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.
After that, he had been handed from one family to the next until he was ten years old. He was tall then for his age and he began to beat up on children who taunted him. The village then decided that the ungrateful boy must leave and Erwin took him in, in his hut in the middle of the forest.
For eight more years, Erwin raised the boy as best he could, teaching him the delicate craft of turning wood into coal. The man and the boy lived and worked alone. Nobody ever visited except for the Baron's hunter who took a liking to Bente and to the booze Erwin prepared from forest berries. From the hunter, Bente learned how to set snares and how to shoot the longbow. Of course, nobody must know about the longbow; the hunt for deer was a privilege of the Baron and his household.
Watching the wood pile smoulder for days, Bente had ample time to practice with bow and arrow. He also learned a lot about the animals of the forest by watching them patiently. Had it not been for his awakening urges, Bente would have been content living in the forest forever.
When Bente was sixteen years old, Erwin took him to the Baron's castle where he delivered coal to the forge. The Baron employed a number of master smiths for the forging of weapons and armour, and Erwin had to bring one-hundred bushel of charcoal each year, to pay for the use of the forest.
Bente had looked around the castle with big eyes. There were so many people! He was even allowed to spend a day in the forge, and one of the smiths showed him how they used a bed of glowing charcoal to temper the steel.
Here, in the town under the castle, Bente had his first woman. Erwin dragged him into a brothel, the Red Cockerel, and paid for them both. On that evening, Bente saw his first naked woman and for the first time experienced the delicious feel of a hot woman's sex around his member. It was not to be his last time in the Red Cockerel. In the years to come, whenever he brought charcoal to the forge, he spent a night in the brothel.
He became a well-liked visitor with the women and girls because, in spite of his difficult youth, he was gentle with them and eager to please them. He also paid good money for their services and he never tried to cheat them. Thus, at age twenty-three, Bente the Collier knew more about women than any of the young men in the village and even most of the elder.
Four years ago, when Bente was nineteen, Erwin who was an old man misjudged a falling tree and he was not fast enough anymore to jump aside. Bente found him barely alive under the tree and dragged him home to their cabin. Before Erwin died that night from the caved-in chest, he gave Bente some last instructions. Among those he told the young man where to find Erwin's stash of silver and gold coins for the collier had earned good money and spent little of it in his long life.
Thus, young Bente inherited the cabin, the rights to the forest, and three leather bags of coins when he buried his adopted father on the morrow. He made a trip to the castle to announce his stepfather's death and to have the use of the forest transferred to him. The Baron's caretaker raised the annual rent to one-hundred and twenty bushels of coal, but Bente gained the right to hunt for small animals in exchange.
Now, four years later, Bente had filled another leather bag with coins, and he had improved the cabin where he lived with fine copper pots, a masonry fireplace with oven, a large bed frame, and chicken feather filled quilts for the cold nights. He had replaced the old shingles with new ones, had built new shutters for the windows, and he had treated the wooden sidings of the cabin with linseed oil and turpentine to make them rainproof.
Although he would have never admitted it, the driving force behind those improvements was his infatuation with Lotta, the Smith's daughter. He looked forward to delivering coal to the smithy for the chance to see the girl. She was always friendly to him, always had been, even when they were both children. Whenever he delivered coal to the smith and met his daughter Bente started some new improvement for his cabin, hoping against hope that one day he might carry her over the threshold as his wife.
Today, things were different, though. The visit had not gone well, far from it. Lotta had been as friendly as ever, and Bente even saw a glimmer of hope when she promised him a dance. However, her father had squashed that hope. He even tried to stiff Bente for the money. That was when Bente decided he wanted nothing of that man anymore.
He did not need the business. The Baron's forge bought every bushel of coal he could produce. Anything over the one-hundred and twenty bushels was paid for in silver groschen, for the Baron's caretaker was a hard but honest man. The only reason for Bente to sell his coal in the village had been to see Lotta.
Now he arrived at his cabin at the fringe of the forest and his heart fell, realising that Lotta's father would never accept a proposal from him. He was a collier, dirty and sooty, and not worthy to look at the smith's precious daughter.
