Ilona sat on the edge of a forest bed and fingered its red quilt. Her hut was cozy with its thatched roof and sweet-smelling herbs – she had slept much better than she expected.
The door swung open and a tall girl slipped in, carrying a basin of water. Her long dark hair hung over her shoulder, and she wore a garland of flowers on her head. “You can wash your face if you like,” she said, setting the basin on the wooden table by Ilona’s bed.
Ilona stood and plunged her hands into the water, scooping it up and splashing her face. The garland girl handed her a cloth, and Ilona dried her face. “You’re name is Dagmar, is it not?” So many people had been introduced to her yesterday. She hoped she had the name right.
The girl nodded her head. “I’m your cousin – the daughter of Amalia’s older brother.” She reached out and touched Ilona’s hair. “It’s so yellow. Not like Amalia’s.”
Self-consciously, Ilona touched her own hair. “It’s like my papa’s.”
Dagmar ran her fingers through Ilona’s hair, catching her hands on a tangle. “You need a comb,” she said. She ran to the door, disappearing, and was back a moment later with a smooth wooden comb. She held it out to Ilona.
Ilona took it awkwardly. “I’ve never combed my own hair before.”
Dagmar raised a quizzical eyebrow.
Ilona took a deep breath and pressed the comb against her head, pulling it through her golden locks. But halfway down, the comb was trapped in a tangle, and no amount of pulling could move it past the tangle. Tears welled up in Ilona’s eyes.
“Here, let me,” Dagmar said suddenly, her voice kind. She took the comb from Ilona’s hands. “Start at the bottom and work your way up. Like this, see?” Her hands gently grasped the blonde hair and worked the comb through the tangles.
The door creaked and then swung partway open. A little girl named Zita peered around the corner at them. Then she bounded into the room and onto Ilona’s bed in two leaps.
“Want to hear a funny song?” Zita asked. Ilona nodded yes so Zita launched into a lively ballad about a man and his comical series of troubles. Not content to merely sing, Zita performed a skit acting out the song, complete with her own dramatic face expressions. Soon both Dagmar and Ilona were giggling.
“What is this I hear?” The door opened again, and Verana appeared. She smiled at the scene before her.
“I’m almost done combing Ilona’s hair,” Dagmar said. “But it needs flowers like mine.”
“Go and get them then.” Verana slid onto the bed in Dagmar’s place. “I’ll finish combing.” As Dagmar disappeared, Verana leaned close to Ilona’s ear and whispered, “Your mother and I used to comb each other’s hair. I’ve missed it.”
Ilona spun and threw her arms around Verana’s neck. “I never knew I had an aunt. How my mother must have missed you!”
Dagmar returned with her hands behind her back. “Close your eyes!”
Obediently, Ilona shut her eyes. Soft fingers touched her head, and little hands smoothed over her hair. Then someone said, “You can open them now.” And Ilona opened her eyes to gaze down into her reflection in the basin. Her hair was soft and loose, draping over her shoulders and down her back. And she wore a garland of flowers – pink blossoms interspersed with tiny white buds. “Ohhh, it’s beautiful!”
Verana leaned forward and planted a kiss on Ilona’s cheek. “Welcome home, little niece.”
A knock sounded at the door. “Verana! Dagmar! You might want to come.”
Verana and Dagmar exchanged worried looks, and all the girls rushed outside. Several people were gathered around a broad-shouldered, white-haired man, whom Ilona recognized as Horst, leader of the clan. Ilona followed the other girls to join the crowd.
There she noticed that two men were speaking to Horst. Both men were dressed in greens. One was bald, and the other had hair the color of a beaver.
“Must be 30 of them – combing the forest in search of the princess.” The bald man waved a hand over his shoulder as he spoke. “They’re all the suitors left from the king’s party.”
Horst rubbed his hand across his beard. “This would be easier if we had a Derwald man who was of age and not already spoken for. As it is, we’ll have to find an outside man for the princess. Let’s test the king’s men first – see if any of them are suitable.”
The beaver-headed man tugged absently at his lower lip and glanced sideways at Horst. “Detlef is among them.”
Ilona could sense the change in atmosphere. People shared quick, knowing glances all around the crowd; and here and there, a smile flickered across someone’s face. Even Horst seemed to be weighing this new information carefully.
At last, he spoke. “Let him compete with the others.” Horst nodded to the beaver-haired man. “We shall see what manner of man he has become.”