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Mother of Horsemen: 22. Chapter 22
Once again I feel I must point out that Eorl, in this chapter, is ten years younger than JRRT said he was. I had Léod's death happen the year before Eorl leads his people into Calenardhon. This is admittedly an error, but one which I feel does not spoil the story.
I also must repeat what I said in the author's notes of chapter one: this is not really AU in the sense that it alters events or history (though it gapfills in ways some purists may not like or agree with.) I have worked from LOTR and (parts of) the Silmarillion only, therefore any departure from Tolkien's other works/rules is not a deliberate breach. Maybe someday I will go back and realign the story to fit ALL of Tolkien canon, or explain at greater length why there are exceptions, but not yet, as I just haven't got the time to read all those books.
A reviewer brought up the question of Readfah's immortality, and though justified, I can't answer that yet because Readfah herself is not sure why she is still alive. Her theory is that she remained alive long enough to become aware of having the same choice Elrond and his brother were offered, and became Elven-kind when she and Elrond became lovers. This does not stop her, however, from making other choices that will seem inconsistent with that. All I can say is that this hovering question is part of the story of Readfah, not a mistake or omission on my part.
And, no, despite the derring-do of the last chapter and the understandable confusion among many generations of the Horsemen about her nature, she is not a Mary Sue. She is neither a man (or elf) magnet, has many weaknesses, is not particularly beautiful, and has not nor will she sleep with Legolas!
She is, however, the daughter of Maedhros, in itself a legacy of strength, and that she is also the daughter of a Rohirric ancestor merely focused that strength on the knowledge and love of that noblest of beasts, the horse. She certainly had time to realize near-perfection at her craft, so what might be construed as MarySueish in a mortal is actually more believable when you remember that she is nearly Elrond's age, a granddaughter of Fëanor, and forced to resourcefulness by her self-imposed exile among the people of Forochel. If she *wasn't* gifted, I'd be worried!
Mother of Horsemen - Chapter Twenty-Two
Eorl, mounted upon Felaróf, had brought his warriors over miles unnumbered to answer the summons of Cirion. It was cold for an April day, but his men and horses were well clothed and fed. As he rode, he thought over what had happened in these past weeks, and was convinced his decision was sound, and moreover, right. If many of his people had their doubts of him because of his youth, they were laid to rest now. Cirion had sworn brotherhood to the Mark when Eorl was a boy, and he never forgot it.
Over seven thousand riders in companies of a hundred and twenty each they came, spearmen all girt with swords and daggers, companies of archers, mail and helms agleam, with blood in their eyes and the lust of battle in their hearts. Perhaps fiercest of all were the shieldmaidens. Traditionally an independent troop, they willingly subjected themselves to Eorl's command.
Their helms were fashioned so as to disguise their beardlessness, and in every way but the breadth of their bodies they were indistinguishable from their brothers. They were not many - they never had been - but they were feared, for the women of the Mark were swift, keen, and merciless to their enemies. Eorl's faith in them was implicit, and theirs in him, for his own mother led an éored in her youth, and she still kept the shield that had belonged to her great-grandmother, the last of a time when the women still decorated their shields with the scalps of their foes.
But now they came near to the eaves of Lothlórien, and his leadership was put to the test. Seldom had anyone in living memory, save Léod, come this close to the Wood, and remembering his fate many of the men hesitated to ride closer, especially now as evenfall drew near. "Dwimordene," they murmured, and looked at Eorl, wondering if he really meant to lead them so close to that place. Even though the river lay between them, it was narrow where it flowed past the Wood, and their path would take them almost to it's edge. It was doubtful if they feared it much less than Dol Guldur, which loomed on the Eastern horizon, swirling with black clouds and the smell of evil.
There was something different about the young chieftain since he came home riding the white horse with no harness or headstall, guiding him with but a word. Stout of heart and strong of arm they might be, but half-remembered stories and the fear of things unconquerable by strength and mettle began to haunt them. Only Donnic, faithful Donnic, who had refused to remain at home despite his age, rode forward confidently with his young master and felt no fear.
