The King's Vineyard, Chapter 27
|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.|
|Feedback:||Please sign our guestbook or write to to firstname.lastname@example.org|
Cella was startled by the nearness of the invisible Elf's voice and nearly toppled from her horse when she looked up and saw him, almost close enough to touch, sitting on a branch of the tree nearest her. He had not been there when she had glanced over at the Elfking; and before that, she had only heard his disembodied voice laughing and talking to them while the rest of him was hidden from view. Almost by magic he had appeared, and the King had been right; she did not faint at the sight. She was dumbstruck instead.
After a moment of silence, interrupted only by birdsong, he asked her, "Pedich i lam edhellen?" [Do you speak Elvish?]
Shyly, she nodded yes to his question. If she had not already been told he was Thranduil's son, she would have guessed it immediately. They were remarkably similar in appearance, at least compared with all of the Wood-elves at the vineyard, who were the only other Elves she was familiar with.
At the same time, he also reminded her of the Elves she had seen when she was an adolescent, at the wine festival by the inland sea, more than any of the others she had met so far. He was dressed in the same type of buttery-tan tunic and leggings that she had admired back then. She wondered if he had been one of those she had seen all those years ago, and if he would remember her if he had been there.
"Speak Westron to our guest, Legolas," said the King. "This is Celiel." He turned to her and gestured at the younger Elf, saying, "And this is my son, Legolas."
The handsome younger version of the Elfking swung down from his perch and landed deftly right beside her. She could see that he was tall, like his father. He took her proffered hand and pressed his lips to it briefly, while smiling so winningly at her that she was charmed immediately.
This Elf had the same brilliant golden hair, bright eyes, and the noticeable light that seemed to hover over them, as did Thranduil. Even in the brightest daylight the Elfking had a shimmer about him, and this was even more noticeable in his shadowy forest.
However, she could see that this son of his had not suffered all the same long years of warring against the darkness as the older Elf had, although she could not have said exactly how she could tell. Only that his winsome smile and soft-spoken manner were a sharp contrast to the often grim and purposeful demeanor of the Elfking. His voice was milder, too, with an undertone of merriment.
"And what kind of wood sprite are you? One that recently stood in a shower of stars, I see," he said, referring to the sparkling silver-threaded embroidery on her borrowed tunic.
She could think of no answer for him, she was still speechless, but would not have had a chance to reply before he frowned and spoke again. "Hold on a moment," he peered intently at the riding suit. "I think I recognize this." He leaned forward and touched the sleeve of her garment, briefly. "Yes, I do... I always wondered what happened to this."
"It's yours, isn't it?" Cella asked.
"Ah, you do speak!" he exclaimed. "It was mine, once," he continued amiably. "But I was much smaller then, and I have to say that it looks much better on you now." Cella could not imagine the tall Elf being any shorter than he was, but was glad he did not demand his beautiful garments back immediately, or show any distress over her borrowing them.
But mostly, she was trying to absorb a fact that she had blithely overlooked in all of her wildest imaginings of what life would be like within the halls of Mirkwood. The possible presence of an Elfqueen. She had been blissfully unaware of Thranduil's son up until now; what else was she going to find out?
And this must be the Elf child that he had referred to the night before, who had wanted to know how mortals slept. She wondered if the Elfking had been any more forthcoming with his answer to his son about human sleeping habits than he had been with her about Elves. But she had no time to dwell on her worries and speculations as the Elfprince chatted with her.
"I hated wearing that outfit," he told her, "I felt smothered in it all day, as I recall, but there was also this huge heavy cape that went over the top of everything." At the word 'huge' he described with his arms outstretched something indicating the size of a monster about to devour him.
"It really is quite glorious to see those clothes on someone else," he continued. "Now that I am not the one who is being suffocated by them." Cella had to giggle at him, and she knew he was teasing her. She felt very comfortable, in the riding suit, and not smothered at all. Only she felt she was more on display than she would have liked.
