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The King's Vineyard, Chapter 18

By: Mary A
Beta: Malinornë
Pairing: King Thranduil/OFC
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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It did not take very long for Cella to get over her breathless daze and attend to King Thranduil's words as they danced. She seemed to gain confidence as they moved across the floor in unison to the graceful music, and she neither stumbled over her own feet nor stepped on his boots. In fact, it did not feel as if she was moving at all, rather it seemed as if the rest of the world was a blur of motion that swirled around them, while they stood perfectly still in the center of it all, a calm eye of a whirling storm.

"Has my seneschal answered all of your questions adequately?" he asked. "Is there any thing else you want to know, about my forest and its misfortunes?" Without hesitation, Cella told him that the seneschal certainly had answered every question she had, as well as some she had not even thought to ask, and that she was looking forward to going to her new home in the caves the next day.

"Are you sure you have no other questions?" Although he sounded more polite than doubtful of the honesty of her reply, Cella obediently tried to think if there was anything she still wondered about the Elfking's forest realm. It was not possible to think at all, however, as long as he smiled at her in that way and she finally had to look away from him to clear her mind.

She was still a little curious about the furry-footed hobbits, but had been satisfied from the tall Elf's report that they posed no danger to mortal maids, and doubted if questions about such harmless-sounding creatures was what the Elfking was asking her about. Facing him again, Cella said that she was as fully informed as a person could possibly be about her new living situation.

"Good. Now, according to your uncle," he said, "it seems there was a sad misunderstanding about where you were going, when I told you I was sending you away with him." She nodded in reply. It seemed funny now, to think of how she had assumed the worst at the time. And then he asked, unexpectedly, "Do you forgive me?" Although his tone was light, almost playful, his expression was serious, as if he thought there was some doubt in the matter of his forgiveness.

"Do I? Forgive you?" Bemused momentarily by his words, Cella smiled up at her regal dancing partner. A familiar-sounding laugh drew her attention to a couple who were at a little distance from them, and she saw her friend Milda being twirled around the dance floor by her new beau. Seeing her friend in the growing crowd of dancers, and hearing her happy laughter, was an emboldening experience. She imagined how one of her saucy friends would answer the question. Then she looked back into the Elfking's eyes and spoke quickly before she lost her nerve.

"Of course, Your Majesty," she replied as boldly as she could manage. "I would forgive you, but my distress was such that I must demand a forfeit." His eyebrows lifted at her answer, but he chuckled pleasantly, and his smile was kind when he replied.

"Most certainly, I agree, a forfeit is in order," he said. "Very well, and what does the sorely offended lady request?" Now that she was being called on her bluff, she could not speak. She knew what she wanted, but she could never say so to him. "Now, now, come out with it," he coaxed. "What is the matter, Celiel? Has the cat got your tongue?" She had to giggle; it was something her uncle would say to her as a child when she was introduced to strangers. It helped, at least she could speak.

"No, Majesty, I was just being...," she was going to say 'silly' but could not bring herself to say that to the noble Elfking, who was treating her with sincere courtesy. She looked down at his chest as she continued, convinced he would know she was lying if he looked into her eyes, "I was... I don't really want anything. And you have been too generous as it is. You are certainly forgiven."

"I do not believe you," he replied tautly. "Look at me." She did. "Now tell me what you most desire." His voice was low-pitched and intimate. At her waist, she could feel his fingers pressing her closer to him. Cella felt her face grow warm, and her breath grow short, not only at his words and the touch of his hand, but at the light that seemed to ignite in his gaze upon her, sending a warm thrill down to her toes. And she felt the truth being drawn from her lips, involuntarily, like water through a wick, as he stared down at her.

"A kiss," she said, to her own surprise. But he did not seem the least taken aback by her answer. However, for her part, she was cringing inside after admitting out loud such a childish fancy, and wished she could take it back. She did have to look away from him again, as his eyes seemed to have a power she could not resist, and this confused her as much as it warmed her. He remained silent for a few moments as they moved over the dance floor, the swaying rhythm seemed to be all that was holding her upright.

"You should set a higher price on your forgiveness, firiel," he said at last. "Surely you can think of something with more value as a forfeit?" His voice was kind, gentle, and not the least condescending. She felt only slightly less ridiculous while she shyly shook her head from side to side, but she could not say another word.

