The King's Vineyard, Chapter 19
|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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For the dessert course, after the main meal had been served, eaten, and cleared away, trays were brought to the tables that were filled with stacks of iced pastries or small bowls containing berries and slices of fruit. Cella was not sure if she could tuck one more piece of food into her overstuffed self, after the sumptuous feast, but she took some of the fruit and nibbled at it politely. The quiet background music the Elf musicians had been playing throughout the meal became merrier and quicker.
Torches that had been placed at a slight distance behind the tables were lit during the feast, while the dusky evening light turned to deeper shade. The dance floor and musicians' stage were only dimly lit from their flickering glow. Now, along with the changing nature of the melody, another set of torches, placed inside the square made by the long tables, at the four corners of the stage and at equal distances along the sides, were lit to illuminate the dancing area.
This seemed to be a signal that the first stage of the feast was finished. As the meal drew to a close, and the next part of merry-making was about to begin, Cella could hear the happy chatter and laughter at the tables grow louder and even more excited. As soon as all the torches were lit, the music changed again to a dance tune that was familiar to human ears, but with unique Elven styling that made it even more irresistible. She saw a few couples step out on the floor.
Beside her, Uncle Dwain slowly wiped his mouth with his napkin, folded it neatly, and set it across his plate with the studied carefulness of a man who has had a little more wine to drink with his supper than usual. The last of the Elfking's private stock had flowed freely from the jugs during the meal. Then the man stood up and gallantly bowed to his niece.
"Brother-daughter, I may not look as elegant on my feet as the King here," her uncle gestured at the Elfking, who nodded back graciously at the compliment, before he continued, "but, will you dance with your old uncle tonight?"
Even though, despite the Elfking's magic, Cella still felt she had not truly conquered her nervousness about making a display of herself, she could not turn her uncle down on such a special occasion for him. Not in front of the others at the King's table. But, after she rose, she felt more proud than shy to take his arm and be led to the dance floor, although she still felt awkward at first.
"Pinch me, Cella," said her uncle in a voice so ragged and weak it alarmed her. He looking dazed to the point of stupefaction. "I think I must be asleep and dreaming; this just can't be true." Quickly, she reached up to grab his cheek between her forefinger and thumb. Then he shook his head, as if waking up from a sound sleep, and grinned at her. She realized with relief that he was play-acting to make her laugh, and it worked.
"Your father would be so happy to see you like this, child," he said, and she stopped laughing, but did not feel the usual sharp edge of pain that normally came along with thoughts of her parents. Almost as if he was speaking more to himself than to her, Uncle Dwain added, "And wouldn't he be envious of us both, to be traveling along with the Elves into their forest."
It was not a question, really, but she agreed that he would. Then she added that she thought perhaps her father was watching out for both of them, from wherever in the great Halls of Mandos his soul resided with all the rest of those who had passed on to await their eventual fates. And Cella did think that her parents would be happy, if they could see her with her uncle this night, as she looked around her and saw all the workers and Elves from the vineyard enjoying each others company out on the dance floor.
Only a few of the vineyard Elves danced with the mortals, but some, such as the overseer, Himbor, asked Cella to dance as a matter of courtesy toward her uncle, or so she felt. The graceful Elves seemed to tolerate the clumsier humans who danced around them, with both alertness and good humor. With light-footed ease they managed to avoid many collisions during the quick-stepping tunes.
The assistant vintners, as promised, came to the table to ask for her company on the dance floor, one after the other. Seeing them, she remembered how she thought she would leave the feast early, to avoid them both, after promising she would dance with them. But she accepted their invitations gladly; she was having more fun than she realized there was to be had.
After that, other workers from the vineyard did not even let her sit back down before approaching her for a dance, all of them polite and in a very gentlemanly fashion, in deference, she supposed, to her uncle's position, or perhaps in fear of the Elfking's watchful eye. Breathlessly, after a half-dozen turns, she protested finally, and claimed the need to sit and rest for a song or two, before she could take one more step.
After she had caught her breath, the Elfking asked her to dance again, for the second time that day, when the music had slowed to a milder melody, and she had been much happier with her performance as they moved together through the crowd. Even though her uncle's wine made her head swim a bit, she managed to behave much more like a lady than she had earlier that day, and less like a shy and foolish adolescent.
