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"It is all because of snakes, and my horrible, wicked sister."
Yes, wicked, and jealous of me! She always was, for I was our Gran’s darling, not she. She knew I was afraid, even from the time I was a tiny thing, and so once when I was four she put a snake in my cot as I lay napping. When I awoke, there was the foul beast lying on my chest, staring at me, with those great flat eyes, full of evil. I screamed, such as scream as had never been heard before or since, but my Gran came and comforted me in my terror; holding me and rocking me for comfort. “I hate snakes, hate them, hate them,” I sobbed. “I want to live in a land without snakes.” So my Gran told me of the White City, where she had lived for a time as a girl, a city of cold stone without trees, or grass, or flowers, or snakes; certainly without snakes; and I said that I would go live there as soon as I could.
They laughed at me; but when I was ten, I began to ask about ‘prenticeships in the White City; and did again all the time I was eleven; and when I was twelve they were all so tired of my pestering that it was decided that I and my dearest friend Niallis would go to the White City, She was to be apprenticed to the Healers, for her family grew herbs for healing and cooking, and I to be a scullery maid; hopefully as time passed on I would grow enough wits to be promoted at least to kitchen maid. So we were placed under the protection of a merchant’s wife, and headed with her party of tradesmen off to the White City.
Many, many years we lived there, as I progressed from scullery maid to cook’s helper and on up, eventually, to Cook of the Citadel; and my dear Niallis worked her way from drab to laundry assistant. They had lied to us a little; for there were a few small trees, and courtyards and gardens with grass and flowers; but if there were snakes in the White City, I never saw any, and so I was happy.
A Breath of Fresh Air
At first I did not recognize the young woman wandering through the garden; then, as she came closer, I remembered that Lord Denethor was away in the field, leaving his new bride to continuing exploring the City on her own.
“You grow the cooking herbs here, yourself? What a wonderful idea!” She knelt down beside me in the wet grass, her eyes sparkling. “I was surprised to recognize coriander in one of your sauces. I did not know it was used here.”
“Nay, lady, not often; some friends down in the third circle introduced me to it. But I don’t know very much else to do with it, I’m afraid.”
“Have you tried rubbing it on fish, in a paste of garlic and lemon grass? That is how we fix it sometimes in Dol Amroth.” I shook my head, stunned at the idea that a princess would be giving me cooking suggestions.
“Lemon grass, my lady? I’ve not heard of that, but I’ll ask down in the market.”
“No, let me write home –” she paused, blushing just a bit, to correct herself. “Let me write to my father’s chamberlain, and have him speak to the gardener about sending some. It will do well in that sunny corner, I think.” She stood up, graceful as a young girl, unself-consciously wiping the dew from her skirt. “I have enjoyed speaking with you, Mag, is it?”
I rose also to bob a curtsey. “So it is, my lady, and the pleasure is mine. A good day to you.” She walked slowly back through the garden, stopping every now and again to admire a clump of narcissus, or cocking her head to listen to a bird song, before disappearing through the back gate.***
She is like a breath of fresh air, I thought, a cool breeze from the sea. Nothing will be the same now that she is here.
Stag and Star
“Mag, Mag!” I looked up, smiling, at the sound of Prince Imrahil’s voice. Dashing and good-natured, the young prince was a frequent and welcome visitor to our kitchen. “I want to show you something, privately.” He took my arm, and I could feel him quivering with barely-suppressed excitement as he led me off to the quiet corner where I kept my accounts.
“Smell this.” He passed me a small, scratchy bag, slightly open at the top; I held it to my nose, inhaling deeply. A strong, bitter scent, redolent of earth and smoke; almost overpowering, but strangely intoxicating.
“It’s called gahwa,” he whispered. “It comes as small, greenish beans. Roast them, grind them, then brew them like tea. Add spices if you like, cinnamon or mace; drink it by itself, or with cream, or honey.” He leaned closer. “Mark my words, one day it will be more popular than ale, beer, or wine. They say the drink incites passion, banishes weariness, and sharpens the mind. I know of a trader, who knows of a farmer, who is willing to sell us his whole harvest each season. If there were something like a tavern, serving gahwa rather than ale, we could….”
