The King's Vineyard, Chapter 23
|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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It was only after Uncle Dwain used his sternest voice and ordered Cella to do the Elfking's bidding, to prepare to leave from the vineyard at once, that she consented to leave the injured man's side. He swore he would heal all the sooner if his mind was at ease over her safety, and he could think of no safer place for her to be than within the Elfking's realm.
"Any Elf that could hold off that Dark Lord and all of his wicked doings," her uncle declared, "can surely handle some raggedy bad'uns that don't have any good sense to begin with." Gently, he removed her arms from around his neck, where she had put them while she said her goodbyes to him. "I'll be following right along, brother-daughter, it'll take more than a banged up leg to keep this royal vintner away from his new wine cellar."
The plan was for her uncle to be brought by wagon after all of the fire damage was cleared away and the vineyard was ready to be put to bed for winter. Most of the Wood-elves that would normally be traveling home with their King were staying behind. They would provide protection along the fence lines for the next few days, at least until all of the human workers were gone.
Thranduil insisted that he and Cella leave while there were as few witnesses to their departure as possible. There was no telling who else amongst the townsfolk he employed might have sympathetic feelings for Gorst's avengers. He was taking no chances. But Cella was having her doubts.
All of her life, she had loved being around horses, and had never been frightened of one. That was before she encountered the Elfking astride his massively muscled war steed. She had never gotten over the first time she had seen them both, on the day she and her uncle had arrived.
After that first day, Cella had only seen, and had come to admire, the handsome horse from a distance, on those rare occasions when the Elfking rode him around the vineyard. His name, she had since learned, was Alagos [Storm], a fitting name for the feisty animal. And she had imagined a few times what it would be like to ride him. But now, as the great chestnut beast was being led to the main house from the stables, tossing his head and snorting with excitement, she grew faint-hearted at the idea of getting up on top of such a brute.
As much as Cella once enjoyed it, she had not gone pleasure riding for a few years, and was not sure that she wanted to start with this stamping, snorting beast being brought to the edge of the garden. She had learned how to ride when she was little, and even had her own pony when she was a girl, but it had been many years since she had been astride anything swifter than one of Uncle Dwain's fat, gentle cart horses. As respectfully as possible, she addressed the Elfking.
"My lord, if you would be so kind to lend me one of your other horses," Cella said, trying to sound brave. "I could ride along beside you. I know how to ride, don't I uncle?" Uncle Dwain was unwilling to drag his eyes away from the King's stallion, and only glanced sideways toward her for a moment before agreeing that it was true, she could hold her seat. "Maybe, Your Majesty," she suggested a bit more firmly, "you can lend me my own horse to ride?"
"There is no other mount in the stables that could keep up with Alagos," replied Thranduil mildly as he gestured for the horse to be brought near them.
The stallion was as meek as a lamb, now that he was near his master. Cella was astonished to see that the he had allowed himself to be led from the stables with only a thin rope loosely tied around his shapely neck. Alagos whickered softly and seemed to gaze at her with liquid filled brown eyes. Charmed, she had to reach out and pat his shiny coat.
"Alagos and I will put as many leagues as is possible between you and the Laketown population without delay," added the Elfking as he stepped closer to her and turned her to face him. Before Cella could voice any more protests, she was lifted at the waist and settled sideways on the warm, wide back of the large horse. She hung on to the thick, coarse mane with both hands and closed her eyes as she prepared herself to be tossed around or thrown right off.
After a few heartbeats had passed, Cella opened her eyes again. The mighty steed stood as still and calm as either of the tame cart horses she used to trot around on back home, and she lost her nervousness nearly at once. She was able to release her grip slightly and soon was petting Alagos, and almost wished she could try riding him as a man would, facing forward, with a saddle. But with her dress on, that would be impractical.
The Elfking's seneschal had brought the horse around to his monarch, removed the lead rope, and then stood by, expressionless as usual. Although he did not appear worried or upset, Cella thought she could detect in the tall Elf an attitude of weary resignation as he witnessed the scene being played out before him. She realized that it must be as distressing for these Elves as it would have been for her to see their beloved King leave the vineyard alone. Or nearly alone, as she did not provide much protection.
With one bound, Thranduil leapt up to seat himself behind her, and his powerful physical presence was momentarily overwhelming. He spoke to his seneschal one last time while Cella tried to remember how to breathe. Her hip and leg on one side were pressed against the inside of his thighs down to his knee, and she could not move a muscle.
Although there was no saddle or reins on the horse, there were large saddlebags strapped around its chest, which provided a comfortable foot rest on the side her legs were hanging over. Next to the bag on the other side of the mount, she noticed that a sword had been placed in a scabbard. They took nothing else with them. The tall robed Elf moved closer to them as if waiting on last minute instructions.
