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12
The King of the Fair

The events surrounding the King of the Fair are based on the old Celtic tradition of Lughnasadh. I tried to keep as close as possible while still adapting it to Middle-earth. Remember, in medieval times children got to see all sorts of things a child of our time would find terrible or disgusting, so they were probably a lot less sensitive in certain areas.

All-white cattle are a breed that can be found in Friesland (an area of the Netherlands); they are not a product of my imagination.

And yes, the fancy hat is similar to the one Herumor wears in the first chapter of “The Shoemaker’s Daughter”. *g*


~~~

CHAPTER 12 – THE KING OF THE FAIR

To his surprise, Boromir actually managed to catch up with Achren and the children ere they could have left the upper town.

“We have been waiting for Father,” little Morwen explained, giving Lord Húrin, who was wearing the usual rich, dark clothes of his House, a look full of pride and appreciation.

“I thought this would be a good chance to spend some time with my daughter,” declared the Warden of the Keys, who looked truly dashing in his richly embroidered surcoat and fancy hat, the one that had come in fashion in Dol Amroth recently. ‘Twas one of those rolled hats, wrapped with thin gold cord, that left a piece of fine cloth draped over his wearer’s right shoulder.

“Besides,” added Húrin with dignity, “’tis the sacred duty of a father to spoil his child every time and again.”

The children all merrily agreed with that, but Boromir had the sneaking suspicion that not fatherly duties alone moved Húrin to join their little group. His suspicions were strengthened when he saw that Achren, too, had found the time to put on her pretties garment and was now wearing a similar gown as Madenn’s had been, just in deep burgundy red and silver. She looked very lovely indeed; she would match – or even outdo – the finest ladies of the court in Minas Tirith.

She would make a good wife for Húrin, Boromir thought, watching with an understanding smile as his cousin offered his arm to the Lady Achren gallantly. She is pretty, well-bred and witty – she would bring joy to a house that has been grieving for too long.

As they were walking down to the Tower of Rollo, they could see wreaths, woven from wheat, decorating the doors of the houses, worn upon people’s heads and even on the stone sculptures standing on various places. Joyous singing could be heard on every corner, and there were minstrels, playing their harps and lutes before the houses of the wealthy, hoping to get a day’s work or two out of the feast.

“The Old Folk calls Mede – or Afterlithe(1), as it is named in other parts of the country – the hungry moon, as it is right before harvest time,” Achren explained to the children who were listening to her in wide-eyed astonishment. “Often in earlier times a famine was faces, as supplies from the previous year’s harvest were depleted by that time. That is why the Summer Fair is such a joyous event; ’tis the keenly anticipated first of the three harvests.”

Three harvests?” Morwen frowned. “How could there be three harvests? What are the other two?”

“We harvest the grain in Wedmath(2) and the fruits in Halimath(3),” replied Achren. “The third one is the meat at the end-of-season slaughter in Bloodmath(4), which bears its name for that very reason. And all three harvests are celebrated with fairs and feasts, races, gambling and all sorts of games.”

“I never heard of these customs before,” said Faramir, apparently distressed by such huge gaps in his knowledge.

“The Men of Westernesse never cared much for the work on the fields,” answered Achren a bit tartly. “They were more concerned about ships and battles and hunting. But the Old Folk is bound to the soil they cultivate, and their customs, too, are bound to their work. To the present day, my father visits the ripening crop fields outside the town at the beginning of every Wedmath, to call down the blessing of Nurria, the lady of the fields and pastures, upon the upcoming harvest. On the same day, a small amount of the new crop is gathered, whether it is fully ripe or not, and the first new loaf of the harvest is backed of it and blessed in every household.”

“But is it any good if the crop has not been ripened yet?” asked Faramir, practical as always. Achren laughed.

“It may not taste all too good in some years,” she admitted, “but custom must be followed nonetheless, so that the harvest would turn out rich; or so the elders say.”

Faramir shook his head in doubt, not entirely believing what he was being told. Boromir smiled. He knew that field-workers had their own beliefs and superstitions, just as soldiers had theirs, and if those customs gave the farmers the strength and courage to face another year filled with hard work – and often with bad luck – they were certainly entitled to those. Even the Lord Denethor, never a supporter of ancient, heathen beliefs, was wary of disturbing the customs of the field-workers. They were the ones who fed the realm; allowing them to follow some harmless old traditions was but a small price in exchange for their work.

