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An Autumn Fair in Halabor
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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8
The Cutler

For disclaimer, etc., see the Prologue.

Author’s note: More about Kevern and the ironsmith’s family is told in “The Shoemaker’s Daughter”. Mistress Pharin is based on my late grandmother, who, at the age of 95, was still capable of running the household, despite having lost ninety-two per cent of her eyesight almost twenty years earlier.


~~~

PART 07 – THE CUTLER

It was in the early morning, on the fourth day of the Autumn Fair, when Kevern, the eldest son of Master Smith Ludgvan, left his father’s house in the southwestern part of the town, near Nurria’s Gate, to open up his booth on the fairground. This was only the third day since he had been appointed as the new Master Cutler by the Craftsmen’s Guild, taking over from the late Telent, who had been slain by with his entire family by raiding Easterlings… with the exception of their young daughter who was now lying in the Infirmary, grievously injured. The Easterlings had violated her and left her for dead; and she would have died indeed, had the Wandering Elves not found her and brought her to Halabor.

Kevern could not help but feel guilty, as the horrible death of the girl’s family gave him the chance to finally start his own business. He was an excellent ironsmith, yet with a deep reluctance to make weapons – and as one cold not make a plough or a cauldron as a masterpiece, he had remained a journeyman way beyond his time. His mother had, in the end, forced him to make a battle-axe as his masterpiece, but Kevern still refused to work as a weaponsmith afterwards. He had needed a different trade, and now he had one.

“I would prefer to work in Father’s smithy, if only poor Telent and his family could be alive and well,” he said to his wife who had seen him to the front gate. Sabra smiled up to him.

“You are a good, decent man, and I love you for that,” she replied and kissed him on the cheek, “but you fret for no reason. Someone has to take over Telent’s work; ‘tis better if you do it than some stranger, and the townsfolk sees it the same way. Now, be gone! Mistress Pharin wants to have her kitchen knives sharpened ere the Drunken Boat opens for the day. ‘Twould be not courteous to let her wait.

Kevern kissed his wife and left obediently. Just beyond thirty, he was on his way to become a younger version of his father: stocky, bearded and bear-like, with a round, ruddy face and gentle brown eyes. He was used to do what the women in his family told him to do; first his mother and older sister, and now his spirited young wife, heavy with their third child. He was content with his work, content with his family and only concerned about them having as good a life as possible. He had no other ambitions, which seemed to frustrate them sometimes. But he was what he was, and he had no true wish to be different.

The sun had just begun to rise when he reached the fairground, where the foreign traders were clambering out of their cloaks, stretching and yawning, setting out their wares onto the display counters (or simply onto blankets spread on the ground), readying the goods for the day’s business. Kevern exchanged greetings with a middle-aged armourer from Lamedon, who had his booth on the left side, and began to open the sealed hatches, in order to unfold the wooden walls of his booth, allowing potential customers a good view at what he had to offer.

As he refused to make weapons, his goods were mostly items for everyday use: knives, locks, simple tools and axes, made for the use of woodworkers. There were wooden boxes, filled with nails of various sizes; then cooking utensils, like pans and cauldrons and flesh forks for boiled haunches and so on.

The cauldrons were his most decorative pieces, gilded with an amalgam of mercury and gold. This particular task was not entirely without danger, for to get the gold to bind to the iron, it had to be heated to vaporise the mercury, and if one breathed in those vapours in the process, it could affect the lungs and eventually kill a person. Fortunately, Kevern knew his craft well enough, and he was careful around his products.

He ordered his wares on the display counter, and eyed fondly his only luxury item to offer: a folding stool, made entirely of iron and expensive, gilded leather, worthy to stand in the field tent of a great warlord or a king. He had heard about such rare pieces of furniture from wandering traders of the South, and could not resist the challenge to try his hand on the making of one. He would probably never be able to sell that stool, thus his wife’s anger about the coin paid for the leather had likely been justified, but he could it not bring over his heart to regret having spent it. The stool was perfect. Simply perfect. Even if he would have to push it from one corner to another for the rest of his life, he could not regret having made at least one piece of beauty, just because he could. Because he truly had the skills to do so.

