Madame Gertrud and Wulfgard stood side by side with Gideon to Wulfgard’s right and Lauryn to Madame Gertrude’s left. Gideon kept looking around his father to get a glimpse of Lauryn. Lauryn looked down at her feet in an approximation of demure maidenly coyness. Madame Gertrude spoke out the marriage agreement listing when the wedding would take place (at the second new moon from this day) and it would be held in Wulfgard’s hall. Madame Gertrude would provide pigs for roasting and fish for stews and all of the other food stuffs, like the bread trenchers. Madame Gertrude would also provide the ales and wines. Wulfgard would provide the entertainment, bringing in a group of musicians and singers from Juvavum. Wulfgard would give Madame Gertrude seven head of cattle, seven sacks of grain, and seven gold coins. Wulfgard would also pay for a special bolt of fabric and the seamstresses to cut and stitch a dress for her wedding day. Once Madame Gertrude finished announcing all of this to her audience, nearly every person in the entire village, she took Lauryn’s left hand and placed it in Gideon’s left hand. Lauryn glanced up and smiled at the crowd but never looked at Gideon who was beside himself trying to capture Lauryn’s glance. Wulfgard stood by frowning at his son’s besotted behavior and at Lauryn’s vapid joy. Wulfgard kept his own council, but Mairyn did not think he approved of his son’s choice. Mairyn could not figure out why Wulfgard was going through with the marriage. Surely he could convince his son to choose someone else. Mairyn suspected that Madame Gertrude had some way to pressure Wulfgard to agree to the match.
Mairyn stood behind the four people playing out their roles in front of the whole town. Madame Gertrude called Mairyn forward during the intervals where Madame Gertrude paused in her speech so Mairyn could hand Madame Gertrude a horn of ale. Mairyn did not mind being at this gathering. It was one of the few occasions when she had received a lavender bath and hair wash along with one of Lauryn’s dresses that she no longer wanted. It was clean and not worn; Lauryn just did not like it any more. Mairyn was happy to have it. It had panels of finely stitched flowers around the neckline, sleeves and hem. Each time Mairyn handed Madame Gertrude her cup, Mairyn looked into the gathering and saw Haas watching her with an odd look on his face. Haas only ever looked at her with the scorn of an older person glancing at a dull child. Petre, standing behind Wulfgard, his uncle, would pull Mairyn back when she lingered to far forward wondering why Haas kept looking at her. Once, when pulling Mairyn back, Petre nudged his uncle’s arm. Wulfgard turned towards them with a harsh word on the tip of his tongue but he never spoke. Instead, he looked at Mairyn and his eyes widened. He looked her up and down and then his attention was diverted back to Madame Gertrude and her speech.
Madame Gertrude was hitting her stride fueled by the ale she sipped from the horn Mairyn handed her periodically. She was talking about the joining of two great families, hers and Wulfgard’s. Several people were snickering under their breath as Wulfgard frowned. Everyone knew Lauryn was not related to Madame Gertrude, but she had a surprise for them all as she announced that she was officially adopting Lauryn and making Lauryn her heir. Mairyn almost dropped the cup she held and her jaw dropped to her chin as did the chins of most of the other people. Lauryn smiled and blushed prettily and acted as if it was all a big surprise to her. Mairyn doubted that was the case. Wulfgard perked up at this news as he pictured a future grand influx of goods and property. Madame Gertrude was not a young woman after all and was having more bouts of illness lately. She was older than he was although he wasn’t sure how old she was. Wulfgard’s son, Gideon, was positively beaming. If it were physically possible, he’d be slapping himself on his own back for his great, good luck. He elbowed his father and turned to Petre, grabbing his arm in his excitement.
