The King's Vineyard, Chapter 25
|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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A hush had fallen over the forest after Cella spoke boldly to the Elfking about her love for him. The softly whispering leaves were still, the crackling fire was muted, the river's music faded. It felt as if the entire world was holding its breath.
Thranduil hovered over her but did not speak. His back was to the fire, and his face was in shadow, but his eyes shone with the curious light she had seen before that seemed to be kindled deep within his regal soul. She waited and wondered what he would do, or say. He had asked her for the truth, and she had told it to him.
The sudden spell of silence was broken when, off in the distance, she once again heard the night-bird calling. Thranduil heard it too, of course, and he looked out into the darkness, as if interested by the sound.
"It's an owl, isn't it?" she asked.
"No, it is Emlin," he answered, referring to one of the Wood-elves that he had earlier sent into the trees to keep watch. "He is telling me that all is well," he added. "My forest sleeps in peace."
Not all of it, Cella thought to herself as she wiped at her still wet eyes, there was at least one little piece of this forest that was not peaceful. Although she found it comforting to know that they were being watched over by Thranduil's guards, and that all was well beyond the clearing they were in, it was disturbing to be reminded that they were not truly alone.
Could it get any worse? She, a lowly mortal maid, was far from home and at the mercy of this royal Elf in his great forest. She had just declared her love to him, and had nearly dared him to have his way with her. Even though he had told her that he had forbidden himself to be tempted by her. And that he would never see her as anything but a child.
What a world. Her face, her dress, and her life, were all a mess. And on top of this, they were probably being watched by Wood-elves. That made it even less likely that the Elfking would kiss her tonight, no matter how many more silent messages she sent to him. She would try again some other time. And she would never stop trying.
But right now, Cella finally felt tired, and was prepared to surrender to the Elfking's insistence that she give up her quest to break through his resistance to her. Only temporarily would she give up, and she planned to ponder on her dilemma in miserable silence for the rest of the night. She had just one more point to make before she did that. It was nearly hopeless for her to expect him to take her seriously, but she was determined to make him see her as more than a child, who did not know her own heart, before she said good night.
She tried to move and found herself bound by his cloak wrapped around her arms. After she had freed her hands from within the velvety suede, she was able to push herself up to sit to speak to him. He was close enough to her that she could have reached out and touched him, if he would only let her. But she knew better than to try. She put her hands back inside the cloak and kept them there.
"Even if you never kiss me again," she said slowly, "or do anything else that you might feel tempted to do, I will still love you. In fact, I will never stop loving you. You may outlast or outlive my love, but you will never convince me to stop feeling it. Never." Even in the darkness, she could see him smiling at her words.
"I believe that you say 'never' far too easily," he said, his voice kind. "Do you even know the true meaning of that word?"
"No, I don't," she admitted. "At least probably not as well as you do," she added. "But, I know now what I need to survive, Sire. And I cannot see how that could ever change."
He shook his head as he rose from beside her and then crouched down again by the fire. As he raked the coals together and laid more firewood upon them, he said, "There is a difference in what is needed in order to survive and what you only think you must have..." At that, Cella sat up straighter and drew in her breath to protest, but the Elfking held his hand up and gestured for her to keep silent. She cast her eyes down and waited for him to finish.
Satisfied, he continued, repeating his last few words emphatically first, "What you only think you must have in order to satisfy these temporary cravings, or desires, for what you do not know." She sighed. Could he be more discouraging?
After he was finished with the fire, the Elfking brushed his hands off and settled himself down to sit right where he was, stretching one leg out and bending his other knee up, while laying his arm over it. He continued, "There is a vast difference. And the realization of the difference between what you need, and what think you want, will serve you well, firiel. It will greatly lessen your discomfort in doing without that which could ultimately harm you."
Yes, she realized, he could be more discouraging. However, despite her youth, her ignorance of the world, and her innocence, Cella was a woman, and carried within her heart the wisdom of all the ages of women who had come before her, and given her life. From deep within her soul, the very well of her existence, the truth shone pure. Despite his words, she would not give up.
And she was not stupid; she knew there was no chance to change this Elf's mind, at least not this night. But she found that it was not possible to surrender to his ideas about her without a fight. He might move himself away from her, and even try to belittle her, but he would not deny her the right to love him. And he was wrong this time.
"I know very well, Your Majesty, that what I actually need to survive are air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, and things such as that. But why I need to survive, my reason and my purpose in this world, had never been clear to me until I realized that I loved you. And what I feel about you, it is no temporary craving," she told him. "And I am not afraid to show you, Sire, even if I don't know how. I know that you will never harm me."
