Lotta, the daughter of Rune the Smith, looked up from her needle work when she heard hoof beat in front of her father's smithy. She sighed and stood up. She knew her father was busy this morning, harvesting the bloom from the renn furnace, and he had told her that Bente would come to deliver more charcoal.
She stepped outside and there he was, all sooty, grimy, six feet five fingers and fifteen stone of him, his healthy teeth white in his smiling, blackened face.
"Hello, Maid Lotta," he greeted her politely, for Lotta's father was one of the most respected men for miles around.
"Hello Bente," Lotta smiled. "Father is expecting the coal already. Can you pour it into the bunker? How much did you bring?"
"Two score bushels," Bente grinned back at her. "Of course, I'll load it into the bunker for you. A pretty maid like you should not get near the coal."
He always seemed to be in a laughing mood, Lotta thought. Or perhaps, he only wanted to show off his healthy teeth? The thought made her laugh.
"Thank you. I pity the old and homely, though," she bantered back. "They get sooty on top of their ugliness."
"Oh no," he protested. "I always unload the coal. It's not a problem, and the soot washes off easily enough."
Somehow, Lotta had difficulties envisioning Bente with clean garb and washed face.
"How much does my father owe you?" she asked instead.
"Twenty groschen," Bente answered, smiling again.
He had reason to smile, Lotta thought. A groschen seemed ample money for two bushels of charcoal. Yet, Rune, her father, insisted that Bente's coal was worth that money. It was purer than the coal from competing colliers, perhaps because Bente used beech wood, perhaps because his piles were the largest, making the charring process more complete, but most likely because Bente knew his trade very well.
Lotta did a quick calculation. She was a bright girl, and she knew her numbers. Already, she helped her father with the tallies for tax and tithe. She had heard somewhere that Bente's piles yielded over four-hundred bushels of coal; that meant two-hundred groschen - a full ten guilders! He did four piles each year, she knew. Forty guilders, and he was living alone in the forest, with no mouths to feed.
Isaac's daughter Ruth had told her that Bente did most of his business with the Baron's castle and the town below. She knew that because her father, Isaac the Jew, traded with the town. It must be nice to see the castle and the town once in a while, Lotta thought.
She also knew that he snared small animals, both for meat and for the skins he sold in the village, and there were rumours that a few roe deer fell to his arrows, too. Yet, the Baron's hunters had failed to catch him so far and the leftover bones could be disposed of conveniently in the wood piles and turned into coal.
She blushed when she realised that she had stared at him. "I'm sorry, I was in thought," she apologised.
"Never mind, Maid Lotta. It gave me excuse to look at you in turn," he grinned, causing Lotta to blush prettily.
"Bente, Bente, you must learn to behave," she chided him. "Speaking of behave, will you come to the dance tonight?"
"I planned to," he answered. "If I clean up really well, will you give me a dance?"
"I will not recognise you, all cleaned up," Lotta laughed. "I will look out for a strange, tall man who speaks with your voice."
"I shall come, then. Will you give me an early dance? I cannot stay long for I must deliver a wagon load of coal to the Castle on the morrow."
Lotta's eyes lit up. "For the Baron's forge? That's good. Could you carry along a few bars of bloom for my father? I'll even give you two dances if you agree," she added with a flirting smile.
"I can do that. How much weight?"
"Two hundred pounds in all."
He smiled and nodded, and Lotta gave him a smile in return.
"Let me tell Father," she gushed and ran for the furnace house.
Her father looked up when she entered. "Any problems, Lotta?" he asked.
"No, Father, just the opposite. Bente delivers the coal, and I found out that he will bring a load to the Castle on the morrow. I asked him real nicely, and he agreed to take the bloom along for you."
Rune's brows knitted. "You are not encouraging the man? Lotta, he's but a collier. He's dirty, likely a poacher, and nobody knows what things he does in that forest. You can have your pick from the best young men in the village. Arne fancies you, and so does Lucas, Artur's son."
"I promised him a dance, Father, that's all," Lotta answered, feeling defensive.
"No! I'll not allow it! Think of what the village will say, girl!"