I nodded, easily catching his drift. Our prince had a shrewd mind and a restless energy that had not yet found its proper outlet. He had steered me toward some profitable ventures before; thanks to his guidance, I had a tidy sum of money tucked away.
“How much?” I asked.
He murmured a figure, less than I had imagined; he must be planning to invest a nice bit himself. A good sign. His name would nowhere be associated with the tavern, but his visits there would be noted, and those who sought to mimic the fashionable young lord would be quick to gather there as well.
“I know of a little place, the Stag and Star, down on the third circle. Mardi’s husband recently passed on, and she’s finding running the tavern alone a bit too much. Not a fancy neighborhood, but a lively one; this sounds like something she’d enjoy. I’ll talk to her. What else should I do?”
“Take these.” He tucked the little bag into the pocket of my apron. “Start serving it to the Lord Steward, and then, perhaps, at some small dinners. A few lords, some merchants; and their sons, of course. Dandies of the city, like me.” He grinned, his white teeth gleaming wickedly. “We want word of it to get around. First, we’ll create the desire, and then” – he snapped his fingers – “we will fulfill it. We’ll make gahwa the most popular drink in the world, and our little tavern will be famed for ages to come.”
Mag heard the quiet pad of bare feet on flagstones just as she was preparing to leave the Citadel kitchen for the night.
She knew that the young Captain-General spent long hours in his office upstairs; knew, as few did, that sometimes he sought the comfort of the quiet kitchen, tea and biscuits for a late-night snack. She had just risen to get it ready when a strong, sunburned hand on her shoulder stopped her.
“Let me do that, Mag. I know my way around your kitchen well enough.” Confidently he spooned the tea leaves into the teapot, added water from the kettle, set out the jar of honey and two mugs. Knew exactly which crock held the ginger biscuits, but stopped, hesitated, and set out the lemon ones instead. Mag smiled.
“Missing your little brother, are you?” she asked.
Boromir grinned ruefully.“I can not help but worry, proud as I am. I would have been happy to have him here in the Citadel guard, but he always did love the woods, you know that.”
“Aye, he'd had his heart set on Ithilien from the time he saw his first wild rabbit. It bounded off into the woods, and 'All wild rabbits live in Ithilien', you said. 'So I will live there too,' he said, and that was that.”
Boromir laughed. “How do you know that story, Mag? You were not anywhere near.”
I smiled. “But your Nanny was, and she told me, and about how after that your little brother read everything he could about the wild rabbits. About how they were courageous, and loyal to their warren, swift and sly and able to appear and disappear at will. And from there he studied every creature that lived in the woods, and then the woods themselves, and the long history of fair Ithilien, and his fate was sealed.”
His voice suddenly thickened. “I shall miss him so, Mag, every moment, and part of me will be forever wondering and worrying. Is that what love is? Constant fear?”
“Not constant fear, no; but constant care and thought, with him every moment, uplifting him through doubt and dark, sharing in his moments of joy.”
“How will he know, Mag? I embraced him, teasing him that his bow was longer than he was tall, but he blushed and turned away, marching off with his troop. How will he know how proud I am, and how much I love him?”
“Don't worry so,” I smiled. “He'll know.”
Where are they taking Faramir? I wondered, but did not have time to think. We were about to barricade the doors when we heard an unearthly crack; the ground trembled beneath us. We rushed outside to see the flames rising from the Rath Dínen.
“They are here!” a wench screamed; I slapped her and she ran away sobbing. This cannot be happening, I thought, then I saw our Beregond and Mithrandir carrying Faramir between them, the Halfing Prince stumbling behind. What did it all mean? But suddenly I heard a sound like rolling thunder, and then singing, fair and terrible.
