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An Autumn Fair in Halabor
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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21
The Ale-Wife

For disclaimer, etc., see the Prologue.

Author’s note: Whatever is mentioned about medieval ale-brewing below, is the result of extensive research. I might have messed up the amounts and proportions or the required time for brewing, although I did my best not to. So, should there be mistakes, I humbly ask for your forgiveness.


~~~

PART 20 – THE ALE-WIFE

Lavercham and her family came well-prepared to the Autumn Fair. For an entire week, they had brewed about eight quarters of barley and dredge each day, each quarter yielding about sixty gallons of ale. They had also brewed half that amount of beer, using a method learned from the Rohirrim, and as much mead as bear, with the help of Keir, the honey-maker. The entire family had been working on preparing the necessary amounts of beverages to be sold during the fair: Lavercham herself, her husband Cathan, a local farmer, their ten children, between the ages of eleven and twenty-five, the husbands of their married daughters, and Gennys, the innkeeper’s youngest brother, who had been apprenticed to them two years earlier.

Although most of the larger families brewed ale for their own need, there were great differences between that homemade beverage and really good ale. Some homemade brews were so horrible they could have poisoned Orcs, while a good ale-wife could produce various sorts, one better than the other.

And Lavercham, wife of Cathan, mother of fourteen children, ten of whom were still alive, was the best ale-wife from the border of Rohan to Minas Tirith. Everyone knew that.

To brew really tasty ale one needed three things: a good recipe, good grain and someone who knew all the necessary tasks. Lavercham was in possession of all these things. She had the recipes: one for week ale and one for strong ale, passed down to her by her own mother and grandmother; the recipes for beer and mead came from Rohan, through one of her mother’s ancestors and were a family secret. She had the grain: her own husband grew it on the few hides of land where they all lived. And she had the skills, having taken part in the brewing process from childhood on.

Just two years past fifty, Lavercham was a large woman for someone from the Old Folk, and still well-shaped like a loaf, despite having given birth so many times. Her plump but spotless brown homespun gown and white apron only increased the general largeness about her, that was already emphasized by a round face and thick arms. She was used to work hard, both on the fields and at the brewing tanks, and she enjoyed her work, as her small, twinkling brown eyes revealed. Not being one of the respectable burghesses, she was not allowed to wear a headdress, but the light brown cloth that she had draped over her crisp white wimple made her appear just as imposing.

Her tent was a large one, and it stood in the middle of the fairground. Her twin sons, Labran and Lethan, had built it up in time and had hammered the legs of the long tables surrounding it firmly into the ground, so that drunken customers would not be able to overthrow them easily. In times like this, when ale, beer and mead were flowing easily, one could not be careful enough. Lavercham had arranged with the carter that fresh barrels would be brought from her husband’s farmstead every morning, and while the oldest boys (the same twins that had built up the tent) went with the cart to pack and protect the barrels, and eighteen-year-old Baculo stayed with her to help her and protect her from the drunkards, the youngest ones, Lonio and Cathal, served as pot-boys. Her four daughters, down to little Lifaech, were busily keeping the tent clean and washing the tankards in a large wooden trog in the back of the tent.

They had all been a little surprised when Sydnius, the reeve of the Old Port, had approached them two years earlier and asked to take his youngest brother as their apprentice in the ale-brewing business. To be honest, they had not believed that the brother of the wealthy innkeeper would ever get used to the hard work on the fields; for a good ale-brewer needed to learn all the skills, from the growing of the right sorts of crop through the fermentation process ‘til the last little touches that made Lavercham’s ale so much better than anything else one could get this side of Minas Tirith.

But the innkeeper had offered the full apprentice fee for his brother, and the family needed the coin, so they had agreed, in the end. Fortunately, young Gennys turned out a very personable young man – unlike his middle brother, the carter, with whom Lavercham often had the questionable pleasure to deal with. Gennys came more after Sydnius himself: he was friendly, hard-working and willing to learn.

Not that he would have any other choice, of course. With Sydnius inheriting the Riverside Inn from their father and Merryn inheriting the carter business from their grandfather, Gennys truly needed to find his own place and make his own fortune. A third son could only count on himself. In a way, Gennys had been fortunate that Sydnius was willing to supply his apprentice fee. As much as the families of the Old Folk stuck together, many firstborns would have been less generous. Wealthy ones even more so than poor ones, as with wealth usually came greed, even towards one’s own flesh and blood.

