For disclaimer, etc., see the Prologue.
Author’s note: The ballad of Princess Mee is actually a Tolkien poem. You can read the full version in “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”.
Author’s note: The ballad of Princess Mee is actually a Tolkien poem. You can read the full version in “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”.
PART 12 – THE MINSTRELS
After leaving the leather-workers’ booth, Falathar and Melthinorn, the two Elven minstrels, went indeed to the first tavern they had come across. That happened to be The Cellar, the wine-merchant Sulain’s large and well-favoured establishment, where the best wines of the neighbouring vineyards were offered, as well as some imported goods, from as far as Dorwinion in the North and Harad in the South.
The wine-merchant, a long, lean, fastidious man, wearing a long gown of fashionable cut and an air of impatient self-importance, came hurriedly to greet the rare guests in his own austere person. Even his wife, the Dame Adelais came forth from the private rooms to see the once-in-a-life event: Elves visiting their tavern. As The Cellar only sold beverages and no food, there was no need for her to labour over the hearth, with or without help.
Not that she would do so in any case. Dame they called her, albeit not entirely deserved, as she came of common stock, just like her husband. But she was a great beauty and a stranger to the town, hailing from Pelargir. She had to be one of the younger daughters of some rich merchant in that old city of wealth and wickedness, for why else would her father marry her off to a merchant in a far-away little town?
She bore her fate with dignity, though, moving around among the Old Folk with the regal distance of an exiled queen. She was of pure Dúnadan blood, and it showed. But seeing the two Elves entering the tavern, even she lost a little of her aloofness. After all, Elves were something different from the usual crowd filling the taproom, and Elven minstrels were a breed unto themselves. Who would willingly miss the chance to see them in the flesh?
Falathar and Melthinorn gave the local wine a try, but after the first cup, they declared it not their liking. That worried Sulain greatly, for had the news spread that the Elves had not been satisfied with his offer, it could have ruined his reputation as a wine-seller in the eyes of the local noblemen. Particularly in the eyes of Lord Ulmondil, one of the younger vassals of Lord Orchald’s, who fancied himself a ‘true’ Númenórean (whatever that was supposed to mean) and an Elf-friend – not that he had ever seen one.
Thus Sulain took great effort to satisfy his immortal customers, and he ordered his seventeen-year-old son, who worked as the potman of The Cellar, to bring up the last small barrel of Dorwinion red they still had in store. He secretly hoped to cut out a good price of the Elves who, as every soul in town had heard by now, did not haggle over the prices asked of them.
Falathar and Melthinorn recognized the ‘noble droplet’(1), as the Rohirrim would say, of course, and appreciated the wine-merchant’s effort very much. Unfortunately for Sulain, though, they were also familiar with the worth of Dorwinion red on all markets between Dale and Pelargir, and were not ready to be cheated. True, they did not bargain – they simply told the wine-seller the price they were willing to pay. If Sulain took it, that was fine with them. If not, he could take his barrel back to store.
‘Twas a great humiliation for the haughty wine-merchant, of course, but in the end he gave in, as no-one else would have been able to buy a barrel of Dorwinion from him. Well, save Master Suanach perhaps, but the old mercer preferred Haradric wine anyway.
This being settled, the two minstrels made themselves comfortable at one of the smaller tables to enjoy their wine. The other patrons – mainly well-to-do merchants who had come in to wet their throats after all that haggling and bargaining – eyed them with respect. No-one could remember Sulain having been pout to his place so thoroughly before.
A tall, bearded fellow at one of the side tables raised his wine cup into the Elves’ direction.
“My compliments, good sirs,” he said. “’Tis rare to see Sulain being beaten in his own game. Well done indeed! ‘Tis a tale that will be told in town many times ‘til Yuletide… or beyond.”
“And who, pray tell, would you be, good sir?” asked Falathar with interest. For at the man’s feet, carefully wrapped in linen cloth, a familiarly-shaped item stood on the floor. The minstrel could have sworn that it was a small, hand-held harp. The Man grinned and stood.
“Ai, forgive my manners, or rather the lack thereof,” he said, bowing with flourish. “Rhisiart, the minstrel at your service. Although I suspect that compared with Elves, I could hardly call myself one. But I do have some small talent with the harp, and my name is known in the manors of Anórien, and even beyond the border of the Mark.”
“And a good name it is for which I can bear witness,” said a flaxen-haired trader from Rohan. “I have heard him and will tell you: not many scoops are half as good in their trade.”
