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The King's Vineyard, Chapter 46

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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When Cella awoke the next morning, she was in her own bed again, and alone, but she did not feel abandoned. After Thranduil had brought her back there, he had stayed with her until she fell back to sleep with a promise that she would wake in his bed for every morning of her life, after this day.

And Cella believed him. She would never doubt him again, or so she believed. For he had brought her something that she had never thought would be possible; peace of mind. A sense of peace that she had not felt within her since that warm spring morning before her uncle's barn burnt down.

After the Elfking had calmed her enough, he was better able to help her see the truth of the matter, a truth that she had not ever forgotten, but instead desperately hid from because it existed along with all of the horror associated with it, that her young heart could not bear. She had finally started to heal. It was only with the mind of a grown woman that she could properly sort out the events and see them for what they were, instead of for what she had so long feared they were.

However, as she was not able as a child to understand the events of the fire from any other perspective than that of the guiltiest party, she had no reason to really believe otherwise. Finally, as an adult, she could see how she had not broken a promise, had not misbehaved, but had fought back against an evil assault. She had the right to do so.

And as her grown self asserted itself and her shame turned to anger, and then to relief, she did begin to believe the Elfking when he told her that she was not bad, had not ever been bad. And she recalled the other voices from her past that had also tried to convince her, in the days that followed the tragedy, that she was not to blame for the fire, or for her parents' death.

What helped the most was not just remembering the situation in the barn, and step by painful step at that, to bring her through the flames and all the way to the other side. It was the Elfking's words, after she was ready to hear him, when he had asked, "If you were bad, would your uncle love you as much as he does? Think about his eyes when he looked at you then, little star, do you remember ever seeing disappointment or discouragement within them?"

Of course, she remembered no such thing in her uncle's loving gaze, only pity, and sorrow, and compassion. And when she wept again, it was not the grief-wracked sobbing that had only made her feel more miserable, but a cleansing tonic as she mourned all the years of her life that she had spent trapped inside her own prison of imagined guilt. But she did not weep for long, because her heart felt too light for tears.

She took one of the Elfking's hands into both of hers and folded his fingers over his palm, saying, "With a fist this large, you have broken through the wall I made around my heart," but she smiled when she said it, the pain gone. And Thranduil had laughed. Shortly after this, he brought her back to her room and she slept more soundly than she could remember.

But Cella did not have long to lie in bed and enjoy her serenity of spirit; she had only just begun to wonder about breakfast when there was a knock at her door. Normally, Lothriel or Thranduil would knock and then enter, but whoever was there now did not come right in, which made her think it must be either her uncle, or Milda. She rose to find out, happy to have company.

It was both of them.

"Breakfast is being served up for us in that fancy dining-room, Cella," Milda said, instead of 'good morning,' adding, "And you aren't even dressed yet!"

"Good day to you, brother-daughter," murmured Uncle Dwain when Cella stepped past Milda to hug him.

"It is a good day, uncle," she answered without loosening her embrace, suddenly feeling as if she would burst out laughing, knowing how good of a day it already was for her. "And I am so glad that you are my uncle," she added with a final squeeze.

But Milda was too hungry to abide any delays and, with a sense of authority hitherto unseen, she shooed Uncle Dwain away and directed Cella to go back into her room to dress. She followed right behind while talking non-stop every step of the way.

"Did you take a bath here yet? Have you ever seen anything like that before? The way the hot and cold water make a waterfall that way? Where are your clothes kept, Cella?" The dressing room made her sigh and the contents of the wardrobe stunned her into silence.

Wordlessly, Milda fingered the glittering front of the fancy riding suit and then admired the other contents, including the gown Cella had worn the night before, which she had noted but had not had a chance to comment on.

"You've only been here a few days and you have more clothes here than I do back at my own home," Milda declared. "This is lovely." She pulled another gown from the wardrobe that even Cella had not seen before, a plum-colored garment that was more elven-like than the gown she had been given at the vineyard. They both admired the elegant style and graceful lines.

