The wind off of the lake attacked Alena’s black hair, tangling the ends into a long rope down her back. She pulled her cloak more tightly around her neck, the wolf fur tickling her bare skin. The leggings she had taken from her dead husband’s trunk kept the wind off of her legs and gave her a warmth she had never known when standing by the water in winter.
“I need to begin somewhere,” she said. Her words blew away before she could hear them. She looked out onto the lake’s surface. All she saw was a deep black. The moon had passed over the mountain peaks a while ago now. It was deep in the middle of the night. The entire village lay in their beds, no doubt sound asleep with untroubled dreams. She had the decisions to make that would affect them all, but they trusted her to do what was best for them all. She had done well over the last three moons, on her own, after the early death of the man that had ruled the village for fifteen years. She wished she knew why a strong man who had only lived thirty three years would die quietly in his sleep. It made no sense that she could see. But his death had ended two wonderful years of marriage and a secure and happy life.
Now, she had to make a choice. She had inherited a small but rich village and its resources. Since she and Konrad did not have any children that she could hold the property for until they reached their majority, Roman law required that she remarry to hold her property. Celtic law allowed her to inherit and even though Roman law usually did not allow this, the governor of the Noricum region liked to keep the peace by giving in to certain native customs, up to a point. If she took a new husband before the anniversary of her husband’s death, she could continue to minister her holdings. She just needed to marry someone of her same social class or higher, so anyone she already knew was out of the question.
She spent the last three moons organizing the village and assuring everyone she would take care of them. She was glad she already had a good relationship with everyone. She knew most of the village people by name from the times she ministered to their ailments or gave them salves or teas to help them through their bodily distress. She had even delivered several of their children. It didn’t take them long to fall in love with each other.
Konrad had brought her to them two years ago when she was sixteen. Both of her parents had died somewhere in Asia Minor. Konrad brought her the news, telling her the details so quietly that she had to ask him to speak up. His gentleness surprised her in a man so large. He spent the entire spring and summer in the inn near her home.
Towards the end of the summer, Wolfram showed up at her door announcing that Alena’s father had promised her to him in marriage. No one believed him, but he was insistent, coming to her daily and trying to badger her into marrying him. A large estate was at stake. Wolfram owned the holdings next to the one owned by Alena’s parents and he wanted to extend his wealth. He told Alena flat out that he wanted Crabapple Farm and made no attempt to woo her to his wishes. He was used to getting what he wanted, by persuasion, stealth or just taking it.
Alena quietly told Wolfram no every time he asked her to marry him. She told him no every time he told her she would marry him. The last time she told him no, he had grabbed her arms and shook her, whipping her head backwards and forwards, all the time screaming at her, that she would succumb to his wishes. His dark hair hung over his enraged filled eyes adding to his crazed look.
Next thing he knew, Wolfram found himself lying on the floor, a huge bruise blossoming on his jaw. Konrad stood over him, quietly telling Wolfram that if Wolfram ever touched Alena again, Konrad would kill him. Wolfram crawled out of Alena’s life that night and she hadn’t seen him again.
That same day, Konrad offered to marry her, with no strings attached. She would continue to own her parents property and could install overseers of her own choosing. And he would not impose himself on her physically. She need only join him in his village and they would return twice a year to visit her holdings. She had agreed.
By the time they had reached his village of Deepshade, she trusted him completely. When winter was over and spring blossomed in the mountains she was deeply in love with Konrad and they had become husband and wife in all things. They had returned to her holdings for her seventeenth birthday and found them flourishing, quiet and stable.
They only saw Wolfram once from far off. He stood looking down at them from his hill that overlooked her house. He stared down at them and she felt she could feel his hatred rolling down the sides of the hill like a boulder trembling towards them. But he left her and her property alone and she thought of him no more. She and Konrad returned to Deepshade, content and happy, to pass another year. With one moon left until her eighteenth birthday, they made plans to travel again. Konrad spent his days supervising the packing as they intended to travel the region so Alena could see some of the world.
He traveled out across the lake to reach Juvavum twice before their trip was to begin, to gather supplies they would need for their journey. He had ordered them new wardrobes on his first supply excursion along with the covered wagon she was to travel in. On his second trip, he went to check on his orders and to stage them in the city.
They would leave Deepshade by boat, as usual and pick up horses on the other side of the lake and continue to the city. They would then overnight in Juvavum, and leave from there with their entire caravan. They would not see the village perched above the edge of the lake with the Alps at its back for a whole year.
Konrad had come back from the second trip to the city over the mountain top. He said he needed to check on the salt mines before they left for so long a trip. He had seemed very quiet to her that night. She had asked him if all had gone well and he said it did. Nothing unusual or out of the ordinary had occurred. But she did not believe him. He ate a particularly light evening meal and only drank well water, instead of his usual bowl of beer.
They went to bed shortly after all was dark, with each village light extinguished and all of the fires damped. She whispered her love for him and he answered with his everlasting adoration, then he rolled over and was soon snoring. In the morning, he was dead.
She was stunned. She walked out of the house and into the square and stood there quietly until one of the village woman placed a shawl across her shoulders. Then, she collapsed to her knees and began to sob. One of the men went into her house and came back to the center with the news that Konrad was dead and cold in his bed.
And so Alena’s lovely world ended. Now, people expected her to take Konrad’s place in their lives. She was expected to make decisions for the benefit of several hundred people. A girl of eighteen who always had some one else take care of her was going to protect over two hundred people here and another seventy people at Crabapple Farm.
Her mourning of Konrad in the moon span following his death was genuine. She cleaned his body and clothed it for viewing. She did this alone, whispering to him the entire time, thanking him for the life they had shared and the love he had given her. She scrubbed the trestle table in their hall and waxed it until the wood glowed in the warmth of all of her polishing. She draped it with her best tapestry then called his closest friends to carry Konrad from his bed to the table.
On the third day following his death, he was ready for viewing. Everyone from the village came to view him. They passed through his hall in a single line, each touching him and saying their goodbyes. The men thanked him for his kind and wise rulership. Many women and children cried quietly, knowing that he had called each of them by name.
Over the next few days, outsiders braved the lake crossing to pay their respects. The Roman Governor, Victorius, arrived on day six after Konrad’s death. His visit caused an uproar, putting the village in a panic. He was unexpected and a suitable place for him to spend the night had to be found. Normally, he would stay at Konrad’s house, but it was inappropriate for him to sleep in the house of the dead. Only immediate family was permitted to remain with a dead person. Victorius ended up recrossing the lake before night came and after telling Alena that she must marry again before Konrad’s death day anniversary if she was to keep her holdings together.
On the seventh day, Alena rested. She sat at Konrad’s shoulder holding his cold hand. She laid her head on the table next to him and slept. She dreamt of herself with white hair and five young children gathered around her knees looking up at her as she told them stories of the places she had seen in her life. She awoke the next morning when Balder the Druid touched her arm.
He had come for Konrad’s body. It was now time to start the dismemberment process to remove Konrad’s head from his body. His body was be taken into the mountains on a wooden gurney and burned on a bonfire. Balder the Druid then took Konrad’s head, peeled back the skin, scraped off the flesh, removed the internal contents and placed his skull in the sun to bleach. This process took an entire moon’s cycle.