"She lives there, I am sure of it," he spoke quietly, recalling the day, less than a year ago, that he had followed Léod down the path beside the Anduin. Hægir, who rode beside him, smiled and said nothing, but even he - who had seen Readfah and Ponder with his own eyes and knew that those two, at least, bore them no ill will - even he was uneasy as the Wood grew into more than just a shimmer in the distance.
On Eorl's right rode Cirion's emissary Borondir, and whatever he thought of the Wood, or Elves, he kept his peace. He also kept silent his wonder at Eorl's youth. The lad had become a man overnight, and his headstrong and impetuous nature, if not erased, was at least in check. Borondir himself was the grandson of a Northman who had gone into the service of Gondor, and he had not been surprised at their willingness to fight. But how, he wondered, does the young one propose to ride in the open against so many? His eyes strayed to the forbidden Wood, a haze of pale gold in the rolling green leagues around it.
Now they had passed the place where, stopping to rest the horses and adjust their harness on their way to the North, Borondir's companion fell with an arrow to the heart. Borondir had only time to leap to his horse's back and ride with the very breath of Dol Guldur on his neck. Thanks to his fleet and tireless horse he had escaped unscathed. He was the only one of six of Cirion's men to reach Framsburg alive.
They called him "Udalraph" as he rode into the town - "stirrupless" - for having no time to secure his stirrups properly back on the saddle they had been lost in the flight. Never dreaming of the importance of this lone and bedraggled rider, they brought him to Eorl, and to their wonder Eorl had welcomed him as he might have a lost friend. Hearing his story, and receiving Cirion's seal carved on a stone disc, he at once set about mustering his riders. "For," as he said, "not only are we as brothers, but where would we flee if Mundburg should fall?" The muster took a week, but when they learned of Borondir's ride, men came eagerly from every Éothéodian hamlet and farm until the number exceeded Eorl's expectations.
And now they camped unmolested in the meadows across from Lothlórien, unseen, so they thought, by any who might dwell there. Though they might have whispered among themselves in the dusk, they were of the Mark and treachery was not in them. They would take their chances, whatever might happen, at dawn.
As the Sun set below Caras Galadhon, the Galadrim looked on in wonder as two women walked the treelined paths and talked together as if no enmity had ever lay between them. Readfah and Galadriel had at last achieved a truce. It was said the Lady had finally buried her dislike of Readfah when it was learned how she had helped lead Elladan and Elrohir to the orc-dens, and how she had saved Arwen's life. Saddened by Celebrían's departure as she was, Galadriel was nonetheless relieved that her daughter was at last at peace. Secretly, she wondered why Readfah did not go back to Imladris, even though such a thing was against Noldorin custom. She did not question her on this matter. There were more pressing issues right outside their own boundaries.
Celeborn came to Readfah ask her to come back to the city with him.
"I have always loved my Lady, though I have not always agreed with the things she has chosen to do. When we lost...when Celebrían left us, it was as if she at last saw the fruit of all her ambition. Readfah, Galadriel may never take ship into the West. For her part in the rebellion she must remain here all her days until she is but a shadow. She cannot die. She knows she has wronged you. Come with me, and allow her at least to tell you so herself."
Upon hearing this, and seeing the deep regret in his fine grey eyes, Readfah's well-justified anger at long last cooled and she rode to Caras Galadhon with him. Though she still loved Elrond, something in her heart that she could not name kept her from going back to Imladris. "It is almost as if I know my destiny lies elsewhere," she once told Haldir and Ponder, "But what it is I cannot tell." Her desire for children had never left her, and she thought more and more of the Mortals she loved but had never lived with for long.
"The Éothéodias are camped scarcely a league and a half to the North tonight," she told Galadriel. "And to the South, from my own talan, I can hear the screeches of orcs and strange-tongued Men. They are still on the East bank of the river, but I think soon that will change. The Men of Gondor are hard pressed, and have sent for help out of the North." Here she smiled wanly. "I told one of them last summer I would see them again soon. I thought I would be doing the visiting."