*** Written for the "Sense of Hearing" challenge at tolkien_weekly; also a prelude to The End of Dark Days, co-written with EdorasLass.
2007 MEFA Award Winner: Honorable Mention in Genres: Drama: Gondor Drabble
Where There's Life, There's Hope (and in need of vittles)
All through the night Aragorn labored, healing the sick or hurt of body or heart, until he thought his own heart should break of it.
And when he could bear no more, he cast his cloak about him, and was about to slip out of the city when the first whisper of the morning breeze lifted his hair. And out of that breeze came a fragrance so unexpected, so brimming with life and hope, that he laughed aloud for joy at the courage and resilience of the people of his city.
Up in the Citadel kitchen, Mag was baking bread.
2007 MEFA Award Winner: Second Place in Genres: Drama: Gondor Drabble
News from the City
It would be cruel for her to hear the news abruptly, so Mag scrawled a note while the courier gobbled his stew.
Dear Nanny,Let her dwell on good news, Mag thought. Time enough later for fearsome tales of dark days.
The more I saw of the King, the more I was reminded of another man, from long ago.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on what stirred the memories. Was it the way he walked, that catlike glide I glimpsed when he was strolling alone across the courtyard? Was it the way he bent his head to listen to the shy, hesitant soldiers or townsmen, unsure how to approach this creature of legend, the king? Or was it the way he rubbed the bridge of his nose tiredly when he thought no one was watching?
I was sure I had seen all those gestures before. The memory seemed so close, as if I could just reach out and catch it. Like a firefly, like the dandelion fluff I remembered dancing on the breeze, when I was a girl in Lebennin. We had met before - I was certain of it.
But the king never said a word about his past; all that was known of him was that he was of the Dunedáin of the North, had traveled throughout the world, was friend to elves, wizards, periannath., all manner of odd creatures. Visitors to the White City, well-wishers, his own companions and kinsmen referred to him by many names: Strider, Aragorn, Estel, Elfstone. Never a name I recognized.
Then, one day, I remembered, and it all made such perfect sense.
Odd that it would be one small detail: the sharp Maguey spirits favored by Prince Imrahil and Captain Thorongil when a particular mood was upon them. There were certain rituals involved in its drinking, these rituals being a source of great debate between the two, when they were at their leisure (and slightly in their cups, if truth be known) – the relaxed quibbling between two good friends.
Lord Denethor liked it not, had choked and spat it out (so the story went) when first he tasted it. In revenge of this humiliation (so the story also went) Imrahil had introduced both Boromir and Faramir to the drink, sworn them to secrecy, and taught them the rituals. I had long had a bottle in my keeping; remembering this, I set – not a trap, exactly, but a test, yes, a test of my own memory, to determine if I was correct in what I thought I saw.
So one evening, late in the spring, when the evening air was warm enough for the fireflies to dance, I called across the twilit courtyard to the Steward and the King.
“My Lord Faramir – come see what I’ve found in my cupboard! It was your uncle Imrahil’s. Pity he’s not here to share it, though I suppose we could send word down to him. Look, I’ve set it as you and he and Boromir used to drink it.”
“Ohho,” Faramir said, whistling softly. “Oh yes, I remember this drink very well, and what it used to do to us. I’ve not tasted it in years – Uncle Imrahil was the only one who ever liked it. We drank it to please him, trying to appear as sophisticated and worldly as he was. We failed miserably, I think. Have you ever sampled it, my lord? Maguey, it’s called, made from a plant which grows far to the south. Traders brought it…”
The king smiled. “I have tasted it before, yes, indeed. A fiery drink, not soon forgotten.”
“Perhaps we should toast your kingship with it, since Mag has gone to all the trouble to set it out for us. Do you remember how we used to do it, Mag? First we’d rub the rim of the goblet with the lime, then dip the rim in salt. Then, we’d drink -”
The king startled Faramir with a more direct method. Not bothering with the salt, he took the goblet and tossed back the contents with one gulp. Then he took the lime and bit into it. As he bit, his eyes met mine. I was nearly quivering with glee: not to reveal his secret, but in my own delight in being correct.
