, bits of hair caught on sawtooth grasses. Within another day, she thought one morning, with luck, she would smell cook-fires, and with the best of luck she would be welcomed as she had been before.
Much later, just past sunrise, she became aware of the sound of heavier hoofbeats far behind and to the right of her, maintaining the same jogging rhythm as the herd. Moments later, another set of hoofbeats joined them, this time to her left. Betray no fear, she thought half aloud, betray no fear. She did not feel that she dared to look behind her where yet another set took up the cadence. No mistake, she was being set up for ambush, the would-be attackers not knowing of her keen hearing. Wimowë began to dance a little.
Suddenly the horses swept left and galloped across the downs at her unspoken word, and there was a cry of surprise from several throats over a rise of ground further ahead. Readfah swung her bow from her back with a war-cry, which to her shock, was answered. She turned and beheld three riders, with looks of consternation on their faces, their great horses wheeling and confused. More reassuringly, they were big, yellow haired men, one looking heartbreakingly like the man her mother had wed when Readfah was still young. It was worth the risk, she decided.
"Wes hael!" she called.
Several more riders, all mounted on horses Readfah coveted on sight, rode up. "Wes hael!" she called again, with as much cheer as she could muster. They stopped, looking at her and each other with undisguised wonder. A fierce looking warrior with flaming blue eyes and a long golden beard rode straight up to her.
"You are a woman? Show me! Uncover yourself!" he shook a spear at her, chin jutting forward in an attitude of challenge.
This order, given in any other tone, might well have been refused by any lady, but the spear he wielded was large and sharp. Readfah pulled back her cape and hood and submitted to his brash scrutiny. He stared at Wimowë a long time, too. Then he backed his horse several steps.
"Who are you?"
"I am called Readfah."
The men fell silent at that, and the long-bearded one stared a while longer. Then, he rode up to her again, and without warning, reached out and gripped her arm.
"You are real," he said, as if he expected her to contradict him.
Readfah looked as startled as he did. "Of course I am!"
He let go and backed away again, eyes still fixed on her face. "Why have you come here?"
"I need horses."
He looked at the Elvish herd. They had stopped running and were looking back at her.
"You have horses."
"Mmm. Not the kind I need."
He stared again, then called out to his men. "Bréalaf! Ux! Ride ahead and prepare a place for us to break fast." Then he turned to Readfah. "You will join us." It was not a question.
Readfah sat crosslegged by the fire and watched as the strapping young fellow called Ux prepared the meal. It was simply strips of some kind of salted and smoked meat, probably boar, cooked in an iron pan, and large slices of bread fried beside it. Readfah was handed her plate first, and was offered a bowl of honey to dip the bread in. It looked as though it had been dipped into many times before, and she very nearly refused, but then reasoned that it wouldn't do to offend them, and that if she could eat the 'givvik'** of Forochel she could well-nigh stand to eat anything. Her own manners may not have served her well at a High-Elven court, but they were refined beside those of the yellow haired men, who washed their food down with great drafts of foaming ale and belched freely, wiping their faces on their sleeves, telling jokes and laughing loudly.
The long-bearded one was called Thúr, and the horses belonged to his clan, of which his father was chief, but was now too old to ride far from home. The other men were his kin, and it was their custom to trade stallions with other herds every two years. If they accepted her offer, it would mean not only a welcome infusion of new blood, but much less work. Readfah forebore to tell him that the stallion trade had been one of her earliest teachings.
Once they knew she was no enemy, they accepted her company as casually as if she had been an old friend. If they thought that there was anything strange about a woman traveling alone, they never said a word about it. Readfah knew that there were other tribes who would have raped her as a matter of course, or at the very least attempted to rob her, but these men were the children of her mother's people, a tribe where women had been respected and were often chiefs of clans. No doubt, their idea of her being a horse spirit helped. They knew very little of elves, but accepted cheerfully what she told them, and pressed upon her another mug of ale.
She then told the story of the elf warrior Gil-galad, who had come from a far land where the horses were fair, but not big enough. These are some of his horses that you see here, she said, and grinned at the thought of the outraged look on Gil-galad's face if he could have heard her. Fine stallions, she said, knowingly. Put with mares like yours, the foals will be even more graceful and swift than the ones you have now. Right now, we need many horses like yours, to train for war, and perhaps if we win, to breed finer ones yet. If you will help me, I will give more horses than I take.
Bréalaf, the one who looked so much like her mother's husband, considered her words carefully. His voice was deep and quiet, as her stepfather's had been; it was plain that he rarely spoke without thought. "We have horses we would trade with you, but we have not enough. There are other herdsmen who have the kind you seek, but I cannot say they will be willing to part with them."
"There is one thing I could try," she said conspiratorially, and with eyes ever widening, the men listened to her plan.
