14. The Horse and the Rider
"And a good day to you also, Master Gimli." Returning the Dwarf's careful bow with a rather sketchy bob of her own as she remembered at the last moment that she was wearing skirts, Rowanna smiled her thanks to Bilbo and set off for her own room to change, humming with pleasure at a morning passed unexpectedly well.
She had spent most of the previous long, dark winter afternoon helping the Hobbit in the library, clambering up and down ladders for the volumes he wanted, and her exertions had left her a little stiff - climbing ladders must use the legs quite differently from riding! she thought wryly - and slightly weary, but there was no trace of the dragging limp which had marred her first attempts to walk the corridors of Rivendell.
I should have known Bilbo was up to something, she reflected with a grin, for why else would he be sending written invitations to coffee? When the slip of beautifully-embossed, heavy paper had been delivered by a gravely bowing Elf before breakfast that morning, she had merely assumed that Bilbo wanted to convey his thanks with coffee and cakes, as well as to test her on their latest lessons; for the short note in his spidery hand was penned in the Grey tongue, and she had twisted her quill backwards and forwards in her fingers while she laboriously composed an appropriate reply. But he got what he wanted, the wily old thing, she admitted. I took the spirit of his note and turned up washed and brushed, in long skirts with my hair up - and thereby presented Master Gimli with as ladylike a coffee-companion as he could have wished!
Perhaps the cunning Hobbit had been working his host's wiles on the Dwarf too, she mused; for Gimli's initially painful efforts to unbend a little had gradually become less strained. By the time the coffee-pot was emptied and the cake reduced to a litter of crumbs on plates, he had been quite cheerfully telling a tale of the Dwarves' difficulties with the Beornings over the High Pass on the journey to Rivendell.
"They are stout fellows enough, I grant, for if they were not they would be hard put to it in these times to keep the Pass open. But hammer and tongs! I shall need to strike a rich vein of mithril in some distant mine before I go that way again, if their tolls keep rising as steeply as the very cliffs around them! Ah well," he drained his coffee-cup, "there may be no need to lose sleep over it; for who knows when or by what road any of us may go home?"
All in all, by the time Rowanna took her leave to go and change back out of her gown - for she intended to ride after lunch - she felt hopeful that Gimli had altered his views of women who wandered abroad in breeches at least as far as she had her opinions of the surliness of Dwarves, and was quite looking forward to another opportunity to talk to him.
She was not halfway down the hallway which ran the length of the House, still humming a walking-song which Frodo had been singing the previous day, when a little group of Elves emerged from a chamber some distance in front of her, one carrying a black-and-white chequered board and another a large carved box, and made for the doorway at the bend in the hall. Rowanna paid little attention to them until one of the group, who had been lingering by the heavy oak door while his laden companions passed through, looked back down the passageway towards her and held the door wide open. Rowanna shook her head and signalled to him to go on, for she was still too far away down the passage for his gesture to be practical - or even particularly courteous, she thought, since if anything having the door thus held for her made her feel pressed to hurry. Though that is a very Mortal thought, she realised; he would probably stand all afternoon if the fancy took him and think nothing of it.
The Elf, however, merely gave one of those rather distant Elven smiles which always made Rowanna feel like a small and grubby child, and continued to hold the door. Rowanna frowned. "Avo dhortho," she called, but either she was not understood or he ignored her. It was ridiculous to allow a mere gesture to chafe her so; yet the little knot of Elves around the doorway was now inspecting her with open curiosity, making the blood rise in Rowanna's face. Did no-one ever tell you it is rude to stare?
There were no other passages here into which she could turn aside, no haven such as the library into which she could turn as though making for it all along, and pride would not allow her simply to turn and flee; along that seemingly endless hallway she must trudge as fast as her skirts and her stiffened legs would allow, silently cursing the arrogance of stupid Elves who seemed to think that just because she was a Mortal who had been ailing for a time she was condemned to be a feeble invalid for ever... She reached the doorway, forced her flaming face into some semblance of a polite smile of thanks - for what good would it do to rail at him, but to convince him that Mortals are not only feeble but ignorant and uncouth too?...and with a gulp of relief made her escape to her room with much slamming of intervening doors, feeling doubly bitter at the sudden spoiling of a morning which had seemed to be going so well.
By the time she had changed back into breeches and boots, and stopped off to beg some bread and cheese from the kitchen to avoid having to sit down and subdue her fury to polite conversation over lunch, Rowanna found herself beginning to calm down. The prospect of escaping from the House and into the valley on horseback for the afternoon filled her with relief; though she discovered, when she reached the stable-yard, that Brethil would have been yet more relieved to see her a couple of hours earlier.
"I was in sore need of someone to take the Redhorn out; Gilas rode him, in the end, but he might have borne you with better grace, the fancy he seems to have for you..."
