The King's Vineyard, Chapter 26
|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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Cella was not sure what awoke her; the crackling of the freshly lit campfire, the cheerful chattering morning birdsong, or the Elfking's murmuring voice. She found she was still within the embrace of His Majesty, and that realization, more than the noises, brought her to full alertness. She stayed quiet with her eyes closed and listened to what he was saying, as she enjoyed her cozy sleeping arrangement while it lasted. She did not want to stir, and signal her wakefulness, until she was ready to leave his arms.
He was not speaking to her, but to one of his Wood-elves, that much she could tell, but they spoke of simple, ordinary things, such as the weather that day -- fair, and the presence of enemies within the forest-- none, and the likelihood of having an uneventful day of travel-- quite highly likely.
But it was another voice that echoed within her mind as she woke. It had been a dream, but as clearly as if her uncle was standing beside her, she heard him saying his favorite words of wisdom about patience. After all these years, his saying, added to his lessons about how things grow, finally made sense. "First the stalks, then the roots, next the vine and last the fruit, that's the way it works, not the other way around".
Patiently, the tiniest root will find a crack in the firmest rock, and split it wide open. Cella had planted her stalks last night, as well as she could, and as far as she dared, and now she had to have faith that they would grow roots. And if such an opening existed in the firm resolve that surrounded the Elfking's noble heart, then her efforts would eventually produce the desired results. For the time being, it was best to retreat and behave as if she had learned her lesson from him, and would not pursue her desires.
She discovered that while she was asleep, she had worked an arm out of the cloak and rested it on his chest. It lay there now, and she wished she had the courage to slip it around him and hug him. As she continued her pretense of sound sleep, she thought of how nice it was going to be to ride with him again today on Alagos, and feel his legs against her thigh. And this time she would be wide awake.
As soon as it occurred to Cella that the sooner she 'woke up' and they got on the road, the sooner she would be on horseback with the Elfking, she opened her eyes and sat up straight. Next to her and Thranduil were all three of the green-clad guards, crouched down on their haunches.
"How was your sleep?" asked the Elfking. He gestured to the other Elves to leave the area and Cella waited until they left before she answered him.
"I can't believe I slept at all after all those things I said to you," answered Cella, already prepared with what she was going to say. "And those cruel things you said to me." She smiled, however, to show no hard feelings. And she decided not to mention the last words he spoke about loving her, which truly did keep awake for a long while as she pondered them.
"You were very bold last night, firiel" said Thranduil pleasantly as he moved her off of his lap and stood. "I hope you will have mercy on me this day."
"I only live to please you, Sire," replied Cella. "Of course I will do anything you say."
"We shall call a truce this morn and have our breakfast in peace, then," declared the Elfking.
His tone, more than his kind words, made her feel better about how she was going to cope with the consequences of her rash speech the night before. She nodded shyly and he lifted his eyebrows when she held out a hand to shake his, in a gesture that indicated a successfully negotiated bargain. He shook her hand and then pulled her to her feet and led her to the river where she could wash her face and hands.
She figured that this was the same river the wine barrels would be traveling on to the Elfking's halls. The water was shrouded with mist, and there were birds in the trees on either bank, but no other type of animal to be seen along the stony beach. As she splashed her hands in the chilly water, she could see fish darting around under the surface. Despite the lack of wildlife along the riverbanks, she did not believe this was the forbidden river she had learned about from Thaladir while still at the vineyard.
From the seneschal's lessons, she knew there were two rivers that protected Thranduil's halls. One of them had black water that was enchanted, and if you drank from it, swam in it, or even touched it, you would fall instantly to sleep. No traffic was allowed on it except in Elf-made boats. She had never asked if any fish swam in that magical sleepy river; perhaps she would ask Thranduil about that later on today.
After she had freshened up, he took her back to the fallen tree she had sat on the day before. The saddlebags were lying on the ground there and he rummaged within them while she sat studying her surroundings.
It was a new day, but the sun had not yet risen high enough to reach down into the dark and shady clearing they had camped in. Straight overhead, where the stars had hung within their frame the night before, a patch of clear blue sky was visible. For a moment, Cella imagined that this must be the view from the bottom of a well. The Elfking put a cloth on the wide surface of the fallen tree and laid out some bread and fruit for their morning meal.
The pre-dawn mist that rose from the river had dampened their surroundings and still clung to the ground all around them, although it was dissipating. The trees around them seemed to hover above the forest floor on a bank of wispy clouds. Cella could hear the sound of water dripping from leaves and branches.
