The King's Vineyard, Chapter 16
|Rating:||R for mature sexual content (later chapters)|
|Disclaimer:||I am only borrowing Tolkien's elves for story-telling purposes and am not seeking profit or glory from their use. Well, maybe glory, but certainly not profit!|
|Timeline:||In the years following the Battle of the Five Armies in Bilbo's story and before the Ring Quest in Frodo's.|
|Summary:||A young woman and her uncle travel north from the inland sea of Rhûn to Esgaroth seeking employment at the Elvenking's vineyard.|
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The Elfking's words, about there being spiders, and then there being spiders, must have been meant as a riddle, or so Cella believed. However, a tiny thrill of anxiety ran down her spine at the undertone of implied danger beneath the monarch's cryptic utterance. It was as if he wanted to prepare her, and Milda and Ingarde as well, to hear something that was very unpleasant. He gestured for the mortal women, and Lanthiriel, to be seated on the bench, as they had been before he had interrupted them.
"To answer your question," he directed at the wide-eyed Ingarde, "There was a time, not long ago, when my forest was indeed infested with all manner of fiendish creatures in service to the Dark Lord. And yes, as you have heard tell, the spawn of Shelob, herself the daughter of Ungoliant, were chief among them."
Lanthiriel shuddered, and the women stirred uneasily at the mention of the unfamiliar, but sinister-sounding, names. The Elfking told them of the hideous creature Shelob, and her innumerable offspring, the giant spiders....
"Excuse me, Highness, but when you say giant," Milda broke in, "just what do you mean and how big are you talking?" She held her hands apart the size of a dinner plate. "Like that?" And then, her hands went a little wider, the size of a house cat, as she asked, "Or like that?" Instead of answering her right away, Thranduil tilted his chin, and cast his eyes upward, as if he could discern the answer hovering in the air above all of their heads. While Cella wondered if the Elfking was going to reprimand her cheeky friend for interrupting him, he seemed to come to a decision and, facing them again, smiled benevolently at the women before him.
And then, to Cella's delight, he sat down on the bench with them, after motioning at her to move over enough for him to fit comfortably between her and Milda. He stretched out his legs, placed the heel of one boot on the top of the other, laid his forearms over his thighs, and seemed to take a moment to enjoy the sensation of being at ease in his a seat, before he answered.
"When I say giant," he said slowly, "I mean of a size not to be trifled with." As he answered, the Elfking's voice was soft, which made the message seem all the more deadly. A distant look came into his gaze and a strange light entered his eyes as he seemed to leave his audience behind for a moment while he traveled along a fearful path in his memory to re-encounter an old foe, and all for their benefit.
Unfortunately, his too brief, and otherwise incomprehensible, reply about the size of the spiders, 'of a size not to be trifled with', was like red meat tossed to hungry dogs, at least as far as half of his otherwise appreciative audience, Milda and Ingarde, were concerned. Cella could tell they were getting braver by the minute, and she wondered if Thranduil was sorry he allowed the first interruption without protest.
For now, the chivalrous Elfking was set upon by experts in the art of ferreting out information. And whatever marvelous store of knowledge there was within him, that he had called upon to draw from, was left temporarily idle as he was asked, with all due respect, just exactly what he meant by 'of a size' in relation to the term giant, and 'not to be trifled with' in relation to anything that was previously discussed. It was quite a battle; he did not stand a chance.
When the monarch was finally and firmly pinned down by the team of pressers, he described for them a creature with a hideous body that was not as large as a boar, but larger than a typical dog. And, he added ominously, these eight-legged monsters were not just massive in bulk, and swift of foot, but intelligently treacherous in nature. Before he could elaborate any further, the sound of someone clearing his throat drew all of their startled attention to the tall robed Elf, Thaladir, who stood, otherwise, silent nearby. Milda and Ingarde had jumped with simultaneous gasps, as if they had been expecting a giant spider to leap out at them, at any given moment.
"Whatever the matter is, surely it can wait for a short time," Thranduil addressed his seneschal, and then, with a sweep of his hand that was meant to encompass the women and Elleth who sat with him, "As you can see, I have detected a distinct lack in the education of some of my workers, specifically about the nature of my forest, and its variety of creatures, both large and small."
Although the Elfking's tone was light, Cella could sense that Thaladir was being mildly scolded, and she felt a little sorry for him because of it. Whatever there was to be known about the spiders, giant or not, could always be put off for another time, it was silly to think otherwise. She was not sure if the dignified Elf was being chided for interrupting their present lesson, or for not having thought to give them one himself before this. But she was secretly pleased that His Majesty was not eager to escape the company of the curious women, even when given a clear opportunity.
