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The King's Vineyard, Chapter 43

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 silent as a mouse, Cella sat on the footstool in front of the fire in the Elfking's den, and alternated between feeling terrified and mystified. The fire crackled merrily beside her, just as it had done the night her feet had gotten too cold, and Thranduil had warmed them here. It seemed an eternity ago.

He had sat right on the same stool where she was now sitting, and she had been in the chair. For the moment, she recalled that night, and how frustrated she was with him then, the last time they had been in this room, and she smiled. She glanced over at the small animal carvings on the shelves and enjoyed seeing them again from the other side of womanhood. Although, she had to admit to herself, they did not look much different.

Her uncle sat in the large chair now, with a bowl of wine in his fist and an ear-splitting grin on his face. She had never seen him look happier as he regaled the room with the story of the journey in the wagons from the vineyard to the Mirkwood gates.

In great detail, he reported all of the various mishaps and misfortunes, small annoyances mostly, that had delayed them along the way. Interspersed among the various woes, he told of some of the interesting things that he had seen from his vantage point in the wagon, and his opinion on the forest itself. "A bit darkish".

Milda, who sat beside him on the wide arm of the chair, helped fill in the blanks whenever he paused to draw a breath and it was as if they were all back at the vineyard.

But Cella barely heard a word being said, and her pleasant memory of her chilly bare feet in Thranduil's warm magical hands provided only a brief respite from the reality she faced tonight. Now that her uncle was here, she knew that at some point, possibly soon, His Majesty was going to tell him about... she was not very sure exactly what he was going to tell, only that it was going to be the truth. About them.

That was scary to Cella, for she was not sure how her uncle would react to learning about her intimate relations with this Elfking, while she was supposedly under said Elfking's royal care and protection.

She hoped, and was almost certain, that Uncle Dwain would not be angry, or hateful. But she was sure that he would be disappointed, at the very least. And when she imagined the look in his eyes at the moment he learned the truth about her, she felt spasms of dread in the pit of her stomach.

Besides herself and Milda, her uncle Dwain's attentive audience consisted of the tall elf, Thaladir, the mysterious, gray clad sometimes baby-sitting Nandirn, Legolas, and of course Thranduil.

The Elfprince had pulled another chair from a corner and sat in it next to the fire as well. His long legs stretched out before him reminded her of his father's. The two Elves who were freshly returned from the vineyard, the impeccable Thaladir and the elegant Nandirn, sat close to them on the inevitable bench, there was not a room in Mirkwood that did not have such seating carved into at least one wall.

As the gracious host, the Elfking made sure that all who wanted it had wine, and were comfortably seated, before he poured his own bowl. The quiet Nenrandir arrived bearing a tray, and refreshments were served to the weary travelers; there was tea for Milda and Cella, and some seed-covered buns and honey cakes.

After Nenrandir left the room, Thranduil stood next to the hearth, right beside her, close enough to touch, as he listened respectfully, and with some amusement, to his newly arrived houseguests as they reported on their travels through his forest. His arm rested on the mantle and in his other hand was his own wine-bowl. Soon after he had positioned himself there, it became easier for Cella to breathe.

She believed that it was only his steady presence that kept her calm after that. Maybe he could reach out to her in some silent way; she was beginning to feel this was true. Whatever the reason, her trepidation, as usual, subsided when she considered him being so close to her. And she was more able to think clearly.

However, she could not dwell for long on fearing the inevitable reaction from her uncle when she also considered the new mystery before her in the form of her dear friend, Milda, and her arrival here with the wagons. She had still not quite gotten past her initial shock.

From what she could tell, the two of them, her uncle and her friend, might be a couple. It was hard to say without asking about it outright, which she was not willing to do while there were others around. Now that they were indoors, she was having second thoughts, and then third thoughts, and was very mystified but not too worried.

Earlier, when they were still outdoors by the wagons, Cella had been shocked to her core by the notions that came to her mind when Milda claimed her uncle's side and grabbed his arm as if she belonged there. Did she imagine a brief glimmer of bashfulness on her uncle's whiskery face when he glanced at her friend? Had that been an expression that revealed a smitten heart, maybe? Or had the torchlight been playing tricks with her eyes?

