7. Chapter 7
Men and horses alike were clad in rich panoply; jet armor, onyx-handled swords and daggers gleaming with gems, and silver-on-black tabards embroidered with a white crown topped by a star. The same device was embossed in silver on their helms, and their horses, sweating to a froth under the weight of matching armor, bore the finest and most elaborate of saddlery. The men looked proud and fierce, and in battle they were, but now they were weary from their long journey from the coast. Most of them were happy enough to keep their eyes ahead, but not a few looked about them in wonder, for the valley had been invisible to them until the Elves brought them into the canopy of trees at the edge of the clifftops, and suddenly it seemed to them that a wide green vista that had been heretofore unseen unfurled before their eyes. None save a few of the most keen-eyed even noticed Readfah in the tree, and seeing her expression, thought better of a greeting.
Gil-galad had had his way, as he usually did. He had summoned Readfah to his tent that very morning, to tell her just how pleased he was that she had decided to cooperate. He had wisely refused to meet her eyes, choosing instead to polish the head of his great spear, Aeglos, to a fine point as he spoke. He knew it was useless to try and bluff her into anything; it was usually best to be matter of fact and let the chips fall where they would. She rewarded him with a terrible look, and walked out as soon as he had finished speaking, with no reply. He thought briefly of her father and shuddered in thanksgiving that he had never engaged him face to face. According to the tales he had heard, Maedhros had been a savage, and even with one hand had wielded a sword with chilling efficiency. Gil-galad recalled, unbidden, Readfah's face the day she put those horses out of their pain, and knew without doubt that many who had met Maedhros in combat had that same enraged glare burned into their eternal memories as they died.
'And likely by that same blade, if they came too close.' he thought. 'Well, she is not her father, Varda be praised, though I doubt not she would be as deadly in like circumstance.'
His keen ears picked up the sound of many hoofs, and with a sigh, he took Aeglos back to the tent and hung it carefully, point up, from a pegged pole. This was not going to be easy. It never was. There was Readfah now, with a face like thunder, riding up to meet Tar-Minastir's new Master of Horse. Gil-galad gave a sharp whistle, and Raha presently came trotting up, his mouth full of grass.
"Don't you look fine?" The king's expression of disgust was met with a green-toothed grin. Shaking his head, he gave the horse a quick grooming so he wouldn't look altogether disreputable, leapt lightly to his back and hurried to join Readfah.
It was as Gil-galad had feared. Talanzef, the thin, long faced Númenórean horse-master, had taken one look at Readfah's plain, work-stained attire, addressed her as "girl" and had haughtily ordered her to find someone of rank for him to speak to. Now the man was sputtering angrily and picking himself up off the ground where, seconds later, his horse had thrown him. To make matters worse, some of his own men were tittering behind their gauntleted hands. They had heard tales of her, and the phrase "Elrond's redhaired witch" had lost it's savor long ago, so old was it.
Gil-galad silently thanked the Valar for his years of practice. He barked what sounded like a reproof to Readfah, and turned solicitously to the irate horse-master.
"No doubt you and your men want to rest from your journey," he said in a voice so full of sympathy that Talanzef peered at him suspiciously, as if he sensed he was being twitted."Take all the time you need. Food has been prepared and fresh water drawn for you. And, I beg you, take no thought of the ill temper of the Mistress of Horse! She has a wicked disposition and the manners of a troll, but she is without peer at her craft, and will serve his Majesty's men well."
Talanzef had no choice but to bow, but his lined face grew even more grim than usual. He distrusted the Eldar, and, like a growing number of the Númenóreans, envied their immortality. Yet, he was still servant of his own king, and went where and to whom he was bid. He thanked Gil-galad with as good grace as he could, and began shouting orders to his men. Before long, they were all settled in their own tents, and did not emerge again until that evening.
"Manners of a troll, indeed! Someday I will forget you are king!"
"You do that all too often as it is!"
Elrond rode up just then, and laughed as he slid from Han's back near a group of younger elves who were eating their daymeal by a small fire. The arguments between Readfah and Gil-galad were almost legend, and they were listening in without the least embarrassment.
"Hello, Leithel, Arion!" he greeted his two assistants in a booming voice intended to alert the combatants that they had an audience.
"Hello, sir!" grinned Arion, who was a mischievous lad of Grey-elven descent. He thumbed irreverently toward the tent. "He shall win. She almost always gives in when he begins to weep!"
Readfah heard his voice and immediately forgot about arguing. She ran out of the tent to greet Elrond, and he bent eagerly to kiss her.
"Our guests are here, I can tell," Elrond earned a mock slap for pulling the V of her tunic toward him with one finger and peering down with obvious interest at the contents.
"Yes, curse their foul..."
"Readfah!" came a shout from the tent, "Ætstande!"
Elrond jumped. "What was that?"
