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“We mix the mare’s milk with yeast and sugar,” Lady Éowyn said. “Then we pour it into this leather bag, and hang it in the doorway of the stable. Each time someone enters or leaves the stable, they shake the bag, and that will keep it mixed. By the time my brother and his company have arrived, the kumiss will be ready, and we’ll drink a toast to his visit!”
She and her groom, Cempa, who would be milking the mares, smiled expectantly, waiting for my reaction. I almost had to bend my head to hide my grin, for I was familiar with kumiss, had tasted it long before either of them was born. There was a tavern down in the second circle where the drink was served as exotic fare to the more adventurous folk of Gondor, and a welcome reminder of home to Rohirric visitors.
One summer evening Niallis and I were headed home from the market when we realized that we were being followed. Turning quickly (for we were forthright, if not always sensible) we found two young men, tall and blond, who, without skill in our language, had been trying to get our attention. For Nall, of course, the lack of common speech was no difficulty: her smiling eyes and dimpled cheeks were easily understood. By means of gestures, we accepted their invitation to stop for a drink.
Ale was brought for me and Nall, a fine raspberry-flavored brew, the like of which I’ve not tasted, before or since. But what caught my attention were the small cups of frothy drink downed with great delight by our companions. Noticing my interest, they ordered some for us; Nall took a single sniff and turned up her pretty nose, to their great laughter. I, as always when faced with a new food or drink, was intrigued, and happy to take a taste. Its flavor was much like buttermilk, cool and tangy, but with a sharp bite afterwards. Through a hilarious pantomime by our companions, and others in the tavern, our own guardsmen as well as merchants and tradesmen, I finally understood what the drink was, and how it was made. Evidently I was the first woman of Gondor they had met who did not turn pale after sampling it. As such, I was toasted with several rounds, the drinks served with tiny pastries that tasted like goat cheese with a hint of dill.
As evening fell, and our curfew drew nearer, I began to attempt to bid our new friends a good evening. Nall was of no use in this whatsoever: she and her companion had disappeared early on. I sighed, but there was little I could do: though she was my closest friend, she needed to learn to be responsible for herself. Some of the guardsman offered to escort me home, and so, with many thanks, I left Nall to her own devices. But I never forgot the sharp tangy drink, and the warmth and friendliness of the Rohirric tavern.
All these memories, of course, flashed through my mind in the blink of an eye, while my lady and her groom waited. I did so like Lady Éowyn; I found her pragmatism an excellent foil to my lord Faramir’s dreaminess. Mostly I loved the way they looked at each other, as if each of them had received, completely unexpectedly, the most marvelous gift. For so they had.
“What a wonderful idea!” I exclaimed. “How pleased the King will be to see that the customs of Rohan have an important place here. Will you teach me to make other delicacies as well? I have heard of a raspberry ale…and aren’t there cheese pastries, too? With dill? ”
My lady glowed with pride and delight; her groom and attendants smiled broadly. We would take a bit of Rohan, and a bit of Gondor, and blend the two to make our own happy customs, here in Ithilien.
2007 MEFA Award Winner Honorable Mention in Genres: Humor: Gondor or Rohan
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