THE MASTER COOK AND THE MAIDEN
Vengeance…or love? Will Alfwen have to choose between them? And what part will the handsome Master Cook, Swein, play in her life?
Romance, MedievalRomance, RomanceNovel
The Rose and the Sword Novel Series
The Master Cook and the Maiden
Third day of Lent, 1303
The small brown dog stumbled towards Alfwen as she pounded washing in the river. Without stopping her work she watched the little rough-coated creature slip through a gap in the convent boundary wall to limp her way, flopping down on the damp grass twice before it reached her.
“Hey, boy,” she whispered, glad of the honest companionship even if it was just a dog. Hearing a pitiful whine she dropped the dry crust she had been saving for her supper in front of the shivering beast. “Go on, it is yours.”
The scrap disappeared between the dog’s narrow jaws. Alfwen wiped a hunger tear from her face, glancing about. So far, she and the little dog were safe from discovery. This close to Terce, the other nuns and novitiates of the convent were busy with their own assigned labours. As Alfwen had pretended she was afraid of the river, naturally the spiteful Mother Superior had ordered the girl to do the sisters’ laundry, an outdoor task that suited Alfwen very well, even on this bitter afternoon in early spring. Tempers sharpened during Lent, when all were famished, and to be in the fresh, chill air was better than being mewed up in the sooty church or cramped, icy scriptorium.
Kneeling on the riverbank, Alfwen wrung out another section of bedsheet and dunked the next, flinching at the freezing water flowing over her reddened fingers and pale skinny arms. No possible spy was with her, no religious or lay brother or sister, and she could relax a moment. She unwound from her knees and sat on the grass, trying to ignore the burning prickling in her legs. When no shout or complaint issued from the convent she stroked the dog.
With a soft whine the beast crawled closer. So small and trembling, she thought, and she could count its ribs through that rough brown coat and the raw patches along one flank where the fur had shed. Recalling a lively, bouncing pup from long ago, she whispered, “Teazel?”
The dog weakly wagged a balding tail. As it raised its head, Alfwen spotted a filthy cloth collar, half-hidden by dirt.
“I gave you to Walter with a leather collar,” she murmured, surprised she remembered that detail. Teazel snuffled and edged even nearer, so she could see the grey in his muzzle. She wrapped the dog in the rest of the dry sheet she had yet to scrub and fought down a wave of horror.
Walter must be dead. Teazel would never have left him.
She tried to pray for her brother. Failing that, she tried to remember him. It had been seven, no eight years since Walter and his new wife had abandoned her in the convent, though Alfwen knew she had no vocation.
I was ten years old and my parents had just died. Walter was in the first flush of marriage and lordship and his wife—Alfwen shuddered, checked again for spies and admitted the truth. Enid hated me.
A growl came from the tangled sheet as if Teazel agreed with her. A quivering, questing muzzle emerged from the heavy linen and Alfwen was struck by a memory of Walter. Her older brother, whirling about the tilting yard with his new puppy in his arms, laughing as the little dog yapped and squirmed and nuzzled closer.
“He likes me!” Walter cried, pressing a sloppy kiss on the pup’s back.
“He is yours,” Alfwen agreed, and Walter had grinned at her, his hazel eyes bright with joy, the sunlight picking out the red glints in his brown curls.
Enid had soon shorn off his hair, claiming it unseemly for a young lord. Alfwen had scowled and Walter had scolded her for protesting against his wife, although she had said nothing. Two days later she was delivered to the convent, a poor, mean place. My limbo, with an entrance to hell, and my brother did not care, did not question. Eight years she had been here as a novitiate, neither lay nor nun. Postulants to a religious life were supposed to serve only a year as a novice but as a sister Alfwen would have status and Enid and the Mother Superior between them did not want that. Instead I am trapped and my close family have forgotten or dismissed me. Would I be as stupid and selfish in wedlock as Walter?
Alfwen shook her head and tried a second time to pray for her brother’s soul.
He is gone forever and I cannot even cry.
She tried to think of him, remember him, kindly memories. Save for when she had given him Teazel, and he had taught her to write her name, she drew a blank on any more joyful times. Have I forgotten or was Walter really so morose and carping? Am I unjust in how I consider him now?
In the dank grey light of early spring, the bell for Terce rang through her like a blow. Numb, Alfwen rose, ready to gather her work and stumble into the nunnery’s huddled church set close to an expanse of marsh but out of reach of the river. She reached for the part-washed, part-dry sheet and Teazel burst from its coils. Again she noted his thinness, the scrap of cloth collar.
The collar was once part of a favourite gown of mine, a yellow dress my mother made me.
The bell for Terce continued to toll and Alfwen detested its sweet intrusion.
