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The King's Vineyard, Chapter 17

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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Among the workers and overseers of the vineyard, there was no more anxiety about unfinished tasks to attend to, it was time to relax and enjoy the remainder of the restful day. As Cella walked with her uncle on the now well-worn path from the vintner's shed to the dining tent, she saw workers sprawled out in the shade under the trees along the way.

The most exhausted were cat-napping, others were chatting, and a few were eating their lunch picnic style. But when they noticed the Elfking, his seneschal, and the newest court vintner, they all either stood, or at least sat up straighter, some poking at their dozing companions to alert them, and greeted the royal party respectfully. Milda and Ingarde stifled giggles at the blinking field hands who had opened their eyes to see His Majesty passing by, but were not fully awake enough to understand what they were seeing until it was too late to respond.

While seated in the cool shade beside the vintner's shed, where the morning sun had not reached and heated the area, Cella and the rest were unaware of how warm the day was until the mid-day meal horns had called them away from their Mirkwood history lesson. There had been no more rain since the big storm, and even though the weather had been mild and fair, there had been a touch of crisp chilliness in the air every day brought by northern breezes. But today the winds were coming from the south, and the hot, dry air felt more summer-like than not.

As they neared the tent, other workers joined them and chatted about the day's events and the successful wine-barrel loading operation. Inside, instead of sitting at separate tables, Elves and mortals were eating together, and overseers mingled with field hands. It was the last mid-day meal for most of them; the seasonal workers would be departing by the wagonload in the morning. There was somewhat of an impromptu party atmosphere in the dining-tent that reminded Cella of the night of the storm, except that the tables were not all crammed together, so it was easier for people to move about.

After promising to see them at the feast that evening, the Elfking had parted ways with Cella and her uncle at the dining-tent entrance. But his seneschal, Thaladir, remained with the diners, and sat at the same table with the two pressers, Milda and Ingarde, while deeply engrossed in tending to their further edification about the long battle the Elves had been fighting against all manner of evil entities throughout the ages. It made quite a picture, and more than a few field-hands who entered the tent had to do a double-take at the sight of the tall robed Elf, lecturing the two women on the topic of the flora and fauna of Mirkwood proper, while they sat on either side of him, absorbed completely.

Milda and Ingarde had to take small bites, and chew fast, in order to beat each other to the punch in their questioning of Lord Thaladir, as they referred to the tall Elf, who appeared increasingly flattered by the attention, although not entirely comfortable. And he learned not to pause long enough to give them any chance to prevent him from completing his thoughts.

Cella sat close enough to benefit from the history lessons from the seneschal, if history was the proper term. It seemed more like listening to the type of frightening stories that children tell each other late at night. At least as far as his descriptions about the myriad of deadly creatures the women had all previously been unaware of, safe and protected as they were in their human abodes by the Long Lake, or the inland sea, and far from the worries and cares suffered by the Elven foes of the Dark Lord. But mostly the stories were like fairy tales. But she was distracted by well-wishers who came to the table.

To her surprise, many fellow workers, men, women, Elves and Elleth, whom Cella had not thought paid her much heed in the vineyard, approached to greet both her and Uncle Dwain, and expressed gladness at seeing her out and about, and on such a fine day, too. To her relief, no one asked either why she had been missing, or of her whereabouts. Only a few were openly curious enough to scan her briefly, as if searching her for visible injuries. She wondered how much everyone knew about Gorst's attack, and realized that many of them were probably better informed, at least about the aftermath, than she was.

A couple of new vintner's assistants, men from the fields who had been brought in at the last to help Uncle Dwain cope with the hurried transfer of wines from casks to barrels, stopped by to have a few words with him and he praised them highly for their hard work. Casually, as if the most natural thing in the world to do, they asked Cella if she would dance with them that evening, if her uncle approved. She bit her lip for a moment as she wondered how to answer, but before she could even begin, she was overridden.

"Ah, now, I would love to see Cella dance tonight, lads," her uncle replied. "And I would lead her out to the first tune, if I thought I could get her to go. But, I am afraid..." And, while listening in mounting horror, she knew, she just knew, that he was going to launch into some embarrassing speech about her ability to dance being sadly hobbled by her overly shy nature. She took a deep breath and interrupted.

"Yes, I would dance with you, and you, too," she told the two smiling men. For several moments, after they had bid her a good day and moved along, she sat stunned at her own words, but felt absurdly pleased with herself. And then remorse set in, and she wondered if there was a way she could avoid the dancing altogether, without being rude. Perhaps tonight she could just say she was tired and then leave the feast before the music started. The thought alone calmed her, and she glanced at her uncle, who was smiling at her as if he had just been handed a sack filled with silver coins.

"Why Cella," he exclaimed. "You are as surprising today as you are lovely." He sounded absolutely tickled with her response. She knew her uncle was relieved by her unexpected reply. He had been so worried about her, even more than he always was, because of the attack and her immediate reactions afterwards. And now that it was happening, it was not as terrifying as she had imagined it might feel, to be the center of attention because of such a distressful event. At least no one had appeared to pity her, or blame her.

