9. Chapter 9
Mother of Horsemen - Chapter Nine
Readfah had only seen Gil-galad wear the coronet of his office three times: once when he rode to the last battle, again when he received the first envoys of Númenor, and now. His face was drawn and serious, and he would not meet her eyes.
"You know there was something strange afoot, you said yourself that you felt a heaviness in the air, as if it were about to storm," Elrond reminded him. Gil-galad shook his head wearily. He knew as well as Elrond that some wayward magic had touched them in the past few days; Celeborn's strange, overly light mood, his own sudden surge of feeling for Celebrían (though he admitted that he had felt that before, and it hadn't gone away) and the more obvious, if far more temporary change in Readfah, as if her father's spirit, at its angriest and most murderous, had ricocheted around inside her like a captive bolt of lightning. Whence it had come, and why, was still a mystery.
"None of that will carry any weight with Mortal men! One thing only will prevent disaster - our laws prevail here. Have no fear for her, my friend, rather, concern yourself with what will happen to the alliance... Minastir allied with us because we have a common enemy, not for any great love for us. I don't have the freedom of saying 'good riddance' to them, as much as I would at times like to. It must be his choice to leave."
Gil-galad sighed as he peered out of the tent. "They come. I take no pleasure in this, please know that. But I fear that all we will accomplish here today is the trading of one thorn in our side for another."
The morning grew warm early, and the cloudless sky promised another dry, late summer day. Only small changes - unseen by mortal eyes - presaged Autumn, still many weeks away. Differences in birdsong here, the turn of a leaf there, the ripening of a certain berry...the elves were the only ones whose very bodies felt the smallest of changes. This morning, change lay heavy in the heated air, and everyone felt it.
Most of the elves who had no pressing duty took to the trees, or perched behind the fluttering pennants marking Gil-galad's tent. The Northmen stood ranged around Readfah like a grim promise of retribution, a crescent of gold opposite the sea of dark Númenorean heads. To her surprise, Faramir stood beside her, his eyes red-rimmed, newly pulled threads on collar and sleeves where the devices of his rank and House had been sewn.
Elrond stood to the king's right hand, staring straight ahead, keeping tight check on his anger. How dare they come here in their arrogance, and bait and bait and bait Readfah and her kinsmen, and expect them to remain silent forever? Celeborn stood to Gil-galad's left, all the light gone from his eyes. True to form, he expected the worst and was prepared for it.
Readfah spoke first, and briefly. She did not speak of the provocation, but readily admitted that she threatened to take Talanzef's head off.
"Do you still wish to do so?" Gil-galad asked.
"No, my lord. Had I so wished, I would have done so."
Ai, but she was blunt, thought Gil-galad, trying not to wince. He knew that whatever his decision, it would meet with disapproval from one side or the other. The Númenoreans were already muttering that it was unfair for him to judge a matter involving so close a friend; the elves maintained that only the king had the right to do so; the Riders just liked his honesty.
He listened patiently to Talanzef's far longer account of the matter. He seemed more upset over the defection of Faramir than at having his life threatened, which made the elf-king wonder if he were not used to such threats. It was not hard to imagine him taking perverse pleasure in ripping the badges from the young man's overtunic, shaming him before his assembled troop. Feelings on the Númenorean side were mixed - natural affection for a likeable fellow-in-arms warring with a tradition of rigidly instilled discipline which Faramir, justly or not, had disrupted.
From the horsemen's side came a soft, steady murmur as Readfah translated. To a man, they thought Faramir ill-done-by, and their silence was unnatural and forced. They were used to airing their opinions freely and loudly, and brawls, even at executions, were not uncommon.
"I have not final authority in the matter of Faramir son of Orin," Gil-galad spoke at last, after a lengthy deliberation, "save to remand him to your martial court in Númenor. But in the matter of Readfah daughter of Maedhros, I deem that there has been no crime committed beyond some hasty words which have not been repeated and have since been repented of."
