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An Autumn Fair in Halabor
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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9
The Buckle-Maker

For disclaimer, etc., see the Prologue.

Author’s note: My grandmother came from a family of shoemakers. However, Erchin’s family has very few similarities with her own.
The marriage customs of the Rohirrim are based on “The Purchase of a Bride: Bargain, Gift, Hamingja” by Winifred Hodge Rose.
Mistress Crewyn first appeared in “The Last Yule in Halabor”. Her handiwork played an important role in “The Shoemaker’s Daughter”, by revealing a murderer.


~~~

PART 08 – THE BUCKLE-MAKER

The guild of the leather-workers was the biggest and most numerous in Halabor. It included six shoemakers, four furriers, a saddler, a harness-maker, a scabbard-maker (although both of the latter were still apprentices, working towards becoming masters of their craft), a tanner, a belt-maker, a purse-maker and a glove-maker.

Erchin, the belt-maker (or buckle-maker, as the townsfolk called him, for he was already well-known for the elaborate belt buckles he knotted of thin leather tongs to complete his belts) had learned his craft from his late grandfather, who had died less than a year ago. His father, one of the shoemakers of the town, did not thought much about making belts and other such fancy items, but as he had handed over the shoemaking business to Budic, his eldest, Erchin, the youngest of five siblings, had been chosen to learn the art of buckle-knotting, as he had the nimblest fingers of all.

Now, with his oldest brother running the family business and the two middle ones serving in the garrison of Cair Andros, Erchin found that he liked having his own trade. That he actually enjoyed the tasks that were required for his work only made things even better.

He did not mind leaving the shoemaking to his eldest brother at all. He found more pleasure in the making of belts and straps and knife scabbards, the binding of books, the tooling and painting and dyeing and gilding of leather for the carpenters who then used it for the making of more expensive pieces of furniture, like stuffed armchairs, for wealthy families. The more delicate the task at hand was, the more did he enjoy it. In the heart of his hearts, he considered himself an artisan, rather than a mere craftsman.

As they did fairly similar work, he shared a workshop with Master Folcwalda, the saddler, and they were now displaying their wares in the same large booth during the Fair. Erchin considered himself fortunate because of this, as the Rohirrim, while generally fond of their ale and their bizarre board games, were a friendly and easy-going lot, and no matter how much they had drunk, they rarely got inebriated. Unlike his own father, whom he had never seen sober, or his eldest brother, who had already drunk one wife into an early grave and was about to do the same with a second unfortunate wench.

It had not been without reason that Corb and Coplait had chosen to become soldiers rather than work in their father’s workshop. Sometimes Erchin truly felt pity for his mother. As the daughter of a well-to-do furrier, she had been the one to bring the necessary coin into the marriage that had enabled Jory to open a shop of his own, and what had she gotten in exchange? A miserable life with a hopeless drunkard as a husband, who treated her like a servant, and another hopeless drunkard as a son. There could be little doubt that they would lose their clients to Anta or Gawen, in the long run.

Nay, Erchin was glad to live and work with the Rohirrim. He had learned a few new things from Master Folcwalda, he had become friends with the saddler’s sons, one of whom wanted to become a master scabbard-maker and had thus been apprenticed to him, and secretly, he had his eye on little Mistress Crewyn, the saddler’s daughter. She was pretty, she had a trade of her own – she was the town’s only purse-maker – and though she was near ten years his junior, in another year or two she would be old enough to get wedded.

Erchin had already spoken to Master Folcwalda about this, and the saddler was agreeable. After all, it made sense to unite two such closely related trades, instead of creating a conflict of interests between them. Of course, the final word was Mistress Crewyn’s, as the Rohirrim did not force their children to marry against their will (as it happened among the Old Folk), but Erchin was cautiously hopeful that he would succeed in wooing her.

In any case, he would have to save some serious coin first, for the Rohirrim understood marriage as a bargain for the exchange of values, and thus the courting included the exchange of mutual gifts, from the bridegroom to the bride’s family as well as from the father of the bride to the family of the groom. Those gifts served to compensate the bride’s family for losing not only her contribution to the daily work, but also the mundr she represented for her family: her share of the respect and honour, which her future husband needed to acquire, in order to be able to keep and sustain his wife. Without achieving those spiritual values, the marriage would have been doomed to fail.

On the other hand, though, Mistress Crewyn could easily earn her own dowry (not that her father would refuse to give her one), for she was truly skilled, despite her tender age, and her handiwork much sought-after. At the end, things would even out nicely by the time she would be ripe for marriage, but at first, Erchin needed to build his way steadily towards that goal.

