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The Last Yule in Halabor
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Day 05 - The Charcoal Burner

For disclaimer and further details see Part 1.
Rating: General, for this part.


Day Five – The Charcoal Burner and his Family

Despite the small stone oven in the corner, the cottage of the charcoal burner was bitterly cold. The small fire could not warm up the room; not in such winter, where the snow lay waist-high in the entire forest, and icicles hung from the tree-branches like some bizarre fruits in the land of the Forodwaith. Built from roughly-heaved oak beams, the walls could not keep out the cold and the wind entirely, and the family was freezing in their worn rags.

Yet this was their home, and they had to dwell here, outside the protective walls of Halabor, for the ironsmiths, the bronzesmiths and the glass-workers needed the charcoal for their daily work, and Docco was there to provide it. This could not be done elsewhere, thus the entire family needed to live out there. And they had to follow the paths of the wood-cutters, to collected the timber, after the carpenters had taken what they needed from the felled trees. For them, it was usually the smaller branches left and whatever fell to the side after the wood-cutters’ work.

The clamp had to be built and needed constant watching, so that it would not race and burn rather than roast the wood inside. A mere change in the wind overnight could cause such a thing, forcing more air than required through the footings of the clamp. When this happened, Docco had to try and screen off the upwind side of the clamp with whiting screens.

The task of burning the wood to charcoal took at least a full day, during which the clamp had to be fed regularly with tinder. But there was more work to do before the actual process began. The bark had to be removed and collected for the tanner, who paid for it, although not too handsomely, for the oak bark was very good for the tanning pits. The timber supplying the clamp had to be cut. The screens had to be made in advance, so that they could be put to place without delay, should the wind change. And afterwards, when all this was done and the charcoal ready, it had to be delivered to the town on a small, two-wheeled cart pulled by an old, bony, overworked donkey.

A short and wiry man of forty-five years, Docco, the charcoal burner, had long grown used to this harsh living in the forest, although his sullen face revealed that he was less than happy with his life. He was the second son of Halabor’s only oven-builder, but as he had showed little skill in his father’s craft, his older brother had taken over the family business, and for Docco remained naught else but eking out a meagre living with the work he had been doing for over twenty years by now. ‘Twas a harsh life and hard work indeed, and – as a glimpse at his clothing would tell – he earned very little money with it.

His garment was of the simplest form imaginable: a close jacket with sleeves, made by his wife of the tanned hide of some wolves he had killed with his very hands more than fifteen years earlier. On his feet, he wore short boots, and pieces of tanned wolf skin were wrapped around his legs, bond with thongs made of boar’s hide, reaching above the calf, while his knees were left bare, even in this rough weather. The jacket was girded with a broad leathern belt, secured by a brass buckle. A small pouch with the ever-present tinderbox hung from one side of the belt, and a short-handled axe, tool and defensive weapon in one, was tucked into it on the other side, together with a long, board, two-edged knife, the kind widely used among the Old Folk.

He had no covering upon his head other than his own thick, dark hair, matted and twisted together. His overgrown beard was just as untidy as his hair, but he did not care overmuch about that, just as he did not care about his wife’s complaints concerning his untidiness and the harshness of their life. He could not change either of those things, not while they were living there and in the manner they did – and there was little hope that any of it would ever change.

If he was not entirely content with his life, one could say that Locha, his wife, was downright miserable. The third daughter of a poor farmer, she got but a very small dowry, and only took the offer of Docco’s as no-one else would wed her. She hated the life she had to lead out here, in the forest, and envied her younger sister who had been lucky enough to catch the eye of the ironsmith’s son and now had a comfortable life in the Master Smith’s large and wealthy household. Her health had been considerably weakened by the hard work and the frequent pregnancies – she had been with child nine times, but only four of the children survived – and had become a mere shadow of her former self in the recent years.

Docco felt sorry for his wife – he did love Locha in his own way, though he could rarely show it – but he knew not how to help her. He knew no other craft than the one he earned a living with, and after a day’s back-breaking work, he simply had no strength left for Locha’s woes. He, too, would have preferred an easier work and a better life, but what one wished and what one got from Fate were often two very different things.

At least Selyn, his firstborn, had proved skilled enough to learn the craft of oven building from his grandfather, who had lived with them ‘til his death four years ago. Accepted as a journeyman by his uncle Uthno, Selyn worked regularly for the local potters. Still, he had to come out and help his father half of the time, for he was the only one with enough strength to do so. That made him miss several good chances of easier and better paid work, but he was a good son and came without complaining.

