The King's Vineyard, Chapter 37
|Rating:||R for mature sexual content|
|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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All around Cella, it felt as if the forest was holding its breath. The chirping birds and the soft rustling of the autumn leaves were suddenly hushed. Did Thranduil command that his realm fall silent as he approached the caves? Or did the woodland always pause like this when he passed by, to honor him?
But then she recalled that the day she had ridden beside him through this forest on this same road, the same watchful silence did not happen. This hush must be due to the arrival of the Dwarves. Even the forest must feel as suspicious of them as Lothriel did. There was no sense of menace in the air, it was more a sensation of alert vigilance on the part of every living thing.
Cella wondered if the Elfking would be surprised to find that she and his son were hiding from him beside the road. And were they going to jump out from behind the tree to greet him? It was hard not to feel excited, but she managed not to giggle.
Of course, she also remembered how when she had arrived, the Elfking had known that his son was concealed from view high up in a tree. It might have been this very one that they were standing beside.
Naturally, it was possible that, on that day she arrived, Legolas had made some sort of noise that was too delicate for her to have heard, or was visible only to eyes better fashioned for seeing Elves with, either of which would explain how his father could tell he was there. She looked up into the branch above her while they waited and was convinced that it was the same one the Elfprince had sat on, when he had first said hello to her.
"There is not enough time for climbing." Legolas's voice next to her ear was so quiet that it almost seemed to come from inside of her, but she nodded in agreement. There was not enough time for her, anyway, to try doing anything like that. She had no doubt that the Elfprince could be to the top of the tree in a blink of an eye. However, she had never climbed up into one before and would probably need a few lessons first.
Although the branches of the beech trees were thick and friendly looking, the idea of climbing up within them seemed tricky to her, and possibly dangerous. But she imagined it might be fun to be up in the air, and above everything, and to have that bird's eye view of the world.
Besides surprising the Elfking, she was about to meet Dwarves for the first time, which made her feel slightly anxious. For a moment, she wished she had on her gown instead of the ornately decorated garment she was wearing. Not that the sparkling tunic was less beautiful than a dress, only that she felt very conspicuous wearing it. And somewhat unworthy of being clad in the royal garments.
And, although she would not ever try to deliberately draw attention to herself, there was nothing she could do to prevent it now; even in shadow the glittering gems and threads woven into her tunic shone brightly and flashed with brilliance. What would the Dwarves think of her? Would they even recognize that she was a mortal woman? The idea intrigued her, and she stopped feeling as nervous about her clothes as she had.
The leaf-muffled but still tell-tale sound of many different horse hooves finally reached her ears, and Cella held her breath in anticipation. The Elfking and the other riders were taking their time, she thought. She had noticed how Thranduil's horse was slowed down at a walk when she had caught that quick peek at him. But, she had not taken any time to see everyone else who was coming with him so the Dwarves were probably not riding on horseback and that would explain the dawdling pace.
"Breathe," whispered Legolas. She did, and at that moment she heard one set of hooves sound as if they were moving faster than the others, and she looked up at her companion with alarm, and delight. It was Alagos, Thranduil's horse, somehow she just knew it, those hoof beats were as recognizable to her as a voice. And she was sure this meant that they had been detected.
The Elfprince drew her all the way around to the backside of the wide tree-trunk, so that they could not be seen from the road, which indicated to her that he could tell they had been seen or heard, but nevertheless thought that he could still fool his father. It must be an old game for them, it occurred to her, played by the two of them for centuries perhaps.
The sound of Alagos's hooves slowed to a walk before stopping, right beside the tree. Cella looked up at Legolas, who put his finger to his lips again. She wondered if he thought there was a chance they were not discovered, but she did not mind playing along.
"Im meren le cened sí, Legolas," [I am happy to find you here, Legolas,] Thranduil said matter-of-factly. The Elfprince winced when his father spoke to him as casually as if they had just met in one of the corridors in the caves. And Cella could not help but giggle.
"Le suilon, adar, [Hello father] it is good to see you, too." As he answered, Legolas led Cella out from behind the tree and did not seem at all surprised or annoyed to have been detected. She smiled up at Thranduil, but could not open her mouth to greet him, silenced as she was by the sight of him sitting right there, before her. He addressed Legolas again, as if she was not there.
"Take Celiel's mount back to where our guests and their escorts are waiting for you. Halatirn's horse is lame and he has had to walk along beside the dornhoth [thrawn folk] for the last few leagues." He said nothing to his son about it further but wiped at his nose with the edge of his cloak while the slightest grimace of disgust flickered over his perfect features and then fled after he regained control over them.
"Oh, poor fellow," said the Elfprince. "Their smell must be horrible down there at ground level."
"It was barely tolerable from up here," replied the Elfking grimly. "I have told them all that they will bathe and put on fresh garments before they sit at my table for their supper. They are far too hungry to argue. You will escort them the rest of the way, I have to hurry ahead."
