A Winter Story, by Avon Van Hassel
Midwinter is a time of fear for my people, but also a time of hope. When the cold winds cover the world in white and the shadows stretch long and black, we retreat inside to the orange fires and soft embraces of our kin. And when the fields and rivers are hard and dormant, we feast on all that we have saved. It is a time of cold and warmth, of barrenness and abundance. It is in the duality that we find our comfort.
It has always been this way, since the gods forged all of the lands of the world. The story of our kingdom began with a great queen named Edys, and the tradition she began, called Wintersufel. She was not from our land, but from faraway, where they did not have harsh winters. She did not know our ways. But she was possessed of a deep understanding of what people look to in a queen.
The first winter of her coronation was difficult for her, but she persevered. Before the Midwinter feast, she sent all of the staff from the kitchen and sat them at the table with the members of the court, and cooked the entire meal herself. She did it to show the court, her prince, and the people that she could provide for them. That she was clever enough and dedicated enough to be a good queen. With each course, she laid out her plans.
‘With this drink,’ she said, pouring spiced wine from her own ewer into every horn in the Great Hall, ‘I swear that while I am queen, this kingdom shall have allies.’
Next, she passed a huge loaf of braided bread around the tables and everyone ripped off a piece. ‘With this bread, I swear that while I am queen, the people will have the ear of the throne.’
Then she herself ladled a thin vegetable soup into each empty bowl from a massive pot. ‘With this broth, I swear that while I am queen, this kingdom shall never go hungry.’
After that was finished, she fetched a knife and carved great strips of pork from a roast pig glazed in fruit and spices, saying, ‘With this meat, I swear that while I am queen, this kingdom will never be poor.’
Finally, she carried out in her own two arms a gigantic apple and raisin pudding, and while she was scooping it onto plates, said, ‘And with this dessert, I swear that while I am queen, even in the bleakest of times, the people will always have something sweet to give them hope of a brighter future.’
In the spring, she was married to her prince and while his name has faded from memory, hers never has, for she lived up to every promise she made that night. That is the story that has been told to every girl for every Midwinter since, and a tradition we reenact when we come of age.
My name is Rona, princess of this kingdom, and this year, it is my turn.
Rona woke too early for her liking. She was a child of the spring, born to run and dance in the sun. Winter was cold and grey, and what was worse, she was forced to stay indoors almost all of the time. There was nothing to do inside the Hall, not usually. And, this morning, she would have to start early.
She kicked back her blankets and winced as the air hit her bare legs. The fire had gone out and the cold had crept in. She shivered and pulled the hem of her shift down over her skinny knees before rolling out of bed. She shoved her pale blonde hair back, feeling at least three tangles as she tied it with a ribbon. The tip of her nose tingled and silver mist hung from her breath.
But today was not a day to bemoan the cold. Today she had work to do. She wrapped her wool cloak about her shoulders, stepped into her fur-lined shoes, and slipped out of her chamber.
The corridors of the Hall were empty and silent of human activity, though the wind whistled through the window slits, bringing winter chill with it. It was far too early and far too cold for anyone to be up and about, so even the servants had not yet risen to light the fires and torches yet. That suited Rona perfectly. What she had to do had to be done in secret.
The floors of the public area of the Hall where she, her family, and the court resided were finely tiled and the walls plastered stone, painted in murals depicting hunting in the spring and feasting in the winter. Rona’s stomach squirmed at the image of Edys with her raisin pudding.
When she passed the Great Hall where everyone gathered and her parents tended to the needs of the village, the dressings changed. The floor was made of flagstones strewn with rushes, and there was no plaster on the walls, and no murals. Torches, cold and dark now, sat in sconces every few feet. Rona had to keep a hand on the rough stone wall to find her way down the stairs, but she knew where she was going. The kitchens were no place for a princess, so naturally she knew them well.
In contrast to the rest of the Hall, the fires in the kitchen stayed lit. The huge fireplaces were too large to light each morning, since it took so long for them to be hot enough to cook for the whole court. But they were not stoked all night, so they had burned down to mostly embers by the time Rona tiptoed in. The floor was covered in straw mattresses, a good distance away from the popping wood, and the snoring of twenty sleeping bodies helped her to pass unheard between them while she looked for what she needed.
There it was, on a shelf in the back of the kitchen, right next to the enormous cook, sleeping on a mat rolled across the tops of three potato barrels
Wilmar ruled the kitchens like a smaller version of the Hall above. The kitchen staff loved and loathed him in equal measure for his towering temper and thunderous joviality. He would understand if Rona took the book, but she couldn’t risk waking him in the process.