As he spoke, he had moved around Hwiniel and, with the natural grace that all Elves seem to be born with, he leapt up and placed himself right behind Thranduil on Alagos's rump, but facing backwards. He appeared to have been sitting on the wide backside for days, with one knee bent up and his arm around it, reminiscent of his father's position last night. It was such an unusual sight that she nearly choked, not sure if she should laugh out loud at the acrobatics or quietly admire what was most likely a natural position for such a playful, cat-like creature to take.
"She looks a hungry wood-sprite to me, ada," Legolas said, and then with a serious tone. "I think we should take her home and feed her."
At his son's observation about Cella looking hungry, the Elfking remarked dryly that after being on horseback all that day, it was no wonder that she was ready for sustenance. And the sooner they got her into the palace, the sooner she would be well fed. It seemed meant as a hint for the younger Elf to remove himself from the horse so they could proceed.
"Wait a moment, then," said Legolas. "I will come along home with you." With that, he was back up into the tree, where he recovered a bow and a quiver filled with arrows, which were now slung on his back, and then he swiftly resumed his place on Alagos. He again sat back to back with the Elfking, who prompted his horse forward, and continued to converse with Cella as she followed along.
"Poor you," he said. "Having to ride all day with my father, were you desperately bored?" At that sentiment, Cella finally found it easy to answer.
"Not at all!" she protested. "I am never bored when I am with your father." After hearing her answer, the Prince glanced sideways over his shoulder at Thranduil and then leaned over and peered at him closely, as if he was seeing him for the first time. The Elfking turned and scowled at his son. Legolas was undaunted and turned to smile back brightly at Cella.
"Are you from the Laketown, Celiel? I have not been there in many years, except to visit the vineyard." He spoke over his shoulder to his father in an aside, "I do hope your wine is better tasting this year, ada." Cella had to laugh at the sour face he pulled as he asked, and she agreed with him but did not think it would be proper to say anything out loud, and thereby indirectly criticize the Elfking's less than successful wine-making operations in the past.
"I have good news for you, then," Thranduil said to his son in reply. "Do you know who you are talking to?"
"I was quite sure she must be a wood-sprite when I first saw her, but now I am not so sure anymore. Is she a princess in disguise?"
"Far better," said Thranduil. "This young lady dressed in all your princely finery is the niece of Dwain, the Dorwinion vintner." To Cella's delight, the Elfprince seemed to brighten visibly at hearing her uncle's name.
His father continued after a slight pause, as if he was answering an unspoken question, "Yes. He arrived at the vineyard the day before we harvested the crop, and has uncanny skills with the grape that have possibly saved your tongue from tasting vinegar this winter."
"By the Valar!" exclaimed Legolas, impressed. "Why did you not say so immediately? Such princely finery is dull indeed for a lady with such a rich and worthy heritage. You should be riding in a carriage with maids to wait upon you."
As his father filled him in on the rest of the story, Cella had no delusions about the younger Elf's assessment of her. She knew she was merely momentarily basking in the glory of her uncle's reputation, but it did make her feel more secure knowing her uncle's name and reputation were well-known to the Elfprince. And she was glad not to be in a stuffy carriage.
Legolas also heartily approved of the promotion her uncle had received to the royal court, but was nearly delirious with joy when told about the wine barrels that would be delivered here soon. She hoped all of the Elves in the halls were as happy to meet the niece of the wine-maker Dwain as this one. For some reason, neither the fire nor her uncle's injuries were brought into the conversation. She was glad not to have to dwell on any of it, or answer any questions that might arise.
As they traveled along, Cella noticed that the forest had begun to thin out noticeably on both sides of the road, and they no longer were surrounded by the unrelenting gloom of constant shade. And these trees seemed to be younger, and more healthy and vigorous, than the ones in the clearing they had camped at the night before.