Thorongil. Silently I mouthed the name; his eyes grew wide. Then, surprisingly, he grinned.
“The hands of the king…” I murmured; Thorongil–that-was, my king Elessar, burst out laughing.
“Where are my manners!” Faramir exclaimed. “Mag, you’ve gone through such trouble for us! You must join us in a toast. Let me go get you a goblet…” Happy to be the host, he headed off for the kitchen.
I felt suddenly shy in the presence of my king. “I did not mean, my lord, I mean, I would never…”
He smiled, the boyish, dimpled smile I remembered from so long ago. “You were always kind to me, Mag. It was ever a comfort to sit in your kitchen.”
I blushed, something I had not done in many years. Fortunately Faramir returned at that very moment. Carefully he prepared goblets for both of us, lime and salt. “To the King!”
“To the King!” I murmured. Aragorn laughed, nodding his head in acknowledgement of the toast, as I took my first taste in forty years of sharp Maguey.
A response to a plot bunny flung by EdorasLass and Kortirion.
Back in the White City, Mag’s pantries had seldom been troubled by mice.
There were some, of course – where there is food, there will be mice – but the ancient stone walls did not provide quite as many cozy hiding places as the thatched roofs and woodpiles and hedgerows of Emyn Arnen. Work had begun on cutting shale for roof tiles, to replace the thatch, but that would be a long process, and of course the main parts of the house would have priority. So Mag was looking forward, with some dismay, to sharing the kitchen and pantry with any number of creatures for some time yet.
And good mousers, it seemed, were trained, not born: learning these skills at their mother’s side. Few of the new crop of stable and barn cats were ready yet. Some of them showed promise, according to the stable boys, proud of the trainees’ achievements, but it would still be some time before they could be expected to take up their duties. If the stableboys could even bear to part with their favorites.
“How about a good black snake?” Cempa, one of Lady Éowyn’s grooms, suggested.
The horrified expression on Mag’s face was quite enough to silence him, while Éowyn tried in vain to stifle her smile. It would not do to offend Mag, normally quite good-natured and level-headed, but absolutely unreasonable in her aversion to snakes.
“Surely we have a mouser or two to lend Mag, don’t we?” Éowyn asked. “She’ll be grateful to have the help as soon as possible. Perhaps she could…” The stable boys looked crestfallen, sorry to give up their favorites, but Mag nodded sagely. She knew just what was needed to seal the deal.
The next morning a dainty calico and her gingery-striped son reported to Mag’s kitchen. They carefully inspected all areas: pantry, buttery, woodpile, and promptly presented their new mistress with four proofs of their prowess (“Tokens of their esteem,” as Faramir put it, causing Éowyn to choke over her tea.). Mag quickly set out a wide bowl of cream, in payment of her end of the bargain. Shortly afterward, spice cakes, warm from the oven, were delivered to the stable boys, a salute to their expertise as judges of Mousery.
“We mix the mare’s milk with yeast and sugar,” Lady Éowyn said. “Then we pour it into this leather bag, and hang it in the doorway of the stable. Each time someone enters or leaves the stable, they shake the bag, and that will keep it mixed. By the time my brother and his company have arrived, the kumiss will be ready, and we’ll drink a toast to his visit!”
She and her groom, Cempa, who would be milking the mares, smiled expectantly, waiting for my reaction. I almost had to bend my head to hide my grin, for I was familiar with kumiss, had tasted it long before either of them was born. There was a tavern down in the second circle where the drink was served as exotic fare to the more adventurous folk of Gondor, and a welcome reminder of home to Rohirric visitors.