Rona stared at the ancient tome, its cracked leather binding and frayed pages, and steadied her nerves. She tiptoed between sleeping bodies, trying to step as lightly as she could. She lifted a foot to a thick knob of a drawer, and heaved herself onto the counter.
Wilmar gave a huge grunting snore and rolled over. Rona froze and held her breath until he stopped moving, then let it out in a long sigh and turned her attention back to the book.
She reached out a finger and pulled it off its shelf and into her arms. She scooted off the counter and slid to the floor.
Rona paused to give the kitchen one last look to make sure she had not been discovered, and sank back into the shadows of the corridor.
The sun still hovered below the horizon, as the Hall began to wake. Just as soon as she was out of sight of the kitchen she heard the rustlings that could have betrayed her as one or two of the scullions stirred in their beds. She let her breath out as she scurried back to her room.
She made it! And with plenty of time, too. It did not do to dwell on what Wilmar might do to her food if he’d known she had stolen his prized recipe book, so she wasted no time in settling onto the padded window seat and getting to work. The book creaked from age as she peeled back the first couple of pages to the table of contents listing all the types of recipes a grand hall might need. It was all hand-written in neat black letters that had faded over time, but was still plainly legible.
She sat with the book on her lap for a while, feeling the weight of history and responsibility in her hands. The day outside went from black to dusty rose, to peach, sparkling with fresh snowfall.
Someone knocked on the door. Rona jumped so hard she almost dropped the book.
‘Who-Who is it?’ she called, her voice hoarse from disuse. The door opened and a head poked into the room. It was her father’s ward, Prince Bard.
By anyone’s reckoning, Bard was a handsome young man. He was a few years older than she, tall and slim, and graceful, with steady grey eyes and soft chestnut hair. The pride of her father’s court, he was the prince of a neighbouring kingdom, sent to be fostered by King Cyneric, as was their custom, to be taught the way of kingship. As the younger brother of two, he learned in case of need, should anything happen to his older brother. It was assumed by all that as Cyneric only had Rona and no sons, he intended for Bard to marry her one day and cement the alliance.
But that was still a long way off. Rona had to survive her Wintersufel first. And anyway, for the moment, neither had plans to marry and enjoyed each other as friends.
‘Your mother sent me,’ he said. ‘She thought you might be unwell.’
‘Oh, I–‘ Rona scrambled to shove the book under the seat as she stood, but it was too thick and heavy, and she dropped it with a bang and a puff of dust. In one fluid motion, Bard was by her side and had the book in his hands. He smirked at her.
‘What’s this?’ He pulled back the cover and flipped through the pages. He paused at the table of contents and ran a finger down the list. ‘Drinks, Breads, Cheese, Fish, Meat, Soups, Sauces, Sweets…Lady Rona, I do believe you have stolen this book.’
Rona snatched it out of his hands and hid it properly under the cushions.
‘I am preparing for my Wintersufel.’ She knocked into his shoulder on her way to dress between her wardrobe and her dressing screen. Bard remained politely on the other side. ‘And it’s a secret, so keep your mouth shut.’
‘If you have to cook something, why did you have to steal the book?’ he asked. ‘Surely Wilmar would have just given it to you.’
‘Because,’ she sighed, ‘We cannot use existing recipes. It would look a bit suspect if I asked to borrow it. And this way, he won’t know it was me.’
‘He wouldn’t just assume you’re looking at what’s been made before? Or he’ll think someone on the kitchen staff stole it?’ Bard’s voice teased.
‘No, I’ll explain soon,’ Rona said, annoyed at how defensive her voice sounded. She hadn’t thought of that. ‘No one will be punished.’
‘I’ve never understood this tradition,’ Bard said.
‘You wouldn’t,’ Rona shot back, scowled before opening her wardrobe and considering her options. She decided on a deep blue gown with wide sleeves and pale gold accents. ‘It’s unique to this kingdom, as far as I know. And anyway, you’re not a girl. Girls are raised to think about their Wintersufel almost as much as we think about our weddings. It’s a rite of passage for us. And for me it’s even bigger because I’m a princess. Peasant girls must only provide for their families. I have to provide for the whole court.’
‘But why must you make something up?’ he mused. ‘Why can’t you demonstrate your skill by just making something well? What if the thing you make up is really terrible?’
‘Well, Wintersufel means “what feeds you through the winter” and in winter you only have so many options, so you have to prove that you can be creative,’ she explained, pulling the gown over her shift. ‘And if it’s really terrible, then we have Modorlufu.’
‘What’s that?’ His pacing footsteps stops and Rona ducked down a little.