At least, he could sell the coal he had retrieved from the smith's bunker to the Baron's forge, and he would incur no loss. Over the next hours, sustained by the anger that burned in his stomach, he loaded the wagon high with sacks of coal, ready for the trip to the castle. He had no desire anymore to go to the village for the summer solstice dance, but again, his anger made him go. He would show up and at least pretend to have fun.
Bente had a large tub which he filled with water from the nearby creek and with water from the cauldron over the fire place. He added shavings from a soap bar and sank into the warm water, soaking his sooty body and hair. He washed himself thoroughly, as was his custom, and when he was finished he soaked his work clothes, too.
When he rode his draft horse over to the village he was clean from head to toe and he wore his best pants and vest. No wooden shoes for him either, but soft deer skin boots encased his feet. When he arrived he strolled about the village square and greeted the people he knew, mostly the people who had housed him for a year or two as a child. Some of them were old now and needy, and Bente had brought them some bacon and peas from the town. He liked to repay them a little, now that he was earning good money with his craft.
He also met the other collier, Martin, who told Bente how Rune had come with his wagon to buy up every piece of coal Martin had. With a grin, Martin admitted to selling off a batch of coal that his regular customers had rejected.
The smith had come, but after one withering look at the two colliers, he ignored both of them. Lotta was there, too, and she looked so pretty in her fine dress that Bente heart ached again. Her father kept pushing young men at her with whom she had to dance, and as the evening wore on Bente felt bitter bile rise in his throat. He left even before the bonfires were lit to return to his lonely cabin.
He did not sleep much that night and when the dawn lighted the eastern sky he was up and moving. The rising sun saw him on the way east, on the trail towards the Baron's castle. The two animals had a hard time pulling the fully loaded wagon, and it was close to noon before the turrets and ramparts of the castle loomed ahead.
Just then Bente saw a group of horsemen approaching. Bente could see that it was a hunting party and he pulled his wagon to the side of the trail making room for them. Hunters on horseback could only be from the castle and most likely the Baron himself was with them. Bente took off his cap and stood on his wagon with his head bowed as was the custom when meeting the lord of the lands.
The riders came to a halt at the wagon. "Who are you, young fellow, and what is you are bringing?" the Baron inquired.
Bente had heard the voice before and, looking up, he recognised the Baron.
"I am Bente the Collier, Lord, and I bring charcoal for your forge."
"I have heard of you, Bente the Collier," the Baron spoke, and was there a hint of a laugh in his voice? "My armorer swears by the quality of your coal, yet my chief hunter insists he'll catch you one day with a dead deer over your shoulder. What be the truth, Bente?"
Bente thought quickly. The Baron was in good mood; perhaps a little jesting was in order?
"Lord, I can only speak for the quality of my coal. The future eludes my view. If my Lord's chief hunter speaks truth I can only hope to have hunted with my Lord's permit."
"You are right, lad! That will be your only hope, and a slim hope 'twill be. Go and deliver your coal, and if you own a longbow, best make coal of it while you have a chance!"
"Why bother with that churl?" another rider spoke up. His pockmarked face bore a deep scar and a sinister scowl. "If your hunter says he poaches let us use him for target practice. 'Tis the only way to deal with the likes of him!"
"Why, Brother, that's a fool's council!" the Baron responded with some heat. "Alive, this fellow brings the coal for my forge, and perhaps kills a dear far away from my own hunting grounds. If he's dead I have to buy that coal while the deer alive avails me naught."
With that the riders spurred their horses and took off while Bente shrugged. None of the Baron's hunters knew the forest like he did, and they could not sneak up on a dead cow. He clucked his tongue and his horses dragged the wagon forward again. The trail was widening, so close to the castle, and Bente made better speed.
A little after noon, he reached the drawbridge that led through the walls of the town. The sentries knew him from his regular deliveries, and he drove his wagon through the wide Market Street and then left, where the Baron's armoury and forge stood.
Bente loved to deliver at the forge because here the apprentices had to unload his wagon. They groaned when they saw the big load while the forge master grinned widely.
