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An Autumn Fair in Halabor
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The Vellum-Maker

For disclaimer, etc., see the Prologue.

Author’s note: Silvariel of Arnor is a hypothetical poetess created by Dwimordene and used with her generous consent. Gildor’s Librarian, Vorondis, is an hommage to the similarly-named author, a writer of excellent stories who has, sadly, ceased writing for the Ardaverse for quite some time. The character appeared in "Seaside Conversations 2".



Orgof, the senior minstrel of the Wandering Elves, left the book-seller’s shop in deep satisfaction. He had been looking for a copy of the poems of Silvariel of Arnor for at least two hundred years by now, and had almost given up hope that he would ever find one. Even less had he expected to find the poems of a highly gifted yet little-known Arnorian poetess in such a small town of Gondor. Sometimes strange things could happen indeed.

‘Twas a very fair copy, too: small and handy, in belt-book format, written in fine Tengwar and bound in soft, gilded leather. Perfect for a wandering minstrel to carry with him. Orgof was an ancient Elf who found artistic pleasure in the underlying melancholy of Silvariel’s poems, and was now glad that he could read them whenever he felt like it.

However, he judged that Lord Gildor’s library in Edhellond could do with a copy as well. Mistress Vorondis would no doubt appreciate such a rare addition. Of course, Orgof could have left the work to the scribes of the library, but from time to time, he felt like copying a short book himself. Partly to exercise his calligraphy skills and partly if he liked the book in question for some reason.

This was definitely one of those cases, and that meant he would need vellum on which to write. Fortunately for him, Halabor had its own vellum-maker… and a very good one at that. He was the younger brother of the wool-merchant, the elderly book-seller had explained; the two brothers had inherited the business from their father and divided the tasks between them. Eudo, the older, saw to the flocks and the sales and fetched the wool-clips from the local farmers, for whom his father had already dealt for. Jehan, the younger, had learned the vellum-making from his maternal grandfather and had managed that side of the business, even in their father’s days.

Master Austol had also explained where the vellum-maker’s workshop could be found, as the man usually was there in the early hours of the day: well beyond the last houses of the New Port, alone near the bank of the Great River at the foot of a steep little meadow. Leaving the shallows of the harbour behind, the land here rose slightly, and the water ran deep and strong, even in summer, with a rapid and a forceful current.

Many an over-loaded merchant barge had gotten in trouble at that point of the River, had they accidentally steered too close to the river bank, but for the making of vellum, it was the perfect spot. The craft required an unfailing supply of water – and not just that, but running water – for the first couple of days of the process. Here the Anduin ran rapidly, thus providing the best anchorage for the open frames, covered with netting, in which the raw sheepskins were fastened, allowing the water to flow freely down the whole length of them, for several days, without interruption.

When they were ready, they were brought to the workshop and laid into tubs with a solution of lime and water. There they would rest for two weeks, after which the vellum-maker scraped them clean of all remaining hair. Afterwards, they continued the long bleaching for another two weeks, finally producing thin, white membranes, of which Jehan son of Warin was famed well beyond the borders of Halabor. His vellums were sought after in the entire Anórien, and he even got orders from Minas Tirith itself.

Orgof turned up his sensitive Elven nose as he went by the netted cages in the River. The faint drift of fleshy odour made his stomach turn; fortunately, the current was fast enough to disperse any stronger stench, and besides, the sharp smell of the lime tanks would have overlayered everything else.

The shutters of the workshop stood open, letting the light fall straight onto the large table, where the vellum-maker would clean, scrape and pumice his skins. Along the back wall stood the tanks of lime: one for the first soaking when the skins were brought back from the River, one for the second, after both sides of the skins had been scraped clean of hair and all traces of flesh. The final rinsing was done in the river again, ere the membranes would be stretched over a frame and dried in the sun.

When Orgof reached the workshop, the vellum-maker was just coming in, with the frames in use on this day. The skins stretched over them seemed very smooth and had a creamy white colour. They were still not finished, though. It would require repeated and arduous cleaning with pumice and water before they would be ready for folding, trimming and cutting. Vellum-making was not an easy trade, no matter what people might think – and it was hard on the lungs, too.

The man carrying the wooden frames looked up in surprise when he spotted the Elf standing before his workshop. People rarely came here; the sharp smells alone would be enough to keep out everyone who had no urgent business to do with him.

“Can I help you, sir?” he asked, a bit awkwardly.

“If you are Jehan the vellum-maker, then yea, you can,” replied Orgof, giving the man who would do such unpleasant yet much-needed work a curious glance.

“In that case you are fortunate,” said the man, “for I am indeed the one you seem to be looking for. How can I be of service?”

He was a tall man for one of the Old Folk, narrow-shouldered and flat-chested, with a long, clean-shaven, scholarly face. There was nothing remarkable about him if not the small, dark eyes that showed a sharp wit and eager intelligence. This young man – for he could be barely older than thirty – was certainly no fool.

He looked over his visitor with interest; then his eyes brightened. He sat down his frames carefully and bowed.

Elen síla lúmenn omentielvo,” he said slowly, with slight hesitation – and a thick accent. Yet it was still spoken in Quenya, and that was the last thing Orgof would have expected from a simple craftsman in such an insignificant little town.

Seeing his surprise, the vellum-maker gave him a small, almost embarrassed smile.

“I have not been taught aught but my craft as a boy,” he said, “but through my craft, I have been noticed by lettered men who bought from me: clerks and the scholars of our overlords, who have some learning. They saw my interest and were willing to teach me sometimes. But I am far from being fluent in the Grey Tongue and only know a few words in Quenya.”