One summer evening Niallis and I were headed home from the market when we realized that we were being followed. Turning quickly (for we were forthright, if not always sensible) we found two young men, tall and blond, who, without skill in our language, had been trying to get our attention. For Nall, of course, the lack of common speech was no difficulty: her smiling eyes and dimpled cheeks were easily understood. By means of gestures, we accepted their invitation to stop for a drink.
Ale was brought for me and Nall, a fine raspberry-flavored brew, the like of which I’ve not tasted, before or since. But what caught my attention were the small cups of frothy drink downed with great delight by our companions. Noticing my interest, they ordered some for us; Nall took a single sniff and turned up her pretty nose, to their great laughter. I, as always when faced with a new food or drink, was intrigued, and happy to take a taste. Its flavor was much like buttermilk, cool and tangy, but with a sharp bite afterwards. Through a hilarious pantomime by our companions, and others in the tavern, our own guardsmen as well as merchants and tradesmen, I finally understood what the drink was, and how it was made. Evidently I was the first woman of Gondor they had met who did not turn pale after sampling it. As such, I was toasted with several rounds, the drinks served with tiny pastries that tasted like goat cheese with a hint of dill.
As evening fell, and our curfew drew nearer, I began to attempt to bid our new friends a good evening. Nall was of no use in this whatsoever: she and her companion had disappeared early on. I sighed, but there was little I could do: though she was my closest friend, she needed to learn to be responsible for herself. Some of the guardsman offered to escort me home, and so, with many thanks, I left Nall to her own devices. But I never forgot the sharp tangy drink, and the warmth and friendliness of the Rohirric tavern.
All these memories, of course, flashed through my mind in the blink of an eye, while my lady and her groom waited. I did so like Lady Éowyn; I found her pragmatism an excellent foil to my lord Faramir’s dreaminess. Mostly I loved the way they looked at each other, as if each of them had received, completely unexpectedly, the most marvelous gift. For so they had.
“What a wonderful idea!” I exclaimed. “How pleased the King will be to see that the customs of Rohan have an important place here. Will you teach me to make other delicacies as well? I have heard of a raspberry ale…and aren’t there cheese pastries, too? With dill? ”
My lady glowed with pride and delight; her groom and attendants smiled broadly. We would take a bit of Rohan, and a bit of Gondor, and blend the two to make our own happy customs, here in Ithilien.
2007 MEFA Award Winner Honorable Mention in Genres: Humor: Gondor or Rohan
(Nanny occurs courtesy of her creator, EdorasLass.)
“Seriously, now Mag...” Nanny's cheeks were glowing, and her eyes were sparkling. “Of all the men you have known in the City, if you were to have taken one of them for a lover, which would it have been?”
It was midsummer in Emyn Arnen. The ladies had retired to Éowyn 's shaded garden to test out the plum wine so enthusiastically bottled by Faramir the summer before. Éowyn was proud that Nanny had finally come, combining her stay in Ithilien with a visit to her new grandchild in Minas Tirith. Between them, Nanny and Mag were the closest Éowyn had to a mother-in-law, and she thanked the Powers that she got on so well with them both. It was hugely entertaining to listen to their teasing laughter and fond reminiscence of the years that had spent together in the White City. The plum wine was helping things along quite a bit, too.
“Pah! Men!” Mag chortled. “What use would I have had for them? Loud, sweaty, smelly, selfish louts, most of them; I'd have been better off with a dog.” Éowyn nearly choked with laughter. “Though,” Mag added, winking at Éowyn, “ I was pretty enough in my youth; I daresay if I had wanted any of them, I could have, with little enough effort...”
“Who, Mag, who?” Éowyn asked, feeling both delighted and shocked at this turn of the conversation.
“Well, most any of your Rohirrim, visiting the city. Your cousin Théodred was a fine figure of a man,” Mag continued, almost dreamily. “I met him when he was eighteen, and visiting Minas Tirith for the first time. Those golden curls! That smile! Oh yes, he could have charmed the birds out of the trees...” She paused, lost in happy memories, while Éowyn tried not to dwell on the fact that Mag would have been nearly 30 years older than Théodred. Clearly, women kept their fires burning much longer that she had ever imagined.