But it was not only the gowns and the riding suit that captured Milda's attention. There were shelves with undergarments and nightgowns, beside the one Cella still wore, dainty slippers and the pairs of boots, the soft fur-lined gloves and warm cloak, to be explored and exclaimed over.

"This is more clothes than I have owned at one time, too," said Cella with a mixture of pride and astonishment, realizing it fully now that she had someone there to notice her new clothes with her. Had she grown so used to her new life here in the palace that she had forgotten her humble state of only a few short months previous? Was she taking the generous monarch's largesse for granted?

"I can't keep my hands off of this." Milda had finally given in to her need to examine the tunic of the richly embroidered riding suit more closely, removing it from the standing closet and shaking her head bemusedly at the sparkling ornamentation. Not for the first time, Cella silently wished for a less ostentatious outfit, but could not help but enjoy her friend's delight in it.

Almost embarrassedly, Cella began to explain how it had once belonged to the Elfprince, and had been tailored to fit her, to Milda's suspiciously arched eyebrow. They were interrupted by Uncle Dwain.

"Our breakfast is growing cold," he told them, and Cella chose the plum dress to wear, and they were soon together at the table in the guest dining-room. The hot food was still hot, however, despite Uncle Dwain's fears, and all of it was as delicious as ever. For a time, there was no conversation. It was Milda, to no one's surprise, who finally came up for air long enough to speak first.

"Your Uncle Dwain can't wait to get to the cellars and meet them elves who are to work with him," she said, with a shake of her head as if she could not understand the need to rush, now that they were finally there.

"That I am," he admitted with a chuckle. "No time like the present." But it went further than meeting more elves for him, he was actually just as interested in seeing the way the cellars were built, and if there was going to be enough room for the barrels to be laid out properly. He was quite sure that the Laketown barges were due to arrive soon.

Cella was surprised, and happy, that neither one of her breakfast companions mentioned anything more to her about the prince, and the possibility that he was courting her. But after everyone had finished eating, she finally asked about Willem. She was not prepared for their response. Again Milda fell quiet, and her eyes swam with sudden tears, but she did not cry. It was Uncle Dwain who told the tale.

Willem, it had turned out, was Gorst's kin and had befriended Milda on purpose, to get closer to Cella. He had been the one who had assisted the arsonists that had invaded the vineyard during the night of the Harvest Feast. The Elfking had heard rumor of this possibility, which is why he had taken Cella away as soon as he had returned from the Laketown on the day following the fire.

"Do you remember, Cella," Milda contributed, unable to keep quiet after all, "how Nandirn told Ingarde and me not to tell anyone you were leaving with the King Elf?"

Yes, she did remember that, and how Thranduil had been so kind that he had made sure she would have a chance to say farewell to her friends that day before he took her away. "His Majesty said that you were to tell anyone who asked that I was indisposed," she remarked, grinning at the memory. It had sounded so funny that morning, but now it was serious.

The clever Elfking had set a trap for Willem by removing Cella and having everyone else led to believe that she was still there, recovering from the shocking events of her bedroom being attacked and burnt, and her uncle being seriously injured. Nandirn had gone from place to place officially giving everyone word that she was resting for the day, by order of His Majesty, in the royal bedchamber. No one was to disturb her.

Not long after that announcement had been made to the vineyard workers who were cleaning up after the fire, Willem had been caught trying to get into the mansion.

Normally, no one would have thought twice of it, he had claimed to be looking for Milda, who was actually at uncle Dwain's side at the time. But Thranduil had warned the sentinels to beware of even the least suspicious vineyard worker who tried to gain access to the elves' living area, for any reason, after Cella was secretly removed from the premises.

It had not taken long for Willem to confess under the scrutiny of the Elves and their piercing questions. Milda had been a witness to what, for her, was an ordeal when this took place. And it had crushed her when he had finally broken down and admitted his guilt. It was clear that she had still not quite recovered from the shock of learning how poorly her heart had been used by the man she thought was going to take her away from her hard life, after all.

