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Mother of Horsemen: 8. Chapter 8
"It's a surprise to me too, brother, " came a reply. "Though by smell alone I can't tell one of them from one of their horses. I think they use horse fat to make their soap."
"They have soap?"
"You know, I hear they prefer to ride their mares on long journeys away from home..."
A snort of derisive laughter followed. Ux, who understood enough of the Númenórean to know how foully they were being slandered, growled under his breath. He made a move as if to rise from the creek where he had been industriously scrubbing the grime from his body. His younger brother Sig, a tall, ruddy lad of seventeen summers, and their kinsman Godan, who was of like age and looks, looked up hopefully.
"Nic onmun', geferanes,* that's what they want," the quiet voice of Bréalaf spoke soft reason, as always. "Besides, we vowed no trouble to the elf king."
Sig dashed a stone into the water with an oath, and Ux sank back into the water and groaned. " A silly vow to keep peace with the boat-rowers! Why are we still here? Why don't we go home?"
Bréalaf sympathized with the younger man's impatience. Ux had traveled this far on the thin hope that Readfah might be persuaded at last...only to find her bound to another. They had brought the finest colts they owned, only to be treated like outcasts by elves and other men alike; left severely alone, but not far enough away to escape the constant taunts. The elves at least kept silence, but most looked upon the Northmen as if they were exhibits at a fair. Only Readfah, and to certain extent, the one called Elrond, had shown any true welcome, and of course the king had been formally courteous. But even he had had doubt written all over his face, and Ux purely hated to be doubted. It was as bad as being challenged to a fight by a man with no honor.
"Our horses need a rest, as well you know. And the king would have words with us, when we have rested and eaten well," interjected Bréalaf's uncle, Hulwyf, who sat in a shallow spot with some bits of wet leather thong ranged across his thigh, patiently rebraiding his nephew's hair. As the eldest among them, he was expected to preside over any works of diplomacy on behalf of the clan. Having never dealt with elves, he was uncomfortable about this, because his work was usually conducted from the back of a horse still breathless from the heat of battle.
"I wish he'd get on with it then. It makes me tired just to be sitting around," Ux grumbled.
He looked over at the tent where he knew Readfah dwelt with Elrond. Yes, he was all right with that, now. The men of his tribe grew up fast, and he knew in his heart it was for the best. He had watched the elf-lord, and seen the strong, wise goodness of him with eyes unclouded by any dishonesty. They are of the same kind, he thought. Even if she is kin to us. She is more like to him, and it is plain to see he brings her much happiness. He vowed right then to stop wasting his time. 'I have been a fool,' he thought. 'No longer.' As his feeling for Readfah began to settle into its proper place, so did his anger toward the scoffing boys across the clearing.
He smiled a little, then stood up with a full grin. He knew he put any of the Númenóreans to shame, at least, when he wore no clothes.
Celeborn arrived that morning from the Havens with none of his customary pessimism. Only when Readfah quipped, "Oh, have you been gone?" did he scowl, but only briefly. (He had been...almost a year.) There had been no orcs to be seen for league upon league between Lórien and Lhûn. He looked with interest at the progress made on Elrond's house and paid several compliments to the workers, who stood sweating and stripped to the waist, but still surprised and happy to have their work noticed by someone other than Elrond and that thread-picking Readfah. He even smiled at the Northmen, and commented on what fine warriors they were reputed to be. In short, he was not Celeborn.
"What is the matter with him?" Gil-galad whispered to Elrond, who shrugged and continued to stare at the tall elf, who positively reeked of jollity.
Readfah was even more amazed. Celeborn had always considered horses to be a necessary evil, but she had seen him petting and spoiling his red mare, Runyan, with bits of fruit and sweet bread, and talking to her as if she was a baby. He spoke pleasantly to everyone, then, understandably tired, he went in to lie down for a while.
"D'you suppose it's something he ate? Bad mushrooms, maybe?" Readfah asked Gil-galad, both of them watching as the elf-lord smiled in his sleep.