He gestured to Orgof to enter the workshop while speaking, and the Elf followed the invitation, looking around with great interest. In all his long years, he had never been in such a workshop, as vellum-making required a settled life, and the Wandering Elves practically lived on the road. True, they did spend the winters in Mithlond, Rivendell, Lórien or Edhellond, but there always had been other things to do, other people to visit, other sights to see. To experience something new was actually pleasing for someone as old as Orgof was.

The workshop of the vellum-maker was kept in meticulous order. ‘Twas a good thing, considering how many items were stored there: tools needed for working with the skins, lime tanks, nets for the river cages, piles of sheepskins waiting to be brought down to the River, drying frames, whole racks of knives of different sizes and shapes, pumice, cloths for rubbing, and so on. There was also a little oil lamp, in case the vellum-maker needed to finish something after nightfall, and a tinderbox for kindling it. At the far end of the room, behind the lime tanks, stood a long shelf, piled with skins still at various stages of manufacturing.

“You have a difficult trade,” said Orgof, taking in everything in sight. The vellum-maker shrugged.

“It feeds me… even if my lungs do protest sometimes. But pray tell me, Master Elf, what would you wish of me? ‘Tis rare that a customer would make all the way from town to find me.”

“I have purchased a very rare book at Master Austell’s shop and would like to copy it for my Lord’s library,” explained Orgof. “Thus I need little, narrow, sixteen-leaf folding; the sort the scribes use for small grammars or schooling texts. Could you provide them?”

“Oh, certainly, I have them aplenty,” replied the vellum-maker, happy to make business with Elves, who – as local gossip had already reported – did not have the custom to haggle. “Alas, I fear that you have made the long way from the Marketplace in vain. The finished leaves are all in my shop, in my brother’s house. But I shall gladly go back with you and show you everything I have to offer, if you do not mind the walk.”

“Not at all,” replied the Elf with a grin. “We are the Wandering Company, after all. As I am sure you have already heard, we live on the road.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The house of Eudo, the wool-merchant, like almost all of the wealthier homes, had been built in typical Halabor fashion: with a ground floor of stone and a storey of oak beams above. ‘Twas L-shaped, too, the short wing directly on the Street of the Port, and pierced by an arched doorway that led to the yard and garden behind. The street front, where the shop of the vellum-maker was situated, had no upper storey, and it was just large enough for him to store and sell here his finished leaves and gatherings of vellum, as well as the cured skins from which they were folded and cut to order.

The upright wing of the house turned its gable end to the street. It was but a low undercroft, with the living floor above, and a loft in the steep roof that provided additional sleeping quarters. The whole house was not large, all available space had to be used at its best, for not only had the wool-merchant three children of his own, he also housed his widowed mother, his unwed brother (the vellum-maker himself), their elderly clerk, and even the shepherd that worked with his flock, had the man come to town for some reason.

The small shop was kept in the same immaculate order as the workshop. The uncut skins were draped over racks, the trimmed leaves ranged on shelves that matched their various sizes, and the knives with which the vellum-maker cut and trimmed them were laid out in neat alignment in their tray, ready to their master’s hand. The shutters of the small shop were open to the street letting in the warm autumn sun, and the spicy smell of finished leather filled it.

In the absence of the shop owner, his mother resided here, keeping an eye on everything, while stitching together the torn britches of one of her grandchildren. She had the same lean, somewhat elongated appearance as her son, and was clad in a modest, yet well-made homespun gown, her crisp white wimple shadowing her long, unhappy face. But her small, deep-set dark eyes, so much like those of her son’s, were glittering with curiosity, saw everything, and her active mind always made notice of all that she had seen – for future use.

Yet not even Mistress Jehane’s eyes had seen an Elf before, and thus she was rendered completely speechless upon the appearance of Orgof – an occasion, as her son later mentioned in the wine-crier’s tavern with a forgiving smile, was every bit as rare as the coming of Elves to Halabor. All she could do was to gape like a fish when Orgof greeted her courteously and followed her son to the solid table in the middle of the shop, where Jehan usually folded his skins.

“Wait just a moment, Master Elf,” said the vellum-maker, “and I shall show you just the piece you might be looking for.”

He took one of the uncut skins from the rack and spread it carefully over the table, smoothing it out with a sweep of his long hand. The membrane had just the right size to be folded to the small sixteen-leaf format for the poetry book the minstrel intended to copy. It also had that creamy white colour that spoke of best quality and made Jehan’s work so valued, even in the lordly households.

“This is the size you will need,” he said.

Orgof ran his hand over the vellum to check its quality and nodded. ‘Twas very good indeed.

“I need two of them,” he said, “folded and trimmed and cut, so that all I will have to do would be to get it bound. Can you ready them for me ‘til the end of the fair? We shall leave town the day after.”

“Certainly,” answered Jehan. “I can do it for the day after tomorrow, if that pleases you, sir.”

“It does indeed,” grinned the Elf. “And if you come by when we perform on the last day of the fair, you shall have a free wish by me. I am the eldest minstrel of the Company, and there is barely a song or ballad ever composed by Elves that I could not sing for you off the top of my head.”

That pleased the vellum-maker so much that he named a price for his leaves that was not very much above what he usually got for such size and quality. Being lettered, he needed no help from their clerk to make an entry about order and payment in the books, and when Orgof left, there was a gleam in his eyes that had not been there before.

“You could have demanded more,” his mother commented, recovering from her awe and turning to the practical side of things, as always. “The Elf would have paid it.”

“Mayhap he would,” said Jehan slowly. “Yet he offered me more. I can always get a good price for my work. But having an Elven minstrel sing only for me happens once in a lifetime – if someone is very fortunate.”

~The End~


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