With a familiar bounce of self-satisfaction in his step, Cella's uncle approached, looking quite proud of himself, almost enough to burst his buttons. Before anyone could rise, he signaled at them to remain seated.
"Sit, sit, no reason to get up," he exclaimed. "I have news, good news, too."
Milda, Ingarde and Lanthiriel gladly invited him to take a seat, with pats to the bench indicating that there was plenty of room. He bowed politely to each of them in turn with a happy twinkle in his eyes, but declined to sit, yet. And then he turned to his employer with a deeper bow.
"It is good to see you here, Your Worship." The Elfking nodded back at him graciously and said that he was happy to be there, as well. And then Uncle Dwain looked at his niece, who he clearly doted on, much to her chagrin. "And would you look at my Cella," he said after a moment, "She looks as pretty as a flower in her new dress, don't you think?"
As Milda and Ingarde heartily agreed with him, the wearer of the dress felt her face grow hot, and knew she was blushing, which made it that much worse. But, unwittingly, her oblivious uncle saved her when he turned back to Thranduil, and shifted smoothly into his new role as a royal crown-vintner, esquire.
"Well, My Lord," he announced, "I am happy to report that the last of the barrels have been loaded, and sent off for transport. You two must've passed the wagon going down the road as you were coming up our way?" After the Elfking had indicated that he and his seneschal had seen it, and had speculated about it as well, which seemed to amuse Uncle Dwain. He further informed the Elves, triumphantly, "We didn't lose a single barrel, neither. Not a one."
"Excellent," pronounced Thranduil, with a slap of his hand on his thigh. "And, if I am not mistaken, this must mean we are ahead of schedule." He directed this last statement toward his seneschal, who immediately and staunchly affirmed that his monarch's shrewd assessment of the current situation was perfectly correct, as usual. The noble robed Elf spoke with stiff solemnity and utmost dignity.
His dour demeanor, in contrast with Cella's brightly beaming uncle, who now seemed to be bouncing in place as he unconsciously rocked back and forth, shifting from his heels to toes, while smiling from ear to ear, was such that Milda and Ingarde had to stifle giggles at the sight of them side by side. But in Cella's eyes, the tall robed Elf actually looked much less anxious and stern, after hearing the good news, than he normally appeared. And he almost smiled, she thought.
As her uncle proceeded to crow about the round-the-clock efforts put forth by the Elfking's diligent and steadfast workers, Cella noticed that the unobtrusive Nandirn had quietly joined them, too. Over the past couple of days, she had seen the gray-clad Elf a few times in or around the main house. He would greet her with a smile and a nod, and she found it not too difficult to murmur something polite in reply. After he had passed by she would always regret not having the courage to speak with him. She was curious about him, and his mysterious air of authority.
"Ah, Nandirn, good, good, you are here," said the Elfking, sitting bolt upright as if coming to from deep sleep. "I must speak with you. Let us remove ourselves to the house." While he was speaking, he rose from the bench, and Milda and Ingarde groaned with displeasure. They were interested in hearing more about the spiders of Mirkwood, and of any other dastardly creature that might be skulking in secret near the caves their friend Cella was being sent away to. And they were not shy or quiet now as they mentioned their displeasure over his abandoning them. After he had only just begun to tell them what they wanted to know.
Even Lanthiriel, who must have known about the creatures in the forest by first hand experience, appeared to be disappointed to see her King leave, although her reaction, a slight droop to her shoulders and a downcast expression on her normally placid face, was subtle. Cella was just sad to see him prepare to withdraw from view, whether or not he continued with stories of his distant realm, now that he had only just returned.
"Ladies, it grieves me to distress such an attentive audience," he said courteously. "However, I must attend to some affairs that have recently come to my attention." This announcement only elicited another chorus of groans, to which the Elfking lifted an open palm of surrender. "Very well, as a substitute, might I offer up to you the highly esteemed services of the most learned historian in the lore of the dominion of the Dark Lord, and his inhabitation of my forest?" With a regal flourish, he gestured to Thaladir.
The tall Elf bowed back in return, while he thanked His Majesty for his kind words, and his most gracious assessment. Then he turned to the women and solemnly vowed to endeavor to do his best to inform the mortal maids of the unfortunate history of the occupation of his most beloved forest by the sinister Dark Lord, and his minions. That is, of course, only if they desired to learn more.
