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The Last Yule in Halabor
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The Book-Seller and His Wife

For disclaimer and further details see Part 1.

Rating: General, for this part.


Day Seventeen – The Book-Seller and his Wife

The house and store of Austell, the book-seller, was probably the smallest and narrowest on the entire Marketplace. The ground floor was barely large enough for the store itself and his wife’s book-binding workshop, and they had but two small rooms on the second floor. Aside from the kitchen, that is, which they had turned into a copying room long ago, for it was the warmest place in the entire house. Besides, they had eaten in the Drunken Boat for longer than they could remember.

Austell, a fragile old man of more than eighty years, was the happiest when he could spend the day in his own store, leafing through newly acquired – or copied – books. People said that he was “very learned and bookish”, which was the truth. He had begun his career as a tutor in the school of the Town House, as he had learned in one of Minas Tirith’s most respected schools himself, and taught the boys under his care many useful things a good clerk needed to know.

For some time, he had considered going on like that all his life. But when Mistress Pharin had withdrawn from their engagement and married Andróg, the Town House clerk instead, he did not want to stay there and see his victorious rival every day.

Thus he had taken over this very little store from his father – who had originally wanted a more settled, more secure life for him, urging him to become a clerk in the first place – and became a book-seller He had found out quickly that he liked this life a lot more than his earlier one. He enjoyed travelling to Linhir, Pelargir or Dol Amroth, which were the best sources for new, rare and interesting books.

Why, Prince Imrahil had even taken him to Edhellond once, and though he had not been allowed any further than the harbour area, his chance meeting with one Mistress Vorondis, the Elf-lord’s librarian, had been an interesting one. Just like the visit in the workshop of an Elven copyist. He had not known before that Elven scribes wrote standing at high pulpits. And that was just one of the exciting things he had discovered on that one journey to an Elven town.

Even more amazing was that the Elves seemed to remember him. Last time Lord Gildor and his Wandering Company came to visit the autumn fair of Halabor – which, admittedly, had happened quite a few years ago – the Elf-lord had been gracious enough to visit Austell’s little store and deliver Mistress Vorondis’ greetings. He even brought several rare and beautiful books as a gift: Elven legends in Quenya, with additional translations into Westron.

“It does not happen frequently that I would find someone outside the line of Númenor who would show this much love and interest for the Noble Tongue,” had said the Elf-lord to silence Austell’s protest. “I have these copies made for you shortly after your visit in my town. I insist that you accept my gift.”

Austell had accepted, of course. Doing otherwise would have been not only foolish but also very rude. And everyone knew that insulting an Elf-lord could have consequences. Lord Orchald, like many of the Dúnadan nobles, respected Elves greatly. Especially Gildor Inglorion, who was known to have been one of the heroes of the Last Alliance and stayed with the Lord in the Castle, whenever his Company travelled through Halabor.

Those books were now Austell’s most cherished possessions, which he kept displayed on open shelves during the day but carefully locked away in a strong, iron-bound chest for the night. Unlike the books he usually sold – which consisted of plain, though legibly written sheets bound in simple wooden boards, with leather glued over them for more protection – these Elven works had thin silver covers mounted on the wood, decorated with small, colourful glass beads and enamel plaques. Austell kept them chained to the shelf, for they were very valuable, and some misfit might want to steal them for the cover alone.

He was startled from his thoughts by his young grandson who came stumbling into the store through the back door.

“Grandfather, Mistress Medraut wants you to take a look at her finished column ere she continues.”

Austell nodded. The talented lady copyist had been working on a copy of an ancient Elven herbology ordered by Lord Orchald as a Yule gift for Mistress Angharad. And though Medraut knew her Tengwar well enough, she did not understand Quenya, thus mistakes were inevitable. The book had been translated into Westron for daily use, yet the Quenya names of the individual herbs were added for the more educated herbalist to use. T’was a very popular book, titled How the Healing Herb Became, with colourful and very accurate drawings of the herbs discussed.

“Stay here and keep an eye on the store,” said Austell to his grandson. With his thirteen years, Ainwar was a very reliable lad already, in the middle of his learning years as an apprentice book-binder. He could take care of the store for a short time.