" 'Cease!' in my mother-tongue," she chuckled. "He has heard me working with some young horses, no doubt." She kissed him again. "I will be back soon. I have a lame one to see to."
Gil-galad peered out as she walked out to the grazing ground. "It worked! I shall have to learn more. Elrond! What news?"
"Dispatches from Celeborn. All is quiet. And, a sweet missive from the Lady Celebrían." Elrond waved the scented bit at the king, intending to tease him, but Gil-galad snatched it away with a quick, deer-like movement and turned his back, ignoring the rest of the papers. He traced the silvered waxen seal tenderly with one finger before breaking it, then stood and read the letter as one mesmerized, biting his knuckle as he did so.
Did his eyes deceive him, or was Gil-galad actually blushing? Elrond stood blinking at the revelation, and a smile played at his lips. Good, he thought, oh very good. He turned back to Readfah, who was almost out of sight. No matter. They would have plenty of time to catch up tonight. He felt himself growing warm.
A few days passed. Readfah rode by the group of cavalrymen she was to work with that morning, better pleased than she had expected to be. Then again, this squad was of nearly all younger men, eager to learn, and far less imbued with the prejudices of their elders. Many had never known Elves, and their curiosity overcame the vague mutterings that they had heard now and then.
Talanzef was ill pleased to see the "grinning young fools" as he called them, lying flat along their horses' backs at a full trot. He did not like the new horses either; being a man who much liked uniformity, he has hissed dangerously when his men were given the varicolored mounts from Readfah's herd. Readfah! He spat the name out. These elven folk were mad. A female, teaching men to manage war horses! Madness! He watched as she put the horses and riders through several varied exercises, then spat again and retired to his tent.
Readfah watched one young man ride gracefully by at a controlled gallop, his feet dropped from the stirrups and his arms folded, not using the bridle at all. He threw a leg over his mount's neck, rode aside for a few strides, then jumped down to the ground and vaulted back on in one smooth motion. She smiled in spite of herself and waved him over to her.
"That was done well," she nodded.
"Your Kapla is well trained, and I have been riding since I was small," he confessed, looking very like how she imagined Elrond might have looked as a boy, with large grey eyes and noble features. His black hair was cropped well above his neck, however, as many soldiers preferred to wear it. Had his ears been more tapered and had there not been a hint of shadow at his upper lip and chin, Readfah might have taken him for a Noldorin princeling.
"What is your name?"
" I am Faramir, son of Orin, Madam," he said proudly. "My father serves as one of King Minastir's secretaries."
Without warning, a shrill, yodeling cry rent the valley, and a thunder of distant hoofs set all the horses on edge, and they began to paw the ground and fidget under their riders.
"What is it, Madam?" Faramir asked nervously.
"I-I don't know," Readfah quivered with a strange, wild thrill she did not understand. "But arm yourselves!"
Elves and men alike came running, snatching up sword and bow at the cry of warning from the Western pass. Shouting, shrill whinnies of horses, and commanding voices mingled from above with the rattle of weaponry. Wimowë screamed suddenly and bolted toward the cliff, hardly slowing down at all as she climbed. She barely noticed Elrond and Han closing behind her until she neared the top and broke through the barrier at the wooded ridge.
There met her eyes a sight she had never dreamed of seeing.
For there in a circle, back to back, a dozen tall, pale-haired horsemen sat mounted, arrows to the string, prepared to die at the hands of the Elven sentinels who surrounded them. Behind them, a great herd of horses, the like of which no one had ever seen, stood as if awaiting a signal to move.
"Readfah!" one of them shouted, and threw down his bow, spreading his arms wide in the universal gesture of surrender. It was a bold move, for Elrond's scouts had been poised also with drawn bows and twitching fingers.
"Blædes Béma godes éadignes, heo ist her! Gem'tanes heo!"* yet another cried, and this one's voice Readfah knew.
"Ux? Ux? Ist éow?"** she slid off Wimowë and waded through the tall grass toward them. The elves lowered their weapons and turned to Elrond, who raised a hand and nodded, without taking his eyes off the strange men.
The biggest one of them all leaped from his mount and in three strides had Readfah enfolded in his arms. Ux looked much as he had the night she left the Northern downs to return to Imladris, perhaps a little older, but then he had barely been a man when they first met. She noticed he still wore the arrowhead she had given him, and though now looped about in leather, a few stray wisps of Wimowë's tail hair remained.
"How good it is to find you! I thought we never would. We have been searching mostly by guesswork."
"And been lost a few times as well!" another familiar voice chimed in quietly. She looked up in time to see Bréalaf bending to embrace her gently.
"But why?" she was shaking with amazement when he released her.
"To bring an offering," he gestured toward the horses. "We do not forget those who have been good to us. These are the firstfruits of your gift to us. These are the best we have. They are yours."
