The King's Vineyard, Chapter 21
|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 email@example.com|
The Elf horns were blowing. Cella roused from her deep sleep enough to open her eyes and determine that it was still dark outside, not yet dawn, which meant the horns were not signaling day break, and so their noise meant nothing to her. With a sigh, she sank back down into sleep in pursuit of the lovely dream she was having, and returned immediately to where she had been briefly called away from.
Before her sleep was disturbed, Cella had found herself, in the queer logic of most dreams, to be a child again. It felt quite normal. She had been standing at a favorite spot of hers, within walking distance of Uncle Dwain's vineyard, on a cliff above the shore of the inland sea. It was a place where she and her father spent many happy summer evening hours, after dinner. Together, they would watch the gulls, the boats moving out on the water, and the fishermen, who stood along the shore below while casting their lines out into the gently lapping waves.
In the dream, the sun was slowly sinking in the sky and everything Cella could see, the rippling water, the boats, the birds, and the fishermen, were all uniformly bathed in its golden light. Before the horns had blasted her awake, she had felt more at peace than she could remember ever feeling.
But now, when she drifted back to sleep and tried to return to her dream, she found the shoreline was deserted and the sea was empty. It grieved her that there was not another living thing in sight. The sea birds were still near, because she could hear the incessant cawing and crying as they wheeled overhead, but she could not see them anymore. The sky and sun were covered in clouds, and every thing was colored gray instead of gold. Again, she heard the horns blaring and knew at once that they were a warning of either thick fog creeping in, or, of a violent squall on the way. She felt worried for the boats out on the water, even though she could not see any.
As if waiting for a signal from the horns, thick, low clouds quickly rolled in around her, obscuring her view on all sides. The noisy sea-bird cries were muffled by the white blanket of mist, but she could still hear them faintly above her. She sniffed when a familiar odor touched her nose, and could tell that someone had started a fire on the beach below; she could smell the driftwood burning. The sky was getting darker; perhaps she should go home now.
An uneasy feeling came over her when she turned to leave and realized that she did not know where she was. For some reason, she was no longer standing on the familiar beach cliff. She had gone astray in the fog, although she could not remember walking anywhere, and nothing looked familiar. She tried to find her way back to where she had just been. But she had no sense of direction in this white world she wandered in.
The uneasiness turned to horror when she found that the white cloud that obscured her vision was not fog at all, but smoke. And it could not have come from a mere driftwood fire; this had to be from the bonfire at the Elfking's harvest feast. As soon as she thought it, she knew it was true, and she could hear its roaring voice again, although she could not see any flames. There was no sea, no boats, and no beautiful golden beach anymore. Cella was back in the King's vineyard.
It must be that, during the night, when no one was watching it, the bonfire had re-ignited by itself and had grown out of control. She could almost hear it walking about in the vines, crashing through the stakes, and seeking her. It had sensed her fear, and was coming to devour her. She tried to run, but her legs would not respond properly, and there was some unseen force that resisted her forward motion, preventing her escape. She tried to scream, but nothing came out of her mouth.
Out of the swirling clouds she heard the seagulls again. Only instead of cawing, she thought she could hear them calling out her name. No, it was not birds she was hearing, it was a person's voice, someone who was hidden in the smoke. Distinctly, clearly, right next to her ear it seemed, she heard a voice say her name.
Cella sat straight up in the bed, startled awake. She expected to see clouds of smoke, or flames of fire, or whoever it was that had called out her name. Instead, she saw nothing around her but the curtains that hung from the canopy of the Elfking's bed. She was safe.
Relief flooded her as she recalled the last moments of the nightmare; there was no living, breathing, bonfire monster that was trying to kill her. And she was not lost at all. She knew exactly where she was, even if the details about how she had ended up here in the royal bedchamber were still hazy. But with each moment of wakefulness, the steps she made to hide herself in this bed were regretfully coming into focus, even if her eyes would not. Her vision was blurred from sleepiness, and her lids felt sticky. But, she had heard someone say her name.
With caution, she pulled the bed drapes back and felt a curious mixture of relief and disappointment to find that the chair beside the bed was empty. She had half expected to see her uncle there, waiting for her to wake up. A dim gray light filtered in at the edges of the window shutters; the night was over and a new day was coming. From somewhere outdoors, she could hear raised voices, crying out and shouting. They reminded her of the sea-birds from her dream, but it did not sound like anyone was calling her name.