There was not as much underbrush anymore and the forest floor looked more park-like than a wilderness. Larger and larger pools of sunlight on the road before them, and among the trees beside them, replaced the rare stabbing rays that had to find the occasional hole in the roof of thickly grown branches that they had ridden beneath for most of the day. The tiny silver threads and glass beads of her tunic sparkled and flashed as they rode through the sunny spots. This was not a dull garment by any standard.
She had not even realized how oppressive the thick forest had been until they finally rode out of it; sharing time with Thranduil had so completely distracted her that she had paid little attention to the affect their surroundings had on her. Already happy, her spirits felt lifted even higher, and she delighted in the feel of the sunlight and the sight of the colorful foliage.
They had been climbing steadily for some time up a gentle slope before the road leveled out. Cella gasped at the sight before them. At the end of the ribbon of road, no longer covered in a canopy of trees, but still at some distance away, and built into the side of a hill, stood the great gates of Mirkwood. There was a slender bridge that led across a river to the entrance and all around them in the woodland; she could hear a murmur of voices, music, and laughter.
The horses picked up their pace now, and neither Cella nor Thranduil held them back. No doubt, they were eager to get into their familiar stalls within the Elfking's royal stable, and they knew they were close. Legolas made her chuckle by letting out a whoop and pretending to almost fall off Alagos's bouncing backside. And then she laughed aloud as he clowned by exaggerating the effect that the motion of the quicker step was having on him by making his arms and legs flop about loosely in time to the quick-stepping trot.
On either side of the road the forest lost its wild look altogether. Each individual tree looked to have been strategically planted at a certain distance apart from the others. Cella turned her head from side to side trying to decide if she just imagined she was seeing what could only be described as an orchard. Except these were not fruit trees.
There were little huts in some of the clearings between the trees, but they looked nothing like any house she was familiar with. The most noticeable difference was a lack of fences in front of each one. Instead, the tiny structures seemed meant to be a part of the forest itself, some were covered in vines or ivy, and were placed to make as little intrusion into the surrounding landscape as possible.
All around the huts, wildflowers grew as they would, and not in some formally arranged pattern in front of the doors. Elves came out of the doors, and to her surprise, many more dropped or climbed down from the trees, to greet them. Cella glanced up into the branches and saw friendly Elf faces looking back at her.
The Wood-elves were happy their King was coming home. Now she noticed many of them dressed in the same quiet forest colors, like Legolas, that she remembered from her first encounter with them at the wine festival. And, to her surprise, she saw that many of the Ellith were dressed in tunics and leggings, too.
They greeted His Majesty with calls of, "Mae govannen, a aran veleg!" [Well met, o dear king!] as he rode by them. Their quick curious glances swept over her, but no one seemed upset to see her, or unhappy or even very surprised. More than a few smiled into her eyes, and held up their hands in a simple friendly gesture of greeting. She was humbled and excited simultaneously, to finally be where she had long yearned to be, and to be welcomed.
It was not until the quick horse hooves began to clip-clop over the wooden bridge that Cella woke up from the lovely feeling of being at home among the Fair Folk as she was gripped with a pang of anxiety. It was not the massive size of the gates that made her feel nervous, although the overwhelming sensation of stepping into another Age of the world swept over her. The mansion the King had built at the vineyard was the largest structure she had ever seen in her life, until now. However, there was something else that nagged at her attention as they entered the heart of Thranduil's realm.
And there were even more huts and various types of structures on the other side of the bridge, which were built closely together, on either side of the great gates. Some were clinging to the sides of the hills as well. Elves boiled out of them and filled the area in front of a wide stone stairway that led up to the massive gated entrance to the Elfking's halls.
Who among these graceful Ellith, with their beautiful faces upturned to their beloved King, was the mother of his handsome son? Which would come forward to claim his arm and be led up those stairs into their home? She tried not to stare at any of the most likely ones she saw, but it was hard not to wonder. None seemed to have a proprietary look in their eyes, which made her feel a bit more comfortable, but not much.