It was a disheartening story for Cella, too, for she had such high hopes that Willem could be the one to build Milda that snug little home she had wished for, and rescue her from the cold crowded bed in her family home during the bitter winter. However, she was also glad to have her friend with her here, and it helped to know that her feet were warm either way.

There did not seem to be anything for Cella to say besides how sorry she was, about all of it, and after she had said that she remembered something else she had been waiting to mention. And she hoped it would cheer the table by changing the subject. The recollections of the fire at the vineyard now seemed as distant to her as Tobe in her uncle's barn. She did not feel guilty any more.

"Have you heard there are Dwarves visiting here, Uncle?" He had not, and seemed just as happy to learn it as she had been at first. She told them both about the clinking-clanking arrival, the ponies, the flowery speeches and courtly bows.

"They brought their mining tools with 'em, you say?" Her uncle's eyes took on their usual eager 'ready to get to work gleam', and Cella could see him mentally fingering picks and shovels, as he set out to remodel the Elfking's caves.

"One of them, Norfi, is related to the Dwarf who built the caves, his name was Narfi." Her uncle and friend were suitably impressed with her recently acquired knowledge of the origins of the various Dwarf visitors, from what she had learned from Lothriel and the Elfking, not to mention the Dwarves themselves. She did not bring up the air of hostility she had sensed in the atmosphere within the caves before the lost party of long-bearded travelers had finally arrived.

It was Milda who finally solved the riddle of why the Dwarves felt it important to comment on the growing beards of their kinfolk. It was their way of wishing continued good health to each other, for a Dwarf never cut his beard, and the longer he lived, or she as the case may be, the longer their facial hair would be. It was a sign of vigor to have a beard the reached the tops of their toes, and it was often felt that a Dwarf had not reached full maturity until his beard reached below his belt buckle, or so Milda had 'heard tell'.

Both Cella and her uncle had to laugh at the image of long-bearded Dwarf wives, and they wondered how the hair-covered folk told the difference between the sexes, when they were fully clothed? According to Milda, there was often no variance in their garments, which made it all the more of a mystery. And as they did not have large families, perhaps the confusion did not end with the humans alone.

All through the breakfast, Cella had noticed a certain but subtle amount of stiffness in the table manners displayed by her uncle and her friend. They barely looked at each other, and were terribly formal when asking each other to do something as simple as pass the salt cellar, or the honey jar, with "Please would you be so kind?" and "I thank you very kindly" after that.

Even her unpracticed eye detected an air of guilt that hovered over the two of them. But it was hard to say if they felt badly over how they had teased Cella about Legolas the night before or if they had a private problem with each other. Every time she convinced herself that the two of them were behaving normally, and it was perhaps she who had changed, she would catch one of them slyly peeking at the other, which she found odd.

At last, she figured that their overly-proper attitude must be due to the story about Willem; they both were pained to tell her about it, after they had both hoped that she had put the ugly episode behind her. They did not want to be the ones to reopen her recently healed wounds, especially her uncle. Perhaps they had both feared that she would bring it up first and then they hoped she would not break down when she was fully informed?

Even though she thought there was more to their careful manners than that, she did notice how difficult it had been for Uncle Dwain to speak of those most recent events at the vineyard, and Willem's part to play in the fire, and whatever vigilante justice that he and the rest of Gorst's kin had in mind for her.

And of course, she now had a better understanding as to why he would feel overprotective of her feelings and fears when at the heart of the issue there had been a fire, and a man who had put his hands on her. With the fresh realizations from her reawakened memory, she ached for her uncle, now that she realized even more fully how much he dreaded that she be exposed to such dangers. She ached as well knowing that he must have suffered from his inability to comfort her afterwards.

Instead, her uncle has felt that he needed to send her away from him for her own good, trusting that the Elfking would know how to protect her, and hoping that she would be safe. Unconsciously, she sighed out loud, remembering how her uncle had yet to learn the truth about how well the Elfking had kept his vow. He had protected her very well from everything, except herself.