"Navaer, na-den pedim ad," [Farewell, until we see each other again,] the Elfking said to Thaladir. Cella wondered if the proper seneschal disapproved of his liege lord's latest hasty decision, to rescue her from the town people. But she knew he would never say so and she was sure it would never show on his face if he did not approve.
"No i Melain na le," [May the Valar be with you,] replied the tall robed Elf somberly. "Sílo anor na rad lín" [May the sun shine on your path.]
"A na rad lín," [And on your path, too,] Thranduil answered.
As she watched and listened, Cella wondered how often those very words, and scenes just like this, had been repeated in the lives of these two Elves, over the centuries. The warrior King was riding away on some important business while his trusted advisor was left behind to see after the realm, and all of its subjects. Only now, the King was going home to his Kingdom, and his subjects, left behind here in the vineyard, were far from it.
"Avo 'osto, sadron nín," [Don't worry, my faithful one,] said the Elfking. And then he added, "Le cenithon ned lú thent." [I will see you soon.] The tall Elf nodded to his King, but spoke no more.
As they rode away from the garden, Cella's heart was squeezed between the grief she felt over leaving her uncle behind, and the pleasure she felt at being alone with Thranduil; close enough to touch him without being able to help it. She felt his hand on her back holding her steady as they maneuvered down the road, and she hoped he would keep it there. Although her body was turned sideways, she looked ahead and sat up straight in an effort not to lean directly into him.
Even so, her shoulder and part of her side brushed against his chest with the motion of the horse, and she reveled in the sensation of his leg pressed against hers; she could feel the muscles along his inner thigh shifting as he guided the horse. His free hand rested atop his other leg. She would have liked to feel both of his arms around her, but was happy nonetheless.
But, despite all of these glorious sensations, she did wish she could have said goodbye to her friends, Milda and Ingarde. She was sure she would see the Ellith she had made friends with again much sooner, as they were all returning to the forest realm for the winter, but there was a chance she would never see the women again. At the very least, she would not meet with them again until spring. If it was safe then for her to come back. The thought that it may never be safe made her feel even sadder.
Instead of using the usual cart path, which would have taken them too near the dining-tent, the Elfking guided Alagos in a wide circle around all the vineyard buildings to meet up with the fence that ran next to the main road, but at some distance from the gate. They rode inside the fence line along a narrow path and Cella looked back up the small hill for a last view of the pressing vats and vintner's shed. When she turned to face forward, she noticed two people standing with the Elf gate guards near the entrance to the vineyard. When they lifted their arms to wave at her, she recognized them immediately in the distance, Milda and Ingarde.
The Elfking dismounted and helped Cella to the ground so she could embrace her friends. He spoke with the gate guards while the three women said farewell and promised to see each other again. Ingarde also promised to stay close to Uncle Dwain, until he was ready to be moved. And Milda, who was already planning on staying on for a few days, said that she would keep on eye on him, too.
Cella felt much better about leaving her uncle, knowing that her friends would be there to keep him company. At least he would not feel lonely. She asked them how they knew she was leaving and they told her they did not know about her. They were only told to come to the gate and so they had.
It was Nandirn, Milda and Ingarde told her, who had found them in the dining tent and advised them to come to the gate as quickly as they could get there. And it was all very secretive and mysterious, which was the perfect bait for them. Not only was Willem to be discouraged from following them, but the gray-clad Elf had made it clear that no one should be told where they were going. If it had been any other Elf who had approached them with such instructions, they both swore they would have been more skeptical, but they trusted this one and were willing to do as he directed. And were glad they did.
And what a nice surprise, they exclaimed, but a welcome relief, to see Cella being taken from the vineyard before anyone else could harm her. They approved wholeheartedly and applauded the Elfking's good sense. They only wished he would have thrashed the inadequate Laketown Sheriff while he had the chance, but otherwise believed he had made the only logical decision.
"Willem's going to ask about you, and so are a lot of the others. What should I say?" asked Milda, although she directed the last question to the Elfking, who had drawn near the women.
"Tell them Celiel is indisposed," he answered dryly. "And that she is not accepting any visitors for the rest of the day." The women giggled and said that it was such a good story; they could not wait to try it out. At least they did not have to try to fool Uncle Dwain. Cella was lifted up again onto Alagos' back, and the Elfking mounted up behind her; it was time for them to go.
"Watch out for those spiders, Cella," said Milda, wiping her eyes.
