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The King's Vineyard, Chapter 2

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 Rhun to Esgaroth seeking employment at the Elvenking's vineyard.
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It came as a surprise to Cella to find that the people who lived in the Long Lake area were not very different at all from those who lived along the shores of the inland sea of Rhun. She began to feel comfortable almost immediately as the small houses and barns of the local population began to appear on the sides of the road. They were identical to the ones she had grown up seeing, with the same thatched roofs, the same squat fences, and the same types of dogs behind them, barking at the sight of strangers.

The town itself was smaller and cleaner than the one she and her Uncle Dwain had left behind beside the inland sea. There were more than a few friendly smiles cast their way as they stopped at a local inn to eat a hot meal and inquire for directions to the Elvenking's vineyards. Cella was excited at the prospect of seeing other Elves again, but was not sure she was ready to meet the fierce Elf monarch, whom she had been told legends about since she was a child.

Thranduil's newly purchased lands were no more than an hour's travel away, due west of the lake itself, and Cella and her uncle were heartened to hear that more than a few local folk had found good employment at the new vineyard with the Elves, especially at harvest times. The people at the inn, even those who clearly had misgivings about the Fair Folk in general, had agreed that the Elvenking treated his workers fairly and paid them handsomely.

The sight of grapevines, their leaves already turning from green to autumn tones of rust and gold, and heavy with plump purple fruit, appeared to be a tonic to her uncle's spirits when they arrived. He breathed in the aroma of the vineyard, drawing great lungs full of the atmosphere into his body as if he were a thirsty man drinking water, and seemed more relaxed even as he sat straighter.

Gates barred the entrance, but the Elves that greeted them wore pleasant, friendly smiles as they approached the cart. Her uncle returned their greeting with a few Elvish words and a polite bow of his head. They seemed mildly surprised to hear their own tongue spoken to them. Cella tried not to stare at them, but they were hard to ignore. These Elves were not dressed like the ones she had seen as a teenager, in quiet pale forest colors. Instead, they wore dark green tunics over black, skin-tight leggings with shiny calf-high leather boots.

They wore their hair long and plaited in clever braids, like the Elves she had seen before, but carried no quiver or bow. Instead, these gate guards each had a long knife in a scabbard at their waist, and looked just as capable of defending themselves. Cella could feel her heart beat a little faster as they glanced at her occasionally, while her uncle spoke to them. Only one of them seemed to understand Westron, or the other was just more interested in inspecting the cart horses than in the conversation. She could feel their bright eyes flicker over her from time to time, and it warmed her to feel that, in a nice way.

She was unused to male attention, except for the fatherly affection of her uncle. Naturally, he had hired men to work in his vineyard during the growing and harvesting months, but she had little interaction with them except when she hastily served them their meals in the morning and at supper-time. The hired hands had known better than to molest her, or even to look too long at her, for fear of reprisal from her protective uncle. But even so, they held no interest for her. She found them uniformly dull and dirty.

But these Elves were different, and she appreciated their curious but polite appraisal of her as she sat listening. Suddenly, the one who was petting and whispering to the cart horses stood at attention and uttered an Elvish word. Hoof beats were heard from behind, and Cella turned in her seat to see a small group of Elves on horseback, coming upon them quickly.

At the lead was one of the largest horses she had ever seen, except for draft horses, a large chestnut-colored brute with enormous muscled legs, which it pounded into the road as if trying to drill its hooves into the very center of the earth, only to pull them out again and fly ahead with incredible speed. Astride the horse, clad in the same dark-green leather tunic as the gate-guards, but with a large darker cloak that sailed out behind him in a majestic fashion, rode the stern Elfking, Thranduil. His golden hair shone in the sun as it flowed in the breeze made by the smooth gallop of his steed.

Cella knew who he was, immediately, without ever having seen him before. He seemed to glow with an inner light that the other Elves did not possess, and even from a distance the intensity of his interest, as he gazed ahead at her and her uncle seated on the cart, seemed to pierce her from afar. She turned back around to face forward and trembled as he approached.

The powerful horse snorted and whickered as it was drawn to a halt beside the cart, and the Elfking studiously regarded Cella and her uncle as the gate guards presumably explained their arrival, even though they spoke so quickly that she could not understand them. And she was too afraid of drawing attention to herself to ask her uncle for translation, even though he did not speak very much more Elvish than she did. She was even more afraid to lift her eyes to peek at the king, as her uncle formally introduced himself and her to him, even though she was sorely tempted.

"Dwain, son of Dake." With a nod of recognition, the Elf pronounced the name with a noble inflection. "Yes, I know the name well. You are an excellent vintner, as I recall." Her uncle eagerly promised a hard day's labor as a field-hand, for decent pay and lodging. She was not sure she enjoyed seeing him act so desperately agreeable and eager to please these Elves. He was no mere peasant-laborer.