"She threatened to take my head off!" Talanzef protested, above an angry rumble from his men. Though many disliked him, they were loyal, and stood behind him. "I might have known the prick-eared ones would band to defend one of their own!"
"Aye! Especially one who warms the bed of a vice-regent!" jeered a voice from the crowd.
Gil-galad bridled at the insult, and Elrond's eyes went black with fury, but before either could speak, and to everyone's amazement, the normally circumspect Bréalaf stood with raised fist and outthrust chin, and turned on the horsemaster. His deep, rolling voice enunciated each syllable to leave no doubt as to his profound disgust, even to those who did not know the tongue.
" Min eares ista nic ordlice, ic willa bestand' Ælf-cyning ilcade'! Cearo ic hab' Readfah nic beheawa éower wierg'idel heafod, whaes modor asettet mid hunden! "*
All eyes turned to Readfah. Hoarsely, she translated. "He says -his- ears are not pointed, and he would stand with the Elf king all the same."
"He has said more than that!" some of the black-clad men called out. "What do you hide?"
Readfah blushed, but met Talanzef's eyes unflinchingly. "I will not repeat it out of respect for both our kings..."
"Hovnizh!** I will say!" young Sig called out impulsively, shouldering his way past the elders. He felt they had been silent far too long. "He says he is sorry Readfah did not relieve you of your damned worthless head, and your mother must have lain with a dog..."
Readfah and Gil-galad simultaneously groaned while Hulwyf swatted at Sig in a halfhearted attempt to halt his tongue. Elrond bit his lip until he tasted blood but could not keep his shoulders from shaking.
"You make light of this?" Talanzef shouted at Gil-galad.
"I do not, sir!" Gil-galad retorted coolly. "All I can see is that we have come to an impasse. You have made known your dissatisfaction with our ways since your arrival. There is but one solution that will not brand you an utter failure in your prince's eyes, and that is to take all your men who feel as you do back to your settlement and choose there replacements who are more at ease with us."
"And so you intend to do nothing with this...female?" Talanzef gesticulated at her with ill concealed hatred.
"Of course I will, if you insist. She can be banished from Imladris."
Ux growled an obscenity after Readfah's soft translation, but Gil-galad raised a hand for silence.
"However, I should remind you that yet another scandal involving a woman, however different from the last, is not likely to sit well with his Majesty."
"Cursèd Elf!" Talanzef jumped up with an indignant roar. "No justice shall we ever see from you!"
He knew Gil-galad, and he would gloss over nothing in his report to Tar-Minastir. The horsemaster's reputation was already in tatters with the king over some mysterious and rumor-shrouded affair at the Havens of which he hadn't even been aware until it was over. That unawareness cost him a large fine and a severe censure from the king himself. This latest failure to get along with their elven allies was sure to bring about at best a ruinous demotion.
"You have my permission to depart at any time," Gil-galad replied with the courtly yet maddening smoothness that was his trademark.
"So be it, but I warn you, this is not the end of this matter. I may not gainsay you here, but my own king may withdraw his support altogether when he sees how we are used, and it will pleasure me to see the last of your kind!"
Gil-galad merely inclined his head in acceptance, but in a way that left no doubt of his true feelings. Minastir was no fool, and was not known to go back on his word. As it was, it would be deep winter before any word would arrive from Númenor informing him of any changes of policy. In the meantime they would be rid of Talanzef and his nasally voice, and to Gil-galad - who, after all, still thought like an elf in spite of hundreds of years knowing the ways of men - that alone would be worth the trouble.
The Númenorean troop was given orders to be ready to depart by daybreak. Talanzef had apparently decided that he would risk what was left of his reputation rather than to leave men behind who might, under Readfah's teaching, rise to supplant him. Already he had memorized his own highly colored version of young Faramir's treachery, to be presented with all sorrow to Tar-Minastir and the boy's father. He might not himself keep his position, but at the least, one of his loyal men would likely be chosen to replace him, rather than following the revolutionary Elvish notion of choosing a leader on the basis of merit. Faramir, not he, would be sweeping the stables under the king's watchful eye in a few weeks.
