The King's Vineyard, Chapter 48
|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.|
|Feedback:||Please sign our guestbook or write to to email@example.com|
Somehow, Cella managed to keep smiling, despite feeling uncomfortable with Uncle Dwain's eager willingness to agree to whatever it was that the Elfking was about to propose to him, before he had heard a single word. She found it hard to look his way.
However, she did dare to take a swift peek at Thranduil, whose handsome face only caused the fluttering in her stomach to increase. Along with the pace of her heartbeat. It would all be over with soon, she reminded herself; there was no reason to feel afraid.
And she felt sure that her uncle would be better off with a full stomach first, before he learned what might be disturbing news. Accordingly, she wished that they could all be served their meal before anything else happened. Not that she would have been able to eat a single bite. But there was no food laid on the table as yet, only place settings and candles.
She was directed to sit at Thranduil's right side while her uncle was seated opposite to her, with Milda beside him, across the table. She dared not look at any of them. Nandirn sat to the left of the Elfking, and Cella could not see his face. There was a shallow wooden bowl in the center of the table filled with small branches from some type of plant or bush that grew small glossy green leaves and bright red berries. She concentrated on studying it to avoid having to look at anyone.
Irregardless of her wish that they eat first, and she knew that she could not be granted every desire that she had no matter how generous Thranduil was to her, they had no sooner all sat down when he began to speak directly to her uncle.
"Before I address my request to you," said Thranduil, "let me begin by saying that I chose that we meet here in private, with only my legal advisor in attendance, because it is my wish that we speak calmly as adults with a common interest, namely Celiel's welfare." He paused. "And this discussion will eventually involve matters that are established by or founded upon law or official or accepted rules of conduct..."
Nervously, Cella watched her uncle's face closely while the Elfking talked to him, and noticed how he had unaccountably grown serious and even looked down at the table as if unable for some reason to meet the monarch's eyes. She thought that he even winced when he heard the words 'accepted rules of conduct'.
"Thus," continued the Elfking, "we have a shared duty to see after her to the best of our ability." Touched by his words, Cella peeked up at him again and was rewarded by his warm smile. She nearly melted from the look in his eyes at he peered down at her. She looked across the table to see if such an exchange of glances was an obvious clue to the royal announcement about to be made.
But her uncle, to her relief, kept his eyes lowered, and even Milda appeared to be preoccupied with her hands, which were folded together before her on the table. Neither of them seemed to be aware of Cella for the moment as Thranduil was speaking.
"It is my wish to discuss issues of a confidential nature that are difficult enough to speak of in a casual conversation, let alone a..."
"Pardon me, Your Worship, but maybe I could make this speech easier for you." Uncle Dwain's voice was subdued in tone when he at last looked up and then directly at Cella, whose ears were roaring so hard that she could barely hear him. He faced Thranduil and continued, "I take full responsibility for... all that happened last night, and I can promise you that it won't ever happen again."
As Uncle Dwain's eyes slid over to Cella again, she wondered with a start what he knew about what had happened last night, exactly, and how he had found out, and why did he hold himself responsible? She had behaved the way she did despite all of her uncle's best efforts to protect her, and maybe even in spite of them. But her heart sank at his words, 'won't ever happen again', and now she was ready to speak out in her own defense, and defend her everlasting love for Thranduil.
And she would have done so, except for at that moment Milda let out a strangled groaning noise and clapped her hands over her own face. Alarmed, Cella looked to the king, who almost appeared confused, but not otherwise concerned. With only a slight shake of his head to indicate that he was not pleased with the reactions of her uncle and friend, he spoke again.
"Dwain," he stated calmly. "Truly, your private behavior under my roof is not my chief concern at... "
"Well, chief or no, it should be, Your Worship," her uncle boldly interrupted. It seemed that now that he had started, he would finish, despite Milda's moans. "Because a man my age should be ashamed of himself for behaving that way, if I want my niece to know and do what's right by showing a good example."
Now the look on her uncle's face made sense at last. It was guilt, not suspicion, nor accusation. Cella felt adrift as she tried to reconcile the conflicting signals she was receiving. Her uncle did not know about her and Thranduil after all. Was he instead confessing to his own wrongdoing? What had he done?
But Milda could not hold herself down. Finally she removed her hands from her face and Cella could see that her tearful eyes were nearly wild with fear.
"Please don't blame Dwain!" she cried out. "Not when it was all my fault, really, I am the one, oh don't send us away sir, sire, My Lord!" In order to press her case, Milda stood, which sent her chair flying with a loud clatter, while she clasped her hands together against her chest and lowered herself in another odd curtsey-like bowing motion.
Cella had to look away in order to keep her face straight. She focused on the Elfking, who was watching her friend.
And Milda had continued speaking nonstop with her eyes to the floor. "Or at least not Dwain, don't you send him away. I made him do it, it was my fault. I told him how much I wanted to take a bath, with that waterfall, you know? And I told him I was scared in that dark room there by myself.... and he was just keeping me company, and one thing led to another..." Her last few words were whispered.
"I see," pronounced Thranduil.
