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The Last Yule in Halabor
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Day 22 - The Bakers

For disclaimer and further details see Part 1.

Rating: General, for this part.

Author’s note: Mistress Eseld has been inspired by an old nun I used to know. She was the baker of the convent and never asked for anything – save the occasional bottle of beer. Mother Superior agreed that she had richly deserved it. *g*

So, this is to Sister Hedwiga – may she rest in peace!


Day Twenty-Two – The Bakers

As most small towns or villages in Anórien, Halabor, too, had its own mill. Well, to be more accurate, the mill, like countless other things in town or around it, actually belonged to Lord Orchald. It was rented and operated by Heryg, the old miller, as it had been by his late father before him, and as it would most likely be by his son after him.

The mill itself – situated near the bank of the Great River, right beyond the herb gardens of the Infirmary and the common baths – was rather small, with a simple horizontal side shot mill wheel. That meant that the water ran down the millrace through a sluice gate, striking the wheel on one side. The sluice gate regulated the amount of water that would strike the wheel, to prevent the millstones from spinning too fast and vibrating too much. It demanded an experienced eye to judge the sluice gate properly, thus it was usually the old miller who watched over it.

Not at this time, though. Right now, the sluice gate was closed and the mill wheel still, covered with a thick layer of ice, and icicles of the size of a man’s forearm hanging from its blades. Fortunately, they had ground enough grain into flour that it would last for the townspeople for weeks, ere the outer edge of the river had frozen over. But various members of the miller’s family had been already hand-grinding grain for several days. One did not want to run out of reserves, and the winter promised to be a particularly long and harsh one.

Other members of the family were gathered in the back room of Mistress Eseld’s bakery, where the large oven stood, for the making of “honeymen”, the man-shaped honey cakes, had come into its final spurt, and every single hand that could hep was needed. The dough for the honey cakes had been kneaded in the previous evening already, rested through the whole night in an unheated storeroom, and was now being rolled out on the large, tin-covered tables, half an inch thick.

Howel, the young baker, and the two pastry-cooks, Ulogen and Wethinoc, were busily cutting the figures of the “honeymen” with small, sharp knives, while their wives and children were painting the figures with egg yolk, so that they would get a nice, golden-brown colour in the oven, and decorated them richly with almonds, nuts, raisins, lumps of sugar or pieces of dried fruits. Finally, they drilled a hole into every piece of cake, where later sprigs of evergreen would be put: holly or pine, symbolizing life and rebirth after the longest night of the year.

Mistress Eseld overlooked the frantic activity like a queen bee would rule over her hive. She had done her part of the work in the previous evening. She alone knew the exact number of ingredients and the right dosage of spices for the secret family recipe, thus she had to weigh and stir all evening, ere the men could knead the dough. Now she was sitting in a comfortable chair at the front door, nursing a mug of dark ale leisurely. She was very fond of Gennys’ ale and saw no reason to refuse herself such small pleasure.

“I have been working in a hot bakery since I was tall enough to reach the tabletop,” she often said. “I still stand up before sunrise each day and labour ‘til sunset. I deserve my daily mug of ale, so be quiet and leave me alone!”

There was certainly much truth in that, but even if there were none, no-one would have dared to protest. Eseld was the mistress of the house who had all the keys firmly on her belt and all family recipes in her memory. Without her, they could not have run the family business. Not even her son knew every secret of their trade, although she gradually introduced him to those. She knew all too well what a power her knowledge meant and was not willing to share everything just yet.

Thus she could afford to sit and rest a bit while the younger family members were doing the more mundane tasks. Someone had to welcome the customers, after all.

Today, she was sitting and talking with none less than Mistress Gilmith, the chatelaine of the Castle, who had come, accompanied by Eseld’s own daughter, Breaca, to collect the “honeymen” ordered for Lord Orchald’s Yule feast. Breaca, married to one of the Castle Guards and the mother of three children herself, was mingling with her family happily, while the two matrons discussed the important things in private.

Though she personally preferred ale, Mistress Eseld knew how to wait on a ranking customer. Thus a bottle of fine juniper spirit was quickly fetched by her little grandson, Ythel, and Mistress Gilmith raised an impressed eyebrow after sampling the excellent taste.

“My great-grandmother’s recipe,” declared Mistress Eseld without false modesty. “I brew it myself each year. Should I send a bottle to the Castle as part of our Yule gift for Lord Orchald?”