She saw both men pull their eyes from her to look behind her, and she felt the warmth at her back as Elrond slid his hands possessively to her shoulders. At that, it was as if they suddenly realized that Readfah, and the people she lived with, were of a very different kind than they. The men grew silent, but for a whispered word Readfah barely heard, which meant "husband." She did not contradict it, but noticed a faint blush tinting Ux's cheek.
"But come!" she called out before the moment grew awkward. "You will be my guests. That is, if it is permitted?" she asked Elrond.
He hesitated, torn between natural courtesy and gratitude, and the sinking feeling that if many more mortal strangers came to Imladris its description as a refuge for elves would be misapplied. He most assuredly did not like the way they, and that big one in particular, looked at Readfah. Then again, he trusted her, and these were her people - in a way.
"Of course," he said, softening as soon as she looked up to him.
Amid a buzz of conjecture from the Elves - for no one understood the strange language but Readfah - the newcomers wound their way down the cliffside, following Elrond. Readfah rode beside Ux, trying in a few short moments to explain Imladris, and why they hadn't been able to see the valley. They grew silent as they neared the bottom, and the whole of the river gorge spread before them like a.tapestry woven in a thousand shades of green.
Weapons lowered, the men of Númenór, who were camped closest to the pass, stared at the huge, leather-clad Northmen. A low rumble of voices began, and the tone was anything but friendly. Some dared to speak aloud, and Readfah picked rude words from the air - "barbarians" among the least offensive. Her cheeks burned, but she held her tongue, and more than one of Talanzef's men looked at the ground as she passed. The pale haired riders kept silent for her sake, but they were neither deaf nor stupid.
Gil-galad waited at the bottom, eyes wide, wondering what in Arda had she done now? He had already set his weapons aside, it would be too foolish to meet a mere dozen men as if expecting a thousand. And the horses! More horses streaming into Imladris. And these men - rough, travelworn, speaking an outlandish tongue of which none save Readfah had the vaguest understanding - it was too much.
"You must trust me in this, king," Readfah said, even before he spoke, for his face was an open book to her. "They hate yrch as we do, and they are my - brothers - if I may say it. They will bring no harm here."
Gil-galad stared for a moment. "I have ever trusted you, since your return, and I fear no harm from your people." He cast a glance over to Talanzef's camp."But as we know, oil and water..."
Readfah nodded. "They are already aware, and promise no trouble."
Gil-galad nodded, far from reassured, as she rode off with them to choose a campsite, wisely enough, on the opposite side of the valley. It was not the water of the North he had misgivings of, but the volatile cruse of Númenórean oil .
That night, she walked back from the horse camp, bright eyed and laughing, to find Elrond sitting alone near the stream. He looked up at her, the anger in his face plain to see. The valley was not so wide that the sound of singing and storytelling could not be heard, and she had been over there for hours, or so it seemed.
"I thought you weren't coming back," he said, trying and failing to keep his voice calm.
"Don't be such an ass," she began lightly, then stopped, her face growing serious. "Wait, you really thought I would...?"
She sat down and embraced him.
"Elrond...if you had never seen your brother's children, and had the chance, would you not wish to see them?"
His soft eyes met hers, puzzled, but not overly so. "Of course."
"My mother had six children with her husband, after my father died. I have many relations I know not, these men could be the sons of my mother's people and I will never know. I never really thought about it that much until I was with them again. They will die very soon, and already I love them like sons, and brothers and fathers, and I will see their children born, grow old and die, and their children..." she grabbed both sides of her head in a vain effort to crush the whirl of mathematical infinity of which she had been given a glimpse.
Elrond was silent for a moment. "And they envy us..." he murmured.
"Nothing," he smiled. "I'm sorry, I should have known better," he stroked her back with both hands, and she shuddered into relaxation. His very touch was healing magic.
"It is I who should be sorry. I should have brought you with me. But, the tongue...you should learn a few words, anyway.You know, they think you are my husband."
Elrond looked altogether too pleased, "Now why would they think that?"
"I have no idea," she kissed the point of his ear.
"Demoness!" he hissed, pulling her down to lie beside him, pressing against her. She kissed her way down his neck, leaving a trail of sparks on his skin. Moaning, he hurried to unbutton the rest of the tunic.
"You are always so thirsty," she teased.
"Are you surprised? You remind me of that little spring..."
"Why? Never dry?"
"Evil one!" his breathing became irregular, the rhythm of his body on hers more insistent. He captured her mouth and her own heart thumped in anticipation.
"Ic luf' éow," she whispered.
"What?" he panted
"I love you. Say it. Say it or I won't..."
"I - Ic lu - "
"Ic luf' éow."
"Ic - luf' --éOW!"
There was a rush of heat, a shimmer in the grass, and speech of any kind, save that of the heart, was forgotten.
*Glory to Béma-god's blessedness, she is here! We found her!
**Ux, is that you?