The King's Vineyard, Chapter 9
|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.|
|Feedback:||Please sign our guestbook or write to to firstname.lastname@example.org|
After the mid-day meal, only the pressers Cella worked with were put to work in the vat, while the other crew was sent into the fields to continue the hurried harvesting in anticipation of the storm. Those remaining in her group were stamping as quickly as they could, even though there was no expectation that every grape picked that day should be pressed. But there was a sense of urgency that permeated the entire vineyard and everyone seemed to be affected by it.
It was decided by the overseers that the extra grapes would be unloaded off of the wagons and into the dining-tent for safekeeping during the storm, after enough tables had been stacked and then moved to the side to make room for the racks of flat baskets. They would be safe overnight, as long as they were not too damp when left to sit. Even if both crews had been stamping they could not have worked their way through that day's extraordinary harvest effort.
Throughout the afternoon, there had been deep muttering sounds, and vibrating grumblings that were felt more than heard, following flickering flashes of light in the distance, which became more visible as the sky grew increasingly gloomy. By the end of the day, only those pickers who were within walking distance of available shelter were allowed to stay out in the fields. Most of the other field-hands were helping unload the wagons before the storm hit. The vintners returned to their wine-making.
The Ellith and women from the picking lines had returned to the pressing vats when the pickers were pulled back and both crews were pressing the grapes that were still being sorted, rinsed and loaded for them to stamp. The last rays from that day's lowering sun sent streaks of copper and pink across the gray boiling clouds as they swiftly covered the Elfking's vineyard.
The cool, moist winds blew harder, bending trees, and sending loose objects scattering in different directions. The last long golden fingers of sunlight touched the swaying treetops, before being consumed by the roiling mass while the sky darkened completely. The skies opened and water poured forth. Instant puddles appeared underfoot and were splashed through by the field-workers and other hired help as they ran seeking shelter. Tiny rivulets swiftly joined each other to become streams wherever there was the slightest sloping surface on the ground.
Although no more grapes were loaded now, the pressing crew did not slow down their circling march within the vat when the storm hit with full force. A few of the women were round-eyed with fright as if they were expecting a booming-voiced, flame-throwing monster to appear out of the clouds. The Ellith seemed unconcerned as dazzling lightning flashes were followed by claps of thunder, and their serenity had a calming influence.
But they were all physically unaffected by the storm's wrath within their cozy vat. It had built-in protection from the elements put in place. First, it was located under the spreading branches of leafy trees, to shade the pressers and the juice from the afternoon sun. Next, to prevent debris falling off of the overhanging limbs from getting into the vats, a large oilskin sheet had been stretched overhead and attached with ropes to the tree-trunks and to stakes in the ground. The flexible roof swayed and shivered, but it kept them dry.
The cleverly made water-proof screen could be adjusted to suit wind conditions. The rain was slowed in its descent by the leaves on the trees, but it still pattered noisily on the surface and ran down off the sloped side forming a wavering watery curtain as it was buffeted by the breezes. If anything, the interior of the vat was warmer than usual because of the amount of effort the women were putting into getting as many grapes pressed as they could before nightfall.
With sighs of relief, the women welcomed the damp misted puffs of chilled air that found their way under or around the oilskin barrier. Cella lifted her netted braid from her hot neck to feel the refreshing sensation flow over the damp skin there. No more grapes were being loaded into the vats and the workers on the outside, who were collecting the last of the juices that ran out of the spigots located along the bottom of the massive container, were complaining loudly about being soaked by the rain and blown by the wind, while the pressers inside remained dry.
"We have to get out of here sooner or later," said Milda as she warily regarded the sheet of water that poured off of their roof. "And we are going to get soaked to the bone in seconds!" The level of pressed grape matter below their feet was nearly flat, they were almost done.
"If we run," said Ingarde, "maybe we can make it to the changing rooms without getting too wet. We can put our dry clothes on and stay there to wait out the storm." Everyone forgot that they had to wash the grape juice off of their feet first, and the pans were located on the unsheltered side of the vat. There was nothing to be done about it, the rain soaked them all thoroughly as they quickly lathered and rinsed before dashing to their shelter.
The Ellith happily lifted their faces to the clouds and appeared to be more amused than bothered by the cold shower they received. None of them ran with the women. Inside the dressing room, the pressers crowded around the one window that was left opened, as it faced away from the wind, towards the south. The sky was streaked with bolts of lightning and the thunderclaps shook the shelter they stood in. From this view, they could not see the dining tent, or the other vineyard buildings. There was much speculation about the possible damage being done by the storm. The wind was blowing so fiercely now that as each brilliant overhead flash illuminated the surroundings they could see the trees were almost bent sideways.
