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5
Supper Time

Written for the Day Fifteen-Shire Challenge:
Today's Challenge:

The cuisine of the Shire is unsurpassed. Write a story or poem, or create a work of art, featuring food.


~~~

The arrow whistled high over the rabbit’s head and the animal scurried off. I cursed, and turned to find my keeper with her bow slung unhelpfully over her shoulder.

You could have shot him!”

“I could have,” she agreed. “Easily. But I told you it was your turn to get dinner.”

“Well, what are we going to eat now?”

“You know the answer to that already. Journey-bread and water and not much of it. We’re three days out from Bree.”

I surveyed my entirely inadequate piece of journey-bread that night with dismay and the equally inadequate piece for breakfast the following morning with disgust. I later found out that most Rangers had proprietary recipes for journey-bread that had been handed down in their families for generations and some of it was quite tasty. Hethlin’s own mother had been a very good baker, though it was not a skill she herself had ever acquired. But though she could have gotten anyone in Fornost to sell her their tasty family bread, she had intentionally acquired for our journey something called cram and it was anything but tasty, particularly after it had been rolling about in our packs for days.

By lunch time my stomach was in full revolt and the small lunch time ration of cram did little to quiet it. By mid-afternoon, it was growling again, audibly, and I was in full revolt. I stopped on the trail by a convenient boulder, sat on it, and folded my arms.

“I can’t go any further! My legs are wobbling! I need to eat!”

Hethlin turned around, her expression bland. “Well, I could give you your share of the cram for tomorrow if you liked, Tel, but then you’d be hungry tomorrow. Is that what you want? I’ve also got some herbs I can give you to chew to help with the hunger, if you want them.”

“I want you to hunt us some dinner! I need to eat tonight!”

“It’s not my turn.”

“Valar curse you and your ‘turn‘! I’m not going anywhere until I get some food!”

“Then I guess you’re not going anywhere,” Hethlin said. “All the better for me. No complaints for a change and a double ration of cram to Bree.“ She turned around and continued down the trail. She was almost out of sight before I realized she had no intention of stopping and panicked. The trail was only a trail in the vaguest of senses and I knew very well that I would be totally lost in five minutes if I didn’t stay with her. Not to mention that she was carrying what food we had!

I jumped up and hurried after her. Hunger and desperation made me foolish and I completely forgot the lesson I‘d learned in Minas Tirith. As I closed, I called out, “Listen, you! I’m ordering you to hunt me some dinner! I seized her shoulder, intending to spin her around and instead found myself on the ground with my arm feeling like it was broken and my ears ringing. Of course, the damned stick again.

Hethlin stared down at me and this time her face was anything but bland. I quailed at her expression.

“Do not ever lay a hand upon me without my leave again!” she hissed. “And if you recollect, I am not under your orders, you are under mine! The King said he had put you in my hands and to do with you what I thought best.”

“I hardly think Grandfather intended you to go off and abandon me in the wilderness!”

“I did not abandon you, Tel. You made the choice not to journey with me. That’s different.” The fury had left her face but her voice was still cold. “And do you know, I think they might just understand if I did choose to leave you, ass that you are! Last time I was in Gondor, you had a younger sister and plenty of cousins on the ground. You’re not so irreplaceable as you think!” She gestured about at the bleak landscape and at the grey sky above us.

“Look around, Tel. This is Arnor. She’s more settled that she was in your great-grandfather’s time, but there are still plenty of wild places left. And there aren’t any courtiers here hastening to curry favor with you because they want something or they’re afraid you’ll give a bad report to your father or grandfather. There are no Tower Guard to defend you. You’re out from behind the walls and on your own. And if you think that Arnor will hold her hand because of your exalted blood, then think again. She’ll kill you just as fast as anyone if you let her. She’s taken more than one Chieftain in her time, the last being your great-great grandfather.” Hethlin seated herself upon another convenient boulder, gave her bad leg another of those absent-minded rubs, took out her whetstone and her small skinning knife and began to sharpen it. “I am taking a break. While I do so, you decide if you want to stay with me or strike out on your own for Bree or back to Fornost or wherever. I’ll split the food with you if you decide to go. I don’t think you’ve got much of a chance of getting there, but then people thought Frodo didn’t have a chance in Mordor and look how that turned out! But you should know that if you do come with me, it’s still your turn to get supper.”