Too soon, and sadly, the beautiful song stopped and the impromptu dancing was over. The Elf musicians were being shooed off of their little stage by Glawareth and a few other Ellith, who wanted to decorate what little room was left for them on the small platform, with arrangements of berry-covered branches and flowers.

The Elfking released Cella from his arms, but still held her hand as they stood on the dance floor. Around them, she could tell that the last touches were being made to the tables, and food was being laid out, the fragrance of the meats and other delectable foods floated across the entire field.

"Celiel." She tipped her head up slantways and peeked at him. He bent over and pressed his lips on her temple, bestowing what would appear to everyone as a chaste kingly blessing upon her. "Now," he said as he stood straight again, "am I forgiven?"

If she had an ounce of nerve left in her body, she would have liked to have said he was not. But, instead, she nodded again, unable to do more for the moment. The skin tingled where his lips had touched her forehead. Mutely, she allowed herself to be led by him from the dance floor and delivered to her uncle's side. He must have been standing there for a while, Cella realized, from the look of satisfaction on his face.

"Well, Your Worship," her uncle said to the Elfking, his voice full of both pride and gratitude, "I had always heard that Elves had magic beyond the ken of common folk, and now I've seen it with my own eyes. Cella dancing." He beamed at her, "And in the broad light of day. Sheer magic." For once, his words did not embarrass her, she had already done too good a job of that herself.

The happy man shook his head in wonder. He had grasped Cella's hand as he spoke, which she was grateful for. It helped to have her uncle there as an anchor. She had not yet come all the way back to terms with gravity.

"No, it was not magic, not Elf magic at least," said Thranduil to Uncle Dwain. "Unless you are referring to the magic that lies within every dance melody." He smiled down at Cella as he continued, "I merely captured a bit of it for my own purposes." With a gallant bow, he thanked her for the dance, and left her with her uncle.

Within moments, Milda and Ingarde were at their sides. They gushed over how romantic it was that the Elfking had ambushed and tricked her into dancing with him. Uncle Dwain had come along when they were already out on the floor, and he chuckled as Ingarde described the stunned look on his niece's face when the monarch had reached out his hand to her.

Milda had missed that part, but she was not very regretful. She had been getting to know her man friend better at the time, which she wanted them to know. But she had seen the dancing part, at least some of it. And she figured that if Cella was ever going to dance at all, from the way she always talked about it as if it was a form of torture, then it was going to have to take something like a royal command to get her to do so.

"What was that like, to dance with the King Elf?" she asked. "I swear you looked like you were floating on a cloud." To Cella's eyes, Milda did not look as if her own feet had quite touched the ground either, after dancing with her nice young man.

Not to be outdone, Ingarde declared that she had almost, once again, died. Or at least that was how it had felt, she said with both of her hands on her chest, to see Cella in the arms of the fierce Elfking, who did not look so scary anymore, come to think of it. She did not know how she would have reacted, if she had been the one he had approached. Milda told her that she probably would have really, finally, died.

Although Milda was still giggling and flushed with excitement from her own dancing experience, Ingarde grew serious. But it was not because of what Milda had said to her. She turned to Cella's uncle.

"I heard tell there's something going on at Lake-town, something bad," she said. Cella froze at her friend's words, because as Ingarde spoke, her eyes had moved back and forth between her and her uncle, as if the something bad she referred to had to do with them. "With Gorst's kinfolk," she added, ominously. "I heard they are kicking up a fuss, trying to rile up the town against the Elves here."

Uncle Dwain's face grew sober as he replied to Ingarde, "What goes on yonder in Lake-town is for the Sheriff and his constabulary to take care of, and they have sworn to do just that." He replied flatly, as if the subject was now closed to further discussion.

"Oh, Uncle," said Cella, worried, "I insist that you tell me what is going on. I know that you know something." Instead he patted her hand, and tried to change the subject, again. But she stopped him. "Don't treat me like I am still a child, Uncle. If I have to live with giant spiders and wild warg-wolves, and not feel afraid, then I can hear the truth about Gorst's kin." Uncle Dwain sighed and glanced briefly at the three women, as if trying to decide how much he should say.