Her head hurt so bad that she had to hold onto her temples. The muffled shouting out in the vineyard bothered her, there was something about it that was trying to demand her attention, but she felt sick. The dread from the nightmare was just beginning to seep away, and although she wanted to go back to sleep, she was afraid it was too soon.
Adding to her overall discomfort was the scent of smoke that stubbornly clung to her hair, and skin. This was one of the reasons she had stayed as far from the bonfire as she could the night before, although not far enough it seemed. The pungent odor invaded her senses so completely that she could not escape it. She hated the way the acrid aroma had lodged inside of her nose, and it seemed like she could even taste the bitter reek in her dry throat. It made her stomach turn.
No wonder the idea of fire had entered her dream and tormented her in that nightmare. And her eyes seemed affected also. The lids were heavy, and were having trouble clearing, no matter how often she wiped and rubbed at them.
Slowly, Cella lowered herself back down to the pillow while she decided what to do next. She considered just staying in the royal bed a while longer, even though she knew she should not, until the left over shreds of horror were cleared from her mind and her touchy stomach settled. But it hurt her head to think what she should do, and she felt sluggish and stupid from lack of sleep.
But, despite her befuddled mind, she recognized her good fortune at having escaped discovery by the Elfking, or anyone else who might have a reason to come in to his room. Now, all she had to do was get up and get dressed and slip out unseen, before the sun came up. She would have to move fast. If she was able to do that, she vowed to herself that she would go right home and get some good sleep in her own room. Only, she wished she did not feel so ill. This was more than just the nightmare and lingering scent of the bonfire, and she knew exactly what was wrong. It was the wine.
All of her life, Cella had witnessed the morning-after suffering of those who had overindulged their thirst during a festive occasion. Usually it was the younger men who worked for her uncle who would be this sick on the day after a feast like the one she had attended the night before. They would moan and clutch their scalps, a sight which she always found disturbing. Because she had learned their agony was self-inflicted, and avoidable.
Uncle Dwain, from what she could tell, never seemed affected that way, and he explained to her that it was a matter of common sense, and drinking in moderation. He told the vineyard workers the same thing, at every party where his wine was served. After that, she had always wondered why anyone would be so foolish as to not follow that advice, and she never felt sorry for those who let themselves get into such a wretched condition.
Now she felt sympathetic towards all those poor unhappy men, and guilty for judging them so harshly. She wondered who else from the harvest feast would have a headache like hers today. And Uncle Dwain had certainly drunk more wine than she had ever seen him drink before; she almost smiled to think that he was probably still sound asleep. It might be interesting to see how he fared this morning after he had overindulged himself last night, possibly for the first time in his life.
Again, she heard the sound of raised voices from somewhere out beyond the shuttered windows. It was enough to shake her out of the stupefying torpor she seemed to be trapped in. Cella moaned, just like the ill men-folk back home would do. Now that she was awake enough to remember what day it was, she thought she knew what she was hearing, and what had disturbed her dreams.
She was on her feet, her heart beating a little faster as she considered what she had done by falling asleep in the Elfking's bed; the commotion outside could only be for one reason. It was the sound made by the seasonal workers leaving; they were gathering together, shouting and calling out to each other while they were waiting for the wagons in preparation of being driven away, including Milda and Ingarde. Cella was convinced now that her friends would have been looking for her to say farewell. Maybe they had even been calling her name and that is what she had heard in her troubled dreaming.
As she dressed, Cella wondered why the wagons were leaving this early and hoped that the ones her friends were riding home in were still there. If she missed seeing them off because of her silly idea to surprise King Thranduil by hiding in his bed, she would never forgive herself. It was going to be hard enough doing that as it was. But she needed to worry about that later, and get out of here now.
The self-induced illness from drinking too much wine seemed to make her sense of smell more acute. The stink from the bonfire seemed stronger after she dressed, which meant it must be clinging to the fabric of her pretty new gown. It would have to be washed as soon as she could manage it. She had no time to think about it now.
