The King's Vineyard, Chapter 22
|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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The numbness Cella felt upon hearing that there had been a fire, even though it was put out before she had even been aware of it, intensified while she sat with her sleeping uncle. She took one of his limp hands into her own, and clung to it more to comfort herself than him. Her whole morning had been a series of upsetting events, starting with the nightmare that had driven her from sleep. And, even though she was surrounded by her friends, and friendly Elves, she felt alone.
After Nandirn informed her that Uncle Dwain would not waken until midday, she asked to see the remains of her bedroom. Milda and Ingarde were against it, claiming that the sight would do her more harm than good, but she was drawn to it almost against her will. The little house smelled of smoke and the floor was sloppy with sooty puddles of water. A tiny wave of dizziness made Cella cling to the door frame before she could enter; it was so much like her dream. The smoke was still a haze in the air, but the morning breezes were dispersing it quickly.
Her room was the only one affected, and it was nearly completely destroyed. Her bed was burnt to ashes, and it broke her heart to lose her mother's blanket. But her father's books, which she kept on the shelf above her door, had escaped with just a smoky smell. Cella walked through the house without saying a word or shedding a tear. She felt grateful that she had escaped, but it seemed like just a continuation of her nightmare, and she wanted to wake up.
She returned to the garden to sit with Uncle Dwain and shivered as she pictured the blaze in her mind. It did not take a lot of imagination to figure out what may have happened to her if she had been in her bed. The wine had put her into a sound sleep. It was hard to get used to the notion that she had saved her own life. If she had not been so foolish last night to climb into King Thranduil's bed in an effort to lose her innocence, whatever that meant, she would have been burnt alive. She had been incredibly lucky. But that did not make what she did forgivable. Did it?
Milda and Ingarde had brought her breakfast, but, in her present state, she could not tolerate even the sight of it, let alone the smell of it mingled with the reek of smoke and ash that swirled around the garden where they all sat. The after-effects of the wine were mostly gone now. Her head felt clearer and no longer pounded with pain. And even though she did not feel the jumpy behavior in her mid-section that had bedeviled her since the moment she awoke, she had something bigger to digest. Food would have to wait.
Both of the women tried to reassure Cella that Uncle Dwain was sure to recover completely, and she nodded dully in agreement with them. She had no doubts about the healing skills of the gracious Elfking, even if there was no promise that her uncle would not suffer some lasting disability; he would at least be alive. But, she knew her well-meaning friends misinterpreted her reactions since she had burst from the house, and surprised them by being alive.
While everyone else celebrated her survival, Cella mourned the fact that she had been discovered escaping the fire. She was trying to get away from it, true, but that was only secondary to her primary goal. And now the whole vineyard would know the one secret she had tried to conceal. Milda and Ingarde, and possibly her uncle, might believe her story about being too sleepy and tipsy from the wine to know what she was doing, and how she had gone to sleep in the wrong bed by mistake. They might think she was telling the truth because they did not know her to be anything but truthful.
But the Elfking would know she was lying. In fact, he probably knew the truth already, no matter what Cella wished. She dreaded seeing him again, and yet, she craved him to be near her. No one could tell her when he would return to the vineyard from Laketown. He had taken the men responsible for setting the fires, who the Elves had caught, to turn them over to the Sheriff.
One of them was dead, said Ingarde and Milda said she was sure he was the same man who had torched the bedroom; he had been caught by the Elfking, although there were no witnesses to the event. Hearing this piece of news seemed to bring Cella out of her stupor, and she started to pay more attention to her friends.
Milda and Ingarde told her that they had seen some of the men who had been rounded up and taken away. They recognized none of them, and figured they had to be Gorst's kin and any other troublemakers that always seemed ready to join in mischief at the expense of the innocent. The first fire had been started by some of them, who had crept up to the fence of the vineyard and tossed torches into the vines. As the hot sunny day had dried out what had been left of any moisture from the rains, the fire caught and began to spread quickly. This had all started not long after nearly everyone had gone to bed after the great feast.