"What about Willem?" The question had escaped Cella's lips then, before she could stop it. The guilty smile that her uncle had been wearing had left his face at the question, his features tightened and his jaw clenched. He answered instead of Milda.

"We'll tell you all about it, Cella," he said quietly, almost sorrowfully. "Only not here, it is too cold to stand about outdoors talking for those of us not sporting warmer winter clothes." He nodded at the shivering Milda beside him.

His softly spoken words were all the more alarming for the way he had said them, cautiously. But the frosty air was a problem, and Cella had felt a bit guilty for her own comfort. In the wagon there had been blankets and pelts for the two of them to share, along with the body heat of the returning elves.

Once Milda was outside of the crowded warmth of the wagon bed, the chill was obviously cutting right through the shawl she wore around her shoulders. Uncle Dwain wore a good jacket, but she could see that his nose was turning reddish in the autumn night air, and when he spoke, he emitted little puffs of white steam.

By then, Thranduil had moved over beside their wagon, while greeting and being greeted by his returning subjects. And, after formally welcoming and bidding Uncle Dwain and Milda to enter his halls, he led them quickly inside with the promise of a warm fire and a bowl of wine.

Formal introductions to the rest of his household could wait until the morrow, the Elfking proclaimed, for the weary travelers were better off inside, thawing before the hearth, and at rest. Her uncle needed no introduction; really, all of the Mirkwood denizens were familiar with the name Dwain, the vintner of the wine fit only for the royal table.

Irregardless, Cella regretted the ceremony being leapt over; she enjoyed the courtly manners of the Elflords when they were put on display. Only Thaladir seemed to agree with her, but he did no more that frown slightly at the breach in protocol as he followed his monarch dutifully.

To her relief, Legolas took Cella's arm in his and walked with her. She knew her face would have turned pink if the Elfking had approached her, and grabbed a hold of her, in front of her uncle. And even if the torchlight might have disguised her reddened cheeks, she was not going to take any chances. It was up to Thranduil to reveal whatever he wanted to have revealed about them; she would follow his cue.

After sending a silent prayer that her merry escort would not make some silly remark into her ear, which would send her into a fit of giggles in her already agitated state, she was grateful for Legolas's silence. She glanced up at him only to be rewarded with his sunniest smile, and she relaxed enough to wink at him, surprising them both.

Her uncle moved with a slight limp and the Elfprince wisely slowed his own step to accommodate the pace so that Cella could be close to him as they walked. It was more noticeable at first. Uncle Dwain leaned heavily on his walking stick, but he seemed to be forcing himself forward and she hoped he was not being brave in front of his royal employer.

Nonetheless, her uncle waved off any discomfort he may have been feeling when Cella expressed concern about him navigating the steep stairway up to the entrance. He swore to her that his bad leg had felt a little stiff at first, but that was to be expected after sitting still for the long ride in the wagon, and it was loosening up nicely even as they spoke.

Since the only alternative would have been to pick him up and carry him, there was nothing for her to do but hope he was as concerned about his own health as she was. But if the Elves who had tended to his healing, and his nursemaid, Milda, were not trying to stop him, then she had to concede to his wishes to progress without any more assistance than he already had. He did fine.

It was fun for Cella to watch her uncle and friend's faces after they climbed the stairs to the gates and entered the torch lit interior of the Elfking's vast underground realm with its gleaming pillars and the mirror-like floor that reflected everything like a deep, dark, motionless lake. She remembered her own awe at the sight, and at the time she had been surreptitiously seeking the presence of an Elfqueen, and had not truly had the presence of mind to appreciate fully what she saw in those first moments.

But now, it was as if she was reliving it with even more awe than she had felt the first time with them next to her, the first impression of the grandness and the beauty of the underground kingdom.

And she had an inkling of what Thranduil meant when he said that he enjoyed seeing Mirkwood from her perspective. Everything was made fresh when it was shared with new eyes.

The joy that Cella felt when her uncle disembarked from the wagon whole and healthy had made the notion, of him and Milda being a couple, unimportant for that moment. And the fun she had watching them react to the glory of Thranduil's halls made her feel too happy to even care very much if it was true.

They were here, fellow mortals, and their wide eyes and open jaws made her feel less alone in her own admiration of the Elven realm. Milda gasped and squealed at everything that Cella had wished she had been brave enough to comment out loud on when she had first arrived. Even Uncle Dwain let out a long whistle after they had climbed the next set of stairs and passed through the corridor into the palace wing.