Austell crossed his wife’s workshop to reach the narrow stairway that led to the upper floor. Mistress Brissen, as short and rotund woman, with an unruly mane of iron-grey hair forced into a knot on the top of her head, was busily gluing leather on the wooden cover of one of their simpler books, ordered by the Town Hall for teaching purposes. Her small, bright brown eyes were reddened from the fumes of the glue, and Austell was thankful that their grandson would soon be able to take over some of the work. Brissen’s eyes had been weakened considerably in the recent years, despite all of Mistress Angharad’s ointments. She needed more rest.

Truth be told, so did he. As he once again climbed up the steep stairs and not for the first time since lunch break, he asked himself again whether it truly had been such a good idea to turn their former kitchen into a copying manufacture. Sure, the scribes did not suffer from cold-stiffened fingers here, and the ink dried remarkably quickly, too. But his old limbs protested against climbing the steps every time he had to check a newly finished column or drawing.

He had to admit that the small room was a true blessing in this cold weather, though. The hearth that kept the entire house warm made it an oasis of warmth, and as the windows looked to the south and the west, it had more light than any other room in the house.

Three desks stood in the room, each facing the windows. At the first one, Austell’s sister-in-law, Bechulle, was preparing the sheets of parchment for her granddaughter, scraping them clean of scales and incrustations, smoothing them with a pumice and marking out lines and columns with a long, narrow ruler and an awl. She had been an excellent copyist in her younger years – in fact, she had been the one to teach her granddaughter this intricate craft – but as she had passed the seventieth mark a few years ago, her eyes were not the same anymore. Her hands were still steady, though, and having her sheets prepared so that she could set to work at once was a great help for Medraut.

Bechulle was also very good at making quills and sharpening those that had become dull by the long use, and she did not mind performing those small tasks at all.

Medraut worked at the next desk. The sheet of parchment on which she was currently writing was held in place by deerskin thongs on both sides. Her desk was the one closest to the hearth, which was handy to dry the ink more quickly. The desk had several round holes in its writing board for the oxhorns with ink of different colours. Each oxhorn had a cover to keep the ink from drying out untimely. Unlike most scribes who preferred the quill, the light-handed Medraut wrote with a fine brush – a method that made her handwriting a true piece of art.

Austell read the newly finished column very carefully. Twice. Medraut was an attentive copyist, but mistakes happened, even to the best. Sometimes the illuminator did not leave enough space for the picture caption, and it had to be crowded in somehow nonetheless, even impinging on the text – that would lessen the worth of a finished book, more so if it happened twice or more. Sometimes a copyist finished the assigned section in less space than it had been allowed, leaving blank sections in some columns. That, again, was a reason to lessen the price. Now and then words or entire lines had been skipped, especially when the copyist had worked long hours and grown too tired to focus.

Fortunately, all Austell had found this time was a small spelling error, and one easily corrected at that.

“Look here,” he pointed at the Quenya name next to a beautifully drawn picture of a snowdrop with the blunt end of the brush. “You wrote nieninqui here. This should be nieninquë. But that is not so bad. You can bind this dot with a loop to the letter and no-one will ever know that you have erred here.”

The young woman thanked him, smiled and did as she had been instructed. Austell let out a small sigh of relief. Lord Orchald was a generous customer, but he only accepted flawless work. Any serious mistake would have meant for Medraut to redo the entire column, and they were on a tight schedule here, with Yule only a week afar by now.

He walked over to the third desk, where his eighteen-year-old granddaughter was drawing the pictures of the herbs, lettering the captions in red and decorating the initials with meandering branches drawn with gold and silver ink. Austell smiled. It had been costly to apprentice Crowan to an artisan in Minas Tirith, but it had more than paid out. The girl had become a very good illuminator, and as the wealthy merchants and craftsmen had grown to value an ornately made book – if for naught else but for its worth in coin sometimes – the little copying manufacture had begun to bring in more money during last year. If things continued that way, Austell thought, he might need to look out for another copyist, as Medraut would not manage alone.

After Lord Orchald had paid for the herbology, he would be able to afford that. And he could begin to save some money for Crowan’s dowry as well. There were several promising young men in town: clerks, sons of wealthy merchants or craftsmen, who would be happy to marry such a nice girl with a trade on her own. Crowan was past eighteen; t’was time to start looking for a suitable husband.

After Yule, Austell decided, he would begin to ask around.

~The End – for now~


Note: The entire family of the book-seller died in the destruction of Halabor. Crowan was still unwed at that time.


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