The King's Vineyard, Chapter 42
|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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Sitting at the table with Thranduil, eating and talking, was for Cella the richest reward of her evening alone with him thus far. In the bath, she had been too excited by the unfolding events, not to mention being naked with him, to actually appreciate just being together. Like she could now, and there were no more questions about her place in his life to trouble her mind.
With all of their clothes on, it felt more real somehow; the fact that he had opened both his arms and his heart to her. It was also comforting that he enjoyed her company enough that he did not want any others near. She did feel treasured, as Lothriel had said she was.
While they ate their supper, Cella wondered about the lack of servants to wait on Thranduil in his own wing of the Mirkwood palace. At first, when he had told her where they would be dining, she had imagined that there would be an army of Elves lining the walls, all of them eager to serve their beloved monarch. She had been glad to find that there was nothing like that.
Instead, there were only the familiar sentries who stood silent and unmoving at the doorway and the same quiet helpful Elf who showed up from time to time in her suite, with Lothriel. But even he was alone.
He was already there in the dining room when they entered, and Cella could only assume that he had been responsible for laying out their meal, but he left soon after. When Thranduil brought her to the table, the Elf had smiled and courteously nodded at her, but he did not speak at all. She finally asked about his name, which was Nenrandir, but not until after he was gone, as she was not sure if it would be polite to ask while he was present.
"He is always so quiet," she said off-hand, not meaning much by it beyond an observation of what was unarguably true. Even though her knowledge of Elves was still somewhat limited and her time among them brief, it was hard not to notice that there were differences in the way the ones at the vineyard behaved compared to the ones who lived here.
The Elves she had become acquainted with there, like Himbor and Lanthiriel, neither of whom were excessively talkative, had been chatty in comparison to any she had met in the caves, beside Legolas. Of course, the seneschal could talk long, but only when he was imparting something of value or necessity, otherwise he rarely spoke.
On the other hand, even the vineyard's Elves were practically silent next to Uncle Dwain, or her friends Milda and Ingarde. All three of them loved to remark on whatever they were doing, feeling, or thinking, at any given moment, or about what they knew someone else was doing. There had been a constant commentary.
It was not as if Mirkwood was completely silent. Music that was as hauntingly beautiful as the occasional impromptu concerts had been back in the Elfking's mansion, or out in the gardens of the vineyard, could be heard drifting through the corridors here. And on the night of her welcome feast, the place had been filled with the sounds of merrymaking. But there was no one here reporting 'heard tells' around the clock, that was for sure.
"There is not much reason to make unnecessary noise in these halls." Thranduil's words interrupted her thoughts just as she was reaching the edge of feeling sad that her friends were not here with her, and that she may possibly never see them again.
"I can see how there wouldn't be a need," said Cella, sharply reminded by the Elfking's words of his ability to know her thoughts, and not necessarily by reading her mind. But she did not care as much as she once did, him sensing what she was thinking, or feeling. In fact, she was growing used to it quickly. And it was beginning to feel good.
It was a relief also to be able to openly and flagrantly love him without the need to mask or hide her heart. To smile directly into his eyes, and not feel afraid of him rejecting her affection, was so delightful that she was sure she would never grow used to it. She constantly returned to that realization, and let herself feel it all over again, the wonder of being able to love Thranduil without restraint. Forever, as he had promised.
When he chuckled she asked him, "Are you reading my thoughts?"
"If you could see them like I can, then you would not blame me," he said, "They shine through my mind as brightly as the light that sparkles and flashes from a white gem in the mid-day sun."
And even though Cella was not exactly sure what that would be like, she was very sure it was a compliment by the look on his face as he said it.
"I think I like it, that you can," she said. The silent Nenrandir returned to bring more wine, and dessert, and then left swiftly. He did not even lift his eyes to his monarch or Cella. There were no signs of Thranduil mentally directing the Elf, not that she was sure she could tell if he was.
But she decided that mind-reading was not necessarily the reason for the silence of these Elves within the Mirkwood halls. After untold centuries of daily routine, it was apparent that no one needed to be reminded to do anything if they had done it thousands of times before.
And it must also be true that every possible comment that could be made about any situation that could happen had probably already been said, and more than once, by every Elf in the caves. How bored they must be with it all, or, to be fair, perhaps so appreciative about living in this glorious palace, that words no longer could express their gratitude.
