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The King's Vineyard, Chapter 38

By: Mary A
Beta: Malinornë
Pairing: King Thranduil/OFC
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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As Cella floated up the stone stairway that led to the cave entrance, she glanced beside her from time to time at Lothriel to gauge any reaction to the intimate moment the Elleth had just witnessed, along with most of the royal household.

The Elfking's unexpected last minute kiss had not elicited any shocked gasps from the gathered Elves like the first one he had placed on her forehead had. At least she had not heard any. And it was not possible that no one had noticed. But there was a chance that they all knew better than to respond audibly again in front of their King, even to a major breach of conduct. She prayed that was not the truth in this instance.

Certainly, it could be that she was not paying as much attention to what anyone else was doing, or noise they were making, when Thranduil had kissed her. It was more true to say that she did not hear any reaction because she could not have heard anything above the din of her own singing heart. It sang a song that drowned out all other sounds. By the time she was calmed down enough to notice anything else in her surroundings, she had only the Elleth beside her.

But Lothriel's demeanor was not noticeably different, which meant she was as serenely detached from her surroundings as most normal Elves were under any circumstances, at least from Cella's point of view. It was also possible that the Elleth was too distracted by her multiple hospitality duties to be performed at the Elfking's bidding to have had the time to react to anything else.

As the Elleth helped find her gown, which had been cleaned and hung in her wardrobe after all, and saw to her other needs, Cella noticed that Lothriel did address her with more deference and paid more careful attention to her immediate needs than she had previously. It was a subtle difference. She was reminded of how the Ellith in the pressing teams had been obviously friendlier to her after Thranduil had visited with her uncle in their little home at the vineyard.

Nonetheless, Cella felt reassured enough that Lothriel did not seem unfavorably concerned about witnessing Thranduil's public display of affection. Whatever initial shock she may have felt was not detectable.

As Cella dressed to meet the Dwarves, and nibbled on the plate of food Lothriel had asked to be delivered to her room, she wondered if the other Elves were talking about her while they were gathered outdoors. Maybe they were all too troubled about the arrival of the 'stunted folk' to have been preoccupied with their monarch and his newest mortal subject. That was her hope.

It was a sweet little kiss, but she could still feel it on her lips. Whenever Lothriel left the room, Cella would touch her mouth and smile to herself while she remembered it.

Before they returned to the cave's entrance to meet the arriving guests, the Elleth brought a cloak for Cella to wear, at the Elfking's bidding. The late afternoon breezes were chilling now that the sun had gone down behind the hill, casting an early evening shade over the area in front of the stairs leading up to the gates. While she was wearing the riding suit, with its thicker material and leggings, she had been feeling a little shivery, and now she was grateful to have something extra to cover the thinner fabric of her Elf-made gown.

The cloak she was given looked new, instead of a shortened hand-me-down, and was made of the same soft suede as Thranduil's was. However, it was a lighter shade of green, more the color of the moss carpet of the forest floor than the deeper, darker tone the Elfking wore.

It complimented the color of her dress beautifully and Cella was only sorry that it covered her to her feet so that no one could tell how nicely they went together. But, without the extra covering, she would have been shaking with cold after she followed Lothriel back out of the caves and into the cool shadows of the autumn evening.

The entire population of the Mirkwood palace, plus the Wood-elves from out of their huts and tree-homes, were quietly assembled in front of the gates to witness the arrival of the lost party of Dwarves. By the time Cella returned, most of the Elves who had been carrying weapons were now disarmed. There were some with bows slung over their backs, but none with arrows ready to fire.

Thranduil stood with some of the Elflords, who were taller than the Wood-elves and more fair of face, and dressed in richly regal robes, and who also intimidated Cella too much for her to approach him while he spoke with them. She tried in vain to blend in with the crowd, but now the Elves dealt with her differently than they had before.

They treated her with much more courtesy and respect, like Lothriel, and some of them even smiled at her and greeted her kindly. But none of them would let her stand behind them, or remain hidden at their side, and she was continually nudged back out into the front of the much taller bystanders. Eventually, with their coaxing, she was near enough to Thranduil to hear him as he spoke to his Elflords, and she was happy enough to be that close.