“Why are people leading horses and cattle down to the river?” asked Princess Idis; she would have her eyes on the horses, of course, even though these were simple, heavily-built work-horses, not the magnificent steeds of her own people.

“After the King of the Fair is chosen and brought to his camp, the good beasts will be swum in the river, to bless and cleanse them,” explained Achren. “They say this would ensure that they remain strong and healthy for the rest of the season.”

“Can we watch them?” Idis’ blue eyes glowed in excitement.

“Later,” promised Achren. “We must see first that we get a good place at the Tower of Rollo; a place from where you can see well. It will not be easy – the entire town will be there, and even many people from the outside.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In the end, they got an excellent place, of course. How could it have happened otherwise, once the Tower Guard had recognized the daughter of their Lord? Two broad-shouldered, bearded guards, armed with halberds and wearing their best gambesons, escorted them to a small, wooden gallery that had been built for the Lord, his family and his guests, in case they wanted to match the merry spectacle.

Right now, only an old lady was sitting here, wearing al old-fashioned gown in very dark green, her elaborate headdress casting deep shadows upon her thin face. Her hair – what could be seen of it, that is – was pure silver, but her eyes were keen and deep and grey like a frosty winter morning, and her sharp features revealed that she must have been a stunning beauty in her youth. The resemblance to young Achren was so strong that it could only be her namesake, Forlong’s mother and the matron of his House.

Boromir was a little surprised that such an old and noble lady would willingly witness the somewhat unhewn merriment of the common folk. But old Lady Achren had most likely come in her son’s stead who was being too busy with his royal guests to participate. Someone had to represent the Lord’s House, and it was highly unlikely that the proud Lady Almaren could have been persuaded to do so.

“She looks every bit as formidable as my mother,” whispered Húrin, eyeing the old lady warily.

Boromir grinned. “If she scares you so much, perchance you should keep your hands from her granddaughter, cousin mine. She could turn out just like the old matron one day.”

Húrin looked from one woman to another and smiled placidly.

“I do not believe she could frighten me away,” he said. “Let us present ourselves properly, shall we?”

Boromir had no objections, and thus they all got presented to the so far unchallenged ruler of Forlong’s House. The old lady greeted them with what could be considered a friendly manner from such an elderly, bitter person. There was a speculative look in her frosty eyes as she seized up first Boromir, then Húrin.

“I feel like a slab of meat, displayed on the butcher’s counter,” murmured Boromir, as they took seats on the farthest possible spot of the small gallery. Húrin laughed quietly.

“Have a heart, cousin,” he replied. “I believe she has her eye on me, not on you. You are way too young to get dragged into wedded bliss just yet.”

“Sayeth the man who had his wedding on his eighteenth birthday,” Boromir riposted, but Húrin took no offence.

“I was in love,” he replied with a shrug; then he smiled down at his excited daughter who was sitting on the lower level of the gallery with Princess Idis and the three boys. “And I never regretted it. My little fairy was worth giving up my freedom at such a tender age.”

They laughed and watched the jesters and mummers and minstrels who entertained the gathering with rather… raunchy jokes, songs and performances like fire-breathing, cartwheels, juggling and the likes. Finally, a group of colourfully clad men came in procession, dragging with them an obviously reluctant goat – a fairly, large, white billy-goat with impressive, curved horns as thick as a grown man’s arm – onto the open space right before the Tower of Rollo. It was a splendid beast, with a jewelled collar around its thick neck, its beard braided with colourful ribbons, its horns gilded. A richly-embroidered velvet blanket covered its broad back, much the same way the warhorses of the noblest knights wore their caparisons, and it was crowned with a crown woven from wheat that miraculously remained between its great horns, regardless of its forceful protests against being made to such a spectacle.

Little Prince Elphir was thoroughly impressed by the noble beast. He turned around and looked at Achren in askance.

“What is that?” he asked. “Why are the men dragging the poor goat here?”

Achren smiled down at him fondly. “That is the King of the Fair, my Prince,” she answered.

Elphir was so flabbergasted that he forgot to close his mouth for a moment.

A goat?” he then asked, with the understandable bewilderment of someone who was royalty himself. “The King of the Fair is a goat?”

Achren smiled again; the boy was so lovable in his outrage.

“Once upon a time, people believed that the shedding of the blood of their King and his nobles would keep the fields fertile,” she explained. Hearing that, Elphir became very frightened.

“They slew their King and his noblemen?” he asked, wriggling closer to Faramir, who was, after all, almost an esquire already.