The horns signaling the feast sounded, the clear beautiful notes singing across the vineyard. There were not many workers left who had not already been drawn to the tables by the music and aroma that emanated from the outdoor kitchen. Cella was surprised to see how much had been done while she had been dancing. The tables were beautiful, with the floral arrangements set on top of each one and garlands looped along the edges. Torches had been placed in tall holders, but were left unlit for the time being. The cooks stood proudly at the banquet table, which seemed to bow in the middle from the weight of the platters and bowls and serving trays piled with succulently fragrant foods.

Cheerful, chattering people were directed by Elves to line up in front of some freshly uncorked wine barrels, set up to one side, where they were each issued a bowl of wine. It was the same vintage, purchased from the Lake-town merchant, that had made Cella's head swim on the night of the storm. But she was not going to be deterred by the feast; she asked her uncle again about what Ingarde had heard tell. Quietly, she gestured to her friends to leave her with him, and they hurried over to join the lines while she stayed with her uncle.

"You are a grown woman, now, Cella," said her uncle after Milda and Ingarde had gone. "I never meant to treat you like you're not, but, perhaps this can wait? I don't want to spoil the feast for us." She could tell it was taking a toll on him. It was always an effort for him to tell her unpleasant news and she loved him for his protective nature. But she was afraid for the Elfking, and all the Fair Folk, and needed to know about the threats that had been made against them before she would sit to eat.

Her uncle seemed almost relieved to finally confide in her, after he finally began. When he spoke to her about what he had learned that day from the Elfking, he did so as if she were his equal, instead of like she was still a little girl who needed to be guarded from all evil notions. Gorst's kinfolk were not in the least satisfied with the outcome of the Lake-town Sheriff's investigation into his murder, at least that is how they termed it. His kin did not believe that he had attacked anyone; he had no history of ever having done so before and they wanted satisfaction. Uncle Dwain hesitated, not willing to continue until Cella insisted even more firmly than before.

"There's talk going on, filthy talk," he reluctantly admitted to her with disgust in his voice. Haltingly, he reported there was a rumor circulating amongst the more ignorant people in the town, about her being a special pet of the Elfking, and that the jealous hot-tempered warrior Elf had accidentally caught Gorst in the act with her. Again he stopped. "Cella, there are some people in that town with very low minds."

Mercifully, she let him continue without asking for the specifics this one time, he had said enough for her to fill in the blanks in his story. She was seen as some sort of a loose woman, in service to the vineyard's royal employer, she understood. Perhaps seen as deserving of Gorst's unwanted advances. Since she knew that was not the truth, she did not feel as upset as her uncle seemed to think she might be.

Grateful to be allowed to skip over the details of what was being speculated about her, and His Worship, her uncle told her that Gorst's kin had gone to the Sheriff and demanded, Cella was alarmed to hear, that she be brought into the town to answer their questions. The Elfking had learned of this while he was making arrangements for the barrels to be shipped to his caves and had informed the lawman that under no circumstances would he allow her to be brought near any of those people for any reason, whatsoever. Hearing this, she felt a wave of grateful relief wash over her.

"So, that is the story, brother-daughter, as plain as I could make it for you." Cella was satisfied that Uncle Dwain was telling her the truth and felt less anxious now that he was done. It made sense to her why he had not wanted to tell her anything, let alone as much as he had. She was uncomfortable with the idea that complete strangers had passed such an evil judgments on the Elfking's and her reputation, people who did not know either one of them.

Her uncle started to guide her to the line in front of the barrels and she saw that the tall Elf, Thaladir, was standing beside the wine as if supervising the whole operation, which he probably was. She was surprised that Milda and Ingarde were not on either side of him, drilling him with their questions. The patience of these Elves was a marvel to her.

"But, wait a minute" she said, standing still again. "What did Ingarde mean about Gorst's kinfolk causing trouble for the Elves?" Although she was certain that the vineyard was well-guarded, even when there were no such rumors in the area, it disturbed her to think anyone would hold any malicious thoughts towards the Fair Folk, who were the most honorable beings she had ever had the privilege to know. Her uncle sighed.

"Just a lot of hot-headed ignorant talk, Cella," he reassured her and then gently tugged her forward. "By a handful of trouble-makers. Don't you worry; that seneschal fellow told me that it was obvious how most of the townsfolk despise Gorst's kin and cohort as much as they despised him." At most, he continued as they approached the wine barrels, the hostile talk would hover in the air for a while until hard winter set in and then would die down, at least that is what her uncle believed. She had to be satisfied with his answer because she was not willing to travel to the town by the Lake to find out for herself.

