The King's Vineyard, Chapter 13
|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 tried to absorb the words the Elfking had said without shaming herself by bursting into tears. He was sending her away, just as she had feared he would. And how could she blame him? What kind of vineyard operator would allow such a disruptive employee, as she had obviously become, to remain in her position? It was only a matter of time, considering the various disturbances she had caused thus far, before he would tire of it. After all, she had no one to blame for her dismissal but herself.
And Cella felt she was at fault, too, no matter what Milda had said. She was the one who had left the generous monarch's borrowed cloak behind in her room all day, because she was too reluctant to part with it. If not for her frivolous plan to return it to him personally, at the feast, she would never have fallen victim to Gorst. That was her final assessment of the situation, and the part she had to play in it.
It was a bit surprising, and more than a little confusing, how the regal Elf broke the news of her dismissal to her in such a kind and gentle fashion, although she assumed that this was done out of respect for her uncle. And he still sat beside her, calmly watching her, with her hand held in his, although it provided little comfort to her. Regretful of her behavior, she indeed felt she deserved to be punished for her faulty judgment, but not her Uncle Dwain. To hold him responsible was highly unfair. She burned within at the injustice of the King's decision and drew a deep breath to steady herself before she spoke.
"I am sorry to have brought so many problems to your doorstep, My Lord, and I would beg your forgiveness if I thought I was worthy of it," she began. And then, she continued bravely, "Do what you must with me, Sire, but do not punish my uncle because of me, I beg you."
"Celiel, listen to me..." he began, but she interrupted him. Now that she had found the courage to fight for her uncle, she also found a bold voice that she never knew she had possessed, to contradict the Elfking with.
"No, please hear what I have to say first," she insisted. "It would kill my Uncle Dwain to leave from here, and he has done nothing at all to deserve this, except to work as hard as he can, body and soul, to serve you. Please, Your Majesty, will you please reconsider?" She squeezed the hand that held hers. "You can send me away, if you must, but not him." Before he answered her, the Elfking's face turned even more serious, and his eyes narrowed slightly. He shook his head tightly and patted the back of her hand as she slowly released her grip on it.
"I fear you are overtired," he said. "Or that you have been woefully and wrongfully misled by careless gossiping tongues. You have done nothing for which you need to be forgiven, and if any of your visitors have led you to believe that such is true...," his voice grew darker with implied threat. Cella realized he must be referring to Milda and Ingarde.
"No, no one has," she said quickly. "In fact, they said just the opposite." However, she did not feel comforted to know that the Elfking, like her two friends, did not hold her responsible. Either way, she was being punished just the same.
"Even so," said the King, "I will not consider separating you from your uncle." His tone was firm. "It is his dependence upon you, Celiel, and his understandable anxiety about your future, which has led me to take these steps. I insist that the two of you remain together. I would not have you consider this as punishment; your uncle will need to know you are strong enough to face your new lives together, as I believe you are."
As she listened to his final pronouncement, Cella's heart, or what was left of it, sank into despair. It was useless to argue with the Elfking, his mind was made up; there could be no further appeals. She felt she had dared too much already with her contradictions, and he saw right through her, that was clear. She bit her lip, let go of his hand, and turned her face away from him.
Oh, but how could she not think of being sent away from here as a punishment when she could think of no worse penalty than to be deprived of the opportunity to be near him? Or even of the chance to see him at a distance on occasion? But she knew that there was not enough courage left within her to allow her to say that out loud. There was not even enough left within her to control her tears, but at least he did not have to be forced to witness them. She pressed her face into the pillow.
There was something touching her hair, then her face. With a start she realized it was the Elfking's hand...on her chin, turning her to look toward him as he stood next to the bed. "Do not worry overmuch for your uncle," he said to her. "It is not helpful to your recovery for you to worry without need. He is in agreement with my plan. Indeed he is one of the chief architects and is quite pleased with my decision. It will not be as terrible as you think, as long as the two of you have each other."
Somewhat dazed, she looked at him and tried to digest what he was saying, while resisting the urge to put her own hand over his to hold it forever against her chin. It was hard to believe that her uncle would not be sorry to leave the wine-making operation at this point. But it was difficult for her to think clearly because the Elfking was smiling at her, as he had done that night when she had first dared to look at him. A tiny thrill ran through her when his fingertip traced the thin line left by Gorst's knife on her face.
Cella felt that the light shining from his eyes had entered into her chest and opened up her lungs to let her breathe. The tears stopped. It was as if, deep inside, some part of her had finally bowed to her inevitable fate, stopped struggling, and decided to trust King Thranduil's judgment. If he said it was for the best, then it must be so. And that inner determination reverberated outward, and she relaxed, even if she still felt sad to leave.
From the open door came a sound as of someone clearing his throat, or perhaps coughing, but in such a way as to draw attention without intruding rudely into the conversation. The Elfking withdrew his hand from her face and stood straight.