It occurred to her, as she sat among the very people she had thought she would never be able to face again, that she was not as uncomfortable as she had feared she would feel, just as it had been up inside the main house with the Elves. In fact, she felt comforted by the familiar faces around her, instead of afraid or concerned with their opinion about her. There was no other explanation for why she had spoken so boldly, even if she did feel a bit regretful about it.

As soon as everyone who had felt compelled to visit at their lunch table had settled down into their own seats, Cella finally reflected on how much she had been informed about what else had happened after the dreadful attack, which was very little. Not that she wanted to think about any of it, ever again.

"What about the Laketown's sheriff?" Cella asked her uncle on an impulse, but quietly, not wanting to draw attention. "Am I not supposed to talk with him before we leave for the caves?" Without looking at her face, he patted her hand, and assured her that she need not worry about talking to any one. She felt a weight lift from her, but was given pause by the way he would not look her in the eye. "Let's talk of more pleasant things over lunch," he added, and she agreed, but was determined to ask more from him later.

Without effort, Uncle Dwain started up a conversation with the other workers seated around him, including the seneschal and his two enthralled history students; about how the feast was finally going to be held that evening. The unusually warm day boded well for the delayed celebration. It would not have to be held under the tent tonight, but instead would be celebrated outdoors, as it was meant to be. And a merrier party was predicted than the first would have been, now that the entire wine-making operation had been wound up as well. Even Cella began to anticipate spending her last evening in the vineyard at the feast with all of the other workers.

Here, in the safety of the tent, maybe, it was easier for her to be among the male vineyard workers, with her uncle next to her and the Elfking returned from the Long Lake. She might feel differently tonight, but right now she felt that she was amongst good friends on all sides. That was enough for her; she decided to worry about the dancing part later.

Glawareth came to the table and asked if the women would like to come up to the gardens and pick fresh flowers for decorating the party grounds. Milda and Ingarde eagerly volunteered, and even managed to coax Thaladir to join them. It took some effort, what with explaining to him that his arms were the perfect size for holding long-stemmed bouquets, and strong enough to hold bountiful quantities, and reminding him that such service would be performed for the sake of the Elfking's very own Harvest Feast. His Majesty, they told him, would be doubly pleased, because he could continue his history lesson at the same time.

Struggling hard not to grin at the seneschal's defeat, Cella only asked for some time to change out of her new dress and into her work clothes first, and then she would love to join. She asked her uncle to come with her back to their home.

"It's good to see that Thaladir-chap unbend a bit, he's somewhat of a stiff character that one is." Uncle Dwain said as soon as they were out of earshot of the odd threesome, the two pressers and the tall Elf. "But he sure likes to talk, don't he now?"

As they walked along he told her how the seneschal had kicked up a bit of a fuss that night, when the Elfking brought Cella into his private rooms. "He didn't say anything outright, not in front of anyone, but I was walking down the stairs and overheard them on the landing. That Elf was mighty unhappy about you lying up in the King's bed, how it would look and all."

As unworldly as she might be, even Cella could see the seneschal's point. It distressed her to think about how she had been the cause of even a minor conflict between the Elfking and his most trusted advisor, as he had so stated today. But then her uncle brought it all into perspective.

"And then His Worship said, 'If Dwain does not believe that his niece is safe, he will give only half of his mind to his duties, and I need his entire mind at the present. Can you think of anywhere he would think she would be safer from harm?'" Her uncle chuckled as he recounted for her the difficulty Thaladir had in thinking of anywhere that anyone would be safer, and had to concede to his monarch that he could think of none, except for behind the great gates of their forest home.

Uncle Dwain had felt too guilty for eavesdropping to not bring attention to himself at that point, so Cella never heard any more about what the Elfking had to say about her presence in his bedchamber.

She tried not to feel crushed over the dubious honor she was shown because of her kinship to one of His Majesty's valuable employees. She was proud of her uncle's value in the vineyard, and knew the Elfking was right to treat her with such respect and careful regard because of it. But, still, even though she had already reasoned out the truth of the matter without assistance, it would have been nice to think...she knew not what, exactly. Only it would have been something more romantic than thinking the tender care she had received from Thranduil was just to guarantee that his wine fermentation cellars would be properly constructed.

Once they were back into their own little home, Cella could not remember why she had hesitated to return there. The Elfking's chambers were magnificent, true, and his canopied bed made her feel royal, that was without question. But she could not compare the way she felt while visiting there, as an invalid, with the way it felt to enter her room, and be surrounded again with her own things.

She had to resist the urge to collapse on the little bed for a nap; the warm day had made her feel that drowsy. Hurrying to keep herself alert, she changed into her blouse and skirt, and left the delicate dress on the same hook where her other one had hung. For some reason, it looked even more beautiful hanging there, as if by seeing it in her own room she was finally convinced that it was hers to keep.