He asked her if she was enjoying his feast and she assured him that she indeed was, more than she had ever thought possible. She thanked him for the honor he had showed her uncle, too, and the nice surprise with the wine from their vineyard by the inland sea. And she thanked him, one more time, for asking his seneschal to teach her some of the history of her new home in his great forest.
"I did think of another question I have wanted to ask, Your Majesty," Cella told him. "But it was not something that I could ask Lord Thaladir today." It was something that she had been wondering about for days now, but had not had the opportunity to ask when she thought of it, and had not thought of it when she had the chance. And she probably could have asked the seneschal, but she wanted to ask Thranduil instead.
"Speak," said the Elfking, "I will answer if I am able," Although it was a new sensation to be talking so casually with the same monarch who she had once seen as formidable, and frightening, she was glad to have the chance to finally clear up a matter that had puzzled her when she was alone, and had time to think. It had to do with her attack, at least its immediate aftermath.
"That night, with Gorst, when you found me, out in the vineyard..." she stopped for a moment, finding it was not that easy to talk about those events as she had thought it would be. Not even in this merry atmosphere, and in the arms of the Elfking, who she knew would let no harm befall her. Because as she spoke, she also remembered the terror she had felt in those last moments, and her throat seemed to close up and her chest felt tight, as if she could not breathe correctly.
"I am listening," he prompted her gently. She breathed in deeply and tried again. Instead of remembering Gorst's face above her, she remembered the Elfking's instead, and the relief she had felt, and the confusion.
"When you came and found me," she finally managed to say. "You said I had called you." Cella shook her head at him. "But I did not call you; there was a rag in my mouth." She had taken his words literally and thought he must have heard something, he would not lie about that, but it could not have been her voice.
"I suppose in that instance I was using what your uncle would refer to as Elf-magic," he quirked a corner of his mouth upon saying so, and she could tell that the idea amused him. "Although I do not see it as magic, at least not true magic as the Istari evoke at will. But I have learned that some skills I take for granted are beyond the ken of most common folk, as your uncle would say, including the ability to perceive the minds of others from a distance, and their thoughts. Such are the gifts of the Valar to the Edain, they appear as magic to the eyes mortal man."
As he spoke, Cella felt a little lost, but also honored that the handsome Elfking spoke to her nearly as an equal. Until the significance of his words came clear; then she felt afraid.
"You can read minds?" Her heart was banging in her chest as she tried to remember every single thing she had ever thought about the Elfking, and she wondered why she had not yet fainted on the spot. But, to her relief, he told her not to fear, he was no eavesdropper. He could only know those minds that reached out to him, voluntarily, as she had done. With a mild shock of realization, she knew exactly what he was talking about. That night, when Gorst had fallen on her, she had deliberately wished for the King to rescue her again, but with little hope that he would come.
"I pictured your face, and as clearly as I could, too," she said with awe. "In my mind. I guess I did call you." He nodded. And she felt relieved because it made sense that he would only hear, if hearing was the proper term, those who needed his assistance. But now she seemed to have many more questions, and she felt brave enough to ask them. Such as what it was like, to be able to read minds. And could he read anyone's?
"With mortals, what I perceive is more like what you described, pictures, or symbols. The mind of man is rarely still long enough to form, let alone send to me, a clear thought that can be read. It is quite usual for me to know the thoughts of my woodland subjects, when they have a need for my attention. And they depend on my ability to do so, especially in times of personal danger or travail, and do not feel violated. For they know they can protect their minds from me when they desire privacy. And that is what is making you feel uneasy."
With a start, she realized that was true, she still felt very uncomfortable, despite his assurances.
"Did you just read my mind?" she asked, a bit fearful of his response.
"No, it was not necessary," he replied with a warm chuckle. "Your fears are written clearly in your eyes, and on your face. But, do not fear me, Celiel, I am no sorcerer. Your mind is safe from me. It will always be your choice for me to know your thoughts."
Cella hoped that was true, but the dance was finished, and the Elfking took her back to her uncle's side without speaking any more on the subject. The musicians were leaving the stage, after promising the dancers who cried out in complaint that they would return before too long. Uncle Dwain was laughing with Himbor, and his cheeks were flushed and rosy-looking from the wine.
Not wanting to sit, Cella looked around for a familiar face and, after spotting Ingarde, told her uncle not to worry; she was going to go and talk with her friends for a while. He was glad to let her go out into the crowd and show off her new social skills, which she would rather he had not mentioned out loud. Mostly she wanted a few moments to herself to think about what she had just learned and to marvel over learning that she had been involved with Elf-magic, even if it was not real magic.
