The King's Vineyard
By: Mary A
Rating: PG13 for sexual content (later chapters)
Warnings or spoilers: None for this chapter
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 Dorwinion woman and her uncle travel north from the inland sea of Rhun to Esgaroth seeking employment at the Elvenking, Thranduil's, vineyard.
Travel along the narrow road that paralleled the Celduin River was easy enough. Most of the roads in this area of Middle-earth were still passable with no sightings reported of the Dark Lord's minions out and about on a mission of terror in many years.
The river flowed out of the north from the Lonely Mountain and formed the eastern boundary of the region known as Rhovanion, where the Elves dwelt in the legendary great forest. It was also a watery highway of commerce, but its current was too swift for easy travel against it. It was faster, when headed north, to travel beside it on the road.
It was actually a footpath, patiently carved out and kept smooth by the river bargemen, who traveled this way towards the inland Sea of Rhun. They walked alongside on the riverbank, using their long poles to guide the unwieldy flatboats down to the sea-shore, and ropes as they pulled them back afterwards. But the river traffic had been slow this year, and the bargemen few in number. And, on this autumn day, the only travelers to be seen at all were two people riding north in a small cart pulled by a pair of slow-moving horses.
"In Esgaroth," the man in the driver's seat exclaimed suddenly, while gesturing ahead in the direction they rode in and then beside them at the Celduin, "this river is called The Running River. Bah! They have no imagination, the men who live beside the Long Lake."
He shook his head with a last derisive snort at the dull-witted sounding name for a vital artery that kept commerce alive in the entire eastern region. Beside him on the cart's seat, a young woman sat and pressed her lips together to smother a grin.
"Celduin. What does the Elvish name mean, uncle Dwain?" There was a sly smile behind his niece's voice. She knew very well what it meant, having a shared interest with him in the doings of the Fair Folk and especially in their lyrical language.
"It means," there was a pause, and then a rueful chuckle. "It means, Running River." The man shook his head at himself and his prideful disdain of the Long Lake vocabulary. "Perhaps I was too hasty in my judgment," he remarked sheepishly. She thought she knew why her uncle was so inclined to make sudden snap judgments of the people of Esgaroth, whom he had never met, and she felt sympathy towards him.
They were on their way to the vineyards of the Long Lake region to seek any possible work they could procure there. It had taken the man more than a few long, hard and brutal years in his failing Dorwinion vineyards to finally come to this reluctant conclusion. The subsequent uprooting of his niece from the only home she knew, to embark on a journey of unknown peril, was a torment to his normally indomitable spirit.
She felt how concerned he was about her, and her ability to cope with strangers in a strange land, and she loved him for it. He knew how shy she was, painfully shy, but she was determined to be brave for him as they tried to find a new home together in a distant land.
For a drought had hit his vineyard, and especially hardest on the western slopes that bordered the sea, and had turned the normally green vines into dry brown stalks. None of the local growers, who suffered similar conditions, had seen anything like it in their lifetimes; her uncle Dwain struggled manfully with his meager vines for several disastrous seasons in a row, and had finally surrendered to the inevitable. He would take his chances beside the Long Lake, where rain still fell in normal amounts, rather than starve in stubborn pride.
Although she tried not to give in to grief at the loss of the only home she knew, as they rode away towards the north, it took all her effort to remain dry-eyed. She did not want to upset her uncle any more than he already was.
At last the river, and the road before them, bent to the west and ahead she could see that the trees grew thicker along either side. They would soon hide her former home from view behind them. She turned to look back, one last time, and gazed at the grapevine stakes that marched in regular formation all along the hills of Dorwinion, until they reached the point of no return in the distance, and were no longer visible. She batted back tears, and tried to concentrate on more pleasant thoughts.
Now that they were approaching the outer edges of the great forest, she wondered if they would see any Elves. They preferred to remain unseen but she still had hope that a party of them might come along on horseback. They were known to use the same boatman path at times when they rode in great numbers, which was rare.
When she was fifteen, many years before, her uncle had taken her to the wine festival that was held each year on the northern shore of the inland sea. She had seen Elves there, for the first and only time in her life, and had never forgotten them. Mysterious and serene, a handful of them had stood on the sidelines in their odd but beautiful clothing; fitted tunics and leggings in shades of pale leaf-green and bark-tan, and silently observed the humans around them.
Their eyes were quick and bright, but their facial expressions never changed. They seemed neither aloof nor shy; rather they seemed detached from the activity around them, as if they were at some remote distance, instead of nearby.
As she stared at them, her uncle Dwain had explained that the Elves had come to the festival to make arrangements for the delivery of the yearly supply of wine for their monarch, the fierce Elfking warrior, Thranduil, who lived underground beside an enchanted river deep in the great Greenwood Forest of Rhovanion. She was proud to learn that they had ordered a few barrels of her uncle's own vintage for their king's private table. But she never had a chance to speak to them, or to hear them talk.
Last year they had again traveled to the same festival site, but this time it was to gather information from the other growers and trade horror stories about the drought stricken grape crops. Her uncle had learned that those same Elves had purchased their own vineyard in the north, and the idea of seeking work there, if the next crop failed, had taken purchase in his mind.
"The Elves will remember my wine, Cella," he had assured her when the decision to move had finally been made. "They will know I am not a ragged drifter who travels the roads seeking temporary labor for food." She had agreed that the Fair Folk would be foolish to refuse his services.
And now, as they traveled along the same river that had carried her uncle's wine barrels, in years past, up north and into the hidden Elven realm, she hoped to catch another glimpse of the lovely creatures in their woodsy clothes. But in all the long days of travel towards the Long Lake, she never saw one.
To be continued….