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An Autumn Fair in Halabor
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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2
The Potter

For disclaimer, etc., see the Prologue.

Author’s note: More about medieval (actually, Saxon) pottery can be found on the Regia Anglorum website. The items displayed in Euney’s booth are similar to the 10th-11th century Winchester wares. I find them pretty.

Old Craban is a recurring character of my Halabor stories. The tale of his life is told in detail in “The Shoemaker’s Daughter”.


~~~

PART 01 – THE POTTER

Four days before the Autumn Fair, Euney, the Master Potter of Halabor, stood up very early. He had already made a good stock of cooking pots, jars, pitchers, bowls and other kitchen utensils for the fair to sell, but there was still more work for him to finish. Mistress Pharin had ordered half a dozen tall cooking pots, the same amount of squat cooking pots, half a dozen bowls and two dozen bowls, all decorated with the specific pattern Euney was known for in the entire neighbourhood. And while it was true that he did not need to finish them before the fair, he wanted to. He wanted to be free of work during the fair. To be able to sit in his booth peacefully, watch the activity all around him, have a word or two with fellow craftsmen or potential customers… and a keg of good ale, once or twice a day.

A short, wiry man just two years short of forty, Euney was currently the only potter in town. The only son of a landless serf, he had come to town to learn his craft from Old Craban, together with Rurio, another farm lad who had wanted to become a respected craftsman and whose sister he later married. From the two of them, Rurio had been foreseen to take over the pottery from Old Craban, as he had been married to their master’s daughter. But then Rurio had been slain in one of the countless raids, fourteen summers ago, and Old Craban had turned his back on his craft and become a fisherman, to everyone’s surprise.

Thus the pottery had gone to Euney, and he had brought his widowed mother to live with them and help Hedra with the children, only two of which had survived birth. Alas, both of them were girls, thus Euney could not hope to teach them his craft. There were simply no female potters in the Old Folk; ‘twas considered a craft for men, and rightly so, for preparing the clay was backbreaking work few women would have the strength to do.

For his part, Euney was glad that he had no longer the need to do it himself. To make clay good enough for a pot, the potter had to unearth a large amount of clay, steep it in water and then beat it with a large wooden spatula – or tread it with his bare feet – until it was well mixed. Then any large stones and gravel had to be removed from the clay, before carefully mixing sand, crushed shell, grass, or even crushed pottery from broken fired pots in with it to help bind it together. Afterwards, the clay needed to be kneaded like dough (the potters called this waging), to ensure that it was thoroughly mixed. All this required a great deal of strength, and Euney thanked the Old Gods each day for his journeyman who did all this for him.

Said gift of the Old Gods was Gothian, a spare, vigorous lad of twenty-seven summers. He was the second son of a tenant in the service of the Lord’s bailiff, from near Emerië Manor, and had half a dozen or so younger siblings. He could not hope for aught from home, thus he came to town to learn a craft that would feed him and his family, should he ever have one. He might not be the brightest, but he was a skilled, good-natured, hard-working young man, and everyone in Euney’s family liked him just fine, from old Mistress Melyar, the Master Potter’s widowed mother, to his six-year-old daughter, Nynia.

In fact, they all liked him so much that Euney and Hedra were seriously considering marrying off their older chick to him. Innsa had just turned thirteen, so they might need to wait another year or so, ere she would be ripe for married life. But she was lettered and numbered – not having a son of his own, Euney had seen to it that his daughter got all the skills she might need later – and quick-witted, too. She would be more than capable to run the potter business in her husband’s name. The craft would remain in the family, and people would have no reason to waggle their tongues about a girl doing a man’s work. It was a good match.

Just like her husband, Mistress Hedra was an early riser. When Euney came to the kitchen, she was already busy making porridge and drawing a cup of weak ale for him. Gothian was already sitting at the kitchen table, eating with the vigour of a man coming from a large family where food had not been abundant. Seeing his master, he stopped for a moment, swallowed, and wiped his mouth with the back of a large, sinewy hand as a sign of respect before speaking.

“I have seen to the clay, Master Euney,” he said. “I do believe it to be a tad too dry. But you might want to see it for yourself.”

Euney nodded. “’Tis still better than having it too wet,” he replied around his own mouthful of porridge. “We can always add some water to make it pliant enough.”

That would mean the necessity of Gothian waging it again, but the young man was used to that and did not mind doing it. He was young and strong and loved his craft.

Thus Euney went to the clay-grub after having broken his fast and agreed with Gothian’s judgement. They added some more water to the clay, Gothian waged it again, and then they made half a dozen balls of the right size and consistency for the tall cooking pots they were to make first, as those needed the longest time to dry before being fired. Then they took the clay balls to the workshop.

Like in all craftsmen’s houses, the potter’s workshop took in the entire ground floor of the house. The front room was the actual shop, with a large, shuttered window; when open, the upper shutters served as an awning, the lower ones as a display counter for the finished wares. Through the window, the craftsmen could be seen working by their potential customers.

