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The King's Vineyard, Chapter 15

By: Mary A
Beta: Malinornë
Pairing: King Thranduil/OFC
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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Despite their best efforts that day, neither Milda nor Ingarde were able to coax Cella any further outdoors than the gardens surrounding the Elfking's main house. They expressed much skepticism at her insistence that she was not afraid to see anyone, or to be seen, but merely concerned about being in the way out in the vineyard and causing a distraction.

Milda and Ingarde wanted to take a walk to the vintner's shed for a visit to Uncle Dwain, and to show off Cella in her new dress, when they were all finished with their lunch. But after she declined, they did not insist too hard, as it was too comfortable relaxing under the shade of the graceful autumn-hued trees for verbal combat.

Even within the isolated condition of the Elves' sheltered garden, Cella was well aware of the amount of frantic activity taking place out in the vineyard from the telling sounds that drifted her way from time to time. Men were shouting or whistling, horses were neighing, and thumps, bumps, and bangs all bespoke of the eternal struggle the workers were having hoisting the unwieldy wine barrels up onto the wagon beds.

She knew Uncle Dwain's opinion about sight-seers, bystanders, or any others who stood around just watching while hard work was being done. He referred to them as loafers who were more of a hindrance than helpful. 'Either get to work or get out of the way' was his motto. And she would not be persuaded to believe that, even in her pretty new gown, she was an exception to his rule. An interruption was an interruption, no matter how welcome they thought she should be. Milda and Ingarde could not counter that kind of common sense, and they were forced to agree.

The garden was a quiet haven from the busy vineyard, and the murmuring bubbling songs from fountains that were placed around the grounds muffled most of the distracting sounds from the barrel loading operations. To be idle for any length of time was a rare treat for the three of them. And the Elfking had only prescribed fresh air and sunlight, with no mention of any social obligations. The peaceful surroundings made the two women forget why it was so important for them to drag Cella out of the front door to show off her pretty new dress; even they had to admit there was always tomorrow for that.

The garden's picnicking tables were under a group of trees that were just beginning to shed their colorful leaves, which fluttered from the branches like large yellow or rust-hued snowflakes when stirred by the breezes. The women would hop up from their seats from time to time in an effort to catch one that fell close by and make a wish.

The trick was to get to it before it touched the ground and that was nearly impossible as the falling leaves seemed to twist and twirl in a deviously deliberate manner to escape their clutching fingers. Ingarde turned out to be the deftest at judging the direction they would fall, and managed three wishes. Cella and Milda each had one.

Not surprisingly, both of the local women wished for husbands who would build them their own little homes near the Long Lake before long. In the spring, when the first of the fruit crops began to ripen, they would both be traveling again from field to orchard to farm until autumn. Unless they met the right men in the meantime, in which case they would never return to the fields again, but they would both come to visit the vineyard, they promised.

For the winter, Ingarde would be working at an inn near the Long Lake, owned by a relative of hers, but only for room and board until the following spring and the harvest seasons began again. She had worked there every summer, too, when she was a girl. But when she was old enough to make her own decisions, or felt that she was anyway, she became bored with the daily drudgery of inn keeping and yearned for adventure. On an impulse, she had jumped on board a wagon loaded with merry looking orchard workers headed for a local farm, and had not returned back to the lake until the fall, with pockets full of silver. That had been a few years ago.

Usually, the number of visitors seeking accommodations at the family inn during the winter was minimal, and Ingarde would be left there in charge while the innkeeper, a cousin of her mother's, took a much needed annual vacation. She spoke dreamily of a nice young man who had built a stable nearby. Milda poked Cella in the ribs and smiled knowingly as they listened.

Ingarde told them how she had met the stable-owner the year before, and had only just been getting to know him when she had left, reluctantly, during strawberry picking season. And he had been sweet on her, she said with a low laugh that indicated the two of them had progressed further than just a casual acquaintance. As fat bumble-bees buzzed about the blossoms nearby, the only eavesdroppers to their conversation, she spoke of how she was hoping that he would be still be single when she returned. It had been many months since she had been back, and there was a lot of competition for eligible bachelors.

Cella wondered why Ingarde thought the life of a stable-owner's wife would be any more exciting and interesting than inn keeping, but kept it to herself. Out loud she hoped along with her friend that the man of her dreams was still available, and that her wish of her own home by the Long Lake would come true.

With a wistful sigh, Milda reported that she would be returning to her parents' home for the winter months, a small overcrowded hut from her description of it, and would be sharing a bedroom with two sisters and a new baby brother. There was no sweetheart waiting for her, but she had met a field-worker during the night of the storm, who she thought might ask her to dance a time or two at the feast. She regretted the lack of time needed to convince him to pursue her, but she was hoping he was a local man, so maybe they would see each other again before the following spring.