"I thought of that, too," interjected Elrond, who lounged crosslegged on another cot, inspecting a coneflower bloom.
"He seems all right now, though. After all, there's nothing wrong with good spirits," Gil-galad opined.
"This is Celeborn we're talking about," Readfah said worriedly.
Gil-galad threw his head back, laughing. "I always worried that if he smiled too widely his face would crack.Well, my dear Readfah, it hasn't cracked and I'm not going to worry about it. I think he deserves to be happy, and if it takes bad mushrooms, I will gather them myself."
Readfah knew she was playing with fire when she introduced the young Númenórean Faramir to the Northmen. He had been out early, and the morning fog hadn't lifted when he happened upon her favorite strawberry patch where she knelt with a basket, intending to surprise her friends with a sweet addition to their spare breakfast. On impulse she invited him, and he accepted without hesitation, as the wild berries were of an especially delicious sort, and all the more a treat when eaten under such primitive conditions. Faramir had grown up in one of the great manor houses of Númenór, and was used to eating strawberries with cream and honey if he so chose. The military life had been hard at first, especially for a younger son who carried no weight in gaining favors for his mates from the king, but despite the hardships he soon grew accustomed to them. He was far more a man at sixteen than many boys his age who had stayed behind in the comparative luxury of their homes.
At first, natural suspicion made the small band of horsemen fall silent. They could not help but see he was a son of great wealth, with silver trimmed scabbards and swordbelt, booted to the knee in the finest black calfskin, and his garments wrought of the best and costliest fabrics. The Northmen, rich or poor, were all arrayed alike in simple unbleached linens and with fitted chaps and leggings of heavy gold-brown leathers over stout, laced ankle-high boots. Precious metals, for warriors, were reserved for badges of office, and the small gold hoop that every wedded man had punched through the top of his right ear. Readfah smiled at the way the husky wheaten haired boys sized up the slender dark one, but Faramir was outgoing and friendly, and soon was trading words with them while they gobbled strawberries along with the staple of salt meat.
"Where is Thúr?" Readfah asked Ux. "I meant to ask before."
"His father died, so he is now chief of the clan," was the reply. "Chiefs don't travel much, especially not in the first year or so. It takes that long for all the families to come pay respects."
"And of course, there must be many feasts," Readfah bantered, watching him eat a strawberry with evident relish.
Ux's blue eyes twinkled. "Of course."
After a space, Readfah turned to him. "We never have properly welcomed you to our camp, you know. These are soldiers, sent here by order," she nodded over to a group of black-clad men who went about at one task or another, "but you are our guests. I regret we haven't offered you much in the way of a decent meal. In summer we don't store much, but eat as we find things."
"Is there good hunting in these mountains? The men are anxious to ride, to be busy at something. If we are to stay, we will provide plenty of game, if it is to be had. The turf is so thick here it was hard to see tracks."
"Oh, yes, there are deer everywhere, and a kind of wild sheep live up on the hills. Now and then our scouts flush a boar, and we always have some birds hanging in feather."
"Then my men and I will see what we can find. Is tomorrow too late to call it a welcome feast?"
Readfah shook her head, giggling. "It's never too late, or too soon. We have learned that it's always best to enjoy times of peace to the very full, my friend...they never last long enough, even for us."
"Cum, etanet arodlice, hengesten in gerædu!" **
" 'Wierge! Hwær ist min bog'?"***
There was a sound of crunching and spitting, of clashing buckles, grunts from men and horses alike as girths were tightened, soft nickers and the grate of steelshod hooves on dry soil. The Northmen were not known for stealth, at least not at the beginning of a hunt. But, they never seemed to be without a good supply of meat, so they knew when silence was important.
The first pale yellow string of dawn had widened to a ribbon when the last of them disappeared through the Eastern barrier. Readfah warned them to come back at dusk, even if emptyhanded, so scouts might be set to wait for them. They were in high spirits, and sang as they went, heedless of the moans and soft waking curses floating past them.
