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The King's Vineyard, Chapter 4

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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When Thaladir pointed at her, Cella froze in her seat. After receiving a few words of encouragement from her uncle, along with a gentle prod in her ribs, she reluctantly rose from the table. She followed the seneschal from the tent as if being led to her execution.

Although she told herself she was being silly, she felt as if all the eyes of those who remained seated were focused on her, which helped propel her that much more swiftly on the way. Once outside, the tall unsmiling Elf directed her to an area between the two pressing vats and told her to wait until she was called.

There, on a bench, sat the other women selected from the field-workers to be assessed along with her. Cella was the last to be chosen as a candidate to replace the injured wine-presser and she nervously wiped her damp palms on her skirt as she waited her turn. It took a few moments before she felt calm enough to pay attention to the activity around her.

Rack after rack of stacked baskets filled with bunches of ripe grapes, ready to be made into wine, were sitting on flat-bedded wagons nearby. Already some of the field-elves were in position to begin unloading them. She could feel their curious glances travel over the group of women, including her, on the bench. Their interest did not disturb her half as much as the stares they had all received earlier from the leering men among the hired help.

The seneschal was assisted by an Elleth clad in the same white muslin as the group of pressers in the dining-tent, but with an unmistakable air of authority about her that spoke of leadership. Thaladir briskly introduced her as Lanthiriel, the appointed chief grape-presser and wife to Himbor. She spoke a little of the Common Tongue and had a sweet smile, but she did not appear to be as merry as her husband.

One by one, the women were called behind a hastily improvised screen, made from a sheet of fabric draped over a length of rope, for a brief interview and quick physical inspection. As she waited, Cella looked around and wondered if she was going to see the Elfking again, or if he had returned to his Royal Halls within the forest, as Glawareth had indicated he often did.

She did not know if it was a comfort or not, to imagine the formidable monarch being gone from the vineyard, but she was glad he was not right here involved in this selecting process. The idea of being this near to him sent shivers down her spine.

When it was her turn, Cella felt nervous at first as she stood before the two Elves for an interview. The tall Elf seemed impressed as she told him of her prior experience at her uncle's vineyard, and she began to relax as she answered his questions.

But then the Elleth, Lanthiriel, requested that she remove her shoes and hose so that they could see her feet. She paused in indecision. Did she dare refuse? Somehow, Cella had a feeling that the noble seneschal would not hold this moment of hesitation against her, even with all of his stern glances.

She imagined the disappointment in her uncle's eyes if she missed this opportunity to escape the rigorous field-work for the more enjoyable grape-pressing task, and all because she was too shy to show her bare feet to the Elves.

Slowly, but with a new determination in mind to prove she could carry her own weight without complaint or hesitation in the king's vineyard, she removed her footwear and held her skirt calf-high in front of them both. After a quick, cursory inspection, the tall Elf nodded and then lifted his eyes from her legs. With a noticeable jerk to his posture, he stood suddenly at rigid attention, his eyes focused not on her, but at something or someone directly over her shoulder.

"Dartho." [Wait]

Cella jumped with a gasp when a voice from behind her spoke the Elvish command and she knew who the speaker was immediately. She did not dare turn to face the Elvenking, for fear she would faint dead away on the spot, and bring shame on both herself and her uncle.

Lanthiriel lowered her eyes and dipped in a graceful curtsey and Cella wondered if she should attempt one, too, or just remain standing still. But before she could decide, the Elfking stepped in front of her and spoke again, rapidly. She froze at his words, bit her lip, and stared at the ground next to his boots.

"Young lady," advised the seneschal, "His Majesty has graciously requested that you…"

"Yes, I know," she interrupted hastily. "He asked me to lift my foot, I understood." She did not want these Elves to think she was wholly uneducated in their language. Not after having spent so many hours in preparation for this day with her uncle during his patient lessons back home.

She did not feel capable, at that moment, of answering the monarch in his own tongue, so without lifting her eyes to him she answered, "Yes, Sire." The words came out of her mouth in barely a whisper.

From the corner of her eye, she saw the Elfking holding out a steadying hand to her as she balanced on one shaking leg to lift her other. Although it took every ounce of courage she could summon, Cella placed her own trembling hand upon his large one, as the only possible alternative was to lose her balance and fall over in front of him. Which was unthinkable.

She was not vain about her body, but she did think that her feet were not hideous in appearance. Her uncle made sure she wore woolen socks to prevent blistering from her leather shoes, which kept the skin smooth-looking. And she had bathed the night before, so she knew they were clean.

"Maer,"[Good] pronounced Thranduil before motioning at her to put her foot down. She released his hand and clasped hers together nervously, still too terrified to look at his face as he stood motionless beside her. "Gerich dail vaer, firiel. [You have good feet, mortal maiden.] The softly spoken words from the Elfking were meant for her ears only, and she could feel her cheeks turn red under his regard.

"Le hannon, hir nin,"[Thank you, my lord.] she managed to say without stuttering. And then he was gone, in a blink of an eye, and she could breathe again.

"Please, with me come," requested Lanthiriel in broken Westron before she exited the make-shift interview area. Still in a bit of a daze, Cella slipped her shoes back on over her bare feet, picked up her stockings, and followed obediently behind. It was not until the Elleth had led her within a small building, and she noticed several of the white uniforms on hooks upon the walls, that she realized she was the one who had been chosen to replace the injured grape-presser.

