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An Autumn Fair in Halabor
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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5
The Wool Merchant

For disclaimer, etc., see the Prologue.

Author’s note: This is the continuation – sort of – of the previous part, as the characters belong to the same family. Mogh the Dunlending first appeared in “The Shoemaker’s Daughter”. Pensyow and Stennack are imaginary settlements in Lebennin (not conceived by the Professor).


~~~

PART 04 – THE WOOL MERCHANT

Eudo, the wool-merchant of Halabor, son of the late Warin (who had owned the business before him) and the very much alive and active Mistress Jehane, had barely managed to get back to town before the beginning of the Autumn Fair. He was not in a particularly good mood, either. While he had collected two new clients in the nearly two weeks of his most recent travels, with good clips to sell, he had to realize that some aggressive wool-merchants from Lebennin had invaded his usual territory in his absence; and, being the middle-men of great clothiers’ houses from the cloth country itself, they could afford to pay a higher price.

Eudo did not blame the small sheep breeders for turning to those who could pay them more. They were hard-working, poor husbandmen, after all, mostly with large families to feed. Honest and loyal they might be, but they had to look for the best way to fill the bellies of their children. However, all understanding in the world would not change the fact that Eudo could not offer them the same price, and as a result, his meticulously-spun net that had been spread over a quarter of Anórien was about to be destroyed.

That would mean the ruin of their entire family. If he lost his steady clients, he could as well give up his trade entirely. Many merchants were struggling to expand their influence in this most northern of all Gondorian provinces, and new clients were near impossible to find. Even less so in these darkening times, when raids from Orcs, Easterlings and Hill-men were getting more and more frequent and small farmsteads were burned to the ground left and right. The Lord’s bailiff and his men did what they could, but they could not be everywhere; and the Wardens barely managed to keep the town itself safe.

For the first time in his life, Eudo was seriously worried about their future. He had responsibilities, after all. He had three young children to feed; and his daughter Elava had just been betrothed. She would need a dowry in a year or so. She was sixteen; ‘twas a fairly common age for the daughters of the Old Folk to start thinking about having their own family, but if her father could not give her a dowry, it could happen that the old clothes merchant, whose son she was about to marry, would change his mind. Within the Merchants’ Guild, marriages were an accepted and honourable way to increase one’s wealth; if Eudo lost his business, his daughter might never get married.

And what about his sons? True, they were still but young boys, nine and seven years old, but they would need a living eventually. ‘Twas fortunate that little Euan had showed some interest for his uncle’s business, and Jehan had promised to make him an apprentice as soon as he had grown enough to handle the tools, but the vellum-making could not feed the entire family. And there was still the older boy to consider. Febal had always been expected to continue his father’s trade – yet it seemed now that there might not be a trade to begin with, soon.

Eudo was in his late thirties, six years older than his scholarly brother, and in every possible way Jehan’s opposite, as he came after their late father. Half a head shorter he was, broad in the shoulder and thick in bone, barrel-chested and round-faced, with thorny russet hair and a short-trimmed beard. Thanks to spending a great deal of his time outdoors, he was in the best of health and spirits, his good humour seldom shaken, even by unexpected events – yet the potential ruin of his trade that had been done in the family for generations had frightened him badly.

“I truly know not what to do, my dove,” he said to his wife gloomily. “There is no way I can outbet these men from Lebennin; and if I lose my clients, what can I possibly do? There is simply no other market for wool clips; at least no-one that would not be covered already.”

Manissa brought him a mug of good, strong dark ale and sat down beside him at the kitchen table, considering without distress all that might be needful – or possible – to do. She was a neat, brown-haired, rotund woman, only three years his junior, used to hard work and even harder decisions. She had to run the whole household in his absence (a rather frequent occurrence), often in spite of the interventions of old Mistress Jehane who did not give up control easily; she was not one quick to panic. Her competent housekeeping reflected upon her strength of will and brightness; Eudo leaned on her a lot in household matters and valued her opinion highly.

“Is there truly no other way to get good wool clips?” she asked in a manner that hinted that she would have a suggestion but wanted him to come upon it himself.

“Not unless I would venture directly to Dunland,” replied Eudo with a sigh. “And I cannot believe you would ask me to do that.”

“Of course not,” agreed his wife. “But right now, the Dunlendings are here, in town. And there is also someone in town who could ease your way to them.”

“You mean the Warden?” asked Eudo slowly.

Manissa nodded. “The Warden, aye. He still has good ties to his people… and the two of you have always gotten along just fine.”

“We have,” admitted Eudo, even though that amiable relationship was based on their mutual interest in good ale. “You know, you might be onto something here, my dove.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
As always during the annual fairs, Mogh the Dunlending was assigned to the Trade Hall, in order to overlook his landsmen’s bargaining and haggling with the local people. As Henderch had put it once, in the long run the only people who could deal with Dunlendings were – Dunlendings, and as the only representative of his people in town, it was up to Mogh to deal with them.