"Whatever they come back with will have to be cooked or brined, Readfah," said Taenon, one of the assistant stewards of Gil-galad's house. He was under the tutelage of Siddona, a formidable elf woman who had once ruled the kitchens of the king's grandfather's house in Valinor."It's too warm and damp for anything else."
"It's not really hunting weather," Readfah agreed. "But whatever they bring will be a nice change from overripe pheasant."
The young elf laughed, tucking his dark braids behind his ears. "Even the rabbits seem to have gone into hiding. But as to the first question, shall we start a fire in the pit? It might seem a bit too much if they bring only birds or are reduced to spearing fish!"
"Fear not, worthy cook!" she laughed with him. "I'll gather wood with you."
The Sun was barely an hour past its height when a whistle from the Eastern cliffs told them that the hunters were already returning. A scout shouted something about knives and a larger fire, but this voice was swept away by the capricious breeze that whirled at the heights.
Elrond paused, halfway between the fire pit and the tent, and gazed up at the path. "By all the stars! You must see this!"
The hunters had come back, whistling, laughing, whooping, and immensely pleased with themselves. On a huge travois, pulled by two horses, lay a large white animal of a kind that no one recognized. At first Readfah thought they had gone and killed some farmer's cow in a distant village, but it was too large for that. It had a stronger scent, too; pungent, animal, yet somehow comforting, if the promise of sustenance and satiety could be contained in a smell. Its shaggy shoulders tapered to a smooth skinned flank and rump, and its horns curved up and away from its massive head. Its eyes were open in an angry glare and showed white around the rims, and its tongue curled stiffly from its mouth. It had taken several arrows to kill it, and it looked every bit as pugnacious in death as it must have in life.
Gil-galad stared at the monstrous carcass, and whispered "Great ghost of Mandos..."
"What is it?" Celeborn asked, half awake, then with a closer look he gripped Elrond's arm.
"One of the kine of Araw?" he breathed. "It has been a hundred score years since I have seen one of those!"
"Have we done wrong?" Ux turned to him. "This bull belongs to someone?"
"Oh no! We call them that because they were brought to these lands by Araw, who is also called Oromë. He is one of the Valar, and took great pleasure in hunting."
Ux had heard that strange word often, since his arrival. "You must tell me someday about these Valla," he said with polite interest. "But now work begins! Beast needs skinning."
Elrond turned to Readfah, but she was already shouting for Taenon and the rest of the cook's assistants to gather more wood. She smiled up at him. "In Forochel the women used to say, 'men may exclaim over a kill, but it is the women who make it fit to eat.' "
"By their company as well as their skill," Elrond bent to kiss her hand, and when her eyes met his, they both shivered deliciously in spite of the warm summer day.
By nightfall the fire was down, the rich and tantalizing smell of fresh roast meat perfumed the entire valley, and elves, merry as always at any sign of a celebration, scattered through the wooded camp to announce that the feast was ready. Talanzef and a few of his men declined the invitation, and no one missed them, but many of the soldiers of Númenór who had hung back were pressed with plates of meat, sweet fruits, smoky black mushrooms ("good ones" Readfah assured Gil-galad with a wink) and bread. The king's donation was a pair of kegs containing some of his best mead, and one of elderflower wine.
"So where did you find the beast?" Gil-galad toasted Hulwyf. "Astray up in the hills?"
"Nic a'scriþa, your majesty," Hulwyf knew Readfah sat between them to translate, but he would struggle with the few Elvish words he had picked up. "Not stray. How you say, whole herd of beasts like yon. Two hour away South."
"It's extraordinary. None have been seen since, well, we thought they had all died out. And they never lived around here."
After listening to Readfah's murmured translation, the elder grinned and gave a typical Northman's reply, "Ach, well, they do now!"
Wooden flagons clashed and the unlikely friends drank yet another draft between them. Someone had produced a flute and a clapping rhythm began. The women present were Elvish, and not inclined to show off in the company of Mortal men, but Leithel, who had a sweet voice and a lot of wine in her, remembered a few lines of a very earthy horseman's song that Readfah had secretly taught her. Soon, even the men of Westernesse were caught up in the melody, and the few who understood the bawdy words were not too shy to translate.