While they stood in line, waiting for their wine bowls, Cella saw the Elfking approaching his seneschal. She smiled to see him but, when he glanced toward her direction, she looked away, still unwilling to be caught staring at him like a love-sick adolescent. From behind her, a familiar jolly voice spoke.

"Master Dwain, how do you fare this fine evening?" It was Himbor, the overseer, and Lanthiriel, his wife, was on his arm. Cella did not see his sister, Glawareth, but she was sure that the Elleth was nearby; she had been the chief organizer for the decorations all that day. "Or should I say, Lord Dwain?" the Elf added with a twinkle in his merry eyes. "Royal Court Vintner now, did I hear?" Her uncle nodded and laughed at the title, but she could see how he puffed up a little to hear it. She felt a grin tug her mouth up at the corners.

"And how are you, Cella?" Himbor asked. "It is good to see you here tonight, you look well." She smiled at him; he was always so pleasant to be near. Lanthiriel quietly greeted them both just as Thaladir walked up and asked the whole little group to come with him; they would be served wine separately from the rest of the guests.

A bit mystified, Cella followed the tall robed Elf as he took them to the main table at the opposite end to the food-covered one, where they were seated as guests of honor. She realized it must be due to the announcement that was to be made about her uncle's new status in the Royal Court, and she felt thrilled at the honor being shown to him, he deserved it. Instead of being served from a barrel, there were large ceramic jugs filled with ruby-red wine set out, and serving Elves hastened to fill the bowls that had been placed on the table for them.

Another round of horn calls silenced the noisy crowd, and the Elfking strode out to the center of the dance floor to stand on the raised platform meant for the musicians. They were all standing in a line alongside the stage, instruments in hand, waiting for their turn on the stage. The sun was just about to set, and the few clouds that flecked the sapphire sky had turned purple and scarlet in the glow from its final light. Thranduil lifted the large bowl in his hand to the crowd.

Solemnly, the Elfking expressed his gratitude to the sun, the land, the seasons, and the Valar, for the many blessings each had bestowed upon his vineyard. Then he thanked the workers for their efforts, reminded them of how they had all kept their heads during the storm, and saved nearly the whole crop in the meantime. Everyone cheered to hear it again, it still seemed impossible that they had done so. After a moment, the crowd quieted while the monarch stood and waited calmly for them to do so.

"And now," he said with a smile, "It gives me great pleasure to introduce to you all the newest member of my Royal Court" While Cella listened to her uncle's new position being announced, she could not help but notice that there was something agonizingly familiar about the aroma, or bouquet, that rose from her wine-bowl and tickled her nose to the point of distraction. What was it that the fragrance of this wine reminded her of, and so strongly that she nearly felt tears in her eyes?

The Elfking finally lifted his bowl to his lips, and drank from it. Accordingly, the group of feasting workers, and the Elves from the main house, joined him in the toast. As soon as Cella sipped the wine, she knew exactly what the aroma reminded her of, her former home by the inland sea. She had tasted this before, many times.

"Brother-daughter," said her uncle, his voice hoarse with emotion, "this is my wine." He stared down at his bowl in astonishment. She could see him struggling to keep his emotions under control at the shock from tasting his own grapes again.

"I know, uncle," she said back to him, using a teasing manner to help calm him. "I think I knew before you did, too." But he barely seemed to hear her.

"I remember this year," he said quietly, but could not say anymore.

"As do I, or at least the year it was purchased from your vineyard," said the Elfking, who had joined the table while the two of them were preoccupied with their memories. "And this is the last of my private reserve; I had it brought here shortly after you arrived." He raised his own bowl again, in a private toast meant only for his newest Court Vintner. "Hail to you, Dwain, son of Dake. You are a genius at your craft and a man of great character. I will never regret the day you showed up at my gates."

As Cella drank to her uncle, she decided she did not care about being careful with her wine bowl this time, after all. And even though she had always thought she did not like the taste of wine, for once she thought it was the most delicious tasting substance that was ever made by the hand of man. The musicians were playing something soft and unobtrusive while the feast commenced. Still to come was the bonfire, and then the dancing.

She was looking forward to all of it.

To be continued in Chapter 19

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Posted: September 24, 2004

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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"