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An Autumn Fair in Halabor
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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7
The Old Clothes Merchant

For disclaimer, etc., see the Prologue.

Author’s note: It is a recorded historical fact that tailors who lived from making new clothes were not allowed to repair old ones.


~~~

PART 06 – THE OLD CLOTHES MERCHANT

Every town, and be it so small as Halabor was, had a particular area where those who had been less fortunate in life found shelter. For some, it was only for a short time, ‘til they found a better place to live. For others, it was the last station of a long way full of poverty and bitter need; a place where they were stranded without hope to ever get away.

In Halabor, the New Port was the last refuge of the less fortunate ones washed ashore by the Great River. Homeless and penniless folk lurked in the long-abandoned, half-ruined houses of the harbour, trying to eke out a meagre living. Some of them were strangers who had come to town in the hope for a better life. Some of them had been farmers and husbandmen who had to flee with their families when their farmsteads and livestock had been raided by Orcs, Easterlings, Hill-men or rogue Dunlendings. Others were the descendants of boatmen and boatmakers that had once lived there in great numbers, many, many years earlier, when Halabor still had been a frequented place at the crossing of trade routes.

Life in the New Port was not an easy one. Some men had been fortunate enough to be hired by the Merchant’s Guild as packers for the Warehouse. Others found work on one of the barges, for those could still moor easier in the New Port, even though only the local merchants used it in the time between the fairs. That was hard work, and the pay was small, but at least their families did not have to hunger, most of the time. But only a small number of men could find such work as would feed them all year long, even though meagrely. The others – unless the wood- or hay-merchant hired them for the short times when more hands were needed than usual, were forced to wander around for work all day. With little hope to find aught that lasted longer than just a day. More often than not, they had to beg or to steal, in order to have something to eat.

The women had it even worse. A few lucky ones got hired by Mistress Betha for the washing and carding of the fleeces, or as spinstresses or weavers. The coin they earned with that hard work was little enough, but at the very least it provided them with a steady income. The others offered their services as laundresses in the wealthy burgher houses, or as maidservants; or they collected nettle for the rope-makers and the net-makers. For a few days in every three moons, Lord Orchald even allowed the women of the New Port to go into his woods and collect berries and mushrooms and acorns, and to snare small animals like hares, so that they cold put meat on the table sometimes. Some of the younger and prettier ones opened their cottages to the soldiers from the garrison of Cair Andros when these got a day of leave to come to town. ‘Twas not something they would be proud of, but in the times of desperate need one could not be choosy.

Few people lived willingly in the New Port. Even the merchants, who had interests in the harbour and the Warehouse, had moved within the town walls decades ago, leaving their storehouses under the guard of hired watchmen, and only returning to their shops in daytime.

Mullion, the old clothes merchant was the only one who actually still lived there… mostly because he was more or less a stranger himself. His father had been the one who had asked for residence in Halabor, after many long years of wandering from farmstead to farmstead, buying and selling used but still good clothes. Finally becoming settled had given Mullion the chance to learn how to repair clothes – for the rules of the Guild forbade the tailors to do so – and he was able to set up his modest business in the New Port, where the poor would buy any piece of clothing for a few copper pieces, no matter how worn or threadbare it was. The Guild had accepted him, for he offered a service that had been needed for quite some time, and with buying, selling and repairing old clothes, he earned a modest living for himself and his family.

He married late for a man of the Old Folk, wedding the orphaned daughter of a poor farmer and taking her mother into his house as well. There had been no other family left, the rest of them having slain during a raid of Hill-men. But at least both Rieingulid and her mother had turned out to be skilled with the needle. Within the year, they had taken over the repairing of clothes, thus setting Mullion free to go about, tending to his business in the neighbourhood of the town.

All things considered, Mullion was content with his life. He had a trade with no business opponents, had four healthy children between the age of twenty-two and fourteen, all of them able and willing to help out wherever they were needed, and when his firstborn, Madduin, married the wool-merchant’s daughter in the next spring, with her dowry they might even be able to buy a house within the town walls. A very small one, true, but Mullion had wanted to do so ever since coming to town.

He wished he cold give his only daughter some dowry, too. Malride was nearly twenty; she should have married years ago. But the old clothes business, unchallenged as it might be, was not a very profitable one, and bringing the whole family into the safety of the town walls was simply more important. Once they did not live in the New Port, their reputation might go up little, and mayhap even Malride would find a suitable husband easier. She certainly deserved it. She was a good, hard-working girl. Even pretty, in her own way. Not the beauty her mother had been in her youth, but not entirely plain, either.

Mullion shook his head in regret and sat down to see through his books. ‘Twas fortunate that he was lettered and numbered, having gone to the school for the children of small merchants in the Town Hall for three years, for he cold not afford to employ a clerk. Not even such a cheap one as the wool-merchant’s Acco. He was reasonably good at it, and he did not expect to have any customers during the fair. Even the poor wanted to go down to the booths and see what was being offered, though they had no chance to buy those things. Thus Mullion could use the time to bring his somewhat neglected books into proper order.

He was so immersed in his battle with the numbers that he did not even hear the door opening. So he had quite a fright when a shadow was cast on his counter. But as he looked up, he broke into a broad smile at once.

“Mistress Angharad!” he cried in delight. “How can I be of your service?”

Aside from the Caste people, Mistress Angharad was his best customer. There were always old people dying in the Infirmary, and most of them had no close kin that would demand their clothes. Mistress Angharad always brought those spare pieces to Mullion, without asking for any coin for them. Properly laundered and stitched, the clothes than quickly found a new owner among the poor. Mullion got them for free and sold them cheaply, so every-one was content.

