After another twenty minutes or so of conversation, during which Anaria was conscious of being kindly but thoroughly questioned and assessed, Ingrid and Samuel made their farewells and the household settled in for the night.
The next morning, following Sarah’s instructions, Anaria gathered fresh clothes, donned the previous day’s outfit and joined her in the short walk to the bath house.
The interior was warm, well lit and surprisingly dry given its purpose. Tubs, taps and even showers were ranged along one wall, with light screens and curtains to maintain modesty.
It was also full of chatting, laughing women. Sarah had said this was the women’s respite hour, as they left all but the suckling babes with their menfolk and indulged in their own time and cleanliness. The children’s baths were taken care of later, after the laundry.
The chatter stopped as Anaria entered, all eyes going to her in varying shades of curiosity and affront. She set her shoulders back, gifted the group with a vague, unfocussed smile and concentrated on greeting Ingrid, who had stepped forward to introduce her daughter, Tilly.
Tilly, a sweet-faced girl a year or so older than Anaria embarked on a helpful tour and explanation of the various features of the room, while the other women looked on and murmured.
As they neared the end of the exploration, one of the curtains swept aside and another young woman stepped out. Any beauty bestowed by her features was erased by her sneer and her arrogant deportment.
She stepped close to Anaria and leaned in threateningly. Her pose, with her hands sliding down her hips, inadvertently pulled her already low-cut neckline down to scandalous levels.
“So you’re the jumped up little tart who’s trying to steal my man. Let’s see how long you last. I’ll wager you’ll be running, crying back to town before the month is out and Liam will be back where he belongs.”
This would be Martha then. Anaria placed a single fingertip high on the girl’s chest and pushed her away disdainfully.
“Liam is a grown man with a mind of his own. If he chose me over you, despite your best efforts, my absence isn’t going to send him to your side. In fact it’s more likely to send him to mine. And as for being a tart, would you care to compare our appearances in the mirror by the door?”
There was a moment of stunned silence, then the other women burst into laughter.
“Ahh, at last someone who won’t take your bullying Martha. Perhaps she could give you lessons in how to attract a man.”
Martha glanced pure venom at the old woman who’d spoken.
“And don’t give me those glares young missy, you’ve been put in your place and not before time. Your parents have been far too soft on you.”
Anaria used the unexpected flanking attack to move away from the seething Martha, gently drawing an open-mouthed Tilly with her.
Seeing the movement, Martha resumed her verbal attack, “And don’t go thinking you can steal my best friend either, Tilly and me go way back and she doesn’t like you.”
Anaria, rather lost for words, made do with a superior smile and a reassuring squeeze of Tilly’s arm.
Tilly glanced at her worriedly and Anaria’s smile grew warmer, “Don’t worry Tilly, I am brand new here and not about to demand declarations of loyalty. You’ve been very kind in showing me this really, very impressive bath house and I’m most grateful.”
Tilly smiled back and squeezed Anaria’s arm in turn.
One of the other women piped up, “This is just a village bath house, it’s a bit strange you calling it impressive.”
Anaria clasped her hands together, “Oh but you don’t understand, it is! All the other bathing places I’ve been in have been damp and musty-smelling and usually dark and trying to get the hot water to the bath before it goes cold is impossible. This one is so well designed and carefully built and I wish I understood how it worked so I could show people how to build it in other places.”
The other women traded glances and the questioner gave her a shy smile, “My father designed it, I wish he were alive to hear your praise, it would have given him great joy.”
Anaria, again tongue-tied, returned the smile and shifted awkwardly. Martha gave a growl of disgust and stomped out of the door.
Released from their spectator roles, the other women clustered around with introductions and observations until Ingrid reminded the group about bathing and getting on with the day.
The acid-tongued old lady nudged a sharp elbow into Anaria’s ribs as they left the bath house, “The lady who’s father designed this place is also Martha’s mother. You’ve managed to tangle her arrows very nicely. Come and see me when Sarah decides to spare you for a moment, I could do with a bit of clever conversation.”
Anaria, torn between concern and the consequences of her actions, and bubbling interest in a woman with a clearly interesting past, reverted to training, with a neat bob, and a smiling promise to do so.
Sarah looped her arm through Anaria’s as they made their way back to the cottage and gave her a warm smile of approval.
Anaria smiled back but quailed inside. They’d been so nice to her. Wait until they found out how useless she was.