‘It means “mother love”,’ she answered, her voice muffled by the heavy wool. She eased it over her face and shook herself until everything settled where it was supposed to go. She didn’t have many curves to worry about complementing, but her gangly limbs gave her trouble. ‘Sometimes-‘ She located the pale gold embroidered waist cincher that matched the gown and wrapped it around her middle. ‘-When a mother knows her daughter’s dish will fail, she will make something in secret and hide it away. Then at the last minute, when the daughter is in tears and terrified of embarrassing herself, the mother will pull it out and serve it instead.’ She pushed down the dread climbing her throat and came around from behind her screen to pose. Bard nodded his approval in half-hearted distraction.
‘Will your mother make one?’ He grinned.
‘Probably,’ Rona coughed to cover her nerves and sat down at her table to comb her hair. ‘But only because no one has faith in me that I can do it. And I can.’ She glared at him in the mirror just in time to see a look of disbelief flash across his face. He nodded quickly.
‘What will you make?’ He straddled the bench beside her.
‘I will make a dessert.’ She tugged at a knot and teased it out.
‘Why a dessert?’
‘Because desserts are the hardest, the most symbolic, and,’ she looked at him with mischief in her eye, ‘they come out last. After everything else is eaten.’
‘The encore.’ He smirked, nodding in approval. Rona grinned. ‘And what does it symbolise?’
Rona rolled her eyes up and recited, ‘”I swear that while I am queen, even in the bleakest of times, the people will always have something sweet to give them hope of a brighter future.”‘
Bard’s eyes opened wide. ‘You’ve been practising that, have you?’
‘No, I’ve heard the story all my life. I’ll start over.’ While she worked the knots from her hair she recited the story. When she was done, he nodded, finally understanding. There was a pause and a pensive look came across his face. Then he stood abruptly.
‘Will you come to breakfast?’ He bowed and held a hand out to her.
She sighed and rose. ‘Yes, I suppose I should. I have so much to do and my hair is not finished, but I should eat something and be sociable.’ She took his arm, and the two walked together to her parents’ chambers.
The table in the royal chambers had been set with pewter eating dishes. Ceramic bowls and plates were piled high with stewed fruits, freshly baked sweet bread, cheese, sausage, and smoked fish. The scent of mulled cider perfumed the corridor and made Rona’s stomach growl. Everything was cured or pickled or spiced in the winter and sometimes it got a bit old, but today it excited her. It seemed like everywhere she looked she found a new idea for her dish.
She sat opposite her mother and took a plate. Her parents both looked at her like they wanted to talk, but didn’t wish to make her feel uncomfortable.
‘So,’ Queen Genova said casually, picking at a bit of fish, ‘have you given any thought to your Wintersufel?’
Subtle. ‘Yes, I have.’ Rona shrugged and kept her eyes low. ‘And I think I know what I will do.’
Her parents looked at each other and then at Bard, who smiled. She knew they were interested, but trying to keep the surprise and worry out of their expressions. Rona pretended not to notice and scooped some fruit over a hunk of bread on her plate. She waited a moment for the juices to soak up before cutting into it with her eating knife.
‘And?’ her mother prompted. Mothers often helped their daughters with words of advice or brainstorming ideas, or the gentle suggestion that a girl who didn’t have a lot of experience in the kitchen might want to keep it simple. ‘What are you planning?’
‘Oh, it’s a surprise.’ Rona grinned. That was what they had all been afraid of. She could see it flicker across all of their faces.
She, of course, had no idea what she was going to do. Bard had interrupted her halfway through the table of contents, and she hadn’t even gotten to the desserts section yet. But the flavours and textures mingling on her tongue gave her an idea.
The bread was braided like in the story of Edys, studded with raisins and candied citrus peels, and speckled with spices. It was slowly purpling from the juice of the stewed pears, which had been soaked in wine with honey. She imagined how it would be just perfect with a little drizzle of cream over the top.
That’s it! Pears stewed in mead and spices baked into a bread pudding, with cream on top! Rona made a mental note to check the book when she got to her chambers. Until then, she enjoyed her breakfast in polite silence, grinning at her parents every so often, just to enjoy the looks of concern on their faces.
After breakfast, Rona excused herself and retreated to her chambers. Ordinarily, she would have met with her tutor and practised music or dance or diplomacy, but these few days before this one significant Midwinter she was excused.
The book was where she had left it, under the cushions in the window seat, and she pulled it out and sat down to read. This time, rather than marvel at the sheer volume and variety of recipes, she went straight to the desserts page, and began looking for anything that resembled her invention.