Not that he would mind, really. ‘Twas good to hear his mother tongue again. It might sound harsh and peculiar in the ears of other people. Yet for Mogh, ‘twas as sweet as Elven music. Being with his landsmen brought back half-forgotten memories of his youth, and while those had been hard times, not all memories were unpleasant. And he still had friends among them after almost a lifetime of absence. Dunlendings did not make friends easily but were doggedly faithful to those they had made.

Chief Trader Nogga was one of those friends, the oldest and hardiest of all the hardy men who still took the risk to bring their wares from Dunland to the fair of Halabor, despite the necessity to cross the territory of the Hill-men. They traded in the very fine wool-clip of their herds, mostly, and also in honey and mead and hides. They transported their wares on the back of stocky, heavily-muscled hill ponies, which they bought from the Dwarves, as they had surprisingly good relations to the bearded race, going back to the times when Thorin Oakenshield and his family had lived in exile in Dunland. With a caravan of pack ponies, they had travelled all the way on the Old North Road, along the southern border of Rohan – which was not a safe thing, either, given the old enmity between the two people – and came down to Halabor following the Mering-stream and finally the Entwash, where it joined the Great River.

Chief Trader Nogga had made that journey uncounted times in his life, as he was not one to be easily frightened. He was standing in the middle of the Trade Hall now, as solid as a rock, having secured the best place for himself, and was measuring his landsmen’s bales with shrewd, narrowed dark eyes, pricing and judging what he saw. By the looks of him, he could be just a few years past sixty, and in the prime of his strength. Not a tall man, not even by the measure of the Old Folk, but square-built and powerful, his broad, swarthy face nestled in a thick growth of thorny black hair and beard. His clothing, though plain and of the same cut as his men’s garb, was made of good, solid wool, and well-fitted.

The two nimble youngsters – beardless still and in threadbare clothes – who had come with him, went to work briskly, hefting the heavy bales of hides and the wool-sacks and barrels of honey or mead with practiced ease. Mogh watched them with a thoughtful half-smile. That was how he had eked out a meagre living in his younger years, too: as a helping hand of a trader. Among his people, a lad of fourteen summers was considered a man already, and expected to earn his own living… and take care of any possible family depending on him.

In Dunland, life was built along the line of family ties. Family and clan were the network within which a person lived. No orphan, widow or weakened elder needed to fear abandonment, hunger or cold. As long as the clan had anything, it was shared. There were no beggars, no lords and no dependents, and whenever a dispute came up, the locals could count on being favoured against strangers.

However, if one had no family, no clan to support him, he was lost. He had no status, no place among the people, no respect. Strangers were hardly ever expected, and a lad without family ties could expect nothing better.

Mogh’s entire family had been wiped out due to a blood feud when he had seen but eleven summers. No-one from the other clan had survived, either. His had never been numerous, living in the southeast of Dunland, where they had no other kin, thus he could not hope to be taken in by anyone. Having been a strong lad – and already good with the axe – he had gotten hired by a wool trader to help him load his pack animals and protect his wares on long journeys. He had worked for a place to sleep and for two meagre meals a day only; but it had brought him luck, for so had he med the late Warin, the old wool-merchant of Halabor, the father of Eudo and Jehan.

He had followed the old merchant to Halabor, wanting to learn a craft that would feed him without being dependent on the support of a clan he did not have. But Dunlendings were not welcome in the town, save from the annual fairs, and the Master Smith had been the only craftsman willing to accept him as an apprentice. Mogh had never truly wanted to become a blacksmith, but beggars could not be choosers, and a honest craft was a honest craft. Thus he had learned the skills to be a good weaponsmith and worked for Master Ludgvan for quite a few years, to pay back his apprentice fee.

After a while, though he had come to see that he was standing in the way of the smith’s own sons, and although the mild-mannered Kevern would never say a word, Mogh decided that it would have been ungrateful to stay and take much-needed work from the family members. More so as Kevern had a wife and children to feed. Thus the Dunlending had accepted Lord Orchald’s offer and became one of the Wardens – and he had not regretted that decision to the current day. The Wardens only cared for what he could do instead of where he had come from, and he was one of them and a valued member at that.

That during the fairs he even got to keep up old contacts with his landsmen, was an additional benefit of his work. What was there not to like?

Nogga spotted him and – leaving the work to the haired help – walked over to talk to him. They greeted each other in the time-honoured manner, then Mogh asked about the possible outcome of the fair for the Dunlending traders.

“Afraid this won’t be as good as usual,” answered Nogga grimly. “You see those two over there, just entering the Hall through the other door?”

Mogh followed his landsman’s pointing finger and saw two merchants, wearing long gowns of fashionable cut, made of the finest wool, and elegant capuchons twisted up into elaborate hats. One of them was a big, portly, red-faced man, elderly but powerful, with a round, fleshy face that spoke of a foul temper, bluish jowls and bristly brows like furze. The other was meagre and greying, well beyond his middle years, and had a lean, fastidious, high-nosed face with a thin-lipped mouth and pale, almost colourless eyes. They were moving along the display tables with utter self-confidence, eyeing and judging the hides and wool clips offered to sell with an air about them that plainly showed that they considered themselves men of importance – and expected others to recognize them as such on sight.

“They are not from here,” Mogh realized.