I pulled myself to my feet, rubbed my aching arm and considered my options. I was cold, tired and very, very hungry and so frustrated that I wanted to weep with it, but realistically I knew I was better off with Hethlin, provoking as she was. But what did she want with all this business about dinner? An acknowledgment of my shortcomings and her superior skills? Then I would give it to her. I looked down at her as she rasped the blade on the stone and with what I felt was great restraint spoke as civilly and reasonably as I knew how. “My lady, I would like to come with you. But you know that my shooting is nowhere near so good as yours. Would you please shoot us some supper?”

“No, Tel. It’s your turn to get supper.”

“But I told you I’m not a good enough archer!”

“That is very obvious.”

“Then why do you keep insisting on my shooting supper?”

“I don’t. You do,” she said, intent upon her sharpening, never looking up. “Your problem, Tel, is that you don’t listen. Too busy working up your next lot of complaints, I guess. I never said it was your turn to shoot supper. I said that it was your turn to get supper. You were the one who decided that meant using your rather sorry archery skills.”

“Are you talking about scrounging about for wild weeds and roots and things?”

“No, though we may do that eventually.”

“There’s not much else to eat around here but rabbits.”

“Very true.”

I thought about this for a moment and light finally, belatedly dawned.

“Is there some way to catch rabbits that doesn’t involve shooting them?”

“Yes. It‘s called a snare.”

“Would you please show me how to do it?”

“Yes.” Hethlin put the blade and stone away and stood up. “But not here. We’ll go a little further down the trail close to where there are some rabbit runs and make camp early. We’ll need daylight for some of this.”

We went down the trail to the place she had spoken of and set camp. Then we spent the remainder of the afternoon and early evening setting out rabbit snares. Hethlin showed me how to look for the signs of a rabbit run, how to make a snare and how to set it without leaving scent upon it that would alert the rabbits. She was actually a very good and patient teacher once I quit whining and started listening. With what I thought was an amazing display of confidence she then built a fire and sent me off to find green branches to make a spit, but sure enough, towards evening our snares bore fruit in the form of two rabbits.

Though I had ridden out to the hunt in Minas Tirith every great once in a while, the society hunts I’d gone to were not serious hunts. They were more like parties than anything else, and I certainly hadn’t had to do anything so mundane as deal with a kill. Hethlin gave me a knife and one of the rabbits and step by step we skinned and dressed both of them. We seasoned them with salt and spices she’d carried with her; including, to my amazement, a small wooden box of pepper.

“Thank the Valar for that!” I exclaimed as she handed it to me.

Hethlin grinned. “More to the point to thank your father! He gave it to me before we left-he knows how you love it. Best be sparing with it though-you have to be a prince to afford it up here.” I nodded, resolving to do just that.

My great-grandmother then set me to watching the spit, while she dealt with the hides, scraping them, lashing them onto frames she constructed out of sticks and rather gruesomely smearing them with the rabbit brains.

“You’re going to take those with us?” I asked. “Do I have to carry them?”

“No, I’ll carry them,” came the dry response.

“Why bother? They’re only rabbit skins.”

“You don’t waste what the Valar send. First rule here. Rabbit fur is soft and doesn’t wear all that well, but it lines a pair of mittens very nicely. Four of them and you’ll be set for the winter.”

“Do I have to sew them myself?”

“No, and I certainly can’t do it! Was never much of a seamstress. You can hire it done, or perhaps use some of that skill with girls you keep telling me you have to get one of them to do it.”

I ignored the jibe. “We’ll be piled high with skins soon if we keep getting them at this rate.”

“There’s a Ranger cache in Bree for such things. We’ll leave them there with your name on them while they cure. We’ve got a fellow there who will finish them up for you and you can pick them up later.”

“They’re more yours than mine.”

“I’ve already got mittens.”

The rabbits smelled wonderful as they were cooking, and my stomach set up an almost continuous rumble in response. When they were finally pulled off the spit, they more than fulfilled their promise. We had one of the rabbits with cram and herb tea brewed in Hethlin’s small traveling pot and it was the best dinner I’d ever had in my life. The other we carefully wrapped in cloth and stowed away to eat for lunch on the morrow. It was amazing to me how the prospect of another full meal in the future made the whole world seem brighter.

I sat staring into the fire, my stomach full, reasonably warm and content. Hethlin looked over at me.

“So-you’ve managed to feed yourself by your own efforts, Tel. How do you feel?”

Remembering the Ranger girl in Fornost, I smiled ruefully. “Well, it isn’t shooting, dressing and cooking a deer, but it’s a start.”

Her grey-gold eyes were kinder than I’d ever seen them. “Yes. It’s a start.”

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