Into the night, they danced and sang and feasted, and were glad to make merry while they could. In that, men and elves were not so different, Elrond thought. He wondered if he was the only one present thinking that perhaps the only thing the enemy had wrong with him was the inability to enjoy himself. Normally quiet, though never as serious as Celeborn, he felt a strange urgency at the sight of all the blazing, joy-filled eyes around him, and sought Readfah in the crowd, and found her talking to Faramir. The young man was nodding animatedly to something Readfah said when she saw Elrond watching her in silence from the edge of the clearing.
He was standing very still, his tall, dark form outlined against the backdrop of stars. His eyes were invisible save for two tiny pinpoints of light hovering in the moon-silvered contours of his face. She excused herself and walked very slowly over to him. Without speaking, he took her hand and they melted into the darkness under the trees.
Faramir could not help trembling a little as he legged Kapla into a charge with the two young Northmen bearing down on him head on. Why had he ever agreed to this? True, Readfah had padded both him and his horse well for the onslaught, but he still felt a little afraid. He even had time to feel a little silly with the grim eyes of his troop on him. Although he didn't see him, he knew Talanzef or one of his captains would be watching as well.
The two horses were almost upon him when, at a cry from one of the riders, they turned their heels to him and lashed out at his mount from both sides. While Faramir was still recovering from that, the riders spun in their saddles, facing the horses' tails, and had their swords not been wooden practice slats, the youth would have been dead.
"Now you see, milords," Readfah spoke above the scattered murmurs of the spectators, "How very important it is not to depend on stirrup and rein to keep your balance. Every morning you should spend at least an hour accustoming yourselves to riding without them, at all gaits and all positions."
"All very well, madam," an insolent voice cut through the others. "But the youngster made no move to defend himself. The servants of the enemy do not 'play fair', and doubtless they have a few tricks of their own."
A tall man with curling black hair and a closely trimmed beard pushed away from the tree upon which he had been leaning and stepped forward, his whole forceful presence a challenge. The devices embroidered on his sleeves showed him a veteran of many battles and many years service, and that he was still only a Captain betrayed a rebellious streak that hadn't endeared him to king or commander.
Readfah did not have to turn to recognize him. "Doubtless. A good point, Captain Gimizor. But I am not teaching the art of combat, but the art of horsemanship.Whether a soldier uses the opportunity the horse helps him gain to behead his foe or stick him like a - " here she faced him, her eyes bright with mirth and malice, "- pig, is up to him."
"I am curious to know, madam, what - you - would do if attacked on horseback," he shot back, keeping his composure with an effort.
"What - I - would do?" she cocked a brow at him and smiled. "I would tell your horse to lie down with you and roll on you, and he would. But of course, you meant what would I do if I were one of your men, mmm?"
Ignoring his reddening face, Readfah looked up as if searching for something, and presently Wimowë trotted into the clearing. Gimizor had not expected her to answer his challenge at all, let alone so soon, but his only thought was how satisfying it would be to see her on her back.
Readfah was equipped only with her knife, and with Hulwyf's sword, which she carried unsheathed. Since Wimowë wore no headstall it was decided that her free hands made up for her lack of armor.
"I don't trust him, Readfah," muttered Ux. "Why a real sword just to demonstrate something?"
"Because the good Captain's manhood would fall off if he were reduced to using a wood slat, would it not?"
Ux roared so loudly with laughter at that that the two boys had to pound his back, though they were scarcely laughing any less. When he looked up at last, his eyes red and his jaw aching, Readfah was at one end of the clearing, and Gimizor at the other. Wimowë danced and pawed, as if eager to attack.
"I know, my girl," Readfah muttered, "we shall take him, you and I. There are few worse enemies than one's own unwillingness to learn."