"A pity about the drought..." the king said, and Cella bristled slightly at the term. The one emotion she had learned to despise above all others was self-pity. But, as she listened to him talk about the dry spell and crop losses, the Elfking did not try to make her uncle sound deserving of pity, and for that she felt grateful towards him.

Nervously wringing her hands, as Thranduil spoke to her uncle, Cella gazed straight ahead at the large structures that topped the small rise leading up to the winemaking operation. She could see the familiar oversized vats, in which she knew the grape pressers would be standing, to squeeze the juice and pulp from the purple clusters of fruit, after the harvesting began.

There were tents rigged up, too, and she figured these were for the itinerant workers, such as herself and her uncle, who were hired at such places for seasonal work only. Her heart sank a little at the thought. To come all of this way only to live in a tent would be disheartening, but she was determined to bear it, if necessary.

"Cella," whispered her uncle, shaking her out of her speculations. She turned to him, but he was gesturing towards the now silent Elfking, who she was afraid to look at. But she gathered her courage and shifted her gaze.

He was staring right at her, his face completely expressionless, but his eyes kind. He must have been speaking to her, she realized in horror, and everyone was silent while they waited for her to respond. The mighty Elf released her gaze and turned to her uncle.

"Is she deaf, or mute?"

"I am neither," said Cella quickly, before her uncle could answer for her, and surprising herself more than she did him. "I am sorry, my lord, but I did not hear your question." Heart pounding for fear she had made a bad impression, she glanced at her uncle for help, but the Elfking responded.

"Show me your hands." His voice was as kind as his eyes, and she lifted her hands quickly, almost before she had known she would do so. "Very good," he pronounced and then spoke to one of his Elf-guards, who opened the gate. "Welcome to my vineyard, Dwain son of Dake." After a nod to the guard, he rode ahead and the cart followed, and the other Elves on horseback flanked them on either side.

The Elf who had been conversing with the cart horses earlier now had a hand on the neck of the mare on the side farthest from Cella, and seemed to be whispering directions into the horse's ear as he trotted along beside it.

After pulling her eyes away from him, she looked up ahead and noticed, near the wine-making buildings and sheds, a curved drive that branched off from the main road.

As they passed by the large, billowing tents. Cella was surprised to see that they contained not rows of sleeping pallets, as she had expected, but tables and benches set up for outdoor eating. Even her uncle, beloved by his workers, had not provided them with any more shade, during harvest time, than could be had naturally from the trees that grew on his lands. And he certainly provided nothing as fancy as tables with real linen for their daily meals. But when the cart entered a wide tree-lined drive everything else she had seen was suddenly ordinary in comparison to what lay just ahead.

Her heart began to feel lighter and, when the main house pulled into full view, she felt dizzy for a moment at the notion of entering within its pillared entryway; she had never before seen a building of its size. Some of the townsfolk in the inn, where they had eaten lunch earlier that day, had told uncle Dwain that the Elfking had built himself a regular palace, even though it was not his permanent residence. It was large enough for all of the wine-making wood-Elves to dwell within, as they did in their cave-like home within the forest that the local people here called Mirkwood.

"All on top and underneath of each other in holes, so I hear tell, like rabbits!" The remark was made by a man with a knowledgeable look in his eye, to a chorus of agreements and nodded heads. At that time, Cella cringed at the coarse comparison; although she had only seen them once, she knew that Elves in no way lived like animals. She doubted that any of those men had been within the Elven vineyard at all, for they spoke with such ignorance about their living habits.

Her uncle's Dorwinion estate had a large main house, which she had shared with him, with a few smaller huts near to it for his overseers, vintners, and the permanent field-hands. But even all of those buildings put together would not equal half the size of the Elvenking's mansion.

Merry Elves were out on the landing to greet their monarch and stayed to assist them from the cart. As they helped to unload their pitifully few belongings, Cella felt as if she had entered an enchanted world from her youthful dreams. Small fountains splashed playfully amongst the fragrant blossom-covered bushes and ornamental trees in the garden that surrounded the front of the grand house. She followed the helpful Elves up the massive entry stairway and then through great doors.

They were led down a long corridor that took them back out of doors and into a small, lovely inner courtyard planted with flowers and small fruit trees, and surrounded by a wall shaped in a half circle. Under the pitched roof of the veranda was a door that opened to a private residence. A tall robed Elf, with a seriously sober demeanor, and impeccable grooming, stood still beside the entrance as the other Elves carried their possessions in ahead of them. He acknowledged the both of them with a tight nod, and then indicated that Cella should proceed within, while he advised her uncle of His Majesty's wishes for their employment.

The rooms in the home they were given seemed at first to be sparsely furnished, but there was no noticeable lack of basic creature comforts. The table, chairs, benches, and shelves, were cunningly crafted to be both useful and decorative. Candles in sconces provided a serene light when the windows were shuttered, and the fireplace, now cold and lifeless, appeared to be capable of warming the entire place. She quickly threw open the windows to let sunlight flood in and explored their new home.