“He would appreciate it,” said Mistress Gilmith. “Our Lord knows a fine drop when he tries it, and with all the important guests this year…”

“Aye, rumour is he has invited all the noble families within a day of ride’s reach,” said Mistress Eseld innocently, but her small, button-like dark eyes were shining with curiosity.

“Not all of them,” corrected Mistress Gilmith, with that special gleam in her grey eyes that could only be seen by older women when sharing the latest gossip. “Only those with daughters of suitable age to become the next Lady of Halabor.”

“Oh, my!” Mistress Eseld digested that bit of news for a moment. “So things are turning grave for young Lord Herumor.”

“’Tis about time,” judged the Lord’s chatelaine sternly. “His lord father allowed him free dalliance for more than ten years – he had time enough to find a suitable wife. As he did not, ‘tis Lord Orchald’s right to choose for him. He is an only son; if he does not make his move soon, his House will end with him.”

“Thy say he has lost his heart elsewhere,” said Mistress Eseld carefully.

Mistress Gilmith shrugged. As much as she respected the town’s only healer, she was a Dúnadan and could not approve of her Lord’s heir’s dalliance with a woman of common stock and of lesser blood.

“They both knew it could not last. Master Herumor needs a wife of his own status, which Angharad is not.”

“True enough,” nodded Mistress Eseld. She felt a bit sorry for the healer, but they all knew the rules. “Who are the candidates, then?”

“Well,” said Mistress Gilmith thoughtfully, “that is quite the list. Lord Malanthur has two daughters of an age that is still fairly young for ladies of Dúnadan descent. Lord Azrubêl’s daughter is only seventeen, but he seems very eager to marry her off. Lord Ulmondil’s two daughters are not much older, either, and Lord Felanath’s twins are only sixteen…”

“What about the bailiff’s daughter?” asked Eseld.

“She is a sweet one,” the chatelaine agreed, “and quick-witted, too. I would not mind her becoming the lady of the Castle, and neither would our lord, it deems. But the choice is Master Herumor’s. His father is willing to grant him that much.”

“Still, he does have to make that choice, soon, does he not?” asked Eseld. The chatelaine nodded.

“During this very Yule festival, or so I heard. Lord Orchald wants to announce his son’s betrothal on the day after Yule.”

“And I heard that Angharad intends to marry that dim-witted lad from the Infirmary,” said Eseld.

“Meurig?” Mistress Gilmith pondered over that for a moment. “Well, she could do worse. The lad might not be too bright, but he is comely enough and had a good heart. And ‘tis not so that she would need a wealthy husband desperately. The late Pharin left her enough to last for a lifetime – and she sold the Drunken Boat well enough. She can afford to choose a man whom she actually likes.”

“Meurig is very likeable,” agreed Eseld, “and little Edwy is a sweet boy. They will get along well enough – which is more than quite a few women can hope for.”

“That is very true, alas,” said Mistress Gilmith. “Well, I must go now. I assume you have our ‘honeymen’ packed already?”

Eseld nodded and gestured towards the adjoining storeroom where several wooden caskets stood stapled upon each other.

“There they are. Do you need help getting them to the Castle?”

“Nay, but I do thank you anyhow. Einar is waiting outside. We have to acquire a few more things for the feast, so I thought it would be best to take the cart. Besides, the cold is good against a hangover,” she added with a grin. “He finally managed to beat his brother in that game they had been playing for days, and the celebration last night seems to have been a bit… extensive.”

Both women laughed, knowing all too well what the drink-feasts of the Rohirrim could become on such occasions. Mistress Gilmith then paid for the acquired goods, and the baker’s grandchildren earned a copper piece each for helping to carry the caskets to the cart and storing them safely. That made them very happy and bouncy – so bouncy, indeed, that they got under foot and ruined several “honeymen” in their excitement. Mistress Eseld judged the time ripe for an interference.

“Now, now, my little ones,” she said, leaving her comfortable chair with a bit of regret. “There is no need to ruin all of our honest work. But you know what? Let us go to the cold kitchen. We still have to make those candy apples for the feast.”

The children followed her excitedly, and the rest of the afternoon was spent with rubbing the apples clean and shiny, putting them on long sticks and covering them with bright red sugar syrup. ‘Twas a sticky and funny task, performed with much laughter and singing, and even though some of the sugar syrup got into the children’s hair and all over their clothes, everyone was very content with the results.

~The End – for now~


Note: Howel, the young baker, his wife Unna and their little son, Ythel, survived the destruction of Halabor. Everyone else from the family died. To Mistress Gilmith’s fate see “Day 24 – The Lord of Halabor”.


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