"That's good. You brought an extra load today. We can use it. How much this time?"
"Forty-two sacks, Master; four bushels each."
"That's - wait - one-hundred and sixty-eight bushels. Take away the one-hundred and twenty you owe the Baron, and that's still thirty-eight bushels, right?"
"Forty-eight, by my reckoning, Master," Bente smiled.
"Forty ... Of course, where's my head? Twenty-four groschen, right?"
Bente smiled and nodded. The master smith counted off twenty-four groschen and Bente gave one to the apprentices, for luck as Erwin had taught him. One of the lads even swept the wagon bed with a broom, to get rid of the coal dust.
Leaving his wagon at a stable Bente went to sell last winter's cured skins. He had quite a number of ermine pelts but also rabbit and hare skins to sell, and he realised another twenty groschen for them.
All in all, it had been a profitable afternoon. Bente used a small part of his coins to buy sacks of peas, dried beans, and other preserved food for his use. He also found a brass oil lamp, with a coil of wicker and two earthen bottles filled with lamp oil.
He also learned what news the town could boast. The most important was that the Baron's younger brother had returned from the crusades. The merchants looked over their shoulders before they spoke in hushed voices about him. Always a man feared by the peasants and townspeople for his terrible temper and haughty disposition, he had returned from the Holy Land disfigured by the plague and an even fiercer man.
Bente realised that the pockmarked man in the train of the baron must have been that brother. Aye, things would look bleak for the peasants of the lands if this man were the lord of the lands.
He had all his purchased goods brought to the stable where he loaded his wagon for the return trip before he went into town for the evening. Out of habit he went straight for the Red Cockerel. They offered a good supper in the common room, and Bente preferred to eat supper with the girl he picked for a night. The girl, Erna by name, was new to the Red Cockerel. She was young and fresh, and she smiled and talked a lot. Bente enjoyed her company.
Yet, when the girl led him up to her narrow chamber and undressed, Bente's heart became heavy again. This was not right. He should have a real sweet heart, a girl with whom he might have a future. With a sad voice, Bente told Erna to dress again. She wanted to return the silver she had received already, but Bente told her to keep it. She shrugged, telling him if he paid, he might as well sleep in her chamber, and that was what they settled on. Before they fell asleep, Erna asked him if she was not appealing to him, and so Bente told her about his hopeless love for Lotta, the Smith's beautiful daughter. She comforted him and commiserated with him, and he felt so comfortable with her that he finally fell asleep.
Bente broke the fast with Erna before he found his wagon at the stable to drive back to his cabin. With the almost empty wagon, Bente made good speed. He was nearing his forest already, and it was barely noon when he spotted horsemen approaching. A little fear gripped Bente when he saw the man in the lead. It was the Baron's brother. Again, Bente pulled over and stood beside it, head bowed.
"It's that poacher again?" the snarling voice sounded. "Well, my fellow, do you know this forest?"
Bente nodded. "Aye, Lord. I set my snares here; I know it well."
"Good! My brother, the Baron, went missing last evening. He was after a wounded stag, and we fear the worst. Meinhard here will rouse every able bodied man in yonder village to search for my dear brother, and you will lead them."
"Aye, Lord!" Bente responded. "You wish I pick those men up with my wagon? 'Twill save daylight time."
"You're not quite dumb, it seems," the baron's brother snarled. "Do that! Meinhard, ride with him and rouse every lazy churl in that village. You search from the east. Do not rest until my brother is found."
"Beg your pardon, Lord, but the boars have young this time of the year," Bente spoke up. "We should bring lances in case the Baron was trapped on a tree by wild boars."
The dark man looked at Bente and gave him a cold smile. "My brother was right, Collier. You are useful. Meinhard, have the men take lances with them!"
With that, the riders spurred their horses save for the man Meinhard who smiled at Bente.
"Bring your wagon to your home already. I shall bring out the villagers. Can you get some torches, Collier?"
"I can and I shall, worthy Corporal. The men should bring food, too. I will take us three days at least, to search this forest."