Over this past month, Alena had painted Konrad’s skull with spirals and circles and leaves, flowers and power animals. Today, she had placed his finished skull in the charnel house to rest with his ancestors. And now her life must continue. Today was the last day permitted for open mourning. At sunrise tomorrow, she would be required to come out into the light of day and begin again. Life must go on.
She would now have nine months in which to find a suitable husband. A husband she could stand in her bed, a husband that would deal fairly with the people and a husband that Victorius would approve.
She had no idea where to begin to look for a husband. Perhaps she would ask the advice of Balder and some of the village elders. That made sense to her. Balder in particular had been out in the world in his younger years before settling into a life of spirituality here in the quiet recesses of their little world. With this decision made, she walked the path from the edge of the lake to her empty house and her empty bed.
In the morning, the house was abuzz with voices. A fire burned in Alena’s fire place in her room. The smell of roasting meat reached her nostrils and she felt hunger for the first time in many months. She rose up from under her pelts, pulling back her unruly and tangled hair. She needed a bath. She needed food. She needed to get moving again. As she had these thoughts, Marta entered her room with a steaming bowl of stew. The round, red cheeked woman smiled at Alena showing her a mouth with missing front teeth.
Leni, Marta’s twelve year old daughter, followed her mother into the room pulling the copper bath tub. She dropped the end of the tub with a clang and giggled. Marta pulled a stool next to Alena’s bed and put the bowl of stew on it. She then pushed Alena forward in her bed and grabbed the pillows. She fluffed up the down pillows and stacked them behind Alena’s back and pressed Alena’s shoulders into them. Alena sat herself up straighter just in time to take the bowl from Marta.
As Alena spooned venison, potatoes and carrots into her mouth, Marta and Leni carried buckets of hot water into the room and poured them into the cooper kettle. By the time Alena was done eating, the tub was full. She put the bowl down, pulled back the covers and stepped onto fresh pelts on the floor. She wondered how she had managed to sleep through all of the changes that had taken placed in the house this morning.
Alena patted across the room, pulled her nightdress over her head and climbed into the tub. Marta came back into the room with lavender and rosemary sprigs, which she tossed in the water. Leni came in with more wood for the fire. Marta piled the wood in the fire place and stoked the fire until it was blazing. Then, she shoed Leni from the room and closed the door behind them.
Alena leaned back in the water, resting her head on the back of the tub. She took deep breaths of the steamy scented water and relaxed. After a half hour, Marta came back with the light lavender soap that Alena made. Marta began soaping a cloth and washing Alena’s back. She then placed her hand on the top of Alena’s head and dunked her under the water. Alena came up sputtering and laughing. Marta lathered up Alena’s hair and dunked her again. Leni came back in with fresh warm water and rinsed Alena’s hair.
Alena stood and Marta rapped her in a clean soft woolen towel. She had Alena lean over the tub so the water could be rung from her hair and then her hair was wrapped in a smaller wool towel.
“Get yourself back in bed and relax while we clean up this mess, mistress.” Marta was very bossy.
“When I am done with this I will come back to comb out that rat’s nest in your hair.”
Leni giggled as she scooped buckets of dirty water from the tub and carried them from the room.
“Marta, I can comb my own hair.”
“You will do as you are told. When your strength is back, you can do for yourself again.” Marta gave Alena a sharp look. “You have lost too much weight. You will never get a good husband if you do not have any meat on your bones.”
“Yes, I suppose you are right, Marta.” Alena did as she was told and got back into bed.
“You need to be healthy for yourself, mistress.” Marta took the towel from Alena’s hair and took the towel Alena had worn. She pulled the bed pelts up to Alena’s chin and smiled at Alena. “Konrad would not have wanted you to waste away. That would not honor his memory.”
“I understand, Marta. I will not do myself any harm.” Alena leaned back into the feather pillows and closed her eyes. When she next opened them, all signs of her bath were gone from the room. She must have dozed. Marta was back with broth and a chunk of bread slathered in butter.
Alena got out of bed, put on a fresh nightdress and sat on the stool Marta had placed by the quietly burning fire. As Alena ate her bread and drank her broth, Marta gently combed out her hair. Alena felt barely a tug on her scalp; Marta was so easy on her. After getting all on the tangles out and smoothing the strands, Alena turned her back to the fire so her hair could finish drying.
While Alena sat by the fire, Marta and Leni stripped the bed, taking all of the bedding out side to air. With the bed empty, they covered the leather mattress cradle with fresh rosemary and pine needles. The room began to smell of the fresh woods. Alena was beginning to feel alive again. A clean body, a full stomach and the duties of everyday life were reviving her.
After Leni had braided Alena’s long black hair into two thick ropes, Alena changed into clothes. Marta pronounced Alena fit to be seen in public again. Alena laughed at Marta’s audacity and understood that she was trying to get her to feel slightly normal again. It was working.
Alena left her private room for the main hall. She loved this room. While it was quite small by comparison to other halls, even the one at the Crabapple Farm, it was bright with light from windows cover in glass that most other halls could not boast. The people who occupied the room were happy and jolly, laughing at each others’ jokes and helping each other with their work.
When Alena walked into the room, the people stopped what they were doing and turned to smile at her. She walked slowly around the room, checking what each person was doing. They showed her their work, pointing out details and explaining why they did certain things. After speaking to everyone present, she went out into the central town courtyard.
This was the central part of town which was shared by all because this was the one spot in their small surrounded town where the sun shown longest and strongest. In the very center of the town circle, a forward thinking person had placed a round bench generations before. It was used by people wishing to gather in sun rays and soak up the noon time warmth. Alena took advantage of the empty seat, knowing the town had left it so for her first day back to them. She sat there until the sun took its afternoon trip over the mountains at the back of the town.
The sun sent red and orange dancing lights across the water’s surface as it left for the day. And like blowing out a candle, the sun was gone in a breath. Even in summer, when the sun went down it got cold since the town sat right on top of the lake.
Alena silently thanked the town for this gentle re-emergence back to the everyday. But she knew it was over when she saw Balder and two men and two women approach her from their houses. She rose to greet them and walked silently with them back to her house. It was time to talk and plan and they knew she needed their help. Alena sat at the head of the table. Balder the Druid sat to her right. He had left his tools at home and had dressed in a simple undyed woolen floor length tunic. The hem was unfinished and he had no embroidery anywhere on his clothing. He had pulled his long blonde hair back and tied it in a bundle at the nape of his neck. The one gray streak that ran from scalp to tips was barely noticeable in the light of the room. If it weren’t for the tattoos on his face, hands and wrists, he would look almost normally. Well, except for the wild look in his eyes. If you didn’t know him, he’d be quite scary, which Alena supposed was the point for a Druid priest. He never smiled, he just quietly stared. Until he had something he felt he must say. Then, he spoke in a low rumbling voice that vibrated through your chest and made you hang on his every word. His wisdom was well tried and found to be true. Alena was glad he was here.