‘A Pottage of Raysons, Appel Muse, Caudel, Frute for Pye, Gyngerbred, Milk Fryd in Lemon, Peyn Fondue, Stewd Pears,’ her heart stopped. She flipped to the page and read the recipe. It looked like a recipe simply for stewed pears, and nothing more.
‘Well, I don’t know what I expected,’ she murmured aloud, and continued to read from that point, flipping from recipe to recipe. ‘Perys Compote, Perys In Coffyns–oh, that means pie–, Cake of Elderflurs and Chees, Appel Tarte with Star Spice, Perys in Syryp…’
And that was the end of the desserts. Her heart sank. She knew Wilmar had made things that were not listed there. Of course, it was his job to make things up, and she could not possibly be denied womanhood for accidentally making something he had made on the fly. She couldn’t be expected to remember every dessert she’d had in her life.
She took a deep breath to steady her agitated heart. This was easily solved. She would go down to the kitchen and ask if he had ever made pear pudding. And be cryptic about it. And if he had not, she would ask for some pears and the use of the kitchen.
But how would that work? Just ask Wilmar, ‘have you ever–hypothetically–made a bread pudding with pears? Of course, I’m just asking this one time ever in my life out of curiosity and not because I’m planning my Wintersufel, and also, can you go away for several hours? But teach me how to make a bread pudding first. Hypothetically.’
Even in her head that sounded terrible, and most of her terrible ideas sounded good in the planning stages.
She had to distract him. Also, she had to know what was involved in making the thing at all. Perhaps she could combine the two. She looked over the recipes in closer detail. The Peyne Fondue sounded like what she knew as bread pudding, so she took down the ingredients: stale bread, butter, whites of eggs, honey, water, wine (she would substitute mead), raisins, spices, salt (salt?), and candied ginger. Then she read over the instructions.
It looked devilishly complicated, but she would read it closer later. She added pears and cream to her list and skipped off to the kitchen.
The kitchen was bustling. Scullions and junior cooks dashed this way and that in a flurry of activity. They stirred sauces in pots, chopped vegetables, heaved huge baskets back and forth, swept the floor and wiped down counter-tops, washed dishes, and turned an immense roast on a spit in the massive fireplace…and searched for something. Rona’s insides twisted with guilt, remembering Bard’s words. Maybe if anyone did get thrown out, she could explain after and make Wilmar hire them back.
She found the cook in the centre of it all, directing people with a mammoth wooden spoon like a general in battle, tasting sauces, barking orders, and doing all manner of other tasks Rona couldn’t fathom. Her father might be king, but even he would not challenge Wilmar’s reign in the kitchen.
‘Ahem,’ she cleared her throat as loudly as she could. Not a single person paused or looked up. She tried again. Still nothing. She walked right up to Wilmar and jabbed him where she imagined his ribcage to be. For a moment he seemed not to notice, and then turned slowly as though he thought it had been his imagination. He even looked a bit surprised to see her there.
‘Princess,’ he said grandly, bowing. A few people paused and looked over. A few even gave cursory bows and curtsies before returning to their business. ‘How can I help you?’
‘I, um,’ she stammered. How was she going to say this? ‘I need to look around your stores. Please.’ He intimidated her a little. She thought that spoon might be deadly.
‘But of course, my lady,’ he agreed graciously in an overly obsequious tone she didn’t think entirely necessary. He led her out of the main hustle and bustle and into a smaller darker chamber, which was still huge, and lined with wooden shelves. ‘What is it my lady is looking for, if I might ask?’
‘I was wondering if you might tell me the names of certain things,’ she said imperiously, trying to claim some authority. The point of Wintersufel was to prove that she could manage a kitchen, and to do that she would need to manage the chef. ‘As you know, my Wintersufel is coming up, and I need to know what is what.’
‘Well, there are a great many things in this cupboard, my lady,’ he said slowly. ‘Perhaps if you were to tell me what specifically you are looking for, we might do this rather more efficiently.’
‘No,’ she said a little too quickly, but regained herself. ‘I would have it be a surprise.’
He paused a moment, looking annoyed, but smiled and bowed. They began with the root vegetables, like the parsnips, carrots, potatoes, onions, and garlic. Then they moved on to the fruits, most of which were dried, candied or stewed. Only the apples and quinces were fresh, filling huge sacks lining the walls. Then he showed her where they kept the spices, and how to tell them apart by sight and scent. Next were the grains, the dairy, the meat, and finally the drink. Every so often he would advise her on what flavours worked well together, and what combinations to avoid. And all too often he was interrupted by a scullion or junior cook asking advice or needing him to check something and he would excuse himself and return when he was finished.
‘It is my burden to be so utterly adored,’ he would say, with an apologetic hand on his heart.