"But you always buy his coal, and you say he's the best collier far and wide, Father," Lotta protested.
"And I buy spices from the Isaac the Jew. Does that mean he gets to dance with my daughter?"
"He wouldn't, Father. Besides, he has a pretty daughter himself."
"Pretty. Hah! Hair like a crow, and as unlucky, too! Don't you mingle with those!"
There was no use arguing with her father, Lotta knew.
"I shall tell Bente that you won't allow me to dance with him," she said, resigned.
"Don't! Are you out of your mind, girl? I need his coal. Just tell him that you thought it over."
Lotta wanted to protest but considered. What good would it do? She left the furnace house and found Bente emptying the last sack into the coal bunker.
"I'm sorry, Bente. I ... I thought it over. It's better if you didn't ask me to dance."
She thought her face would explode with the shame she felt. She expected him to be angry but he surprised her.
"Your father, eh? I know he holds me in low esteem. I'm good enough to deliver the coal he needs, but not more. Don't fret over it, Lotta. It's been like this all my life."
Without further words he folded the sacks and stacked them neatly in the bed of the wagon. When he turned to her, his smile was gone and the sadness in his eyes tore into Lotta's heart.
"Tell your father that I want my twenty groschen."
Nodding silently, Lotta turned to find her father again. "He wants the money for the coal, Father."
"Err, what? Tell him, next time! I don't have that much around; not before I deliver to the Castle. Damn it, Lotta, think of something! Give him a smile! The fool will do anything for your smile."
A dam broke in Lotta. "Why don't you go out and give him a smile yourself? I shall not lead him on! I obeyed you, but I am not a tease!"
She stormed from the furnace house, not heeding her father's calls. She found Bente waiting at the bunker.
"My father will be with you in a moment. Good bye!" She exhaled. "I'm sorry, Bente."
She said it loud enough for her father to hear. Then she stormed into the house, slamming the door shut. She picked up her needlework, but she was too angry, and she threw it into a corner. Then she looked through the window and her mouth stood agape. Bente was emptying the coal bunker, refilling his sacks and loading them onto his wagon while her father stood there seemingly pleading with the tall collier. Obviously his pleading availed for naught. Bente drove his fully loaded wagon away without looking back.
A few moments later her father readied his large mule wagon and drove off as well. Breathing deeply Lotta controlled her anger and began with her chores again.
When her father returned the wagon was loaded with sacks, and for the next half hour she heard him curse as he unloaded sack after sack of coal into his bunker. When he entered the house for the noon meal he looked much like a collier himself.
"Now see what you did!" he accused her. "I had to buy from that rascal Martin. He charged me two Groschen a sack, too, the cur, and it's bad coal, not fully charred. At least he lets me pay in a week."
Lotta said nothing. She felt that her temper was boiling up again and thought it better to keep her mouth shut. Instead, she ladled soup into a large cup and wordlessly placed it in front of her father.
"I had better find you a husband soon," he grumbled on while spooning his soup. "Your temper gets worse. You're nearly as bad as your mother, bless her."
Casting one last, murderous glance at her father, Lotta slammed the soup bowl on the table and left the house. With long strides she walked into the small woods nearby and sat on a fallen tree while tears ran over her cheeks. That last sentence had been too much! Her mother had died just a year ago, and the hurt was still fresh. That he dared to talk badly about her! He, who had refused to call for Ruth, Isaac's daughter, who knew healing. Ruth would have saved her, but Rune did not want a Jewess in his house.
Now, he wanted to marry her, Lotta, off. Good luck with that! They still needed her to say "aye" in church, and with either of the two prospects he had named that was not likely.
As Bente was driving his wagon homeward he still felt the anger burn in his stomach. All his life he had been treated with disdain. All his life people had made fun of him. All his life he was told that he was not good enough for anyone and anything.
Was it his fault? Certainly not. Bente had been found in the forest close to starving. He was but an infant of a few days' age, and Erwin, the old collier, had run hotfooted to the village with him to find a nursing mother. With the collier's bad reputation only Mette, the village whore whose little girl had died after birth, was willing to nurse the little boy. Erwin had paid her for two years until little Bente was weaned.
.... There is more of this story ...