Anger sharpened her, tempered her dull acceptance of convent life into more than resentment. In a blast of sudden added colour she saw the white and pink daisies by her feet, the blue glow of a kingfisher farther down the riverbank, the glint of gold amidst the dirty yellow of Teazel’s collar.
He has something pinned to his collar.
A shadow fell across Alfwen before she could unpin the tiny roll of parchment, but thankfully it was merely a cloud, not a nun coming to drag her to service.
No, the good sisters of Saint Hilda’s will be hastening to church. I will not be missed until after the latest holy office.
Alfwen flinched as the gold brooch scratched her fingers and then the thing was undone. Heart hammering, she smoothed out the parchment.
Two words only in her brother’s hand, but a message to her, all the same.
Swein saw the girl drop into the water from the riverbank and leapt from his waggon, sprinting to reach her before she drowned. Hearing no splash or screams he dared to hope and ran faster, forcing air into his searing lungs.
Pounding along the track and over the water-meadow he vaulted the mud brick wall of the convent. He landed clumsily but kept going, determined to save her. Never a fatal accident in my kitchen and I’ll not gave one here, either.
Scrambling to the edge of the bank he stared downstream, seeing nothing but a young trout, swung round to scour upstream—and choked on his breath. Tripping daintily over the river pebbles at the stream’s edge the girl walked steadily away from her pile of laundry.
Swein flattened himself to the grass and watched the small, skinny wench. Her skirts were sodden to the backs of her knees, he reckoned, but she moved smoothly, never looking back. Across her retreating shoulders she carried a sling, made from part of a sheet. A little old dog poked its muzzle from the bundle and seemed content with the ride.
A runaway from Saint Hilda’s. “No business of mine,” Swein muttered, but his ankle ached so he lay still and stared.
The girl disappeared round the bend in the beck—stream, Swein mentally corrected, since this was in the south, not north—her presence winking out like a small star.
She will walk to the ford and take the Roman road hence. I could drive my waggon there and wait for her.
“Why not?” Swein said aloud, flexing his toes in his boots. “I have no business with Saint Hilda’s.” The head nun in the place did not like men and detested cooks so he had never had cause to visit in his travels.
‘Tis Lent and I go home for Lent. Cooking food for fasting times does not stir me and my folk are waiting. He had the early gifts ready for them.
Still he would catch Nutmeg, his mule, and his waggon and drive to the ford. That girl needs fattening up, I reckon, fleeing from Saint Hilda’s.
The nobles I cook for do not like me curious but I am my own master and this Lent time is my holiday. He could do largely as he pleased and he wanted to see the lass’s face.
Swein rolled to his feet and set off back for the track, whistling a merry tune.
Alfwen glanced at the sinking sun and the crossroads with dismantled archery butts stacked against the oak tree. She had hoped for a hiring gather and had her story ready. I am a laundress seeking honest work.
She wanted to steal a nag and ride to her family’s seat at Ormsfeld, but she brutally dismissed the desire. She needed to know how Walter had died and who were his enemies. Teazel would never have left if Walter lived still. Yet no one had come to the convent to tell her that her brother had died. Although I am a de Harne I have been buried at Saint Hilda’s for eight years and no doubt forgotten.
“Avenge me,” Walter growled in her head, in a voice she was not sure was his, or what she remembered of him.
Again she was relieved she had not taken final vows. Nuns were not supposed to plot vengeance.
Why should I? When did Walter care for me?
Alfwen squashed such thoughts, stamping her feet in a futile bid to keep warm. Her skirts and sandals were still wet from the river and she knew she would look strange, a lone woman with no protectors. I dare not linger here past twilight. I have to find shelter, food for Teazel.
The dog slept on the damp ground in her rough bundle, weary with hunger. Enid starved him. Did she do the same cruel thing with Walter?
“Are you seeking work?”
Startled, Alfwen turned, stumbling as she took a rapid backwards step. The man looming over her was so big—
Strong arms caught her, brought her safe against a broad chest.
“Here,” said the stranger as she gulped in breath to fight, “Before you hunger faint.”
A large calloused hand pressed a warm round dumpling into her palm, a white plump dumpling straight from a pottage pot, but not so hot as to burn. The comforting heat and yeasty scent took her straight back to childhood, pottering after Simon, the old cook, who would often take her with him into the kitchen garden and let her eat fresh bread from his ovens.
Avenge me, Walter scolded, while she chewed and swallowed the dumpling treat, licking her fingers after.
“I need a washer lass,” the stranger went on, dropping a morsel of something on the earth for Teazel. “I feed my folk well. You come?”
He almost had her at feed well, but Alfwen had not sprung the trap of the convent to fall into another. She shook her head. “I cannot stay, sir.”
Now she spoke, Alfwen felt the light-headedness of hunger boil into the seethe of panic. What might this big brute make me do for his food?