The signal was dropped. Wimowë screamed and leaped into a full gallop with no prompting, and in less that a heartbeat Readfah could see the reddened inner nostrils of her challenger's mount almost in front of her. With a cry she pulled the sword up, plunged it into the ground, and swung the mare around Gimizor's right side. She pulled her leg up, knee to chin, to avoid having it ripped by the armor as the animals' flanks grated against each other, then sprang onto the bay horse's rump, with her knife out and held to Gimizor's throat. His sword rattled to the ground.
Readfah jumped down as the horse came to a halt.
"So you see, milords," she said calmly, "that a well trained horse makes holes in the best woven plans of your enemy. To make use of such a horse takes a rider who is willing to practice. What I ask of you seems dull, and without much merit. Not all of you will be able to do everything I show you, but I ask that you have the will to try."
Then to the amazement of all, she stooped, picked up Gimizor's sword, and handed it up to the still speechless knight.
"I shall remember only your hatred of the Dark One, milord," she said simply, and walked away toward the silent crowd of men.
Later, while at leisure, Readfah and Faramir, accompanied by most of the Northmen, decided on a closer inspection of Elrond's house. Several walls had gone up, and part of the roof, and some half finished carved pillars lay propped on beams.
"Most of our homes are all of wood," Hulwyf commented. "This will be indeed fit for a great lord."
They were most impressed by the strategic placement of great blocks of crystal to admit light. Some of the oddest were slanted, clear parallelograms that seemed to hold rainbows trapped inside.
"And they don't have to be cut. They grow that way. Break one, and it will fall to pieces in the same shape."
The men were shaking their heads at the very idea of rocks 'growing' when they passed the spot where the stairs to the front terrace would be. Elrond's tent was but a few paces beyond, and Readfah heard the sound of an agitated voice raised in a litany of complaint.
She recognized Talanzef's voice easily. It was the only voice in the camp that seemed to quiver as if perpetually insulted, and just now it appeared to be directed at Elrond. Gil-galad had ridden to inspect an outpost that morning, and in his absence Elrond was assigned to hear grievances. She motioned her companions to silence; they stepped as close as they dared to the entrance and listened carefully.
"I crave your Grace's pardon, but it has become an outrage. Not only must my men suffer the indignity of being taught by a woman, but they are wasting time on fruitless games more suited to children. There is also the matter of your own people, some of whom think nothing of rutting in the grass within hearing of our camp, and sleeping in trees right above us, and any of several - disturbances - over which I have too long held my tongue. Now it seems that your king's Mistress of Horse has taken that unruly pack of barbarians as her assistants, and my men are beside themselves."
Readfah nearly snorted aloud and the effort of suppressing her laughter caused her to miss the first part of Elrond's reply.
"...cannot think of what milord would propose as a solution. I cannot and will not presume to tell them what to teach, or how, for those matters are beyond my expertise. Should you choose to resign your position and become a strategist, you and I might work well together. As for the other, I will instruct my people to use more caution in their choice of sleeping arrangements, and more discretion in the matter of the r-r- err...their other actions."
Talanzef bowed curtly, and left the tent so abruptly that he was forced to pull himself up short to avoid bumping into Readfah, who was still chuckling at Elrond's flawless impersonation of Gil-galad. He did not bother to conceal his scorn of her, or of the Northmen, but when he saw Faramir with them he became livid.
"You!" Talanzef's voice rose to a near squeak."What are you thinking of, consorting with this - this -"
Readfah's fingers twitched above the wicked curve of the knife at her belt. "Say it, swineherd of Númenór!" she roared in a voice no one had ever heard issue from her lips. "Say it and I will take your head off!"
"Readfah, no!" Elrond reached for both her hands, then found himself flung several feet from her. Everything seemed to slow down; all the men had frozen like statues in astonishment at the sudden change in her. Elrond saw, and recognized, the mad expression that had taken over her face, the knife whipped like a flash of fire from its sheath and the half-crouch her body assumed as she drew back to swing at Talanzef's head.