Mistress Angharad placed a bundle of neatly folded clothes onto the counter.

“We had a case of death again,” she said. “Not in the Infirmary; I was called to a cottage in the Lord’s woods. The cottager’s wife had died in childbirth, and as they have only boy-children, the husband did not want to keep her clothes. I am certain that you can find the right owner for them.”

Mullion unfolded the clothes and examined them carefully. They were worn, ‘twas true, but made of good, homespun wool, and there was no tear or other such thing in the fabric anywhere.

“My thanks, Mistress Angharad,” he said. “I can think of at least two widows here in the New Port who might be interested. They would even be able to pay a nearly proper price for them. During the fair, even the people here can find more paid work than usual.”

“Then I am well content,” replied Mistress Angharad with a smile. “This time, though, I have also come to buy something. You have heard of the girl the Elves have found, I deem? Poor Telent’s daughter?”

Mullion nodded. “Who has not? ‘Tis terrible business; and the Easterlings coming across the Wetwang unchallenged does not bode well for us. What about the girl, though? Will she live?”

“She is with us in the Infirmary, and it seems that she will live indeed,” replied Angharad. “But as you can imagine, she has no clothes left. These here would be way too big for her, so I thought mayhap you would have something more fitting.”

“I might,” said Mullion, “but would she not have a proper guardian appointed to her? ‘Tis not your duty to see that she is clothed, you know.”

Angharad laughed. “Oh, I doubt not that between them, Mistress Dorlas and the provost will take good care of her,” she said. “I just want something that she could put on right away, ‘til further arrangements will be made.”

“Master Smith Ludgvan has taken her as his ward?” asked Mullion in surprise. “But he can barely fit his own children and grandchildren into that house of his!”

“Well, the girl is the daughter of a wandering cutler and ironsmith, and thus the responsibility of their guild,” replied Angharad with a shrug. “You know what custom demands in such cases. Still, I do believe that the provost was relieved when Mistress Dorlas offered to take the girl in; and ‘tis better for the girl, too. She will have more peace in the Square House than she could find under Master Lugvan’s roof. Mistress Dorlas already has a young girl in her charge; taking in an older fosterling would be no great hardship for her.”

“How old may that poor girl be?” asked Mullion, listing all available clothes that might fit in his head already.

“Fourteen, mayhap, or not much older,” replied Angharad. “Rather smallish, too.”

“Would these be the right size?” Mullion spread a gown of simple, homespun cotton, dyed in the customary reddish brown colour, and an undyed, sleeveless undershift on the counter. “They are patched in a few places, but the cloth is good; they will serve for years to come yet.”

Angharad examined the set of clothing every bit as carefully as Mullion had examined the ones she had brought.

“They will do,” she finally declared. “Name the price, Master Mullion.”

“Twould be immodest to accept payment from you, after you have just brought me a whole bundle of clothes,” protested the merchant. He might need the coin, but he was a decent man.

“Nonsense,” said Angharad. “The two have naught to do with each other. And I can afford to pay. So, name your price.”

Mullion named the price that was only a little higher than what he would have demanded from someone of the New Port. For while Angharad indeed could afford such small generosities, she, too, had to work had for her coin, and he knew that.

“That poor girl,” he said, putting the copper pieces into the strongbox and folding the clothes again for Angharad. “What will become of her, I wonder, ever if she does live, marked as she is for life by those beasts?”

“That I cannot tell,” said Angharad thoughtfully, “but she was saved by Elves, and they say that those touched by Elves often have strange fates. Mayhap she will find happiness, after all. She is still so very young.”

“She has been fortunate that she became the Master Smith’s ward,” agreed Mullion. “Master Ludgvan will see that she be taken care of properly. And Mistress Dorlas, too, has a generous heart. Many here in the New Port would give a limb to have their future secured like that.”

He did not mention his own daughter, but Angharad understood his meaning perfectly well. She was beyond wedding age herself, but she had her own trade and could take care of herself. Not to mention that her grandmother owned The Drunken Boat, the best-favoured tavern in town. She needed not to worry about her future. But what could a girl like Malride hope for? Without dowry, without a trade and with a father who could just barely keep the family business above the water?

Angharad felt for the old clothes merchant and his daughter, but there was naught she could do to help them; naught else but bring the occasional bundle of clothes to them. So she thanked Mullion and left his shop, the neatly folded gown and undershift on her arm. The gown was a really nice one, she found, with pretty, carved wooden buttons on the front that went down to the waistline and thus made it easy to put on. It might be a little too wide for Telent’s girl, but it was one that matched her status – that of the penniless ward of a respected craftsman.

She would be given more later, of that Angharad had no doubt. Both of the midwife and the provost were generous people who took their responsibilities seriously. But Angharad found it better that the girl had at least a set of clothes she could call her own before leaving the Infirmary. ‘Twas never good to go to one’s benefactors with one’s hands empty.

Angharad lengthened her strides and passed the Warehouse to take the shortcut through the Castle’s training grounds back to the Infirmary. Now that the issue with the girl’s clothing had been settled, she needed to turn her attention to other pressing tasks. During the fair, there was always much to do for the healers. The abundance of wine, beer, ale and fine spirits often led to brawls. In the last two days, the Infirmary had to patch up as many as eight injured men. And the fair had just truly begun.

Men, she thought with a tolerant shake of her head. Some of them could just never grow up. She was glad to have Meurig in the Infirmary, now that she had to deal with so many drunkards. A bit dim-witted Meurig might be, but strong and mild-mannered he was, like an ox. There would be no fights among the waiting drunkards this year. Not in Meurig’s warning presence.

A healer had to count her blessings, small though those might be.

~The End – for now~

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