The King's Vineyard, Chapter 14
|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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Once Cella had recovered from the shock of learning her ultimate destination, and recognized how wrong she had been about being dismissed, along with her uncle, she felt such relief that joy rushed to her head the way the wine she had drunk during the night of the storm had done. It took a while for her absorb the information fully.
Her heart seemed to soar even higher as the realization thoroughly sank in that soon she would be seeing the Elfking's legendary halls, within his deep mysterious forest. It made her feel giddy with happiness, more so than she could ever remember feeling in her life. The mix-ups in her thinking were gone over, and explained, with Milda, Ingarde and her uncle, and no one laughed harder at Cella than she did herself.
The decision to move the wine-making operation to the cavernous halls had been made before Gorst's attack on her. Only no one had thought to tell her, or felt it important for her to be told instantly, and then apparently both Uncle Dwain and the King had assumed that the other had done so.
"Your uncle was real worried last night, when he told us about taking you to the King's caves?" Milda said, nodding her head toward Uncle Dwain, who agreed that he had been.
"He was afraid you might not want to leave your new home so soon after getting here," added Ingarde, not to be outdone in the 'heard tells'.
And Cella had to admit to herself that, although she had dreamed for many years about visiting the Elves in the great forest, and even after the abuse she had suffered at Gorst's hands, she was feeling a little sad about leaving the vineyard. Milda and Ingarde would be leaving also, now that the harvesting was done. They would return in the fall next year, and Uncle Dwain assured all three of them that he planned on coming back, with his niece, directly after the spring thaw.
Originally, her uncle was not planning on living in the Elfking's caves. As soon as the cellar's interior structure had been properly constructed, the barrels arranged and situated correctly, and there were enough Elves trained in their upkeep, he had planned on returning to the vineyard to help oversee the place during the winter. Accordingly, there had been no thought given to permanent living arrangements for either him or his niece.
The original plan was to leave Cella at the vineyard, while the Elfking and his newest royal vintner went ahead to the forest to make preparations for the massive wine cellar that the two of them had planned. The attack had changed everything. But none of them wanted to speak any more about that episode, so the topic was changed to more lighthearted gossip about the doings in the vineyard, which was mostly tales of the frantic effort being made to prepare the wine barrels for delivery to the Elfking's halls.
Uncle Dwain, satisfied now that his niece was not opposed to pulling up stakes after all, cheerfully left her in the care of Milda and Ingarde, while he went off to the vintner's shed to oversee the first racking. After the new wine had been transferred into smaller barrels, leaving the primary sediment behind in the larger fermentation casks that the juices had first been poured into, those barrels would be loaded on wagons and driven to the Long Lake for further transportation by boat to the Elfking's halls within the forest.
"It won't be for a week or so that the barrels get to the caves, and I need to get a look at the King's cellars beforehand, to see what kind of room he's got there for all this." Her uncle seemed more delighted than anxious about the additional responsibilities added to his already busy schedule. Cella felt embarrassed that she had doubted even for a moment the Elfking's high esteem of Uncle Dwain's abilities and worthiness.
In fact, Cella turned hot and cold inside several times during the morning as the things she had said to the Elfking the day before came into her mind, the assumptions she had made and the way she had contradicted His Majesty...what a fool she must have sounded like to him! But, she felt too good inside to properly dwell for long on her wrong-headed reactions, or suffer from regret.
And her friends barely gave her a moment to reflect on much of anything for more than the time it took them to draw breath. They were determined to talk her into coming downstairs to get a peek at the Elves' living areas, while they were all still allowed to be there, and perhaps even coax her out of doors into the gardens. It did sound alluring, and she finally agreed.
Then they were faced with the problem of finding Cella something to wear now that she was ready to be up and about again. She had on a simple but beautiful nightgown that was undoubtedly made for an Elleth to wear. It had a high neckline that tied at the neck with a dark green ribbon, but otherwise bore no decorative trim. The elegant sleeves ended below her fingertips and when she got out of the bed to model it for them, the hem dragged on the floor.
Her one good dress had been destroyed by Gorst, or at least she had believed it had. It was nowhere to be seen in the Elfking's chambers and she had not thought to ask her uncle about it before he had left that morning. However, Cella was in such good spirits with her friends that she mused out loud in front of them about how the modest nightgown she was wearing was more decent than her nearly disintegrated work clothes, which were her only other option.
"Maybe I will just wear this to go outside?" She lifted the skirt on one side as if she was wearing a fancy ball-gown and stepped daintily about the room with her nose up in the air.
Although they both laughed, her shocked friends, unprepared for her to be anything but truthful, sincerely pleaded with her not to test her theory outside of the bedroom door. The gown may not be indecent, but that did not make it fit for public view, at least not in their eyes. According to them, she would resemble nothing more than an escaped invalid, or a wraith, if she wandered about the vineyard in the billowing white nightgown.
"I guess I will have to stay here, in this bedroom, forever," she said with a regretful sigh, and then grinned at the thought. It did not seem such an evil fate. But Milda and Ingarde would hear none of it. They had promised the Elfking that they would make sure Cella was not allowed to lie in bed and brood. Both agreed with him that fresh air and sunlight were proper medicine for any occasion.