"The borders are still protected," Galadriel said. "But too few of us remain to present any kind of make-weight against so vast an enemy. It has been long since Elves and Men were truly allied. Yet I wish to help them if we cannot join them."
"Where has milord Celeborn gone?"
"To spy on the enemy." Galadriel permitted herself a small smile. "He will always be a soldier at heart. It surprises me that you didn't accompany him. Ponder did."
"I thought to ride out to Eorl and his army, to offer such aid as we could, but he told me when we met that many of them now fear Elves."
"They should not fear you, at any rate! We shall just have to bide, and see to their needs as we perceive them. I hardly think they will ride right into the Wood, in spite of what you tell me of the young chief's boldness! Yet no scout will raise a bow against them should they do so, and we shall watch as we always do, and tend to any who are wounded."
"But, unless they do come into the Wood, or travel by night, they will be open targets."
"Bide, Readfah! At dawn you will see Nenya at work."
Eorl and his men woke to see a pearl-white mist rolling from the heart of Lothlórien and settling over the river where they must pass. They would be hidden now, and feverishly they broke camp to ride ere the Sun rose and burned it away. But it was a chill day, and there should have not been such a fog, and if there had, it should have risen from the river, not from the forest.
And even as the Sun rose, the mist did not clear, but instead boiled higher and thicker. And Eorl's army murmured thankfully now, though not a one of them would have ventured willingly into that Wood, they looked upon it now with friendlier eyes.
"We ride, maybe die today!" Eorl called out to his warriors. "Let not our brothers of Gondor who have died before us die in vain! Show no mercy! Take none prisoner! Hunt them until none are left!"
Spears clashed on shields, and were shaken aloft, a great cry rose behind the mist, and those who heard it beyond the river shuddered at the sound.
Then, as one body, the Riders rode forth, across from the river path beside the great Wood they named Dwimordene. And though a few swore later that they saw eyes far above them in the trees, they did not hesitate.
Half of Eorl's riders crossed the river and broke into the clearing below Celebrant within sight of Readfah's talan,* while the rest, led by Borondir, rode to the Undeeps and forded there, in order to form a surrounding flank. The white mist hung heavy well past midday, and when it rose, even Cirion's army was amazed at the sight that met their eyes.
For suddenly the field, from North and East, was alive with horses and riders, riders who threw their heads back and laughed and even sang as their swords swept the heads off the enemy's rear guard, who had their backs to the borders of the elf-wood but dared not retreat therein. Horrified cries of fear and despair arose, as the Balchoth host fled, and the orcs who had hidden in the mountains to ambush Cirion's army found themselves beset.
"Take them!" roared Eorl, Felaróf surging forth beneath him like a pale thunderhead and leading the army in a sweep of the great field of Celebrant. The Balchoth, once more than a match for the Gondorrim, broke and scattered, weeping, begging for their lives as they were cut down. Heads rolled, blood fountained up from the twitching bodies and slicked the grass, but the horses heeded none of it and bore down on the fleeing, screaming remnant of the enemies of Gondor, rearing and crushing skulls with ironshod hoofs, pulling sinew from limbs with snapping teeth. And some, pursued by the shieldmaidens' éored, took their own lives rather than face them.
After the first shock, the Balchoth attempted to rally themselves by attacking the horses, and for a brief time Eorl despaired. But then, he saw riderless horses coming from the direction of the Wood, of their own free wills so it seemed. His unhorsed riders found these animals ready and willing to bear them. And his wounded, few as they were, seemed to melt into the grass. He looked toward the tall mallorns, not a league from where he had stopped, and knew from whence his help had come. In truth, though Dwimordene seemed less forbidding than it once had, still - he hoped the Elves would somehow sense his gratitude without necessitating his entry into the dim and uncanny corridors of that place.