Or it could be that the Elves of Mirkwood were just willing to wait patiently until there was a good reason to speak, unlike her friends. And there was nothing wrong with that.
When the meal was over, Thranduil rose and offered his hand to draw her from her seat. After kissing her, too quickly she thought, he led her back into his chambers. Nenrandir was there, with a basin, a jug of hot water, and some clean towels, for them to wash their faces and hands with.
"Wait here," the Elfking said when they were done with that, "and Legolas will bring you down to the gates."
Bewildered by his words, and by the prospect of being left by herself, she felt compelled to protest. Thranduil laid a forefinger on her lips before she could speak.
"You will not be left alone," he said as he lifted her hand to his lips before letting go of it. He opened the door leading back out into the main corridor, and in stepped Lothriel. She had Cella's cape draped over one arm, and she was carrying some mysterious packages that were wrapped in paper.
"How are our guests doing?" The Elfking paused in the doorway as he asked, as if he was about to leave but thought better of it.
"They are all asleep, Sire," replied the Elleth with a tone of something like relief in her normally placid voice.
"Excellent, leave them to it," he said. The door was standing wide open, and Legolas slipped in past Lothriel and came to Cella's side.
"It is good to see you alive and well, wood-sprite," he greeted her. "I have been worried about you ever since you were abducted from my side in the forest."
Thranduil stepped over to them and then leaned slightly closer to his son, sniffed loudly, and said, "You have been drinking ale with the longbeards."
"Aye, Your Majesty," Legolas replied, proud of himself. "Those Dale folk are terribly stuck on themselves, are they not? There must have been a dozen toasts to each and every member of Dain's esteemed family tree, may his never-ending beard grow ever longer."
"Maer," [Good,] replied the Elfking, just as proudly. "Bring Celiel to the gates when she is ready, we will meet there." He was gone.
After Thranduil left the room, Lothriel helped Cella into her cloak. The paper-wrapped packages had been set aside.
"Thank you," said Cella, and then she added, "His Majesty is very pleased with you. Has he told you that?"
"It is my honor to serve aran Thranduil to the best of my ability, Celiel," responded Lothriel humbly. "And yes, he did say that he was pleased." She smiled warmly and Cella felt honored by that gesture, and to have such a lovely companion.
"Your uncle draws near," remarked Legolas, as if had just at that moment sensed it, just like his father. "I look forward to meeting him."
"I think he will love to meet you," said Cella. "And I know he will love you as much as I do."
"Look, these were made for you," Lothriel gently interrupted. In her hands she held a pair of light grey colored gloves, and she appeared fascinated by them, as if she had not seen any before. Cella took them from her and pulled one on, each of her fingers fit snugly within. The turned-out fur cuffs spoke of the fleecy interior, her hand was embraced in warmth.
"They are so soft." She rubbed the fur cuff on her face. And then Lothriel brought her something even nicer. Fur lined boots. Someone had worked hard to make these for her, the workmanship and decorative detail spoke of many laborious hours, and yet they had never been worn before.
With her mind's eye, she could see hands cutting the pelt of the small animal used to make them and careful fingers stitching them together. "This can't be happening to me," she said. She had to sit down to pull the boots on, and suddenly felt weak, and on the edge of tears. The Elfprince knelt on one knee in front of her.
"What is the matter, wood-sprite?" The gentleness of Legolas' voice was only excelled by his father's. And it was calming enough that she could answer him.
"I am not worthy of this..." As evidence, she lifted her gloved hands when she began, and then faltered. Finally she could say, "Your father is too generous, I am not used to so many gifts at once. And all the work that I am making for someone..." Cella could not finish.
"You are more than worthy," admonished the Elfprince. "You are honored among us for the good you have done. We all derive the benefits of your presence within our halls." As he spoke, he stood and pulled her to stand.
"Then the other Elves don't mind that I am here, it doesn't matter to them?" Even though Thranduil had not indicated otherwise, she still was not sure. She continued, "I mean they all must know about your mother." Even if she would not expect anyone there to treat her with hostility, she worried that her presence might be considered a hardship, with all the extra work required to tend to her needs as a weak mortal being.
"It is obvious to them that my father cherishes you, and that is not hard to understand, for you are very dear," replied Legolas with a smile. "And the happiness that your enchantment evokes from him was felt within these halls before we had even heard of you. We are all grateful for it."