Madame Gertrude stood soaking up the crowd’s astonishment. She reached around for the cup Mairyn held, but Mairyn was still in shock and did not hand it to Madame Gertrude. Madame Gertrude slapped Mairyn in the face to get her attention. Everyone saw the slap and gasped. Everyone except Lauryn that is. She gave Mairyn a dirty look. Mairyn was doubly stunned and tears sprang into her eyes which made her angry with herself. She really didn’t care that Madame Gertrude was adopting Lauryn and not Mairyn but the slap proved to Mairyn and everyone else that Madame Gertrude did not in any way consider Mairyn and Lauryn sisters, let alone equals. Mairyn dropped the ale horn and ran to hide. The last she heard was some sort of angry comments coming from Petre, which didn’t surprise Mairyn, but she also heard Wulfgard’s angry comment, which did surprise her. She didn’t hear the words but the sentiments she appreciated.
Mairyn ran without thinking. She passed the door to the Lindwurm. Her first thought had been to go into the Lindwurm’s cellar but that would be a trap with no way out and Madame Gertrude would be sure to look for her there. She ran down the cobbled road passing the bakery and then the butcher’s establishment which was near the underground spring that ran into the lake. The underground stream was used as a sewer to wash food waste into the lake where the fish could eat it. This kept the fish in the lake fat for the fisher men to catch. A pathway came after the butcher’s and ran around the lake’s edge. Mairyn headed for this walkway which would take her out of the town and to the path that lead up the mountain. There’s was a place that most people didn’t go to but Mairyn used it when she really needed to get away from everyone and everything. The only person who knew she liked to hide there was Petre and Mairyn thought it would be ok if he found her. She continued to run up the path until she passed all of the houses that were on this side of the town. The path wound around so that she ended up being two levels up looking down on the roofs. At this level, the path split into two paths. One went further up the mountain, eventually reaching Flora’s hut and the path that lead to the trail over the mountain and the long way around the lake. The second path leads off to the cave that held the carved and etched skulls of the town’s ancestors. This was the place where Mairyn was headed.
The cave’s entrance was not directly on the path. If you didn’t know where the cave was you would never see it but instead you would pass on by and end up going back down to the town around the back and down the other side. There was a spot marked by a thorn bush that had been growing in the same spot for generations. The thorn bush was part of the town’s ancestral legends. It was said that when the town was first started it was by people who had come from very far away and they had brought the bush from the original home. The legend said that if the bush grew where it was planted the people were meant to stay and as long as it lived the people would proper. So far the legends were not wrong. In the harsh winters, the thorn bush was covered with a layer of fine wool cloth to keep it safe from the ice that could form on the tree limbs. The bush was large and wide and blocked the view of the two large rocks that formed a layered doorway into the skull cave. Mairyn moved behind the bush, avoiding the thorns which were large and sharp like a big cat’s claws. She then passed through the two rocks that form a sort of tunnel into the entrance. Around the second rock she entered the cave into a large cavern that had benches carved along the front walls to form a sort of arena. At the back of the cavern the wall was covered with the skulls of long and not so long dead people. The skulls were clean of all flesh and bleached white in the sun. Most of the skulls were decorated with designs and runes carved into them by family members. Skulls that did not have anything carved on them were people who no longer had relatives in the town and their lines had died out. There were very few of those as most of the people in town were related to someone still living at the time of their deaths. As long as it was daytime, a shaft of light would enter through an opening in the roof of the cavern. The shaft of light would travel around the room as the sun traveled across the sky and marks were made in different areas of the cave to mark the passing time of the daylight hours. Special braces were carved out of the stone walls where oil and wicks were placed for lamps when night time ceremonies were being held as they were on at least two holidays during the year, once at the full moon following the autumnal equinox and then again at the new moon near the winter solstice. Right now it was daylight so the shaft of light shone down from above and hit the eighth mark of the twelve marked out on the cave floor. Mairyn went and stood in this shaft of light and held her face up to it. She closed her eyes and let the tears flow down her face. She didn’t bother to wipe them away; she just let herself go for a change. She cried there in the cave without making a sound and she felt the sympathy of those spirits living in the skulls who so long ago suffered the pains of the living. They seemed to wrap her in a promise of better things to come, too. She finally laugh out loud at that and her laughter echoed around the room and came back to her making the dust motes vibrate and dance in the sunlight. She sat down on one of the stone benches then and allowed the silence of those she thought no relation of hers to sooth her. The sun beam moved up two more marks before she heard the noise she had been waiting for.