But the dim daylight was enough to allow her to recognize the trees. They were the same ones she had seen carved into the roof of the Elfking's canopy on his royal bed. Only, these real trees seemed ancient and gnarled and much messier with drooping branches draped in lichen and trunks greened by moss.
As she studied the surrounding woods, she recalled the wall hangings in the Elves' living area at the vineyard. Many of them had depicted parties of Elves hunting for stags or boars. Others showed pleasant scenes of the Fair Folk surrounded by friendly furred creatures, such as rabbits or foxes. But here, like beside the river, except for tiny birds that flitted about the edges of the campsite looking for crumbs, there was no other wildlife to be seen.
Thranduil told her that many animals lived in the forest, but were shy around mortals, and were peeking at her from a safe distance. She peered into the trees, but saw nothing there but thick brush and tall ferns.
Today, they would arrive at his halls, and she would see the great gate that had been pictured in the Elves' tapestries, too. As they ate breakfast, he informed her they would be within the walls of his palace before midday. The part of his forest that they had rested in overnight was only a few leagues within the borders of his woodland realm, but the remaining distance would be traveled at a more leisurely pace than yesterday.
"Halatirn went on ahead to my halls during the night," Thranduil told her, referring to another of his Wood-elves, "And he has just returned," he continued. "He has brought some items with him, as I asked him." As he spoke, he reached beside him and lifted a large pouch, with a drawstring top, and handed it to her.
"There is something inside that I believe you will find more suitable to wear today. I know you were upset about your dress last night. Put the gown inside this bag when you change and it will be cleaned for you when we arrive in my halls."
Wondering, Cella opened the pouch and peeked inside. All she could see were folds of what looked like a forest-green fabric. She wondered if it was another Elf-made gown, and hoped it would fit her as well as the first one they had sewn for her did. But how could it have been made so swiftly?
She could not wait to have clean clothes on, but she decided not to reply to the Elfking's words about how she had felt upset about mussing her gown by crying into it, and using it as a handkerchief, the night before. Apparently none of her private thoughts had been denied him, and there had been too many for her to make an inventory now. She would save this task for later, when she could agonize over them at her leisure.
Without hesitation, she allowed herself to be led within the trees where there was a natural screen of hawthorn and bracken for her to change behind. She nearly squealed aloud after she removed the contents of the sack, and found leggings and a short tunic, cleverly made and ornately embroidered, almost too richly made for wearing outdoors, let alone riding on horseback.
She figured that was the reason for the pants she found in the pouch, to allow her the freedom to ride astraddle on Alagos instead of sideways. But she had difficulty bringing herself to put them on before she was sure that was what the Elfking had in mind. They were not made of the usual sueded leather that his Elves usually wore, but from some type of soft fabric with a smooth, dense pile and a plain underside. Was this usual wear for the Ellith of Mirkwood when they rode horses?
"My lord?" she called out.
"Yes, I am here," answered Thranduil, his voice indicating that he was only a few steps away on the other side of the bushes.
"Are you sure these are the clothes that you meant for me to wear? They look very, um, ceremonial and valuable." She ran her fingers over the ornamental embroidered pattern sewn with silver thread that covered the front of the tunic, there were tiny cut glass beads woven within the loops and swirls.
Even here in the shadow of the trees, the needlework and beads shimmered and glistened, and she could just imagine how they would sparkle in the sunlight. The pants had a similar decorative pattern stitched down the outside of each leg. "These are too fine for everyday wearing, Sire. I think you should look at them, first. Please?"
The Elfking stepped through an opening in the bushes and grinned at the tunic she handed to him, holding it up before him at the shoulders, as if it was an Elf he was looking at.
"Yes, I mean for you to wear this. It is time for it to be put to good use again, after being stored away for all this time." For a few moments, he stared thoughtfully at the fancy garment before continuing, "You have a good eye; this was made for a ceremony, a certain ceremony, and worn only once, many years ago." He smiled, remembering. "And they are made for wearing on horse-back, even though they were never truly used for that purpose, not seriously."
"Were these made for an Elleth?" Cella had the leggings in her hands, and the laced up front was a novelty to her, and very impractical for the female anatomy.
Thranduil was still smiling at the tunic but he answered, "No," with no further explanation.
His answers were puzzling, but it was at least clear that the fancy clothes were meant for her to wear, after all. She took the tunic back from him and he left her to dress in private.
