Mary bobbed her head at the young man standing next to Cook and turned back to cleaning cookware. His assignment to the kitchen could not be an accident. He must have come to spy her out. Mary observed that the Dragon loved to toy with people, as a cat did a mouse. He often set them to conflicting duties for what seemed his amusement.
“Right,” said Cook. “Your first job, young man, is to clear away those crates and jugs. Take them up to the open storage by the gate and bring back the supplies I’ll show you.”
“Right by the guards? I can’t. They’ll—”
“Don’t tell me what you can or can’t do, young man. This needs doing. My knees can’t manage the stairs with a load. That’s why Ulrich sent you. If good, hard work is beneath your dignity, I’ll inform Ulrich. He’ll make other arrangement, but I suspect you won’t like them.”
“No. Sure, I’ll do it. Now?”
“If I wanted it tomorrow, I’d ask for it tomorrow.”
Will nodded, and Cook waddled out the door. Mary had watched their conversation over her shoulder. She looked away.
“What’re you looking at?” Will asked.
Mary jerked around, a retort forming on her tongue. Will was looking at Meg.
“Well, ain’t you the fancy one?” Meg said. “Too proud to do honest work, are you? Well, just so’s you know, I’m Cook’s top girl. What I say goes, just as if Cook said it.”
“Don’t believe her, not unless Cook tells you,” Mary said.
“Shut up, you!” Meg picked up a stirring paddle and raised it to strike Mary.
Mary ducked around the wooden preparation table in the middle of the kitchen. These chases always ended badly. She hoped to slip out the door and hide until Cook returned. But she had to get by the man named Will. She ducked her head as she passed, lest he swat her, too. Will grabbed her arm, arresting her flight.
“What’s this about, then?” he asked.
“It don’t concern you.” Meg grinned as she gripped Mary’s other arm and reached back to hit her with the paddle.
Will released Mary and blocked the stroke. The stick hit him hard, but he only reacted with a short grunt. Mary pulled away and stepped behind Will, but stayed to watch what happened next.
Nothing happened. Will stood still, staring at Meg. Meg stared back at Will with a look that showed more fear than aggression.
“If you touch me—or her—again, I’ll break your arm.” Will spoke in a quiet, controlled voice. “Do you understand?”
Will raised his clenched hand. Mary thought he might strike Meg. Apparently, Meg did, too, because she froze. “You’re not my sergeant,” he said. “You’re not the girl’s sergeant. Cook is our sergeant.”
“You don’t tell me what,” Meg said.
“We each answer to him and him only here.” Will lowered his fist. “Mud and blood. Are you so stupid as to not know that?”
“I ain’t stupid,” Meg said.
“You’re not? Both of you return to your duties. I’m to go to help Cook. And if when we return we find anything amiss, you will suffer for it.” He turned to Mary, “Do you trust me?”
“Yes—no, no. I don’t trust you.”
He looked at her with the most neutral face she could imagine. His eyes looked dead as if he were looking right through her. Then he smiled. “Well, that’s honest. No, you shouldn’t trust me. I betrayed my family. Am I suspected of—I don’t know what they suspect me of, but here I am as low as you can get.”
“The third dungeon is lower,” Mary offered.
“Let’s hope I don’t descend that far.” Will drew in a deep breath and blew it out through his nostrils. “Okay, Cook must wonder what’s happened to me. Meg, I charge you with maintaining good order here. You should be protecting Mary, not tormenting her. You understand?” He looked at each girl, then left.
Mary shrank back by the door and waited to see what Meg would do.
Meg stared at the door for some time, then shifted her focus to Mary. “Who’s he think he is, lording it over us like that? One thing he’s got right, we don’t answer to him.” Meg raised the stirring paddle again and waved it a Mary. “You just watch yourself, little missy. Don’t trust none of them soldiers. They think of only one thing when it comes to women. You don’t want to end up like Irmele, do ya?”
Mary shook her head, letting her fear show.
“All right, then. Back to work.” Meg turned to clean the bread-making stone.