"Dear me, wood-sprite, you are losing your horse it seems," Legolas said, after turning to Cella with a sad smile, "I suppose this means you will have to walk all the way back home, probably along with our odorous guests. Unless you would rather ride with me?"
All the while during the conversation, she could not help but wonder why the King had not greeted her or even looked in her direction. But, while his son was offering a seat on his horse to her, and she was no longer paying close attention to Thranduil, he had brought his horse next to them. She could just see from the corner of her eye when his arm came down in front of her and had no time to react.
Before she knew what was about to happen, he had lifted her up off of the ground and placed her right before him on his horse, so that she sat sideways in the same way she had ridden with him when they left the vineyard. She squeaked a little when he lifted her, to her embarrassment.
"How did you do that?" She was amazed.
"Elf magic," he replied.
"Are you sure you would not rather ride with me, wood-sprite?" Legolas smiled up to them with mischief twinkling in his eyes. "You know how terribly sharp those teeth can be." Before she answered him, she looked up to Thranduil.
"I am not a hindrance to you like this, am I Sire?" That would be the only reason she would agree to ride with the Elfprince, sharp teeth or not.
But he did not answer her; instead he spoke to his son, who had remained standing by.
"Legolas," His voice was gentle, yet firm. "I am the king, am I not?"
"Yes, sire, you are the king."
"Then do what I have bid you to do, without delay. Nin heniach? [Do you understand me?]"
"At once! Of course," replied the Elfprince merrily, as if he had been invited to do something enjoyable. "I was just on my way." Swiftly, he trotted back toward the horses to obey his father, after bidding them farewell.
"Maer, [Good]," Thranduil said and, after putting an arm around Cella's waist, turned Alagos toward the caves and rode away. She could not see behind them to tell how much farther back on the road the Dwarves and other Elves were, but that meant they could not see her either. The day had been growing late, and the air had a chill to it, so she was grateful that he wrapped part of his cloak over her, and she was instantly warm.
"How are you, firiel" asked the Elfking. "Did you sleep well?"
Feeling confident, Cella hugged him, loving the way it felt to put her arms around him and press her face against his shoulder. This was unlike the first time they rode together when she had been afraid to lean against him. She wished he would kiss her, but she was content to just be near him.
"I did, Majesty, I slept very well." She smiled at remembering why that was so. "And I had a nice morning with Lothriel; she explained to me where you were and who was coming. Are these Dwarves the intruders that you heard last night? If heard is the right word, I mean."
"It is close enough, heard seems a fitting enough term. And, yes, they are the ones who were lost in my forest," he answered. "But I believe that you are the only one who is eager to receive my guests."
"I think so, too." The forest was still hushed as they rode along, with the same alert atmosphere.
"Truly, I am pleased that at least someone will be happy," he said, and smiled down at her warmly. "And this is not a particularly undesirable group of naugrim for you to meet. However, I agree with you about them seeing this small treasure of gemstones stitched upon your chest. I would rather this was put away for the time being." His hand tugged at the hem of her tunic.
Her heart was singing and it was getting difficult to concentrate on conversation when she could feel his shoulder move beneath her cheek. It was almost too good to be true, to be sitting here with him like this, when only moments ago she had been riding on a different horse and missing him.
"Halatirn's horse," she guessed out loud. "Was it really lame, Sire? She knew better than to think that the Elfking would tell a lie about an injured animal, but she wanted to hear him talk.
"Yes, and it turned into a fortunate circumstance after all, although not for Halatirn," answered Thranduil. "Dwarves are not known for their bathing habits. Even riding ahead of them was unpleasant. But now that I have a more fragrant traveling companion, I have already forgotten how badly they smelled."
She felt him press his face against her hair at the top of her head and her heart sang even louder. For a moment she sat still and smiled contentedly with her face pressed against him, and then she looked up into his eyes and loved him with all of her heart. He kissed her, gently, but thoroughly. The horse slowed down and then came to a halt.
"This is not the time for lovemaking," he told her in a regretful tone. "Haste is in order." With that said, he prompted Alagos back into a brisk pace.
Ahead, the tree-tunneled road had climbed up its last long hill before it flattened and stretched out for quite a far distance with the bright opening at its end. She had not realized until now how far from the caves she and Legolas had ridden. Soon they would be riding through the inhabited areas and she worried that Thranduil would release his hold on her when that happened, but she could understand beforehand why he should.
"How soon did you know where your son and I were waiting for you?"
"I knew the moment you had entered my forest, you were not hidden from me, either of you," he explained.
"It is a game then, the way he hides from you?"
"The Wood-elves taught my son, when he was very young, how to proceed undetected within and among the trees. For a test, he was sent each day to conceal himself in the forest for them to find him."
