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The King's Vineyard, Chapter 3

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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The next morning, after a series of horn-calls signaled day-break, Cella and her uncle rose and gave blessings for their good fortune. They ate a simple breakfast of bread and preserved fruits found in the cupboards of their cozy kitchen and prepared for their first shift in the vineyard. Upon leaving their door, they were met by a pair of friendly Elves, who spoke the Common Tongue, sent to provide escort to the gathering area for all of the harvesters.

Himbor, a dark-eyed Elf with a merry demeanor, introduced himself to them as the vineyard's head harvest overseer; he was in charge of the entire grape picking operation. He asked uncle Dwain, on behalf of Thranduil, to oversee some of the mortal laborers that day, and to be prepared to give the king an evaluation of them later. These field-hands in question had been recruited from both the town and the surrounding areas, and were arriving soon in wagonloads.

Accompanying Himbor was his sister, Glawareth, who was almost as tall as her brother and had the same friendly, dark eyes as he. Cella was delighted to find she would be partnered with the graceful Elleth in the fields that day.

These Elves were such exquisitely elegant beings that it distressed the mortal maid to think of them getting their beautiful garments and lovely hands dirty and stained. She herself had donned her only other clothing beside the dress she traveled in, a short-sleeved linen blouse and a woolen skirt, which were both well-worn and suitable for field-work.

It was an outfit that had been through many a growing season and bore stains and tears from every harvest on her uncle's land since the day she had first worn them out into the picking lines. Patched and thin, in some places tattered to the point of near disintegration, they would have to do until she could afford to purchase enough fabric to sew herself new ones.

She tried not to feel envious of Glawareth who wore a pale yellow blouse and leaf-green skirt. They were fashioned out of an enchanting fabric that resembled the substance from which the tiny wings of the similarly-colored butterflies that flittered about the vineyard were made. She looked like a lovely flower, and Cella felt more in awe of her, than jealous. She had long ago learned to put aside vanity in order to do without fashionable garments and be able to accept it cheerfully.

Nearly every possession of beauty or value that she or her uncle owned had been sold over the past few years to maintain the vineyard during the drought. Uncle Dwain was determined to keep his handful of permanent workers fed and sheltered until the weather turned its blessings back upon the land. But, in the beginning, it distressed Cella to watch the once beautiful home they shared being slowly stripped of its comforts.

At first, they only sold what few true treasures there were on hand, such as her mother's silver tea service and her father's tooled saddle, the only two items of significant worth that had been passed along to her upon their deaths.

There were brass candlestick holders, and a couple of pieces of framed artwork, passed down to the household from prior generations, that were sold along with her parents' possessions. And then, later, some fine pieces of furniture, their fancier linens, dishes, and clothing, and, at the last, practically every other item left in their home except for what they wore on their backs.

They kept only some extra clothing for working in, and the few keepsakes of her parents' that Cella had not allowed to be sold: a knitted blanket from her mother, in pale yellow and blue hand-spun yarns, and her father's small collection of books. These last were slender, leather-bound, and embossed with gilded titles, and they looked handsome on a shelf. Her uncle had tried to gently persuade her to part with them, but she had stubbornly refused.

However, some things have a value that can not be measured in either coin or sentiment, such as the tools a man uses to make his living. Her uncle had kept, and carried along with him, his favorite implements for both the cultivation and harvesting of his beloved wine grapes. He would not part with them, at any price, no matter how severe the situation. They were extensions of his hands and arms, and without them he would have been as handicapped as a limbless person.

Before they had set off for the fields that morning, he carefully removed two folded knives from their leather holders in his tool box and handed one to Cella. It had a curved blade that opened with a springed mechanism and was made specifically for cutting grape stems. She thanked her uncle, slipped it into the pocket of her skirt, and felt well-prepared for the day.

At the assembly area, she and Glawareth were both issued flat, shallow wicker baskets for packing the grapes in, and wide-brimmed straw hats meant to shade their eyes from the bright glare of the brilliant autumn sunshine. They picked as a team, one would cut the clusters and hand them to the other, who would carefully remove stems, leaves and insects from the fruit.

Each bunch was then gently placed side-by-side in the flat-bottomed baskets, to prevent bruising. As soon as a basket was filled, a gatherer would be signaled to come and carry it away, after leaving an empty one behind.

With such a bountiful grape-crop available, only the ripest would be selected for harvest on this first day, but a careful eye was needed to distinguish the nearly, but not quite, ready fruit from that which was at its peak. And even though there was not much time to spare before the grapes became over-ripe, and spoiled, undue haste was not encouraged.

Each line had an overseer who would point out the ripest bunches to the pickers, and inspect the grapes laid out in the basket afterwards for burst skins or too many stems left intact. Cella demonstrated a good eye for judging the fruit, and a soft hand at picking them, and she and Glawareth were soon trusted to work without supervision.

Her Elleth partner spoke little, but smiled pleasantly during the laborious task, and the time seemed to pass by effortlessly. There was no sign of the intimidating Elfking with his fascinating hands, or even of the tall robed Elf who her uncle had dealt with the day before.

Under careful questioning, Cella learned from Glawareth that His Majesty, Thranduil, only visited his vineyards occasionally, leaving most of the daily operations to his seneschal, whose name was Thaladir, and his chief overseers such as her brother, Himbor.

"And His Excellency, Thaladir, is only here for half of the year" explained Glawareth. "He divides his time and duties evenly between the vineyard and back at home in the king's palace. Now that we have begun the harvest, he shall not likely return to the halls until the last wine-barrel is corked and put in the cellar." This information was comforting to Cella, who believed that the tall Elf could keep a steady head in any situation. And a watchful eye on all of them.