Close to the shop window stood the most important tools of the potter: the wheels. The small, turn-table wheels, also called slow-wheels, were used to throw small items, like soup bowls or drinking cups. ‘Twas the large fast-wheels (or kick-wheels) that Euney and his journeyman were about to use now, for the shaping of the large cooking pots. He had two of these in the workshop. One of them was a common cartwheel, mounted horizontally on a pivot, the wheel being rotated by hand, while the pot itself was thrown upon a small platform fixed to the nave of the wheel. The other one consisted of a lower wheel turned with the foot and an upper wheel head for throwing he pot, the two wheels being connected by a series of struts.

Most potters – including Euney himself – preferred the first kind, as it made possible for them to work out small details carefully. But if someone was sharp-eyed and sure-handed like Gothian, the second type had many advantages. First of them being that it worked a lot faster. Euney gladly let his journeyman work with the tricky new tool – it had been invented somewhere in the North and brought to town by some merchant of Dale, a few years earlier – and stuck to that which he knew best.

Making large cooking pots was one of the easiest tasks. One only needed a steady hand and a good eye, and they were formed within a short time. They then were left to dry gently, ‘til they dried to what was called a ‘leather’ hardness, in which state the handles – made by rolling out, pulling and twisting a piece of clay – were added by smoothing onto the outside of the pot. At this stage the bottom of the pot was trimmed with a knife to give it the shape known as a saggy bottom.

“Why does father do that?” asked little Nynia from her big sister, who had come to finish the pots before the firing – glazing and similar tasks were her responsibility. And she was to show Nynia, too, how it was done.

“A saggy bottom is better for cooking,” Innsa, a good little housekeeper at the age of thirteen already, explained to her baby sister. “You see, the cooking fire is not always of the same strength; differences in the heat could easily crack a pot with a flat bottom. And if that happened often, people would say that father makes bad pots and would buy them elsewhere.”

While she spoke, Gothian was working over the pots with wet hands to bring the finest clay particles to the surface, giving it a smooth finish. He also burnished the inside of the pot with a smooth bone, to smear the clay particles over each other and thus produce a more water-tight vessel. In the meantime, Innsa had stirred the liquid glaze – a greenish-yellow colour with some copper to add speckles of red-brown to it – which she now began to apply to the leather hard pot with a broad brush. As these were simple cooking pots, there was no need for more decoration, and they were left to dry again, before being fired to make them hard.

Content with one morning’s work, Euney went out to the back yard to check on his kiln. ‘Twas usual for the simple folk that a village potter would dig his kiln himself, as well as he could – and some of them could do a really good job of it, after enough experience. However, Halabor was fortunate to have its own oven-builder in the person of Uthno, the Master Smith’s son-in-law, who worked for the smiths as well as fore the potters, the bakers, the glass-workers and just about any-one who might require his services.

Thus the kiln of Euney was a masterpiece. A very elaborate oven, with a raised central floor, on which more pots were stacked, allowing thus the hot air to circulate around the pots better. It had served him for four years already, and he could hope that it would last for just as many more before he would need a new one made.

While the Master Potter was building the fire in the shallow pit in front of the small flue opening of the kiln, Gothian began to load the kiln itself, loading the pots from the previous day, upside-down, as tightly as possible, even putting smaller ones inside the bigger ones. When finished, he sealed the kiln with wet clay, leaving just the opening between it and the fire-pit.

Euney kept adding fuel slowly all morning, ‘til the heat was great enough to fire the pots. This he could decide by gauging the degree of glow the items being fired showed. ‘Twas a delicate matter that needed a great deal of experience. One mistake could ruin the entire stock.

“That is enough now,” the Master Potter judged, about an hour after midday. “We can let the kiln cool down.”

That usually took a whole day or more, but he did not truly mind. He had more than enough time to finish Mistress Pharin’s order and be still free for the fair. Unless, of course, too many items from the stack currently being fired would crack, due to a flawed mix of clay and sand or shell… but he did not really expect that. Gothian knew his trade too well already to make such mistakes.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
His trust in his journeyman’s skills proved justified during the following days, when stack after stack of hard, well-fired wares came out of the kiln. The best pieces, the ones he intended to bring to the fair, had a glaze that varied in colour, from yellowish red to green or a dark olive green mottled with gold. Those were also richly decorated items, with applied notched strips, applied strips with circle and cross stamps, incised triangular zones, stamps and rouletting.

He had prepared spouted pitchers of various sizes, cups, bowls, globular bottles that imitated leather originals, small pots and sprinklers, handled jars, tall, narrow jugs and tripod pitches. Usually, he did not offer such a wide variety, but during the annual fairs people from all Anórien and even from other provinces came to Halabor, and as a rule, he made enough coin to go on for moons, for the traditional patterns handed down to him by Old Craban were much sought after.