As the bright opening at the end of the tree-lined road grew larger and larger, Thranduil told her how one day, none of the Wood-elves could find the Elfprince, and panic had nearly broken out. "When they had to come and tell me that they had lost my son, they were convinced they would be punished." He chuckled, remembering, and of course the story had a happy ending, with Legolas being found instantly by his father.
"It was in that same tree that we were hiding behind, wasn't it?" she asked, although it was obvious, but she loved listening to the Elfking talking. All around them now, she could see the tiny huts that the Wood-elves lived in, and heard voices calling out respectful greetings to both of them.
"The very same," he said. He clasped her tightly to his chest as he kicked Alagos into a gallop, and she used the event as the perfect excuse to cling even closer to him, not caring what his subjects might think of to see her snuggled up to their king in such an intimate way.
The world whizzed past them and she silently thanked Lothriel for the secure braiding of her hair. Her eyes watered from the wind of the swift ride, but she would not remove her arms from around Thranduil long enough to wipe them. Snatches of voices raised in greeting flew around her.
It was nice to know that her horse would be used by the diligent Wood-elf, Halatirn, who had ridden ahead to the Elfking's halls and brought her the riding suit and the horse Hwiniel on that first morning she had been in Mirkwood. After bringing His Majesty nothing but troubles, it was better to be an unlooked for help in time of need.
She felt at peace to think of herself as a benefit, at last, rather than a hindrance to the king, more than she already felt at peace by being near him, if that was possible. As long as he would allow her to love him, she could think of nothing else she could want.
Alagos clattered over the bridge, and she could see that some Elves were running out of the nearby huts to assist their monarch. Before they had come to a complete stop, Thranduil leapt off of his horse with Cella in his arms and deftly stood her beside him. It took her a moment or two to adjust to the abrupt change in circumstances. She did not have Elf reflexes to cope with it as gracefully as she would have wished, and almost stumbled.
More Elves were coming down the stairs, some carried spears or bows, and most of them were peering ahead down the road. Their normally placid faces were tinged with something resembling taut anxiety. Thranduil talked to them in his own tongue, swiftly, but she caught some of what he said. It was interesting to watch their faces relax as they listened to him.
Mostly he assured them that the Dwarves were not posing any danger to the halls, and he said something to them about a builder, or his son, and a seeker, or maybe it was a scholar, which made his subjects change their expressions from almost worried to almost curious, and somewhat expectant.
As he spoke, Lothriel came down to greet the Elfking and she was happy to see Cella was home, too, or at least she appeared to be. The other Elves did not acknowledge her beyond brief nods, if even that much. She had caught a few of them glancing at her tunic, too, and she felt very self-conscious about that, even though it was what she had worn the day she had arrived.
Now that Cella knew a little bit more about the history of the regal garment she was wearing, and also that there was a tapestry depiction of Legolas wearing it hanging very publicly on display in the throne room, she wondered what they made of her in it.
"They are at least a half-hour from the gates," Thranduil said to Lothriel. "Have you made rooms ready? And are there some fresh tunics at hand, shortened as I have bid you? Did you send Galion to locate the ale in the cellars?" To each separate question, the Elleth quietly murmured, "Carnen i iest lín, hîr nín." [Your wish is done, my lord.]
"Very good." As he spoke to the assembled group and then to Lothriel, Thranduil had not smiled once, Cella realized, but he nearly did at that moment. "Celiel needs a fresh gown, and probably a bite to eat. Am I correct?"
He had turned and directed this last at Cella, who was not really paying full attention while she watched him talking to the Elleth. But she gathered her wits and nodded in agreement, not even realizing how long it had been since her late breakfast until he mentioned it out loud. Until then she had been nourished by his presence.
When he bent down and kissed her forehead there was a susurration of shocked indrawn breath from all sides, and some sighs of approval as well. If they had been alone, she would have preferred he kiss her on the mouth, but under such intimidating circumstances she could feel her cheeks turning red even from such an innocent gesture. Now what were the Elves going to think? Or say about her to each other?
"I am the king, am I not?" He asked, again, but this time his eyes swept over all of the assembled household and the lingering Wood-elves as he spoke. His question was met with a chorus of affirmative responses. And then, like sunlight beaming through clouds, his smile returned as he glanced down to Cella's upturned face.
"Yes, Sire, you are the king," she whispered. "And I am at your service, for as long as I live." His gaze softened even more and he stroked her cheek.
"Go then, and make ready to receive my guests, Lothriel will go with you." But, as she turned to leave, he caught her hand and drew her back to him, bent down, and kissed her lips. It was briefer than the kiss on her forehead, but even more shocking.
"Being the king should have its own reward," he said, and then he sent her on her way, dazed and happy, up the stairs, and into his halls, to do as he had bid.
To be continued in Chapter 38
Posted: January 14, 2005
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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"