Mayhap he was more ambitious than he had thought himself, after all.

The pleasant sound of female laughter woke him from the contemplation of his own handiwork. Looking up, he spotted the proudly erect figure of Mistress Pharin, the owner of the Drunken Boat coming his way. Two of her little serving maids followed her, carrying the knives of the tavern in a wicker basket. Kevern nodded to himself, appreciating the care; those were no harmless eating utensils – everyone had their own knife to eat with – but large, vicious-looking tools that could have killed a man just as easily as one could carve roast meat with them. But, of course, Mistress Pharin had never done anything careless or foolish in her long life.

People often praised the fresh beauty of young girls and could see no beauty in the wisdom and harmony of mature age. Those who were less blind, could not have found a more worthy subject for her admiration as the matron who was just approaching Kevern’s booth. Mistress Pharin, the daughter of a simple shoemaker and a widow for many years, had the pride and the dignity of a queen – only that queens would not likely have the strength to labour in a hot kitchen from sunrise to sunset, and that at the age of seventy-seven summers.

Once she had been a stunning beauty, or so people who were old enough to remember told, and traces of that beauty could still be found on her smooth, rosy face. Only in the corners of her cornflower-blue eyes could a few wrinkles be found; eyes that were bright and curious and full of life, despite the sad fact that she had lost her only daughter just a few moons ago. She might be grieving, but she certainly was not a broken old woman.

She swept up to Kevern’s booth in her bountiful skirts – not simple homespun, as one would expect from a woman of her status, but good, solid cotton wool, from the more expensive stock of Mistress Betha’s clothier shop – rustling, her wimple snow white, like a barge with full sails. Her keybound and purse were softly clinking to the rhythm of her steps as they hung from her girdle, emphasizing the importance of her person.

“Kevern, my lad!” she exclaimed heartily, giving the young man one of her famous, dimpled smiles that made her seem half her age. ‘Tis good to see you having your own trade, at least!”

“I would be glad, too, had my good fortune not cost poor Telent and his wife their lives,” replied Kevern grimly. The matron shot him a sharp look.

“Have you been the one who murdered them?” she asked bluntly. Kevern stared at her in shock.

“Of course not, Mistress Pharin, how can you ask me such a horrible thing?”

But Mistress Pharin was not brought off her chosen path so easily.

“Have you led the Easterlings on their track?” she asked.

“You know I have not,” answered Kevern, still not understanding why she would even ask.

“Then stop talking such nonsense,” said Mistress Pharin sternly. “You have not caused their deaths in any way. Brooding over their fate will not make them alive again. Honour Telent by doing his work as well as he had done, and be in peace. We all must die, sooner or later. ‘Tis sad if someone has to go before their time,” her voice broke for a moment with remembered loss, “yet life must go on. No matter what, life must go on.”

‘Twas hard to argue with a matron who had seen nigh eighty summers already, had lived through joys and sorrows, gains and losses, births and deaths, fortune and misfortune. Wisely, Kevern did not even try. Besides, he had other business to do with Mistress Pharin; business that would earn him some honest coin that he desperately needed. Starting a new business was no easy task, not even with his father’s help.

He invited Mistress Pharin further into the booth, where the large grinding wheel stood. Not having the time to have poor Telent’s utensils repaired by the leatherers, he had to drag out of his father’s barn the wheel on which the newly made swords were getting sharpened and polished. ‘Twas about two feet in diameter and a good eight inches across the grinding surface: way too bit for simple eating utensils, but passable enough for the large kitchen knives used in the Drunken Boat. It had lames of mûmak hide as flaps sitting tightly arranged radially between two wooden shields. The leather flaps were secured by dovetails locking in grooves on the insides of those wooded shields. ‘Twas an excellently made old tool that had served the family for generations already and was likely to serve another two, at the very least. Mûmak hide was tough.