"Perhaps we could dress you in a presser's uniform? You could wear your stockings for walking around downstairs in, if you're worried about your bare legs." It was agreed upon that Ingarde would fetch both the garment and stockings. Milda stayed with Cella and while they waited for her clothes, the two of them explored the Elfking's chambers and cautiously opened up every door, large or small, to peek inside. There was a wardrobe built into the wall that contained various articles of clothing on hooks or shelves. And there was a narrow cupboard, next to a large desk, with shelves containing tightly wound scrolls, blank sheets of parchment, ink pots and other implements.
They both squealed when they opened a door and discovered a bathing room, with a large tub fashioned from oak staves, and a little cast-iron stove for heating bath water. Shining brass bars held soft white towels and cloths, and large yellow cakes of soap sat next to a ceramic basin and pitcher on a ledge beside the tub. Light from the early day's sun filled the room from small windows that were placed high on the far wall.
The two women sat for a moment in awe on a bench by the door. It held more towels and cloths, folded and stacked, on one end. There was no water trough, like in the women's washroom downstairs, but instead a large barrel containing fresh water sat on a stand in one corner, with a spigot in its fat belly and a bucket beneath that. There were soft absorbent mats on the floor by the tub and the basin.
"I never saw so many different ways to keep a body clean as these Elves have thought up, have you?" asked Milda. Cella had to admit that a daily bath was certainly a novelty for her, but she had found them helpful for easing her tired muscles, just as Lanthiriel had promised.
It was agreed upon that a bath and hair wash were a good idea for Cella before she changed into clean clothes. Someone, she did not know who, had put her hair back in a single braid, and even though her face had been cleaned off, traces of dried blood and mud were visible in the sleep-matted plait. Milda soon had her hair unsnarled and the tub filled with steaming water, before leaving the room.
As she undressed and entered the tub, Cella was glad to be left alone, because the bruise on her leg, although nearly entirely faded, was still large and ugly enough to scare anyone with a sympathetic nature or a faint heart. But there was no pain, and she marveled at her healing as she lathered and rinsed the mottled flesh. Even the thin as a hair scar on her face felt less prominent under her fingers as she washed her face. And she remembered how the skin there had tingled when the Elfking had touched it with his fingertip, before he left.
As she soaked in the lovely bathing room, Cella could hear Ingarde's voice now from behind the closed door. After a few moments, she thought she detected a third voice talking with her friends, a low pitched musical murmur which indicated it was probably an Elleth. She wrapped her body and hair in towels and poked her head out of the door to see who was visiting and to ask for the presser's garment and stockings. Lanthiriel was there with a paper-wrapped package in her hands and a sorry expression, while Milda and Ingarde stood on either side of her with equally tragic looks upon their faces.
"What is it? What happened?" Cella asked with some trepidation, not sure if she wanted to hear the answer.
"You can't have a presser's garment to wear," reported Ingarde sorrowfully. "They have all been put away until next harvest season." The looks on all three of their faces was so contrite that Cella felt a tug of guilt for being such a bother for the normally tranquil Elleth and her friends.
"But, for you to wear, perhaps this will be good?" Lanthiriel's usual serene smile appeared as she brought the package to Cella. It was then that the twinkles of mischief in all three sets of eyes became obvious as the paper was unwrapped and a new dress was revealed. It was an exact duplicate of her ruined one, only it had been recreated in the frothy, shimmering leaf-green fabric that the skirts of the Ellith on the picking lines were made from.
Once she had it on, she could not express her gratitude adequately. And it fit her perfectly. Lanthiriel told them her old gown had been used as a pattern and then destroyed, by order of the Elfking. To Cella's relief, Milda and Ingarde refrained from teasing her about it as they made her sit so they could work on her hair and soon she was fit for public view, at least according to them. Her stomach growled and she was embarrassed because they had only just finished breakfast, it seemed, and she was hungry again.
"The Elfking said you would feel better and want to eat today," said Ingarde. "In fact, he said that you would probably be as hungry as a hobbit."
"A hobbit? What is a hobbit?" asked Cella.
"I am not exactly sure," replied Ingarde slowly, as if stalling in case Milda tried to jump in with an answer first. "But I think that they are some kind of rodent."
"No they aren't!" Milda laughed at her friend's ignorance. "They are little man-like creatures, with furry feet, a cross between a rabbit and a dwarf, I think. They live in odd little holes in the ground and they like to eat all the time. Or so I've heard tell."
Even the knowledgeable Lanthiriel was not much wiser about hobbits, but she was sure they were not related to either rodents or dwarves. However, she did also believe that they had voracious appetites. As they all speculated on the existence of the funny sounding creatures, they left to find some lunch for Cella.
As Cella walked down the stairs into the great common room of the Elves' private living area, she felt less afraid than she thought she would. The enormous hall was nearly deserted, and the few Elves who were there paid the three women little attention, beyond a quick glance in their direction. In one corner, seated by a window, an Elleth sat while playing a meanderingly beautiful tune on a flute. On a bench by the fireplace, two more Elve's sat in quiet conversation.