And so, Readfah embarked on her career as horse thief. If a herdsman was willing to trade, the trade was made and no further action was taken, but, if he proved stubborn or worse, disrespectful, she would ride along the outskirts of the herd as if going home, and one by one, the horses she chose would simply leave off grazing and fall in behind her as obediently as sheep. In the same manner, the horses she had brought to trade would drop back and stay behind.
It never ceased to amaze Thúr and his men, who swore to all who would listen that this was 'the' Readfah, the one of whom the tales told, and that she could do anything with a horse. In one village, where the trading had been good, she joyfully watched pale-haired children showing off on their ponies for her, but then was moved to tears by a group of women who excitedly led her to a shrine next to the common well. Inside a small stone grotto there stood a very old, well-wrought sculpture of a woman with clearly elven features, astride a great horse, her hand lifted in benediction.
At night, when the stars were out, they sang ballads and told tales, and seemed to take the greatest pleasure in concocting ridiculous falsehoods about their own exploits for amusement. Readfah innocently asked the meaning of the phrase "fish story" and they whooped with laughter. It seemed to have less to do with fish and more to do with battles won singlehandedly, amounts of ale drunk, and numbers of women courted than anything else.
Through Midsummer they traveled from place to place, most of the time obtaining horses lawfully, but sometimes not. They didn't always get away with it. Once, Readfah had to endure the indignity of having an arrow removed from her backside by the ever-versatile Ux, who immediately afterwards proposed marriage to her. Through their roars of laughter, the other men warned her not to say yes; for she would never be sure whether Ux felt constrained to propose for having breached her modesty or because he was impressed with the roundness of her bottom. Readfah blushed deeply, Ux did the same, and the matter was not mentioned again.
There came a dawn when Readfah knew she had lingered long enough. With a pang, she realized that she probably would never see these men again. She sat long, watching as they slept, knowing she was doomed to be forgotten. Not by these men, or their children, perhaps, but their grandchildren, in just a few short years, will have thought of her as yet another of Grandfather's tales. There was nothing she could do about it, either. Readfah had accepted this state of things long ago, and being among men always left her sad in the end. Yet, she felt a pull towards them, and that was her fate.
As she had slipped quietly from the Imlad Ris, so she rose to leave before they woke. Having nothing else to give, Readfah drew an arrowhead from the click-deer quiver, and braided a few of Wimowë's tail hairs to form a necklace which she placed around the sleeping Ux's neck. Smiling at his innocence, she kissed him very gently on the cheek.
"Remember me," she said, stroking his long golden hair, and wiping away a tear at the thought of his honest proposal. Her first. She closed her eyes with a wave of warmth stealing over her. She bent and kissed him again, on the lips, then swiftly left the circle of firelight.
She swung aboard Wimowë, who seemed to be waiting expectantly for her, and the new herd of warhorses followed them through the waving grass into the shadows of the mountains.
Gil-galad sank back onto his cot, groaning. "I think milady Galadriel has designs on me."
"What?!" Elrond looked up in shock from the herbs he was sorting, just saving a parchment full of seeds from spilling.
They had received word that Galadriel was taking advantage of the warm weather and the absence of orcs on the paths between them to visit Imladris. Though Celeborn had protested weeks ago, when she had first proposed the trip, for reasons of safety, she sent couriers ahead to apprise (Celeborn had used the word "warn") them of her imminent arrival.
"Oh, not for herself, of course, but for the daughter."
Elrond quirked a brow and went back to work. "Mmm...I've never met her."
"I've only seen her once," Gil-galad groaned again.
"What's the matter? Has she Celeborn's face?"
Gil-galad stared at Elrond, still bent over the trays of seeds and deliberately avoiding his eyes. But he could not help pulling the corners of his mouth down and raising his brows which mimicked Celeborn's habitual expression so mercilessly that Gil-galad roared with laughter, something he had not done for far too long.
Hiccoughing, he wiped his eyes. "Nothing so dreadful! Celebrían is much her mother's daughter, though her hair is far lighter. Grey eyes, small figure, really lovely, but deadly solemn, and quiet.And there is the matter of kinship. Nothing unlawful, Galadriel would not go that far, but it is a bit close for my taste."
Elrond shrugged. "She may prove a foil for you."
Gil-galad snorted."You sound like a statesman! A bed shared in silence would not be to my liking! I think the girl was afraid to talk. She has likely never been far from her mother's knee."
"Wait a moment! Bed? Has she actually opened negotiations with you?" Elrond was horrified. Even among royalty, Elves had always done their own courting.
"No, not really. But I suspect she would like nothing better than a contract."
"Something is strange about all this," Elrond sat back, looking pensive. "I didn't think Galadriel liked you all that well."
"She does not," Gil-galad sighed. "She liked me even less when Celebrimbor actually listened to her and gave me two of the rings. I'd say she's cursing herself for suggesting it. She really expected to be given all three, which he was about to do - hard to believe considering how she treated him. That's what this is all about, you know. The rings." As usual he lowered his voice when talking about them. "She has the idea that she can trade her daughter for some control over the ones she gave up. Apparently, if the rings are used in concert, they are more powerful. And you know, she is as ambitious as it is possible to be. I am grateful she is an ally, and she is powerful in her own right, but she is a - difficult - friend."
