The King's Vineyard, Chapter 7
|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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Cella arrived at the grape-pressers' changing area late the next day, escorted by Uncle Dwain, only to find that the place was deserted except for Lanthiriel, who was hanging up fresh garments delivered from the laundry.
After she had apologized to the understanding Elleth, and quickly changed her clothes, she was sent out to the vintner's shed where she was told she would find the rest of the pressing-crew. She walked there alone, worried about drawing attention to herself by arriving so far behind schedule, and hoped they would not all stare at her, or ask her a lot of questions. To her relief; no one did either.
The pickers had not yet come back from the fields with that day's crop. While they waited, the other women and Ellith, using buckets, were helping Cella's uncle and the Elven vintners pour the strained juices from the first day's pressings into the fermentation barrels. Her Uncle Dwain was in his glory as he demonstrated for the Elves his methods for blending the different juices as well as how he determined the amount of yeast or sweetener that should be added to each mixture.
She mumbled apologies to her fellow workers for being late, and wondered how much they knew about the previous night's events. There were a few cautious sideways glances cast her way, but mostly everyone kept busy at their task. One of the Elf-vintners cheerfully handed her a small oak bucket and directed her to a particular vat.
Milda and Ingarde sidled up to her as she removed the cloth cover from the top of the container in which the juice had been resting for the last couple of days, so that she could inspect the level of the contents as it was emptied. It was a comfort to have the women near her, as they waited for their turn to hold their buckets under the spigot. Cella suspected by the way they did not look directly at her that they must know, or suspect, something unusual had happened to delay her. But they remained silent, and she was grateful.
Stifling yawns as she carried her bucket from the vat to the barrels, Cella felt as if she had not slept at all, even though she had been startled awake by her uncle at some point before the day-break horns began to call.
She had not gone to her bed too much later than usual, despite the attack and its immediate aftermath. But, even after taking a warm bath, she had been too excited to fall asleep right away. As she lay awake in the dark, she had spent most of the night recalling, over and over, every moment of the rescue. Starting with after she had been thrown to the ground, and felt certain she was about to be harmed, if not killed by her attacker, she would picture how the Elfking had lifted and thrown the man into the grapevines.
Then she would run her hand over her shoulder, or touch her hip, as she remembered being healed by the shining-eyed Elf monarch. Thrills ran through her at the memory of his large strong fingers pressing delicately into her flesh. And the way he smiled at her afterward, as if she was something more than an insignificant being in his vineyard.
But after a while she felt more and more remorseful about her own foolish behavior and for a time she wallowed in guilt. She berated herself mercilessly for causing a disruption in the Elfking's vineyard. She knew he must have had more important concerns to attend to than a moon-struck maiden in distress. When she was finished torturing herself with that, she wondered how she would ever bring herself to even peek at his face if she saw him again.
For quite some time, she tossed and turned, wept and burned, as she realized she would never be able to look him in the eyes, ever again. Not that she had ever been able to do so before that night. That made her feel even sadder, how she had never taken the opportunity to stare at him to her heart's content before she had embarrassed herself so thoroughly.
And yet even so, she tried to image his face when he had smiled down at her, and his moonlit hair that had looked like a shimmering silver waterfall as it spilled over his shoulders. For some reason, it calmed her to remember that, as she lay in the dark, and she began to relax. But then a question floated up from some hidden place within her mind and lifted her back into wakefulness.
What if the Elfking was so disgusted with such a bothersome human that he sent both her and her uncle away, and they had to beg for food and shelter? Or worse, what if he went back home to his Forest Kingdom? Back to where foolish mortal women did not traipse around unescorted in vineyards when bad'uns were out and about? She had buried her face in her pillow and sobbed.
After being wakened by her uncle before dawn, Cella craved returning to that same pillow, but he reminded her that she was going to be wanted in the great hall for questioning soon. They had been informed that His Majesty had sent messengers in the night to the local constabulary of the Long Lake Town. They were expected to arrive shortly after daybreak to take the man who had grabbed her into their custody. She rose and dressed numbly. At least her body was not stiff and aching on top of all of her other worries.