And then the great gates opened, almost noiselessly, and even more Elves and Ellith came out. These must be the palace Elves, she realized, as they were dressed very differently from the Wood-elves, in much finer garments that would have been impractical for moving about the forest, and they were uniformly taller. She was reminded of the robed Elf, Thaladir, when this group solemnly came down the stone steps to greet their monarch.
The King's seneschal's history lesson had included a brief overview about the migration of the Sindar Elves from the west and over the Misty Mountains. Some of these Elves were led across the Anduin River by Thranduil's father, Oropher. He had been the first great Elfking of the woodland realm.
Oropher had brought many of his own kin into the Great Greenwood with him; these lordly Elves who stood silently at the bottom of the stairway must be some of them. According to Thaladir's tale, there were many who had not survived the war against the Dark Lord and his armies on the battle plain of Dagorland, where their Elfking Oropher had fallen.
Thranduil finally halted Alagos under the shadow of the hill and Cella brought Hwiniel up right beside them. Helpful, smiling Wood-elves were at their sides instantly, to tend to their horses. It was all Cella could do to keep her eyes on the Ellith that were coming down the stone stairway to greet the Elfking, along with the ones that were already in the crowd surrounding their horses, and now her attention was being diverted by the Elves that were holding their hands out to take Hwiniel's makeshift reins from her.
She felt a bit dizzy but, at the same time, eager to see inside the underground realm. So far, none of the Ellith who came out of the halls seemed to be claiming Thranduil's undivided attention. But maybe it was more proper for an Elfqueen to wait inside to greet her beloved husband back into their home. She pictured an Elleth seated on a throne somewhere within, and hoped against hope that she was wrong.
Although the Elfking had called a halt a few times during the day, and bidden Cella to get off Hwiniel to stretch her legs, she did not think of how riding on horseback for so many hours would affect them now. She was too worried about who would appear next out of the massive gates to think about herself. Absentmindedly, she handed Hwiniel's reins to the closest hands stretched out to take them, and brought one knee up over her other to dismount.
"Celiel!" Thranduil's sharp voice stopped her abruptly from sliding off of Hwiniel's back, as she had started to do. But it was Legolas who was at her side to help her down. Gratefully, she grabbed and then clung to his forearms when her legs nearly gave out from beneath her. Whether due to her overall nervousness, or from being stretched over the back of the horse for hours, they refused to hold her up steadily for a few trembling moments.
"Are you going to fall over if I let go of you?" The Prince asked quietly. Even though she knew her face was reddened from embarrassment over her suddenly weak knees, Cella had to smile. She was the one who would have to let go of him, but she appreciated his polite way of asking her to do so.
"I don't think so, let me try," she answered as she released his arms. He still held a hand out to steady her, but she was no longer in danger of collapse. "I'm fine, thank you for helping me, my lord."
"My lord? Celiel, please, just call me Legolas," he chuckled. "Save the titles for my father."
"Le hannon, then, Legolas," she replied. "I am very happy to have met you today." As if her uncle were next to her, poking at her, she recalled the first Elvish words he had taught her to say, in case she ever encountered an Elf unexpectedly, as she always wished she would when she was younger. She had never spoken them to any Elf yet, and only hoped she was pronouncing the words properly as she did, "Gîl síla erin lû e-govaded vín." [A star shines upon the hour of our meeting.]
"Oh ho!" exclaimed the startled Elfprince. "Not only do you understand our language, but you can speak it, too? You are a true Elf-friend, then. Mae govannen."
Her legs still felt shaky, and as if she could not bring them together to close all the way. But that was to be expected, and she knew it was only a temporary sensation. At least Hwiniel was not as wide-backed as the horses that used to leave her bow-legged back home, after the first pleasure ride of a new spring season. And then Thranduil was beside her, and his hand was on her elbow, and they approached the stairs together.
Cella's heart pounded as he introduced her to the Elves and Ellith who appeared to be carefully arranged before them in a well-practiced courtly display. Among the introductions, there were Elf-lords, advisors, administrators, and a treasurer, but no Elfqueen was mentioned in the blur of titles.