Quivering with disgust, he watched Gil-galad, along with Readfah, Elrond, and Celeborn, sitting in council with those shaggy, uncivilized brutes from the Northern outlands. No doubt the Elf-king seeks to discover what use he can make of them. Grudgingly, Talanzef admitted, if only to himself, that in greater numbers they would make formidable allies indeed, if they could ever be forced to discipline. Their way with beasts was second only to that of the elves. Elves! Curse them all...what had they ever done to deserve to live forever? They weren't any better than they had to be, and many were much worse. In Talanzef's eyes, they were quite simply lucky, favored of the powers for some reason he did not and could not understand. Gil-galad, in his opinion, had been as biased as Talanzef had known any elf would be. Trust an elf? He would sooner trust an untrained pup with a dripping bit of fresh liver. Oh, yes, they can fight, and their hatred of the Dark One was unyielding. But they would as lief save one of their own as twenty of his. He had seen that for himself today.
"We have no doubt as to your loyalty, Hulwyf son of Hegewyl," Gil-galad was saying, "And there is no doubt as to your fitness to do battle. But you have said yourself, your people are scattered, and under the chieftainship of many. Unless all who are of like mind should gather, and make their homes within a day's ride of here, or of Lhûn...I cannot see how..."
"King's business it is to know when to send for men to fight. We live many leagues hence, yes, but we have learned a way to muster at need. We have ever fought the Dark One. We and our sons and our sons' sons are pledged to fight with you until he is no more."
Ux spoke next. "It is our legend that Béma brought us the first of the White Stallions from over the Sea, and Readfah taught our mothers and fathers to be as kin with our horses. Not all our people remember her, but our clan did, and shall continue to do so. The arms of all our Houses bear the device of a white horse, and the green land from which he came, though each family has its own mark besides. From this time forth, our family will bear a token of red, for her hair, and so shall our shields be redº. This will be known to you as the mark of the Elf-king's riders, whereby you shall know us."
Gil-galad was deeply moved. "My friends, I will hold you to no obedience, but only loyalty, for your people fight best without constraint. You shall be as raiders rather than soldiers, and will go to and fro at your will, and answer to yourselves. As for me and my House, if I do not meet death, I will account your people my friends forever, and we will account the Mark as a token of that friendship."
He stood, and gave each the warrior's embrace. And the Elves who witnessed it knew that the word "Ridder-mearc" (though its meaning might change or be forgotten over time, as do all things that concern the sons of Men) would not die until long after Elves walked no more in the world East of the Sea.
Late that evening, as the shadows disappeared and twilight deepened into dusk, Readfah left Elrond working with Gil-galad on the necessary dispatches to be sent to Tar-Minastir, and walked out under the trees. A thin sickle Moon hung high, just grazing their tops. Sighing, she began to pull herself up into one, when a familiar voice behind her spoke softly.
"Do not do so, Lady, for then I shall have to speak louder than I would to be heard!"
She dropped back down, and turned to face Faramir.
"Aren't you in enough trouble already?" she whispered. "I thought you were under arrest!"
"Nothing so bad...yet. Come, walk a ways with me. I would tell you something."
"What is it?"
He brought a finger to his lips, his dusky eyes flickering toward the lamplit tents. "I'm not going with my troop tomorrow."
"You are not deserting?" she had the thought to whisper, for this was a crime indeed.
"Shh! Come! I will tell you all when we are further away."
Presently they reached the large clearing where Readfah had first met him, riding Kapla and impressing her with the grace so rare among his fellow soldiers. Her heart hammered, for she had grown fond of the young man, and had grieved over his loss of honor, however just it may have been in the letter of the law.
She had yet another shock when she saw Kapla tethered nearby in a dark, wooded nook, tacked as for a long journey in Northern gear, and two more horses she knew belonged to Hulwyf's esquires, Losian and Efstan. She turned to him with fear and questioning in her face.