“Nay, of course not,” Achren laughed. “They chose a goat in the King’s stead. To mislead the evil wraiths, they treated the goat like a king – they dressed it up, perfumed it, decorated it with jewels and fed it with the best of grain left from the previous harvest – ere sacrificing it in the end.”

“Will this goat be slain, too?” Elphir calmed down a little, understanding that no-one was – or would be – truly sacrificed to the evil spirits.

“Oh, aye, it will,” said Achren. “My father will slay it on the last day of the fair. It will be roasted on the spit, with herbs and rare spices from the South, and everyone would get a little piece from the roast meat. That is why they chose the biggest, fattest goat every year.”

Elphir still seemed a bit disturbed, but the others found the idea of roast goat very appealing and begged to be allowed to go to the fair-closing feast as well. Lord Húrin, however, was not willing to make any promises just yet.

“We shall see,” he said evasively, not sure the ritual slaying of the goat would truly be for the children’s eyes, less so as they had not grown up on a farm to become accustomed to the butcher’s work. Well, Faramir was old enough to face it, and – knowing the customs of the Rohirrim – Princess Idis has probably seen worse, but that did not mean Morwen and Elphir needed to see it, too.

He glanced at Achren for help, and she nodded in understanding.

“We should move,” she said, “for the King of the Fair will now be led to its camp next to the training fields and paraded there during the entire fair. You want to see the cattle and the horses swim in the river, do you not?”

Of course they did, Princess Idis before all, and thus they followed the crowd down to the horse-market, where a splendid tent had been raised for the King of the Fair already. There the good beast could be adored and pampered and fed with grain and hay, so that it would grow even bigger and fatter for the day when it would end its regal role rather abruptly.

But the children had no ears or eyes for the ill-fated King any longer. For right after the goat had been housed in its royal tent, farmers from all around the town came in a long procession leading their cattle and work-horses to swim them in the river. The horses were bridled as prettily as their owners could afford, and they were broadly built, big-boned and heavy-limbed, radiating the strength of the fertile soil itself. A pair of them could certainly pull a four-wheeled cart with a full load, or drag the plough through the hardest of soil.

The cattle were all white, with only a few black hairs rimming their ears – a breed that was only to be found in Lossarnach in all Gondor – with short, blunt horns, and their large, thickly veined udders swollen with milk, almost to the bursting point. Even those who knew naught about farming could see what splendid, fertile beasts they were.

Slowly, carefully led the farmers their prized animals into the cleansing water of the Erui. The good beasts, used to the process from the previous years, went obediently, with only an occasional, low mooing, the brass bells hanging from their powerful necks resounding with their every step. And then they were in the water already, crossing the safe ford with sure feet, only their heads, crowned with flower garlands, rising from the waves.

A great cheer arose when they emerged on the other side again, where the common grazing grounds lay, and people burst into a merry song, praising Nurria, the lady of fields and pastures, firmly believing that no ill thing could happen to their livestock for the rest of the season. Offerings of bridles and butter were flung into the Erui, as signs of gratitude for the rich harvest of this year and as pleas for a similar one in the next.

“That was beautiful,” Princess Idis, as enamoured with horses and other good beasts as anyone in the Mark, declared happily. “I never thought the people of Gondor would know how to value good livestock. I thought they were all book-mad.”

“Well, some of us surely are,” replied Boromir, grinning at his brother who shrugged off his teasing with a smile. “But there are some still who know a good horse or splendid cattle when we see one.”

“As if you would know anything about horses or cattle!” Achren snorted. “You live in a city of stone. How often did you visit the lands of your family to look after them?”

“Alas, those more pleasant family affairs are cousin Húrin’s responsibility,” replied Boromir, losing his mirth all of a sudden. “I was bred and trained to kill things, not to grow them.”

“And thus you keep us safe, so that we can do the growing and the breeding,” said Húrin, laying a calming hand upon his forearm. “Never doubt our gratitude, cousin, for the safety you and your comrades buy for us for the cost of your blood. No-one can do more for one’s land and people.”

~~~

End notes:
As the peoples of Halabor and Lossarnach are two closely related branches of the Old Folk, I let them both use the Bree-calendar. The month-names are taken from the Appendices, obviously. They do not match exactly the months as we understand them, but for simplicity’s sake I assumed that they do.
(1) Mede or Afterlithe is July
(2) Wedmath is August
(3) Halimath is September
(4) Bloodmath or Bloting is November


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