2978 Third Age
Have you ever seen the kitchens of the Citadel? They are remarkably beautiful: the walls are white, white stone, and the floor is sandstone brought all the way from Dol Amroth. Nestled in the lower regions of the Citadel, there are three small windows that let in a little sunlight in the mornings and a little breeze in the springtime (the latch is stuck on the middle one; it is never opened). A narrow spiral stair in the corner leads down to the wine cellars, where dusty bottles age to perfection. Facing the wall with the windows is a door that leads to the first pantry where necessary day-to-day dry goods are stored. More carefully labeled larders are down the hall, holding grains and preserved meats and fruits and salt and everything a cook could wish for! Nothing like my kitchens at the Stewards' House, but very much better.
When I get a bit of free time, I come here to visit. Lanthir always welcomes me with a warm grin, and sets me some small task. Malen and I can gossip for a bit (she always wants to talk about who is paired with who, and I rarely do. "You're an old mind trapped in a young body, Mag," she says, with a puzzled laugh. "Sometimes I don't understand you."). I even spend some time making honey-cakes with Eilian and Eirien, the little twin scullery-maids. Why do I spend my free time in another kitchen, you ask? I would never tell my undercooks this, but it is nice to not be responsible for anything for awhile: no dealing with Mallos burning another batch of bread, or Celair telling me we've run short of such-and-such for the fifth time this week, or... Well, the Citadel kitchen is usually a peaceful place, where a body can sit back with a cup of tea, some friends, and a nice crumbly scone.
I emphasize the word usually, for that serenity vanishes like smoke in the wind at the first mention of the Midsummer Feast.
A full fortnight before Midsummer, my lord Denethor orders us to the Citadel to help with the feast, and oh! 'Tis always chaotic, and this year is no different. Everything must be perfect, and I am running about like a madwoman, shouting for this pheasant to be stuffed, and those tarts to be prepared, and "WHERE have the loaves of fresh bread gone to?!"
In my frenzy, I am half-cursing Lanthir's wife for having her baby at this time and taking him away to leave me in charge. Somewhere inside, I feel shocked at how wicked that is (Ninneth lost their first babe two years ago, and she is so fragile… Mag, you cruel thing!), but a moment later I am too bothered to dwell on it. Normally Perin would take over for Lanthir, but she is in her room nursing a bad flu, and that leaves… me.
I am carrying a trayful of freshly-peeled peaches and wondering if my heart shall fail from anxiety (at just twenty-eight years old!) when I crash into someone.
Half an hour of work is destroyed in an instant: the tray goes flying, and my carefully cleaned peaches bump and bounce beneath the cupboards and into the corners, gathering dust and debris and who-knows-what-else (my kitchen would certainly not be so dirty! I'll have to speak with Lanthir about that).
"Someone" blanches in horror, and immediately begins to apologize.
I sigh, too tired to do anything but fix mistakes and plow onwards. I tell her to sit at the corner table and peel another batch of peaches.
She guiltily slips to the corner. I've automatically pegged her as one of the new sculls, or an undercook, but a niggling voice inside says that I am wrong. Her voice has the cadence of Dol Amroth: a gently flowing accent that wanders and eddies and somehow forms itself into words; that is an uncommon dialect in the City, really, for Amroth people tend to live on the shores their whole lives. Her dress is simple, but a far cry from the drab clothes we wear in the kitchens; perhaps something my niece might wear for a festival back in Lebennin.
But I have little time to think about this, and soon turn back to managing the feast.
Twenty courses later, it is over.
Lanthir's Ninneth was delivered safely of a healthy girl-child just before midnight. I saved two platefuls of tidbits for them from the feast, which Lanthir accepted gratefully, saying, "You're a wonder, Mag," and vanishing into the twilight. Most everyone else pleaded to be let off early, and in a fit of Midsummer generosity I dismissed everyone but the main cooks; the little sculls looked identically delighted, Baranwen broke her serious mask to smile a bit, and the young lady from Amroth slipped away before I could thank her and ask who hired her. I had enough thought left in me to take some soup to a dazed and woebegone Perin, and then headed back to the kitchens to clean up.
At two hours past midnight, there were only two stacks of dirty dishes piled next to the sink, and I nearly had to push the last three cooks out the door! "No, no," I had said insistently, "I'll take care of the rest. You should be with your families tonight." Nall is on duty at the Houses of Healing tonight, and I haven't anyone else to worry about, so I might as well make myself useful. On Midsummer Night there are feasts and fairs in every circle that last far into the next morning, and I know they all want to go and enjoy themselves. Malen left last, protesting halfheartedly at every step, but I won out in the end.
There is a soft knock, and I see the supposed new scull-or-undercook standing at the door.
"May I come in?"
Gaze flickering across the room, she steps in and begins to explore curiously. I return to the dishes, watching out of the corner of my eye.
She is a slight creature, with a soft, oval-shaped face, and dark hair braided and tucked neatly up. Her festival dress now has a few faint splatters of peach juice on the front, and I wish too late that I had given her an apron. Young, pretty, and quiet, this girl cannot be more than seventeen or eighteen... I wonder what brought her to the City all the way from Amroth?
"I'm sorry for bursting in on you," she says suddenly. "I did not mean to, I was—"
"You have nothing to worry about from me," I interrupt. "What brings you to the City?"
She smiles cautiously, and replies, "I'm to be nanny to Lord Denethor and Lady Finduilas' child, when it is born in a month or two."
Well! My mouth must be hanging open in surprise, for she blushes and ducks her head. Malen and I were talking about that very thing the other day: if Lady Finduilas' child would be boy or girl, who would care for it, and other such small items. Won't everyone be surprised when the child is attended on by this scrap of a lass!
After a second's awkward hesitation, I say impulsively, "We all knew Lady Finduilas would choose someone good for her child."
Something in her face relaxes, and she comes to sit at the table as we begin to talk.
We cover all manner of topics: our relations, the Citadel, Lord Denethor and Lady Finduilas, and beyond. She asks me questions about the kinds of people one finds at the Citadel and in these higher circles, and I ask her about Dol Amroth. I describe my dreadful older sister, and she grins and responds with stories of five wild younger siblings.
When the lass finally leaves, winding her way towards her new quarters, I realize that I've forgotten to ask her name. More than an hour we've spent in conversation, and we do not know each other's names: how odd.
Ah, well, I think philosophically. There will be plenty more chances to talk.
Thanks to Edoraslass for letting me use Nanny and for polishing this, and Ann for letting me use Mag.
February 6, 2007