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Tales from Halabor
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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2
The Rose Harvest

Rating: G, for this story.
Series: “Sons of Gondor”, a series of individual stories. A side product to “The Shoemaker’s Daughter”.
Summary: Young Lord Herumor visits the annual rose harvest on the oil merchant’s fields.


~~~

THE ROSE HARVEST

Summer came early in the year 3002 of the Third Age to Halabor, a small Gondorian fishing and merchant town that lay at the western bank of Anduin, opposite the southernmost edge of the isle of Cair Andros. Here, where the sheer rock upon which Lord Orchald’s castle had been built many hundred years ago thrust into the body of the Great River, the water was as wide and calm as the Sea, and people simply called it the Lake, even though it was none, for the undercurrents ran deep below the surface and did not re-emerge from all that calmness but farther south, where the vellum-maker’s workshop stood.

With the coming of the summer came the season of the rose harvest. Thrimidge(1) had already been very warm this year, and Lithe(2) proved even warmer, thus the rose gardens were in full bloom at the beginning of the first summer moon, which was an unusual thing, but not entirely unheard of. There could be no doubt whatsoever that the harvest would be finished ‘til the Summer Days(3), and that the yield of rose oil and rosewater would be exceptionally high this time.

It also meant that the wives and daughters of many a poor farmer would have much work – and thus earn good coin for their families – at the beginning of the summer. Harvesting roses was women’s work; one had to be small to do it more easily, with small hands and agile fingers, and one needed great skill and experience to avoid the ever-present thorns as much as possible.

Even so, no-one who had ever harvested roses could avoid small injuries or even long, vicious scratches on their bare arms. Sleeves were generally rolled up or pinned back, as clothes could not mend on their own as living flesh could, and the poor womenfolk rarely had spare clothes to replace the ones torn during the back-breaking work in the rose gardens.

Said gardens lay near the river bank, joining the herb gardens of the Infirmary from the east and the crop fields of the same Infirmary from the north. Further eastward from them stretched the lavender fields, which also belonged to Master Faelon, the oil merchant of Halabor, who not only traded in spiced and scented oils but also produced a great variety of them, prominently walnut, hazelnut and almond oil and vinegar, but also rose and lavender oil, rose water, various spirits made of hazelnuts and juniper or even pine seeds. He had his oil shop on the ground floor of his townhouse, but his warehouse, his oil mill and the still rooms were out here, amidst the rose and lavender fields, as it was easier to bring the majority of his products directly to the Old Port, where his barge lay at anchor, ready to ship his much sought-after wares to the South: to Minas Tirith, to Linhir and Pelargir, sometimes even as far as Umbar and Nah-Harad.

The making of rose oil and rosewater had but a short tradition in Halabor. The craft – and the skills needed to practice it – had been brought there by Mistress Eirendel, the wife of the old oil-merchant, from Linhir, one of the chief towns of Lebennin, which lay right above the mouth of the River Gilrain. To the present day, Mistress Eirendel supervised the rose harvest personally, despite her advanced age.

She was a tall, imposing woman of Dúnadan blood – albeit of common birth – who ruled her fragrant empire like an exiled queen, as much as she had grown fond of her home as time had gone by. She had brought the roses from the South, too: a rich, particularly fragrant sort called the Haradric Damask that grew surprisingly well in Halabor’s colder climate. Unlike the local varieties that were white or yellow or pale pink, mostly, her rose gardens turned into a fragrant, moving sea of deep red and vivid pink at harvest time – a sea that threatened to swallow the busy workers among the bushes.

As always, on this Meresdei(4) the harvest had begun at daybreak and proceeded ‘til about the fourth hour of the day(5). As always, Mistress Eirendel had stood next to the door of the still rooms all those hours, tall, erect and dark-clothed, despite the warmth that could be felt even in this early time of the day, her raven hair, coiled in heavy braids on either side of her fine-boned face, barely touched by the frost of age. Only the slightly shrunken flesh of her cheeks revealed that she was not longer young, mayhap beyond what was considered middle age for the Old Folk, not though for her own Dúnadan kind. Her hands, though strong and shapely still, betrayed her with swollen knuckles and seamed veins, showing that in spite of her elegance, she was used to hard work all her life.

“’Tis always best to harvest the rose petals while the dew is still on them,” she explained to the new workers who had come to the harvest for the first time this year; due to the excellent weather, more hands were needed than usual. “The heat of the day would cause the fine oils to evaporate into the warm air. See that only the rose petals are taken; no green bits are allowed.”

Young Lord Herumor, who had come in his father’s stead to oversee the rose harvest this year, watched with interest as the workers carefully shook the harvested rose petals from their wicker baskets into large canvas sacks, which then were loaded with the same care onto small, too-wheeled carts, on which they made the short journey from the rose gardens to the still room.