Elrond smiled sourly at the uncharacteristic understatement.
"Does she know you gave one to Círdan?"
"No, and I wish she didn't have to know. I may not have the greatest gifts of diplomacy, but I do have some," he grinned ruefully. "Círdan would immediately tell Galadriel what she could do both with the ring and her daughter, and we would end by warring among ourselves."
Elrond found the whole business distasteful and was glad he was well out of it. He far preferred reading to fighting, and the science of healing to the art of politics.
"When is she arriving?"
"The couriers got here an hour ago, so I imagine she will be here this evening."
Elrond scowled but said no more. Gil-galad closed his eyes drowsily and for a few moments there was no sound but the distant splash of the falls and the flapping of the tent walls as a warm breeze stirred. From up above the falls, a bird called insistently, its throaty vibrato growing louder with repetition.
Gil-galad sat bolt upright in time to be showered with thousands of tiny seeds as Elrond jumped up with an intake of breath and flew out of the tent. "What is the matter with you?" he growled.
He followed Elrond at a much slower pace, still shaking seeds out of his hair. Elrond was just standing a few steps in front of the tent, mouth open, and tears flowing soundlessly. Gil-galad looked up and blinked hard. There, coming down the falls path in single file, were many horses. Big, tall, hardboned warhorses of many colors, with faces like eagles.
"You would be angry and say no either way, ask, not ask," Readfah smiled at Gil-galad, who could not forbear to smile back. "So, I take them. Many of new ones are mares with babies inside. We will have many more soon."
She spoke with difficulty, for Elrond could not be persuaded to stop hugging her. He stood behind her, his arms around her shoulders, his chin on her head, grinning like a puppy.
"Where did you get them?" demanded Gil-galad, gazing up in awe at his new mount, a huge black animal who bared his teeth at him and nodded. Readfah had insisted that instead of choosing the horses that appealed to them, that the soldiers adopt the horsemen's custom of walking among the herd and allowing the horse to choose. This menacing-looking creature had already bitten Gil-galad twice, but would not leave him, and stood nearby as if awaiting orders.
"He did not mean harm," Readfah said airily, when the king swore and glared at the horse, who raised his head and looked sideways at him in the horse equivalent of hearty laughter. "He wants you to pay attention to him. Now, king, there is a horse that will make you feel like warrior!"
"Doubtless," drawled Gil-galad, trying to reconcile himself to a horse with a sense of humor that matched his own. "But, you did not answer my question. Where did you get them?"
"Long story. Traded with Men of North for some. Others..." she let her voice trail off.
"You stole them?" Elrond spoke up, amusement in his voice, while Gil-galad's jaw dropped and his mind raced at the thought of war with hordes of angry Northern warriors.
"Some might say yes," Readfah shrugged, gazing out onto the new herd. She watched the new bonds being forged with the elves who wandered among them, with a deep sense of satisfaction. "But no. I cannot steal horses. You see," she turned to them with a warm smile that made her beautiful, "they are all mine."
They walked back in time to see a commotion near the tents.
"By Varda, she's here!" Gil-galad whispered.
"Who is she?" Readfah stared as a strikingly lovely elf-woman with hair like light itself alighted from a small, fine-boned grey mare. "Is that Queen?" she asked, her voice low with admiration.
"Nay," Gil-galad said quickly. "That is the lady Galadriel, milord Celeborn's wife. The other is their daughter, Celebrían."
The latter was helped from her horse as her mother had been. As Gil-galad had said, she was very tiny, with hair like polished mithril. She looked around her, her large eyes timid as a deer's.
Both women were attired in elaborately embroidered grey gowns, trimmed in silver. Their hair had been coiffed for the trip, under silver nets. The officers of their retinue were clad in vermeilled armor overlaid with the arms of the House of Finwë, and bore golden shields. Readfah had never seen such splendid clothing, and hung back when Elrond and Gil-galad urged her forward.
Galadriel turned to greet them, and her smile froze. There, between The high King and his vice-regent was the face of an old enemy, in the shape of womanhood to be sure, but the old hatreds and horrors still burned as if fresh. Celebrían's quavering "Mother?" went unanswered save for the single word, "Kinslayer!" which issued from Galadriel's mouth like a serpent's hiss.
* Atan-mere, -mereth, lit."where men feast," fig. "hunting grounds," later the Ettenmoor range of mountains. So named by elves, as one of the many places where Men awoke in Middle Earth.
**"Givvik" from the Inuit "giviak," a delicacy prepared by skinning an entire seal through the mouth cavity, and stuffing the remaining blubber-lined bag with fully feathered, ungutted young auks which are killed by crushing their hearts with a thumb. This whole business is left to ferment several months, and is offered most usually to honored company. The birds are eaten, whole and uncooked, innards and all, directly from the seal.
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