As she listened, nearly dumbfounded, he explained how a sense of relief had been felt in the halls as the Elfking drew nearer to his home those few nights ago. That was not unusual, it was actually quite normal, for his absence was always a time of trial for his realm. No matter how close his vineyard might be located, he was sorely missed.
But this time there was an undeniable difference in the air. A lightness of spirit that all of the subjects could feel, and rejoice in. Aran Thranduil was approaching, he was almost home, and he was happy. They could not wait to find out why.
"Too long had my father suffered alone and silently, out of my reach, all of our reach," he said, with a wave of his hand when he said the word 'all' to indicate the entire kingdom. And her heart tilted over from the pain of hearing it. She recalled when Legolas had told her about how rarely Thranduil had ever smiled, and she did not like to think of how grim that must have been for everyone, including the Elfking himself.
"He could not have always been sorrowful and withdrawn," she said. "Or you could not be so kind or as friendly as you are." She felt that it was only proper to admit that she knew next to nothing about raising children, but she had lived long enough to know that happy adults in the mortal realms normally had a happy childhood. It could not be that much different among the Fair Folk.
"My father has always reserved part of himself from me, but you are correct, he has not always been dour and he was always a good father." Legolas smile changed slightly, growing almost dreamy, as he spoke as if recalling a happier time.
"But not long after I had reached my full adulthood," he continued as he led her out into the corridor, "it seemed that he had exhausted whatever strength he had been graced with in order to be fully present with me, and truly alive, during my growing years."
As they made their way to the gates, Legolas told her how, as he had gotten older and more capable of running his own affairs, he had also begun to notice his father slip away more and more frequently into gloomy thoughts. And he would not take comfort from his son, or from any of those around him who were closest to him, and loved him. And they all wished to ease his heart.
However, their efforts were usually in vain, and little by little, year after year, he had grown ever gloomier, and remained deep within his realm, at ease only among the Elves within his dark halls or those who dwelt in the woodland.
The Elfking only went out of his gates at night, or early in the morning to hunt, but stayed indoors for most of the day. He held himself away from the rest of the world beyond the borders of his forest, trusted no one, and he was angered by anyone who dared trespass without his permission.
"At that time, he would not have even considered investing in an acre of ground beyond the forest, let alone purchasing his own vineyard." Legolas shook his head and chuckled. Then he said, "But before we all completely despaired of his ever taking an interest in the rest of the world again, a curious thing happened to shake him out of his gloomy habits. Can you guess what it was?"
His voice had taken on a suddenly cheerful note, as if he was about to tell her a good joke. It took her a moment to realize that he had asked her a question after the sorrowful image of the Elfking had filled her view. She was filled with an urge to rush to Thranduil's side instantly, where ever he was right then, and embrace him.
"No, I can not guess," she told him, for she could not even think what would have cheered the proud monarch, if even his own charming son could not.
"A party of lost dwarves wandered into the forest," said the Elfprince, and then, as if it was the punch line of his joke, he added, "And one brave little hobbit."
This was all up until that battle she had learned about, with the five armies, at the foot of the Lonely Mountain. And that was also when, according to his son, Thranduil first began to shake off the melancholy he bore stoically through those dark times, as if the war had woken him from a slumber of poisonous enchantment.
"It had been horrible before that," the younger Elf said, "he was bitter beyond all hope as far as we could tell, and until the end of all time for all we knew. Because he was always strong, so strong, and he had kept us all alive through the most dreadful of those dark times by the sheer power of his will to not fail, to not lose, and to hold off the enemy for as long as he was still alive and able to protect those he swore to serve."
"Those he swore to serve?" For a moment, Cella was confused, for she thought that the Elfprince must be referring to some higher authority than his father. Unless he merely was saying that Thranduil made this vow ceremoniously, to serve the Valar. But how could he protect the gods?
"My father swore to serve his people just as his people in turn swore to serve him as their king," explained Legolas. "And that is the only way that each could have survived through both the times of assaults from our enemies outside of our gates and the inner turmoil of the palace during time of war. He only lived for one thing it seemed, to keep his subjects and the forest alive."
They had reached the gates, which were standing open. There were some Elves at the bottom of the stairs below them, but she could not see Thranduil. The night sky glittered with stars and the air was frosty cold. She mentally sent a message of gratitude to the Elfking for her warm feet and hands.