“Care must be taken not to bruise the rose petals,” explained Mistress Eirendel, seeing their young lord’s honest interest for the process, “or else they would begin to ferment before their time and the whole day’s harvest would be lost. These are delicate flowers. But feel free to go with the workers, my Lord, if you want to see what will be done next.”

His curiosity piqued now, young Lord Herumor followed the workers to the still rooms, which joined the oil merchant’s warehouse on the opposite side as the oil mill. Once there, the sacks of rose petals were unloaded from the cart and unceremoniously dumped on the smooth, cool stone floor of a large, empty room.

“Here they will ferment for a while,” said Mistress Goneril, who was not only the daughter-in-law of Mistress Eirendel but also her niece, at Herumor’s questioning look. “Decomposition helps to produce more fragrant oil inside of the rose petals.”

“How long does it take?” asked Herumor, taking a deep breath. The room was incredibly aromatic already, making it hard to breathe. It was also quite warm in there, thus he shed his light cottee hurriedly; the open-necked, fine linen shirt he wore underneath was more than enough to serve proper decorum.

“Several hours,” replied Mistress Goneril. “’Tis better to heat up the steam jacket when ‘tis not so hot in the outside anyway.”

Herumor eyed the already two feet thick rose petal mattress with dreamy eyes. “It would make a bedding beyond belief,” he said softly.

Mistress Goneril laughed. “And it would ruin a day’s hard work beyond help,” she answered. “I must ask you to stay away from it, my Lord. Rose petals are very delicate.”

“That is what your aunt told me,” said Herumor.

“And she was right, of course,” she replied. “That is why we cannot extract the oil with the help of steam. Once hit by the heat of steam, the rose petals would form mush, which does not permit complete distillation.”

“How do you do it then?” asked Herumor.

“We do it with water,” Mistress Goneril led him to one of the still rooms, where the distiller – a large copper container that could take about a hundred gallons of water – stood in the middle. The container was surrounded by the steam jacket, into the bottom of which the steam was introduced through a copper tube.

“First we fill the still with water – fortunately, the creek that operates the oil mill has enough of it, and we can simply pump it right into the still rooms,” she explained. “Then we fill in the rose petals, about one hundred pounds of it, packing the still to the top, to overflowing. The steam then causes the water inside the pot boil. If we heated the pot by direct fire, we would burn the rose petals, as the water inside would evaporate as the process goes on, and the rose petals would contact with the hot sides of the still.”

“And that would be bad, right?” asked Herumor.

Mistress Goneril nodded. “One thing you never want to do, my Lord, is to burn your raw material.”

“And heating the pot this way you can prevent that?” Herumor was still a little doubtful.

“Oh, aye, that we can indeed,” she waved in the general direction of the pot. “You see, our still is a two-storey operation. First we load the rose petals into the top of the still, where they must float freely in water in order for them to be distilled. When the distillation period is over, the bottom of the still is opened to remove the spent rose petals and the remaining waters.”

Herumor frowned. It sounded like an incredibly complicated process, where a lot of things could go wrong at every step. Who would have thought that the simple folk had the necessary skill and knowledge to deal with such a delicate operation? He would have expected this from Elves, mayhap from some very skilled craftsmen or craftswomen in Minas Tirith or Dol Amroth, but never from the Old Folk. He began to understand his father’s deep respect for their subjects; a respect that was whole-heartedly returned by the people. He also began to see why his father had insisted that he came to the rose harvest (just as he had been sent to watch the crop and fruit harvests, to visit the workshops of various craftsmen and the farms): he needed to know his future subjects in the same depth his father had come to know them, in order to be a good Lord for them one day.

“I still cannot see where the rose oil would come out,” he admitted, more than a little confused.

Mistress Goneril laughed. “It does not come out in the same form you can buy it when it has already been filled into small bottles,” she said. “As the distillation proceeds, the distillate is captured in a receiving can, with the attar – the rose oil – floating to the top. After the attar has been separated and gathered, the remaining waters must be redistilled, in order to remove the oils which have not been separated from the waters the first time. These then will be added to the already gathered attar, filtered and blended back together, ere they could be filled in bottles.”

Herumor listened to her with growing respect. She could not be much older than he was, a tall, slender, energetic woman with a wide white brow, a sweet, oval face and wide-set, lovely eyes that saw anything but looked at anything with understanding and pity. She was not beautiful as her aunt must once have been, had not possessed the same stern bearing and dark radiance, but there could be no doubt that she was capable of keeping the whole harvest well under control when needs must be. Gentler than her aunt, aye, she still had the strength of true Dúnadan breeding, even if not nobly born.

“’Tis hard work you are doing here, you and your hired hands,” said Herumor, wishing he could have phrased his respect a little better. “I have never thought it would be so complicated… ‘til today.”

“Aye, it is complicated,” she agreed, “and great care must be taken to prevent the distillate from being soiled. That would ruin all the previous work in a wink of an eye.”

“You seem to know the entire process by the heart, though,” said Herumor. “Where have you learned it?”