Wron, Docco’s second born, had wanted to get out of the forest as well and tried an apprenticeship at the ironsmith’s. Gladly would have Docco paid for it, to secure a better life for his son, but Wron had proved too weak for his chosen craft, and no-one would take a weak and sickly apprentice afterwards. Thus he had returned to the family, but the work as a charcoal burner did not become him, either. He suffered from the cold very much, always coughed and was prone to the falling sickness. Docco’s heart went out to the lad. Wron should have become a clerk or a servant in a noble house, for he was comely and mild-mannered and everyone liked him. But there was no way to pay for a tutor, and thus he was doomed to die young in their bleak home.

Docco sighed heavily and climbed atop the clamp, dropping some more burning embers into its heart. This load was nearly finished. If the wind did not change in the next two hours, he would have a rest of about a day ere starting the next one. Selyn and Wron would go to town with the charcoal. Mayhap the ironsmith’s wife, well known for her generosity, would give them a good meal that they could not get from their mother. Locha had not cooked a decent meal for years, and Nista, with her barely sixteen summers, could not replace her mother in all household matters, however hard she tried.

Docco’s heart was warmed by the thought of her older daughter. Nista was such a sweet girl: always eager to help, hard-working and friendly to everyone… even pretty, as much as any child of Docco’s could ever be while inheriting his features. If only he could bring up at least a small dowry for her, she could become such a good wife and mother. She was everything her mother was not. She deserved a better life.

Other daughters would turn bitterly against their fathers, had they had a life like this. Yet Nista was always pleasant and well-behaved. She hardly ever complained. If anyone deserved to be married off to a good, honest man, it was Nista. But who would take the charcoal burner’s plain, penniless daughter when there were so many daughters from well-to-do craftsmen’s houses, with handsome dowries, to choose from?

If she only were prettier… or if young men looking for a proper wife had the chance to meet her, so that they would see what a good girl she was… But out there, in the forest, there was just no way to arrange that. She was needed out here, to work for her mother, who could not do the work any longer. And it was to fear that there was not much else life would offer her. It was supremely unjust. But life was seldom fair.

Docco climbed down from the clamp. The fire was burning evenly, just at the right level, and he was bone-weary. Mayhap it would do no harm if he went home and warmed up a little, as much as it was possible in a cottage where the wind had free entry between the logs that made up the walls.

When he entered his home, Locha was crouched down next to the oven, wrapped in several blankets, swaying back and forth with vacant eyes. Docco sighed. Apparently, this was one of those days again. Locha would not move from the spot all night, staring at the wooden planks of the floor, speaking not a single word to anyone.

Wron was sitting on a bench, carving something from a piece of wood with fingers stiff and red from the cold. Docco squinted his eyes to see what it was. It was a hair clasp, shaped like a butterfly; a gift for his little sister, no doubt. Thirteen-year-old Melyor, the prettiest of the entire family, loved pretty things, and often complained about not having them. She hated their life in poverty and hard work ad much as her mother did, and was determined to marry a wealthy craftsman or merchant one day – even an old one, if there was no other way out of her current life.

Twenty-year-old Selyn was sitting on the bench next to his brother; his aching back leaned against the wall. He was unshaven and unwashed, just like Docco himself, too weary to even move after a whole day of cutting word in the freezing cold, and his reddened hands trembled slightly. His broad, young face was deeply lined; he looked years older than his true age. The sight made Docco ache with guilt. Had he not needed Selyn’s help, the lad would be living in the safety of the town, working in his respectable trade, wearing good, warm clothes, having a decent home. And yet Selyn never complained. He was such a good lad. He, too, deserved better.

Nista looked up when the door opened, and a delightful smile blossomed all over her face upon seeing her father.

“Father, you are home!” she cried out happily. “You came just in time for supper. Sit down, sit down, I am serving it in a moment.”

Docco smiled, gave his daughter a quick hug and lowered himself onto the bench behind the table. He knew supper would be fairly horrible; poor Nista had no-one to learn from how to cook properly. But at least it would be a warm meal, prepared with all the love of a gentle heart. There were people who had even less.

Mayhap next year would be a better one, he thought. Mayhap they should leave this cottage and move to the safety of the town, trying to live from Selyn’s craft. If they were fortunate, they could manage, somehow. If they were very fortunate.

~The End – for now~

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Note: Ironically enough, Docco’s family escaped the destruction of Halabor because they lived in the forest, where the Orcs did not find them. They went to Lossarnach with the others, and settled down in a small village near Lord Forlong’s town.

A few years later, Locha finally lost the last grip on her sanity and took her own life. Selyn married a young widow named Aelig after the Ring War, and lived out his life in the same town. Wron became a servant in Lord Forlong’s castle and followed his master to Minas Tirith’s aid, where he was killed during the siege of the City. Nista married a young farmer named Juvad in Lossarnach, right in 3009.

Melyor, however, followed Boromir’s troops to Minas Tirith after Halabor’s destruction, and after a few years as a maidservant, she ended up in a cheap pleasure house in the lowest circle of the City.

Of Docco’s further fate there are no records after Locha’s voluntary death.


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