Next to Balder sat Helmut and his wife, Ulrike. They were the oldest people in the village and older than anyone else’s Alena knew anywhere. Helmut was seventy two and Ulrike was seventy. They both had been born in this village. Helmut had left the village at the age of sixteen, to travel and make a fortune. This was not very unusual. But Ulrike had left right behind him because she could not live without Helmut. She was fourteen, dressed like a boy and stayed one step behind Helmut during the three years he was seeking his treasure. In a port city in Asia Minor, when Helmut was nineteen and Ulrike was seventeen, he discovered her when she could no longer hide her womanhood. Helmut rescued Ulrike from a group of men who had discovered her, too. He killed all five men, married Ulrike to her hearts delight and brought her back to Deepshade. They had been here ever since.
On Alena’s left sat Ebba and her twin brother Detlef. Ebba and Detlef oversaw the running of the saltmines and they did it so well that their village was permitted special privileges because the mines were so profitable. Unlike many people in the world, especially anyone working on a farm, the people of Deepshade only worked five days a week instead of the more normal six or seven days a week. This was all due to the efficiency of jovial Ebba and the friendly Detlef and they were loved and admired by the townspeople for their abilities. And they were both married to devoted partners who took care of the home fires in their communal home.
Alena looked around the table and felt she was armed with a smart group of advisors. Marta brought each of them an earthenware bowl of beer and placed a platter of cheese in the middle of the table. She then went of to the fires to leave them some privacy.
“I have no idea where to begin with this venture.” Alena knew these people would prefer to deal with this in a direct manner. Marriage for someone like her was a business matter. She had been lucky to fall in love with Konrad, but that didn’t happen often for people of property. She just hoped that whoever she ended up marrying wouldn’t disgust her too much.
“We have nine months in which to execute this project,” said Ebba. “That’s long enough to grow a child. Surely we can manage to find you a suitable husband.” Ebba grinned as she said this.
“You are skinny but not too homely.” Detlef laughed again and was joined by Ebba. “I think we could find someone that would be willing to take you.”
Alena grinned back at them.
“Yes, but where will we find this person and how will we get him here?” Alena asked.
“We will, quite simply, send out messengers with messages,” said Balder. He took a sip of his beer. He looked at each of them in turn, nodding at each of them.
“That is quite simple and I see nothing wrong with the basic idea,” said Helmut.
“A very simple plan,” said Ulrike. “The question now is who do we send the messages to?”
“Perhaps we could write a general message that says we have a wench who is not too homely looking to marry and if you are interested in her riches, show up at Deepshade on All Hallow’s Eve.” Detlef got an elbow in the ribs from Ebba.
“Well, it could say something like that. And we could write it on many parchments but not put on any names. Then, we pick a few trusted messengers that will go out in the world and look for men that fit what we want.” It seemed that Detlef had already thought about this despite his silliness.
They all looked at Alena. So far she thought they made sense.
“That sounds like a sensible idea,” she said.
“A couple of months of traveling around the area should yield a good selection of candidates for us to choose from,” continued Detlef.
“You mean for Alena to choose from don’t you, Detlef?” asked Ebba.
“Well, yes, for Alena to choose from but I think we should help.”
“I would definitely need your help to choose.” She smiled at them. “I couldn’t imagine being married to anyone other than Konrad, so I will need your help to pick a partner.”
“What we would need to do is make a list of what we are and are not looking for in a man to come into our lives.” Ulrike, despite her romantic teenage years, was very practical. She had helped her children choose their mates and she had done quite well for all ten of her children.
“Excellent idea, my dearest,” said Helmut. “I suggest we all go home now and think about what kind of traits we want. Alena has done enough for her first day back with us.”
“She needs to rest some more to get those roses back in her cheeks.” They all stood as one, which caused them all to laugh, even Balder.
“You will come back here tomorrow night for the evening meal,” said Alena. “After we have eaten, we will make a list and start to write the messages.”
“Agreed,” said Detlef.
“Get back to be and have a snack. Fatten yourself up for the fall slaughter.” Ebba laughed heartily at her own joke, joined by her brother. Helmut and Ulrike shook their heads as they left holding hands.
Balder waited until Ebba and Detlef had gone, too, before he spoke to Alena.
“I know you understand how important your marriage will be to the entire town,” he said. He looked Alena in the eyes and did not look away or blink for several heartbeats.
Alena felt like she had stopped breathing while he stared into her. She thought he was about to say something very profound. Instead, he took her hands in both of his and gave them a squeeze. Then he left, too.
Alena looked around the room. It felt very empty right now. All of the servants except Marta had bedded down a while ago. Marta came over to Alena and ushered her into Alena’s room. Marta helped Alena remove her clothes and put her nightgown on. The bed had been remade. A bowl of milk sat on the stool next to the bed. Alena crawled under the covers and drank the warm milk. Alena felt relaxed and comfortable. She lay back on the down pillows and was soon fast asleep.
The messages had been written, the qualifications defined and the messengers sent on their way. The final preparations had finished out a full week of seven days. Alena, Balder, Helmut, Ulrike, Ebba and Detlef had taken care to consider the needs of everyone at both Deepshade and Crabapple Farm. Alena was grateful they had considered her feels a great deal in the matter.
The messages were all the same:
We are seeking an unmarried man of elevated station to marry a woman of equal rank, just past the age of eighteen, with the holdings of Deepshade and Crabapple Farm. The marriage must take place by the next Harvest Moon. The management of the two holdings is to remain in the hands of the young woman and this will be part of the marriage contract. The qualified man must be at least eighteen years of age and no more than thirty five year of age, of able body and mind, with property of his own and with no previous issue. Interested parties should arrive at Deepshade on Midsummer’s Night.
They wrote out fifteen copies, five for each of three messengers. They chose three brothers for this mission, Karl, Gebhardt and Gisbert. Each man was in his early twenties, the descendants of one of the town’s founding families and with great stakes in the outcome of the process.
Gebhardt and Gisbert were fishermen. Their boats would be commandeered by younger cousins eager for the opportunity to prove themselves capable. Karl was a hunter and the town’s woodsman. He could get away at this time of year without too much ill effects on the town and his duties. The woods took care of themselves at the end of winter. The town’s best horses were readied and provisioned for a month long trip. Each man would also go with a pack mule carrying leathers bags of Deepshade’s finest salt to be given to prospective grooms as gifts.
Gebhardt was sent east where he would encounter families that have had a greater Roman influence on the native peoples. He would find men who were Romanized Celts. This was also the territory where Victorius had his governor’s seat in the town of Noricum, the center of the district. Here they might find someone both suitable to the town and the governor. Victorius would after all have to approve the union. And if they did not choose a man from this area at least it appeared that they tried to find one.
Gisbert was sent west into the more Celtic areas, where he would meet people with more in common with the people of Deepshade and Crabapple Farm. These would be people that were more used to women who ran and managed their own property and whose customs would be most similar to their own.
Karl was sent south below the Alps. He was already known to these people from his hunting and trading trips in that direction. He knew of several men who might be interested in forging relations to the north and while these men were fully as dark of hair as Alena herself, Celtic blood ran deep in their veins. They might be Roman by law but they souls remained wild.