Sitting at their breakfast table, she found she could not lift her eyes to Uncle Dwain for the shame she felt about her part in bringing this trouble into their lives. He had forgiven her the night before, after hearing the story of her impulsive walk in the moonlight to listen to the whispering grape leaves. She had not mentioned the unhappy Wood-elves with their odd notions about plants being grown unnaturally.
"I can't blame you, child," her uncle had told her reassuringly. "You've more grape-juice in your veins than blood, that's a natural fact; you can't be blamed for hearing the call of the vines." He seemed almost proud of her, especially when he recounted to her what he had been told of her attack by the Elfking and Nandirn. She could not bring herself to speak about it, but he seemed to know as much as she did.
Her uncle had not been at their house when she arrived after running back at the Elfking's command. She had flown as fast as her legs could carry her through the moonlit vineyard, as if running a race, and then through the back gate, slamming it behind her with a loud clang. Their window shutters were open, revealing a dark and still-deserted interior.
She did not know what had compelled her to run so swiftly that she panted breathlessly when she finally reached her destination. Was it her fear of encountering another attacker in the dark or did it have something to do with the way she felt when she had at last looked into the eyes of the Elvenking?
All she knew was that her legs felt as quick and strong as they had when she was a little girl. As Cella ran, she felt glorious, as if she could have sped all the way to the Lonely Mountain without effort. All of her muscle soreness and pain, not just where she had been injured by her attacker, was gone from the previously leaden limbs.
However, the Elfking's healing touch had done more than just ease her discomfort; she felt an energy pulsating through her that had propelled her forward so that she almost felt that she could take off from the ground and soar through the air. For a time, she stood with her back against the gate until her heart slowed and her breathing returned to normal before entering the empty home.
But, she had only just put her hand on the door handle when a worried Uncle Dwain came around the corner with Thaladir close behind. The silent seneschal gave her more than his usual quick cursory glance as her uncle embraced her in relief. Seemingly satisfied with her overall appearance, while she assured both of them that she was not hurt, the tall stern-faced Elf nodded, and took his leave after bidding them a good rest.
It was after she hurriedly confessed to her uncle about her foolhardy behavior that he told her what he had already learned from Nandirn and the Elfking. For a while, he did all the talking as they sat outside on the veranda in the dark.
As it so happened, Nandirn had heard Cella open the gate from where he was positioned in the main corridor, just outside of her view near the entry to their home. He had investigated immediately and was on his way to the seneschal's chambers to report her wandering off and seek further counsel in the matter from her uncle. But he did not reach his destination.
Instead, he encountered the Elfking on his way. Nandirn told the monarch that he had been charged with seeing Cella to her door, and not to keep her under surveillance after that, but only to prevent any one from the main house from coming near to her as she slept. He had not received any orders to follow her out the gate.
Whatever decision needed to be made, and by whom, was forgotten when the Elves heard the commotion in the grapevines and investigated without hesitation.
"His Worship says you had your teeth sank clear to the bone in that filthy brute's paw." Her Uncle Dwain had actually chuckled as he talked of it, even though Cella shuddered at the memory.
"Filthy, ugh!" she spat out. "That hand did taste filthy." She paused as she finally allowed herself to recall the moment. "It made me mad that he put it on my mouth." As she spoke, she realized just how unafraid she had been when she bit her attacker. Her uncle shook his head but beamed delightedly. "His Highness says you showed a lot more spirit than he thought you had in you."
For a moment, Cella had felt a little proud of herself for fighting back, but she also felt sorry that she had ever opened the gate. Before she had gone to bed, she promised her uncle, again, that she would listen to his words of caution with even more respect than ever she had before now. But now that it was morning, it was time to cope with the problems she had caused.
The Sheriff of the Long Lake area was a large, kindly, white-haired gentleman with a bushy mustache who smiled at Cella with warm brown eyes and asked her very few questions. He recognized the 'miscreant' -- as he termed the man who had attacked her. He was a local troublemaker whose name was Gorst, although never before this had he been know to do anything violent. He was mostly just lazy and loutish.
According to Gorst's own story, he had been informed by the seneschal in the evening that his services were not needed at the vineyard and he was asked to leave the premises. Somehow he had learned that his dismissal was due to Uncle Dwain's recommendation to the Elfking.