"You mean, you thought I could be flattered into being honoured to be lumbered with him for the morning?" Rowanna retorted. "What ails his temper today more than usual?" Brethil waved an elegant hand towards the far end of the yard, and she winced in understanding. "Edlothia?"Caradhras was too well-schooled, like all the Elves' stallions she had yet encountered, to try to mount a mare in heat uninvited; but she could imagine that restraining himself from kicking down his stall-door to reach Edlothia must have been making the great horse somewhat tetchy. The horsemaster nodded.
"It was a needful kindness to take the poor beast away from temptation, when he was finding it so hard to comport himself as befitted Master Elrond's own mount - "
As if his ears burned with so much discussion of his habits, at that moment the red stallion reappeared in the yard, still prancing and head-tossing. His rider, who had clearly had a somewhat trying morning of it, dismounted with hasty grace muttering something towards Brethil, the full import of whicn Rowanna did not catch but which clearly implied that if Brethil was so inclined to be patient towards the Redhorn, then he could do it directly and not by proxy. The head groom sighed resignedly and took over Caradhras' headstall. "And there was I thinking I might finally have time to talk to Galathil about the shoeing..."
"Let me take him," Rowanna offered. "I'll rub him down for you and he can tell me all his troubles, can't you Caradhras, mín freónd?" She chirruped encouragingly at the stallion, who snorted and butted her gently with his great head. Brethil grinned, gratefully released the Redhorn and disappeared in the direction of the smithy, crossing paths with Legolas, who stopped for a brief word before continuing to Rowanna's side.
"Do you ride this afternoon, mellonen? Brethil suggests I might take Thalatâl out, if you wish for company?"
"Yes, of course, if you can wait while I -" Rowanna began.
Just then, as one of the stable-lads put it later while trying to explain all to Brethil, "suddenly there seemed to be Mortals everywhere underfoot..." With a slapping of bare feet a small flash of colour and curly hair streaked into the yard, pursued by another yelling indignantly: "You pilfering good for-nothing Took, that's my pipeweed..."
The fleeing Pippin missed his footing, tripped on the cobbles and rolled straight under the forefeet of Caradhras. Elrond's stallion might come from an unbroken line of great warhorses, but his self-control was already a little strained that day, and he had never encountered a Halfling before. He put his ears back and snorted in alarm at this small hairy creature which was scrabbling at his feet, then screamed indignantly and reared.
"The horse-lady stepped in at his shoulder," the stable-lad recounted as Brethil nodded, "clear of his hooves, to give him rein, and then - she turned all white as the snow on the mountains, and just seemed to freeze where she stood, like a troll caught by sunrise. For an instant I thought she would fall - and then Thranduil's son, who stood nearest, pulled her clear, and caught Caradhras and said enough to him to calm him. The Halfling got up and dusted himself off, and all seemed done and no harm."
The stable-lad had turned back to his own business then, happy enough that all was well, and paid no more attention. He had not heard, as Merry and Pippin had, the stone-cold tones in which Rowanna said,
"I will thank you for Caradhras now, Legolas; he is in my charge," before taking the Redhorn from the startled Elf without further word and leading him away, murmuring to him all the while in her own tongue.
Legolas gazed after her for a moment, then shook himself and turned his attention to the abashed Pippin; only once satisfied that the Hobbit was unhurt did he look again for Rowanna. She had been rubbing the Redhorn down in his own stall well away from the mares, and as Legolas approached she was turning towards the tackroom, laden with Caradhras' saddle and gear.
"Let me," he offered, arms outstretched for her burden, but Rowanna ignored him and stalked off into the tackroom. Following, Legolas saw the heavy saddle slip as she reached to lift it to its rack, and was swiftly at her side. "Sit, let me - you look weary - " She banged the saddle into its place and turned to face him with eyes blazing.
"Will you let me be?..."
He blinked. "Mellonen, I..."
"Do not call me friend!" Too late he realised that he had overstepped some mark, though what it was baffled him.
"I am sick of it! Must I be treated for evermore as though I am feeble and can make no shift for myself? Béodred was bad enough; he at least was only young and lovesick and might have learnt better in the end. Elrond's folk treat me as though I will never be more than the weak half-crippled thing they saw when first I was brought to Rivendell; but I... I thought you were different... Elves! You are all the same!"
She was trembling, her face a white mask in which two angry spots of colour burned high on her cheeks; Legolas struggled for words, found he knew not where to begin, and before he could speak Rowanna had spun round and stormed out into the yard and away. He was standing stunned, when a creaking of leather drew his attention, and he realised that Rowanna's fellow-mortal, the elderly one called Dirgon, had been seated quietly at the far end of the room the whole time polishing a bridle.
"She may be a mere Mortal and a woman at that, Master Elf, but she's as stubborn and as proud as the Redhorn himself, and she's no man's fool." With this uncharacteristically long speech Dirgon had levered himself to his feet, and he now hobbled to the door and disappeared, leaving Legolas frowning into the shadows.
Avo dhortho - don't wait [lit. do not stay].
I am particularly indebted to Sulriel for her expert advice on the behaviour of stallions for this chapter.
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