Now all that remained was the wait for the return of the messengers and their reports of who might be interested in their proposal. Now life must go on and daily chores attended to. The Moon of Winds was on the wane and the village expected the return of Karl, Gebhardt and Gisbert any day now. Everyone was anxious for their return to find out who had been interested in their offer. This had been a mild winter, so travel was not as difficult as usual. Balder the Druid said the weather was auspicious for a good outcome.
Gisbert was the first to arrive back in town. He rode down the mountainside with a big grin on his face. The back of his pack mule was laden with packages. He was greeted by one and all with great cheers when he announced that all of his scrolls were accepted by five very eligible men who were quite eager to vie for Alena’s hand in marriage. All of the men knew of Crabapple Farm and Deepshade. Several had known Alena’s parents.
Gisbert was unpacked, bathed and well fed before he was called to Alena’s hall to report to the town’s council. He explained that he was well received throughout the region and he was able to find five men that qualified for the plan without difficulties. He was wined and dined by each appropriate household. He delivered the gifts of salt to each agreeable man who accepted with obvious delight. Each declared the quality of the salt the best they had seen and knew what a precious gift it was. They each gave Gisbert small tokens of their intent to bring back to the village and promised to arrive at Deepshade in time for the Midsummer Bonfires.
Gisbert listed the name of each man he had given a parchment to and described the locations of their holdings and the extent of their wealth.
Balder the Druid noted the details in their village records and the group thanked Gisbert for his efforts and good luck in completing his task so quickly and so well.
Two days later, Gebhardt rode into town after the sun had dropped below the mountain peaks. No one was in the village center to greet him as everyone was at their evening meals. He stabled his horse and mule, removed their packs, blankets and harnesses and brushed them down before seeking someone to announce his arrival to.
As his own house was dark, he assumed none of his brothers had returned before him. Their house was next to Detlef and Ebba’s family home, so he knocked on their door. It was answered by one of the many children that ran amuck in the household. It was a young girl who giggled as she ran from him. She fell into Ebba’s lap, tugging on her mother’s skirts. Ebba patted the girl on her head as she glanced at the open door.
Ebba waved Gisbert into the room and called loudly to the masses that he had arrived on their doorstep. Gisbert saw that Gebhardt was seated at their trestle eating from a deep wheat bread trencher. The brothers smiled at each other as Detlef’s wife, Cordula, ushered Gisbert in and sat him at table next to his brother. She placed a trencher filled with venison stew in front of him and one and all encouraged him to eat before speaking of his travels.
While Gisbert ate and drank his fill of beer, several of the men and women went along with Gebhardt to stoke the fires in the brothers’ home and prepare a bath for Gisbert. Some others had gone to various other homes to pass the word that Gisbert had returned. The excitement of his return spread quickly and it was announced that all had gone well, but as the hour was late, he would make a full report on the morrow.
Gisbert was permitted to sleep late the next morning and was called to a meeting for the noontime meal. He gave a similar report to the one given by Gebhardt. He gave gifts; he received gifts and was well received. The difference in his report was that Governor Victorius put forth two candidates chosen by him. Gisbert met both of the men and found neither of them wanting, which was a happy development as they did not wish to alienate the governor. Another five men’s names and their locations and gifts were added to Balder’s list and tally.
The entire town was particularly eager for the return of Karl. Everyone was very excited by the excellent outcome so far. Spring was waking in the area. Small blooms were poking their heads through the dark brown earth. Crocus, Catchfly and Phlox were making themselves known all along the edges of the mountain paths and pastures. Several young animals had been seen frolicking in the woods with anxious mothers looking on. Promise was everywhere in the air.
Men began going back into the mines to prepare for the new year’s digs. Tools were brought out of their hay beds and polished. Wagon wheels were inspected and wagon beds checked for their stability. Oil supplies were checked and lanterns cleaned of their winter debris.
Women cleaned out fireplaces, careful to keep the embers from the Winter Solstice fires burning. The ashes from the fireplaces were placed in the communal storehouse to be used later in the season to make the new batches of soap and to add to the urine to bleach the wool fabrics that would be made after the first goat shearing of the spring.
Fur pelts and down pillows and mattresses were placed out on bushes and fences to be aired and beaten and brushed. Dirty rushes were swept from houses and added to the pile that would be used for the fires of Beltane as kindling. The streets were also swept of debris and everything began to look fresh and cheerful.
It was mid-April and a full week and a half since Gisbert’s return when Karl finally entered the village. He came by boat across the lake and he came empty handed and with a gross red welt on his cheek. He looked tired and worn. His clothes were dirty and ripped in several places. The town’s people gathered around him and several men helped him home.
Alena was called to minister to his wounds after he had bathed. Cordula brought him bread and cheese and his brothers poured him several bowls of beer before anyone asked him to tell his story.
The council sat around him in his own hall, with his brothers next to him and several other friends there too. It was a crowded group, but a concerned one. Each person present waited patiently for Karl to begin. He was not known for excessive talking so it took him a while to begin. He cleared his throat several times and seemed too embarrassed to begin.
Alena leaned forward and touched one of Karl’s hands.
“Karl, how is it you came by your injuries?” she asked in a quiet voice.
Karl looked into Alena’s eyes then looked down at his hands.
“I was attacked the day before I was to enter Juvavum as I rode on the main rode.”
There were gasps from several people.
“Who would attack you there, in the open?” asked Detlef. A scowl crossed his normally happy brow. He looked quite ferocious.
“I passed a section where the trees came close to the roadside.” Karl cleared his throat again and took another gulp of beer. He rubbed his neck where a bruise could be seen.
“From both sides, I was jumped by four men on foot, dressed plain and their faces covered by scarves.” He shifted in his seat. “A fifth man stood off to the side and watched as the others pulled men from my horse and beat me.”
“This attack sounds planned,” said Helmut.
“It seemed so. When I woke, I lay in the road and the horse and mule were gone. There was no sign of my attackers.”
“These injuries you have here are all from this attack?” asked Ulrike.
“It seems so. I have no clear memory of receiving them all, for which I am grateful.” Karl grinned a bit, and then grimaced as the pain in his cheek affected him. “After slowly rising from the ground bit by bit, I managed to walk into the city to a friend’s house. He bade me to stay the night and had me make a report with the magistrate. He sent out patrols to search for the bandits. A group of thieves so close to town made everyone uneasy.”
“Was no sign of them found?” asked Ebba.
“None.” Karl shook his head. “I felt I needed to come back here the next day and let you all know I had lost everything except the promises of three men to come for the suit in the summer.”
“Another three prospects?” asked Alena.
“Yes and very eager to meet you, they are.” Karl smiled at her.
“We will take their names and other information tomorrow,” said Balder. “You are to get to bed and rest. None of the other things matter.” He rose to leave and everyone else followed him out of the house.
There was plenty for everyone to talk about in front of their evening fires as Karl slept and recovered from his ordeals. Some in the village wondered why all of a sudden a band of outlaws showed up in the area and attacked only Karl. They thought it mighty convenient that it should happen now at this time. There had been no attacks of this sort in the area for many years.
