The King's Vineyard, Chapter 5
|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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After they had finished their supper, uncle Dwain put his feet up on a small three-legged stool in front of the fire and smoked his pipe while Cella tidied the kitchen. She was singing the tune she had learned in the grape-pressing vat, as she swept crumbs from the floor, when she heard a knock at the front door. Two firm raps.
She could not see her uncle from where she was working, but when she heard him rise to answer the door she stopped singing and hummed softly instead so she could hear who had come to visit. She was sure it must be the overseer, Himbor, or perhaps the tall robed Elf, Thaladir, had come to hear her uncle's thoughts about the newly hired help.
Her humming came to an abrupt halt, with a sharp squeak, when she heard her uncle say, "Welcome, Your Majesty. Welcome. You honor our humble home. Please, come in."
When she recognized the answering voice, deep, rich, and unmistakable, Cella hastily slammed herself flat with her back against the kitchen cupboards as if she was even better hidden from view that way. The Elfking was here? In their home? She wanted to run, to hide in her room, but there was no way to do either without being seen. "Cella, we have company," her uncle called. "Bring some tea!"
Tea? She turned around in a complete circle at least three times as she tried to remember what the word 'tea' meant, let alone what she should do about it. Tea, of course, she knew what tea was. But where had she put it? Frantically she searched within the cupboards and shelves, passing by the canister that sat out on the counter where she had so carefully placed it just a short while ago when she had cleaned up after supper.
Nearly in tears, she was about to confess to her uncle and the distinguished guest that she had somehow lost the tea, when she realized that she could serve them wine, instead. All of the vineyard workers had been given a small barrel of wine that day, the last of the previous year's vintage, with cheerful orders to empty them for the new pressings. She searched for some suitable drinking bowls and moved the tea canister out of the way as she set the two nicest ones she could find on the counter.
It was only after she had wrestled the wine barrel over on its side to uncork it that she realized what she had just handled and then nearly collapsed with relief when she clutched the naughtily elusive tea canister to her chest. Now what?
Water, water, water…she needed to boil water. Step by step, with nearly painful slowness, Cella remembered how to make tea as if she had only just learned that day how to do so. When she finally had the small teapot filled, and with the fragrant leaves steeping within, she set it with the drinking bowls, some spoons, and some honey for sweetening, on a tray to carry into the sitting room. Standing still for several moments, she rehearsed what she was going to say before entering the room.
"Good evening, Your Majesty," she said sweetly, without looking at him, or even in his direction, as she set the tray on a small table near to where he sat with Uncle Dwain. "Will you want some honey for your tea?"
"No," answered the Elfking. Cella handed him and her uncle their drinking bowls, but, before she could escape down the hall and into her room, the Elf stopped her with a hand on her elbow, which froze her in place.
"Here," he said. "Sit with us." To her horror, she watched as he stretched out one long leg and hooked the toe of his boot around the stool near the fireplace and dragged it over between where he and her uncle were sitting. She began to protest, but when she opened her mouth to declare that her kitchen-cleaning chores were left unfinished, her uncle interrupted her.
"Sit, brother-daughter, sit." He winked at her while gesturing to the stool. She plopped down on it and stared at the floor in complete misery while he continued. "Gettin' this girl to sit still for a moment has never been an easy task, Your Worship," he explained. To Cella's utter mortification, he went on to describe her as a child, and how she had never crawled as a baby but merely stood up on her two feet one day and took off at a gallop. "She never walked if she could run, that's how come she got the name Cella, short for Celiel, that's Elvish, you know."
From the corner of her eye, she saw the Elfking nodding as if in agreement, with a slight smile on his handsome face, while he listened to Uncle Dwain. She could not believe he was even slightly interested in the story of how her father declared that she had grown out of her birth name before ever she was a year old, and needed a new one.
"Meaning no disrespect, Your Highness," her uncle continued. "My brother was always studying up on you Fair Folk and your ways, you see, he was a bookish sort, so he called her 'Celiel'. It means 'running daughter' in Elvish, but as I say, I'm sure you know that. We just call her Cella for short."
The subject of the conversation prayed with all of her might for a hole to open beneath her seat and swallow her up within it to remove her from the nightmare she felt trapped within as the monarch politely assured her uncle that he did not feel the least bit disrespected by such a charming tale. But when the Elfking turned to her and spoke, she felt her cheeks grow red and prayed she would just die instead.