It took a little over an hour, but by the time they were finished Rona felt confident that she knew where everything was that she would need. Just one thing eluded her.
‘And is that all?’ she asked, hoping he would remember he hadn’t shown her the fresh pears. He had shown her the stewed pears, but they had already been stewed in wine, and she wanted hers stewed in mead, and that would require fresh ones.
‘What is my lady missing?’ he asked in that maddening overly-servile manner.
‘Is there any other store of fresh fruit?’ she asked. ‘Like apples or pears.’ Curses! He had shown her the fresh apples. Now he would know.
And he does, damn him! A spark of realisation flashed in his eyes and was gone, replaced by the obsequious look again.
‘Oh, pears are tricky, my lady,’ he said softly.
‘Well, I like them.’ She tried to sound commanding, but recognised that she sounded like a wilful child even to her own ears. Wilmar beckoned her to follow as he went about his duties in the main kitchen. He walked slowly and deliberately, now totally in control. Rona hated him for it, but she would have to play along if she wanted him to keep quiet and help her.
‘Do you know why pears are popular in the winter, sweeting?’ he asked in his grumbly voice. ‘Because they taste like summer. But they are delicate so they also pair well, if you’ll pardon the pun, with winter flavours. Because they absorb the flavour of what is around them. Like potatoes, but sweet. They are also tricky to keep because they only grow in the spring and summer, so you must pick them ripe and preserve them immediately if you want them after their season. Except,’ he glanced at her over his meaty shoulder, ‘for winter pears.’
‘What are winter pears?’ she asked. His voice implied that they were something magical. And magical pears were sure to impress.
‘Winter pears, as you might imagine, can grow even in the cold, and they are even more sweet because of it. But,’ he turned around to face her with a dramatic finger of warning, ‘they are extremely rare. And hard to find.’
‘Oh,’ Rona deflated. That sounded like a quest and she preferred questing in the warmer months. She really didn’t want to go tramping through the snow after pears. ‘Well, maybe I could just use some of the pears you have saved up.’ She grinned. She was the princess, after all.
Wilmar shook his head. ‘I’m afraid I have no pears left. They’ve all gone missing. A lot of things have gone missing lately.’ A look of knowing flickered across his face. ‘But if you must have pears, winter pears are by far the best. Especially for something as important as a princess’ Wintersufel.’
That was true, Rona supposed. Well then, a quest it would have to be.
‘Where can I find winter pears?’ she asked, pulling her cloak around her, imagining the cold of a winter quest, even in the infernal heat of the kitchen.
‘Well, there is one tree by the pond on the other side of the village,’ he said slowly, putting a fat finger to his chin. ‘If you see a barren tree there, you must dig around the roots because the fruit falls off. But then it freezes, so it doesn’t rot. Not a lot of people know that.’ He winked. ‘Most people wait for the first thaw to gather them up when they see their rosy tops poking through the snow.’
Right. Pond on the other side of the village, barren tree, dig around the roots, rosy tops. She could remember that.
She thanked Wilmar and left. She could swear that, as he turned away, the beginnings of a smirk had twitched on his thick lips.
She dashed back to her chambers to prepare for her journey. The village was not large, but it was spread out and she would have to go all the way to the other side. There were wells for the villagers to get their water, but the actual pond was outside the walls. And that was quite a walk. In the snow. And it was a secret, so it would have to be after dark.
One thing was certain: she was not dressed for it. The gown she was wearing was appropriate for a chilly day inside the castle, with no wind, no snow, and definitely no digging around. She would have to change before she left. She had to plan this wisely.
She rummaged in her wardrobe and found a grey gown she had not worn since the previous year. It looked like it would fit, so she tossed it onto her bed along with her woollen stockings and the breeches she wore under her gown when she went riding with her mother. She found a thick rough-spun shift, her sturdy knee boots, and her fur-lined cloak. That should be everything, she thought, and bundled it all up and stuffed them in the wicker basket she kept for picking flowers in the summer.
She had her midday meal with her parents and Bard in the Great Hall. The men stomped in from the Training Field, muddy and bruised. Bard had a fresh cut on the back of his hand and a caked and cracking streak of grey mud across his forehead.
It was difficult to retain her air of mystery all through the meal, but she kept her mouth shut. The whole plan depended on secrecy. Plus, it had the added benefit of unnerving her parents. Her mother kept twirling her long blonde hair around her finger, which she always did when she was nervous or worried, and her father kept grinding his teeth and changing the subject. Bard watched the entire exchange with mild amusement.
When that obligation was finished, Queen Genova invited her daughter for a ride across the grounds. Rona agreed since she had nothing else to do until dark. And there was the additional convenience of already having on the outfit she would need for her quest. The pieces continued to fall into place for her.