The next day, the group met for the third time to hear and review the report made by Karl. He told them that he found three men willing to consider having a wife that would continue to own and manage her own property. He found all other men that fit their criteria unwilling to consider her financial autonomy. They had become too Roman in their thinking. But the three who had agreed seemed very eager and agreed to meet at Deepshade at the appointed time. They had presented Karl with rich gifts to bring back to Alena. He was sorely upset to have lost them to brigands on the road.
Balder made note of the new names and their estates and their gifts. Even though the articles were lost to thieves, they must still be acknowledged and thanks sent for all items given. Karl left to attend to his duties and catch up on his work. He promised to bring back news of the berry fields in the upland pastures. Many huckleberry and boysenberries would be needed for the coming guests.
The council now began their plans for the Midsummer festivities. They would need to find lodging for the prospective grooms and any retinue they might bring. Helmut and Ulrike agreed to cross the lake and speak to their counterparts in the town of Zell on the Lake. While Zell also lay near the lake as Deepshade did, Zell was a much larger town because it did not sit between the lake and steep mountains. The people of Zell would be happy for the additional and unexpected trade.
The next two months passed quickly. When tank you messages were sent to the thirteen men who had shown their interest, a request was made that each of them would send word ahead of when they would arrive. Each responded in agreement. In the first week of June, the messengers began to arrive. The town received notices from each of the thirteen men. Seven days before the Moon of Horses rose in the night sky, the men began to arrive. It had been planned that none would be presented to Alena until all had arrived and they could meet her together. Each of the men came with only a few retainers and no family, but bearing more gifts.
Three days before the full moon, all of the men had arrived and were installed in homes in Zell. Helmut and Ulrike went to Zell to greet each of them on the first day of their arrival. After all of them had arrived, Balder the Druid went to Zell and brought all of the men together in the hall of Zell’s mayor, Count Radulf. Balder looked the men over and spoke to each in turn. He came back to Deepshade and announced that all of the men fit their requisites.
Preparations for the Midsummer Eve celebrations were complete. The thirteen men were rowed across the lake followed by many people from Zell, who would join in the festivities this year. Everyone gathered in Deepshade’s town center, milling about, waiting for the processions to begin.
Alena came out of her house, clothed in a fine, soft woolen dress, embroidered in greens and blues, with a curdle of fine silver around her waist. Seppel, the silversmith of Deepshade had spent the past two months making the fine scroll work. Alena’s hair and head were covered in a veil and was led by Marta and Marta’s sister Sascka, because Alena could not see through her headdress. Balder the Druid led the way, followed by Alena and her help maids and then the thirteen grooms and the rest of the people came behind in order of their age and importance. The procession went up the narrow town walkways to the mountain paths that led to the meadows above the town where the celebrations would take place.
It was mid-day by the time the entire group made it to their destination. Tables and benches had been set all around a central fire pit where several boar and deer had been roasting on spits since before sunrise. Fresh fruit and vegetables were piled in baskets on the tables. Barrels of beer and mead dotted the countryside.
Alena was led to the table at the head of the field and sat at the place of honor. She was flanked by Helmut and Ulrike on her left and Detlef and Ebba on her right. Balder was circling the bonfire site saying his prayers. The men who hand come to seek Alena’s hand were seated together at one table. A group of musicians and jugglers were entertaining the masses by strolling through the crowds. People were laughing and dancing, drinking and eating and everyone was having a great time, but still looking in Alena’s direction for when the important event would take place.
After everyone had their fill of the roast meats and drunk plenty for a jolly disposition, Balder called for everyone’s attention. He stood in front of Alena and announced the reason for their meeting here together beyond the normal Midsummer holiday. He called the men forward and asked them to line up as he had directed them previously. The men lined up in front of Alena and presented themselves as a fine group.
Balder began on the left and introduced each man to Alena, calling out each man’s name and home town. Each man bowed as he was introduced. After calling out the name and town of the last man, Balder asked Alena to rise. She stood at her chair. Balder shouted out her name and the names of her parents along with the place of her birth. Then Marta and Sascka removed Alena’s veil and several of the men gasped and murmured their approval of Alena’s appearance. It was clear to all that none of the men had expected her to be so comely.
Now, Balder brought his bag of runes forward to the men and asked each to reach inside and draw one out. The order of the runes that each man drew would be the order in which the men would first meet with Alena and they would begin to get to know each other. It was also the order in which they would meet with the council to answer the group’s questions and it would be the time for each man to ask his own questions.
Once each man had chosen his rune and the symbol written in Balder records, the festivities continued. Alena was the first to jump through the bonfire and then she was escorted back down the path to her house while those who wished to stay continued the party on through the night. Alena was glad she didn’t have to participate. She was exhausted and longed only for her bed.
Marta helped her remove her finery and Sascka packed it away to be used on her wedding day. Alena crawled into bed. Marta brought her a dish of chamomile tea. Alena sipped at the drink and began to feel drowsy. She finished the tea, placed the dish on her bedside stool and lay down into her pillows.
Soon she was fast asleep and dreaming of an army of suitors. She felt herself suffocating under the gifts and their attentions. She woke in the middle of the night shivering. She had kicked her blankets from her bed in her distress. Alena got up and went out to the guarderobe to relief herself. She could still see the fires at the top of the mountain burning large and bright even from this far away. Alena smiled at the town’s exuberance. Many marriages would be renewed tonight. She could not think of any new alliances that would be made. Very few of the younger people were ready to make a commitment this year. She felt sure most were celebrating on her behalf, hoping she would make a suitable and happy match.
Alena went back to bed and slept the night through with no more nightmares. She thought she remembered dreaming of a man she did not recognize, but the visions were wisps of thought that circled around her head like wood smoke. Despite waking in the night and her dreams, Alena felt refreshed in the morning. She felt ready to meet each of the men in turn and getting to know them a little bit.
She was to meet with each man for two hours for the first time, three men a day until she had seen them all. They were all hoping that after these five days were concluded that they would be able to narrow the field of prospects down to a more manageable size. Between Alena’s opinions and likes, the answers the men would give to the village elders and the wants of the men themselves, they all felt that a few of the men would be going home on their own within the week. Only those truly interested would remain.
Alena determined to dress simply and to arrange her hair in a common manner. She wanted the men to pay more attention to her and not to her appearance. She also decided to ask each of the men the same ten questions to make it easier for her to compare them. When she felt ready, she came out of her room to see how the meeting area was set up.
Two chairs were set in front of the fireplace where a small fire was burning to keep the chill at bay. A third chair was placed behind the one she would be sitting in. Balder would occupy this chair during each of the meeting to act as chaperone and to recall the conversations later to the other council members. A thick bear skin carpet covered the floor under the chairs. Bear was becoming quite rare in the mountains and the surrounding areas. The men would be impressed by the extravagance of placing the skin on the floor.
Marta had placed bread and butter on the table with a pot of clover honey. Alena sat at the table and broke her fast. She washed down the meal with milk tea. Marta remarked on how hearty Alena’s appetite was and she wondered allowed if Alena was as hungry for a new husband. Everyone laughed including Alena. She felt good to be surrounding by these people who accepted her so well. They would all be present during the meetings, too, although they would be pretending not to pay attention to what was being said and how the couple got along.
