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The King's Vineyard, Chapter 8

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 Rhûn to Esgaroth seeking employment at the Elvenking's vineyard.
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For the next couple of days, Cella had but a few chances to see the Elvenking and then usually from a distance. Almost always it would be in passing, and she might only catch a glimpse of his profile, or the back of his head, but that was good enough for her. She glanced away if he turned in her direction. It was best when he was walking and talking with others, usually Elves, or sometimes with her uncle or other men who worked in the vineyard. At those times, she could take full advantage of drinking in the sight of him. She was never going to miss the opportunity again.

The wine-making operation was moving along without delay, while the grapes were still being picked, and no one had much time for standing idle. At night when she got into her bed, she was too exhausted to lay awake and think about her rescue, or what happened after, even though she wanted to and would try. Instead she would drift instantly off to sleep. But during the day, without reason or warning, the sound of the Elfking's voice, the image of his face, or the way his hands had felt, would seem to invade her mind at odd times, perhaps while she swished her feet around in the pans at the foot-washing station, or rolled an empty barrel to the vintner's shed.

At those times, she would feel so guilty that she would furtively peek around to see if anyone had noticed, because she was sure that the giddy inner effect these recollections were having on her was printed on her face. Staring at the Elfking when the other pressers were nearby was easier than coping with the tantalizing memories while she was working. It helped that no one ever noticed her staring because everyone else stared at him, too. He was such a striking figure as he strode purposefully from place to place that everything would come to a standstill at those rare times when they were graced with his commanding presence.

However, it would not do to stand still in awe when there was work to be done and no Elfking around to distract the other pressers. At first, Cella tried to push the unasked for thoughts from her mind by telling herself that she was old enough to know better than to have such fancies about an Elf, any Elf. And especially a royal one. Or to have such unobtainable desires for... she was not willing to think about what she desired; only that it was not healthy to do so. But none of her lectures worked, she only thought of him more, not less, as she tried as hard as she could not to.

No one seemed to notice her temporary lapses in attention; no one had time to notice anything but the business at hand. The big push was on in the vineyard to harvest the rest of the crop before the last of the fruit over-ripened on the vines. And, at the same time, there was just as much of a need to empty the resting vats of their contents to begin the fermentation of the new wine, not to mention pressing the grapes as they were loaded. As usual, at least in Cella's experience, there were not enough hands to do all the work, and yet all the work was done.

And the grapes just kept coming.

Her uncle's delight at the sight of the healthy, bountiful vines from the first day they had arrived had only grown into awe. At nightfall, as the two sat before the fire, weary from the day's efforts, he had some new tale to tell of the fascinating ways of the Elven approach to agriculture. Cella learned that he was well aware of the unhappy Elves who avoided the vineyard because they did not agree with the deliberate manipulation of the grape-vines. She was surprised to find out that he was in agreement with them, in some ways.

"Every living thing has feelings, child," he told her. "So naturally every thing must be treated with respect. A good grower does whatever it takes to make sure the vines are fussed with no more than necessary. But if they were let to grow wild, they would not suffer a happier fate in the end, you see."

And of course, she did see. The grapes would never survive past their natural lifespan no matter how happy they were while they grew. They were the fruit of the vine and their destiny was to be eaten, and they were made sweet, and full of tasty juice, for that very reason. Whether by Elf, man, bird, beast, or insect, they were meant to be consumed. The vines themselves would start to curl and die as soon as the weather turned colder. She stopped worrying about them.

"Cella my dear," her uncle pointed out, "it's more likely the Wood-elves who turned tail for home were homesick and missing their trees out in this wide-open space, than overly concerned with the way to grow grapes."

Those who had not turned tail, and who had shown an eager interest in learning agricultural skills, were more than quick studies, according to Uncle Dwain. They seemed to have a feel for the vines that some men he knew had never developed in a life-time, even though they might have had daily contact with the soil, air, sun, pests, and the plants themselves. The Elves seemed to be born with such knowledge, and needed very little teaching in the ways of pruning and thinning or pest control.

The soil in this northern region was rich and nearly clay-free, and the rains fell at normal levels, so the vines took root swiftly and grew well with little effort. But, Uncle Dwain still marveled at the juice-content of the fat, well-formed grape clusters. Whatever magic the Elves possessed was certainly visible in the way the plants performed for them.