“I don't think I remember Théodred,” Nanny said, yawning just the tiniest bit. “But I do remember, what was his name, that ranger from the north? Thorlemir or Thorgelson or whatever it was.”
“Thorongil, of course,” Mag grinned “And I remember how miffed you were at him, supposedly because he ignored Boromir, but perhaps it was because he ignored you?”
“What?” Nanny spluttered. “ I had no interest whatsoever in that scruffy ranger! I've always had the highest respect for good grooming in a man, something he seemed to take little interest in.”
“I'm surprised you didn't take up with Mormegil, then,” Mag teased. “He had that lovely hair, like silk. He was always testing out various hair ointments for Lord Denethor, did you know? That was Denethor's great vanity, his hair, much more than his clothes. He would use some potion for a few weeks, then tire of it. Poor Mormegil was always running to one apothecary's to the next, searching out something new. Lemon, rosemary, strawberry...”
Éowyn nearly choked. Of all the stories she had heard, no one had ever mentioned Lord Denethor having strawberry-scented hair. She was not sure if she wanted to question Faramir about this, though.
“Well, Mormegil was always mooning about after you, anyway. And what about the Chamberlain?” Nanny asked. “If I had been a wagering woman, and didn't know you better, of course, I'd have been certain you'd have married him. He seemed interested enough.”
“He did, didn't he? He was a pleasant man, always courtly and gracious, but not for me. When he retired, he married the mistress of the House of Silk, and helped her with the business. They bought out two other houses, made great heaps of money, and then sold the whole thing to that Inara, from Harondor, and moved to Tolfalas Isle.”
Éowyn was stunned. Did Mag know everyone in the city? And all of their secrets?
Suddenly there was a slight rustle, followed by a gentle cooing from the basket at Éowyn's feet. Nanny and Mag both paused to watch fondly as Éowyn took up Elboron and settled him to nurse.
“Did you never want a child, really, Mag?” Nanny asked softly.
“No, I don't think so, not really, but ... there was one man – well, he was not a man, actually; if I ever had wanted a child, I would have wanted it to be his.”
Éowyn and Nanny both stared at her, speechless. “Not a man?” Éowyn gasped. “An elf? Or --”
Mag's voice was faraway, dreamy. “No, not an elf, something far more than man or elf. There are tales, aren't there, of the Maiar, falling in love with mortals, and having children with them. Maiar have walked among us, in this world; you know this to be true, for you have seen them, just as I.”
Éowyn caught her breath as Nanny whispered. “Mithrandir. You were in love with Mithrandir. I never, oh, Mag, I never would have guessed!”
Mag's laugh was merry, youthful. “I didn't ever say I was. I said, might have been. For it would have taken wizardry to make me change my nature, and want a man.”
A Meal Fit For...
The historic first visit of a delegation from Nurn to the court of the King of Gondor and Arnor was meticulously orchestrated. The positions of the celestial bodies had been carefully examined to determine the most auspicious date; the list of dignitaries selected to meet His Excellency, Prince Chinmoy, had been exhaustively scrutinized by both sides; the only house in Minas Tirith to meet the delegation's stringent requirements had been generously offered by its residents, who had been well-recompensed for their contribution to the State. Over the course of the past fifteen months, every detail that could be considered, had been.
Except, perhaps, for one.
"He's bringing his what?" the king asked.
"His spiritual advisor, Karoli Baba. It's a very great honor, actually; I understand he has not left his monastery for eighteen years," Faramir replied, his eyes glowing with suppressed excitment.
"Eighteen years! What has he been doing?"
"Praying, and teaching, and corresponding with Prince Chinmoy, apparently. I've tried to procure some copies of Baba Karoli's writings, searched the Archives, sent students to look in all the bookshops, but we've found nothing; very little pertaining to Nurn at all."