After finishing her meal, Alena took her seat by the fire and waited for the first man who could be her next husband to arrive. She did not have long to wait. Shortly after settling into her chair, there came a knock at the door. Everyone stopped what they were doing and watched as Balder open the door. The first man Alena met with was named Alan. He was twenty years old but looked even younger. His blonde hair grew long down his back and curled like a little girl’s hair. He had sweet pink lips, rosy cheeks and soft blue eyes that were round and open. He smiled at Alena from the time Marta had let him through the door and ushered him to his seat. He wore soft pink breaches and a tunic in the same pink color. He reminded Alena of new blossoms in spring time. His body was slight and feminine. Alena had a hard time picturing Alan doing any physical labor. Without even speaking to him, Alena crossed him off of her list of candidates. He would be at home in royal house but wouldn’t stand a chance on a farm or as a salt mine manager.
Alena spent a half hour with Alan and at the end of that time he realized they would be better off without each other. He told Alena he was the youngest of five sons and needed to find a place in the world but he thought a warmer place would suit him better. He was a sweet boy who told her riddles and jokes and he even sang her a love song he had written as a tribute and a way to sway her into his affections. He left practically skipping out the door like a carefree young girl in pigtails.
Alena now had a spare hour and a half in which she did some sewing on her wedding clothes. She was working on her shoes. They were made of soft kid leather that was smooth and flexible. The shoes would not be much use for walking but they would feel luxurious and look beautiful. She had finished cutting the pieces out and was in the process of embroidering the top pieces. She was using thread that had sat in berry dyes for four days so that the reds were very deep red and the blues rich and thick. She lost track of time in stitching the patterns of flowers and spirals.
Before she knew it, the next man on the list had arrived. She jumped when he pounded heartily on the door, opened it himself and called in a booming hello. He came striding in, big and jolly, with a face full of reddish brown hair, beard and mustache, bushy eyes brows and a full head of kinky hair all meeting in one unending mat of fur. His eyes were a soft brown, the color of mushrooms. He looked like he enjoyed his meat and bread and washed it down with many horns of mead. His nose was red and bulbous also attesting to his love of drink.
He towered over her when he strode to the fire place and staggered slightly before flopping into the chair. He introduced himself as Craig from Westfarm Rivers. He pronounced her appearance as good for breeding, noting that she seemed a strong girl. He needed a hard working woman to raise his two young sons as their mother had died giving birth to the second of the two. When Alena said that prospective candidates were not permitted to have current issue, he laughed it off as being a nonsense rule that couldn’t possibly apply to him. He called for a dish of beer just as Balder came with Detlef to escort him away and explain why Craig was no longer in the running as a possibility.
Since this interview did not take very long either, Marta set the table for a leisurely and unexpectedly long midday meal. Every one sat down together to enjoy roast venison, carrots, turnips, and onions followed by an apple strudel with warm clotted cream. They had plenty of time to enjoy themselves and eat in peace. Most midday meals were rushed to get back to work to finish the day’s chores, but this week was a special situation and the normal work schedule was suspended for a while.
After a quite happy meal, Alena went back to stitching on her shoes. She was now edging them in red and blue, alternating the colors to make stripes along the tops. She took her time to make each stitch the exact same length and width. People would be able to tell the care with which she had made them.
When the sun was half way to setting for the day, the third man she was to talk with that day arrived. He knocked on the door with confidence and waited for it to be opened by Marta. Alena heard Marta gasp and she looked to see why Marta had made that sound. When she looked towards the door, Alena drew in her breath too. The man at the door blocked the light from the sun that normally shone in the doorway. He filled the space like a well built statue, the light of the sun causing shades where his well defined muscles dipped and rippled. He ducked so his head would not hit the top of the door jam.
Everyone stopped what they were doing to watch him. He said something to Marta that caused her to blush and to stammer some sort of response. Marta escorted him to the chair opposite Alena and asked him if he wished for some beer. He declined and thanked Marta for her offer. He then turned to Alena and asked her if he might be seated. She said yes and felt the urge to giggle.
This was Dierk of Iron Pines Hills, one of the most promising of the group. Dierk was twenty two, six foot two inches tall and broad and full of working muscles. His tunic, made of fine spun wool, fit tight across his shoulders and chest flaring out at his hips and thighs. His leggings were dyed a soft green, like the color of moss. His boots were sturdy thick leather that was worn comfortable from long use. His eyes were blue, his hair blonde, thick and smooth, tied back neatly at his neck. His face was shaved smooth, without the customary mustache.
When he spoke, his voice was deep, low and confident. He began by asking Alena about herself. He wanted to know about her life at Crabapple Farm growing up and about her parents. He seemed genuinely sorry for the loss of her mother and father and then for the loss of her husband, Konrad. He asked matter of fact information about the farm and she spent much time talking about the animals, produce and people that made up the property of that holding. He smiled when she laughed over the baby animals she had helped to deliver and her delight in how the stumbled and tumbled as they tried to walk.
Dierk asked about the town and asked her about her fellow townspeople. He asked particular questions about the number of houses and the people who occupied them. He asked about the fishermen and what they caught and how many boats they had. He wanted to know about the smithies and the carpenters. He marveled at how such as seemly small town could pack so much into such a small area. He listened intently as she explained how the houses were stack one upon another up the mountain side from the edge of the water. And he seemed fascinated by the operations of the saltmines. He commented that they seemed a very efficient and hard working bunch of people. He pronounced himself very impressed.
Their two hours had passed with Alena doing almost all of the talking. She had not asked any of her questions. Instead of knowing something about Dierk, she had told him her whole life’s story and all of the small details of both Deepshade and Crabapple Farm.
Dierk smiled at Alena as he rose to leave. He took her hand in his and squeezed it gently. She stood to walk him to the door. She felt comfortable next to him. As he left and walked down to the boats to cross the lake to the town of Zell, he looked back and smiled at Alena, his white, even teeth flashing in the setting sun.
When Balder the Druid came to hear about her meetings, she realized she didn’t have much to report. Two of the men were already scratched off of the list. Their gifts would be returned and they would be sent on their way. Dierk seemed promising but Alena realized she didn’t know anything new about him. She liked the way he looked and moved. He would be able to handle any hard work but she didn’t know if he would be wiling to do that work. He made her feel special by asking her question and listening to everything she said, but she realized this could be a ploy to divert attention off of him self for some reason.
They decided they would put Dierk down for another meeting where Alena would be sure to ask all of the questions. She could not afford to allow her desires to get in the way of common sense. This was a business matter and had to be handled in the proper way.
Alena would learn from this meeting and be more conscious of her behavior in the next interviews. Balder did not tell Alena of the meeting the council had with the men they met today. They did not want to influence her thinking or her opinions. They would wait to see which men she chose as final candidates before giving their opinions. Alena decided to take a stroll around the town before the evening meal. She felt stiff with sitting all day long. A walk would help her sleep better and get rid of some of the pent up energy she had been storing now for several days, She was used to working and all of this idleness was wearing on her. She walked briskly, swinging her arms back and forth, clapping her hands in front of her and behind her. The air was cool and invigorating. She felt the blood in her cheeks and began to feel hungry. She was glad to get back home, have a light meal and then go to bed. Tomorrow, there were three more men to meet.