"And keep an eye out for those invisible hobbits and nasty-ghouls," added Ingarde, sniveling a little.
"It's Nazgul," corrected Milda. "You big bawling baby."
"Look who's talking," replied Ingarde.
Thranduil chuckled to himself as he guided Alagos out through the open gate and onto the main road. Cella had to lean over to look around him in order to see her friends now, and they waved to her one last time. She turned to face forward again.
"Thank you," she said. "I was worried about not saying goodbye to them."
"You have had enough worries today," replied the Elfking. Cella was glad he was so considerate toward her, but it only made her love him that much more desperately. She was surprised that after all the hurrying to get away, he kept the horse to a walk as they left the vineyard. If it was for her sake, she was grateful. But she did not see how this was going to get them very many leagues in a short time.
As they moved farther down the road, Cella could feel Alagos' growing impatience as he tried again and again to break out of the slow pace they were traveling at and into a trot. Each time he tried, she could feel Thranduil squeeze his own legs against the horse's sides, which would slow the beast back to a walk, but only for a few paces before he tried again. Cella had to laugh at the animal's constant testing. "I think he wants to run," she said, feeling sorry for him.
"Yes, he will run, but not yet," said Thranduil. Cella could tell from the tone of his voice that he was more amused than annoyed by the contest of wills. They had only gone about a mile from the gate when the road turned and the vineyard vanished from sight. And as they came all the way around the bend, a dozen Elves, dressed in the dark-green tunics that identified them as the King's private guards, were waiting on horseback beside the road. They joined their monarch as he rode along, falling in on either side and behind him.
Without speaking a word, the Elfking lifted a hand and gestured to them. As if they had practiced beforehand, they peeled off in groups of three and went in different directions; a few sped ahead, a few lagged behind, and the rest rode off of the road on both sides, where they silently melted out of her sight into the brushy landscape. She felt a slight twinge of disappointment at discovering she was not truly alone with Thranduil, after all. But it felt good to know that there were other eyes and ears around to assist them along the way.
As soon as the Elven escort had vanished from sight, Cella felt Alagos almost tremble with the need to run after the other horses, and now he was allowed to break out of his enforced walk and into a brisk trot, which turned into a lope. She felt Thranduil lean forward slightly while he clamped his legs firmly against Alagos' sides, and the great beast responded with a giant leap forward, and then he began to run. The force of his forward motion threw a startled Cella back against the Elfking's hard chest, and she reflexively grabbed at his tunic, while his arm came back around her to steady her against him.
As the miles flew by, Cella was able to release her tight grip on Thranduil's tunic, although she did not remove her hand, as she gradually adjusted to the vigorous rhythm beneath her seat made by the horse's galloping legs. She tried to turn herself to face forward again, in an effort to watch the road ahead, but the wind, caused by the speed they raced along at, whipped her hair around her face, and made her eyes tear up. It was much easier, and more comfortable, to keep her cheek pressed flat against Thranduil's chest, and watch the world fly by them sideways.
Beneath her ear, she could hear the King's heart, and lulled by its steady beat, and the rocking motion of the horse, she fell asleep.
"Caro i echad sí."[Make the camp here.] Cella snapped awake at the sound of Thranduil's voice, and she sat up straight and looked around in astonishment. It was evening; she and the Elfking had left the main road at some point, and were now halted in a small clearing within a thick forest. They were surrounded on all sides by unfamiliar trees. Three of the King's guards were standing before them, and the sound of rushing water signaled that they were very near a river or large stream.
Thranduil dismounted from Alagos, and lowered Cella down beside him, where she had to become reacquainted with her legs for a few moments before she could trust them enough to walk again. As she studied her new surroundings, she shifted from foot to foot until the pins-and-needles sensations in her lower limbs slowly dissipated. The Elfking removed the saddlebags from the horse and handed them to one of the green-clad Elves.
Once she was ready to move, although still somewhat shakily, Thranduil pointed out the trunk of a fallen tree. It would make an adequate bench for her to sit on while she waited for dinner. A small fire was built while the large saddlebags yielded their treasures. Clean cloths were spread out on the mossy ground and small brown loaves of bread, yellow wedges of cheese, and firm, red apples, were laid out on top of them. A fresh brace of rabbits were being dressed for roasting on an improvised spit.
As usual, Cella watched the graceful Wood-elves with fascinated admiration at the way they moved both swiftly and silently, while leaving no tiny detail undone. She felt obligated to pitch in and help them, but her timid offers were politely refused. The Elfking had led Alagos off somewhere out of sight in the forest and, before they ate, he returned to escort her to the river's edge so she could freshen up.