They learned that many years prior to the Elfking purchasing it, the vineyard had been owned and operated by a local family. The original owners had fled in fear while Smaug was proprietor of the Lonely Mountain and making frequent fiery forays around the countryside. The Elves' first year's crop had been planted on only about a quarter of the available acreage. Even now, there were still many more acres left unplanted, however as there were not enough field-workers on hand to cope with the current crop, no plans were being made to expand any further. This, according to Uncle Dwain, was just as well.

"More attention needs to be paid to their vint'ry skills, now that the Elves've got the growing part down, if they ever want to make something of this place." The wine they had been given in the complimentary barrel had finally been uncorked, and he had pronounced it flabby; a natural result of field blending, or not sorting out grapes that had ripened at different speeds from one another before pressing. This resulted in a sort of wine-stew, which was sometimes delicious, but not in this case.

He had not been overly impressed with the previous year's efforts, either, once he had finally had a taste of it. He made a sour face as he told her about it, and he declared he may have spat it out of his mouth if the chief vintner himself, named Faindir, had not handed him the drinking bowl personally, and waited for his reaction. Even after a longer aging period than last year's wine, it had been a bitter experience.

"They didn't age their cask oak a day, nor even a month, let alone 2 years!" he bellowed, once he knew no Elf was within hearing distance. Equal parts of eagerness and ignorance had foiled all the initial good intentions to produce their own wine, at least wine that was drinkable, according to her uncle. They knew enough to manufacture the final fermentation casks out of oak, but had used green, uncured wood from a few different local tree groves and the resulting wine fermented within them had neither backbone nor balance. It was not the worst he had ever tasted, especially for amateurs, but it could be much better, and he was going to see to that, personally.

The bewildered Faindir spoke even less Common Tongue than Lanthiriel, and Himbor had been sent for to help her uncle translate what he meant by such words as flabby, backbone, balance, and other terms that made up the unique vocabulary of the wine-makers. Cella had to giggle as her uncle recounted his floundering efforts to explain such simple-sounding words that often covered a variety of sins. And they meant basically the same thing according to Uncle Dwain, "It could have a lot better taste."

Because the fermenting cask's wood had not been either aged or prepared properly beforehand, the Elves' first wines did not have proper support from the critically important enhancement of seasoned-oak flavor, and therefore lacked backbone. Instead, there had been too much of the sap's aroma from the wood mixed into the wine's taste, which made it unbalanced.

Now, luckily, the natural passage of the years had solved the biggest problem for him here in the Elfking's vineyard. Enough time had passed since the massive fermentation casks had been crafted by the Elves for the wood to now be set up hard and well-seasoned, and the flavor, or aroma, of the wood's sap would no longer compete with the flavor of the oak itself while the wine fermented within it, as it had been doing.

Her uncle had shown the chandler-elves the difference between staves made with tight-grained and loose-grained oak, and which was preferable. Then he taught them how to 'toast' the wood within the casks, by scorching the insides lightly using only clean-burning bees-wax candles, which would release even more flavor from the wood and greatly enhance the bouquet. Casks that he deemed unworthy were broken up to make smaller vats or barrels, after salvageable parts were reused to make new ones, properly.

When Cella awoke on the third morning after her attack, her uncle greeted her with words that no exhausted vineyard worker wants to hear when the crop is yet in the field. "I smell rain," he said. She ran to the windows and even though the air had a noticeable chill to it, she saw clear blue sky overhead, and breathed a sigh of relief. There was still time to save some of the crop before the rain that would surely come. She did not at all doubt her uncle's nose

The irony of the situation was not lost on the two immigrants from the drought-stricken inland region, but they did not let that fact slow them in their determination to help save the Elvenking's grapes today. Once they had hurried through their breakfast and set out toward their working areas, Cella could see the line of dark clouds in the north. Her uncle placed his index finger in his mouth and held it in the air to test the direction of the breeze. "There is still time," he pronounced. "Winds are blowing east, that cloud line might miss us after all, but winds change."