“Our family has been making rose oil and rosewater, back in Linhir, for at least four generations,” she replied. “’Tis said that one of our forefathers married a woman from Near-Harad, and it was she who brought the skills and the knowledge with her. That is why our attar is so different from that which is produced in Lossarnach: wilder, more intensely scented and heavier.”

“Is that also the reason why you mostly sell it in the South?” asked Herumor.

She nodded. “Aye; people in the South have different tastes. My husband takes an entire shipload of attar, lavender oil and nut oils as far south as Umbar each year; although the nut oils are much asked for in the Riddermark, too.”

“Master Thaneau is a brave man,” said Herumor, “to sail into Umbar at a time when things are a little… tense between Gondor and that realm.”

Mistress Goneril shrugged. “’Tis not any worse than having to bother with the Hanse of Lebennin all the time,” she said. “The merchants of Umbar know how to keep the Corsairs under control. They know that if our barges were raided we would no longer send our wares to them – and that is not within their interests. They want our wares, so they have to see that our barges arrive safely. Oh, their taxes are high, outrageously so, but we can still earn good, honest coin, thus we are not truly concerned about that.”

“’Tis still seems strange to me to have such friendly contacts with Umbar, of all places,” said Herumor.

Mistress Goneril shrugged again. “Everyone needs the trade. The great and mighty lords fight their wars, but ‘tis the merchants who keep things running behind the battlefields.”

Herumor still found this view a little simplified for his own taste – after all, due to his father’s contacts to the Steward of Gondor and the Prince of Dol Amroth he knew all too well what (or rather who) was truly pulling the strings that directed the moves of Umbar and the Haradric realms. Ere he could say aught, though, one of the hired workers came to speak with Mistress Goneril. She was one of the farmers’ wives, if her tanned face and rough hands were any indication, and an elderly one at that.

“Begging your pardon, Mistress,” she said in her scratchy voice, “but the rose water from yesterday has been bottled.”

Mistress Goneril nodded. “Have the girls take the bottles to the cold room in the stone cellar. I shall send down Howel, too” that was the oil merchant’s clerk, “with the inventory books, so see to it that the bottles are marked properly. We have several standing orders from the neighbouring manors already, and I wish not for the bottles to be sent to the wrong place. Howel will show you how to store them ‘til they can be sent out to the customers.”

“Understood, Mistress,” the old woman scurried away, and Mistress Goneril looked after her with a certain fondness.

“Good old Demelza,” she said. “She has been working for us during harvest season for longer than I have been alive, I think. She is such a great help for us. I know not what we would do without her.”

“Why is that?” asked Herumor in surprise.

Mistress Goneril gave him a somewhat sad smile. “You see, my Lord, we are strangers here, Aunt Eirendel and myself. No matter how long we have lived in Halabor already, the Old Folk will always see us as foreigners. But what they would take from us with resentment, they take from old Demelza willingly. We are fortunate indeed to have her working for us.”

At this point their conversation was interrupted again, this time by an elderly man – the tenant of the lavender fields – who told them that the harvest was done for the day, as it was getting too warm already.

“Breakfast is being served behind the warehouse,” he added ere leaving them again.

Mistress Goneril looked at their young lord expectantly.

“We would be honoured if you broke your fast with us, my Lord,” she said. “Our fare is simple, yet tasty enough – or so your lord father has always found when he came to visit the rose harvest. As you have said yourself, this is hard and delicate work; sharing the table with the Lord or his heir always means a great deal to our hired hands.”

Herumor accepted the offer without much ado. His father, and his grandfather before him, had long adapted to the simpler ways of the Old Folk and ruled their subjects in the manner of caring fathers rather than like many other Dúnadan lord. He knew the same would be expected from him, too, and that was fine with him, honestly. After all, had his late mother – a cousin to Lord Forlong of Lossarnach – not come from the Old Folk, too?

Thus he sad down in his modest finery with the hired hands to the long trestle table, shared with them the milk and porridge that was offered for breakfast, laughed and jested with them and told them stories about his years as an esquire in Dol Amroth and about the strange customs in the Princes’ refined court. The simple folk listened to him with rapture, like children who are told fairy tales.

Mistress Eirendel, watching him from some distance, nodded contentedly.

“He will be a good Lord for Halabor one day,” she said to her niece. “Just like his lord father.”

~The End – for now~

~~~

(1) Thrimidge = the Middle Earth equivalent of our May
(2) Lithe = the Middle Earth equivalent of our June
(3) Summer Days = the additional days between June and July, which make it possible for each month to be exactly 30 days long
(4) Meresdei = the Middle Earth equivalent of our Monday. (On ME, Highday corresponded our Friday and was considered the day of rest, therefore the week started with what we'd consider Saturday. Yes, it is complicated, I know. I have had my own set of headaches about is.)
(5) the fourth hour of the day = 10 AM. In Gondor the hours were counted from daybreak (generally from 6 AM) rather than from midnight.


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