It was a pleasant enough ride, if not for the awkward silences and gentle prodding. And biting cold. Rona had to hide her grins behind her gloved hand whenever it got to be too much. She was equal parts nervous about her cooking skills and excited about proving to everyone that she was up to the challenge.
She had never backed down before. Not when she sparred with Bard, not when she raced the village boys across the green, not when the stable boy dared her to climb the wall of the Keep. Not ever. Naturally, those challenges were all set by boys, and she lost her fair share, but she never backed down. And she won quite a bit.
But this challenge was set by the laws of women, which was a whole different kind of challenge. And it came with actual stakes. It was exhilarating and terrifying, and what was more, it mattered. No one would remember that time Willem was faster than she was, or the time Bard knocked her legs out from under her and she landed in the mud, and only a few people would remember that she managed to climb only a few feet up the Keep wall before she fell. But people would remember her Wintersufel, and no one, no one, would ever be able to replicate it. Even if it was terrible. It was hers and hers alone for eternity. And that was a prize all its own.
The sun was on its way down before they had finished their ride and the silver shadows faded on the snow as they rode their horses back into the stable. Rona and her mother beat the ice from their shoes and gloves and cloaks before returning to the warmth and shelter of the Hall. Rona’s cheeks stung from the quick temperature change and she sniffed heartily to relieve the tickling sensation in her thawing nose.
Supper that night was roast beef, stewed greens with bacon, fresh herb bread, hard cheese, and stewed pears. Rona couldn’t help but wonder if the dessert was a message to her from Wilmar that he knew her secret, but she kept quiet. After supper she returned to her chamber.
She sat there for some time, reading the recipe over and over, trying to understand each line, and combing it for nuances that she might overlook when the day came. By the time the evening noises in the castle began to fade, she nearly had it memorised.
When she finally decided it was safe to get ready, she rose and went behind her changing screen to pull off her gown.
There was a knock on the door and she growled in annoyance. That had better not be Mother.
‘Who is it?’ she tried to ask in her sweetest voice. A hoarse voice whispered on the other side, but oak doors and stone walls are bad for stealthy communication. ‘Louder, please,’ she called. I don’t have time for this.
‘It’s Bard.’ What she could barely hear of his voice sounded exasperated. ‘Who else would it be?’
She retreated to make sure she was completely hidden by the screen and called, ‘Come in!’
The door opened and he edged his way inside, looking over his shoulder in a spectacularly obvious way. She could see his face through her screen and was amused by the confusion there.
‘Where are you?’
‘Don’t shout, fool,’ she laughed. ‘And I’m behind the screen.’
‘Ah,’ he shut the door behind him. ‘Are you undressing? Should I leave?’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Why would I invite you in if I wanted you to leave? But I am actually re-dressing. I have to go out.’
‘Go out? Why?’ He sat on her bed and picked at an embroidered flower.
‘Because I have to find something,’ she said.
‘What do you have to find?’ he asked in a sing-song voice, as though he was playing along with her.
‘I need a secret ingredient for my Wintersufel, but I have to go outside of the castle to find it.’
‘I’m going with you.’ His voice betrayed no hint of a question.
‘No,’ she said. She dipped down to pull off her linen shift and wiggle into the woollen one. ‘I have to go alone. Everything has to be a surprise.’
‘Impossible,’ he argued. ‘You cannot go outside alone at night, in the dark. Besides, it’s cold and you hate the cold. It will go quicker if you have company.’ She could no longer see his face, but she knew he was grinning. He always grinned when he was trying to make a sell.
But he did have a point. It would be deadly dull and would go quicker if she had someone to talk to.
‘Fine, but you mustn’t look,’ she bargained.
‘I’m not looking!’ he said quickly, sounding affronted. She tried not to giggle.
‘You mustn’t look at what I have to find.’
She paused a minute to tug the wool gown over her thicker shift. She came out from behind the screen and pulled on her high boots, gloves, and cloak.
Bard still had his sword strapped to his hip. He had apparently gone straight from training to supper, then to her chambers. Mud still clung to his boots as well, and there were great clumps of it around her chambers where he had been pacing. She grimaced and made a mental note to wear her boots right up until she slid into her bed.
He stood. ‘Are you ready to go?’
She nodded. ‘Just let me get my basket.’
The village was magical in the winter. The thatched-roof cottages always looked like they’d been iced with a thick layer of sugary frosting that glittered in the lights from the Hall, and in their windows shone candles that illuminated their simple lives. Rona always wondered what it was villagers did all day.