It was only after her uncle had delivered her to the gardens, where Milda and Ingarde waited for her, that Cella remembered she had wanted to ask him about why the sheriff no longer wanted to speak to her. Somehow, now she was outdoors with her friends in the fragrant, colorful grounds, the sheriff and his questions no longer seemed that important.

The cooking staff had set up an open-air kitchen at the original party grounds, and the delicious scents they were producing assaulted Cella and her friends as they wheeled the barrows filled with flowers out to the open field. There was no massive roast boar slow-cooking in a pit today, but no one seemed to care as there were more than enough roast meats, and fowl, and every other type of delectable food that man or Elf enjoyed, being prepared

Off to one side, in the center of a bare patch of earth, the pile of debris for the bonfire still waited to be lit, and had only grown larger in the meanwhile. When the women and Ellith brought the flowers and branches for decorating the tables, several of the vineyard's men and Elves were there already, to prepare the field for the trestle tables and benches.

The day before, great scythes had been used to cut back whatever weeds and wild grasses had grown since the great rain, and today a great square was marked off and strewn with straw which was trampled down flat. Another large area was left bare in the middle and large, flat planks of wood were laid out there, and slotted in place to make a temporary dance floor. Around the outside edge of the great square, long trestle tables and benches were placed on the flattened straw. Cella figured that the Elves would rake up the straw tomorrow and burn it. They were so tidy.

When the sun began to hang lower, Cella and her friends left to change into their nicer dresses, but then had quickly returned to help cover the long tables. They were supplied with cloths that were used in the dining tent, which needed to be weighted down outdoors to keep them from flying off and away into the air when a gust of wind rippled through. A soft chattering noise came from what was left of the grapevines, made by the dried leaves and tendrils, further crisped by the day's beating sunshine, when stirred by the same breezes that flapped the tablecloths.

Ingarde wondered out loud where Thaladir had gotten himself off to after they had left him behind in the gardens. He had dutifully carried armloads of fresh-cut flowers to load the barrows they used to bring them to the tables. She had thought the seneschal would have come along to oversee all of the preparations; he was always such a constant presence for any other official activity.

When Cella mentioned that the tall Elf was probably lying down somewhere, with a cool cloth on his forehead; Ingarde put her hands on her hips and pulled a face at her. Milda neither noticed nor cared about the seneschal. Her potential dance partner, the nice young man she had spoken to during the night of the storm, had shown up to help them, and after a while she had stopped even pretending to be interested in the floral centerpiece she was working on while they chatted.

Cella began to think that she was going to be brave enough to stay for the dancing, after all. More men came along to help out and commented on the cleverly made dance floor. They expressed great admiration for the Elf musicians, too, having been at previous feasts in the vineyards. When asked outright if she was looking forward to the dancing, she truthfully responded that she would like to hear the music. But she did not think any of them were being anything other than friendly, and their queries about her participation seemed more polite than seductive. She felt flattered to think that they were asking because they might to want to dance with her, too.

More planks of wood were brought to form a raised platform in the center of the makeshift dance floor; this would be the stage for the musicians. As if on cue, a small group of Elves with instruments in hand appeared, obviously they had been nearby waiting for the opportunity to try out their little performance area for size. A couple of them were carrying small stools to sit on, and they spent a few moments setting up the most comfortable and practical seating arrangements.

One after another of the Elves began to tune their instruments, or to play them experimentally. While they did so, some of the workers called out to them to play a song for them to work by. As if on cue, the mild cacophony of musical notes settled into a festive tune, and even the most flat-footed among the crew of helpers was soon bouncing along in step to the rhythm. Some of the more courageous men swung women partners out onto the dancing platform, to test it, or so they said. Declaring herself too busy, Cella declined an offer, but she looked around for Milda in the hopes she would see her with her new beau on the dance floor.

The two of them were seated at one of the tables, and Cella could tell, from the exaggerated facial expressions and wiggled finger-gestures, that Milda was telling the man about the giant spiders of Mirkwood. He looked suitably impressed. She stood staring at them, hoping to catch her friend's eye and attention. Startled by a hand touching her elbow, she whirled to face the Elfking.

"Will you do me the honor?" he asked with a courtly bow and the same dazzling smile that dumbfounded her once before. He held his hand to her, and she reacted automatically. Without conscious thought or decision she put her own trusting hand in his and let him lead her onto the dance floor before she even knew what she had done.

The music changed as soon as the Elfking stepped onto the platform, from the merry quick tune, to a measured and formal melody. As Cella felt the music sweep them around the dancing area, while he guided her along, she no longer cared what she was doing, as long as it never ended. All thoughts of being watched, noticed, laughed at, or mocked, that she had always feared to face, disappeared into a blur, which turned to nothingness, and then nothing else existed. Except for the handsome face that smiled down at her, and the hands that propelled her so gracefully along.

"Ah," said the Elfking, "And so I finally have my answer. Such good feet dance as well as they run, if not better, just as your uncle said they would."

"Yes, Majesty," replied the starry-eyed Cella. Although she had not actually heard a word he had said.

To be continued in Chapter 18

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Posted: September 20, 2004

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