Mary unwrapped her feet and spread the rags on the warm stones away from the fire. If she left the rags nearer the fire, Meg would burn them and claim it was an accident just as she’d done to Mary’s scarf. Her right toes were still bright pink from their chill the previous day. She thought she’d fare better barefooted on the warm stone of the kitchen floor.
“Hey you. No sittin’,” Meg ordered. They were assembling dinner—wooden troughs of stew and bread for the common soldiers and the fancier plates for the fancier folks.
“Leave her be,” Cook ordered, then turned to the steward who’d come looking for the meal. “No, it’s not ready yet.”
“May I suggest you make it ready? And soon.” The steward was a skinny older man with clothes fashionable a generation ago. He walked with his feet splayed, his shoulders back and hips thrust forward. His high German accent suggested a stuck-up fool, but he knew everything that went on in the castle and didn’t hesitate to tell the Dragon.
“I need more workers,” Cook said. “Two; better three. I told you that when we lost the little girl last year. She may not have been worth much, but she tried. Look what I’ve got: a cow, a scarecrow, and two children.”
“What of the lads I sent down?”
“You sent? Those stable boys don’t work for me. I have to beg every time I need heavy stuff carried. My old knees can’t manage the stairs. I can’t feed a sixty folks with five sets of hands.”
“Shall I tell the Dragon you find his service not to your liking?” The upward curl of the steward’s lips suggested he would love to bear such a tale.
“Get off your horse.” Cook sighed and let his shoulders stoop. “His nibs won’t get fed by you throwing me to the wolves. Just get me some help. I could teach one of these girls to help me cook if you’d get me someone to fetch and carry dependable like.”
“For how long?” The steward’s face relaxed into its normal frown.
“For as long as he can be spared, but even a couple days a week would help. It’s winter. A couple of those high and mighty warriors could bend themselves to honest work.”
“No skill needed?”
“To be sure, just a strong back and hands that don’t drop things. At least until I get real help. I need another cook. I’ve told you that, too.”
“I believe I know just the young man.” The steward’s smile made Mary shiver. “We have one who is particularly out of favor with his sergeant at the moment. You’ll do him and me a favor by keeping him out of our master’s sight.”
“Don’t send me another would-be warrior who thinks honest work is beneath him.”
“Why, that’s precisely the attitude of this candidate.”
“Then I don’t want him. Out.” Cook flipped his towel at the steward. “I have a meal to serve. Send the boys to carry the trenchers up.”
“I’ll help,” Mary said.
“Of course, you will,” answered Cook. “But you’ll help by filling that basket with the large loaves. Meg, dish the stew.” A dozen large earthenware bowls lined the wooden cutting board, facing the hearth where the copper cauldron steamed. Mary grabbed a handful of doughy flour as she passed the bread-making stone. She stuffed it into her mouth, then grabbed loaves with both hands and dropped them into the baskets on the floor.
The first boys entered the kitchen just in time to carry away bowls of stew and baskets of bread. Cook sliced cured meat and set it on a metal tray along with a chunk of pale cheese. Irmele and another of the upstairs girls took a tray with finer pottery bowls of stew and a basket of smaller loaves. Mary averted her eyes whenever Irmele entered the kitchen.
Cook cut five more slices of the meat. The thinnest he handed to the children, then Mary and the next to Meg. He threw back his head and dropped the thickest slice into his open mouth. “Aye, that’s the way we should treat the kitchen slaves. Now, you two wash the bowls. Mary, no more luggin’ water this morning. You need to crack that bag of walnuts, while me and Meg start the roast for tonight. In fact, Meg, run up and see what them boys have done with that carcass.”
While Cook instructed Meg, Mary darted out the door and scampered up the stairs opposite the dungeon. The landing above opened onto the inner yard of Burg Altz. Mary stopped, looked around to assure herself alone, then squeezed behind a cabinet by the door. Darkness was her ally now. With trained fingers feeling the way, she crawled into a narrow opening heading upward.
When she was small—well, smaller—many cats lived in the castle. They were Mary’s friends. She followed them into the maze of tiny passages threading the fortress. After the Dragon arrived, the cats became fewer and less friendly, and the rats more vicious. But the cats still treated Mary with respect, especially since she helped them fight the rats.
As Mary scampered from one hidden way to the next, she felt almost free from the mean people around her. Especially the Dragon. The men loved him, but the women feared him—no, everyone feared him, but the women seemed to recognize what the boys who’d flocked to his banner ignored: the Dragon meant to use them, then toss them aside like old soup bones with even the marrow sucked out. Mary wanted to stay away from him.
She paused, listening. Heavy feet in leather boots approached. Whoever it was stopped. The wooden planks squeaked ever so slightly as the man apparently shifted to look around without moving his feet. “You can’t hide from me, little mouse. You belong to me.”
He walked on. Down the hall she heard a door open and close. How could the Dragon know that Mary hid nearby? Everyone said he knew everything. Mary didn’t move until she stopped shivering. Light filtering through the shutters facing the inner court lit the corridor.
Mary climbed to the attic. She nested here, directly above the warm kitchen. Rags lined the cubby she slept in. Safe in her solitude, Mary sighed.
She slid out a lose brick and counted her three treasures: a pale blue ribbon as wide as her thumb, a scrap of dirty lace, and her hammer. It wasn’t a proper hammer, just a hard metal head on the end of a wooden shaft. The slim tool nestled neatly in the palm of her hand. She cracked nuts with it. Mary tied the metal-headed seal to her sash and returned her other treasures to their hole.
She drew a deep breath and started down.
Copyright © 2022 by Ron Andrea. All Rights Reserved.