Before she could pull the pants over her feet, she had to remove her shoes, but that was the only problem she had with the Elf garments. The leggings were a little long, but she was able to roll up the ends a few turns creating cuffs at the bottom to make them fit properly. She put them on under her dress, leaving the laces untied for the moment, and then it was time to put on the tunic. Before she did, she looked around her, there were no Elves in sight up in the trees, at least that she could see, so she slipped out of the gown.
Beneath her dress she also wore a knee-length shift that Ingarde had given to her. She left it on under the tunic, tucking the silky finery inside the waist of the leggings before tying their laces up securely. The beautifully embroidered long sleeves on the top had to be rolled into a cuff, too. It made her sad to cover up even one thread of the decorative needlework, but she would need her hands today.
Her dress was badly wrinkled from being slept in, and soiled from her crying into it, so she was glad to hide it from sight. After folding it up, she placed it into the pouch the riding clothes had been delivered to her in. The only thing that she did not like about her Elf-made riding suit was how the fabric it was made from was so much thicker than her dress that she knew it would not feel nearly as nice to bump against the Elfking with it on.
She felt very self conscious about the fine clothes and, as she crept back out through the undergrowth, she held the branches of the bushes far from her to keep from snagging a single thread. It felt odd to walk about with pants on her legs. When she came into the clearing, Thranduil was waiting for her and he smiled broadly when she emerged.
He made her turn around so that he could see her from all sides and pronounced the Elf suit a nearly perfect fit. It would only need a bit of tailoring to make it right, he told her as he held one of her arms up to examine the rolled up sleeves. It felt delightful to have his attention and she could not wait to get back on his horse with him.
"Halatirn has brought one more item for you to try on," he said while gesturing to the trees. Alagos was led out into the clearing by the Wood-elf along with a smaller horse at his other side. Thranduil held his hand out to the second horse, a filly, and she came over to him obediently. Her shiny coat was a deep bay color and she had black stockings on her dainty legs. "Today you can show me how well you can ride," he said. "As you said you were able to do."
As she reached out to stroke the lovely animal, Cella was torn. She was keenly disappointed at finding out she would not be riding with the King, but excited at having her own mount instead. "This is Hwiniel," [twirling maiden,] he said.
"Will she hold still for me, Sire?" The name indicated otherwise, but the pretty horse seemed calm enough. The Elfking told her that when Hwiniel was a foal, she loved to run in circles around the other horses in the pasture, but had since learned to run in a straight line, and quite swiftly when she was asked.
"She will not throw you, or let you fall," he promised.
Cella fell in love with her mount at first sight and complimented the horse on her long eyelashes and beautifully braided mane. She was grateful to see that even though there was no saddle, the filly wore makeshift reins attached to a simple headstall with two leather bands, one that crossed over her forehead and the other over her nose.
Alagos shook his head and snorted, as if he was jealous of all of the attention being paid to the smaller horse while he was left ignored. Cella laughed, and patted his nose, while the King attached the saddlebags to his steed. Then he helped her onto Hwiniel's back and handed her the reins, made of slender rope. He took a moment to show her how to guide the horse using the headstall, which did not work the same as a mouth bit, and had them walk around the glade for a few turns before he was satisfied.
For a long while she had to ride behind Thranduil after they entered the deep forest and traveled through the thick trees along a narrow trail. She still saw no wildlife as they rode, but she could hear squirrels chattering in the branches overhead, and thought she caught the briefest glimpse of a black furry tail. But mostly all she could see was deep green shade and darker green shadows.
It had been many years since she had ridden such a young and sprightly horse, but Hwiniel was easy to stay on, and seemed to sense Cella's initial sense of awkwardness on her unfamiliar perch, and made adjustments accordingly. If Cella started to slip too far in one direction, the horse would tip her gently in the opposite way. After they had ridden together up and down a few steep places without incident, although very slowly and carefully, they both relaxed when the path smoothed out and went straighter.
She asked Thranduil if they were going to see any giant spiders along the way. Although she was curious to see one if possible, she was not exactly sure she was ready. He assured her that any spiders left alive in his realm had been driven far from this part of his forest, and she was not likely to ever see one.
Although Cella thought they would have more sunlight to ride in when they finally reached the main road, she was not very surprised to find that the trees of the dense forest on either side of it made a tunnel with their branches. And only occasionally did a slender beam of sunlight find an opening in the roof over their heads and send a slender brilliant ray down to briefly dazzle her eyes, which had grown accustomed to the gloom.