She could see his body shift, but only slightly, and wondered if she had reached him at all, and if she would ever be able to tell if she had. But when he turned to face her again as he spoke, his tone was severe.
"Celiel, I am, indeed, a king, because I know how to rule myself first. What you ask of me is to go against my word, and my obligation is to protect you, even from yourself. I do not expect such restraint on your part, which is why I have to be all the more vigilant, for both of us." This was not going well. What good was it, Cella wondered, to be a king if you had to worry about such things?
"I always thought that a king can make his own laws, Sire." She instantly regretted saying it. The sound of her own words made her cringe. Clearly, she was losing ground; she felt it slipping out from under her, whatever progress she had made. If she had made any at all.
"There is no need to discuss this further, except to say this," he answered. "Your uncle has put his trust in me to protect you." She could tell his jaw was clenched by the distinct way each separate word was pronounced as he uttered them, as if he was biting each one off before spitting out the next. "And he expects me to treat you respectfully."
"Yes, Sire." She was meek in her response this time; however, she did not feel meek. "But why is it disrespectful to let me love you as I wish?"
"Do you think your uncle would be pleased to learn that I took you on this forest floor, rutting with you like a wild animal? Is that what you take me for? Is that what you take yourself for? This conversation is finished." His words were harsh, his tone was stern, but instead of chastening her, what he said inflamed her.
"I don't care what my uncle will think, or what anyone will think!" she cried out. "Now that I know that you want me as much as I want you, do you think I can just forget that?"
Everything around her turned blurry as tears filled her eyes and threatened to spill again, which made her angry. She dashed them away with her fist. To prevent from making a complete fool out of herself, she stopped talking. After she took a few deep breaths she remembered what it was she had set out to do, and was able to continue with a much calmer tone of voice.
"I will always wish for you to welcome me into your arms, and into your heart, Your Majesty," she said. "Even if you keep telling me that you will not and even if you tell me that every day until the day I die. You know nothing about the way a woman's heart works." It was not as if she knew either, but she was learning, and it felt good to say it.
After the longest silence of the night, the Elfking finally responded, and his voice was kind again. "Ah, firiel, never have you aimed one of your darts so accurately. It is the truth as you say it. I find that I know very little about the way a mortal heart works, especially the heart of a mortal maid. Your feelings of affection for me are a mystery, I vow." She could swear she heard him chuckle, so low and quietly that it was difficult to tell, but he no longer sounded harsh and angry as he continued to speak.
"I am more accustomed to mortals cringing in fear when I am near them, women especially, and avoiding my presence at all cost. Your uncle is one of the only mortals I have met who was willing to look me in the eye at first meeting."
His words made her smile. She almost felt sorry for the lordly Elf being stuck with a bewildering love-sick female in the middle of his beloved forest. And she had once feared him, and avoided him, so she knew that he spoke the truth about other women. At least the ones she knew about at the vineyard.
Milda and Ingarde alone, of all the other women there, were not terrified to be near him, and that was only after he had persuaded them that he was not dangerous by caring for Cella when she was recovering from Gorst's attack. And the fact that he had allowed them free access to her, and the Elves' kitchen, while she was staying in his bedchamber. But none of the other women amongst the vineyard workers, and most of the men for that matter, dared approach him or speak to him directly. It was something to marvel over, that she was a mystery to him the way he was to her.
However, with all of the inborn instincts of her gender on high alert, she finally sensed an opening in the Elfking's impenetrable armor. Her weapons were few, and soft, and dull, and she was not skilled in their use, so they would need to be wielded with careful attention. She looked back up into the night sky and found a tiny pinpoint of light in the heavens to wish upon for luck. And she was inspired by the stars overhead, and knew just what she had to do.
Cautiously, she moved to sit next to him, as close as she could without touching him, and looked straight ahead instead of at his face. And then, after silently choosing her words with more care than she even knew she was capable of, she wrapped his cloak tightly around herself, and looked back up at the stars before speaking.
"Before I came to your vineyard," she began. "I knew nothing about Elves, either, except that they were marvelous in their deeds, and mysterious in their nature. When I was younger, I dreamed of visiting with the Fair Folk, and I even dared to imagine living with them. From all the tales I was told, Elves seemed to have the answers to the secrets of the world. Now I am living in my dream, and I do not want to wake up."
She paused there, and waited. This was going to take time, and she did not know if she would reach him at all, but she had a feeling that she would this time, if she did not lose heart, and she had to start somewhere.
"It is always good to have dreams, Celiel," replied Thranduil. "It has been my experience that a dullness of spirit too often comes when dreams are wholly surrendered to reality. I would never ask or expect you to give up yours. Do you understand this?"