Cella understood what Legolas was saying. It was as His Majesty had told her. How he drew energy from his entire realm and then gave it back, somehow, magically. Legolas went on to tell her how, when his father had marched off in pursuit of the Dwarves, he had been moved by the plight of the mortals by the Long Lake whose homes had been destroyed by the dragon, Smaug. So moved that he had delayed his march to give what assistance he could.
"After that time, he began to show an interest in the world around him again. But he was still unwilling to allow himself much time for merriment. He met with mortals from the regions nearby, and came to know them better, and eventually took more of an interest in dealing directly with them."
Before then, his father had agents who carried out his business for him, Legolas went on to explain. After the great battle, he formed friendships and alliances with some of the merchants at Laketown and Dale. Consequently, he eventually bought a vineyard, and but for that, she would have never met him.
And all because of the funny hobbit creature. She was amused to think of it. Her uncle had told her once how the smallest things were capable of leaving the most impressive footprints, depending on where they traveled. It made sense now.
"Adar deserves to live happily here, while he is with us, now." The Elfprince said this softly as if he had forgotten she was there, and was speaking to some unknown person. But then he focused on her again as he spoke. "We all need our king to be as whole and happy as he can be, Celiel, not just me. The happiness of his kingdom depends on it. As we all depend on him for everything, and he on us."
From the distance, through the clear night air, out in the forest, came the sound of voices raised in a song. It was not the usual type of singing that she sometimes heard from the telain, which was lyrical and unobtrusive. The tune was one she recognized from the vineyard, one of the many boisterous songs that were often used to pass time.
"Come," said the most beloved voice in her world, and right next to her ear, which sent shivers down her spine, "let us go greet your uncle. I know he will be very pleased to see you."
The Elfking guided her through the gates and down the stairs. Torches lit the area, and the air was so still that their flames barely moved. After they had reached the landing, and stood with the other Elves who were waiting there, she was glad that he released her arm, and let her stand by herself. Although she was still beside him.
She was not sure that Uncle Dwain would have felt disturbed if he had seen Thranduil touching her when the wagons finally drew near enough for that, but she did not want to take any chances that might mar the happiness of their seeing each other again.
There were two Elves on horseback who flanked the wagons on the road until they reached the bridge, then rode on ahead of the slower moving vehicles. They were Thaladir, and Nandirn, and they were the only ones who were not singing. A large group of Elves were on foot behind the heavily laden wagons, but they sang along just as cheerfully as the rest.
Wood-elves had spilled out of the huts and trees, and many of them greeted family members who were leaping off of the wagons as they maneuvered into place before where the Elfking stood with his court, and Cella.
She heard her uncle, long before she saw him; his voice rang clear above the singers. "Cella? Do you see her? Is that her? Cella?" She had to laugh when she could finally distinguish his face as he tried to see over the heads of the taller Elves in the wagon, or around them, to spot her in the shadowy courtyard. She lifted her hand, and was rewarded with a happy shout.
"There she is! Stop the wagon! I see her," her uncle shouted excitedly, but the wagon slowly pulled into place beside the others, and he had to wait to be helped down. Without thinking, Cella nearly ran as she rushed from Thranduil's side, after she suddenly found that she could not bear being parted from Uncle Dwain for even one more minute.
As he was helped to the ground, someone handed him a walking stick, which he leaned on as he embraced her with his other arm. "Ah, dear child, dear child," was all he could say for a time, then, backing away from her, he said, "Let me look at you. Don't you look fine, now? I think you've put on some weight!"
"It wouldn't surprise me," another familiar voice came from the crowd who still remained in the wagon. A quietly attentive audience for the meeting of uncle and niece. Cella gasped but the voice continued speaking, "I always said the Elves would take good care of her."
With a small, inarticulate cry, Cella jerked her head back to her uncle, who had an oddly guilty look in his eye before he glanced away from her, and toward the direction of the voice in the wagon.
It was Milda! But how? And why? Cella looked back over her shoulder at the Elfking, who smiled at her. She wondered if he had known about this, and had not told her for a surprise. It would be like him to do that.
But she forgot about Thranduil after her friend almost tumbled from the wagon in her eagerness to get down to Cella's side in order to deliver a firm hug.
"I hope you're happy to see me, Cella," said Milda, almost pleadingly, as she possessively took hold of Uncle Dwain's free elbow. "I've come to live with the Elves, too."
To be continued in Chapter 43
Posted: February 19, 2005
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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"