Across Calenardhon they pursued the enemy until none remained alive. Even the men of Gondor, staunch warriors as they were, were shaken by the ferocity of the Northmen. Many days later they returned, and rode past Cirion's army, who fell silent when they saw the bloody handprints dotting the horses' coats like badges, one, it was said, for each kill, and as often as not it was the black blood of orcs forming the hideous decoration. And they looked with wonder upon the laughing women, helms cast aside, their fair faces painted also with blood.
"These are accounted lesser Men by the sons of Numenor," they murmured, "Yet they have given us our very lives!"
No one noticed the hooded figure on the gold and white horse, riding quietly at the outskirts of the gathering where Eorl and Cirion had met, embracing like father and son. And when they at last departed for the evening, and the Éothéodias made camp near a grove of trees, Eorl saw his old horse standing in the long shadows a short distance away, and knew who it was beside him.
"Readfah?" he called softly, for he guessed correctly that she did not wish to be conspicuous.
"Yes," she stepped from the shadows.
"It is good to see you," he faltered, taking her hands, and searching her eyes, which were deep wells of sorrow.
There was a long silence. "I have buried Donnic," she said at last.
"Béma!" Eorl cried, still softly, and tears started in his eyes. "What happened?"
"He had a sword wound, and lost too much blood...the healers could do nothing save ease his pain. He didn't suffer much, and he asked me to bury him."
"Where have you laid him?"
"He lies on the edge of Dwimordene, near my house. He was in my arms when he...went to sleep. I think he was happy."
Readfah dried her tears after a long time, and spoke again.
"Your wounded have been tended, and will return tomorrow. Your dead will suffer no disrespect. They lie in the foothills beside the Wood. No orc shall pass there again alive."
He managed a slight smile..."the horses..."
"Yours? They lie buried honorably. The others?" She shrugged. "I have many."
Another long and awkward silence. Eorl spoke first this time. "I shall never forget this day, even when I am old."
Readfah grinned and patted his face, which she noticed had begun sprouting a beard. "You will never grow old!"
"Madam, say not so! Is this an omen that I shall die in my youth?" His voice was shocked but his eyes were merry. "Or you have used some sorcery to change me to one of the Deathless?"
"Béma forbid either! Nay, I mean only that you will never look old. When you are a grandfather you will still be the wicked youth you are now!"
He smiled, and even in the dusk she was reminded of all his ancestors that she had known. They grew quiet again, and she turned from him and sprang to Hwistlan's back noiselessly.
"Will you return home now?" she asked.
"Not right away. Milord Steward has asked that we remain, and meet with him again after a time."
She thought on that for a moment, then looked back at him. "I will return soon," she said.
Elrond had vowed to find Readfah, but to his dismay he was thwarted again and again by circumstances outside his own doors. Things were dangerous...Gandalf had thrice visited, and the Wizard known as Saruman, who for no sane reason made the back of Elrond's neck prickle with distrust, was assuring them of their safety. His sons and Glorfindel had departed to join Celeborn not two days before Eorl's mighty deliverance of Gondor, and he himself, as a ringbearer, dared not leave Imladris unprotected without the knowledge of the others.
At last Taenon, whom Elrond knew had been longing to take ship West for many years, offered to ride to Lothlórien to ask Readfah to come home. Gratefully, Elrond agreed to allow him to go, and for a short time his heart was high with hope.
But in due time Taenon and his companions sadly returned. They had not seen her. And the last anyone had seen of her, she and most of the horses were away with the Northmen who had gone to war for the sake of the Steward of Gondor. Where they had gone was unknown as well. Her few possessions were gone from her house, where the son of Rúmil now lived alone. No, they had not wed. But it looked as though Readfah had at last chosen for herself another life, and it seemed to Elrond that he had lost her a second time.
*It has been written that the host of Eorl crossed Anduin at the Undeeps, about 100 miles from the Southeasternmost corner of Lothlórien. I have had some of them ford the river nearer the Wood (shallow enough place is my creation!), and sent the rest South to form two flanks with which to more efficiently crush the enemy. It makes better military sense than to have 7000 horses trying to ford the river in one spot for a surprise attack and it's what I believe he would have done.
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