Cella was impressed when she learned that Uncle Dwain, after being consulted by the women about the field-worker's character, had pronounced the young man to be "a hard worker who kept his nose clean", high praise from his lips. Milda had used her one fallen-leaf wish on him.

Besides finding her potential stable-owning husband-to-be still living near her relative's inn, Ingarde wished that more customers would show up looking for lodging this year, to keep her from dying from boredom. But she knew that after the busy winter festival season was over with, she, the housekeepers, and the fat cook, who all lived there year round, would spend many quiet nights by the fire, waiting for the spring thaw.

And Ingarde's third wish was that she would be able to return to the Elfking's vineyard, to be with her two friends, even if only for a visit, in case she married the stable-owner in the meantime. Cella agreed that it was possible, if not probable, for the two women to have homes of their own in the near future, if they set their minds to it and landed the right men.

The discussion turned to Cella's unique position in the main house, in the royal sleeping chamber, and she braced herself. It turned out that Milda and Ingarde viewed the arrangement more as a measure of the Elfking's esteem for Uncle Dwain than favoritism toward her, and not at all as a gesture of romantic affection. She felt an odd sense of disappointment as she realized how correct they were, but mostly she felt relieved. There was no doubt her friends believed she was receiving exceptional treatment, but they were also convinced she was deserving of it, and did not begrudge her.

As they cautiously navigated their way around the issue of just exactly how she had ended up in such an enviable position, carefully alluding to the night of the attack without being too specific, the two women recalled how devastated her uncle had been when he had seen what Gorst had done to her. Both of the women had heard King Thranduil when he promised the weeping man that no one would ever hurt Cella again, and they had believed he was capable of keeping such a vow.

"You are lucky that His Majesty likes your uncle so much, Cella," said Ingarde.

"We are all lucky," interjected Milda, whose only complaint was how brief a time the work lasted here at the vineyard. She envied all of the Elves who lived in the main house all the year, and wished she could figure out a way to do so, too.

It was such a treat, Milda said, to sleep in a bed, a real bed, and all by herself, that she wished she knew how to manage it year-round. And the idea of spending an entire winter without the usual icy nose and frozen toes, that she was doomed to experience in her parents home, was suddenly so appealing that she bemoaned using up her one wish on a mere man.

"I think you're going to have a nice snug winter in them caves, too," Ingarde said to Cella. "Only I hope none of them invisible hobbits comes around to pester you."

It helped Cella to hear them talk about her situation, and she began to feel more comfortable, enjoying what she feared might appear to be a questionable or controversial arrangement. Not that it would have changed anything, her friends' approval or disapproval did not seem as important to her as the thrill she felt when she lay under the covers of the massive canopied bed in the royal bedchamber. And she had not arrived in such a position by personal decision, desire, or choice, but had been placed there by the Elfking and ordered to stay put.

At one point in the dreamy quiet day, a few Elves silently gathered on a large bench by one of the fountains, a little distance from where the three women were sitting, and began to play some peaceful music on harps and lute. A few other Elves and Ellith wandered out from the main house, and more came through the paths in the garden, and sat on the moss-covered areas beneath the trees. After a polite nod toward the women, they turned their attention to the musicians.

Soon, the three women had abandoned the benches they were sitting on and were reclined on the natural mossy blanket, too. When the Elves began to sing along with the musicians, Milda leaned against a tree and promptly fell asleep. Ingarde quietly translated for Cella any words of the songs she did not understand. The mellow fall colors and crisp air was providing the chief inspiration as they sang of firith, the time of fading.

One particular song told of how the green leaves of summer were putting on one last showy display of color, turning bright gold or fiery red, before falling to cover the roots of the trees. Then, prepared for storms and snow from crown to toe, the sleeping trees spent the season dreaming through the darkness about the day when new life would bud and unfurl from their bare branches again.

"Do you think that's true?" Ingarde asked Cella after the musicians put their instruments down for a rest. "That part about trees dreaming?" They were lying on their backs, using Milda's stretched out legs as their pillow, and looking upward at the foliage above them. It had seemed the most natural thing in the world to stretch out and stare at the leaves when the songs were being sung.

"If anyone should know, it would be the Elves," Cella replied. "I was taught that the Fair Folk talk to every living thing as if it has a voice and can reply. But what would a tree have to say, I wonder?" Neither of them could imagine.

"Well, whether or not trees can dream when they sleep, at least they don't snore as loud as Milda," Ingarde concluded.

Later, when she was finally alone and lying awake in the Elfking's great bed, while waiting for her uncle to come back to their room for the night, Cella thought over the events of her day. She knew that she was going to be coaxed by Milda and Ingarde into leaving the main house the next morning, and she decided it would not be difficult to do. It would be good to see some familiar faces again and she did want to show the other pressers her new dress, and thank the ones who had helped make it.