Although the cloud cover indicated that the rain would last through the night, eventually the lashing winds slowed and the downpour eased enough that the women and Ellith felt they could make a dash as far as the dining-tent without facing too much danger. With Lanthiriel's permission, they grabbed dry uniforms to hold over their heads to shield their faces and hair while they darted around the puddles on their way to the monstrous flapping structure. They were only half-way there when Cella realized that her thin work blouse had become thoroughly wetted, and she resorted to wrapping her pressing garment around herself like a shawl. She was too embarrassed to even think about what the clinging fabric revealed of her body.
Some of the pressers were astonished that the tent still stood and they all 'heard tell' from those who had been within during the storm's initial onslaught that it had been a terrifying experience. As the strongest gusts were buffeting the stretched-taut billowing fabric, those caught inside all expected the straining guy-ropes to snap, and the whole structure to go sailing off into the skies. Some had run out into the downpour and were sorry later. The roar of conversation and laughter soon muted the raging storm as everyone had a story to tell about where they were, what they were doing, and what they did next, when the cloudburst began, and all at the top of their voices.
Cella laughed along at some of the funny stories while hugging her arms over her chest to conceal the revealing nature of her saturated clothing. Milda and Ingarde's blouses were as soaked as hers. But they seemed to revel in the attention they were paid by the men who were seated in a table next to theirs. She usually envied their boldness and wished she possessed a small measure of it at times, but not now. The men were not so bad, but they were uninteresting to her, compared with the Elves, who ogled no one.
The scent of the grapes that were stored at the back of the enormous tent filled the dining-area with sweetness. The harvesting had been nearly a complete success. Even the fruit not fully ripe had been gathered as their juice and skins could be used for blending purposes, as long as they were pressed separately so that the proportions could be measured. The Elves had been impressed to learn from Uncle Dwain that even the skins and remaining pulp from the filtered leavings could be used to make a potent wine cordial. None of the grape had to be wasted if care was taken.
There was a festive celebratory atmosphere in the tent that was enhanced by the closeness of the remaining tables to one another, making it difficult for anyone to move about between them without bumping into someone. And everyone was in a friendly mood as they endured the storm with one another. Even with the wind whipping under the tent wall and in through the door flaps, the interior was warmed by the amount of bodies within it, and Cella's own body heat soon dried off her blouse which meant she could abandon her makeshift shawl. She cast a searching glance around the crowded interior for her uncle although she was sure he was so deeply involved with his work in the vintners' shed that he was oblivious to the storm.
Despite the nasty weather the kitchen Elves had been busy and the workers were fed a hot meal. The sound of the storm reasserted itself as background music while the hungry workers ate. A barrel of wine was uncorked but there was no rush among the diners to try any of the Elves' vinegary efforts. But after it was learned that it had been purchased from a local wine merchant for the feast the next day, along with many dozens of others, a line quickly formed. There was enough for everyone to have a full drinking bowl and one was pressed into Cella's hands before she could decline. Although she was not forbidden to drink it, she had never enjoyed the taste of wine. Nor had she been bold enough to admit that out loud.
A hush fell over the crowd when the Elfking's seneschal, once again attired in his stately robes, stood and raised his own bowl aloft. He delivered a solemn and dignified toast to the workers for their impressive achievement that day and everyone drank, including Cella, who felt obliged to do so out of respect for the tall noble Elf.
She sipped at the bowl tentatively and tried not to make a face, but failed. Milda and Ingarde laughed and dared her to drink at least one more sip without puckering up her nose. For once, their amusement over her behavior did not hurt her feelings and eventually she laughed along with them after she tried again and again to swallow some wine without grimacing, but to no avail. She was mercilessly teased for being raised amongst wine grapes and never having learned to appreciate their finer qualities, but she found the idea funny, too, and gleefully agreed.
The lightning and thunder had passed on with only an occasional low boom to be heard in the distance now and then. The wind died down, too, but the rain pounded the tent and the occupants were happy to wait it out a while longer. The vineyard workers called this kind of downpour a "male" rain, the hard pounding drops of water would cause more destruction than not as they poured off wastefully into ditches and streams, as opposed to a "female" rain, which fell gently and slowly and soaked into the thirsty roots of the growing vines without any run-off.
"Do you know what the only good thing about a male rain is?" asked Milda with a silly look on her face. "It usually moves along and stops bothering you after spending itself, just like a man." Ingarde nearly fell of the bench as she shrieked with laughter but Cella shook her head, not entirely understanding. She tried her wine again instead, and made another sour face, which made both women roar even louder.
A group of Elves and men started to use some of the dinnerware as improvised musical instruments, mostly percussion-like, and began to sing some merry tunes that helped pass the time and lighten spirits even higher, if that was possible. Cella recognized a few of the songs, and sang along with a quiet voice, but mostly she just listened with appreciation. It seemed like she had never heard such beautiful music as now when her friends seated with her sang together, even out of tune. She was disappointed when her uncle found her and she had to say goodnight to everyone.