If Cella had her wits about her she would have heard the amusement in his voice. Instead she was shocked, both at the notion of the two newest subjects taking any type of advantage of His Majesty's good will by apparently misbehaving under his roof, and the first night they were here, and also to realize that her uncle and her friend thought they could hide a secret of any kind from the Elfking.
She did not want to think further than that as to what they might have been doing, while obviously thinking that they were not being watched.
But of course they did not know any better, like she did, about how among the subjects of his realm there were no secrets from Thranduil in the caves of Mirkwood. Even the thick stone walls provided no protection. She felt stricken with remorse for not having thought to warn him, or Milda, not that she would ever have imagined they needed a warning.
And now she was confused by the reason they had been brought together in Thranduil's dining-room. Her uncle seemed to think it had to do with his and Milda's behavior, and maybe he was right.
"Oh dear, Uncle, Milda, I don't think that either of you know yet that His Majesty is, well, he knows, you see, he is aware of everything that happens in his caves, or out in his forest, and everywhere else here. He always knows... everything about everyone."
The alarming shade of red that her uncle's face suddenly turned as well as the stricken look on Milda's miserable face stopped her from saying another word about the ability of the Elfking to read the minds of his subjects.
"No, Celiel, that is not entirely true," said Thranduil mildly. Briefly he explained that his powers were limited to a certain degree by the willingness of his subjects to be open to his mind, or their skill at avoiding detection if they chose. "Take heed of my words, Master Dwain, we are all adults here and I can assure you that your privacy under my roof is safe, and was never at risk."
"But, then," asked Milda, who was still standing up beside the table, "how did you know...?"
"Actually, I was not ever curious about either of your whereabouts last night, after bidding you to have a good rest. I assumed that once you had reached your chambers that you would feel free to make yourself, or, I should say, selves, comfortable in whatever fashion you chose. And as I trusted that you were not going to be conspiring to cause any mischief while you were alone together, I had no cause to attend to your... business."
"Thank you, Majesty, I appreciate that," replied Uncle Dwain, gratefully. "I suppose someone must have reported us then? We tried to tidy up after ourselves, so as not to cause anybody no extra work."
"What happened last night?" Cella could not contain her curiosity anymore after seeing the mortified look that crossed over her friend's face. In her imagination, she pictured a disastrous scene in one or the other of their bathing chambers. They must have made a terrible mess, or maybe just a loud commotion, to have been discovered and reported to Thranduil.
"We just took a bath is all," wailed Milda. "We didn't know we was breaking a law!"
"You weren't!" Cella turned to the Elfking. "They weren't breaking a law, were they?"
"No, and there is no reason to fear, neither of you have broken a law, or even a house rule. And no one has reported you."
"Then what...?" Uncle Dwain took a breath before he continued, "Oh, Cella, I hope you forgive me for acting so foolish, if that is what this is all about."
"Forgive you, uncle?"
"And we were planning to tell you about us in a much nicer way, Cella." Milda added.
"Of course I forgive you, both of you. If you will forgive me, for no matter what His Majesty is about to say to you, it was my fault. I pressed him, relentlessly." She did not mention the parts that Legolas and perhaps Lothriel had to play in the matter, she only knew that if her friend and her uncle were going to be so forthright, then she should too.
"What are you saying, brother-daughter?"
"I am in love with Thr... with His Majesty, uncle." There, she said it. It was out. But her uncle's expression did not change, nor did he seem surprised. Not knowing why it was important to her to somehow share whatever blame there was to go around with her kin and her friend, she made a leap of faith and confessed. "And I... we..., well, we took a bath together, too."
Two sets of blinking eyes confronted her. She lifted her chin high. "And I am not embarrassed about it," she declared. Nevertheless, despite her bold words, she could feel her cheeks burning and knew that she was not fooling anyone. The resultant silence was gently broken by the calm voice of the soft-spoken Nandirn.
"Perhaps," he said, "His Majesty would like to start over, from the beginning?"
Meekly, Milda sat back down beside Uncle Dwain after murmuring something that sounded like a mixture of an apology for kicking up a fuss, an expression of bewilderment at the sudden turn of events, and a blanket request for forgiveness.
"I guess myself and Milda have both gone and made a muddle of things, Your Worship," remarked Dwain sheepishly. "I suppose neither of us is used to proper court manners, and I hope you will take that into account while we find our bearings around here, so to speak."
"Most assuredly," replied Thranduil graciously. "And your manners are above reproach, my good man. Although I would have wished for a more delicately worded confession of my feelings for your niece, nonetheless, what is out on the table is out, and now I believe that I owe you some explanation."
The Elfking proceeded to tell both Uncle Dwain and Milda about Legolas's mother, and her choice to leave her physical body shortly after giving birth, being exhausted both in spirit and patience from coping with the seemingly overwhelming darkness that had threatened to consume them all. Despite his best efforts to make her feel safe, she had never truly grown to love the forest, and mourned her former life amongst her kin in Lindon.
"I do believe that she would have taken my son with her, if she knew how, or had the strength," concluded Thranduil. Milda sniffled audibly while Cella bit her lip and willed herself not to follow suit.