But tonight was not the time to be distracted. She and Bard slipped from the Hall and stole away into the night. They avoided the main road, keeping to the back roads and spaces between houses, lest someone they knew be out and about in the village.
As it happened, when they passed the baker’s shop, Rona could have sworn the man in there arguing with the baker could have been her father. He was the right build and height. But she knew her father would be up at the Hall. And anyway, what would he have to discuss with the baker at this hour of night?
Bard gripped her arm as the man came out and they backed away toward one of the side walls that defended the village.
‘Let’s go this way,’ he murmured. ‘There’s a hole in the wall I found once, just big enough for me to get through. It won’t have a guard to ask questions.’
Rona agreed. That was a much better plan than using her position to escape unhindered.
It took Bard a while to find the hole, but he eventually did. And he had not been wrong; it was very narrow, more of a crack than a hole. In fact, had he not brought a torch, they might not have found it at all. He and Rona had to form their bodies into weird shapes to fit through, but they made it. Rona passed her basket through to Bard before squeezing through herself.
‘It’s more of a walk this way, but at least we won’t be disturbed.’ He panted and gestured her on. She nodded her agreement and limped along behind him until her limbs readjusted.
It was a freeing feeling to be out here. She had been outside the village walls on numerous occasions, so that was nothing novel, but the deep snow gave the landscape an eerie barren feeling. Like the Hall and the village were jutting out of mounds of fluffy clouds, and the hills and meadows that she had known in the warmer months might as well have belonged somewhere else. The sky was pitch black and glittering with a million stars, and the moon hung high and huge in the sky, casting a silver light over everything.
And then the feeling of freedom was gone, replaced by the feeling of cold. She shivered and wrapped her cloak tighter about herself. She tried to walk faster, but she was already at top speed for wading through snow. The ground in the village was mostly slush, having been shovelled and trampled all day, but the snow outside, especially along the side walls had been undisturbed for weeks.
Bard hummed softly beside her, only struggling slightly in the snow. His legs were so long that it barely slowed him down at all.
‘What are you so happy about?’ she snapped at him through chattering teeth.
‘Why not? It’s a lovely night. Can’t you smell the woodfires?’ he asked her.
‘I can. All those people huddled around them are probably very warm right now.’
‘Getting ready to climb into their nice warm beds, bellies full of wine and good food.’ He grinned.
‘You’re not helping.’ She scowled.
He laughed. ‘Fine. But isn’t it beautiful? Look, snow as far as the eye can see, white for miles. In the spring get distracted by trees and rivers and houses and everything, but if you turn away from the village, it’s just like none of those other things are there, even though you know they still are. They’re just under the snow, sleeping.’
She glared at him. He laughed and stopped talking but began to hum again. When it started to snow they pulled up their hoods. The snowflakes drifted all around them and for miles in every direction and it was hard for Rona to make out where they were going. But she figured as long as she kept the village walls in sight she would not get lost.
She spotted a pool of golden light contrasting sharply with the black, white, and silver of their world. It was the guard post at the front of the walls. It was both good news and bad: good in that it meant the pond was near, but bad if they were spotted. Bard put a gloved finger over his lips in a motion to keep silent. They backed up a distance. A little ways down from the walls was a small valley. Not much shelter in the spring, but in the snow it might be enough to hide most of their forms that stood out against the white.
The plan worked and they made it to the same spot on the other side of the gates without being spotted. From here it wasn’t long to the pond, and they found it easily.
It didn’t look much like a pond right now, though. The water had frozen and covered with snow, but it was evident by its perfectly flat indentation. Sure enough, on the side opposite them was a barren tree. Rona strode confidently toward it, but Bard pulled her back.
‘We’d best go around the pond, he whispered, and led the way.
Rona fell to her knees at one side and began to dig. She dug all the way down to the ground and found nothing. Undaunted, she changed position and tried again. She continued around the base of the tree, becoming more and more annoyed. Had someone already stolen her pears?
And then she felt them. Hard and round as stones when her knuckles brushed them, and there where the moonlight hit them- rosy tops with broken stems.
‘Aha!’ she cried and stood, holding one in her hand up to the light. It looked like triumph, creamy pale green with a blush of pink around the stem, a bit of frost still clinging to it like diamond dust that caught the light from the moon and the village, glittering silver and gold. ‘Perfect,’ she breathed, and knelt to collect the rest. She had completely exposed the base of the tree and filled her basket half full before she was satisfied.
‘All right, let’s go,’ she said, grinning at Bard. He offered her his arm and they walked arm-in-arm back to the hole in the wall.
The night really is beautiful, she thought, tucking a cloth around the pears in her basket. And she even joined in with the humming.