"Yes, Sire," she answered reluctantly, not sure if she should. "I think I understand. It is good to have dreams."
"Yes. And I say that because I do not want you to mistake what I have to say next," he said as he gazed at her intently. "To dream is good, Celiel, but to confuse a dream with reality is almost always unwise, and can even be dangerous."
Dangerous? How was that possible? She sighed and shook her head, but kept quiet and did not contradict him out loud. She had a feeling he would say something like this, but at least he was still talking, after he had declared the conversation finished just moments ago.
He had paused when she sighed, and now continued, although to her, it seemed as if he was speaking to himself. "Indeed, for mortal man, this appears to be the most difficult task to master, with such a brief time to learn it. The permanent temptation of life is to confuse dreams with reality. To know the difference between when it is safe to drift in dreams and when it is necessary to be fully awake is often a journey fraught with peril."
"I am always fully awake when I am with you," Cella answered and then added, "You said that mortals are like shooting stars to you; don't you see how you are like the sun to me, Your Majesty? Only, your light has never stopped shining since the moment I first saw you, and there is no night in my life any more. All of the stars have permanently faded and disappeared. I will never go back to that darkness, at least not willingly."
"And I will never let you waste your life dreaming of what can never happen," said Thranduil matter-of-factly. Intuitively, Cella realized that she needed to surrender completely first to the will of the Elfking before she could proceed further.
"If you are saying that nothing further than that one kiss will ever happen between us, then I will have to accept that, and learn to be happy about it," she replied.
Without knowing how she knew it was safe to do so, as she spoke she rose up to her knees in order to be at eye level with him. He was turned sideways to her, so she put a hand on his shoulder, as if to steady herself. What she planned on doing was, as he had said, fraught with peril. She bit her lip and drew whatever courage she had inside before she continued to venture into uncharted territory.
"Of course you are right about me, you always are," she began. "I really don't want you to take me on the forest floor like an animal, Sire. And I think I owe you an apology for thinking you would do so." He did not seem to notice she was touching him and she left her hand where it was.
"Good," he replied after a moment's pause, pleased. "You have done no harm to me; there is no need to apologize." It was not easy to move closer to him while she was on her knees, because of the way the cloak was wrapped around her legs, which hindered her. But she managed.
"Yes, there is," she said with regret, not smiling anymore. "And I am truly very sorry. I practically begged you to disrespect me, and yourself, and my uncle, or at least to go back on your words to him" she said. "And I really don't want you to do any of that, either."
"Good," he said again, even more pleased. "I am pleased to hear that you have more self respect than that."
As if she agreed with him wholeheartedly, Cella nodded vigorously. She could tell he thought he had finally gotten through to her, had finally convinced her with his words of wisdom to give up her foolish, childish, temporary mortal desires. Then she leaned into him, and spoke right into his ear, with her lips nearly pressed against his silky fragrant hair.
"But if a lost little star that accidentally fell from the sky wanted to crawl into your arms and briefly find some comfort there, would that be such a sin?" When he turned to face her, their noses nearly touched. She did not budge for a few breathless moments. She waited.
"You... do not fight fair," he was able to say to her at last. But it no longer mattered, because before the last words had left his lips, she had worked her way around his bent knee, and slipped into his lap, and he had to hold onto her, or she would have fallen off. She laid her head on his shoulder and smiled up into his face, triumphantly. "I have fought hosts of orcs who fight more fairly than you," he added, which made her giggle. But he did not push her away.
"I promise I won't hurt you," she said, trying to suppress her grin. But then she stopped smiling, and was serious as she added, "And I won't ask you to love me back anymore, either. You don't ever have to love me, Sire. I will love you enough for both of us." With a happy sigh, she closed her eyes, and enjoyed being held by him.
The forest was silent again, another hush had fallen, and again she heard Emlin's imitation owl call. Thranduil's realm still slept in peace. As she felt herself drifting off, finally, and nearly instantly, to sleep, while nestled securely in the only arms she wanted to be embraced within, she heard him speak to her one more time.
"Do not think that my heart has not been opened to you, firiel. Just because I will not love you the way you want me to, does not mean that I do not already love you with all that I have." Her eyes opened.
His admission was not exactly pleasant, or flowery, or poetic, but at that moment in time, it felt like all that she had ever wanted to hear.
"That is enough for me, Sire," she replied. "Just to be near you, is enough for me." For now, she added silently. It was more than enough for now.
To be continued in Chapter 26
Posted: October 25, 2004
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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"