Due to his well-respected status, he got one of the best places, near Rollo’s Gate. He could have stayed in his own workshop, of course. There was no need to bring his wares outside the town walls. The customers usually strolled through the entire town, visiting the craftsmen’s houses in order to watch them during work, and then choose from the finished wares. But Euney enjoyed the industrious buzzing of the fair greatly. He loved to watch the booths of the foreign merchants, the coming and going, the noise of bargaining, the smell of roasting meat and the scent of spices; the vivid colours and the laughter. Even if there always was a slight risk that some blundering idiot might ruin his somewhat delicate wares. But that was what watchmen were there for, including his own journeyman.

He had spent the whole morning of the first day of the fair in his booth, without a chance to get over to the alewife’s tent for a well-earned drink. He had made a decent amount of coin, selling smaller pitchers and bowls mostly. That was to be expected. People, even those from the farmsteads scattered around Halabor, usually came to his workshop and ordered the exact number of larger cooking pots and storage jars in advance.

Thus it was already beyond midday when he finally managed to get away for a meat-filled pastry or two at the pastry-cooks’ tent and for a tankard of good ale. He felt content. For the beginning of the fair, the day was not half bad already. Touching his belt pouch to reassure himself that the coin was safely tucked away, he strolled back to his own booth leisurely… and all but froze, still a few steps away.

Right before his booth, critically eyeing the items upon the display counter, an Elf was standing. It could be naught else but an Elf – a male one, Euney decided after a second sight. He was tall, though not overly so – certainly not any taller than the average Dúnadan overlord – lithe and long-limbed and fair of face, yet not the least feminine. His rich, auburn hair was braided away from his lightly tanned face, revealing leaf-shaped, elegantly pointed ears; his eyes were slightly slanted, very bright and greenish-brown, like ripe, polished chestnuts. He wore the usual green and brown garb of the woodland folk, but also a healer’s scrip slung over his shoulder.

As if feeling the eyes upon himself, the Elf turned around and apparently recognized Euney as the owner of the potter’ booth. Not that that would have required arcane Elven wisdom. After so many years in his trade, Euney’s hands had taken on the colour of the clay that was now layered under his fingernails and the wrinkles of his fingers, irremovable by any amount of washing.

“Master Potter,” said the Elf pleasantly, “’tis good that I have found you. As you may guess, I m a healer, and I happen to be in need of small clay pots in which I could stir medicine over a small flame. The herb-mistress of your Infirmary told me that you might be able to provide them.”

“That is right,” answered Euney, recovering from his mild shock. “I make those for old Mistress Crodergh all the time. Do come in, Master Elf, and see what I have to offer.”

The Elf, whose name was Tinthellon, as he readily revealed, accepted the invitation. The next hour was spent with the careful surveying of the various small pots and bowls that Euney had in reserve. As they often got dropped or suffered other accidents, he always made sure he had a good stock, and now this came handy indeed. Besides, they did not take up much space.

Finally, the Elf selected two dozen of them, in four different sizes – half a dozen each – and Euney sent his older chick running home for a light box made of tree-bark, in which they could be transported safely, if wrapped in old rags. The Elf seemed eminently satisfied with his acquirements.

“’Tis a delight to make business with you, Master Potter,” he declared. “Now, if you only had somewhat smaller bottles for tinctures! These here, well-made and pleasing for the eye as they may be, are a bit too big and heavy for my purposes.”

“You should try your luck with the glass-blowers,” suggested Euney. “They make all sorts of flasks, in various shapes, sizes and colours.”

“Do they now?” asked the Elf in pleasant surprise. “Can you, perchance, tell me where to look for their booth?”

“They do not bring their wares outside the walls,” said Euney, “as the risk for such delicate items would be even greater than it is for my pots. But you can easily find their workshop in the Street of the Gardens. ‘Tis not far from here; you cannot miss it.”

“I hope not,” replied the Elf with a smile. “My thanks to you, Master Potter, for your generous help. Now, what do I owe you for your excellent dishes?”

Euney named a price slightly above his usual fare, expecting to have it haggled down to the average height. To his surprise, however, the Elf paid it to the last copper piece, without as much as a word of protest. At first, this made the potter a bit uncomfortable, but then he shrugged off his guilty feelings. The Elf obviously thought that his wares were worth the higher price, so who was he to protest?

Besides, it was the Autumn Fair, and the Elves had not visited it for a very long time. So, if they were a bit faster to loosen the strings of their purse, once in a hundred or so years, the craftsmen of Halabor, might as well make use of their willingness.

Euney carefully pocketed the coin and sat down in his comfortable armchair behind the display counter with a broad grin. He had just made business with an Elf – and what was more, he cut into the Elven purse nicely. Oh, this was a tale to be told in their family for generations!

He could hear Innsa giggle with her friend, the water-carrier’s daughter. He could not blame the girl. She had just seen an Elf, talked to him… she will nurture this unique memory for long, hard, work-filled years to come.

Mayhap the return of Elves was the sign of better years coming to Halabor. Euney certainly hoped so. But even if not, it was a bright flame of hope in these darkening days.

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