Faramir spoke quietly and quickly. "The elder, Hulwyf, approached me last night, and offered to send me to his home with his servants. Wise father...he knew what they would do to me. My life in Númenor is over, Madam. Talanzef cannot afford to take the blame for another scandal. He is already in bad odor with our king...no one has ever really explained the death of one of Círdan's servants last year, only that his captains knew more than they were telling. It was a maiden, which made matters worse. We are not permitted to set foot in the havens of Lhûn now, by order of Círdan himself, and must sail from Harlindon. Talanzef would send his own mother to the gallows to save what little honor and position he has left, to say nothing of an insignificant lad who rides a horse better than he does..."
Here his voice broke, and Readfah held both his hands in hers, determined not to show the pity she felt, for the pride of Westernesse was as hot in him as in any of his comrades.
"So, he would use you to shift the king's eye from his own incompetence!"
"It goes deeper than that, milady," he continued, when he had mastered his voice again. "There are many of our people who envy the elf-kin. Talanzef is but one. There are certain of our lords who rail against our forefather Elros, and who swear someday to take for themselves the deathlessness he rejected."
"But such a thing is madness!" Readfah blurted out. "They can no more change from man to elf than a wolf can change into a deer!"
"They think they can. They think that because the Half-Elven had a choice, that they should, too, even if they must wrest the life of the Eldar from the Valar themselves! I myself would not choose to live forever..."
"Then you are wise for your years. But what has this to do with you, now?"
"I will not go back to Númenor! Even were I not in this scrape, I fear with all my heart to go back. I will not watch as the rebels grow ever more hateful and overweening, and know that my children's children are doomed. I will leave it behind, and cast my lot with men who are not afraid to be men, or to die."
"Not afraid to die, stripling?" drawled a voice from the shadows. "All to the good!"
Readfah froze, and Faramir went white. Captain Gimizor stepped out from the darkness into the little light that was left. His sword was drawn. "I would hate to think that as well as a traitor I was bringing a coward back to face his father and his king. Yes, I watched you bring your horse here. I let you do it, the more serious a charge to set upon you. I knew you would try to escape, but you shall not."
He turned his eyes to Readfah, and the hatred in them did not diminish, though an uglier fire waxed hot. He had despised her ever since the day she had humiliated him before his men. "As for your lady friend, she wants to watch that she makes no sudden moves, if she does not wish to learn my opinion of what women are for."
"You!" Faramir's voice was hoarse with loathing. "You are the one who killed Círdan's maidservant!"
Gimizor shrugged."Perhaps. Perhaps not. There were quite a number of us after all. Elf women are terribly...weak."
"Does Talanzef know?" Faramir whispered.
"I know not and care less!" Gimizor grinned. "He has dug his own grave with his weakness and indecision. Minastir shall demote him to a stablehand, if he is lucky. But you, my young friend...I believe we will see you upon a scaffold." He smiled again, as if the thought pleased him greatly.
There was a sharp hiss, and they all looked up to see Ux running swiftly toward them with sword unsheathed, feet as noiseless as an elf's on the soft turf. He was clad only in breeches, the braids of his pale hair dancing across his bare back, his eyes a blue fire.
"Ridan, cnihtling!"*** he cried to Faramir, "Ride! They will not let you live!"
Gimizor spun on him with a furious oath, his sword raised. Ux crouched, teeth bared like an animal snapping a challenge, his own heavy, rune-scored blade an effortless extension of his big right arm.
Readfah tried to urge Faramir away, but he broke from her and drew his own sword. "Nay, lady! I will not let another man fight for me!"
Gimizor sprang toward her...outnumbered, he had mind to seize her as a shield, but she pulled her own blade, short as it was against a sword, and stepped aside. There was a clash, a cry, and a gurgle, and all went black for her for a moment.
When her eyes opened again, she was leaning on Ux's chest, and Faramir was opposite them, staring at the ground, his eyes wide and his sword dark with blood. She looked down, and saw that her knife was unstained.