Ingarde had danced with some of the Elves as well as a few of the men, and was in very happy spirits. According to her, Milda had stayed partnered exclusively with her nice young man. Ingarde thought he was possibly a fine catch, if he was the type who would settle down and build a little house for the two of them to live in, and rescue Milda from her parents' home, which she thought was unlikely. She felt smug about her stable-owning fellow back home by the Lake, but looked a bit envious of her joyful friend who at least had someone to hold on to tonight.
While the musicians took their break, the two women sat together on the edge of the performance stage, with several other pressers who would be leaving the next day, and talked about the feast. Many of the dancers returned to the wine barrels to quench their well-earned thirsts. Cella had gone back to the main table for her own bowl and shared some of the Elfking's private vintage with Ingarde, who was impressed. And even more so when she learned it had come from Uncle Dwain's vineyard.
"How come your uncle never married?" Ingarde asked her. "He is such a good man, it seems a pity somehow." A few of the unmarried pressers agreed with her, and Cella marveled to think of Uncle Dwain as a fine catch.
"He is married," said Cella, and then had to laugh at the women's' surprised faces. With a sweeping gesture that took in the entire vineyard, she explained, "He is married to the land, and the grapes, and the wine." Ingarde nodded that she understood, and then shook her head while complaining at the waste of a good man to plant life. The others agreed.
But in a way, Cella knew that was not the whole answer, although it was close enough to the truth. She knew her uncle worked hard because he had her to take care of, and had sworn to her that he would always do so, and as well as he knew how. But, even so, she knew that any woman who loved her uncle would have to play second-fiddle to the fruits of the vine, for as long as he had the strength to tend to them. Even if he did not have his niece to support.
Her uncle had returned to sit at the King's table after he had danced with her, where the monarch had also mostly remained seated after the feasting had started, except for when he had asked her to dance. Cella had paid careful attention to Thranduil and was glad he had not gotten up to dance with anyone else, but tried not to make too much of his having only asked her, as it was probably just courteous behavior. For her uncle's behalf and amusement.
She wondered if he normally sat through his feasts but was leery about asking Ingarde, in case such a question was taken the wrong way. Milda joined them, breathless and happy, her face shining from the exercise, and told them it was almost time to light the bonfire.
"Where's your new dancing partner?" asked Ingarde, and Milda pointed to the line at the barrels, where the young man stood with two bowls in his hand, waiting to have them filled. He was looking their way, and lifted one of the empty bowls in acknowledgement of their attention on him, when they turned in his direction. Cella could tell even from afar that he was smitten with her bold-tongued friend by the way he focused on her alone, and smiled. His name, they learned, was Willem, and he lived with his two brothers, who were not vineyard workers, beside the Long Lake.
Milda told them that he was located surprisingly near her parents' house, and they had already made plans to travel to their homes together in the same wagon on the morrow. Willem was saving his money to buy his own land, but was not going to grow grapes on it. Instead he was going to raise livestock, his own life-long dream. Her eyes glowed and Cella could tell she had mentally built her own little home with him and surrounded it with farm animals. When the young man finally returned, with refilled bowls in hand, he told the women that the bonfire was going to be lit now, and they should hurry to get a good view.
Everyone was moving toward the pile of debris that had been cleverly fashioned to mimic the shape of the Lonely Mountain, which stood off like an enormous sentry in the distance. But, suddenly feeling anxious, Cella stayed seated and waited for the crowd to thin so she could spot her uncle, who she was sure would try to locate her, too. Bonfires made her feel uneasy, as did any kind of large fire, except for those contained in a hearth or a stove, nice and manageable. She would be happier to stay as far as possible from it, and saw no reason to draw closer.
As she had expected, her uncle stepped from the swarming crowd and saw her, lifting his hand in a wave, and she stayed where she was as he came to sit beside her. She hoped he did not expect her to join those who gathered in front of the bonfire pile. He picked up one of her hands and held it, patting it gently.
"Sitting here was a good choice. We can see the blaze just fine, I believe." His voice was cheerful, and he spoke as if she had come up with a novel idea. She knew better, but agreed with him, and added that it was nicer to be able to sit here at a distance, to have a clearer view. Back home, when the harvest feast's bonfires were lit, Cella usually went back into the main house.