"Yes, Celiel is quite suitable," he said. "I could see that in your foot." She felt ice in her spine at the frightening thought that he might ask to see it again and she tried to tuck her shoes out of sight beneath her long skirt without drawing further attention their way. But he did not. Instead he returned to the previous conversation with her uncle about the field-workers under consideration. Her name's origin was not brought up for discussion again, to her relief.
But the Elvenking did pause now and then to direct a remark her way such as to ask if she was comfortable in their living quarters or to pass along a compliment on her efforts that day from Glawareth about her grape-picking abilities or Lanthiriel about her grape-pressing skills. She murmured brief gratitude-filled replies and tried not to say anything stupid. Her uncle puffed up like a proud rooster and took full credit for his niece's education in the vineyard.
"Ever since she was knee-high," he bragged, "she followed me around like a puppy-dog and had her nose in every doing with the grapes." The Elfking chuckled and she hoped she would not faint from embarrassment.
"The hour grows late," pronounced Thranduil suddenly as he stood to take his leave. "The new day comes too soon with all of its bitter toil." Uncle Dwain shook his head with a laugh.
"Not bitter for me, Your Worship, not at all! Aye, 'tis sweet toil indeed to get my hands on healthy vines. A real joy to the soul, so to speak." He stood to see the Elf out the door but Cella sat where she was as they moved away across the room.
Thranduil thanked her uncle with a handshake for his thorough report and bade them both have a good rest before sweeping out into the night. It was quite some time before Dwain, son of Dake, proud vintner in His Majesty's service, could coax a word from his niece's tightly closed lips.
"Honestly, uncle," she finally moaned, "did you have to compare me with a puppy-dog?" His earnest heartfelt apology earned him a wary smile, but she could not sustain feeling angry at him for very long. He was just being his usual talkative friendly self with the Elfking. With a sigh of resignation, she rose and stacked the drinking bowls on the tray with the pot and then carried it into the kitchen. It really had not been so terrible, serving tea to Thranduil, after all.
The next morning, when the horn calls woke her, Cella sat up in her bed and felt as if every joint and muscle in her body had been crushed under rocks and then beaten with sticks. Stiffly, she rose to her feet and wondered what the Elvish word for "slowly moving" daughter could be.
She did not know what would be a worse fate for her aching body today. If the injured grape-presser felt better and replaced her in the pressing vats, she would have to go back out on the picking lines with Glawareth. Her arms and shoulders protested the thought. But, if the injured woman was still too lame to work then that would mean more marching around in circles. Her legs and feet felt like lead. Cella's true desire, to return to her bed, was out of the question.
After breakfast, she felt a little better and managed a cheerful smile for their Elven escort; today it was Lanthiriel who accompanied Himbor. Cella was happy to return to the grape-pressing area despite her heavy limbs. At least she would be hidden from sight in the vat, in case the Elfking ventured out with a notion to view some more body parts of unsuspecting women.
Lanthiriel formally introduced Cella to the rest of the pressers who were getting changed in their private dressing area. The ones she had worked with the day before were all familiar to her, but it was better to have names to go with their faces. She was comforted to learn that most of the other women were as sore-legged as she was, and were moving even more slowly, if that was possible. None of the Ellith displayed any discomfort, but they all appeared to be sympathetic.
She was to learn from her fellow workers that the poor woman whom she had replaced had done something more serious to herself than just turn her ankle, and had spurned the efforts of the Elves to tend to her injury. She was sent home the night before. No one knew her name. She had only just arrived like Cella and her uncle, the day before.
"She was daft," proclaimed a woman named Milda contemptuously. "I heard tell she called Master Thaladir a point-eared monster when he tried to get a hold of her ankle." Gasps and cries of shock at the insulting language toward the seneschal erupted from the entire group. All agreed that they were better off without the injured woman, if she was even injured at all, which most now doubted.
Cella was gratified to learn that she was not the only new mortal worker employed for this harvest season. She got to know the other local women, most of who lived in the town by the lake. It was encouraging to hear from them that in its short history the king's vineyard had earned a good reputation as an employer in the region. Among those who were not afraid to work alongside the Elves, that is.
