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An Autumn Fair in Halabor
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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11
The Wine-Crier

For disclaimer, etc., see the Prologue.

Author’s note: Medieval wine-criers were actually hired by a particular tavern to give out free samples from wooden buckets – a kind of advertising. Other sources mention that they also investigated taverns on behalf of the magistrate or the market wardens. I chose to go with the second version here.


~~~

PART 10 – THE WINE-CRIER

The Barn, the small tavern of Clemow, the wine-crier, was perched like some bird’s nest in a narrow, secluded close-off the upper end of the western ramparts. It was sited about midway between Nurria’s Gate and the Warehouse, and the small lanes leading to it were shut between the cottages of the New Port and the town wall. It was mostly visited by the poor, penniless folk of the New Port, or the workers of the Warehouse, for Clemow sold naught but young wine that was usually of poor quality. So poor indeed, that even the penniless or the small-purse customers could afford it from time to time.

For that, there was a very good reason. As the wine-crier of the town – meaning, the very person who regularly visited other taverns and even vineyards on behalf of the Merchant’s Guild – Clemow was entitled to confiscate all the wine that did not match the high demands of the Guild. He was also allowed to keep the confiscated beverage (after having paid a small fee to the original owners) and sell it in his own small tavern. That way, the noble lords and wealthy burghers could be certain that only good wine would be set onto their tables, and the poor folk also got the odd chance to drown their sorrow into something else than weak ale.

It was a reasonable and practical arrangement. One that Clemow hated passionately.

Once, in better times, his family had consisted of respectable wine merchants; in times when the town was large enough, the townsfolk numerous enough to feed two such families. Ever since times had become more meagre, though, due to the trade routes turning to other directions, the two merchant houses had been struggling with each other for the shrinking market. And finally, in the lifetime of Clemow’s grandfather, his family had lost the struggle against the larger, much wealthier, more influential one of Sulain’s.

They had lost everything: their tavern, their small barge, their wares, their pack animals, even the house in which the family had lived for generations. The Barn, back then, had truly been just that: a barn, where the pack mules had once been kept, and Clemow, barely five when they had been hit by bad luck, had grown up there, for this was the only place the family had been able to keep. His grandfather could not live with the utter ruin and had killed himself into the River, and for a few years, they had believed that they would end in the New Port, starving to the death, like many unfortunate ones stranded there.

Fortunately for them, though, the wine-crier of the Guild had been beaten to death by some enraged wine-sellers from Rohan, and the Guild offered the vacated office to Cluim, Clemow’s father, who had been reasonable enough to accept. The pay had been miserable – in truth, it still was – and becoming a mere clerk after having run an independent family business more than humiliating, but at least there had been the chance to trade in the cheap confiscated wine, and slowly, step by step, they had begun to climb out of the hole in which they had fallen.

When Clemow had come of age, they had already had a house – a small, modest and not very pretty one – within the town walls again. Just on the other side of the ramparts, in a cheap and rough neighbourhood, but at least in town. Cluim had already planned to turn the barn into a cheap tavern for the poor, but there had been no way they could afford it. They had barely managed on his pay and small side earnings to begin with.

At that point, the Guild had intervened again. Not out of the goodness of their hearts, of course, just because they wanted to have the entire wine-selling business under tight control, even the small part going on in the New Port. For that reason, the leaders of the Guild had… persuaded Master Lucco, Sulain’s father, to marry of his daughter, Ladoca, to Clemow, thus uniting the formerly rival houses. It had taken some serious persuasion, but in the end, Lucco could do naught else but give in. Nobody said nay to Master Suanach when he made a suggestion.

From the generous dowry of his bride, Clemow had succeeded to have the barn rebuilt as a modest little tavern. He gave it the name The Barn, out of stubborn pride, and between the two of them, he and his father had managed to bring the family through from year to year, without asking the rich (and much-hated) family of his wife for support.

Watching his wife in the taproom always made him more than just a little sad. He had been short and wiry all his life, having grown strong from a harsh life that had killed all his siblings, and he could go on on very little doing the work for two, if he had to. But Ladoca had grown up in the abundance of a rich merchant house, and it was painfully obvious how unhappy she was in their simple home.

There she was, sitting behind a counter, a tall and erect shape, thin and proud like her Dúnadan ancestors, dark-clothed and bitter, the hearth-fire shining in copper highlights upon her shadowed face. ‘Twas hard to believe that she would be eleven years his junior, still two summers short of thirty. By her looks she could have been forty or fifty. The heavy raven braids circling both sides of her head were already touched with grey, though the fine bones of her face still kept their noble elegance. Yet her cheeks had shrunk in the recent years, and even her body had grown angular and lean, as if all the juices of youth had already dried up. Her hands, too, showed swollen knuckles and seamed veins, a clear proof of long years spent with hard work that she had not been used in her youth.

Could he truly blame her for being unhappy? She had been sold into a marriage way below her former status, due to the pressure the Guild had put upon her father. And now, at an age when other women would reach their full, ripe glow, her once great beauty had long fallen to ashes, and all she could call hers was an unworthy husband and day after day filled with hard labour.

And their children, of course, Clemow reminded himself, even though he wondered sometimes whether Ladoca had any true fondness for their offspring at all. Both seven-year old Lowenna (whom he had named ‘joy’, as she had been their first chick after long barren years) and Conall came after their mother, being dark-haired, grey-eyed and pretty, but their mother seemed to find no joy in them, no joy at all. And after Conall had been born five summers ago, there had been no other babes. It looked as if they would only ever have these two chicks, and though Clemow loved them dearly, it pained him very much that there would be no more.