The Elves had also sensed the change in weather, and all hands were ordered into the field, even the pressers, to gather as much of the grapes as they could in case the winds blew the clouds their way. A short shower or two would not do much damage, but a hard rain, with high winds, would batter the soft, ripe fruit and possibly collapse the stakes.

On the picking lines, Cella was allowed to supervise both Milda and Ingarde as she worked alongside with them. Her two friends soon got over their squeamishness about coping with the various insects hidden within the clusters that needed detecting and removal. When they began, an occasional garden snake that slithered by within view would cause squeals. By mid-day a whole nest of serpents could have traveled over their feet and they would not have flinched, so intent were they on saving as much of the crop as possible.

However, it did not seem to matter how different or difficult the new task might be, the two women found it just as easy to talk while they picked. Cella was filled in on all of the "heard tells" that they had gathered, seemingly from the air, as they had not spent that much time apart from each other after they had said goodnight to her the previous evening.

"I heard tell..." one of them would begin, and then go on to relate some tidbit of useless but nonetheless interesting, at least to them, information. The other would soon counter with, "Is that so? Well I heard tell..." And so on. She learned which of the married couples were quarreling and why, the names of those who were still single but in some process of courtship, and of those who were only wishing they were.

She heard all of the latest revelations and opinions, often mixed together, about the fired workers, including their names, histories, and even some of their genealogy, if they happened to be related to anyone that either of the women knew. Cella nodded and smiled through most of this gossip, although she was more than a little on edge for fear they might ask her more questions about the night Gorst had trespassed and frightened her so badly.

But most of their speculations involved the storm that was coming, and how long it would last, and the likelihood that the Harvest Feast, which was to take place the following evening starting at sunset, would be postponed or cancelled outright. She knew they had both been anticipating the event with bright-eyed giggling eagerness ever since it had been announced. There was to be music and dancing and a bonfire.

For the past couple of days in the pressing vats, while everyone discussed the upcoming festivities, even the normally unflappable Ellith were smiling and nearly giggling as all of the veteran pressers reminded each other about the previous years' merrymaking, for the benefit of the newly hired. But Cella felt far removed from the amusing tales about the prior feasts and even further removed from wanting to participate in this next one.

The idea of being around a large crowd of people during what sounded like extremely raucous events was not appealing to her. Milda and Ingarde had given up trying to talk her into going with them, although they both declared that she would change her mind. Which made her laugh; as she was sure she would not.

It was hard to believe a rainstorm was on the way during the early part of the day. The initial morning chill wore off as the brilliant autumn sun beat down heavily on the field-workers. Then the winds turned to a more southerly direction which provided an occasional refreshing cool breeze, and made the dark thin line of clouds take a new shape on the horizon. By mid-day they imitated a range of mountains in the distance with distinct rounded tops. The storm was destined to reach the vineyard before sunset. Any grapes left unpicked might suffer an unhappy fate, but there was nothing to be done about it; there were only so many hands available.

When the wagons came to carry the field-workers to the dining-tents, most of the Elves stayed on the picking lines and kept working while the mortals, needing more sustenance, were allowed to take a break and eat. However, as many of them were also willing to stay on and keep picking, plans were made to bring lunch out to the picking lines for them. The three women had no choice, they would be needed in the pressing vats now and had to leave.

As the wagon passed the remaining field-workers, Cella was shocked to see that the seneschal had given up his robes for more practical working clothes, tunic and leggings. He was acting as a picking supervisor for the vintner Elves, who rarely came out into the fields for any reason not related to turning the juice into wine. She wondered if Uncle Dwain would change his mind now about how "at home" in the vineyard the seneschal appeared without his fancy garb.

The Elfking had been nowhere to be seen out in the vineyard that entire day, although she had expected to see him there, if only to provide further inspiration for those men and Elves who were unused to manual labor, but nevertheless were needed this day more for their backs and hands than for any other special skill they might possess. She also did not see the gray-clad Nandirn, and she wondered again where he worked. She had not seen him since the morning Gorst had been taken away.

The clouds were getting closer and no longer resembled mountains seen from afar. There were brief gusts of wind now and then that sent any loose dry leaves scattering about in lively twirling groups. There was much speculation among the field-hands about the Harvest Feast and the rumors that it would be cancelled were immediately dismissed by more confident voices than Milda and Ingarde's.

