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.