"All of this was carved out of a mountain," she heard him mutter as they moved through the next set of pillars that supported the false dome; there was no sky above it, only more stone and earth. "I can't wait to see where the wine barrels are to go, your Worship," he added, sounding as if he would have been willing to go to work on the spot if asked.

As they gathered in the toasty warm den, with her Uncle deposited in the large chair as a seat of honor, Cella had to think again about him and Milda. Her friend was solicitous toward him as if he was an invalid and needed the extra attention. And when she sat beside him on the wide arm of the chair, it was just as likely that she wanted her feet as close to the fire as she could get them, without having to stand. She made no more advances towards him.

Besides, or so it occurred to Cella, just that Milda had been holding on to Uncle Dwain as they entered the caves did not mean much. Both of her talkative friends had always coddled her uncle, and they had been among the most concerned over the state of his health after the fire. Cella remembered how they had promised that they would not leave his side until he was ready to travel.

It was possible that an innocent friendship had developed and grown between them, because they were mortals among Elves. Just because Milda felt comfortable touching her uncle did not necessarily mean more than that.

There was also the fact that Ingarde had her stable owner to go back to, and her kinfolk's inn to tend, while Milda had only yearned to have warm feet in the winter, and now she got her wish. Maybe that was all there was to it. She was a clever one, and she had figured out how to finally be useful at the vineyard, as a caretaker for Uncle Dwain. It made sense that she could have been invited along by the Elves in order to see to him along the way... perhaps. Cella just did not want to jump to any hasty conclusions.

And it was so good to have them here, with her, that she tried to hold on to that feeling of satisfaction, because it made her warm inside, and happy. Her uncle and her friend were both to live with the Elves. Finally, after they were all comfortably situated in the den, she could let it sink in. It was almost too good for her to bear it without emotion.

Beside her, Thranduil shifted his stance, a brief and barely discernible motion that she caught from the corner of her eye, but it was almost as if he was speaking to her. Somehow, she could tell, or feel, that he was pleased that she had stopped feeling afraid. She sat absolutely still and concentrated.

Almost... she thought she could almost hear him. But like in a dream, whatever she had felt or sensed fled her mind when she tried to focus on it. And she was just sitting in front of a fireplace again.

"Your uncle did take on so, not knowing for sure how you were adjusting to your new life here." Milda's voice cut into Cella's thoughts, and for a moment she sat confused. Apparently the conversation had turned from the journey into an entirely new direction.

"I? I love it here," Cella said, a bit unsure if her response made any sense, but quite sure that it was the truth.

"That is good to hear, my dear," her uncle contributed. "We had word you made it here safe, and then we were told that His Majesty was eager for us to follow along."

"They didn't say why though," interjected Milda. "What the big hurry was. So, we got to thinking about what if something bad had happened, and you..."

"No news is good news, as I said all along," interrupted her uncle, but in a companionable manner, like he was delighted for the opportunity to say it yet one more time. Milda grinned at him, and poked his shoulder in return. At that moment, the Elfking spoke.

"Your niece needs her uncle," he said. "However, more than that, a seasoned man of the earth such as yourself must have sensed the sudden turn in the weather as you traveled through my forest this day."

"There was a distinct nip in the air, your Worship," replied her uncle agreeably. "But I have not yet developed a nose for the various types of weather in this northern clime. Rain, I can smell that, perhaps more."

"We will have an early winter," said the Elfking, adding, "Nothing too much worse than some steady rains, and perhaps a dusting of snow to cover the dead leaves. The rivers should stay running for at least a fortnight before they begin to slush and freeze over. The roads will be more difficult."

"The wine is due to arrive shortly by barge, aye." The gleam in her uncle's eyes as he discussed his favorite subject with Thranduil was brighter than when he looked at Milda. That might not mean much, either. It would take a mighty patient woman to suffer a courtship from a man who was in love with grapes.

And as her uncle talked about the arrival of the barges carrying the barrels here from Laketown, he seemed to come to life before Cella's eyes. Not that he had appeared unhealthy or not normal before that, only now his eyes were glowing, his voice had an eager tone to it, and he leaned forward in his seat.