Because they had to wait for that day's harvest to begin pressing, they were all going to scrub wine-barrels after their morning-meal, while they had the extra time. First, Lanthiriel offered massages to all of the stiff workers. She rubbed a pleasant smelling balm into the palms of her hands as they eagerly lined up. Her marvelous fingers moved swiftly up and down Cella's sore aching calf muscles and the pain seemed to dissolve away down through the tips of her toes.
"This will you have to rinse before you step in the vat," the elleth advised her in her broken Westron. "Yes, the healing effects cannot be washed away." After the sorest pressers had been attended to, they all visited the dining-tent for a leisurely breakfast. Cella had only eaten a few mouthfuls at her own table that morning; she had been in too much pain to enjoy breaking her fast, so now she was grateful for the second chance. By the time they sat at their table, the rest of the field-workers had gone to the picking lines and they had the place to themselves. It was quiet for a while as everyone ate, but there were soft murmurs from a few of the Ellith at the end of the table.
One of the villagers, a friendly young woman named Ingarde, spoke Elvish and huddled with the Ellith for several moments as they spoke in whispers. Her eyes widened as she listened, and then she turned to face Cella but announced to the entire table.
"Is it true that one of our newest pressers had a royal visitor come to call on her last night?" Her voice was archly teasing, but awe-struck nevertheless. As all eyes turned to her, and a stunned silence filled the tented area, Cella felt her face grow hot and knew she was blushing. That was not what had happened at all! Ingarde had made it sound like a personal visit.
"My, Cella, you must tell us all about it," pleaded Milda, and all of the pressers nodded and murmured agreement.
"He...he came to visit my uncle, really, to see him, not me..." But Cella's stammering explanation fell on deaf ears for the tall robed elf, Thaladir, had come into the tent in the meantime, and the Ellith rose as one to curtsey. The women followed a heartbeat's pause behind them, but they were nodded at courteously by the seneschal in return, despite their tardy response. The barrels were ready for them, he had come to say, and some haste was necessary if they were done breakfasting.
As they left the dining-tent, Cella pulled both Milda and Ingarde aside and insisted they listen to her explanation, for she did not want them to harbor any notion that she had felt called on personally by the Elfking. Her heart would not stop banging until she got them to understand and believe her that he had come to talk with her uncle. Later, when she had calmed down while scrubbing the barrels, she realized they were mostly teasing her by pretending to think otherwise.
Once she could think about it dispassionately, she realized it was no insult to have the Elfking visit one's home. The Ellith, especially, treated her with a slightly more deferential attitude, and smiled her way more often than the day before. Cella finally spoke with Lanthiriel and asked her to make sure that everyone knew that she was not being courted, or even visited, by any Elf, royal or not, or any man either for that matter.
"Oh, this we knew, that His Majesty was collecting report from your uncle," replied the Elleth graciously, and then added, "But, you cannot deny the honor bestowed upon you with his attentions yesterday, dear mortal." Lanthiriel glanced down at her feet with a mischievous twinkle in her normally placid gaze, and Cella realized it was the Elleth's way of joking with her; much like Milda and Ingarde had done earlier. But she still felt irritated that such a focus was being put on her all of a sudden.
In the pressing vats, all of her discomfort, both inner and outer, came to an end as the stamping and singing commenced. Other women and Ellith alike were singled out for teasing for various reasons as the afternoon went by, and no one mentioned the Elfking's visit with Cella's uncle again, so she soon forgot her annoyance. After they had bathed their feet a final time for the day, Milda and Ingarde asked her to join them for supper in the dining-tent.
Before she could explain that she was needed at home to cook for her uncle, they pulled her over towards where he was waiting and asked him if she could stay. As it turned out, Uncle Dwain had been invited to sup with Thaladir in his private chambers, and he was worried about Cella's reaction to eating under the stern gaze of the tall elf. He offered her the choice of suppers with his blessing either way.
"I would rather eat in the tent, uncle," she replied with relief. After kissing his whiskery cheeks, she turned to trot off happily to the dining-tables with her new friends. It was not until she sat to eat that she remembered how she had lectured herself in her bed, the night before, to never move any faster than a slow, ladylike walk while employed at the king's vineyard. But no one seemed to notice or care.
To be continued in Chapter 6
Posted: August 5, 2004
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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"