When they came to the tent opening, Cella paused. The rain had eased up significantly, but was still coming down hard enough to soak her to the skin before they could reach the main house. Uncle Dwain reminded her how when she was little she would say that she ran fast enough to dodge the raindrops and she giggled remembering how sure she had been that she could.
"But not tonight, uncle," she admitted wearily. "My legs are too tired to even try."
"Perhaps I can be of some assistance?" This time, the unexpected voice of the Elfking as he stepped from the shadows did not paralyze Cella. Instead she felt a rush of warmth from head to toes and back up again so she smiled at him and curtseyed. Afterward, she would never understand how she could have looked into his eyes like that without shaking or feeling the need to escape.
"Good evening, Your Worship," said Uncle Dwain. "Don't see that there's much you can do, exceptin' maybe using some Elf-magic to clear a path through the rain so I can get Cella to leave with me for home."
"I see," replied the Elfking slowly after looking upwards as if noticing for the first time that it was raining. "Very well, although I do not think I have the magic you seek, I may have something that will serve as a barrier against the elements." Before Cella could protest, the monarch removed his dark cloak, draped it around her shoulders in one graceful movement, and attached it at her neck.
"Your Majesty, no, you do me too great an honor…" she began, although instead of immediately trying to remove the cloak, she pushed her hands out from beneath it and ran them over the plush texture of the sueded leather. She grew heady from the scent of his body that clung to the inside of the garment. He reached behind her head and pulled the attached hood up and over her hair.
"But I insist," he said mildly. "It would please me to know you are protected." His face grew stern for a moment as he continued, "I would not have you risk your health and miss my feast on the morrow." Then he lifted an eyebrow and asked, "You are going to be at my feast, are you not?"
Cella could only nod weakly; her heart was pounding too hard to permit any form of speech. With a last dazzling smile, the Elfking nodded at her as he bade them both a good evening's rest and turned to proceed further into the tent. It was as if a spell was broken and she looked down in fear at the regal garment that was draped over her; the hem brushed the tops of her feet. She was certain she would damage the cloak if allowed to wear it out into the rain. Her uncle would not let her go back into the tent to return it, nor would he do so for her, and he chuckled with puzzlement over her distress.
"It's a good boss who takes care of his workers, my dear, we are lucky to work for him. You would insult His Majesty in front of his Elf people, too, if you tried to return that cloak inside." But she was still consumed with worry over the rich garment, what if some harm came to it between here and their front door? After they started for home she got over her anxiety as she began to feel embraced by the Elven cloak, which allowed neither rain nor wind to penetrate within its luxuriously draped folds, and she walked carefully all the way, savoring every moment.
Her uncle marveled at her change of mind about the Harvest Feast, but she merely murmured in agreement with him that it was somewhat surprising to her as well. And it was not only because of that elegantly raised eyebrow, she insisted to herself. To Uncle Dwain, she explained how much she had enjoyed the company of the other workers in the dining tent during the storm, and she felt less nervous about the idea of participating in a little more merrymaking with all of them the next evening.
"And like Milda and Ingarde said," she continued in explanation of her reversal, although when they said it to her she had still not changed her mind, "I can always leave if things get too close for comfort." She realized only now how hard it had been to leave her friends at the dining-tables tonight, and it had been very close in the jam-packed tent.
Cella removed the Elfking's cloak immediately after they entered their home but refused to hang it on one of the guest coat hooks that were located just inside the door. Instead, she bade her uncle goodnight and carried it to her room for safekeeping. She was not willing to let the precious garment long out of her sight and as soon as her door was shut behind her it was draped once again over her shoulders. As she made the hem twirl around her ankles while she turned this way and that, she could not tell in the candlelight if it was dyed gray or green, or a clever combination of both hues, only that it was a thing of beauty.
She had to leave it in her room while she bathed as she could not come up with a good reason to carry it along with her, and she was afraid of further wetting it now that she had finally gotten in out of the rain. Amazingly enough, the soft, dark suede was not much affected by its exposure to the weather and was barely damp to the touch, but she was not going to take any chances. She washed as quickly as possible.
After her bath, a still-dazed Cella sat on her bed with the carefully folded cloak wrapped in her arms. She refused to lie down and risk falling asleep before she had committed every moment she had been in the presence of the Elfking to her memory. She was not going to take the chance on any of this coming up to distract her tomorrow because there was too much work to be done. At least that was the excuse she gave to herself for such self-indulgent behavior.
But she had worked too hard that day to do the exciting events proper justice. She began to nod almost immediately and finally gave up, and gave in, and fell asleep with the cloak draped over her like a blanket.
To be continued in Chapter 10
Posted: August 20, 2004
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"Long live Thranduil, great Elf-king of Greenwood!"