Mary watched her, suspecting a trick. When Meg ignored her, Mary returned to cleaning the bowls and platters.
Will made many trips back and forth between upstairs and the kitchen that afternoon, clearing out empty containers and returning with heavy jars of oil and wine. Cook apparently stayed above directing his actions. When Will started bringing in carrots and turnips, she knew they’d moved to the inside storage area. Meg stopped whatever she was doing—Mary noted that Meg was actually working for a change—whenever Will entered. Mary watched but said nothing.
When Will carried down a rear quarter of beef, Cook returned with him. He sharpened his big knife and sectioned the meat, cutting a few fillets. He chopped the remains, including all the gristle and fat, and threw them into the stew pot. He brought dried herbs down from the rack over the bread oven and crushed a handful into the cauldron. By then Meg had kneaded several batches of dough, punched then down, let them rise again and formed loaves, which joined the dozens rising in a warm corner. Will took over Mary’s usual job of chopping the turnips for which she was thankful because she could hardly split the big root vegetable. Mary chopped carrots. All went into the cauldron. Finally, Cook heated the grill, oiled the steaks, scattered salt and herbs across them, and set them on the grill.
Dinner was ready when Steward checked. He gave no indication of surprise, but Mary noted he hadn’t brought the yard boys to carry the food. After the food was taken away, Cook prepared a bowl for each and set it before them.
“Eat. Enjoy. You, young man, did as much work as all three of us. If we get the meals out on time, I can see about doing something extra to please the fancy folks. Once they’re happy, life will be better for all of us.”
Cook splashed a bit of wine in Will and Meg’s water cups. Mary had never seen Cook so content. He usually mumbled and nagged at the girls all day.
Steward returned with the boys who brought back the empty bowls and platters. “Our master was pleased with his dinner. He commanded I tell you. So I have done. Cook, come with me, if you please.”
“I never heared a good word from him,” Meg said, after the older men left.
“It wasn’t all that special,” Will said as he wiped his bowl with a scrap of bread.
“It was because it was ready on time, I think,” Mary said.
“It was them steaks,” Meg said. “If Cook can keep pleasing the Dragon, life’d be much better for us.”
“Good food, on time is a good life,” Will said.
“Life’s more than eating,” Mary whispered.
“Of course,” Will said. “But starving or getting beaten for being slow is not good either. So, what else does Cook need done? If we can get ahead of what he needs, we can turn it to our favor. You don’t wait until the ewes are dropping kids in the field to plan for lambing.”
Mary looked at Meg. Will’s idea sounded good, but she had no idea what needed doing.
“Well, Cook keeps talking about the water.”
“What about the water?” Will asked.
“Ain’t never enough. Mary and I slave every day to bring in what’s needed. The only time we keep up is when it’s raining.”
“That’s right,” Mary said, though Meg never carried water.
“Well, we can’t go out at night. Not safe. Besides it’s snowing heavily now.”
“With all the nooks and crannies in this place, you’d think whoever built it would have dug a well.” Mary stopped. She had never revealed that much of her knowledge of the castle. Will was nodding. Meg seemed focused on rebuilding her dough starter. Mary told herself to be more careful what she revealed.
“You’re right,” Will said. “This is a well-designed, well-built castle, and it’s surrounded by a river. In fact, the privies all dump into moving water. There must be good water available upstream. It would improve its defensibility, too. Have you said anything to Cook?”
“I never thought of it before,” Mary lied.
“Well, if there’s no well, maybe one could be dug.”
“It’s solid rock below us.” Mary stamped on the stone floor.
“The Dragon has a mason. The rock here is just sandstone. Easily cut.”
“Will.” Cook stood at the door. Mary could see soldiers behind him. “Captain Ulrich is calling for you. Don’t volunteer for nothing, boy. I need you back here.”
“He’s probably got some knotty question of tactics he needs my advise on,” Will quipped, as he put down his bowl. “I’ll be right back. Mary, tell Cook about the well.”