All three women heartily and vigorously assured him that, yes, indeed, they wanted to know more.
"No," said Milda, shaking her head, "not just some more. Some more is not enough. I want a lot more."
"What she means," Ingarde added confidentially, "is we want to know everything there is to know." At that, the Elfking smiled broadly and, turning to his seneschal, raised his eyebrow as if measuring the tall Elf's suitability for the task, before addressing him.
"Everything. Indeed. Now that is a tall order, my faithful friend. I am not sure if you are up for it after such a long day, and hard ride. Do you think you will be in need of some assistance? I could look around perhaps, and find...," but the tall Elf, who had frowned at the words 'up for it', and stiffened at the word 'assistance', finally jerked his head toward the Elfking and, with a level but silent stare, brought the monarch's playful banter to a halt. Once again the women had to stifle themselves, and this time even Cella had to bite her lip to keep from showing similar mirth-filled disrespect at the seneschal's expense.
Thranduil, however, chuckled merrily and clapped his hand on the seneschal's back. He assured Thaladir that he had an unwavering faith in his most trusted advisor's ability to enlighten even a stone on the history and manner of its making, if given enough time. With that said, he bade the women, and Lanthiriel, a good day, and left them, after beckoning at Uncle Dwain to follow along with him and Nandirn.
For Cella, it was as if someone had blown out a candle in an otherwise well-lit room when the Elfking withdrew from sight, it was a bit dimmer around her, but not entirely black. She knew she would see him again. And she was interested in what Thaladir had to say concerning the history of the Dark Times in Rhovanion.
Soon all of their feelings of disappointment, and any left over tremors of mirth, had been erased, and replaced by riveted attention on the seneschal. He stood before them, his hands behind his back, and spoke at length of the evil that had started out in an isolated location at the very southern edge of the forest, but spread like a dark stain over the Great Greenwood. He had decided to begin in the year 1,100, in the Third Age, which was a time so fantastically long ago that the three women were awed by the way the Elf spoke of it, as if it were only a few seasons in the past. That was the year that the shadow of fear entered the domain of the Wood-elves, and set up residence near the Anduin River, atop of a hill called Amon Lanc.
Slowly, over the following years, various loathsome creatures had crept in from the east as well, to lurk within the shadows beneath the trees and ceaselessly torment the Wood-elves. Perhaps something in the frightened faces of the mortal women who sat before him gave the seneschal pause, for he assured the women that this had all happened many, many years before, when the stronghold Dol Guldur, the center of all the mentioned dreadful activity, had been secretly established upon Amon Lanc. A time so long ago that even their great-grandsires would not have yet been born to tell of it.
However, it was horrible enough for the time that it lasted, he had to admit. From that location, a malevolent influence not only began to spread, but also attracted to itself all manner of foul beast or spirit that dwelt in Mordor. And they came, relentlessly, crawling, creeping, or flying forth, to swarm over the former glory of the pristine woodland and drove the southern dwelling Wood-elves out of their homes and far to the north, where they sought shelter in the great caves of Thranduil Oropherion.
Eventually, according to Thaladir, along with the creatures of darkness, there came a stifling emanation from the cloaked tower. After many more hundreds of years, the entire woodland was nearly completely shrouded in the bitterly oppressive gloom, and was renamed Taur-nu-Fuin, or, rather, Mirkwood, a term he was certain they were more familiar with, by the mortals of Erebor, and Taur-e-Ndaedelos [Forest of the Great Fear], by the Elves.
"Say that again," asked Ingarde, who was always eager to add new words to her Elvish vocabulary. Cella said the forest names along with her, and they repeated the tricky 'Ndaedelos' over and over, until the seneschal was satisfied with their pronunciations. Milda did not even try, but she thought it was all so terribly tragic that she could cry.
The seneschal returned to his narrative and told how eventually the entire forest, save for the protected lands near the Elfking's gates, within the boundaries of the two rivers, was otherwise deathly hazardous, dreadfully gloomy, and plagued by orcs, wargs, and spiders. Milda interrupted to ask what a warg was, exactly. And then she was sorry she asked when she saw the look on Cella's face as the Elf described the hideous ravenous wolf-like beasts who hunted in packs.