And from what Cella could understand of the sequence of events, this all began right after she and the Elfking had put Uncle Dwain to bed. If possible, she felt even guiltier. It was bad enough that she had ignored the horns that were blown later in the night, to alarm the vineyard of the fire, and therefore had slept through her uncle's desperate attempt to escape the blaze. But she did not like thinking about what else could have possibly happened, if she had her way last night. She could have turned a bad situation into a complete disaster.
While she had been throwing herself at the handsome monarch, trying to make him kiss her again, those villains had been at work without his detection. What if she had succeeded in making him stay with her? She shuddered to think of it, but was grateful for the Elfking's good sense in withdrawing from her when he had. Her tired mind was filled with dark thoughts of herself, and she felt that if her friends knew the truth about her intentions, they would not be so pleased.
Oblivious to her inner distress, Milda and Ingarde continued with reporting what they knew of the events of the morning. The first fire, in the vines, had been put out quickly, before it could spread to the buildings, but it had only been a diversion. While Thranduil and his guards were pre-occupied with rounding up the men responsible, a single man had slipped into the vineyard, unnoticed, from behind the main house, where no one was watching at the time. There was evidence that he had tried to enter through the back gate, and, not succeeding in this attempt, had broken the shutters to Cella's bedroom window to toss in a torch.
He had not gotten far before Thranduil found him, and, after disposing of him, entered the burning house. Uncle Dwain had been roused from bed and led out, and then had tried to enter back into the house when he found out that Cella was not accounted for. He had made it back into her bedroom, where his leg had been trapped, but had been pulled out by the Elfking before it was too late. All of the Elves and humans had been ordered out of the main house, too, in case the fire spread. But no one had thought to check the royal bedchamber, Cella realized, because their monarch was clearly visible in the midst of all the chaos.
As the workers were roused from their beds, a head count was done. Two of the men were missing, and Milda and Ingarde told Cella that the Elves decided they must have assisted Gorst's kin in their crime. A search was launched, these men were caught attempting to flee, and were subsequently brought to the Elfking for questioning. They confessed immediately, but they had sworn they had not been aware of any plans to harm anyone.
The two conspirators had been led to believe that Cella had been complicit in Gorst's death, and that she was being taken to hide out in Mirkwood with her uncle, not a secret in the vineyard, in order to escape justice. The plan had been to capture her before she could flee, and then take her to Laketown where she would be questioned about the night Gorst was murdered by the Elfking. That was what they were told would happen, and they appeared horrified to learn about the fire.
After her uncle had been healed, and sent to sleep, the Elfking, his seneschal, and a few other Elves, had put all of the men, including the two field hands who had helped them, into one of the wagons meant for the seasonal workers, and had taken them to Laketown to turn them over to the Sheriff. And, from what Milda and Ingarde had heard tell, the King Elf was probably going to wring the lawman's neck for not doing a better job at keeping the troublemakers away from the vineyard. At least they both hoped he would. If anyone deserved a good neck-wringing, it was him.
But no one could get over Cella's miraculous escape. Milda excused herself to find Willem, he had gone out to help with the fire in the vineyard, and Ingarde was alone with her for the first time.
"I know why you got into the King Elf's bed," she whispered with a knowing look in her eyes, to Cella's despair. "You weren't that sleepy," she continued. "Or tipsy. And you might be able to fool everyone else, but not me." Ingarde took Cella's hand from Uncle Dwain's and squeezed it before adding, "And I am so glad you did. Don't blame yourself for what happened. I can see it on your face that you do."
As relief flooded through her, Cella smiled at her good friend. It felt good knowing that someone else knew the truth, and was not upset with her silly behavior, which was indeed not as much from the wine as she wanted to believe. All morning, as she had coped with her aches and pains and after-effects of the nightmare, she had craved the opportunity to be in her own bed, where she could think about what had happened to her with the Elfking. She had not had a moment since she had left Ingarde's bedside, after confessing her love for the Elf, to even think beyond the next moment of time, and what new disaster might happen.
