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.