"For many long years the constant and never-ceasing battle was fought between the Elves of our realm and the noxious beasts of every kind that continuously entered our forest, as they were called forth from Mordor. And in the year 2941," said the seneschal with a sense of relief in his voice, as if even he had doubted the outcome of the sad state of affairs, "the famous White Council was convened, and attended by both Elf lords of the highest order, and Istari, in an effort to find a solution to the ever-growing threat to all of the borders by then, a threat that could no longer remain ignored."
Cella noted a touch of bitterness in the Elf's voice, and she could understand it well. Why had it taken so long for the rest of Middle-earth to come to the aid of the Wood-elves, and their Elfking? Her heart burned inside as she listened to the history of assaults suffered by the Fair Folk, and how they had fought them off all alone. It took far too long for other Elves to step in, she believed, and was glad to hear about this council.
Where, Thaladir continued, it was decided by the wisest of the wise to send one of the most venerated Istari, named Mithrandir, alone into the very depths of the malefic lair. His charge was to investigate and, if possible, to penetrate the shroud of darkness that cloaked the mind of the nefarious fortresses' unknown inhabitant from all understanding. For the invader was only known at that time as The Necromancer, and was believed to be one of the Nazgul, which was, according to the Elf, quite an alarming thought in and of itself.
"Naz-ghoul?" Ingarde asked. "And what are those? Some weird type of a regular ghoul?" She clucked her tongue. "I don't like the sound of 'em. Are they anything like that invisible hobbit you have around those caves?" The seneschal blinked. And looked a bit taken aback, as if he had just entered into an entirely different conversation than the one he had been prepared to continue. Cella felt for him, but knew he should never have taken so much time to draw breath.
"And what are Istari?" Milda wanted to know, still trying to work out the part about the White Council, and its attendees.
With a deep sigh, the tall Elf sat on the bench beside Lanthiriel, and explained to them as much as he could, and as much as they could understand. But, after some careful skirting around the question, he finally had to admit that his knowledge of hobbits was very limited. He had seen one once, long ago, but it had only been a brief glimpse and all he could remember was the overly-large, fur-covered feet. A hint of a shudder seemed to run through the tall Elf's body at the memory, but he had nothing further to say on the subject.
In the end, the women were happy to find out that, after Sauron's identity in Dol Guldur was revealed, the fortress was abandoned, the evil emanations dissipated, and the presence of the giant spiders had diminished dramatically, although, regrettably, not entirely. But the remaining nests were scattered, and did not present a danger to His Majesty's subjects at this time, as a rule. For the loathsome but crafty creatures had withdrawn down into hidden vales, and long forgotten holes, in an effort to escape the ever vigilant Elves that were determined to rid the forest of every one of their kind, eventually.
"And, they lie dormant in the winter and are most likely preparing for their long sleep as we speak." A welcome voice imparted this last bit of information. The Elfking had returned, with Uncle Dwain, and he smirked at Thaladir as he pretended he had caught his seneschal coming up short in his instructions. "You forgot to tell them that did you not?" All of the women agreed that this last should have been mentioned first.
The midday horns sounded, lunch was being served in the dining tent. As they rose to go eat, Milda and Ingarde declared that they had a lot more questions about the spiders, wargs, Elf lords, Istari, and hobbits, just to name a few. They were still a bit unnerved by the seneschal's horrific tale but wanted him to come to the tent with them, and continue his fascinating lesson.
But, Cella was too happy to see the handsome Elfking so soon again to care for any more lessons from Thaladir. She did not care anymore about what types of dangers she may face in His Majesty's Kingdom, as long as he was there. Her uncle offered his elbow to escort her to lunch, while Milda and Ingarde flanked the dubious seneschal, determined not to let him out of their sight until he had proffered up every last one of his secrets.
As they walked along, Uncle Dwain informed her that there was no reason to delay traveling on ahead to the caves. Especially if they were to arrive there before the flatboats did, in order to prepare the wine-cellar properly. From behind her, His Majesty spoke.
"Are you prepared to leave the vineyard and travel into my forest, Celiel? Spiders or no?"
"I am, Your Majesty." Nothing that she had learned that day had changed her mind about wanting to live with the Elves, in their beloved forest.
"Very well," said the Elfking. "We shall proceed first thing in the morning, but tonight we shall make merry."
To be continued in Chapter 17
Author's postscript: Although I believe that Thranduil would have preferred to use the Sindarin version of Ungoliant, [translation: gloom weaver] which is Gwerlum, I decided to have him say Ungoliant because I believe that name might be more recognizable.
Posted: September 19, 2004
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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"