Delighted to find someone of their own vocation, the Elven minstrels invited their mortal colleague to their table and offered him some of the noble Dorwinion red. Soon enough, they were heavily involved in a discussion concerning melodies and verse and musical instruments used among Elves and Men, respectively, improvising merry little songs to emphasize their point. After a while, the other minstrels of the Wandering Company appeared as well: a tall, auburn-haired fellow by the name of Orgof and his wife, Nuinor. The wine flowed freely, spirits were high, and the other patrons found the whole thing very entertaining.
Now, it must be said that while the old tales were right about only very strong wine making Elves drowsy, as they could hold their wine better than any other creature that walked Middle-earth, it was not impossible to make them drunk. And Dorwinion red could knock even Silvan Elves out cold, who were the hardiest of all Elven kindreds – at least when it came to archery or drinking.
So aye, the small barrel was still half full when the Elves – and Rhisiart the minstrel, not to mention the trader of Rohan who also turned out to be a songwright of some sort among his own people – became very, very drunk. However, it did not make them sleepy. On the contrary, the Elves turned rather merry in their intoxication, and were now singing the ballad of Princess Mee, which, as they stated, they had learned from an old halfling in the land of the halfling quite some time ago. ‘Twas a rather… questionable ballad, at least the way they sung it, in perfect harmony in four voices, although the old halfling probably would have difficulties to recognize the words that got somewhat… reimagined by the drunk Elves, at least after the first verse.
Lovely was she
As in Elven-song is told:
She had pearls in hair
All threaded fair;
Of gossamer shot with gold
Was her kerchief made,
And a silver braid
Of stars above her throat.
Of moth-web light
She wore a woven coat,
And round her kirtle
Was bound a girdle
Sewn with diamond dew.
“Aaah,” sighed the trader from Rohan heavily; even he was severely inebriated by now, although the Men of the Mark were said to be almost as steadfast drinkers as Elves. They were more used to strong ale and beer, though, and anyway, Dorwinion red had the kick of a mule. “Aaah,” he sighed again, melancholy clouding his board face. “Sweet is the music of Elves…”
“It can cure a rainy day and make dried grass green again,” assured him Nuinor, the female minstrel.
If anyone, she should know. She was an ancient Teleri Elf, despite looking like a young maiden – if one did not see the Ages-old wisdom in her clear (well, not that clear at the moment) grey eyes. She was one of those few still in Middle-earth who had seen Lúthien Tinúviel in the flesh and heard Daeron sing. She knew what Elven song could do.
“It can sweeten sour wine,” added Falathar, giggling ‘til his tears began to flow, and raised his wine cup for a refill. Orgof, somewhat less drunk than the rest of them and thus steadier of hand, poured him more wine.
“Now that,” said one of the equally drunk patrons, “I cannot believe.”
Several others needed gravely in agreement, but Falathar was not an Elf to leave a challenge unanswered. Especially not when he was very drunk. Which, admittedly, happened once in a century, but when it happened, then was no way to stop him.
“You doubt my words, good sirs?” he asked, clearly affronted. “Very well; I shall prove you that I am right.”
“Falathar,” his friend and fellow minstrel tried to soothe him, “leave it be.”
But Falathar shook his head stubbornly. ”Nay, friend Melthinorn, this I cannot let lie. ‘Tis a matter of honour, after all. These people want proof? I shall give them proof. Where can we get the worst, sourest wine in the entire town?”
“That would be The Barn in the New Port,” supplied Sulain with a falsely benevolent smile, “run by Clemow, the husband of my poor sister.”
“All the better,” declared Falathar. “There we shall go, then – all of us. You, good sirs, will buy and drink the worst that tavern can offer – and we shall sing. We will see who turns out to be right in the end.”
“Now, this I have to see,” said Crico of Pensyow, the wool-merchant from Lebennin and stood, throwing the price of the wine he had consumed onto the table. His business partner, sour-faced Foich, nodded sagely and followed suit. The other patrons found this a very good idea, and soon, the tavern was as good as empty, a small crowd following the drunken Elves out to the street.
Sulain paled in anger and disappointment. This was not what he had intended when bringing up the miserable little tavern of his brother-in-law, but he could do naught to change things in hindsight. Orgof, the senior Elven minstrel, shook his head in mild exasperation.
“Noldor and their foolish pride,” he said.
But Nuinor just laughed, throwing her glossy black hair that had come free, back with a quick, elegant sweep of her head.
“They are young,” she said, “so let them play. Will you not come with us? This should be fun.”