But now that they were off the slender path, she could ride beside the Elfking, instead of behind him, and that was much nicer than sunlight for her.
"What about the invisible hobbits?" she asked. "Are there any of them around?" Although she knew her eyes were not even adequate enough to see a visible creature in the Elfking's forest, she hoped that he would somehow be able to sense the presence of any strange animal, visible or not, lurking within his realm.
"Invisible? No, I do not believe so," he answered. "Nor visible ones."
"Did you ever see one, Your Majesty?" She did not know why she had never thought to ask him before about hobbits. The funny sounding rabbity men with furred feet and voracious appetites had intrigued her since she first heard tell about them from Milda and Ingarde. The seneschal's description of the only one he saw was brief and inadequate.
It was a wonder to her how much gentler Alagos was today, compared with his impatience to run the day before. He walked calmly along, without visibly testing his pace, while Thranduil told her the story of the hobbit that had inhabited his halls. Hwiniel was nearly dwarfed beside the mighty steed, but she was just about as much horse as Cella could have handled on a strange road in a strange land. The way the filly's dainty ears twitched, it looked like she was listening to the interesting story too.
As the Elfking told her the tale of Bilbo Baggins and the dwarves, Cella was almost disappointed at first at how ordinary sounding the hobbit creature turned out to be, and not very magical at all. But she did have to giggle at his funny sounding name.
Thranduil corrected Cella's misinformed notions about hobbits being uniformly invisible or having any rabbit or dwarf blood, but he confirmed their large fur-covered feet. And very healthy appetites. He referred to the one he met as a 'perian' [halfling]. Only one of them had ever come over the Misty Mountains, from their country called Shire, and into the wilderness of the great forest, and it was not likely that any other would ever follow him. It had not been an enjoyable experience for little Bilbo.
Cella grew more interested when she learned that Thranduil actually knew Bilbo very well, and deemed him to be a cunning, well-spoken, and very brave halfling. She thought she detected the slightest note of bitterness in the monarch's voice as he related the escape the imprisoned dwarves had made from his dungeons with the hobbit's help. But during that time, no Elf in the halls was aware of the furry footed burglar in their midst.
And then the tale became exciting as Thranduil related how the shrewd and crafty halfling had helped the Elves during the Battle of the Five Armies, and had been crucial in the slaying of the mighty dragon, Smaug. No other creature in Esgaroth had ever been as near to that mighty fire-breathing monster as Bilbo had, and lived to tell about it.
It was hard to tell how much time passed by while they rode and Cella listened to the full tale of the terrible battle at the foot of the Lonely Mountain. Images of warring Elves, men, dwarves, trolls, goblins, eagles, and one brave little hobbit, swam in her head and she wondered how they kept every one sorted out during the fierce fighting. And the story of the desperate Laketown people, after their homes were burnt to the ground during the wicked dragon's last fiery rage, tugged at her heart.
The modest Elfking left himself out of both tales, except to recount his dealings with the hobbit and the fabled Arkenstone. But Cella had already learned from Thaladir how, before proceeding to Dale in pursuit of the dwarves who had escaped his halls, His Majesty had insisted on helping the homeless people find shelter and food.
The seneschal had thought it a most gracious act for a most ungracious populace, but she did not repeat this sentiment to Thranduil as they rode along. It made her sad, too, to think of how much the Elves had done for the Laketown people at one time, only to be treated with such disrespect these days.
Although the road to the Elfking's halls was straight, it was not flat, and it took them up small hills and down the other side, but always the tunnel of trees keep them in shade, so it was not possible for Cella to tell the time of day by the location of the sun. Her stomach began to tell her that it was getting close to lunch time, but the road kept unwinding ahead of them, and there were no great gates in sight. The Elfking's voice fell silent and he slowed Alagos down to almost a complete standstill, to Cella's bewilderment. And then she heard something like laughter. The merry sound was coming from a tree next to the road, high in the branches. She saw nothing.
"What have you brought home with you, ada?" the laughing voice said. Cella heard leaves rustle, but still saw no one. It had to be an Elf, and his pleasant sounding voice seemed to be closer to the ground the next time it spoke aloud, "Have you caught a wood sprite in the forest? She is all dressed in green like one."
"It is rude to speak to a lady when she can not see you, my son," replied the Elfking to the tree. "Please come out and introduce yourself." He turned and smiled at her as he added, "I think she will not faint at the sight of you."
To be continued in Chapter 27
Posted: October 29, 2004
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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"