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.