“Mayhap,” replied Orgof, hefting the half-emptied barrel of Dorwinion under his arm, for it would have been a criminal waste to leave it behind, after the two younger minstrels had already paid good coin for it. “I wonder, though, who will be laughing in the end.”
But he followed his wife out of the tavern nonetheless, leaving a fuming Sulain behind.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
And so it came that The Barn got filled with immortal Elves and wealthy traders from all over Gondor in that evening, and these fine people kept drinking Clemow’s worst wine ‘til deep into the night, while the Elves were singing, first in Common, then in their own tongue, and they seemed never to tire.
Sweet Elven song and sour wine battled each other well beyond curfew, which, fortunately, had been lifted for the duration of the Fair. Neither the Elves, nor any of the audience wanted to give in, and more coin was addes to the small wooden bowl on the counter after each new song. Mostly copper and bronze pieces, but there was the odd silver as well. The small mound of coin could already have fed a family for weeks, and the bet was still going on.
The patrons kept drinking, driven by the stubborn urge to prove the Elves wrong, and coin was clinking in Clemow’s eager hands after each round. He could barely keep up with the calculations in his head, but one thing was certain: this was going his best winning in the entire Fair.
Around midnight, everyone in the taproom was drunk beyond measure. Foich of Stennack had long fallen asleep and was now snoring on the table. The other Men, while still awake, were lolling incoherent things, while the Elves kept singing, switching from Sindarin to Quenya, the mother of all tongues. It sounded incredibly beautiful, as if the Valar themselves had descended onto Middle-earth to make the simple folk happy, for this one time.
There were tears in the listening Men’s eyes, and the noise quieted down almost on its own.
“I must say, friend Foich,“ stuttered Crico of Pensyow, staring into his wine cup with the honest surprise of the very drunk (and completely oblivious of the fact that his friend was dead to the world like a log), “’tis not that bad, after all. In truth, it almost tastes sweet.
That declaration decided the bet on behalf of the Elves, of course, much to the dismay of the others. There could be no doubt that Crico of Pensyow would hear a few unfriendly words when everyone had sobered up on the next day, Clemow thought, as some of the patrons had opened their purses wider than they had perhaps originally intended. Not that any-one would feel pity for him.
Falathar took from the betting bowl four silver pieces, one for each Elf present. Then he pushed the rest, still generously sparkled with silver, before the tavern owned.
“For your hospitality, good sir, and for the working hours you have put out to help us bring our little bet to its pleasant end,” he said. Then he turned to his companion. “Melthinorn, my friend, I believe we ought to leave now, if we wish to greet the sunrise in the morning.”
The other minstrel nodded and rose, standing on somewhat shaky legs, and turned to the disappointed patrons with a grand gesture that nearly made him lose his balance and fall over.
“We thank you, good sirs, for the entertaining evening,” he said. “Should we ever get the chance to visit this lovely town again, we shall most certainly seek out your company.” He hiccupped and grabbed his friend’s shoulder for leverage. “Lead on, fair Falathar!”
Supporting each other with surprisingly good effect, the two sauntered towards the door. Orgof and Nuinor followed them arm in arm, with identical grins upon their faces. But Clemow stopped them mid-track.
“Wait, Master Elf!” he said. “You have left half a barrel Dorwinion behind!”
Orgof looked at the barrel, contemplated the task of carrying it back to the Infirmary gardens… then he waved the tavern owner’s concern off.
“Keep it,” he said. “I believe you can sell it for a good price… and those two had more than enough of it already.”
“But they have paid good coin for it,” pointed out Clemow.
Orgof shrugged. “So they have. That will teach them to be more careful with their acquisitions. If any-one tries to give you grief about that wine, tell them that Orgof the minstrel has entrusted it to you.”
With that, they went on their way, he and his lovely wife, leaving Clemow with half a barren Dorwinion red and a bowl full of coin behind. The tired little man sat down behind the counter and stared at his small, unexpected fortune in disbelief.
Nay, it would not save The Barn from the ruin, should the ale-house open its doors again. But it was a beginning. And if his wife, too, succeeded to get from her brother the coin she was owed, then perchance they would not lose their modest livelihood, after all.
“Leave your water barrels here,” he said to Cinni, infected a little by all that Elven generosity. “I will buy what still is there in them. You deserve to earn some easy coin, too, and we will need the water in any case… to brew my grandmother’s famous hangover cure for all these fine people here.”
~The End – for now~
Note: 'a noble droplet' is the literal translation of the German expression "ein edles Tröpfchen", meaning really good beverage.