“Nay,” Nogga agreed, “they’ve come from Lebennin. The portly one is Crico of Ponsyow, and the other one is Foich of Stennack. They represent two of the greatest merchant houses in the cloth country... some even say that they own them. Whether it’s true or not, I can’t tell, but they mean bad business for us... and for all the local merchants.”

“How’s that?” asked Mogh in surprise, falling back into the speech patterns of his own kin easily. He had always thought that sell to the biggest houses directly would be good for his landsmen. They could dispatch the whole of their wares, without needing to pay any middle-men.

“They’ve bought up all the clips around town for a price much higher than Eudo could ever afford,” explained Nogga, “and now that he’s spent all the coin that he could, they’re offering a ridiculously low price for our clips.”

“Surely you aren’t selling to them under the proper price?” asked Mogh. “These are some of the finest clips I’ve seen in my days, and I know whereof I’m speaking.”

“I’d hate to,” admitted Nogga, “but I might be forced to do so, as no-one else seems to have the coin to pay us enough to at least come up for our expenses. We desperately need what little we might get four our wares – even if it’s way below its true value.”

“And Eudo, who’s a good and honest man, will be broken in the process,” added Mogh grimly. “’Tis very bad business indeed.”

“I know,” replied the Chief Trader in frustration, “and I hate it, I truly do. But what can I do? We can’t keep our wares, and we can’t get more for them. This is going to be meagre earnings.”

“Mayhap; but mayhap not,” said Mogh. “I truly believe that you ought to talk to Eudo, face to face. Don’t sell aught to those vultures ere you’ve tried everything else.”

“They’re not going to make their final offer before the end of the fair anyway,” said Nogga. “They’d want us to realize first that we won’t have any other choice. But how am I supposed to talk to Eudo? No local merchant would ever allow a Dunlending to enter their house; you know that.”

“Not any Dunlending, ‘tis true,” Mogh agreed. “But I believe I might be able to mediate a little.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
And so it came to the unbelievable: that in the very same evening, Nogga the Dunlending found himself sitting in the parlour of the town’s only wool-merchant like a honoured guest. The merchant’s wife was placing ale before him and offered good, home-made broth, with freshly baked bread, both of which Nogga thankfully accepted. It tasted strange, the folk of Gondor preferring different herbs in their food, but at least it was hot and had good meat in it – and it had been offered in honest hospitality.

At the far end of the table the merchant’s clerk was sitting, frowning over the books: a man past fifty, his hair generously splattered with grey and thinning at the crown. His long face was set into defensive lines of effort and anxiety. Nogga guessed that the man was probably not very good with his letters and had to work hard to keep his place in the wood-merchant’s household. His stooped back spoke of long hours spent over the books, and his dun-coloured clothes only added to the air of silent fear and hopelessness that seemed to cling to him.

Nonetheless, he had to be good with numbers, at the very least; mayhap as a gift of nature, for the merchant apparently valued his opinion.

“What do you think, Acco?” he asked. “Can we afford to pay the price Master Nogga would find reasonable?”

The clerk put the quill behind his ear again and gave his books a final glance.

“’Tis doable,” he judged, “but not without risk. You would need to ask the Guild for a loan, as you simply do not have the necessary coin. And it has to be a large sum, as you will need to transport the wares you intend to buy to Lamedon and Lossarnach and Minas Tirith on your own. That would cause additional costs. And if you cannot get the price to make up for your expenses and to pay back the loan, you will be broke.”

“If the merchants of Lebennin drive me out from the local wool market, I am broke in any case,” replied Eudo gloomily. “At least if Master Nogga is willing to sign a contract that he and his landsmen would employ me as their sole mediator, we might have a chance to get out of this unharmed… and in due time even earn some honest coin beyond our expenses.”

The clerk looked at the Dunlending for the first time.

“You can do that?” he asked doubtfully. Nogga shrugged.

“Me people’ve made me Chief Trader for they know I’d protect their interests,” he answered. “They trust me. I can do a great deal along clan lines.”

“There is still a risk,” warned the clerk. “The great cloth houses of Lebennin will fight us, nail and tooth. And their coin has great impact.”

“The first two or three years might be hard,” the Dunlending agreed. “But after that, they’ll run off them reserves and must come to us again. If Master Eudo moves his pieces on the board cleverly we’ll have built up a strong market in the other provinces by then and can demand any price we want.”

“An honest and reasonable price would do,” murmured Eudo. He was still uncomfortable with the thought of allying himself with the Dunlendings against his own people, but he had no other choice. Crico of Ponsyow and Foich of Stennack were like wolves. They would have no mercy with him, either. He had to defend himself and the very livelihood of his family.

“Very well,” he said, suppressing a sigh. “We should go to the Town House tomorrow and talk to Master Suanach. The head clerk of the Guild can then set up the contract right away.”

The two Dunlending thanked him and left. Eudo slumped into the big chair that had once been his father’s place and belonged to him now, as the current head of the family.

“Do you believe that we have done the right thing?” she asked his wife.

Manissa, about to collect the empty wishes, leaned over the table and kissed the top of his head.

“You have done the only thing that was still possible,” she said, “therefore it was right.”

~The End – for now~

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