Alena dreamt about Dierk. She had gone to Crabapple Farm to check on the harvest. On the road to the farm, her caravan had been attacked by masked bandits and she was carried off into the woods. They had bound and gagged her and slung her over the back of a horse in front of one of the riders. They rode through the woods for several hours, branches from the trees whipping at her back, arms and legs. Her chest and stomach were sore and bruised from the bouncing stride of the horse. She whimpered occasionally and she got a smack on the head for each of her outbursts.
By the time they stopped for the night, she fell to the ground in a pile and didn’t move, even when a piece of bread was placed in front of her. She lay still, trying not to cry out from her aches and wondered what had happened to all of the people that had been with her. Were they all dead? Was anyone able to send for help? What was going to happen to her?
Suddenly the forest was alive with the noise of men shouting and horses neighing. Torches flickered into the clearing, highlighting vignettes of drama. Swords clashed against each other and men yelled with pain when the swords struck flesh. Alena raised her head to see two men fighting fiercely by the camp fire. One of the men backed the other through the fire kicking up sparks and knocking burning logs into the brush. At one point, the fire flared up and Alena could see that the unmasked man was Dierk.
Alena felt a great surge of excitement that he had come to her rescue. He fought fiercely and Alena cheered him silently on. She willed his sword to connect with the dastardly coward who had stolen her and wasn’t even brave enough to show his face. Dierk pushed against his opponent forcing him to the ground and into the fire and coals. The man screamed in agony as his clothes burst into fire. The mask began to burn away from his face and Alena woke with a start when she saw her captor was Wolfram.
Alena shook all over and pulled her furs more tightly around her. She couldn’t imagine why now she would be having nightmares of Wolfram kidnapping her. She had not seen him in months. She told herself she was being silly and concentrated on the part of the dream where Dierk was rescuing her. Soon she was back to sleep and having happy thoughts.
The next morning, she had a vague sense of unease left over from the night but she was not sure why. She couldn’t quite remember her dreams, but she thought they had been good ones, so why the funny feelings. She felt a bit tired, too. Her nightgown was twisted around her body and her covers were all disarranged, a few even on the floor. She must have had a restless night’s sleep. There was no time to dwell on it, though. She had to get up and get moving. She had another day of interviews ahead of her.
Alena rinsed her face in the cold water in her wash bowl and scrub her skin dry. That helped her feel invigorated. She pulled all of her pelts back onto the bed and straightened them up. Marta came in and told her to stop cleaning up. Alena said she needed something useful to do.
“I need something useful to do.”
“You have your wedding clothes to finish.”
“That’s sitting down. I need to do something where I move and get some exercise.”
“Fine. I guess it wouldn’t hurt. It would save me some steps, so, if you want, you go right ahead.”
Alena went around the room, putting things in their place and even dusting off furniture. She made the bed. She restocked the fireplace with logs from the wood pile and went out to the back, in her nightdress, to get more wood for the pile in her room. Then she washed herself up again, dressed for the day, then took her wash basin out and dumped the water. She put the wash bowl back in her room after rinsing it out.
Then she undid the braids in her hair and tried to comb out the tangles. Time was running short, so Marta had her daughter Leni go over to Alena and finish combing Alena’s hair. After getting it all straight, Leni braided it back into one long braid. Leni went and fetched bread and butter for Alena to break her fast. After eating, it was time to wait for the first man of the day to arrive.
There was a knock at the door. When Marta opened it, Balder the Druid stood in the doorway all by himself. He came into the room, walked over to Alena and sat in the chair opposite her. He looked at the fire for a few minutes. Alena watched him with curiosity wondering why he was there alone. She waited patiently for him to speak. He cleared his throat and then looked her in the eyes.
“This morning, when I went to get Elsin, the man you were to meet with at this time, I knocked on his room door and received no answer.” Balder continued to look Alena in the eyes.
She felt quite disconcerted. He wasn’t blinking and seemed like he was trying to tell her something without putting it into words that he had to voice out loud. She couldn’t imagine what was going on and why she felt very afraid. Suddenly, memories of her nightmare came flooding back to her mind and she remembered being kidnapped by Wolfram. She shivered despite sitting so close to a burning fire. Balder nodded to Alena, like he was agreeing to the feelings flowing through her.
“I tried the door and it would not open. I went down to the innkeeper to see if there was a key to the door of Elson’s room. The innkeeper said none of his doors had locks so we were worried as to why the door would not open.” Balder stood up. “The innkeeper, his man and I went back upstairs to try the door again. Brian, the innkeeper, knocked on the door and got no answer either. We listened and heard no sounds. Brian pushed on the door and it did not budge. He stood back a moment and scratched his head. He pushed on the door again, this time at the top of the door. It moved in a bit at the top. He then pushed at the bottom of the door and it did not move.” Balder relayed the conversation as if they were there hearing it for the first time.
“There seems to be something blocking the door at the bottom,” Brian said. He shrugged at Balder and motioned for his man to join him at the door. “Help me push on the bottom of the door,” he told his man. The two men bent down and put their shoulders to the door. They shoved the door and it began to move. They could feel whatever was blocking the door move back as the door opened. After getting the door open enough to allow someone to walk through, they straightened up and all three men looked at the red smear on the floor. They looked at each other and looked at the floor. No one was eager to find out what this meant. It couldn’t be good.
Brian and his man were about to step into the room. Balder held them back by grabbing their sleeves.
“We should get the magistrate before we go any further,” said Balder. “This obviously is blood. If it is the blood of Elsin, we may need the magistrate to see everything from the beginning. It may be important that we let him see the room first. It may need to be explained officially.”
Brian thought Balder made sense. Brian sent, Joda, his man, to fetch Tomas the magistrate of Zell. Brian and Balder waited patiently in the hall, trying not to look at the blood on the floor. The men did not speak to each other. They had no idea what to say and did not want to think about what this could mean. They did not have long to wait before Tomas arrived.
Tomas was a tall man and with long limbs that looked less strong than they were. People that did not know him were fooled by his lanky appearance. They were often fooled by his smiling face, too. Tomas was normally very friendly and jovial until you did something that disturbed his peace. Then he was no nonsense and all business and many a man has found himself spending the night in the ice house over night for making Tomas work. Tomas came up the stairs, looked at both Balder and Brian and said a curt hello. Balder motioned to the door and to the floor. Tomas walked up to the door slowly and looking all around the area before getting too close.
“Can you two please move back down the hall a few paces?” Tomas waited for them to move out of his way. Then, he searched the floor, looked at the walls on both sides of the door and the wall over the door. Only then did he look down at the floor just inside the room.
“This is definitely blood. It is dry in some places but slightly wet in spots. There is a larger, deeper amount just in front of the doorway where it then smeared back into the room.” Tomas stepped into the room by stepping over the blood stains. The other three men stayed where they were in the hall. Tomas closed the door. For a few minutes all was quiet and then they could hear Tomas moving around the room. He was very quiet but they could hear the floor boards creak as he moved around.
