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Mother of Horsemen: 11. Chapter 11
Another very difficult chapter. But I think my readers will begin to find themselves on more familiar ground very soon.
I am probably jumping the gun, historically, by introducing the term Éothéod in reference to the nation of Northmen, but I don't care. I got tired of calling them just "the Northmen." As to the history of the name Riddermark...my invention. I do not mean them to seem interchangeable. I see "Riddermark" (the later definition) more as "United States" and the Éothéod as "Americans".
Éoghan is pronounced 'Evan.'
I have used dates this time, as my skills are not equal to double flashbacks in third person!
Enjoy, and please review!
Mother of Horsemen - Chapter Eleven
Readfah sat unmoving, watching from her perch upon Ahliehha, now a six year old mare. She watched, sadness hovering over her like a cloud while Elendil's troops drilled ceaselessly in the meadows of Imladris. Elendil the Tall, they had named him, related somehow to Elrond, but mortal, a chieftain of the last remnant of the Faithful. She recalled the days, one hundred and thirteen winters ago, that heralded his arrival, the last days she was still able to close her eyes and pretend for a while that war was not once again on their very doorstep...
Gil-galad paced angrily to and fro before the fire in the main hall of Elrond's house, while a tense silence had fallen.
"Perhaps if you..." Elrond ventured this far and was cut off abruptly, not for the first time that evening.
"No! I have had enough of mortals! I'm sorry, Readfah," he said quickly, seeing her stricken face, "but even your people seem to have forgotten us!"
"You never held them to an alliance," she dared to remind him, "even when they offered you one. And they have not forgotten us. It's just that there are scarcely 100 warriors of the Mark left anywhere near where the old village stood." But she hung her head just the same, for few indeed of the Northmen remembered her, and fewer still bore the Mark, now considered among those who had not known her to be yet another foggy legend of their grandsires.
The Elven king grunted, chastened, but no less angry. "Idiots and sons of idiots! Do they truly think they can force the Valar to change them into Elves?"
And now, rumors flew daily. Ar-Pharazôn, whom Gil-galad had named "a very son of arrogance" planned an armed invasion of Valinor itself!
A slender, golden haired elf, standing tall before the fire, turned and spoke for the first time. In manner he reminded one of Celeborn, though he was fairer to look upon than anyone present. A soft shimmer, as if of reflected light, surrounded him, and his voice was faultless. This was Glorfindel, who had made his home at Imladris for many years, though he spent much time abroad in the land. Readfah only really got to know him a few years after Faramir's passing.
"My lord," he began, and Gil-galad ceased his pacing. "There are still a great number of the men of Númenor who are our allies. Many have refused to return to the isle..."
"That will start yet another civil war," muttered Gil-galad.
"Indeed," Glorfindel's brow quirked, marring for an instant the perfection of his face. "I wanted to remove for a time to their settlement at Pelargir. The men there seem more interested in fighting the true enemy that squabbling among themselves for something that, in the end, they cannot have."
Gil-galad waved him off wearily. "Go if you must. T'is like using a strawberry for a paperweight, but I suppose we need all the aid we can get."
Glorfindel turned to Readfah, who read his request in his face before he spoke it. "Take what horses you need. The usual rules, of course...let them choose."
He bowed, but did not reply. Even after all this time, he had not developed the informal friendship with her, as the king had, that would have allowed him to call her Readfah, yet 'Madam' seemed inexplicably stiff. He compromised with silence.
"I shall not be gone very long," he said to Gil-galad. "A matter of months."
Gil-galad nodded approval, and Glorfindel bowed a thanks, then was gone, seeming to take much of the light with him. That seemed to call an end to the council. Elrond leaned back and sighed.
"I don't want to talk about it any more," Gil-galad snapped.
Elrond's face said "who, me?" before his lips moved, and Readfah snorted. The king turned on her in a fury, then, deflated, contented himself with a withering "Bah!" and went upstairs.
"When is Celebrían coming back?" Readfah asked, as soon as they were alone.
It was Elrond's turn to snort. "So you were thinking the same thing, were you? I still find it hard to believe that she has the wherewithal to calm him down, but she does."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, the king is hardly inexperienced, and unless she is very discreet indeed, Celebrían had no lovers before him."
"You were my first," pouted Readfah. "And only," she added hastily.
"And you were mine. That's quite a different matter."
"Had you considered that he might love her?"
"Of course. I have also considered that she made him wait 300 years for her. I have no doubt that was her mother's doing, out of some misguided notion that an unused sword remains keen. I've seen too many rusty swords to believe that piece of nonsense, but it sounds like Galadriel."