Meinhard nodded. "I shall see to it. Be ready when I return!"
Bente urged his horses on, and in a short time, he reached his cabin. He unhitched the animals and put them to pasture. Then he unloaded the wagon and dressed in his wood clothes. He threw dried meat and bread into his knapsack, filled a water bag from the creek, and gathered a dozen torches in a basket.
When the Corporal Meinhard arrived at the edge of the forest with some twenty villagers, Bente was waiting for them. Bente was carrying his longbow and quiver, and several of the villagers were also armed with bows and lances. Seeing the longbow Meinhard grinned a little but then he shrugged. What did he care about a doe here and a stag there?
Meinhard had them form a wide line. He and Bente walked the centre. They entered the forest and moved in a general westward direction. Soon they had to fight their way through dense underbrush and they would have lost their way had it not been for Bente's sense of direction. For most of five hours until darkness set in they combed the woods, calling for the missing Baron and making much noise so as to mark their progress. The Corporal conducted a roll call every so often to make sure none of the search party was lost.
They camped out for the night when darkness settled on the forest. A large bonfire was built, both to keep animals away and to attract the missing Baron. The villagers huddled together grumbling under their breath. It was harvest time and here they were running about in the forest. The Corporal Meinhard sat with Bente and they talked about the next day. Bente did not think that the Baron had gone into the deep forest. The underbrush there was so thick that the wounded stag could not have gone there, so why would the Baron?
Yet, Meinhard's instructions were to search from east to west. In the end they compromised. They would head westward, but a little to the south, covering the fringes of the forest with their left flank.
Over the next day, they must have covered over ten miles, but they still saw neither hair nor feather of the Baron. Again, they built a bonfire and camped for the night. The villagers were complaining openly now, but Meinhard was adamant. The Baron's brother had said to search until they found the Baron, and that was what he would do.
Before he turned in that evening Bente went to the side to relieve himself. Once in the shadows and away from the bonfire his eyes adjusted to the darkness quickly. Suddenly, he thought he could see a flicker of a light, far away between the trees. He stared into the dark for a while before he saw it again. Now he was certain. That could be the Baron.
Quickly, Bente roused the Corporal and told him of the fire. Meinhard came with him, and they stared into the night together for some time before the flicker became visible again. Meinhard agreed that they should have a look at that fire and he picked up his sword and knapsack. Bente took his bow and quiver and his long knife, and together the two men set out for the distant fire.
To their luck, the forest floor was soft with pine needles, with only a few rocks strewn in, and the two men managed to advance steadily. They could see the fire stronger and stronger as they came closer, and in its shine they could avoid the rocks, branches and roots in their path.
Suddenly, a cry of pain sounded through the night, followed by a cruel laughter. Bente stopped dead in his tracks. He knew that voice: it was the crusader, the brother of the baron. Meinhard had heard it too; his eyes were wide in his head and he motioned for Bente to be silent. They edged closer and when they rounded a large boulder they had a free view of the camp site. There, bound against a tree, was the Baron, doubled over in pain. In front of him stood his brother. He held a many tiered antler in his hand, the tips of which were red with blood.
"See, Brother, this is how you'll die. A few more pokes with this, and you'll bleed to death. When the brave villagers will find you it will be obvious that the wounded buck killed you."
"You niding!" the wounded Baron croaked. "The hell will have you for this!"
"Oh, Brother! You still believe that nonsense? Heaven and Hell? It's just stories to keep the gullible in line. But I believe we should end this. I have to get back to our camp to head the search for you."
Laughing his cruel laugh he raised the antlers again, preparing to stab his brother, but now Meinhard stormed forward, a cry of rage on his lips and his sword drawn. The dark crusader turned on his heels and using the tines of the antler, he managed to thwart Meinhard's thrust. Next his gloved left hand crashed into Meinhard's face stunning the poor man momentarily. With a cruel grin he unsheathed his own sword.
"Meinhard, Meinhard, what are you doing here alone? You should have stayed where I told you to search."
Poor Meinhard tried to clear his head while the Crusader raised the sword, ready to impale the prone man.