Swein considers Alfwen and reflects on his witch great-grandmother, Elfrida (from The Snow Bride.)
I would rather have her on my knee, but then she would know how much she moves me. For what seemed the thousandth time that long day, Swein reminded himself that “Alfie” was meant to be a boy, and they had already had trouble.
“Any more attacks?” he had softly, as the hasty clean-up clattered around them.
“None I could spot.”
“No insults or ugly names?” he persisted.
She shook her head, taking the spoon from his fingers, helping herself to a mouthful of stew, handing the spoon back. “Where are the twins?”
“Guarding the waggon.” A shadow of concern in her eyes made him added, “They got bowls of stew as well.”
“No roast meat?”
Swein laughed. “That is for our betters,” he said, ignoring the startled glances he received from the spit-boys at that admission. He winked at her and added softly, “Yours was a bit of cook’s privilege.”
She settled back against him, her hip and thigh pressed against his. Swein thought of the oaf who had yelled earlier and knew he would do something to the man. I would challenge him outright, but Peter braying-voice Thatcher is a sneak as well as a bully. He deserves a more creative answer, including one of my grannie Elfrida’s sleeping tinctures for starters.
Swein offered her the spoon back and delighted in how she scraped the stew-bowl, chasing every scrap. The more devious, plotting part of his mind was thinking of the special items in his locked box. Peter Thatcher, a bully in everything, guzzled unthinkingly, worse than a pig. A pitcher left near him, filled with good wine, he would down at one gulp and never taste the sleeping eastern poppy.
Let him snore the night away at my feet. I will deal with him properly later. He would leave more flagons about the kitchen, with lesser sleeping draughts, so the noisy mob quietened and he was left to cook in peace. No need to give away all my secrets, anyway, and the lads will be improved for the enforced slumber. Not for the first time, he blessed Elfrida Magnus-wife and her book of cures. His own mother, Bertha too, for recognising he had a similar gift and for passing the roughly bound mass of parchments to him.
“Are kitchens always this way?” Alfwen was asking.
“Hot, hellish and hectic? Very much.”
“Yet you enjoy it?”
“Thrive is more accurate,” Swein admitted. “As I told you, I am the youngest of four brothers and going into war-craft is expensive. Gideon, who is making it his trade, moans constantly of coins and gold vanishing like dew whenever he attends a tourney. Chain mail costs and swords more so.”
“War horses,” Alfwen agreed, and smiled at his obvious surprise. “At Saint Hilda’s the sisters often gossiped of knights and tourneys. I think they would have happily watched a joust, if they could.” She waved the spoon, an invitation for him to continue. “So?”
“I had no interest in scholarship or politics, so the church did not appeal. Even an apprenticeship is pricey, and I confess I like my food. Learning to make it, and make it well made sense to me.”
It had given him pride and independence, too, but he knew she already understood that.
“Later today I will make several sweet subtleties.” He had them in mind, a castle of sugar, a unicorn with a honeycomb as a horn, egg whites beaten to soft foam and cooked slow, then filled with fresh cream. “Or I should say, tonight.”
She straightened at that, dropping her spoon into the stew bowl. “But when will you sleep?”
“Tomorrow in the waggon, while we travel over to your first home. It makes sense,” he went on. “The kitchen will be quiet tonight, the lads asleep, and I can use the big tables and the pots and pans I need to clarify the sugar and so on, then take the finished dishes up to the pantry cupboards. Belmond will see to the rest of the food. We can slip off and not be missed.”
Master Champion would not care, anyway, as long as he had his sweets.
For you, to give you peace. He did not say that, he was no idiot. “I would like to see where you were born,” he replied, avoiding Walter altogether. “You can show me where you played.”
Her eyes darkened at that but she gave a jerky nod and with that he chose to be content. Still, as he kept guard over her sleeping form while the other cooks snored in heavy poppy sleep and he laboured long past moon-rise, he thought of her non-answer.
What will I discover at Alfwen’s childhood home? Was it a home at all?