There was a much cozier atmosphere here than in the mortal areas, but understandably so. The Elves used this room year-round as a gathering area, whereas the living quarters for the itinerant workers were only inhabited for a brief amount of time each harvest season. Lanthiriel parted from them when they reached the bottom of the stairs, and wished them a good day before she went back out into the vineyard.
As Milda and Ingarde confidently led the way through the large room, on their way to the kitchen, Cella could see distinctive touches Elven handiwork that graced the walls, floors, windows, and furniture. Woven tapestries depicting the forest, its rivers, its hills, or featuring parties of Elves hunting stags, or various other beasts and fowl, were hung from walls or draped over chairs, benches, and couches. Vases, filled with fall flowers and foliage, were set out on tables or ledges, and alongside some of them sat bowls of fruit, mostly apples, grapes, and cherries. Colorful rugs added warmth to the otherwise austere flagged floors of the Fair Folk's living space.
Free access to the kitchen had been granted to the women caring for Cella, by order of the Elfking. Milda and Ingarde were almost impossible to talk to once they had entered their brand new personal domain, or so they behaved. But it was fun watching them show off how much they knew as they opened drawers and cupboards to display both the largesse and variety of the Elvenking's larder. They admitted to feeling a bit ashamed of their doubt about how well Cella was being fed, after the first time they had been permitted to prepare a meal for her.
They were respectful of the privilege they had been given, however, and had already made friends with the cooks and other members of the household kitchen staff. For Cella's lunch, they decided to prepare a picnic basket to take outdoors. From the windows in the common room, they had all seen the tables and benches set out in the garden. The day was sunshiny bright and inviting. Ingarde spoke enough Elvish to ask for help in finding what they needed, and being able to toss King Thranduil's name around turned out to be the key that unlocked every secret hidden from view.
As Ingarde showed off her by using her language skills, she found a couple of Elves who had more information to share about hobbits. They claimed that the furry-footed, hole-dwelling, rodent-like people were known to eat their weight in cheese and bread on a daily basis. Despite this massive intake of food, they could disappear in the twinkling of an eye, and remain invisible at will. The women were told about a particularly clever hobbit had run about loose within the Elfking's halls, undetected, for many weeks, emptying pantries. This had happened many years ago, and neither Elf had ever seen the creature.
But, they were certain that hobbits had some relationship to dwarves. According to them, the famous one who lived in their halls for all that time had reportedly helped a group of the bearded, stunted folk escape from the Elvenking's cellars. The dwarves were being held on charges of trespassing, disturbing the peace, and suspicion of plotting to steal treasure.
Milda and Ingarde recalled hearing tales about the dwarves who had come to Esgaroth from the Mirkwood forest, on their way to reclaim the throne under the Lonely Mountain. But they knew not much more than that, except that the legendary dragon, Smaug, had been mixed up with all of this somehow. Their own parents had sometimes spoken of those times, but the two of them had never fully understood all the connections.
In the garden, Cella felt her heart would burst from the way the autumn-hued leaves on the trees and bushes were contrasted against the backdrop of the brilliant blue sky. It was hard for her to imagine the type of bitter, snowy weather that Milda and Ingarde had so carefully described to her, on such a warm day. But they were right about the type of weather she was used to by the inland sea of Rhun. Although it did grow icy cold there, deep snowfalls were rare and nearly exotic.
There had been one harsh winter she could clearly recall, when the sea had frozen solid enough, for a few frigid days, that fishermen could walk out on its surface and cut holes in the ice to fish through. Her uncle had not allowed her out on it, but she was allowed to stand on the shore, bundled up from head to toe, to watch the patient men. They squatted down beside their individual holes, steam blowing from their noses, as they waited for a tug at their hand-held lines.
Reminiscing about her old home led her to wondering again about her new home, and she thought about the tapestries she had seen while walking through the Elves' common room. She wished she was brave enough to return by herself in order to study each one of them more closely, at her leisure. She had visited fermentation caves with her uncle many times, and had no fear of living underground. The idea was appealing to her when she considered how harsh the winters sounded.
As Cella imagined herself living in those caves behind that great gate under a hill, as she had seen it in the tapestry pictures, she shivered with anticipation and wondered how often she would see the Elfking. It was, after all, his home and his realm. Once his wine was safely beneath him, perhaps he would not choose to travel away from his halls during the winter, or so she hoped. Glawareth had remarked to her, the one day they had spent together on the picking lines, how the monarch preferred to remain near his subjects and spent little time at the vineyard.
At the time, Cella remembered, she had wished that the frightening Elfking would depart for his halls more often, so she would not have to be fearful of accidentally encountering him. Now she longed for him to return. Tomorrow night, the night of the feast, he would be back. He had said so to her, she realized with a start. He had made a point of telling her that he was going to return in time for the party. And he had smiled right into her eyes when he said it.
"I think we better get you out of the sun, Cella" said Ingarde worriedly. "You are turning as red as a beet!"
To be continued in Chapter 15
Posted: September 6, 2004
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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"