“What well?” Cook watched Will depart, then raised a single finger to his lips. He picked up the ash shovel and moved close to the hearth. He kept his eyes on the door as he pretended to clean the fireplace. With a cupping of his hand, he drew the girls close. “Something’s amiss up stairs. Everyone was smiles at supper, now all’s tense and frightened. Don’t know what it is, but to be sure it ain’t good. Folks asking all sorts of questions. Steward asked about the boy, but of course I don’t know nothing. He also asked about you two. Where you come from, how long you been here, and the like. Meg, I know about you, but, Mary, you was here when I come two years ago. I’m thinking that’s not good.”
“Why?” Meg asked. “Mary ain’t nobody.”
“I’m not sure. Mary, where did you come from and when did you arrive?”
“I don’t know.” Mary knew she must lie and lie good. “I come with my father. The ague took my ma and brothers three or four winters ago. We couldn’t make it. Father heard about the Dragon and thought he’d hire on.”
“Who’s your father?” Cook asked.
“Papa died that first winter. He was sick already when we arrived, I don’t think they ever took him on. At least I never saw him with a sword or nothing.”
“What was his name?”
Cook nodded. “That could be a problem if he was never enrolled. So, how’d you stay? The Dragon doesn’t hold with camp followers and dependents.”
“I don’t know,” Mary thought confused innocence was her best story. The fewer details, the less easy to get caught in a lie. “They sent me down here to get food, then when … when Pa died, they just set me to work. That wasn’t much before Meg, Irmele and Anja arrived. There were other girls then. One disappeared; I forget her name. Went up with food one day and never came back.” She shrugged. “I never thought about it.”
“That squares with what I know.” Cook rubbed his chin. “Wasn’t there someone here who’d remember?”
“Steward was here, but Cook—the Cook what was, warned me away from him. He seemed powerful scared of Steward. I just laid low, you know? Since I was sheltered and fed, I didn’t have much reason to go nowhere else. Got no folks to go to.”
“Where’s your home? You father couldn’t have been a freeholder, who could just up and move when the mood hit.”
“I don’t know.” Mary let her growing fright show as tears and trembling. “Everyone was sickenin’ and dyin’. I didn’t know no one but Ma and Pa and my brothers. They was smaller. They died pretty fast.”
“Poor thing,” Meg muttered. “You’ve had a hard row.”
Mary dropped her head. She’d lived in the castle all her life, but somehow she knew to keep that a secret. She didn’t know anything about her parents. Hardly remembered them. They were big and nice to her. Her mother smelled good. Mary put her hands under her arms to hide the shaking. If she got out of this, she needed to get out of this castle and away. Right now she needed to distract Cook. “Where’s Will?”
Cook drew a great breath and held it. “Will is—they suspect Will of being a spy for the Baron Jordanes. They’re questioning him now. It ain’t looking good for him.”
“How could he be a spy for that other baron if he’s been gone so many years?”
“Who?” Meg asked.
“How do you know how long the old baron’s been gone?” Cook asked.
Mary scolded herself for revealing so much again. She had to keep her brains together. “That’s what they talked about in them old days. The old baron, wasn’t that who Jordanes was?”
“Jordanes.” Cook’s forehead wrinkled. “Yes, that was the old baron’s name. He left with most of his armed men to go to war five or six years ago. I thought they was all killed. That’s why the Dragon came to be the new baron, but it seems that things were a bit irregular. I ain’t asking no questions, and neither of you two should either. Folks upstairs be powerful upset. Apparently, the old baron is alive, and he’s coming back. For all I know he’s coming with the king behind him. We need to keep our heads down. Lay low, you know what I mean?”
“Yes, sir,” Mary and Meg chorused.
“All right. No more talk about barons nor of Will. Let’s begin tomorrow’s meal.”
“I got the sponge growing,” Meg boasted.
“Good. Mary, rake the ashes and bank the fire.”
Copyright © 2022 by Ron Andrea. All Rights Reserved.