One thing in her story was true; she had not really known what she was doing when she had climbed into Thranduil's bed, because her mind had not been her guide in her decisions from the moment he had kissed her. She had relied solely on her heart for direction from that point on. A tricky guide, she was learning, but one she could not ignore.
"What happened last night, when you got there?" asked Ingarde.
"I went to sleep, and I didn't wake up until I heard the horns," explained Cella, almost wishing she could have bragged about something more romantic. "I never saw him at all." Hearing it out loud forced her to see how innocent of an act it had been, her attempt to seduce the Elfking, and she had to smile at the look on Ingarde's face. It was a perfect mix of relief and disappointment. Cella laughed, and added, "I don't know what I thought would happen, if Thranduil had come in and found me there. I am sure he would have told me to go right home and get in my own bed."
"No," Ingarde shook her head as she spoke, unconvinced. "I think he would have just let you lay there asleep, you weren't hurting anyone." And Cella felt better as they talked it over. In the end she had to agree with her that the Elfking probably would not have been so disturbed at finding her there that he would wake her up and force her to leave. He had never before demonstrated such harsh behavior toward her, or anyone else. He had only been gentle in all of his dealings with her, despite her initial fear of him.
With Willem in tow, Milda returned to the garden, and by silent agreement, Cella and Ingarde stopped talking about the night before. The news had spread throughout the vineyard that Uncle Dwain had been trapped and then rescued from certain death, and was recovering in the gardens. Some of the workers respectfully approached where they sat to marvel at how Cella was holding up and at how well and peaceful her uncle looked, lying there.
The story that was being told amongst them had both uncle and niece being rescued from the fire by the King. More and more workers came and soon it was a fact that the magical Elfking had caught the arsonist, put out the fire, and rescued Uncle Dwain and Cella, all by himself.
At first, Cella thought that someone would correct this account, as it was obvious to her that she had not been near the fire when it broke out, and she had not been rescued from it by anyone. But as she listened, she realized that no one else, even those who saw her burst out the front door of the mansion, had assumed she had been anywhere but in her own bed at the time the fire started. And as the brilliant autumn sun rose to the middle of the sky, she felt even more lighthearted with each passing moment.
Only Ingarde and Milda knew the truth, and Cella was surprised how neither of them stopped the storytellers to correct them. She blessed them silently for protecting her reputation. But it was just as likely that her friends preferred the second version to the first one, as it was more dramatic by all accounts, and grew even more dramatic as it was embellished in the retelling.
Everyone was quite happy to believe that their employer, the great legend of their childhoods, the warrior Elf who single-handedly fought off the evil of the Dark Lord for centuries, was capable of anything, including walking through fire to rescue his loyal employees. At least, they all hoped so, and that made the story even truer for them.
When the mid-day horns blew, most of the workers left the gardens to eat lunch. The wagons would take most of them home after the meal. There was a group who volunteered to stay and help clean up the mess from the fire, for wages and a place to sleep. Milda and Willem were among them, and Cella was not surprised. It was only a matter of time before her friend figured out a way to live with the Elves on a permanent basis.
Ingarde wanted to stay too, but she was torn. Her stable-owning man friend back home might be married already to some other conniving woman, but she felt the urge to find out sooner rather than later. She was not mollified by Milda's reassurance that true love would wait forever. It was easy to say that when you had someone's hand to hold. Both of the women tried to coax Cella to the dining tent for one last meal together, but she would not be budged from her uncle's side.