Getting the grinding wheel to work required two people: one to turn the wheel with the help of an iron handle and another one to press the blade tightly against the turning wheel. Kevern usually worked in pair with his youngest brother, but Mellof was needed somewhere else today, thus Mistress Pharin took over the turning of the wheel herself, rolling up her sleeves and revealing strong arms that would put a smaller man to shame. She had a sure grip on the handle, and turned it in a steady rhythm, while Kevern was leaning with his whole weight against the knife that was being sharpened, to hold it in the right position.

It took them about an hour ‘til the work was done. Mistress Pharin paid Kevern the usual fee – one brass piece for each knife that had been sharpened – and left contently. She could have haggled with the young cutler, considering the fact that she had helped him with the wheel. But she was a generous person by nature and paid the full sum without protest. Kevern put the coin away, calculating his recent expenses and how long it would take ‘til he could pay back the coin he had borrowed from his father. Not to mention that he needed to get a grinding wheel of his own, soon, if he wanted to keep the cutler business. And that would cost quite the sum again.

He stretched his aching back – bending over the grinding wheel had not been very comfortable – and began to rearrange his wares on the display counter. That kept him occupied, which made a good impression on potential customers, and drew attention to the things he had to offer.

He had several more customers before noon. The roofer and the stone-mason came to have their tools mended, and he sold a few cauldrons to the local farmers’ wives who had large families and needed really big cooking pots. Around noon, Sabra came and brought him something to eat, and after that, business flagged a little, as expected, as everyone sought out a place to eat and drink. Kevern had a keg of ale with the armourer from Lamedon at the ale-wife’s tent, talked with several foreign merchants, and was moderately content with his daily business so far.

He recognized his younger brothers, Kenver and Kenwyn, from afar, upon returning to his booth. The two were members of Lord Orchald’s Castle Guard and thus lived in the Castle with the other men-at-arms and their families. ‘Twas not so surprising that they would pay their brother’s booth a visit – but they were wearing the gambesons of the Guard, with the silver dragon on black upon their chests. Which cold only mean one thing: they were on duty, most likely escorting Lord Orchald himself, who usually took a stroll across the fair every day.

Kevern lengthened his strides. He could not imagine what Lord Orchald might want from him – his wares, while pretty enough, were not worthy a lordly household – but it would not do to make the Lord of Halabor wait. Even less so as the old lord was known to be a generous customer if served well.

“My Lord,” Kevern all but stumbled into his booth, “forgive me for making you wait. I had no idea…”

He trailed off, absolutely stunned. For on the side of Lord Orchald, who was wearing his usual sombre attire, stood the most extraordinary being one could imagine. Nay, Kevern corrected himself, this was beyond that. No-one, not even Rhisiart the minstrel could have dreamed up a creature of such exquisite power and beauty.

Lord Orchald’s companion was undoubtedly an Elf, clad in grey silks and soft grey leathers, with a royal blue mantle thrown casually round his surprisingly broad shoulders. His long hair, shining like molten gold, was bound into some sort of club with thin leather strips, thicker than a man’s arms, and nearly reached his knees. His high-cheekboned face was pale and incredibly beautiful, with a faint golden shimmer about it, his wide-set eyes a stormy grey-blue. He had a great sword on his back, in a beautifully made scabbard. He was the first Elf Kevern had ever seen, but there cold be no doubt that he was a great lord among Elves.

Lord Orchald had mercy with the stunned young smith, though.

“You need not to worry, Kevern,” he said in his customary fatherly manner that made him so well-loved among his subjects. “We are just looking for a suitable present for Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth. Lord Gildor here is heading homeward to Edhellond and does not want to visit the Prince with his hands empty.”

“I think I have already found something,” the royal-looking Elf, whose name was apparently Gildor, said. He had a deep, melodious voice, but with a well-recognizable hardness in it.