‘Twas not for the lack of trying on his part; Ladoca just could not catch any more, as if she had indeed dried up completely in the inside, both in body and soul. Clemow knew what people were whispering all over the town: that his wife had gotten some secret draught from old Mistress Crodergh, so that she would not get with child. He knew not whether it was true or not, and he chose not to look into the matter too closely. For should it prove true, it would make him resent his wife, and he felt that he had no right to resent her. After all, was he not the very reason of her unhappiness?

He sighed and walked up to the counter. He wished from his very heart that he could make Ladoca, if not happy, than at least a little more content, but there was truly little hope for that.

“Go and have some rest,” he told her. “I shall take over from here.”

For it was still early afternoon, and the tavern surprisingly full, as it had been during the entire Fair so far. One would have expected it to be deserted on feast day, when the whole town was abroad, seeking out entertainment, gossip and good bargains, but it was not so. During fairs, even the poor of the New Port could find small jobs easier and were more willing to give up on a few brass pieces for a cup of sour wine. Clemow counted on reasonably good income in these days.

But the eyes of his wife were hollow, and she did not stir.

“Sulain has just been here,” she said, in a voice that was completely bereft of any feelings.

Clemow sighed again. Sulain had made it to his custom to visit The Barn at irregular times, to taunt his unfortunate sister with his own wealth and success. Whatever he might have come for, it had most likely been not good. It never was.

“What did he have this time?” he asked with resignation.

“He brought news,” replied Ladoca in the same flat voice. “There was a meeting of the Guild leaders. They have decided to sell the Old Sailor to Gennys, the innkeeper’s brother.”

Clemow froze. He needed no time to realize the devastating nature of this news. The Old Sailor, the ale-house of the New Port, had been abandoned for decades; there were simply not enough people in the Port left to fill it every day. That was why he had bee able to gather enough regular patrons for The Barn to earn a somewhat better living than he would be able to manage on the miserable pay he got from the Guild. But I the ale-house opened its doors again, it would draw in the same customers. There was a strong chance that he would lose everything. Again.

He slumped onto a battered stool. ‘Twas not fair! They had been working so hard, had given up so much, and for what? To end up outside the walls, in the New Port again? He wondered, not for the first time, what might he have angered the Old Gods with so much that they would punish him so harshly.

Had Sulain not been such a selfish bastard, had the merging of the two rival families truly led to shared business and the exclusion of any possible competition, he would not need to worry. But Sulain was a cruel and selfish man, unlike the innkeeper, who would, no doubt, support his youngest brother, and thus Clemow had no-one to turn to for help.

“’Tis a good thing, then, that Cinni is still looking for someone to help out with the water-carrying business,” he said with a mirthless laugh. “Mayhap the Guild would allow me to work with him, if I asked nicely.”

“That might not be necessary,” answered his wife, contempt clearly written in her embittered face. “Sulain had extracted a concession from the Guild: Gennys will not be allowed to sell wine. Only ale and beer and mead.”

“Which is all about what most people drink, at least the ones with more than just a few brass pieces in their purse,” reminded her Clemow. “The concession might help Sulain, so that he can keep delivering wine to the Riverside Inn and the Drunken Boat, which was, no doubt, his main concern. The reopening of the ale-house will still ruin us. And there is naught I could do against it.”

“Will we have to close The Barn again?” asked Ladoca with a frown. The little tavern had swallowed her entire dowry at the beginning and was still barely keeping them above the water. Losing it would be the end of them.

“It might come to that,” admitted Clemow, trying to fight off the cloud of black despair that was descending upon him. “If only we could offer better wine, mayhap wealthier customers would find their way here. We are the only tavern in this part of the town, after all. But we cannot; and if we lose our small-purse patrons to the ale-house, then I truly see dark for us.”

For a while, Ladoca remained silent, watching the ragged patrons slurping the cheap, sour wine in the taproom. She hated The Barn, se truly did, as she hated about everything in her marriage, but she wanted to become one of the stranded people of the New Port even less.

“I shall speak to my brother,” she finally declared.

Clemow shook his head. “That will do us no good. You know what he is like. You would only lower yourself by begging and to no end.”

“I do not intend to beg,” she replied coldly. “I happen to know a few things about my dear brother that he would hate to become widely known in town… or within the Guild, for that matter. I will remind him of that… and how he sold Mother’s jewellery that she had willed to me, without my consent and knowledge, to make a good deal somewhere in Pelargir. I will demand what I am owned… or a proper reparation.”

“You will make him our mortal enemy,” warned Clemow. “There has never been any love lost between our families, but as long as I was no threat for him, at least he left us alone… well, most of the time. That will change if you corner him.”

“And we shall lose everything if I do not,” riposted Ladoca sharply. “I shall not end like some starving harbour rat, just because my husband,” she nearly spat the word, “is unable to feed his family properly.”

That stung; more so as it was all too true. Clemow opened his mouth to strike back – with sharp words only, as he would never raise his hand against his family – then reconsidered. For the first time in years, Ladoca’s eyes were not empty; they were filled with fire and fight.

And if she wanted to fight to keep their home, no matter how much she despised it, who was he to hold her back? She had not looked so… alive for a very long time. She almost looked young again, the embers of passion burning under the ashes of her former self once more.

He had never seen her more beautiful.

~The End – for now~

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