Satisfied with her decision, she was dozing off, with curtains drawn, when she heard Uncle Dwain come in and begin to prepare for bed. There was a couch made up for him with blankets and pillow, but it made her feel guilty to think of him trying to stretch out his great tired bulk on it. She thought about suggesting that they return to their little home, with their own beds, but quickly wished him a good night instead. She was far too cozy to move from under the blankets and out into the cold night air voluntarily

But, after a moment, Cella's conscience got the better of her, and she called out to him and asked if he would be more comfortable sleeping in his own bed. When he did not reply, she pulled the curtain back to see his reaction and found that he was fast asleep. In the morning, when she was wakened by Milda and Ingarde, he was gone already.

"I didn't hear the daybreak horns," Cella said to excuse herself for still being in bed when her friends had arrived with breakfast.

"That's because they didn't blow any today," said Ingarde. "Most of the Elves worked through the night and never went to bed. And most of the men, like your uncle, were back working before the sun came up."

"But it's no excuse for you to be a lazy-bones," scolded Milda in a mock-serious tone of voice. "You call yourself a vineyard worker and here you are still in bed when there's wine to be racked?" She sounded a perfect imitation of Uncle Dwain. Ingarde opened the shutters to let the bright morning into the dimly lit chamber while Cella sprang from beneath the covers to get dressed and have breakfast with them

As she had predicted, from a distance it was apparent that the vintner's shed was the hub of all the current activity now that the grapes had all been picked, pressed, filtered and poured into the casks. Both Elves and men were carefully loading the last of the filled and corked barrels onto the flat-bedded wagons. Most had already been delivered to the Long Lake, and the frantic rush of the preceding days had slowed to a steady unhurried pace. Even so, no one had time to do more than nod and smile in their direction when the women approached.

The smile on Uncle Dwain's face, as he walked about surveying the scene, indicated to Cella that everything was going according to plan and probably on schedule. Her uncle, after finally noticing her waiting there for him, was surprised to see her wearing the Elf-made dress and was pleased to know she had something nice to replace her ruined one. He had left their room yesterday morning before Lanthiriel had brought it, and had not returned until after she had removed it for sleeping. Mostly he was delighted by how well and happy she appeared to be overall and very glad to see she was willing to come out of the main house.

Lanthiriel arrived and greeted the three pressers with one of her charming smiles before leading them back out of the shed to find a quiet place for them to sit and visit with her. In the excitement of delivering the new dress to Cella, which she took a moment to admire again, the Elleth said that she had forgotten to ask her if she had any questions about her anticipated move to the caves with her uncle. She would be happy to answer them.

Most of the Ellith from the pressing vats, including her, would also be returning to their homes in the Elvenking's forest until the following harvest season. Although it was wonderful to learn that there would be familiar faces to look forward to seeing in her new home, Cella was surprised to learn from the helpful Elleth that not very many of the Wood-elves actually lived within the caves. Most preferred to live either in the trees that grew both on and close beside the hill or in little houses that were built near the great gates of the underground dwelling.

Besides one great level within that contained the palace of the Elfking, his vast halls were used mostly for gatherings and feasts. But they were made to last through sieges and were still available as a safe haven for his subjects if the realm was ever under attack. Milda and Ingarde did not like to hear their friend may face some type of terrible fate but Cella was interested in learning more about the Elves, and the world that they lived in, whether it was dangerous or not.

Serenely, Lanthiriel admitted that indeed there was still great evil in the wide world, and a good deal of it haunted the edges of the Elvenking's great forest. But the great pitched battles with armies of orcs from Moria that once were common were fading into history. And the former flagrant orc raids from the mountains in the north had ceased after the great Battle of the Five Armies, which was fought beneath the shadow of the Lonely Mountain.

Cella realized she was referring to the same famous war that had been spoken of the day before in the kitchen, when they had been talking with the Elves about the elusive hobbit creature that had helped the dwarves who escaped to Esgaroth. She wanted to ask more about it except that Ingarde had a question first.

"I heard tell," she began, "that there's these giant spiders living in Mirkwood and..."

"Are you afraid of spiders, Cella?" an unexpected voice interrupted, and all of the women, and the nearly flustered Elleth, leapt to their feet to greet the speaker who had arrived so silently that none had noticed. But the Elfking kept his gaze on Cella as she tried to respond. Her mouth was suddenly dry, and her heart was pounding so loud she could not hear her own thoughts for a moment. But it was not a hard question to answer.

"No, my Lord, I am not afraid of spiders." It seemed an odd thing to ask a person reared up on a vineyard. She had spent many hours of her life removing every type of crawling creature from the grape clusters. His kind smile broadened before he spoke again.

"There are spiders," said the Elfking, and then he added, mysteriously, "and then there are...spiders."

To be continued in Chapter 16

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Posted: September 11, 2004

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