Readfah wrinkled her nose. "I wonder if I will ever truly learn to like her."
"Don't fret...I'm still working on it. Ah... she means well, and I think after all, she has a capability of seeing a larger picture denied the rest of us. If she's insufferable sometimes, well, that's part of her. I used to think Celeborn was a great bitter pill, until one day I realized that no doubt I am as difficult for some to take as he was to me. Suddenly he didn't seem quite as bad as all that any more. But we were talking of Celebrían. I of course don't see her as Gil-galad does. All I see is a pretty girl who will do her mother's bidding until the end of Arda. They will wed, they will bond, she will bear him children, and thus it shall be until something else nasty comes along to divert our attention."
Readfah smiled, but her smile was rueful.
"It all sounds rather dull. doesn't it?"
He rose from the great oak chair he had been sitting in and came to stand beside her as she looked out on the starry night sky. When she turned to him, he grazed her cheek with his sensitive fingers.
"You haven't changed your mind, have you?" he asked, half teasingly.
She shook her head, and as he had since he had first known her, Elrond marveled at the color of her hair in the firelight. He buried his face in her neck, and she stirred softly against him. When he looked back up, he noticed her still-pensive look.
"What are you thinking of, my dearest?"
"I was wondering what it would be like to have two husbands," she bit her lip.
She pulled away from him and laughed. "Two husbands. I thought perhaps I could wed with the king, too. I couldn't stand the thought of his life ever becoming dull."
"Readfah!" Elrond scolded. "Incorrigible, maddening woman! Come back here!"
"No. You come here," she edged toward the stairs, mischief in her face.
He was longer of leg and faster, and caught up with her at their bedchamber door at the head of the stairs. Their soft laughter was muffled as the door closed behind them, and soon the daytime rhythms of the house smoothed into those of night.
The fleet of Númenor had been building for some time, against what the Elves had never really been certain. Gil-galad had grown increasingly frustrated with the vacillating nature of their relationship with him, never knowing from generation to generation what to expect. Finally he had stopped offering to strike formal alliances altogether. "What is the point, when we all know that they will be broken?" Elrond and Celeborn, in agreement for once, had on one occasion argued spiritedly that any treaty was better than none, and that some day perhaps the Númenoreans might start thinking like the Elves they wished to become, and look beyond their own lifetimes and learn from their history. Gil-galad had merely given both of them a look of disbelief, groaned and left the room.
Yet, despite some of the darker times in which many an elf took foot in hand and quit Middle Earth rather than face another thousand years of uncertainty, Gil-galad never deserted the few who had begun to call themselves The Faithful. They had remained friends with Elves, defying even laws made by the rebellious Kings forbidding the speaking of any Elvish tongue, or to teach their children such. They took Elvish names for themselves in spite of the adoption, by the rebels, of the old tongue of Westernesse. And many refused to return to Númenor at all, preferring to remain in exile in such strongholds as they might make for themselves in Middle Earth. Pelargir, of which Glorfindel had spoken, was one of these, and possibly the strongest in terms of population.
Readfah did her best to follow the multiple strands of political and military intrigue that wove the giant web beneath which they labored, but had to admit it was beyond her ken. She pitied Elrond, who was forced by circumstance to endure it, when he was no more inclined to it than she was. She knew he would far rather be with her as he used to be; gathering herbs while teaching her to do so, helping her with her work by riding to and fro on a colt she was training, or best of all, riding with her to Riddermark to visit their friends.
Strangely, though perhaps not so strange, given the way mortal language changed, was the way the Northmen often referred to their nation as the Riddermark. Once it had simply meant a tangible mark, signifying that their ancestors had known Readfah. Now it meant "the nation of riders." It would have been more apt to say "nations" for they were scattered much as they were when Maedhros first set his infant daughter in front of him on a horse. Indeed, Elves who had reason to travel North had a saying; "we are in the nations," meaning that they were in the Riders' territory.
The men of the Éothéod as they now were known, were as always independent and proud, and even Gil-galad admitted they were constant in their loyalty...when they could be found. At this time, a new young leader had emerged, a tall, lean, and fell warrior named Éoghan who had warred relentlessly against the marauding bands of orcs who grew larger and bolder by the day. These servants of Sauron seemed incapable of learning their secrets, for as few as the warriors were, no orc ever came back from that land, if once it ventured very far in.