An even greater hush had fallen over the Elfking's forest as the party of lost Dwarves, surrounded by their Elven escort, with Legolas in the lead, approached the bridge that led to the entrance of the caves. For Cella, it felt like every living thing was holding its breath in expectation and the very rocks were on alert for danger.

Out from the crowd of approaching guests and their mounted escort, Halatirn astride Cella's pretty horse, Hwiniel, broke away on a lope to cross the bridge ahead of them all. He leapt to the ground as gracefully as a cat and spoke briefly with Thranduil before finding a place to stand.

As he passed beside her, the Wood-elf nodded and smiled at Cella, perhaps to express his gratitude to her for providing the horse that kept him from having to walk with the odorous house-guests for the last leg of their journey. While she knew it was happenstance that she had been out riding with Legolas when Halatirn was on foot and in need, she was glad to have been there just the same.

Shyly, she had smiled back at him, but did not say anything, although she felt touched that he had acknowledged her. Watching the Dwarves draw near reminded her that Uncle Dwain would soon be arriving on that same road. In all the commotion today, she had not heard word of their progress.

However, even she knew they should have at least reached the edge of Mirkwood by now if they had left the vineyard early in the morning. There was no good reason to suspect that her uncle was not coming soon. No matter how much she may have wished otherwise.

And she found it was easier to dismiss the whole subject from her mind, because wondering and worrying about Uncle Dwain's arrival only made her feel guilty. She wanted to see him again, safe and sound, healed and whole, and as soon as possible. But at the same time she hoped he would not show up right away.

It was better to concentrate on the Dwarves and leave coping with her uncle's close proximity to her guest rooms for later contemplation. After all, even though he would be there, sooner or later, and as inevitably as the tides in the inland sea had been, he was not there yet. With a sigh of relief, she dismissed him from her mind for the moment, and instead focused on what was happening in front of her.

As if he was waiting for her to clear her mind of worries, at that very instant Thranduil looked over his shoulder at Cella. Her heart did a little jump when he beckoned for her to join him. Self-consciously, she stood beside him and was glad he did not kiss her again.

Because the Dwarves were on foot and the Wood-elves in front of them were mounted, at first it was difficult to actually see them as they drew near, except for tantalizing peeks. However, Cella could hear them long before she could begin to distinguish a tell-tale swinging beard on what she could see of the thicker, shorter people who were barely visible from behind the horses.

From the distance, like the rhythmic tinkling of bells on a horse's headstall, came a chink-chink sound as they marched methodically along. She had heard something faintly similar in the forest while hiding behind the tree, but it was not as pronounced and metallic a noise as it was when they trod over the long wooden bridge.

But the origin of the clinking noise did not come clear to Cella until the horses split away into two different directions, right and left, to reveal the odd group of short, bearded folk. Each of them, and the two ponies that were being led by them, were equipped with various excavation tools and weapons. Some had long-handled picks which were cleverly fixed in their belts, others had shovels, and all had axes, too, of various lengths and uses.

However, despite the enormous amount of items that were or could be used as a battle-weapon, they were not a particularly fierce-looking group of warriors as they trudged wearily to a halt. In fact, they looked lost, hungry, and far from home.

Their faces were covered in hair, but their eyes grew bright at the sight of the caves. It seemed to Cella that as they stood there and looked up at the stairs and into the dark interior within the opened gates, they all seemed to visibly relax. Perhaps in anticipation of soon being within the enormous stone portal and surrounded by rock and earth, the very stuff of what they were made, at least according to Lothriel.

The adopted children of Ilúvatar, she had pronounced them, as if that explained their origins, and Cella could see with her own eyes that they were not made by the same hand as the Firstborn Elves were.

The contrast between the fair and slender Elves and the squat, stout, bearded Dwarves was like the difference between glittering gems and dull granite stones. But even granite has its uses. And when polished can have its own beauty. To her the shorter, hairier men were not so much ugly as odd or peculiar.

With a more serious look on his face than he usually wore, Legolas dismounted and formally greeted Thranduil and the rest of the Elves in attendance. With a flourish of bows from all parties, he introduced the Dwarves to his father one by one.