At mid-day, when a horn sounded signaling meal-time, Cella felt proud of herself and the Elleth for their ability to not only keep up with most of the female picking teams, both Elven and Mortal, but to excel compared to most of them. However, as much as she felt pleased with her own harvesting performance, she was not sure she could compare herself in any other way to the Elves, as not one of them had a single spot or tear on their clothing and they all had clean hands.

Glawareth's skirt and blouse were as fresh and crisp as they had been in the morning. Her hands were smooth and spotless, as if she had just bathed them in milk and soaked them in lemon-juice. Even her fingernails were clean and had a polished sheen on the outer surface. When the Elleth had taken over the picking chore and Cella the packing, she had seemed to wield the tiny curved blade too delicately to sever even the thinnest stem, and yet the fat clusters of purple fruit appeared to leap with delight into her cupped hands. It was marvelous to watch.

As they walked to the wagons to ride back up to the dining-tents, Cella was able to take a moment to inspect herself. Her blouse had several new small tears in it, was splattered with purple stains, and damp with perspiration. Her hands were sticky with juice and nearly uniformly grape-colored. She had a few cuts on the knuckles of her left hand from carelessness with her curved cutting tool. She felt she had a lot to learn from the Elven folk.

Uncle Dwain met up with them at the dining-tents, and insisted that Cella take her meal beside him at the table reserved for the overseers, away from the rest of the newly hired hands. As she washed her hands in a bucket of water on a table set up for such a purpose, he explained.

"I don't like the looks of some of them raggedy vagabonds the Elves've hired from around the town," he said. "Most of the crews are made of good local fellows, hard workers, and clean living folk." He paused to spit as if he had a bad taste in his mouth. "But some of them are drifters, and there are always a few bad'uns in any group of that sort. I would rather keep my eye close on you until I get to know them all better."

Cella was happy to oblige her uncle, as she was not interested in attracting the attention of even the most clean-living, hard-working man from the field crews. She did not fear them harming her, although she was physically no match to any of them, because she felt protected under the unceasingly watchful eyes of the Elven overseers.

But when she saw the younger men flock around the few women who had been hired on to harvest, she was glad she had her uncle to keep them at bay. Even though she had not much experience with men, she recognized the hungry looks on more than a few male faces as they eyed the women-folk in their low cut blouses. Their simple clean-living mortal hearts may have been noble, but their intentions were clearly not. She bade farewell to Glawareth, for the time being, and sat at the overseer's table.

Although everyone seemed friendly to each other, the Elves gathered at one side of the tent and their human counterparts were at the other. The only exception was at the table with her uncle, where both Elf and Mortal were seated, and one other table full of women and Ellith that caught Cella's attention. They had arrived in a small group after every one else had begun their meals and sat together not far from where she was seated with her uncle.

They were dressed alike, and it was at first hard to distinguish mortal from Elf. They all wore white garments resembling a uniform, made out of a material that appeared to be sun-bleached muslin. Their hair was held back off of their faces with nets made of shiny silvery threads, the skirts on their dresses were short, and reaching just to the knee. They wore thonged sandals, which left most of their feet exposed, and their legs were shockingly bare.

They were the grape pressers, realized Cella, they had to be. Although the reason they wore white was a mystery, it was otherwise obvious from the way they were dressed. And it only took a few more moments of careful observation to see that there were both humans and Ellith combined, such as the differences in their ear shapes and overall body structures. Or, the way the Fair Folk had serene, placid expressions and voices which murmured softly, while their human companions talked loudly, or gestured broadly, as they all sat and talked with each other over their meals.

The whole group of them seemed to be upset about something as they spoke to each other. Although the noise from the conversations around her prevented Cella from learning exactly why, it was obvious they were worried. The women were shaking their heads and grimacing, and the Ellith faces were darkened with concern.

Her attention was drawn away from the anxious grape pressers to the other end of the tent where the seneschal, Thaladir, had appeared. He was moving among the tables of the women pickers, who were just finishing up their meals. He was eying each individual carefully, as if trying to measure them, and would point every now and then at one of them. That woman would rise and leave the tent. It was a worrisome sight.

"What is the seneschal doing, uncle?" she asked.

"I was just asking this fellow right here that same question," he answered, gesturing towards Himbor who sat beside him. "He says one of the pressers turned her ankle and they need a replacement. The grapes will start getting loaded in the stamping vats as soon as this meal is done, and there's more need for two good feet now, than for two more hands in the fields."

Nodding, Cella agreed that was an important position to be filled. She had pressed grapes at her uncle's vineyard. It was the most enjoyable part of the harvesting, and she had fun with the wives and daughters of her uncle's workers who joined her in the great vats to stamp the juice out of the grape clusters. They would each hold on to the other's shoulders, or forearms, in order to keep themselves balanced on the slippery surface below their feet.

But, towards the end of the day, someone would always lose their balance, slip, and drag a few more down beside her, and everyone left standing would eventually be pulled in to join them while attempting to help them back up, and they would all end up covered with the sticky purple juice. Remembering those fun times, Cella almost hoped, for a moment, she would be chosen, but she was not sure she was ready to be barefoot and barelegged around so many strangers.

When the tall elf with the majestic robes approached the main table, Cella's heart began to beat a little faster. She looked at her uncle in desperation, but he winked at her and told her to be brave if called upon. She promised she would, but she started shaking after the stern-faced seneschal pointed at her.

To be continued in Chapter 4

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Posted: July 30, 2004

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