The deep forest was always in perpetual shade except for at those places where daylight could reach through unimpeded, like the clearing they all sat in. But, the sun had already sunk lower than the treetops before they had arrived, and the shadows had long since returned. Cella was out in the wild world, and she loved it. In the evening's gloom, the river water had looked like liquid silver as it splashed and played over large, smooth boulders. She could hear ravens cawing out to one another as they gathered together for their night's rest.
After they were finished eating, and clearing up the area after the meal, the silent Wood-elves melted away into the forest, and Cella was alone with the Elfking. The fire had been allowed to die down to a few flickering flames that barely lit the campsite, and the sky overhead glittered with stars.
There was one more trip to the riverside, and then the saddlebags gave up another hidden treasure when Thranduil removed the velvety suede cloak, and shook it out to make a bed for her to lie down on. Once she was settled in its center, he covered her with the rest of it, wrapping her tenderly with one flap tucked under the other. She wished he would kiss her, but knew he would not. Probably not ever again.
"You must sleep now," he said. "We are safe here." He left her there and went to sit next to a tree on the other side of the fire, but faced away from her so she could not see his eyes. Lying on her side, she could just make out his silhouette in the gloom. The dying fire defined an elbow here, a bent knee there, and part of one hand, but the rest of him was hidden in shadow. She amused herself for a while by reliving how wonderful it had been to lean against his chest as they rode today, and to wake up there, too.
But Cella was not even a little sleepy, although her body was weary from sitting for so long in one position, and it felt good to stretch out her legs. She turned over on her back and for a long time she gazed up at the small glittering patch of stars visible through the opening in the trees. She wondered what the Elfking was doing, sitting over there on the other side of the campfire, and she lifted herself to see him. He was gazing upwards, too, at the same stars she had been watching.
"I said it is time for you to sleep, firiel," he said quietly, without turning his head. With a sigh, Cella laid back down and turned onto her other side, and pretended to be asleep as she thought about him. She wondered what he would do for the rest of the night while she slept, if she ever did. She imagined him sitting and staring at the stars for hours. Or, maybe he would wait until he was sure she was asleep and then leave her there to wander around in his beloved forest? Or would he just fall asleep sitting there?
The more she thought about him, the more awake and restless she became. The ground started to feel more uncomfortable, and the freedom to stretch felt less and less relaxing. She sat up. The Elfking's body was turned now in such in a way that he was entirely in shadow, but she could tell he was awake by his posture.
"What is on your mind, Celiel?" he asked.
"Do Elves never sleep, Your Majesty?" She worried that he had not heard her, because he did not speak for a while, or in any way indicate that he acknowledged her existence. But, she waited, instead of repeating the question, and watched what she could see of him in the glow of the dying campfire, as he sat still and silent, across from her.
To combat the growing chill from the night air, Cella had to pull the cloak up and around her shoulders, but she did not want to lie back down. Being outdoors, deep within the shadows of a thick forest, made her feel free to abandon the type of civilized notions that were appropriate in a shelter with four walls and a ceiling. Just because it was night, did that mean she had to go to sleep? She thought not.
And it was not completely dark, although the shadows that surrounded them were deep. The moon had not yet lifted high enough into the night sky to reach down into the small clearing. She caught a glint of firelight in the Elfking's eye as he shifted around toward her. Now that he was turned back toward the campfire, his face was illuminated, and visible, which made her happy.
"Yes, Elves sleep," he answered. "Although not in the same way a mortal does, or with such abandon. As you should be doing now. Lie down, you need to rest." As if to show her a good example, he stretched his legs out straight, crossing one over the other, and folded his arms over his chest. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the tree trunk, but she knew he was not sleeping.
However, it was nicer to look at him now that she could see his face, and with his eyes closed he would not see her staring. A long while passed in silence, except for the music the river made, and the chirping of crickets. She thought it was possible that she might sit and watch him pretend to sleep until daybreak; she had nothing better to do. As she sat there, loving him with all of her heart, he opened an eye and looked at her. She smiled.
"I can't fall asleep," she said. "Until you tell me how Elves sleep differently from mortals, and with less abandon." Both of Thranduil's eyes were open now, and he regarded her for some moments in silence again, before he answered.
"You remind me," he said at last, "of an Elfling I once had a similar conversation with. Only he wanted to know how mortals slept differently from Elves, and claimed he would not rest until he learned."
"An Elfling?" she asked. It was the first time she had heard the term.
"An Elf child," he explained. "Only that happened many, many years ago. And he is not a child any more."
"And I am not a child any more, either," said Cella.
To be continued in Chapter 24
Posted: October 16, 2004
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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"