Even though everyone knew that the Elfking had ridden out and met them earlier, the Dwarves were introduced to him as if it was the first time they had met. Cella could see how His Majesty, being surrounded by his subjects, took on a different role. He was the symbol of all of the Elves in the realm, and by politely receiving the unexpected party of guests in this public way he reinforced his promises. First to his subjects, that these intruders meant them no harm, and then to the Dwarves, that they would be welcomed.

First to be introduced was the leader of the expedition, the esteemed Duin, who was the brother of Dain, King under the Mountain, may his beard grow long, and who also was inexplicably wearing a spotless sky blue cloak and hood, unlike the rest of his companions whose traveling clothes were uniformly tattered and dirty.

After he was introduced, Duin threw his marvelously clean cloak back over his shoulders to reveal a broad glittering belt around his stout waist. On either side of him were his private guards, Eberk and Tordek, who removed their hoods and bowed with almost as much elegance as an Elf, at least to Cella's eyes, as they were introduced to the Elfking.

Next to come was Norfi, who was identified as a scholar and the son of Narfi, the builder, whose beard should also grow long. When he was introduced, with his mysterious title, Cella noticed that there were many Elves who nodded and smiled toward this particular Dwarf. She was fairly certain that the Narfi being mentioned was in some way responsible for the construction of the Elfking's caves.

And it was not just his title, or the reaction of the Elves, that prompted her to make such a guess. Even though Norfi was as travel-stained and worn as his companions, she thought she might have mistaken him for a particular one of the Dwarves depicted in the tapestry that Legolas had shown her in the throne room, if he had on a clean mantle and boots it would have been easier to tell. He had the exact same curly-haired beard as the embroidered Dwarf in the tapestry did, which was so dark brown in color that it was nearly black.

Next to Norfi were his personal escort, Ali and Vali, who looked identical to her mortal eyes and must at least be brothers. They all three bowed with the same grace as their companions had. Cella thought them funny but charming with their exaggerated courtly gestures. None of them, so far, paid much attention to her presence, or showed any reaction to her being a mortal maid among Elves.

The names of the ponies were never told, but Cella was almost as curious about them as she was about the bearded folk. Although both beasts were nearly equally burdened with bedrolls, sacks, and bags, as well as bristling with extra tools and axes, one was shaggy, humble, and mouse-gray in color while the other was snowy white, sleek, well-groomed and proud.

And this difference in appearances was mimicked in the two sets of Dwarves, for that is how Cella immediately perceived them; the builder's son and his twin escort were more tattered and torn, soiled and road worn than the fancy attired brother of Dain, may his beard grow long, and his personal guards.

It was obviously an alliance of sorts between the two groups, but whether of convenience or necessity was not entirely clear. After the introductions were over, and the Dwarves had each individually vowed to be at the services of Thranduil and his realm for as long as their visit lasted, Duin, brother of Dain, stepped forward to speak.

"In ancient times, O hospitable King of the woodland," he began, "our forefathers and your kind had their disagreements and quarrels, to be sure. This is not the day to find or lay blame, to accuse, annoy, or pass judgments. And we mean you no harm or distress. Today we seek only temporary shelter as we gather ourselves to continue on our private expedition unmolested and unfettered."

The silent crowd listened with respect as Duin spoke. It took him a while to get to the point, if there was a point. For a while he continued to speak about the obvious, how he, the holder of a map, had set out from his brother's Kingdom under the Mountain leading his company on this trek of great historical interest. And he was accompanied by the builder's son, Norfi the scholar, who had the most intimate knowledge of the Elfking's realm. He had been a residence of the forest when he was a lad.

Cella lost track of what he was saying after a while, as the dignified but long-winded Dwarf recounted how his party had inadvertently lost their bearings soon after they had entered the forest, through no fault of his, and he paused at that point to glare at Ali and Vali, who stared up at the sky in response.

As Duin ploddingly droned on, she looked up at the Elfking to study his handsome profile while she had the chance. He was paying attention to his guests, so she returned her attention to them too. But she wondered when they would ever get the chance to be alone again. Would it not be wonderful to be a real Queen to her King at this moment? Then she could reach out and touch him, perhaps even hold his hand, without caring what anyone thought of it.