As in the Elder times, when Readfah was a child, the warriors adopted the custom of blackening their faces below their eyes, keeping the Sun's glare from blinding them, and making them appear even more fierce. Indeed, they had become so, for the orcs had been merciless, and the cost had been more than they could bear. When Readfah heard of the bravery of Éoghan and his warriors, and learned from Gil-galad's scouts that they camped but a day's ride North of Imladris, she painted her face likewise, discarded her usual grey cape for a green one, took up a spear, and rode alone to meet them.
Éoghan had been one who had scorned the 'legend' of Readfah even while his family's crest bore a red emblem, until they stood face to face on the plains above the Hithaeglir. Trembling in dismay, as if he expected to be struck down, Éoghan dismounted and offered her his horse, then bent his head to the ground.
"The thread of loyalty runs true, even in those who say they believe not," smiled Readfah, bidding him rise. "Know this, friend, I am no spirit, and cannot smite you without a blade. But there still dwell among you the deathless ones, who are not gods, but are as men are, though we do not die. Those of your people who account themselves my children have the friendship of the Elvenking, this and no more. In return, we seek only that you stand against the Dark One and his servants, in your own way and under no one's command."
This Éoghan readily promised. Readfah had observed that he bore the pierced ear of a wedded man, though no ring was there, just a curiously fashioned loop with a bit of black horn laced on it. She saw the same on a few of his men and asked what it meant.
"It is the sign of widowhood." Éoghan's face grew dark. "Grethe and I had been wed less than a year, and she carried my child. Orcs took her. No trace was found of her. I wear this in her honor, and will not wed again soon."
Readfah thought of the many weddings she had attended, and of the great love the wives and husbands of her mother's people bore for each other, and she could not stay her pity. Uncomfortable with her tears, the men had stood silent, their own hearts wrung, until she mastered herself.
She swore to them then that as she had not forgotten their fathers and mothers, so their sons and daughters would not be forgotten, and if the day came when the Elvenking rode to war, he would account it a privilege if they wished to ride with him. No greater honor could he bestow, in the reckoning of the men of Riddermark.
They said among themselves "She loves us indeed as a mother, for none but a mother would love her child even though the child forgets her." Yet, because she looked no older than most of them, it was hard for them to remember just how long she had lived, and harder still not to become companions to her, for her ways were still merry as a girl's, when there was time to be merry.
It was Éoghan and his men who came to Imladris the day before Gil-galad held council, and the next day, heralds arrived announcing that the lady Galadriel and the lady Celebrían were a day's ride away. Gil-galad was a living welter of mixed emotion, and Readfah laughed out loud when she heard him order Celeborn in a tone that brooked no response, "You keep her busy!"
Readfah was happy for her own sake that she had company of her own, and would be excused for the most part. For as much as Galadriel might be grateful for the loyalty of the Éotheod, she still had not learned one word of their tongue, nor had her daughter. She could not grow used to their coarse ways, and as yet saw no reason to try. She was civil, yet distant to Readfah, and even the many hundreds of years that had passed spawned no friendship between them. And Readfah, gifted as she was, still could not completely read Galadriel's inscrutable face. She knew the Lady, as they all called her in common, had many secrets, and she was versed in many sorts of magic, but she read no malice in her, and that puzzled her, for why then the careful mask of secrecy?
Celebrían was another matter. Her love for Gil-galad was an open book, and though her timidity was a thing of the past, she was still quiet, but more in the way of her father; thoughtful rather than shy. Her mother still ruled her, but Readfah was happy to see that Celebrían had found a way, inside herself at least, to be her own woman. The few times they had spoken together, the Princess had impressed the Mistress of Horse with her beauty, good sense and keen intelligence, but a little niggling finger of doubt made it's home on the latter's shoulder. Celebrían smiled often, but Readfah could not recall ever seeing her laugh.
There came a day when all news stopped, and a leaden sky rolled over Imladris, bringing a cold rain and thunderstorms which did not stop for several days. At first, they thought the foul weather delayed the messengers, then the thought that perhaps they were waylaid, but then many strange things happened.
Birds by the thousands descended on the valley, and roosted in the trees in sodden silence. The horses no longer responded to Readfah the way they normally did, and acted confused, as if they no longer understood her. It grew very dark, winds blew from unaccustomed directions, and Galadriel took to her bed as if ill and would not receive anyone.
A lone rider, one of Círdan's, arrived early one morning in a hail of rain and sleet. Readfah, up before most of the household, saw him coming and shouted orders to her assistants. She then removed her smock and ran through the tunnel connecting the stable to the cellars of the house, and up the stone stairs into the washroom and from there to the hall.