Before she opened the door, Cella held her ear against it, as she had done before she entered the room. She could hear nothing to indicate that anyone was on the other side, as she feared. Slowly, so as not to make it creak, she opened it and peeked out. Her only concern was to escape discovery, and she was grateful to find that the corridor outside the royal chamber was empty. As swiftly as she could move in the debilitated state she was in, she crept down the hall to the top of the stairs.
The common room below her was dimly lit and quiet. The large windows were shuttered but there were tapered candles on the mantle of the great fireplace, and their flickering light revealed that the place was empty. But, unaccountably, she could smell smoke even stronger now, which made her move with extra caution down the stairs. It was not just the left-over scent from the bonfire clinging to her hair and dress that she had thought when she was still in the bedroom. And the torches that normally lit the stairs had been extinguished, so they were not the source.
It was possible there was an explanation. Maybe her oversensitive nose was detecting a fire in the common room's fireplace? But when she reached the bottom of the staircase, she could see that there was nothing within the dark depths of the massive hearth that could be making any smoke; there was not even the faintest glow from slowly dying embers. Where was this stench coming from? As she descended, the odor became so pervasive that her eyes blurred, and for a startled moment, she believed she could actually see a noticeable haze in the air.
A wave of dizziness forced Cella to grip on to the curved banister and she held on to it tightly until her stomach stopped flipping. The urge to run back up the stairs was strong, but she knew she must not do that. She forced herself to calm down and pay attention. Except for the haze, there were no other signs of a fire, she heard no crackling noises, and saw no light from any flames. It could be that the great bonfire from the harvest feast was still smoldering out in the party field, and the smoke had drifted all this way.
Reluctantly, Cella released her grip on the banister and stepped away from the stairs. If there was any danger here from something as noticeable as a smoking blaze in the house, the Elves would certainly be here to cope with it, she reminded herself. They would sense any hazard before she could. But, she still felt anxious as remnants of her fiery nightmare tickled her spine with fear, despite her rational mind's assurances and explanations.
Had she imagined that the sounds she had heard were the workers leaving? Because it was too quiet down here for that to be happening; there should be more activity and noise. The Elves would be awake when the wagons were brought around, and the windows would be opened, too. She decided she would just go home, and get into bed before her uncle woke up, if he was not already rounding up a search party for her.
But her fear had distracted her, so it was not until she came all the way into the entryway that she noticed the silent guards were not there, standing sentry. What did that mean? She stopped again, unwilling to take another step. Why would the guards leave the Elves' area unattended? She listened, and she could faintly hear voices that came from outside the front door. But no one was shouting any more.
And now she was convinced that the hollering that had annoyed her was not the worker's leaving. It was undoubtedly about the bonfire's smoke getting into to house, and that made sense. The Elves would not like their rooms filled with smoke any more than she would. It would explain why the shutters were still closed as well.
Sternly, Cella lectured herself about jumping at any more shadows; she would never get home this way. She should just feel grateful that she had gotten this far without being seen by anyone. And it was almost over now, just a few more steps until she was safely on her way to her own bed. It had to be a combination of the after effects of the wine, the smoky smell, and the horrible nightmare, that was setting her nerves on edge.
The way out of the house was right across from the stairway; but the entrance to the corridor that led to her home was to her right, around the corner, and therefore out of sight from where she stood. It was growing lighter now, even with the windows closed. If anyone was coming or going through any of the other halls that connected to this area, they would see her now if she did not hurry.
Cella never lied to her uncle, she never had to. But she started to practice what she would say to him if he was awake. Her head pounded in protest to the exercise, and the queasiness in her stomach had not gone away, but she no longer had to fear being seen leaving the Elfking's bedroom. She was nearly home.
And then she opened the door to the final corridor and shrieked when thick, dark smoke boiled out to greet her. Choking and sputtering as she ran, she was nearly all the way back to the staircase before she could make herself stop and think about where she was going before she ran up the stairs and hid in the Elfking's room again. She might be trapped up there if the fire was coming in this direction. She had to get out of the house, now. Out the front door.
Sobbing, Cella ran, and when she burst out of the house, a soot-covered Ingarde rose from where she was seated on the ground. They screamed at the sight of each other. Milda was there, too, and the look on her equally smudged face was one of disbelief and pure joy mingled. Clutching at her, they both declared to her that she was alive, over and over; as if this was something she might not know, and needed to be convinced of.