He was not an old man at all, she realized with a start. Not young, either, but not too old to... desire. She bit her lip and stared into the fire, embarrassed by her recently educated imagination.

After a few moments, she glanced back up again and regarded Milda, who appeared to be glued to her uncle's every word. It was not as much of a shock to realize that her friend was not that young, either. Not as young as Cella was, and Milda was many, many harvest seasons the wiser about men of all ages, at any rate, and their desires. There was a pause in the conversation.

"What about Willem?" This time, Cella asked the question deliberately, instead of nearly accidentally. "What happened to him?" She added.

There was something in the cautionary tone her uncle had taken before, when he had said they would discuss this subject later, which had led her to believe there was bad news to be told. She felt ready to hear it now, if only to stall the Elfking.

Uncle Dwain and Milda looked to each other as if to somehow check if the other wanted to speak, first, before answering. Neither one of them could begin nor did they appear anxious to do so. Both appeared suddenly too weary for further words. As if waiting for this opportunity to happen, Thranduil spoke instead, and Cella braced herself.

"The hour grows late," the Elvenking remarked. "If you will excuse us," he said to the three mortals, "my advisers and I have to discuss some matters which have arisen since I have last consulted them. Lothriel will come to fetch you, when your chambers have been prepared."

For a moment, the room began to spin for Cella. Did that mean he was going to forestall informing her uncle of his decision about her, them? That was fine with her, and she nearly sobbed out loud with relief when he continued.

"If you are escorted to your rooms before I return, have a pleasant rest. I will see you all in the morning." With that said, and a last flicker of his eyes toward her, he was gone, closely followed by Thaladir and Nandirn. Leaving only Legolas behind.

But as happy as she was to not have to face the inevitable, at least not before a good night's sleep, when the door closed behind them, she missed him. When Milda asked who Lothriel was, Cella was unable to answer right away, and Legolas explained that she was the Elleth who had been put in charge of the mortal guest accommodations in the palace

Never before had Cella felt so bereft by Thranduil's unexpected absence. Without her realizing it, the Elfking had managed to steal a part of her and had taken it with him before she had felt its loss. And without it, she did not feel complete, or at rest. It must be her heart. Sternly, she lectured herself about being upset over things she could not control, and must accept. It helped a little.

She tried to feel happy with finally being alone not only with her uncle, but also her two closest friends here in Mirkwood now. Milda and Legolas. But all she could think about was whether or not she would see Thranduil again tonight. Would he dare come to her bed? He might do so after he sensed that her uncle was asleep. She could only hope.

A dreadful thought came to Cella; what if Milda was going to share her room with her tonight? It was possible, for there was no telling what the Elves imagined would be appropriate or practical. Actually, she did look forward to being with her friend, if only to have a chance to get to the bottom of all of her suspicions and to learn what had happened after she had left the vineyard with the Elfking, a subject no one had talked about.

In the flurry of His Majesty bidding them goodnight, and exiting with the other Elves, her question about Willem had gone unanswered. Afterwards, Cella was unwilling to participate in boring Legolas with a conversation about strangers to him, so she did not mention it again. They spoke now of the events of the next day; her uncle was anxious to tour the cellars, and Milda was looking forward to touring the rest of everything.

Accordingly, by the time Lothriel came to inform them that the newest guests' rooms were ready, Cella felt a little better. She was happy enough to chat with Milda as they made their way through the tapestry-covered corridors, and she told her curious friend that they would take more time inspecting the wall hangings the next day, when the royal vintner was touring his new domain in the deepest levels of the caves.

Uncle Dwain, despite his bad leg and walking stick, and Legolas had moved far ahead of them in the corridor, with Lothriel right between them. Milda felt safe about not being overheard.

"I can't wait to talk to you, Cella," she said confidentially, adding. "There's a lot to tell you." If Milda had seemed tired in the den, she was wide awake now. If they were going to share a room, then it was going to be a long night. And the Elfking would never come.

It was hard to tell who was happier to find out that there were separate guest chambers for Milda after all, she or Cella. Legolas took his leave of them as soon as they entered the pillared reception hall, with a bow to the guests and a last friendly grin at Cella.

"I think he's sweet on you, Cella," whispered Milda archly, after the Elfprince left. "Did you see the way he smiled at you?"

To be continued in Chapter 44

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Posted: February 25, 2005

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