Some pointed out that there was always the great dining-tent, a suitable shelter from rain, if it did not blow down first. Or maybe they could all fit into the Great Hall within the main house. This seemed the most desirable, if only for the sake of satisfying the curiosity of those who had always wondered about the Elves' living area, which was restricted from visitors.

"Cella's been inside the King's Hall," boasted Milda. "And I bet she can tell us if it's big enough for all of us."

Friendly faces turned to Cella, who could do nothing more than nod her head timidly at first. But then she was peppered from all sides with questions about the interior of the Great Hall. Not just about the size, but everything else about it, such as what it looked like, what was actually in there, how high the ceilings really were and how large the fireplace truly was. Most of the questions seemed motivated by previous imaginative guess work and fanciful assumptions.

As she answered them, there were many loudly whispered remarks from various workers to one another along the lines of "I told you so." Or, "I tried to tell you that, too, but you wouldn't listen to me." No one asked her about Gorst, the Sheriff, or the Elfking, so she gradually grew more confident as she reported all of the details she could remember and enjoyed the cheerfully respectful attention paid to her comments.

The other workers spoke with Cella as if they expected her to be at the feast. Instead of feeling uncomfortable with the idea, she began to feel regretful. She was sorry she had already decided not to attend the feasting, no matter what location it was to be held in. It was not so frightening now to imagine being in a crowd of these people and she began to wonder what it would be like if they were all inside the Elfking's Great Hall.

As the wagons pulled up to the dining-tent, the rising winds and occasional gusts were making the great pavilion billow and heave as it strained against the guy ropes that held its massive structure in place. Cella could feel sections of her hair being teased out of its braid by the strong breezes to whip around her cheeks and eyes. Each time she brushed a tickling strand away it felt like she was applying sticky grape juice to her face as she had not cleaned her hands from the picking lines.

She waited patiently in line behind Milda and Ingarde as they cleaned themselves with the buckets of warm water set on the table outside of the tent's entrance before going into lunch. After she washed the juice off of her hands and cheeks, she felt much better and now only wished to get out of her spattered, tattered old working clothes and into her clean, white presser's uniform; she looked forward to doing that after lunch. As she patted her face and forearms dry with a small, clean cloth provided for that purpose, she heard a familiar voice behind her and froze completely stiff at the sound.

"I can only assume that such good feet shall dance as well as they run." She braced herself, and turned toward the Elfking, dipping in a slight curtsey and keeping her eyes down, even though she had promised herself she would not ever do that again, should she have the chance to see him this close. Luckily she had carefully prepared and rehearsed a little speech, if she ever have the occasion to speak to him again, both to apologize for her rash behavior the other night and thank him for his rescue. To her relief, the words came flowing out easily, if a little too rapidly.

"Arad vaer, aran nin. Le hannon o guren...," [Good day, my King. I thank you from my heart...] she began, only to be interrupted in her practiced speech by her uncle's voice, who was also answering.

"Why yes, Your Worship, my Cella can dance, light as a feather!" Uncle Dwain proclaimed it proudly and then added a short history of the lessons he had given her in their parlor back home. "Only you won't ever see her out on a dance floor," he added regretfully. "You see, she's a wee bit on the shy side." Cella felt her face heat as she realized that the Elfking had been speaking to her uncle, and not to her, when he made the comment on her feet.

That, added with having to listen to her uncle discuss her good dancing but poor social skills with the monarch in front of the dining tent, was too much for her to bear. She had to escape. She turned to leave, before she said another stupid or embarrassing thing, when she felt a gentle touch on her elbow, and turned to face the kind eyes of the Elfking.

"Ha gell nin," [It was my pleasure,] he said. Then he smiled at her, right into her eyes, while Uncle Dwain continued merrily chattering away about how she would not even dance on the day of his head overseer's wedding, no matter how hard he tried to entice her, and even after they had practiced and practiced for hours on end beforehand.

Cella smiled back at the royal, unobtainable Elf and felt as light as a feather when she turned to float into the dining-tent for the mid-day meal.

To be continued in Chapter 9

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Posted: August 18, 2004

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