Almost on cue, Nandirn arrived. He carried a bowl in his hands, and the fragrance that rose with its steam identified it as some type of tea. Cella had held her uncle's hand nearly the entire time she sat with him, and she gasped to feel his fingers move beneath hers. He was waking up. She clasped her other hand around his so that she held it with both, and squeezed it gently, as if to prod him to wake up. First one eye opened, and then the other. And he smiled to see her there before him. She forbade herself to cry, even though her eyes filled with tears, because she wanted him to see her being calm, and not cause him any worry.
Nandirn helped her uncle to sit, and offered him the tea to wet his dry throat. Cella turned her head when the Elf lifted the cover to examine his leg; she had learned enough about the injury to know it must look ugly, even if he was not showing any sign of suffering in any severe pain. The Elf seemed pleased with what he saw, or at least not displeased, judging by his comments.
Her uncle was interested and he clucked over the wound along with Nandirn, and did not seem too dismayed at the sight.
"It isn't a pretty sight," he declared. "But it's healed better already than I ever thought possible." He spoke as if his leg was a problem on the same level as a sickly grape vine in need of attention, or a batch of wine in danger of turning to vinegar, a little troublesome, but soon set to right. His attitude buoyed Cella's spirits. He did not sound as if he would accept defeat, and that was what she wanted to hear. She had supreme faith in her uncle's ability to fix any problem set before him, and this was just one more.
Now that he was awake, the Elves helped Uncle Dwain move to a chair that they had brought out to the garden. It was placed in a shadier location than the table, and there was a footstool with pillows for him to keep his leg propped up on. Cella sat on the natural blanket of moss beside him, and leaned against the trunk of a tree while Nandirn and the other Elves saw to her uncle's needs.
Lunch was brought for them on trays, and they both were grateful. There was not much food left in the vineyard after the feast the night before, and the kitchen elves had to make do with cold meats, cheese, and fresh fruits. But after seeing her uncle awake, Cella was hungry now. Everything looked delicious and she was able to eat. He was soon as comfortable as he could be made, and he waved off his helpers and asked to be left alone with his niece for a while.
"He told me you were alive," her uncle said as soon as they were alone, and Cella knew whom he meant, the Elfking. "That was the only way he could get me out of the house, brother-daughter." She could not respond beyond nodding that she understood. Uncle Dwain tried to continue, "When I couldn't find you outdoors, I thought I had lost you..." but he had to stop there, and her heart ached to see him have to relive that moment of fear again. She smiled for him, and spoke as cheerfully as she could.
"I am alive, Uncle, and so are you, and that is all that matters now." He smiled back at her, almost like his old self. She added, "Donít blame yourself for anything, that's what people keep telling me. We were lucky to have the Elfking come to help us, and we are both safe now. Save your energy, you need to keep your strength for your leg."
It was not a lie, what she had said, but she managed to avoid telling him she was not in her room when the fire started, at least for now. Eating lunch had made her sleepy, which was no surprise considering how little time she had spent in any bed, let alone the right bed, and she had to fight to keep herself from nodding off where she sat. Even after his Elf-induced sleep, Uncle Dwain was yawning and looking drowsy as well.
With the workers in the dining tent, a hush had fallen over the entire vineyard, and only the occasional sound of twittering birds and buzzing bees broke the stillness. Their trays were soon emptied, and removed, and both Cella and her uncle dozed beneath the trees in the garden, lulled by the musical fountains. They were awakened, gently, by Nandirn. He informed them that the Elfking had returned, and was coming to the garden to see them.
The dread Cella had felt over seeing Thranduil face to face, after her embarrassing behavior the night before, dissipated entirely when he returned. The sun had been shining brightly all morning, but, when he entered the garden, she felt as if dark clouds had finally blown away, and she could breathe easily again for the first time since she had sat up in his bed, after hearing him call her name.