Lord Orchald, walked over to him, and Kevern’s heart began to pound loudly, for they were both eyeing his pride and joy, the folding stool.

“As much as Imrahil has to go to war for the Steward, or just to protect the Bay of Belfalas from the Corsairs of Umbar, he could put something like this to good use,” explained Gildor.

“Mayhap so,” allowed Lord Orchald, “but would it not be too much trouble to carry? You have a long way before you yet.”

“Nay; for when folded, it could be easily fastened onto the back of a pack-horse,” replied the Elf. He ran a long, elegant hand over the leather parts. “’Tis excellent handiwork, too. Your own, Master Cutler?”

Kevern nodded. “I have wanted to make something like this for years. Sometimes a craftsman needs to make something just because it would be beautiful.”

He blushed, realizing that not only had he given away something profoundly important from his very soul, but also had he bothered these great lords with things that they most likely had no interest for. To his surprise, though, the Elf nodded in understanding.

“True,” he said. “And it seems to me, Master Cutler, that you have not hesitated to make sacrifices, just to follow the call of your artisan’s heart Alone the leather work must have cost you good coin.”

“’Twas not cheap,” admitted Kevern, “even though the goldsmith and the leatherers had offered me a friendly price. All in all, it went up as high as four gold pieces, and that without the ore and my own work that has gone into it. My wife was not pleased; not that I would blame her, with her awaiting our third babe any moment now, and me not having my own business ‘til a few days ago.”

“I recommend you for following the calling of your heart nonetheless,” said the Elf-lord, unhooking the soft leather purse from his belt. “And to reconcile you with your wife, who is also right from where she sees things, I shall buy this stool from you. What do you demand for it?”

“Six gold pieces would make up for all my expenses and another one for my own work, my Lord,” replied Kevern modestly. He would be content to get back the coin spent on the making of the stool and some for the long hours of work. The piece had already fulfilled its main purpose: the joy of making something upon which he could use all his skills and produce a thing of beauty.

“Now I see why your wife would be displeased with you, Master Cutler,” said the Elf with a slight smile. “You are too modest for your own good. This stool is easily worth twice the price you have named; and that is what I shall pay you for it, adding one more piece to honour your modesty. ‘Tis not a trait I find often when bargaining with mortals.”

With that, he counted fifteen gold pieces into the young smith’s trembling hand, asking him to have the precious stool folded, safely wrapped in linen and sack and sent to the Infirmary for him. Kevern nodded mutely, too shocked by the small fortune in his cupped hands to give an answer. Fifteen gold pieces meant that he could pay his debts back and acquire a brand new grinding wheel from the stone-mason; a small, portable one, with which he could move around to the scattered farmsteads as poor Telent had done. Or he could have Telent’s wheel repaired and buy a mule or a strong pony to transport it. In either case, this single sell had given his fledgling business a good start; and he would still have some coin left to save for other urgent purposes.

“I am honoured, my lords,” he whispered, barely daring to believe his good fortune.

Lord Orchald patted his arm reassuringly. “They say that doing business with Elves can be profitable at times,” he said. “And there are times when even modesty pays off, it seems. I shall leave one of your brothers here to bring your earnings to Master Ludgven’s house. ‘Twould not do to be robbed when you are finally having a good day.”

The two lords, old and mortal with ageless and deathless, left then, sending in Kenwyn, who took Kevern’s strongbox to get all that Elven gold safely home. Master Ludgvan had an iron cabinet bound to the stone wall in his cellar, with a lock so complicate that it would challenge the skills of a Dwarf to pick, where they kept the wealth of the entire family. There Kevern’s newly acquired fortune would be safe until he needed it.

His wife would be content. His mother would be content. And when the women of the family were content, Kevern was content, too.

Thanks to this one fortunate sell, he would be left alone to do his work in peace as he pleased. And perchance, one day he would create another item of beauty.

~The End – for now~

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