While she stood there daydreaming, half-listening to the Dwarves and the Elfking, she felt his hand on her elbow, drawing her closer to his side. It was time to go inside the caves, and Lothriel, with her own army of Elves to provide her assistance, was put in charge of taking the naugrim to their guest chambers.

They were interested in studying the interior of the caves, but balked when instructed to leave their mining tools behind them at the entrance. The Elfking would allow them to explore at their leisure with appropriate supervision, but without any excavation or mining tools in hand. Their ponies were taken to the stables after the equipment was removed. They were each allowed to carry one axe with them, even though Cella noticed that some of the Wood-elves shifted uncomfortably to hear it.

"Legolas will assist with the explorations." Thranduil turned to his son and addressed him. "Please follow and make yourself useful."

"But father, the smell...,"

"They will bathe, and change into clean tunics, Lothriel is already seeing to that," interrupted Thranduil without hesitation, and then, after glancing down at Cella, he looked back to his son and added, "Come to think of it, Legolas, since you have lately taken such an interest in the personal habits of my guests, and their wardrobes, you will help her with dressing the naugrim, as well."

The Elfprince grimaced and turned to Cella with a sorrowful expression.

"Do you see the suffering I must endure in service to the throne of Mirkwood?" he asked her. "There is still time to escape and flee back into the forest to live free before you are put to work doing some similar form of hard labor." But Legolas did not seem overly aggrieved to be sent off to help the over-burdened Elleth, and he wished them both a cheerful farewell before he did so.

"I will escort you to your room, firiel," the King remarked very quietly so that she scarce was sure she understood him, but as he had his hand on her elbow and was guiding her up the stairs, she did not need to have him repeat his words. "I can tell that Lothriel will have her hands full for some time," he explained, as if he needed to.

After they reached the interior of the palace, passing the silent and motionless palace guards with their freshly sharpened spears, the other Elves who had been following their monarch politely took their leave of him. Cella had barely noticed that they were behind her, they were so typically silent, and she was busily rehearsing what she was going to say to Thranduil when she had the chance to speak with him privately.

As usual, once they were truly alone, the Elfking's nearness took Cella's prior thoughts away, and all the things she wanted to say to him, that she had stored up since her day had started, could find no voice. Then, in the silence that followed, she could only hope that her eyes spoke what her heart was feeling.

As the Elfking led her through the palace corridors he asked her what she thought of the Dwarves, and seemed interested in her answers. And as she told him her impressions of the awkwardly graceful bearded folk, Cella found her voice again. Soon she peppered him with questions about the Dwarf-made parts of the caves versus the Elf-made.

They paused beside a few tapestries and Thranduil pointed out a number of them depicting Dwarves at work in the background, and she noticed a few more in some of the other wall hangings as they walked toward her rooms. His Majesty did not lead her as though he was in a desperate hurry to be rid of her, and his leisurely pace made her feel calmer.

It was not until they were walking through the reception hall of her guest chambers that Cella finally got up the nerve to ask him if they would be, or when they would be, alone again, especially after her uncle arrived there. Breathlessly she awaited his reply and hoped that she had not overstepped her bounds, the limits of which were still unknown to her. But she trusted that from his answer she would learn more.

"Let me worry about your uncle, Celiel, when that time comes."

"I am sorry," she said. "I forget that you have more important issues to occupy your time with."

"Indeed, there is no need to borrow trouble." He did not sound concerned. "And as far as being alone, we are." With a wave of his hand that swept over the pillared hall, he indicated the truth of his words; there was no one else around them. She tried to gather herself enough to speak maturely under the circumstances. If he would only stay with her for a while longer, she would be content to be left alone after.

"My heart is ever at your service, Sire."

"Of that I have no doubt," he said as he led her into her bedchamber. "And I intend to put it to good use." Her heart began to beat faster, but she kept her voice steady as he shut the door behind them.

"Then I will try not to torment you any more with my frivolous little worries and cares."

"You are to me a most enjoyable torment, but I will not suffer torment of any nature for long without seeking its end," he said as he held her face with one of his hands. "Nor will I allow you to suffer." With that said, he kissed her properly. And it was some time before she thought about his words, and what they meant, or anything else.

To be continued in Chapter 39

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Posted: January 23, 2005

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