It took both Ux and Elrond to hold her off, and the young men stepped in front of Talanzef, who stood white and motionless. Ux saw only the face of an angry woman, but Elrond saw the dark fury moving in her eyes, the arching brow, the lips drawn back from her teeth, and his heart pounded at the sight.
"Let - me - go!" she screamed, twisting her back with unnatural strength. "Let me go!"
Several of Talanzef's men had been at hand and closed on Readfah with swords partly drawn, but Sig and Godan stepped between them with folded arms. Faramir, after only a second's hesitation, joined them, and Talanzef's face twisted, mouthing the word "traitor" as their eyes locked. The standoff lasted only a moment, for the other Númenóreans stared at Readfah as if she had transmuted into a goblin, and did not come closer.
At last she went limp, drenched with sweat, and in a ragged voice said, "I will not strike...I will not strike." Only then would they set her on her feet. Elrond held her as she looked back up at Talanzef, sheathing the knife with trembling hands. Her eyes still smoldered. She pointed at his heart.
"I hate you," she panted. "You unworthy sack of..." her words became a jumble of curses; and to Elrond's horror, most were in Quenya, a tongue she had never spoken. No one did, any more.
"This boy," she shrugged Elrond's hands off her and embraced Faramir's shoulder, "is worth the lot of you put together, and because you fear him, yes! fear him! you treat him as less than a scullion. He should be in your place! In the name of all that is just someone should indeed cut off your head! Stay far from me, horsemaster! Stay far from me or I will surely do so!"
Readfah turned her back to him, unmindful of any answer he might have made, and walked stiffly and blindly away, her shoulders squared. Ux made as if to follow, but Elrond turned on him, his shining dark hair swinging around with him from the force of his motion.
"Ne!" he snapped.
Ux stopped, raising his hands in acquiescence, still too deeply in shock to be either offended or further surprised. He thought he understood Elrond's reaction; being a straightforward man himself, he could see a man, or for that matter, an elf, wanting to take care of his own woman. He could not know that what sped Elrond to Readfah's side was neither anger nor jealousy, but cold, premonitory dread.
Many a league of waving grass, mountain and dell lie between the range of the mountains where Imladris lay, and the deep forests of Fangorn and Lórien to the South, but to one with the sight, distance was no barrier. There was a presence deep in the wood where the golden leaves did not fall until Spring, and long ago, rumor had spread among men that a Sorceress dwelt therein.
Rumor often has a grain of truth at its root.
Galadriel looked up from the scrying water and narrowed her eyes into a gathering East wind. Her hair hung loose, wild and unkempt as though she had not slept in days. Indeed no servant had been permitted past the gates of her private courtyard in over a month except to bring her food, most of which was left uneaten.
'All goes well,' she thought. 'No longer does Celeborn hinder me with the weight of his reproach, for he is content to remain apart from me. My daughter begins to feel love for Ereinion Gil-galad, and that is well, for I wish her happiness. She need never know that her wedding to the possessor of Vilya is crucial to our protection, nay, our very lives. And as for that bloody-haired whelp of Maedhros, when she and the Peredhel wed, they will never know that her childlessness is my doing, and the Kinslayer's line will die out no matter what happens to her. I need not touch her to do what I must...'
She plunged her hand into the silver vessel and brought up Nenya, which lay at the bottom, invisible to all eyes save her own. No one was ever permitted to disturb her Mirror, so the secret was safe from all but One. She could not repress an ugly laugh.
"So we come to a battle of wills, you and I?" she said aloud. "You cannot touch me!"
There seemed to come from the East a faint groaning sound on the wind, which only served to make her laugh again.
"I will do whatever I must to defeat you, serpent! If it means dancing right on the edge of your foul abyss, I will do it! And if it means spelling those who account themselves my allies and even those whom I love, I will do it, for this battle I must win!"
She slipped the ring upon her slender finger and raised her arms, her white garments billowing and snapping in the wind like the sails of a ship...
*Pay no attention, comrades.
**Come, eat quickly, the horses are ready. (lit. 'in harness')
***Damn! Where is my bow?
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