The sun shifted to shine in the window that was in this hallway. The light shone in as a shaft that highlighted the dust moats dancing in the air. The sounds of the town were much louder with people in the streets calling to each other. There was laughter that made its way up the stairs. A woman in the first floor hall giggled loudly and the sound grated on their nerves and seemed very out of place.
Balder began to recite the creation story to pass the time. He didn’t know what Brian and Joda were thinking to help pass the time for them, but Balder was almost done repeating his story in his mind when the door to the room was opened slowly by Tomas.
“This is not something we are used to seeing here in Zell,” he said. “Before I let you in, I must tell you that there are two dead bodies in that room. Both of them are men. I will need to see if you can tell me who they are.”
“There should only be one man in that room,” said Brian. “I only let the room to one man. I only rented the room to Elsin.”
“You will need to look to see if one of the two men is this Elsin you speak of.”
“I’m not going in there.” Brian backed away from the doorway.
“I need you to try to tell me who these men are, Brian,” said Tomas.
“No.” Brian began to shake slightly.
Balder watched Brian and say a fear in his face.
“I can see if I know them,” said Balder. “I have met Elsin and I may recognize the other man.”
“That should do.” Tomas stepped to the door and placed his hand on it but did not push it open yet. “Brian, have your man get together two stretchers and three other men to help carry the bodies to the icehouse.”
Brian nodded and he and Joda left to complete their errands.
“When we go inside, try not to step in the blood,” Tomas told Balder. “There is a lot all over the room. Be careful how you move throughout the room. Watch your tunic. You may want to gather it together to keep it out of the mess.”
Tomas pushed open the door and entered the room. Balder followed him in. Balder stepped over the blood by the door and then was amazed at the blood all over the rest of the room. There was blood on the floor, the walls and the sparse furniture. It looked like a slaughter house. Balder looked beg=hind the door and he saw that it was Elsin. He saw that Elsin’s body was naked and cut and stabbed in many places. His face had been slashed about ten times in many directions. Balder had never seen anything like it. From the door area where Elsin lay in a piled up heap, pushed together by the opening of the door, a line of blood trailed back to the bed where Balder could see a bloody mess laid across it.
He walked closer to the bed and saw that this too was a man and he was also unclothed. He lay face down in the bed. His upper body was on the bed but his legs trailed onto the floor. The man’s brown hair was caked in blood but Balder could not see any marks on this man’s back, just blood.
Tomas turned this body over and Balder gasped. This man was Vix, another of the men that Alena was to meet with but not until the last day. He was the thirteenth man on the list. This was not what caused Balder’s surprise though. Now Balder could see where all of the blood had come from. Vix’s penis had been ripped off and stuffed in his mouth. He had also been stabbed in the chest several times, but Balder could not tell which injuries had come first.
“What do you say about these men? Do you know them?”
“Yes, the man by the door is Elsin, who rented this room.” Balder took a deep breath. “This man here is Vix from Land’s End.”
“So, he is another of the men in your contest?”
“It is not really a contest, but yes, he is one of the thirteen.”
“I have looked around the room and have discovered several things and have not found others which I would have thought to have found.”
“What did you not find, Tomas?”
“There is no knife in the room.”
“But there must be one. Where would it be?”
“I think there must have been another person in this room who took the knife with him. I think this was also the person who killed both Elsin and Vix.”
“What would make you say that?”
“Elsin and Vix were lovers. They did not have a fight. Their clothes were placed neatly in a pile together on that back stool in the back of the room. Their clothes are together, not in separate piles. That shows me a certain kind of closeness.”
Balder looked to the spot that Tomas indicated.
“That makes sense.”
“Their being lovers does not disturb you?”
“No, I do not find it unusual. Maybe around here, but these men were not from around here. Do you think they knew each other before coming here?”
“That is something we will look into. But I think I can safely say that Vix was attacked first based on the kind of wounds he had. Elsin looks like he was stabbed and killed trying to save or protect Vix. He moved towards the bed where Vix was killed and then he moved towards the door after he received his wounds.”
“With so much going on here, I am surprised no one else in the inn heard anything.”
“This is another thing that we must find out.” Tomas picked up the clothes of both of the men and the bag that was on the floor by the stool. “Do you know where Vix had his rooms?”
“I believe he had a room with Master Blacksmith. I think there was some sort of relationship there.”
“I will go speak with him.”
“What do you think happened here?”
“I think someone came in here and killed them both and I think he was angry when he did it.”
Alena was amazed at Balder’s story. She sat in her chair by her warm fire in her secure hall and wondered how two big men could be murdered in an inn across the lake. She couldn’t get her mind around it all. And it looked like Balder was having a hard time comprehending it also.
“Do you think this could have anything to do with the attack on Karl?” asked Alena.
Balder looked at her startled and wary.
“What would make you think that?”
“It just seems odd that all of these attacks are happening now, when nothing has happened before.”
“I think it must be a coincidence. They are very different kind of attacks after all.”
“I guess you are right. They are very different.”
“Yes, these attacks in Zell seem very personal, like the attack was against these men in particular, where the attack on Karl was a group of bandits for profit.”
“I see what you mean, now that you explain them.”
Alena and Balder sat in silence for a while. Then, Balder coughed.
“What am I thinking?” said Alena. “Marta, please bring us two bowls of beer.”
“It is awful early, ma’am.” Marta scowled her disapproval at the early hour for libations.
“Normally, I would agree, but these are special circumstances. Please, just bring us some, Marta.”
Marta brought over the drinks and noticed blood on Balder’s tunic as she set the bowls down on the table near them.
“Sir, you have blood on your shirt. Are you hurt?”
“Not I, Marta. I am perfectly fine, but there are others who have not fared as well.”
“Marta, I will speak to you later and explain.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Marta moved off back to her work.
“What do we do now?” asked Alena.
“We must go on. There is nothing we can d for these men and the living must live.” Balder drank his beer in one long gulp. “You have several hours before the next man is to arrive. Do you need something to help you through the rest of the day?”
“No, I am fine. I may just go for a walk though, to refresh my self.”
“You do that. I will go to the council and tell them what has happened.” Balder rose to go. He stumbled over his own feet in his preoccupation of thought, bumping into the table and knocking the bowl to the ground where it shattered into many pieces.
Marta and Leni rushed over to clean up. Balder stuttered his apologies to them all and left. He seemed more upset now than when he had first come to tell her about his morning activities.
While the women cleaned up Balder’s mess, Alena told them briefly and without too much detail about the deaths of Elsin and Vix. Leni gasped at all of the appropriate places but Marta said nothing until Alena was done. Then, Marta stood, fists on hips and head cocked to one side. She thought for a minute.
“That’s four out of five men gone from the list. Sort of narrowing the field, I guess.”
“What do you mean, Marta?” Alena was shocked.
“Right now there is only one man in the running. I wonder if anything will happen to knock more of them off of the list.”
“Don’t be silly. Who would kill those men just so they couldn’t place their suit before me?” Alena shivered and remembered her nightmare.