The young buckle-maker smiled contently, arranging the thin straps of leather on the small table before him. During the Fair, he did not do work that required special tools – like the stamping and applying and other such tasks. He preferred doing delicate work alone and undisturbed, so that the pattern would not be damaged. But knotting the decorative leather buckles was something he could do in his sleep, and it usually attracted onlookers. People were fascinated by the skill and speed with which his fingers moved, forming the delicate and complicated knots that resulted in the shape of flowers or butterflies or bugs or a dozen other things. And onlookers often made customers, even if they had not originally intended to buy anything.

Colours added another decorative aspect, and he always planned well in advance when dyeing his leathers, so that he would have enough straps of the right colour all the time. Leather dyeing was another ting he liked to do, for it was a true challenge sometimes to get the exact hue that he wanted.

Most people found the smell in a tannery offensive, including the tanner’s own young daughter. Well, Erchin did not like the smell itself, either. Still he did like to visit Germoc’s tannery, as the dyeing process had to be done in concert with the tannage or tawning. Also, it made things much easier to have whole hides or skins dyed, and then cut them to the straps or pieces that were needed, than trying to colour each individual part separately.

There were not many colours leather could be dyed to: mostly to green, red, blue, black or brown. Only the Elves knew the secret of making silvery grey leather. For the dyeing itself, often the same plants were used as for the dyeing of wool or linen cloth, and Erchin spent a good part of his time with collecting the ingredients and preparing the right dyes.

To dye skins blue, one needed walwort and elderberries. For getting a rich red colour, chickweed was used, with crabble shells from the River burned into ashes and baye salt. Elderberries, walwort and sap green – made of buckthorn berries – was needed to colour the hides green; that or ireos flowers. Preparing those dyes was certainly a lot of work, and one had to be very thorough, as not well-made berry dyes tended to fade in bright sunlight.

Erchin selected a handful of blue straps and a few black and undyed creamy white ones for his next piece, and was just about to start a new buckle when someone entered the booth. He looked up from his table, recognizing Kevern, the blacksmith’s eldest son, who had been for a few days the new cutler of the town. The two of them had known each other since childhood, and had even worked together lately, as Erchin had done the leather work on Kevern’s fancy folding stool – the one that, according to gossip, the lord of the Wandering Elves had bought off him just the previous day. It must have earned Kevern good coin, and so Erchin hoped that the cutler would have an order for him, sharing some of his good fortune with a fellow craftsman.

“Greetings, Kevern,” he said, raising from his table. “What can I do for you? Or are you looking for Master Folcwalda? He has gone for his second tankard of ale, but that would not take long.”

“Nay, I have come to see you,” replied Kevern. “You have heard of poor Telent’s fate, I deem?”

Erchin nodded. Of course he had. People had been talking of naught else but the horrible fate of the wandering cutler and his family.

“I also heard that the Guild has accepted you as the new Master Cutler,” he said. “’Tis a good thing, even though the occasion is a sad one.”

Kevern shrugged. “As my wife says, someone had to take over the work. So I have decided to buy Telent’s wheel from his daughter; ‘tis in a good shape, and I am sure the stonewright can repair the small notches easily. But the leather flaps had burned beyond help. Could you make some new ones for me?”

Erchin scratched his head. “Sure I can, that is not the problem. What we need to find, however, is some tough enough hide that would hold a long time. Wild boar, mayhap, or ox hide... for I very much doubt that we could get our hands on any dead mûmakil soon enough.”

They both laughed, and then Kevern gave the buckle-maker the needed measures for the flaps. They haggled about the price for a while, not that they would not know what the whole thing truly was worth, just because it was a time-honoured custom among the Old Folk. After reaching the expected agreement, Kevern left contently, leaving an equally content Erchin behind.

Erchin stretched and sat back to his little table, starting to knot the colourful straps, just to make time pass faster. This time, he was about to make a butterfly, with blue wings, pretty enough to adorn the belt of a young lady.

He was half-done, when the next customers arrived. This time, the customers were Elves: two tall, willowy, raven-haired males, clad in the usual green and brown garb of the woodland folk, and a female, just as tall as the other two, but somewhat wider of build and ash blonde of hair and wearing the same garb, just all in shadowy grey. She was the one who approached the young craftsman, asking for the saddler.

“He went to the ale-wife’s tent,” replied Erchin. “Do you want me to send one of the errand boys to fetch him?” For everyone knew by now that making business with Elves was a profitable one, and he did not want Master Folcwalda to miss the opportunity.

