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.