Several other vineyard workers, seeing them sitting there, joined Cella and her uncle, and commented that it was much nicer to sit than to stand, especially after all the dancing had tired their legs. And they would not smell like smoke afterwards. Cella wondered how many of them were like her, and not willing to be too near open flames for any reason.
Gasps of awe and whoops of excitement greeted the lighting of the huge pile of logs and branches, as it was engulfed in flames in a great, noisy brilliant burst of orange and red light. From this vantage point, the large blazing structure resembled some kind of monster standing there, roaring with rage, and with flickering waves of flame where hair would otherwise grow. A song was being sung by some of the workers who encircled the bonfire, with their arms on each other's shoulders.
Cella shifted uneasily when the smell of the smoke reached them where they sat. But she knew it was going to burn itself out quickly, the fuel was so dry after sitting in that day's hot sun. Her uncle squeezed her hand, and she smiled in gratitude, happy that he had found her in time to be with her. And she was even more pleased that he did not try to coax her into joining the festive crowd in front of the bonfire.
With the pause to witness the lighting of the fire the only major interruption, the music and dancing lasted far into the night. Again, Cella found herself in great demand on the dance floor. And now that she had overcome her fear, and found out how much fun it could be, she felt as if she would never tire of stepping and twirling to the magical music the Elves played. The bowl of her uncle's heady vintage certainly helped give her the extra bit of courage she had needed at the very first, but after the musicians returned, and the fire had died down to the point that it no longer worried her, she looked forward eagerly to whoever was going to ask her next.
At last she was returned to the main table and would not return back to the floor, no matter who asked her. Uncle Dwain was slumped over slightly in his chair, the victim of his own hands, sound asleep from drinking his wine. She tried to shake him awake, but the combination of the potent vintage, the hard work from the night before, and not enough sleep for the last few days, had sent him far too deeply asleep to be roused easily by her timid little hand.
"Wake up, Uncle," she said to the snoring man as she patted his face. "Oh dear, how am I ever going to get you into your bed?" Dawn was not that far off, now, and Cella felt weary, but in a good way. For a moment, she considered leaving her uncle where he sat sleeping, and go off to her own bed.
"Here, let me assist you," said the Elfking, rising from his seat. With ease, he was able to draw her uncle up to his feet, without waking him it seemed, and get him into an upright position. With Cella on the slumbering man's other side, they walked him toward the main house. Uncle Dwain was able to stumble along; his steps were graceless and clumsy, as if he was sleep-walking, but mostly he was a dead weight that they were forced to keep propped up. At one point he opened a bleary eye and looked around him, before closing it again and letting his head droop to one side.
"I think that Uncle Dwain needs to sleep in his own bed tonight, My Lord," said Cella as they drew close to the landing of the mansion. The thought of helping her uncle navigate the few steps up to the main entrance was daunting enough, but the long staircase up to the royal bedchamber was clearly out of the question. "He needs to stretch out and get a good rest."
"I agree," said the Elfking. Cella knew this meant that she would be back sleeping in her own room tonight, also. She felt a little sad to give up the luxuries of the regal chambers, but more at ease about the way it would look to everyone else, as they headed down the final corridor to their private residence. And she found it fitting that she and Uncle Dwain stay in their cozy little house together, during their last night here.
After they had deposited her uncle in his bed, fully clothed, snoring loudly, and lying on top of the covers, Cella saw Thranduil to the door to bid him goodnight. She was happily exhausted, after all the dancing and other exciting events of that night, and ready to crawl under her own covers as soon as possible. She stood before the open door, and was startled when the Elfking closed it from the inside, without going out. He stood silent, with an inscrutable expression on his face, his eyes glittering mysteriously, for several moments.
"What is it, Sire?" she asked.
"There is one small matter I must attend to, before I leave," he answered quietly.
"Majesty?" She shivered, not from cold, but from being this close to the Elfking, alone, and with no Uncle Dwain between them anymore. He lifted his hand and touched her face where Gorst's knife had scratched her, and she stood still as a statue.
"You did not receive the proper forfeit you asked for this afternoon, I believe." His hand moved down her face, the large fingers curving as they traveled beneath her jaw to cup her chin and tilt it up toward him. "It is time for me to remedy that," he added, although he spoke in vain, for her heart was pounding too loudly for her to hear him clearly.
And then he lowered his handsome face to hers, and kissed her.
To be continued in Chapter 20
Posted: September 29, 2004
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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"