But Sydnius was different than most. As the patriarch of their family (despite his relative youth), he felt responsible for his brother, and was willing to support Gennys, as long as Gennys was willing to work hard on his own future. He had even agreed that Gennys should marry sweet little Cardith, even though Lavercham and Cathan could give their daughter no dowry at all. But Gennys wanted to re-open the ale-house in the New Port, the Old Sailor, and a respectable man with an ale-house needed a wife. Preferably one who understood a lot about ale and beer and could cook well.

Lavercham gave her young daughter a fond glance. ‘Twas true, Cardith was a mere fourteen, barely old enough to get married, according to the customs of the Old Folk. But she was strong and healthy, and pretty enough, too, to become a member of the reeve’s well-respected family. Besides, Lavercham was not willing to let her go ‘til the Old Sailor was ready to open its doors for the customers again, and that could take moons yet, mayhap even as long as a year.

The girl was a feast for sore eyes, for sure, Lavercham thought contently. Not tall, but softly rounded, and she seemed to shine with an inner brightness as if she would always smile; not only her rose petal lips and wide-set and wide open eyes, but her entire body, from the thick coils of her soft brown hair to her small, tireless feet. Her round face mirrored simple joy in life, despite its occasional hardness.

She would shoulder the burden of a family in a year or two. Of that Lavercham was sure. And the thought filled her heart with pride.

She had married off her older daughters years ago, to decent, hard-working tenants. They had become good wives and mothers; respectable young women who ran their households competently. But Cardith would marry the owner of an ale-house; she would become what her sisters could not: a respected burghess. Aye, work would be aplenty, but Cardith would rise in status nonetheless – and her status would reflect back well to the whole family.

Taking in Gennys as an apprentice had been a good decision indeed.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The object of his musings – namely Gennys himself – had just entered the tent, rolling a heavy barrel before him. He was a big, lusty fellow of twenty-seven, with russet hair and brawny arms, and an easy smile upon his broad, open face. He might be nearly twice Cardith’s age, but that difference would seem less as the years would go by, and he was a good, decent, reliable man. He would treat his wife well, like his older brother, the innkeeper, not like the middle one, the carter.

“The fresh barrels have come in, Mistress Lavercham,” he said, a bit unnecessarily, and wiped his brow with the sleeve of his shirt. “When they are all brought in, I would like to leave for a while, though – that is, if you do not mind. I need to meet with the stone-wright, the roofer and the carpenter, to take a look at the Old Sailor, now that it is mine.”

Lavercham raised an eyebrow. “Has that been decided and written down already?” Promises were one thing. Having a written contract was an entirely different one.

Gennys nodded. “The Guild leaders had their council on the fifth day of the fair – yestereve, that is. My brother has vouched for me and promised to pay the price in my stead. I shall have to pay it back, of course, but at the very least, I can stand on my own feet – and feed my family, hopefully soon.”

“You should be careful how to bargain with the builders,” warned Lavercham. “You cannot afford to heap more debt onto your head… and we cannot help you with aught else but the labour of our hands.”

“I know that, Mistress Lavercham,” replied Gennys with a small smile. “I am hopeful, though that we shall manage somehow. Everyone must begin somewhere, and this will be as good a beginning as any. I shall see that Cardith has a good life with me. I promise.”

“I shall take you on your word,” said Lavercham. “I have grown fond of you and no mistake; you have become as a son to me in these last years. But if you make my little bird miserable, I will find you, and you will have to answer to me. You would not wish that to happen.”

“Most certainly not,” laughed Gennys. “I have a healthy respect for you, Mistress Lavercham, and would not dream of raising your ire.”

“That,” declared the ale-wife, “is a very wise decision. Now, off with you. You have important people to meet. Letting them wait would not bode well.”

“But the barrels…” began Gennys.

Lavercham slapped him on the back… not too gently.

“Baculo and the others will manage without you,” she said. “They have to learn it anyway. Go and do something for your future!”

~The End – for now~

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