The Debt

On a gray November day in the year that the Lionheart led the great Crusade to the Holy Land, Sommer the merchant sent his servant to Oswy’s forge.

Oswy, wiping the sweat from his neck with a grimy rag, scowled at the man, as thin and sharp-faced as a weasel.  “What do you want, Spivens?”  Corwin, the eldest, stopped feeding wood to the fire.  Carl, four years younger, and much the sturdier, stopped pumping the bellows.

The man smiled his sharp-toothed smile.  “You know as well as I, Oswy Blacksmith.  My master wants his money.”

“Tell him to ask the castle for it.  I’ve already told him that I’ve not been paid for the work I did.”

“And he’s told you that’s none of his concern.”

“Well, I’ve not got it to give him, so he’ll just have to wait.”

“Not in the least.”

“What?”

“Come with me, Oswy Blacksmith.  Since you’re not good for your debts, my master wants a word with you.”

“I’m busy,” he snorted, taking up his hammer.  “If he has something to say, let him come and say it.”

*

Not long after, the merchant himself rode into the forge on his swaybacked donkey.  He—the merchant, not the donkey—was great of girth and possessed of three chins, which nested complacently atop one another on the fur of his collar.  His broad nose turned up at the end, completing his resemblance to a pig.  “Do you see this, Blacksmith?” he said, waving a parchment with a red gobbet of wax at the bottom.

“I do.”

“It is a warrant from the sheriff, declaring your house and forge forfeit to me in payment of your debt.”

“Ballocks,” the smith replied.

“See for yourself,” said the merchant, bringing the document closer.

“You know I can’t read, you blasted swine.”

“I’ll read it to you.”

“And how will I know you’re reading it aright?”

“Come with me to the church, then, and have Father Anselm read it for you.”

*

Father Anselm squinted at the small procession approaching the rectory through the mud and fallen leaves.  Spivens led the donkey with Sommer astride it.  The grimy smith and his sons followed sullenly.  The priest put down the water bucket on the mossy rim of the well and came to the gate to greet them.  “Welcome, my sons.  What troubles you?”

“If you would take the trouble to read this for this poor, ignorant lout,” Sommer said, “He doubts my word.”

“Imagine that,” the priest replied innocently, his grey eyebrows rising toward the thin circle of white hair that fringed his polished pate.  He took the parchment in one trembling hand, looked at it closely and then held it at arms length, squinting all the while.

“He says it gives him my house!” burst out Oswy.

“Indeed it does, my son,” replied the cleric.  “In payment of debts owed, it says here.”  He turned sternly to the merchant.  “Is this your intent, to dispossess a man and his family?”

“I wish merely to claim what is mine by right,” the merchant replied, his chins wobbling their agreement.

“And at this season of the year, when the days grow cold and we prepare to celebrate Our Lord’s coming to us as a poor babe to remind us of our duty to behave charitably?”

“That’s the Lord’s business, not mine.”

“Rolf Sommer, your soul lies in mortal danger.”

“Bah,” spat the merchant.  “Save it for Sunday.”

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