"My seneschal's patience is being sorely tested, it would appear," he said to her in almost a conspiratorial tone, as if she were not just another dismissed employee of little consequence. And then, over his shoulder, he replied, "Le cenithon ned lū thent!" [I will be with you in a moment.] She heard a brief but proper response from the tall elf and, although she could not see him from where she was lying on the bed, it was apparent from his terse reply that he was feeling some amount of distress over the delay she was causing.
"Now," Thranduil said to her, "you must rest, I believe that your visitors have tired you more than you realize. I must not tarry any longer; there is much to be done before I return for my feast."
"I wish you good speed, then, Your Majesty." She almost smiled to hear that he would return in time for the delayed feasting, although she was not sure why he would inform her of that. Unless he actually cared what she thought of his comings and goings, which she could not believe was true. It was more likely he was warning her to be prepared to leave as soon as he came back. But why would he smile so kindly into her eyes when he said it?
Cella stifled a yawn; she felt so drowsy that she could barely keep her eyes open, but she was unwilling to close them as long as he was in her view. He bent over her again while his hand came over her face, not touching her, but she could feel warmth being emitted from his palm that made her lids close as if they had a will of their own, separate from hers.
"Have no fear. Sleep."
"Yes, Majesty," she managed to murmur as she drifted off. Everything was going to be fine, even if she could not understand how, and there was nothing to worry about.
This time, when she awoke, Cella was not fooled by the curtains in front of her face. And the familiar noise behind them had to be her uncle, snoring in his sleep. She wondered what time of day or night it was and sat up to look around her. As they had been the day before, the canopy drapes were pulled back at the foot of the massive bed. She could see that the windows were shuttered, but wherever there was the least little gap or crack for light to seep through them, a dim grayness filtered in to signal the arrival of another day.
The sky was still blue when the Elfking had made ready to depart yesterday, but she could not remember waking in between then and now. Was it possible she had slept for all that time? In all her life, she had never spent that much time in bed. She certainly felt well rested, and wide awake. The room grew steadily lighter as she thought over the events from the day before, and she began to feel anxious about how she was going to face her uncle. He had been so proud of his position here at the Elfking's vineyard and she was sure he must be devastated by the news.
Whatever inner alarm Uncle Dwain heard, that woke him before sunrise each and every day of his life, was in proper working order this morning. His snores halted abruptly, and she could hear him stirring.
"Uncle? Are you awake?" she called out after a few moments, and braced herself for his response, certain he would sound sad or disheartened. She could hear him moving about and assumed he was dressing.
"Yes, Cella," he said. "You know very well that the sun can't come up without my say so." She smiled at his answer, a standard reply from her childhood days. But now, her smile quickly faded as she tried to imagine how upset he must be by her dismissal and the Elfking's decision to send them away together. It hurt to picture his face.
"I want to tell you how sorry I am, uncle," she said. "I know you were happy here, and I am so sorry that because of my foolishness, the Elfking is sending us both away."
"Brother-daughter, I think you are still dreaming. You have done nothing to feel sorry for." As he spoke, he had pulled the curtain by her face aside and stood above her with a perplexed, but amused, grin on his face. He did not seem at all upset by their imminent departure.
"You really don't mind then?" Even though the Elfking had suggested as such, she had not accepted the notion that her uncle would be pleased by her disgrace, and she was sure she knew his mind better than their royal employer did. But, indeed, he seemed perplexingly cheerful, as he answered her.
"Mind? Oh, Cella, you are a funny little creature, and why should I mind? Or are you still asleep and talking while you dream? I can't decide which." From the way he clasped his hands together, deliberately, as if to keep them under control, she could tell he was itching to reach out and touch her. Normally, he would have patted her hand or her hair by now. Leaning forward, she reached out and took one of his hands into hers, the way the King had taken hers yesterday. His grin widened even further and she could see relief flood his features.
"I am awake, Uncle, but I guess I must be dreaming too." Outside, the daybreak horns began sounding their beautiful music. Long, thin fingers of brilliant sunlight pierced the tiny openings found around the edges of the window shutters. Tiny dust motes floating in the room danced and flashed like tiny stars within each bright ray. "I must be dreaming if you say that you don't mind," she added, "because that does not make sense."
"Make sense? It doesn't make sense?" her uncle sounded disconcerted but still cheerful, as if he thought she was teasing him. "Ah, so, you doubt the sensibility of His Worship, do you? His is not a will to be trifled with, my dear." He let go of her hand and threw open the shutters to greet the rising sun properly and declared, "This is a happy day, Cella."
She wondered if he was putting up this brave front because he was trying to protect her feelings. It was either that or she had missed a vitally important piece of information along the way, but before she could stop him to ask, he continued. "And he's right, you know, about sending you along. You have a fragile soul, as he says it, and don't need no more of these, er, how did he put it? 'Assaults to your fine spirit', that's how he said it."