Half frozen, the messenger dismounted his horse right on the terrace in front of the house and begged entrance at the top of his voice. Elrond came down the steps two at a time and opened the doors himself. Gil-galad emerged from his quarters, enveloped in a robe, and hastened down the steps, his feet bare.
"Númenor has vanished, sir," the courier gargled, and elf though he was, collapsed in a heap upon the flagstones. Ice was in his hair, and had nearly blinded him. Before they could get him to the fire, they were arrested by a hoarse yet deep and hauntingly lovely woman's voice from the stair rail above.
"It has gone into the Sea," Galadriel said, and she descended to them.
Elrond turned to the shuddering messenger. "That is so, sir...we received word a fortnight ago," he confirmed, between grateful sips of mulled wine.
"I have had dreams that a great wave overtook Pharazôn and his ships," Galadriel said, "and many have died. Ereinion, the weather will be clear on the morrow. You must ride to the Sea as soon as you can. War comes swiftly now. One thing only I ask of you. I must return home, and spend what time I may with my lord Celeborn, but I wish Celebrían to remain here if she may. Soon a day comes for which we have all looked."
Gil-galad, taken by surprise not only by the entreaty, but that it was spoken as such, and not as if granted by her wish alone, readily agreed, and spoke with more gentleness than was his usual wont.
"You know that Celebrían has a home with me, no matter where I am."
But she was not speaking only of her daughter's wedding. Rather, her most pressing desire was the joining thus of the powers of Nenya and Vilya. To this end she had bent her will for over a thousand years, and it would now only be the matter of a few years and a few words to bring her work to fruit. Then they would be safe. Then all Elvendom would be safe, and she could rest in the very bliss of Aman itself, even as she remained in mortal lands. For her rebellion Aman was denied her, but if things went well, she would need the Valar's forgiveness not at all.
And so Gil-galad, in spite of his earlier words, befriended Elendil and his sons, Anárion and Isildur, and they and all the warriors of the Faithful came riding to Imladris. In full panoply of black, silver and sable they came, joining with the Elven host at the sea, and came into the valley of the Bruinen on the morn of the New Year. More than any gathering of soldiery Readfah had ever seen, even of the great numbers she had seen in her father's day, they came, and they were grim and fell-faced. Once again, the vale became a forest of tents, and the voices of strange men echoed in the sunrises of the three years they remained as they prepared for the final battle.
Beside them Gil-galad's Elven host rode, fair as the dawn and with the strength of trees, gifted with grace, clad in vermeilled armor that shone as brightly as their eyes, overlaid with the deep bright blue of the King's House. Celeborn, Glorfindel, Gildor, Erestor... names that recalled the Elder Days, and the ceaseless struggle of life for the Firstborn in Middle Earth...riding four abreast as brothers, singing with voices almost too sad and sweet to bear.
Unremarked save for those who loved them, or fought alongside them, were Éoghan's grandsons, great-grandsons and all the men of Éothéod who were of an age to fight. They came to Imladris clad the same as the Elven troops, by Gil-galad's order, save for the red horse heads upon deep green tabards. They numbered only fifty or so, but were remembered later by Elendil's men as stalwart friends in time of need, and despite their many differences and frequent arguments, became as brothers to one another in the face of the enemy.
And Elrond was at Gil-galad's right hand, bearing the starred standard of his House, silver, white and blue. Readfah sat upon Ahliehha and watched him and could almost believe she was once again riding Wimowë, and Elrond was coming home to her instead of making ready to ride away. A new horse had chosen him just last year, a fine stallion of unsurpassed speed and grace, whom Elrond named Luinon, for his strange color; white in some lights, almost blue in others. He could not look often at Readfah, sitting so still upon the great red mare, the only motion the long, fiery mane blowing in the wind, for he felt a strange heaviness in his heart, as if she might be gone when he returned. But she could scarcely take her eyes from him, as fair as his Maian blood could make him, strong and tall and beautiful, and their love-bond, such as it was for now, shivering between them.
"When I return," he whispered to her nearly every night, as they lay together in the dim firelight, "When I return," and he would place his trembling hand meaningfully upon the swell of her belly and she would groan and give herself to him, a shower of pleasure and tears, and beg Eru himself to bring Elrond back safely so that the promise in his eyes might come true.
Soon they would ride; the great host of the exiled Edain and the Elves their allies, to make war on Sauron in his own realm, and lay siege to Barad-dûr if they might. Elrond had called it the last great alliance of Elves and Men, and though many times the shadows might rise in mortal lands, there would be no such riding as this again.
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