At the other end of the garden, the Elfking paused to talk with Nandirn before coming to where Cella and her uncle were sitting, and she drank in the sight of him. Now that he was in sight, her heart was filled with joy. She swore to herself that she would disregard its guidance, and listen only to what was left of her good sense, while she waited for him to draw nearer. The words Ingarde had spoken to her the night before, after hearing about the kiss he had given her, came back to her now. She no longer felt foolish, but grateful that she had not been successful in pushing herself on him any further after he had so gallantly withdrawn.
The wine, the dancing, and the merriment of the moment, had provoked the kiss. And she had to admit to herself, in the clear light of day, that he had merely behaved on an impulse to please her, which he appeared to instantly regret. Her romantic notions had only gotten in her way, and had blinded her to the truth of the situation. She was determined to keep her feet planted on solid ground today and not give in to any more flights of fancy. And she would not consider what happened as anything more than a token of His Majesty's grace-filled affection taken a bit too far.
From where she sat, she could tell he was not happy. She could only hope that he had no more bad news for them, after his visit to the Laketown. But the grim look on his face, and the way his jaw was clenched as he spoke to Nandirn, made her feel anxious. When he finally turned his attention toward her and her uncle, she almost froze; his face was so stern that she was sure he was angry. But, his fierce expression softened when he came closer, and he smiled as he reached her uncle's side and clasped him by the shoulder as he greeted him.
Before he told them anything, he examined her uncle's leg, as Nandirn had done earlier. This time, Cella watched; with the Elfking present she felt braver and less likely to lose control of her emotions to distress Uncle Dwain. She was relieved and glad she had finally gathered the nerve to see the full extent of his injury. It was not, as her uncle said, a pretty thing to see, but she felt certain he would recover after all.
There was a large purplish gash on Uncle Dwain's leg that ran across the knee and down his calf, but he did not complain of any pain. The Elfking seemed most pleased that the man could move his foot, and even wiggle his big toe. He did not pronounce the leg free from danger, but he told them he was encouraged by the signs of recovery.
"You have taxed the limit of my Elf-magic, Dwain, son of Dake," he said as he covered the man's leg back up, finished with his patient for the moment. "Now only time will tell," he added. "But I believe you may keep your leg, after all."
With that said, the King turned his attention to the other problem they were all facing, the men who had tried to harm Cella, and what he had done with them after he had arrived at Laketown. His voice grew contemptuous as he recounted rousing the Sheriff and making him lock the men up while he watched. The field-hands who had confessed were questioned again, and the dead man who had started the fire in the bedroom was identified as Gorst's brother.
According to the Laketown official, there were others in that family who had not been gathered in the round up of arsonists, and he could not guarantee there would be no more attacks on the vineyard. The rumor of Cella fleeing to the Elfking's forest, before she could answer for Gorst's murder, had swept through the town and prompted the vigilantes to action before she could escape their rough justice. Whoever had escaped capture during the night would most likely return again; they were that set on revenge.
"Your Worship," said Uncle Dwain, while nodding toward his niece, "Maybe we should talk about this alone. What you say is not so good for Cella to hear, I'm thinking."
"No," replied the Elfking. "There is no more time for talking, it is time for action. I told the Sheriff to do his best to keep his town folk under control, but I have little hope he is capable of preventing any more harm coming to the vineyard."
While Cella listened, she had indeed felt frightened upon hearing how there were plans made to prevent her departure to the Elfking's halls. It was already clear to her that she was the target of mad-men who held her responsible for Gorst's untimely death, even though she knew the truth, and knew that he had deserved his fate. She wondered if she should just go into the town, and answer their questions, and settle this, even though the thought of recalling the terrible night of her attack, and repeating the events in front of hostile strangers, made her tremble.
"All I care about, Your Worship," her uncle was saying, "is my niece's safety."
"As do I," said the King firmly, and he turned to her, offered her his hand, and drew her to her feet. "Nandirn will bring your uncle when he is ready to be moved, you must say your goodbyes to him quickly" he told her. "My horse is being brought around. I am going to take you away from here, now."
To be continued in Chapter 23
Posted: October 13, 2004
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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"