"He said that about me?" She frowned, however, as the tenderness of such a spoken sentiment seemed contradicted by the actual suffering the regal speaker of it had caused to her so-called fragile soul already. "But, then why is he sending me, or, sending us, away?"
"Well, Cella, you see, it's this way." As her uncle answered, he sat down in the chair again, with a concerned look on his face. "We just think that this is no place for you now, without me here to watch out for you, and with such harsh memories and all...," he paused for a moment before continuing. "He is sending you with me because I asked him to do so, but if you don't feel you can adjust, maybe we should reconsider."
"Sending me? With you? What?"
"But, didn't the King tell you this? He swore to me he would tell you we were going to go together, Cella."
"Yes, uncle, he did say so, and he said you were happy, too." And now that she had seen her uncle's face up this close, she could not deny it was true. "Only," she added, "I still do not know how you can be."
"Not be happy? How could I not be happy?" He chuckled. "But, Cella, it is only your happiness that concerns me. We were worried you might balk at picking up and moving on so soon after we had got ourselves settled here and all. But like he says, it's for the best, child, to get you away from here until enough time has passed for you to have healed properly..."
Their conversation was interrupted by a brisk knocking at the door, and the sound of excited voices from behind it. It was Milda and Ingarde. They were calling out her name and then burst in, after her uncle called out to them that the door was open, with breakfast in hand and giggling grins on their faces. She was going to miss them, and she wondered if she would ever see them again.
"Your uncle told us the news last night, Cella." Milda set the tray filled with hot, steaming plates of breakfast foods on a nearby table as she spoke. "Could you just die? Aren't you excited?" Her uncle clapped his hands together and then rubbed them at the sight of the delicious looking spread, and eagerly pulled his chair over at her invitation.
"I know you have to be happy," added Ingarde, whose own tray had the inevitable teapot, and four drinking bowls, all of which she set out on the table. "Because you told me once how you always wanted to go see that place where them Elves live." She placed one of the breakfast plates on the now empty tray and carried it to Cella's lap. "And," she added, "I think them caves sound like a fitting place to winter in. The way these Elves have things figured out so well around here, I know they will keep you warm there when the snow flies."
"And you never saw snow fly like it does here," Milda assured her wisely as she brought some tea over to set on Cella's tray. As if she had offered up a debate point, Ingarde entered the fray. They both tumbled over each other's words as they informed her that now that she was living in the north, winters would be much different than they had ever been in her balmy southern home by the inland sea.
They described snow drifts that were head-high and howling winds that shrieked like creatures in service to the Dark Lord. She should consider herself lucky to have such snug, safe and secure accommodations to look forward to. It was not until the two chattering women had sat down to eat at the table with her uncle, and they were finally both quiet at the same time, that Cella could get a word in edgewise, although it was not that easy for her to speak.
"Just exactly where are we going?" They turned their faces toward her. "Did you say the caves; do you mean the Elfking's caves? Is that where we are going?" All three sets of eyes widened with surprise at her question. The two women looked at her uncle who was speechless for a moment, frozen in place after hearing her words, his fork halfway between his plate and his mouth. It clattered down now as he rose and rushed over to her side.
"Why, Cella, I thought you knew we were headed off to the King's forest. Didn't you know that was where we're going?" She shook her head, absolutely numbed by the news, and unable to answer him. "That Elfking," explained her uncle, "he is a smart one now, he wants to move his whole wine-making operation into those there caves, don't you know? Caves are a perfect place for fermentation, and we'll be fixed up nice and dry for the winter. He wants me to set it all up for him. So, what do you think of that? Wouldn't you like to go there with me to live with the Elves?"
But Cella could not think at all, or speak, or listen to another word, or do much of anything besides sit and stare back at the three of them in utter and complete shock. The pieces of the strange puzzle she had been struggling to put together fell into place as she was told how the Elfking had gone to the town by the Long Lake to make arrangements with the boatmen to have the wine-casks hauled up the river to his halls. Now that the harvesting was finished, most of the workers would be moving off of the vineyard. Their backs would be needed to help load the flatboats, so some haste was needed, once the decision had been made.
"You are looking at an official Court Vintner to King Thranduil, esquire," Uncle Dwain announced proudly to top off the incredible turn of events. Milda and Ingarde were awed by the news and offered profuse congratulations. "Or leastways," he admitted sheepishly, "I will be after the investiture ceremony at the feast tomorrow night. Can you imagine that?" He returned to his breakfast with a chuckle. "It's a happy day." Beside him, Milda poked Ingarde and nodded her head over toward Cella before she spoke:
"Just look at that smile on her face now, I do think she likes the idea."
"Of course, I told you she would," said Ingarde. "Didn't I?"
To be continued in Chapter 14
Posted: September 3, 2004
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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"