The Elleth held several of the muslin garments in front of the mortal maid before finally settling on one she found suitable in length. Cella's hair was brushed back from her face and plaited into a single braid. Over this was placed a net, woven of silvery thread, which was tied in place with a dark green ribbon.

After Cella was dressed, she was issued a pair of thonged sandals to wear back outdoors to what turned out to be a foot-washing station. Several shallow basins were placed side-by-side on a swept pebbled path beside the pressing vats. Half contained warm, soapy water, and the others had fresh clear water for rinsing afterwards.

As she swished her feet around in the footbath, Cella marveled at the fastidious habits of the Elves; she had never thought it necessary to clean herself this way before pressing the grapes. Her uncle had never made it a requirement.

The grapes were being sorted on a long table and, after being inspected one last time, were bathed with fresh water, also, before being tipped into the pressing vats. Cella felt a little thrill at the familiarity of the normal wine-making process blended with these strange new customs of the Elves.

She was given a towel to wipe her skin dry and then was directed up a small stepladder to enter one of the enormous cylindrical containers that stood above the dirt on a platform. Spigots to release the juice and pulp were being opened and oak buckets were being placed beneath the platform to collect it all.

Several women and Ellith, including Lanthiriel, silently waited for her as she climbed into the large wooden vat. She kept her eyes cast down at the purple clusters that squished delightfully beneath her feet as she took her place. As soon as she had grasped onto the brass railing that was attached around the inside of the oaken cylinder, for balance, they all began to stamp the fruit.

For Cella, there was no physical sensation quite like crushing grapes with her bare feet. Liquid velvet juice, grape skins like flesh, and all warmed by the sun, slid and squirted between her toes as she worked. Like a breath of fresh air on a stifling hot day, or a warm blaze on a frozen winter's eve, the experience must be felt in order to be fully appreciated. It could not be described with mere words.

After a few moments of silence, some of the women began to hum a little tune and soon were singing the funny words that went along with it. It was a silly song, with meaningless lyrics, sung in rounds and meant to help pass the time. Even the Ellith joined in and their sweet high voices added poignancy to the otherwise ridiculous ballad, which made it hard to resist. Cella learned it quickly and soon felt at home as they all began to walk in a circle within the vat, instead of standing in place as usual, while singing the absurd words:

Oh, stamp, stamp, and stamp the fruit,
Collect the juice,
Collect the juice,
Oh, stamp, stamp, and stamp the fruit,
Stir the juice,
Stir the juice,
Oh, stamp, stamp, and stamp the fruit,
Strain the juice,
Strain the juice,
Oh, stamp, stamp, and stamp the fruit,
Ferment the juice,
Ferment the juice,
Oh, stamp, stamp, and stamp the fruit,
Drink the wine,
Drink the wine,
Oh, the grapes are ready for stamping!

After the last of that day's grape harvest had been stomped down to just skins and stems, Cella and the rest of the pressers climbed out of the vats. Small cleaning crews of bare-footed Elves were waiting nearby with long handled hoes to scrape the left-over muck from the vat-bottoms, before rinsing them clean with even more buckets of fresh water.

Unlike Cella's wine-making seasons past, none of the women or Ellith in the pressing vat had lost their balance in the slippery grape matter. She was surprised at how clean they had all kept their muslin dresses, despite the sticky, splattering juices, except for the edges of their hems, which were all equally purple.

Back at the foot-washing station, the skin of the Elleth's feet and legs lost their grape tint immediately, but Cella was happy to see that all of the mortal women's lower limbs were as equally stained as her own were. The elven-made soaps did remove more of the dark juice than any other cleansers she had tried, but she was resigned to the fact that it would be many days before her feet returned to their normal color. She was still curious about the white uniforms and after handing hers over; she asked if she could see how they were cleaned of their grape-juice stains.

She was taken to the laundry sheds, where huge cast-iron pots bubbled and foamed over open flames. The gowns were tossed in and punched under the roiling, frothy brew with large paddles wielded by the Elves in charge of this task. Lanthiriel, seemingly amused at the mortal maid's interest in the dress-cleaning, haltingly explained with her curious way of speaking that these boiled outfits would be laid in the sun the next day, to bleach any of the remaining stains away from the hems. There were plenty of extra gowns to replace them in the meanwhile.

Cella's mind was a whirl of new sights, sounds, and notions, as she sought her uncle at the end of her first full day's work in the vineyard. He was waiting near the pressing vats, seated on the same bench where she had waited for her interview with the seneschal. Before she had lifted her bare foot for the Elfking. The memory of that made her blush again. Her uncle peered at her inquisitively and asked her if she felt feverish.

"No, uncle Dwain, I have no fever." She laughed while putting her hands to her cheeks. "I have been watching the Elves boil clothes in the laundry shed. It was very warm inside."

Then, cleverly, she asked him if he had already prepared what he was going to say in his evaluation of the field-hands. She did not have to answer another question as he rambled on discussing the good pickers and packers and the bad 'uns, and the ones he just couldn't quite tell, but still had an opinion about, for the rest of their walk home. But she barely listened to a word he said.

All she could hear was Thranduil's voice when he spoke so softly to her, "Gerich dail vair, firiel." She looked down at her feet as she walked and wondered what the Elvenking would think of them now, all stained purple as they were beneath her shoes, despite the elven soap. Her uncle looked at her with some surprise when she began to giggle for no apparent reason.

To be continued in Chapter 5

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Posted: July 30, 2004

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