The king motioned towards the tray of fruit and cheese on his desk; the Shire custom of Elevensies had been embraced in the Citadel with great enthusiasm. Faramir sat down, stretched out his long legs, and helped himself to an apple.
"All right, we are duly honored, " said the king. "What effect will this have on the preparations already in place? It won't take another year to rearrange them, will it?"
Faramir rifled through his notes. "No, I don't think so. Let me see. Hmm....'south-east facing chamber'....'sleeping pallet refilled daily with beech leaves'....'does not eat the flesh of any creature, not any food that is derived from a living creature.' Oh-oh. 'Out of respect to Baba Karoli's beliefs, neither do we eat any proscribed foods while in his company, and request others also to refrain from doing so. Please plan accordingly.'"
Aragorn Elessar paused, surveying the chunk of good Ithilien cheddar in his hand. "Does that mean what I think it means?"
" 'No flesh of any creature, nor any food derived from a living creature.' That's pretty clear, I'd say; no meat, eggs, milk, cheese, honey..." Mag passed the papers back to Faramir.
"Honey? Really? Oh, of course, I should have thought of that."
"No matter; you can always use almond milk, or rosewater, if you need to sweeten something," Mag replied absently. "Who's the cook in the Citadel now? It's not still Risthir, is it?"
"I don't think so. To be honest, Mag, I have no idea, but whoever it is, we can't take a chance on anything going wrong."
"Ha! I remember now, it's Malfin. What a ninny. I met him in the market once; he didn't know a pattypan from a kabocha. He'll make a hash of things, that's for certain. Get him out of there, send him home to Lamedon for a few weeks, or have someone break his wrist; he can't cook without waving his spoon about like a battle flag. I'll be up there as soon as he's gone to take a look around."
"Then you'll take care of the banquet? The menu, the ordering, the cooking and serving...everything?"
Mag's eyes gleamed with laughter. "Of course I will, darling boy, I mean, my Lord Steward. You don't have to worry. I'll take care of it all."
A Feast of Threes
I set myself the challenge of planning a multi-course feast free from meat, eggs, or dairy products. It wasn't all that difficult, thank to the Internet, and particularly the search feature on Vegetarian Times - I just plugged in "vegan" and was all set. To be reasonably authentic, I eliminated tofu in any of its forms, pastas, and contemporary ethnic recipes. For an additional challenge, I visualized a late winter/early spring feast, relying mainly on foods that would have been staples of the late winter pantry: dried beans, squash, onions and other root vegetables, as well as those that might have been coaxed from an early garden: peas, spinach, asparagus. The oranges might be considered "luxury" items, but hey - it is the King's table, after all. And while the foods themselves might be vaguely authentic, the recipes definitely are not - though I'm sure Mag could have done marvelous things with a ready supply of frozen phyllo dough.
A birthday ficlet for Meggins - December 25, 2008
Author's Note: Chronologically, this story takes place very early in Mag's career
When she was working alone in the kitchen, Mag liked to imagine what it would be like when she is Cook.
The first thing to go, of course, would be those dull old menus. Always the same food, always prepared the same way, week in and week out. Although she’d only been promoted to cook’s helper a short time before, she was quick to notice that familiarity had led to boredom had led to carelessness. Greenstuffs weren’t quite as fresh as they could be; meat that had gone a bit grey was disguised with a too-salty sauce; green spots in the cheese were spooned away. There didn’t seem to be any real wrongdoing that she could see; it just seemed as though no one really cared.
No, she thought as she chopped heaps of soft carrots and sprouting potatoes, she would run things quite differently. First off, she would borrow a corner of the garden at the Houses to grow her own fresh herbs for the kitchen – basil and fennel and the oddly scented coriander she had discovered down in the Eastern Market. Each week she would discreetly introduce something new – a spicy sauce of tomatoes and peppers for the breakfast eggs; a crusty bread topped with rosemary and cheese for luncheon.