They made her sit on the landing steps while they added how they could not believe it was true, even though they somehow knew it all along. They told her that there had been a fire, but it was mostly out, there was just the smoke left. And they had both thought she was dead.
"Where is Uncle Dwain?" she asked. Now that her very worst fear had been confirmed, and apparently extinguished while she had slept, she felt abnormally calm, and no longer sick. But she was not at peace, she felt numb.. Her friends looked at each other, and then Milda took her hand, pulled her to her feet, and led her around the house to the garden as she spoke.
"I'll take you there," she said. "We just left him, but he's going to be happy to see you, when he... He's right over here." She gestured ahead of her where the picnic tables were set out under the trees. Cella could see Elves there next to one of the tables, but the King was not there. Milda stopped her. "Wait a minute. Your uncle is going to be fine, but I have to warn you, he got hurt bad in the fire."
But Cella did not wait to hear more; she broke free from her friend and pushed through the Elves. Her uncle was laying on one of the picnic tables, and she nearly collapsed with relief at the sight of him. His eyes were closed, and he had a cover pulled over him to his chest, but she could not see any burns on his skin, or any other obvious injury. Nandirn was standing beside her, and though he did not speak, his presence there calmed her. He smiled at her.
"Can I touch him?" she asked the gray-clad Elf. He nodded and she picked up her uncle's hand and held it. Uncle Dwain did not stir, but his hand felt warm and dry, which made her feel even better.
"His Majesty has sent your uncle to sleep," said Nandirn. His gentle voice was soothing to hear. "There is healing power in sleep," he added. "And he will waken after a time, and you may stay here with him." She thanked him, and wished that she could thank the Elfking too, but she could do that later. Right now she was puzzled. Her uncle still wore the clothes he had slept in, and from what she could see, they were not burnt or scorched. His hair was not singed.
"Milda said he was hurt bad in the fire?" She looked back up to the Elf for reassurance that what she saw before her was true. Uncle Dwain had not been injured too badly, at least not that she could see. If anything, her uncle looked healthier than she had ever seen him, even though he was still and quiet, which was very unusual.
"Your uncle has undergone a great amount of healing, but there is only so much that can be done through the grace of the Eldar. Any further healing will be up to him," The Elf nodded toward the sleeping man. He told Cella that Uncle Dwain had suffered some burns to his legs, but they had been healed, and would probably not even leave much of a scar. But, there was a chance he could lose one of his legs, after it had been crushed by a falling beam. It would take time, but he would receive as much help as was necessary to help the healing process along.
A bench was pulled beside the table for her to sit on while she waited for her uncle to wake up. Milda and Ingarde had cleaned their hands and faces, and brought Cella breakfast, but she could not bear to look at it.
"Where were you?" demanded Milda.
"I got into the wrong bed last night," she said. "After I finished talking to Ingarde, I tried to go home, but I was so sleepy I didn't know what I was doing." Cella explained that she had been too tired to think straight and so had climbed the stairs and gotten in the Elfking's bed without meaning to. It was the story she had practiced to tell her uncle.
And it was true, true enough that Cella could say it to Milda and Ingarde with a straight face, and a clear conscience. She could even look her friends in the eye while she said so. The only thing she was leaving out was her motive. Otherwise, all she had done was fall asleep in the wrong place. Ingarde shook her head with disbelief.
"Oh, Cella, it was meant to be," said Milda in awe. "You were saved by your mistake."
"What do you mean?" asked Cella.
"The fire was started in your bedroom," answered Ingarde. "And by the time anyone could get to it..."
"We all thought you were dead," finished Milda.
But Cella was not sure that was true. The voice that woke her from sleep, familiar as her own in her ear, had been the Elfking's voice. She had not answered, hoping to remain hidden, but she was not sure he did not know that she was in his bed.
And no matter how frightened she had felt by the smell of the smoke, she had not called to him in her mind, had deliberately not thought of him at all, because she was convinced he would guess her location. And in the clear light of the dawning day, she was hoping against hope that he did not know where she had been.
To be continued in Chapter 22
Posted: October 6, 2004
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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"