Petre came in quietly and sat down beside her. They sat next to each other quietly for a little while.
“I’ll be putting the skulls of my parents in here soon,” said Petre.
“I didn’t know you were almost done with the carvings?”
“They will be ready for the ceremony after harvest is over.”
“Were you able to work in the special signs you wanted?”
“I was finally able to convince Jondan to show me the runes I wanted. It’s taken me two years of bribing the old Druid with sweetmeats, but he etched them quickly in the sand one day when I was barely paying attention. Then he swept them away. He said if I could reproduce them properly he’d tell me if I were correct. Somehow I did. He seemed impressed. He even talked to my Uncle Wulfgard about furthering my bardic training. I think my uncle would like to have a musician and story teller in the family.”
“Don’t sound so bitter. I’ve got a surprise for you.”
“Oh, goody, more surprises.” Mairyn couldn’t keep the bitterness out of her voice. She felt herself on the verge of tears again.
“Well, I guess I won’t tell you then if you don’t care,” Petre teased.
Mairyn looked at him, wondering what he could possible have to tell her that she really would want to hear. She tried to ignore him but he was as stubborn as she was. He began to whistle a tune, repeating it over and over changing it slightly here and there and muttering about getting it just right for his parents’ internment ceremony. Mairyn finally punched Petre in the arm.
“Tell me what you have to tell me.”
“I don’t want to force you to listen to something you don’t want to here.”
“Tell me now or I’ll hit you with a rock.”
“Then I really won’t be able to tell you.”
Petre was grinning. Mairyn crossed her arms across her chest and glared at Petre.
He laughed and shoved her with his shoulder. She broke down and laughed back at him.
“After you left, well ran away and people stopped staring after you like they’ve never seen you before, they started complaining to Madame Gertrude. No one had ever seen her hit you before. I told you before if you had complained they would have stopped her.”
“She would have found a way to make it worse.”
“Yes, I know you told me and I’m sure you are right but now it’s out. You should have seen the uproar. Madame Gertrude was really shocked. And Lauryn was pouting like crazy and actually threw a temper tantrum right there in front of everyone. Today was a real eye opener for many people. They discovered that Madame Gertrude was not as magnanimous as she pretended to be to you both. Most people just took it for granted that she treated you the same. Now they knew different. Many asked her if she was adopting you, too. She stammered out a no like they were crazy.”
“I can well believe that. Why the hell would she want me when she had Lauryn, her special prize?”
Petre put his hand on Mairyn’s arm.
“Jondan told her that because she had hit you Madame Gertrude had lost all rights to you in any form. Madame Gertrude exploded at him. She actually raised her hand to him as if she would strike him, too. He just laughed at her. She said they had no right to take you away from her as she had sheltered and clothed you all these years. That’s when Stella spoke up and told about how Madame Gertrude worked you so hard with Lauryn never lifting a finger and that at this point Madame Gertrude owed you something for all of the work you had done for her. Madmae Gertrude was speechless and Lauryn started whining about how hard she worked each day. Stella just laughed and said that Gideon would find out soon enough what a hard worker Lauryn was. Madame Gertrude snapped out of her shock at this possible threat to her match with Wulfgard’s family although she need not worry about that as the property she was bestowing on Lauryn would be more than enough of a guarantee for the wedding to take place. Wulfgard assured Madame Gertrude that the marriage would proceed as expected but that Wulfgard insisted that Jondan’s decree about you must be obeyed. Madame Gertrude threw up her hands and said that the town was welcome to support you if they thought so highly of you. That’s when Flora moved up beside Wulfgard and whispered something into his ear. He got a very thoughtful look on his face and then nodded to Flora. Flora smiled and left with Aloisa. Once Flora was gone, Wulfgard raised he hand to the mumbling crowd. Everyone quieted down and waited for him to speak. You’ll never believe what he announced. I still don’t believe it and I’ve had it in my brain for several hours now.”