One Elleth in particular peered at Cella intently while she politely welcomed her, and then continued afterwards to regard her with more interest than the others. But she did not leap forward to embrace Thranduil, which was a relief.
The court Elves were pleasant and respectful in their greetings and responses, and were almost equally impressed by her uncle's name as Legolas had been, although not quite as boisterously. As they all climbed back up the stairs, her aching legs protested every inch of the way, but she kept her chin up and pretended not to notice. The Elleth that had stared at her caught up to Cella, and then stayed beside her the rest of the way. But she did not say anything, only smiled over at her serenely.
Once inside the cavernous inner courtyard of the Elfking's magnificent halls, Cella stopped worrying about the Elleth, the possible Elfqueen, or anything else, as she stared about her in awe. She had been in many caves in her life, and some were actually quite beautiful, or so she had thought. But never had she been inside of one that was carved out of living rock, and the difference was astonishing.
The surfaces of the walls and pillars were all polished until they shone like glass. Massive torches were set into carved-out holders, and the gleaming stone reflected their light in such a way that made the interior seem almost as bright as day, but with a reddish hue. The floor was polished too and mirrored everything back, and seemed to stretch for acres in a semicircle.
There were massive fluted pillars here and there that stretched nearly out of sight overhead and gigantic arched doorways that led into enormous halls. And along the farthest wall there were dozens of corridors leading off in every direction. Some had stairs leading up, some went straight ahead, and others must have led down to other floors equally as grand beneath them.
Cella knew that there were cellars many levels below the King's palace. And a river. But she did not know there were upper stories in what she had assumed was a normal cave that had been dug into the side of a hill. The Elfking led her with his hand on her back now, and they went straight ahead to another staircase, an even longer one than that leading up to his gate outside. She barely noticed any discomfort in her legs anymore as they climbed up, however. The quiet, smiling Elleth stayed beside her, but even her presence did not distract her.
Veins of different precious or semi-precious stone and glittering ores had been revealed in the surface of the walls, but were otherwise left untouched by whoever had carved here, and the streaks of them glimmered in the torchlight and dazzled the eyes, at least her eyes, as it was obvious that the Elves were used to their home and all of its marvelous features.
Did they not even notice anymore? Cella did not think she could ever grow tired of admiring the beautiful jeweled walls, but then she would never live more than a century, so it was never going to be possible for her to know if she would grow bored with such beauty or not after living with it for thousands of years.
They reached the top of the stair, and moved through another giant archway, where silent spear-holding Elves stood at the entrance. Huge tapestries were hung on the short, but wide, corridor's walls, and soft rugs muffled the already nearly silent footsteps of the Elves who followed behind their monarch. Cella felt as if she and the King were leading a troop of wraiths. When they came out into another hall with shorter, but just as beautifully carved, pillars that pretended to hold up the great rocky roof, the procession came to a halt.
"Here we will part for a time, firiel," Thranduil said to her. "Lothriel will take you to your room, and," he lifted his chin and spoke to the silent Elleth who hovered at Cella's side, "I think a bath is in order, to help your stiff muscles." With that said, he nodded to the two of them, and turned away to join a small group of Elves who were standing by, apparently waiting for him all this time, in the center of the hall.
"Come this way, please," said the hitherto mute but still smiling Lothriel, and her voice reminded Cella of Lanthiriel's; it was very gentle and kind. But, to her relief, this Elleth spoke the Common tongue more fluently than any of the vineyard Ellith did. "We were told to expect you at mid-day," she continued. "And there is a meal made ready. Would you prefer to eat first, or bathe?"
It took Cella a moment to adjust to having a friend and not a foe beside her, and an offer of a meal, and the prospect of hot water to soak her aching legs in, but she was quickly getting used to feeling wonderful.
To be continued in Chapter 28
Posted: November 4, 2004
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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"