“Nay,” said the Elf with a wry grin. “Far it be from me to stand between a Horse-lord and his ale. I shall wait for him to return, and watch these younglings here to buy whatever they have come for. That will pass the time nicely.”

Erchin gave the younglings a wary look. They did seem ageless with their smooth, beautiful faces, but somehow he would not have been surprised, had they turned out to be hundreds of years old… or even more. One could never be certain with Elves, or so the old tales said.

“What would be your pleasure, my lords?” he asked politely, just in case.

The two dark-haired Elves looked at each other and burst out in laughter.

“You are being most courteous, good master,” one of them said, “but I assure you that we are no lords, just two wandering minstrels. My name is Falathar, from the kindred of the Noldor, and this lanky fellow here is my dear friend, Melthinorn, whose name means ‘tree-of-gold’. Oh, and Mistress Isfin, our horse-lady, is from the Nandor tribe.”

“I am called thusly for I am in charge of our horses,” the female Elf added, seeing Erchin’s blank face. “And now show us what you have to offer, young one!”

Erchin eagerly put out onto the display counter some of his best wares: belts of various sizes and width, decorated with bronze or bone application, with stamping, with cutting, with incising, with carving, with punched holes, with scraping or with embroidery. There even was a particularly pretty one, imbedded with gold leaf. The minstrel Melthinorn seemed fairly taken with that one.

“I have been looking for a festive belt for quite some time,” he said, draping the belt around his slender waist, “and these leaf patterns are lovely. What say you, Falathar?”

The other minstrel walked around him, looked at him from every angle, then nodded.

“It looks good on you,” he judged. “You should take it; ‘tis an excellent piece of workmanship, one you would not expect to find in the shop of some small craftsman.”

Erchin was uncertain whether he should feel flattered or insulted, but being a wise young man, he kept his mouth firmly shut. Getting into a fight with customers would not be good for the business, he reminded himself.

“What about you?” asked Melthinorn his friend. “You could use a new one, too, could you not?”

Falathar, though, shook his head. “Nay, I shall pick up something back home. But I wish to buy a gift for my sister. Something with butterflies. Vorondis is very fond of butterflies.”

“What about this?” asked Erchin, showing them the half-done belt buckle, knotted in just the shape they had required. “I can finish it for you in no time, if you wish me to do so.”

The Elven minstrel nodded. “That would be most kind of you, good master. I like the pattern very much, and so would my sister.”

“Your sister… she does not wander with you?” asked Erchin, while knotting the unfinished leather threads without looking at his own fingers very much. This was a pattern he had done often enough.

“Nay,” laughed Falathar. “She prefers a settled life. She is the librarian of our Lord Gildor, back in Edhellond.”

“Edhellond?” the name said Erchin very little. “Is that a town? Where is it? I have never heard the name before.”

“’Tis a small Elven haven in Belfalas, near Dol Amroth,” explained the minstrel.

“And you are going all the way on foot?” wondered Erchin with a slight frown on his young face. “That is a very long journey, even for Elves.”

The minstrel laughed again. “Nay, not for us. We are the Wandering Elves; going from one place to another is our way of life. We have lived that way for three Ages – and we shall go on ‘til the end of Arda… or beyond.”

Erchin shook his head. “I could not live like that… without roots, without a place to call home.”

“We do have a home,” laughed the Elf. “Nay, not only one home; we have many homes, along our established routes. The whole of Arda is our home.”

That sounded a little too lofty for Erchin, and he knew not what to answer. Instead, he offered the now finished belt buckle – in the perfect shape of a blue butterfly – to the minstrel.

“Done, Master Elf,” he announced. “And it will only cost you twelve copper pieces.” Which was twice as much as he would have demanded from a mortal customer, but if the Elves chose not to bargain, whose fault was that?

Falathar took it from him and admired it from all sides.

“Amazingly accurate,” he said, “and surely worth every single copper penny that you have asked for. Melthinorn, my dear friend, do pay for our acquirement, and then let us go to the tavern. I feel like singing Lindir’s ballad of the ‘Birth of Blue Butterflies’, all of the sudden.”

The other minstrel grinned, paid for both the belt and the butterfly-shaped buckle without haggling, and the two of them left, arm in arm, singing something in their own language. The female Elf, whom they had called the horse-lady, looked after them with mild disapproval.

“For some people,” she declared in a strangely maternal manner, “not even thousands of years are enough to grow up.”

~The End – for now~

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