Gimizor's body was still twitching, lying sprawled at Faramir's feet. His head, however, was nearer to Readfah, staring up at her with a look of slight surprise, as if someone had told him his boot was unlaced. He looked more human dead than alive, and she was shocked to find herself feeling sorrow that things had come to such an end. Readfah had killed orcs, but never a man or elf, and she kept looking at the head, 'here,' and the body, so inexorably 'there', and trying to speak, but words would not form on her lips.
It was Faramir's first kill of any kind, and he was numb with shock, the idea coursing through his mind that now he was traitor indeed. No matter how wicked Gimizor had been, no matter how wrong, he had still been Captain, and Faramir had been bound to obey. His first kill, one of his own people. No! No longer! Now an exile...a fugitive.
"We heard talk," Ux panted. "They planned to kill you before you reached your home. Now will you ride?" Ux's tone was more exasperated than anxious. "No! Leave the sword here. We will provide you with another! Go! Go! Now! Efstan and Losian are waiting for you! You are one of us now! Ride!"
Faramir took a last look at Readfah, and embraced her quickly, "I shall never forget you, Madam!"
"Nor I you, child. Béma guard you until we meet again!"
Faramir vaulted onto the horse, and met the other two at the bottom of the Eastern pass. They were soon out of sight, and Readfah bowed her head and wept. Ux took her hand and urged her away.
"My lady, there is no time for that...he will soon be missed. You must not be found here! Come!"
"He is dead?" Hulwyf asked grimly. "That is well. Are they pursued?"
Readfah had expected the camp to be in a turmoil, but the horsemen were surprisingly calm. "No," she managed to choke. "No, he was alone."
Hulwyf grunted a reply. "They talk much around us. They did not bother to lower their voices, thinking maybe we did not understand. They planned to kill the boy somewhere between here and their ship, and take back the tale that it was he who killed the maiden at the harbor. I know not what they meant by that."
"I do," Readfah nodded, "go on."
They all looked at each other uncomfortably for a moment. It was Ux who spoke at last.
"They planned to...misuse you... then kill you to stop your tongue, and swear that the youth had been guilty, of both your murder and that of the other woman. They were going to execute him and swear he tried to escape. That way they could restore their good names with their king and no doubt be free to continue their crimes."
"Gil-galad must be told," Readfah shivered. Suddenly she wanted Elrond, badly - wanted the luxury of weakening, even for a moment, in his arms.
As if in answer, he swept to her side and embraced her without a word. Behind him, Gil-galad stood, and to their surprise, Talanzef. Bringing up the rear was Sig, who at Hulwyf's word had run to the main camp as soon as Faramir had escaped.
"We have had our differences," Talanzef spoke first, squatting opposite Readfah and looking directly at her, "but Captain Gimizor was a rebel, and asked for his own death. The boy did it, say you?"
"Yes," came the muffled reply from Elrond's arms. Elrond himself glared at the horsemaster, but Talanzef only gazed into the fire.
At last he looked at Gil-galad. "We will take our leave at dawn. I shall be sorry to disappoint our king, but..." here he sighed aloud, "...I do not think Men and Elves can live together."
He rose and addressed Readfah for the last time. "I will hold to your teachings, Madam. That much I can say. There are worthier men to hold this office than I."
He turned as if to leave, then back again.
"We will not pursue the boy. If ever you see him, say that Talanzef son of Tezal begs his pardon."
He bowed formally, then was gone. None of them ever saw him again.
*Lit. "My ears point not, but I would stand alongside the Elf king just the same! Sorrow I have that Readfah did not cut off your damned head, you whose mother lay with dogs!"
** The "s" word. My invention, from the Ukrainian "hovno" = filth, manure, or the equivalent in vulgar slang.
ºErkenbrand of Westfold carried a red shield in the Battle of Helm's Deep, LOTR, TTT, Book 3 Chap. 7 "Helm's Deep." I have taken the liberty of implying that all of the descendants of Readfah's "adopted" family will do so.
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