The kitchen area was small but tidily put together, and the cupboards were filled with various foodstuffs and spices. A stove covered one wall, and a rack with pots and pans hovered overhead. There was a short hallway that led to some bedrooms and another smaller chamber for bathing.

Cella chose her own room while she waited for her uncle; it had a decent bed, a chair, and a bedside table. There were hooks on the wall to hang her clothing, and a small shelf above the door for storage. She opened the shutters and looked out the window over the grapevines to the mountains in the far distance. She felt so instantly at home that the wearying miles she had suffered through melted from her mind and body.

Even as her uncle had been uplifted by the sight of the healthy grape crop, upon arriving at the vineyard, she felt the same inner rejuvenation at the idea of living here amongst the Fair Folk. With rising spirits, and a strange new sense of light-heartedness, she hoped they would never have to leave. She heard her name being called and she returned to the main room to find her uncle beaming with joy at her.

"Cella," he said breathlessly, "I do believe I made the right decision, coming here."

Slightly dazed, he sat on the bench and told her in an awed whisper that the Elvenking was going to install him as a vintner; to work alongside the Elves in the blending and filtering process. He would not have to work in the fields as a common laborer, although Cella did not think he would have minded that so much, as he had always loved getting his hands dirty and purple-stained each harvest season back home.

The first few days after harvesting, the pressed grape juice had to rest in the huge collecting vats before it would be strained, blended and put in the barrels, and so he would always join the field-hands to hurry them along that much faster. In fact, there was not a single step along the way in the entire process in which uncle Dwain was not a vital participant, from planting the tender plant shoots in the spring, to helping load the wine-barrels on the flat boats for transport after they were sold.

Pride and joy filled her at the news, for she knew the honor shown her uncle by putting him to work doing the delicate operations needed to prepare the grapes juices for final fermentation. It was an important process that often determined both the flavor and potency of the vintage. Cella praised her uncle and congratulated him profusely. It was a great honor to both his name and reputation to be given such a position so soon after arriving.

But it was more than just the important job title, and nice lodgings, that had delighted him. If the king was satisfied with his abilities, he would be promoted quickly. Mortals with decent wine-making skills, who also did not fear the presence of the Fair Folk, were rare. But Elves from the great forest possessing even rudimentary wine-making skills were fairly nonexistent.

Until recently, these wood-elves had never grown grapes or made wine, and had no age-old family customs, or traditions, to fall back on. They were dependent on human resources until they had achieved the appropriate skills and techniques. Thranduil was more than pleased with Dwain's arrival; he was both relieved and grateful.

"At least that is what the tall Elf fellow told me," her uncle explained. He shook his head in wonder. "He seems a decent enough sort, says he is the king's seneschal, sort of a fancy term for chief, or overseer, I think. And he never cracked a smile, either. He doesn't seem so much at home around here with that fancy garb on and all."

Cella thought that the grim, towering, robed Elf, although certainly intimidating, had a quality of nearly regal dignity about him that transcended ordinary usefulness. Like his monarch, Thranduil, the tall Elf's very presence inspired awe and in her eyes that was an impressive talent, and one that she envied in all Elves. She felt protected and secure knowing they were nearby. But, she kept her thoughts to herself and nodded as if in agreement with her uncle.

"Tomorrow, you and I are both to report for harvest detail, they won't need me at the vats for a few days," her uncle said, almost apologetically. "The grapes are at their peak, Cella, so every hand will be needed." She looked at her own hands, knowing, for a few weeks, it would be the last time they would be this clean and unscarred. At least she and her uncle would not have to return to the Long Lake town to beg for food and shelter; she felt they were lucky for that.

Then, while she looked at her hands, as if seeing them for the first time, she remembered the Elvenking's request that she show them to him, and how he had said, "very good". Had he seen something in them that she had never noticed before? Picking grapes was not difficult; she had done it every year since she was old enough to carry a full basket, and without complaint.

Although Cella knew it was a foolish notion, she marveled to think that maybe he had seen that in her hands, and she wondered what else he had noticed. The idea sent a small shiver through her and, to shake it off, she set about gathering kindling for a fire. But another image, unbidden, kept teasing her thoughts.

The Elfking's own hands. She had certainly noticed them as he sat astride his horse beside their cart today. Large and well formed, he held them crossed at the wrist atop his thigh as he spoke with them, never lifting them to gesture or to emphasize a point. She could not look at his face, but she could not stop looking at his hands once she had noticed them.

The fire began to burn merrily as her uncle loaded larger logs atop the kindling. Cella huddled close to it and shivered again, despite the heat, as she wondered what those noble hands would feel like if they ever touched her.

To be continued in Chapter 3

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Posted: July 26, 2004

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