“You, girl! Where is Cook?” The Chamberlain’s voice interrupted her reverie. It wasn’t that she was afraid of the Chamberlain; she had very little to do with him at all. She just hadn’t expected to see him in the kitchen – he always dealt directly with Cook. Cook, actually, was ill; had taken to his bed suffering of the head cold that seemed to be running rampant throughout the household. Second Cook had taken to her bed, too; not with a head cold but with the Stablemaster. “You can mind the kitchen for a bit, that’s a good girl,” she had said airily, as the Stablemaster was pulling her by the arm down the hallway toward her chamber. And so Mag was in the kitchen alone when the Steward’s own Chamberlain arrived.
“Chicken soup, and be quick about it. My Lord Ecthelion is ill, and his lady is tending him herself.”
“There’s none ready, sirra, at the moment, but..”
“None ready? Where is Cook? I’ll have his head for this. This whole great kitchen and no food when it’s called for? Preposterous.”
Mag gripped the edge of the table, fighting to control the wobbling of her knees. “I can have soup ready in half an hour, sirra. Perhaps you could take up some ginger tea for him, instead, and explain to his lady that we will have soup just as soon as may be?”
“Ginger tea, eh?” The Chamberlain paused, peering closely at the freckle-faced young girl. His mother had always made him ginger tea when he was a boy with a stuffy head. Perhaps…
“From Lebennin, are you?” The girl nodded vigorously. “Ginger tea it is.” He watched approvingly as the she quickly chopped a knob of ginger into the teapot, slicing in half a lemon before adding boiling water from the kettle on the hob. Deftly she prepared a tray, linen mat and teapot and two cups, a small pot of honey and a plate of sugar biscuits. The girl had poise, that was for certain. “I’ll be back in an hour for the soup. Good job on the tea.”
Mag was speechless for a moment, but only a moment, for she had much to do. Before she left, the Second Cook had set the chickens to simmer, but now Mag noticed to her dismay that that was all Second Cook had done – in her haste she had forgotten the seasonings, the clove-studded onion, the leafy celery tops, the carrot and thyme. All Mag had to work with was chicken, falling off the bones, and bland looking broth.
Take a deep breath, and think, girl, she said to herself, and as she breathed she remembered a little tavern on the third level, the aroma of roast chicken and rosemary. She had stopped and ordered a meal, the first time she had ever done such a thing, a young girl on her own in the City. The man and woman running the tavern had set her at a small table under the rose arbor, and brought her cold white wine and chicken and flatbread and tangy greens with bits of red onion and salty ham. But before that, a bowl of soup –
Chicken. Lemon. Garlic. Dill. A bit of rice, left over from luncheon; finally, an egg beaten into the hot broth, turning the soup silky and golden.
The Chamberlain lifted the lid of the tureen, sniffed appreciably, nodded; then, with his customary dignity, carried the tray off.
“This kitchen smells good. What have you been up to?” Cook had dragged himself back to work; sensibly, he was supervising the dinner preparations from his seat by the fire. Second Cook had reappeared, straightening her skirts, just moments before he had.
Mag had prepared as much as she could of the dinner, leaving the final tastings and seasonings to Cook, as was customary; though because of his stuffed head he graciously appointed Second Cook the honors. Second Cook had added the sprinkle of pepper and the slice of lemon, the same seasonings and adornments that Mag had seen added to the baked fish, week in and week out, the four years she had been there.
Later that evening, they were all stunned when the Chamberlain himself stopped by to return the tureen and tray.
“Excellent soup,” he said to Cook, and rightly so, because Cook was responsible for everything that came from his kitchen.
“I thank you,” Cook replied graciously, nodding toward Second Cook. “She prepared it,” because, for all he knew, she had. Second Cook curtseyed, trying desperately to conceal her confusion.
“Well done, then,” the Chamberlain murmured, and bid them good-night.
Mag bowed her head, chuckling to herself. Only she had seen the Chamberlain’s broad wink as he left.
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