"When I lost my wife to her own purposes, Dwain, it was a bitter blow. Both pride and rage blinded me for a millennia as to how wounded I was by that blow. Old wounds are perhaps the hardest to heal, for they remain buried deep where we imagine they can do no harm, and yet that is where all of the harm is done."
At hearing this, Cella nodded, thinking of how she had for so long kept her heart imprisoned by burying the truth from herself. And how much she loved him for helping her.
"Never did I think," he was saying, "of my own happiness, or peace of mind, as having any bearing on the welfare of my realm, and I have only discovered lately how harmful it was to my entire realm to deny myself joy when I found it"
Cella smiled up at him openly now, relieved at not having to appear unaffected by his nearness to her for another minute of time, at last. Her heart was filled as he spoke directly to her at first.
"But now, I will be happy, and I would be so even if it did not benefit a single subject to my throne. I will not deny myself this freely offered, if brief, respite from the never ending endurance of this world until its bitter ending, and the end of all things." The Elfking looked over at Uncle Dwain and said, "More importantly, I will not deny your niece what she professes to be her heart's desire, and I believe her."
"From the way she can't keep her eyes off of you, Majesty, I would believe her, too," answered Cella's uncle.
"Within my realm, as your niece stated previously, all willing minds are open to me. Her pure heart shines brightly and its intentions are clear, and immutable. Her wounds are deep and with me she finds such ease as can be found in Middle-earth. I will not deny her that. Would you?"
"My niece has never spoken up much for herself before, Your Worship," replied Uncle Dwain after a long, thoughtful pause. "And for that alone I am grateful to you." He turned his eyes to Cella and his whole face grew soft as he looked at her. "The way you stuck your chin out just now, my child, made you look just like your mother. She was quiet like you unless she had something important to say, and she didn't truck with mincing her words when need be."
"Before we proceed any further," said Thranduil, "I think it important that you all understand that if I say you are guiltless, then it is so. I am the law in my own realm. I create the law, and I carry the law within me." He tapped his chest before adding, "But I can not speak such for myself. I am not without guilt in this whole affair, but neither am I ashamed."
As she had seen him do before, from time to time, Cella could tell that the Elfking had withdrawn into his self, almost as if he had entered a door into another room and was speaking to an unseen audience, and spoke more to them than to his guests at the table.
"As far as any higher laws there might be, and their consequences, I have already decided not to sail west, so entry into the Undying Lands is not for me an eventual reward for good behavior." His mouth tugged up at one side in a bitter grimace that might have been a smile, or a reaction to an inner stab of pain.
Only Cella seemed to understand what this meant. It was possible that the Elfking would never see his wife, even if she was made whole again in the Halls of Mandos, and waited for him. 'Never' was more than she could bear to think of him living without his first, and possibly one and only, love.
"Why will you not ever go to her, Sire?" The words escaped her before she could stop them, but she had to know.
"The wood elves will never leave their forest, firiel, even though in ages to come, under the best of circumstances, it can only further diminish." He paused and chuckled bitterly before continuing. "If we could be that fortunate, and not lose it all to the..." Instead of finishing, he waved his hand to indicate that he was speaking of those dark forces ever in alignment against the Fair Folk. "And I will not leave them alone and leaderless against that as long as I draw breath. It was a vow to my father that I will not foreswear."
Without having to explain his unwillingness to name the merciless dark shadow that lay south, in the land of Mordor, Thranduil continued. "Irregardless, whatever my fate may be, it is not over the sea. Perhaps I will fade into the mists of time, and so pass somehow to Mandos's abode, and beyond. But no one can say what will happen at the end of all time, so I will let my fate tell itself when that day ever comes."
"Excuse me, Majesty," Uncle Dwain broke in. "But I am hearing a lot about confessions and fates and a wife somewhere to be reckoned with, I gather, but what does this all have to do with Cella's future? May I ask, as her kin, what your intentions for her are right now? I don't think I need to remind anyone about the ugliness we left behind us in Laketown, but a lot of that talk had to do with my niece's reputation, if you see what I am getting at."
"Indeed, I do see, Master Dwain," replied the Elfking as he held his hand out to Nandirn. The gray-clad Elf handed him a scroll, which he opened and studied for a moment before looking up to the man and adding, "And I understand the necessity of receiving your blessing after I have asked for it as well."
To that, her uncle could only nod in agreement.
"To satisfy the law of men, my legal advisor here reports to me that your mortal marriage law is based on standard contract law, in which two parties enter into an agreement, both of the parties receive a benefit from the agreement, witnesses sign their names, and the contract is sealed. Can you tell me if there is more to it than that?"
This type of language sounded quite reasonable to Cella, who had never thought of marriage at all, and especially not with His Majesty, let alone thought of it in such simple and stark terms. The most she had ever hoped for was that her uncle would not try to separate her from Thranduil.
"There is love," said Milda, who seemed the most taken aback among them by the Elfking's business-like approach to the question. But it was to Uncle Dwain that Thranduil spoke in reply.
"It is within my power to agree to cherish your niece, to see after her welfare, and to keep her safe from harm for as long as she lives," he said. "That is what I can offer, do you accept that? On behalf of your niece?"
To be continued in Chapter 49
Posted: April 1, 2005
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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"