Meekly, he insisted that he had come to their residence to speak to Dwain, as a fellow human, and plead for a second chance. He had seen Nandirn waiting in the corridor so he had gone back out the front entry and around to the other side of the main house, to try entering through the back gate. When Cella emerged, he had stayed still in the dark, hidden from her view, because, he swore, he did not want to startle her. He claimed that at first he was going to wait for her to come back, so that he could politely ask after her uncle's whereabouts.
Even the kind-eyed Sheriff snorted with disbelief when Gorst declared that he began to feel concerned about Cella's welfare as she walked about unescorted in the vines, and had followed after her to offer his assistance. He had meant no harm when he had put his hand over her mouth, he figured she would scream if he approached her in the dark and spoke to her, and he did not want to draw any attention their way. He had restrained her hands to keep her from striking out at him before he could explain his intentions, which he promised were honorable.
"Gorst might be telling us the truth when he says he wasn't trying to hurt the girl," the obviously skeptical Sheriff told the Elfking, the seneschal, her uncle, and Nandirn. They had all gathered in the great inner hall to give their account of the night's events and to see that the prisoner was turned over to the arresting constables, who accompanied the Sheriff, and that it was all done in good order.
"However, that doesn't let you off the hook," the bewhiskered official added while glaring darkly at the cowering prisoner. "There's never no good that comes from lurking about in the dark where you don't belong and scaring innocent women-folk that way, no matter what the reason."
Her uncle also scoffed at the tale, but as Cella listened to Gorst's side of the story, she began to feel a little sorry for him. The Sheriff pointed out that even if the man was telling the truth about not wanting to hurt her, the fact that he had not immediately gone away after being ordered out of the vineyard meant he was trespassing on private property and that was a crime in any book. Elf or mortal.
Although at first Cella could only take brief peeks toward the Elfking during the proceedings, it was easier to look at his face again than she had imagined it would be. She grew bolder as the attention in the room focused mainly on Gorst instead of her and found that she could study the monarch's features almost at her leisure when he was speaking with or being spoken to by anyone else in the room. She committed everything about him to memory.
The feather-light feeling she had experienced the night before returned, although not as intense, but it seemed enough to lift her to her feet after Gorst had been taken away. She and Uncle Dwain were cordially dismissed to go about their usual business.
With a relieved bounce in his step, her uncle escorted her to the pressing station before hurrying off to the vintner's shed. It made her happy to see the gleam of anticipation that lit his eyes when he realized that the business with the local law officers was over and his day could truly begin.
It was not until the pressers were seated together in the dining-tent for the mid-day meal that Milda and Ingarde teamed up on Cella and demanded answers. Some of the lunching field-workers were overheard gossiping about the hired hands who had been dismissed the day before, and no one was sad to see any of them go. And others were talking about Gorst being taken away in the constable's wagon, by order of the Long Lake Town Sheriff, that very morning.
"We figure you have to know something, because your uncle's such good friends with all those overseer Elves," said Milda.
"And because you were both late getting to work today, and not one of them Elves seemed the least bit bothered," added the shrewd Ingarde.
Cella found she could not put it off any longer and quietly told them just enough to satisfy their curiosity. She reported that Gorst had been trespassing and hid outside of their gate the night before, while waiting for her uncle. She told how she had walked out into the vineyard by herself and been frightened by him. The women were pleased to hear that Nandirn had been on hand to take the lurking man into custody on the spot.
"The Sheriff had some questions for me today, is all," she finished matter-of-factly to her appreciative audience, who were awed enough by her tale without having to hear about the attack or the rescue, or the Elfking's eyes. They both agreed that Cella would have faced certain death if not for the presence of the vigilant Nandirn, their hero.
In the end, the women decided that Gorst must have been hired on the same day as the rude woman who had pretended to injure her ankle. They were probably related to one another, they concluded. Cella just shrugged at their speculations and was thankful that they had no more questions for her.
After the three women got up to leave the dining-tent, it was difficult for Cella to keep a straight face. The corners of her mouth twitched as she imagined what Milda and Ingarde's reactions would have been if she had told them the whole story, with the Elfking included, and especially about the way he had put his hands on her. But when they came into the brilliant autumn sunshine she realized there was no good reason not to smile. So she did.
To be continued in Chapter 8
Posted: August 13, 2004
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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"