It was hard not to worry a little, even though Thranduil had told her that she did not have cause. She hovered halfway between hoping he would hurry and wanting him to wait, to make whatever announcement he had planned. If her uncle was going to be disturbed or unsettled by the revelation, she would rather he not have to suffer through that until after he had seen his primary destination, the Elfking's wine cellars.

She could tell that Uncle Dwain was eager to stake out his territory in what he already felt was his new domain. He did not have to wait long, for Thaladir, the king's worthy seneschal, came to fetch him, and he had brought with him, draped over one of his arms, a gift that made both of the women gasp.

It was a robe, the official court vintner's robe, in the deep green shade they had all come to recognize enough to remark upon, and were informed by Thaladir that it was, indeed, called the King's green. They were advised that the garment denoted Uncle Dwain's station within the realm as being one of the royal household, and the color of the sash, a silver-gray tone, indicated that he was in a position of authority.

As the tall lordly Elf formally presented the robe to the man, he made a little ceremony of it, first holding it open for him to put it on, tying the sash with a grand knot, and then bowing slightly afterwards. All the while he did so with the most seriously sober demeanor about him that lent a note of elegance to the occasion.

After Cella's uncle had the handsome robe on, she saw how all of the duties and responsibilities implicit in the specific position that he held were invested in the garment. When Uncle Dwain wore it, he was the Royal Court Vintner, and would be given all due respect by all of the subjects of the realm, but when he disrobed, he was an ordinary mortal again, albeit one who was living within the caves of Mirkwood.

This alone, to be invited to live within the Elfking's realm, was an honor, no matter how he was dressed, or so Uncle Dwain pointed out. Cella noticed that he did seem especially proud of his new robe, however, even if he did try to remain humble about it. She suppressed a grin at his obvious discomfort at being the center of attention in his regal finery, even for this intimate audience of three, when all he wanted was to get his hands dirty.

Milda's eyes sparkled when she looked him over, and she had to smooth out nonexistent wrinkles around his shoulders, and straighten the already straight collar. Both of the women agreed that he cut a handsome figure in the elven-made garb, no matter how undeserving he declared himself to be of fancy new clothes. With a polite nod, the seneschal bid them a good day, and escorted her uncle, finally, to his new dominion beneath the earth.

"Do you think we can go look-see around the palace now?" Milda asked with as much eagerness as her uncle had displayed earlier, when he wanted to be on his way to work. Cella nodded but held her hand up for a moment of her friend's silence first.

"After you tell me what is going on between you and my uncle," she said, "then we can probably go anywhere you want to go." Cella was not sure this last part was true, there probably were areas of the palace that were private or otherwise forbidden for the new mortal subjects to explore, but within reason there was plenty of places to look-see despite that fact. And there was the outdoors, as well. But that was all in good time, first things first.

"What do you know about us?" asked Milda, clearly flustered. "I mean, what makes you think there is anything going on between us, may I ask? Not that I am saying there's not." Poor dear, thought Cella, it was so hard for her friend to not tell on herself, and the effort must be painful at the moment.

"I only know what I see," explained Cella. "And I know how two people behave when they can't keep their eyes off of each other and are trying their best not to."

"You're not mad at us, are you Cella?" Milda's answer was such a dead giveaway about the situation that Cella could not feel mad, or even disturbed, and instead laughed out loud at the wide-eyes of her friend. It was not a surprise, but it was still something she had never considered before, her uncle being involved with a woman. She felt absurdly pleased to learn what she had suspected.

"If you promise not to be mad at me when I tell you my secret, then I won't be mad at you," she teased. It was clear that she was not angry, but she did want to prepare Milda for what she was about to reveal. And she could not wait to get the secret off of her chest, even if it was to the only person she knew was not capable of keeping one.

It was worth the risk, just to share her happiness.

To be continued in Chapter 47

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Posted: March 19, 2005

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