The next day was Midwinter. Wilmar did the majority of the cooking he would need to do, and then after the midday meal, cleared out the kitchen so that Rona could have some privacy.
And now she was alone in the massive kitchen. It was a little intimidating, but just like the night before with Bard, from the right perspective, it was also exciting.
She set to work immediately. In the pantry, she found some loaves of plain bread that had been fresh one or two days before. Wilmar probably had a mind to let it go stale and use it in stuffing or something of that nature.
The butter, eggs, and cream were on the dairy shelf where Wilmar had shown her, and the honey was with the seasonings and dried fruit, and the mead was on the wine shelf. The pantry looked strange, there seemed to be much less there than there had been earlier. Almost all of the root vegetables were gone, and the spices were much depleted.
But it didn’t matter. They had probably gone into what Wilmar was making for the rest of the feast. She hauled all of what she needed to the enormous wooden table in the centre of the kitchen and set to work.
She found a thick bladed knife and hacked the bread into chunks. The stove was already lit, but and the grates were all vacant. She stoked the fire under the grate, dropped some butter into an iron pan and fried the bread until all the butter had been absorbed.
The next steps were complicated: clarify honey with water and mix with cream and the whites of eggs. She wasn’t sure what that meant, but she figured that she would find out as she went. She poured a lot of honey into a copper pot and added again as much water. As it heated, a foam began to form. She scooped it off until finally there was no more. That looked clear to her. She poured the honey water and several handfuls of raisins into the pan with the bread, and stirred until the bread disintegrated. Everything was going smoothly, so far!
The egg whites were trickier. She cracked some eggs and tried to scoop the yolks out with a spoon, but that didn’t work, so she slid them out with her fingers. It was disgusting; both slimy and sticky, and she got bits of shell everywhere and had to spend more time fishing them all out. But, in the end, she managed it and put them in a bowl and added a few cups of cream.
Relieved that that seemed to be working too, she added the bread mixture slowly, as the recipe said, to keep the eggs from cooking. Then she got down the huge mortar and pestle and ground the tiny balls of mace, the little spears of cloves, and chop the sparkling stalk of candied ginger into tiny chunks. She threw handfuls of these into the mix and stirred it some more with a couple of dashes of salt. The recipe said that it should be left to sit for a while to thicken, so she removed it with both hands and all of her strength to the stone counter-top, and wiped her forehead with the back of her wrist.
Cooking, she was discovering, is a hot, tiring, dirty business. But, by the gods, did it smell good!
So now that the pudding was cooling and thickening, presumably, she could turn her attentions to her pears. She lifted each one individually from the basket and set all six of them up on the table, still proud of her prizes. With a sharp knife with a short blade, she peeled them lovingly, trying to only pull away the skin and leave as much flesh as she could. With the knife she used with the bread, she halved them.
Oh, they had cores. Did she know that? Were the cores edible, or should she take them out?
She couldn’t remember ever having eaten them, so she decided they should go. Just to be safe. She she found a fat round spoon and gouged out the cores.
Then she rinsed out the pot she had used for the honey water from a barrel by the door, then went to get a bottle of mead. She could have sworn there were five or six bottles here when Wilmar had shown her around, but now she could only find two. All the rest were just wine. She set that thought aside and filled the pot with the bottles of mead and a couple generous pinches of spices and set it on the stove. She watched it for what seemed like an eternity, but it just wouldn’t boil. Well, the other things she had cooked had boiled, so this one must as well. She turned away and directed her attention to her beautiful pears.
She turned them over in her hands, feeling the juice making her palms and fingers sticky, smelling them. They did smell like summer, but the mead and bread and ginger and spice smells in the kitchen also smelled nice with them.
Then she noticed her mistake.
There were six pears, but there were a couple dozen people in the court. There were not enough pears for everyone.
Panic gripped her chest, but he pushed it down. No matter, she though frantically. The pudding will stretch, and I can slice the pears thin. She ran to the pot to see how the pudding was doing. It’s not thickening!
There were not enough pears, the pudding was still mostly soup, the mead wouldn’t boil.
The whole thing will be ruined and I will be a laughing stock and no one will ever trust me with anything again and it’s so hot.
She felt like she was cooking alive. The air had suddenly become very thick and it was hard to breathe. She ran for the door at the far side of the kitchen and yanked it open.
A blast of icy wind hit her full in the face. Wonderful crisp clean air cooled her right down and filled her lungs. She sank to her knees and grabbed a handful of snow and held it on her cheeks. It melted and ran down her face, wetting the front of her gown. But she didn’t care. She had bigger problems.
All I wanted to do was show everyone that I could do it. I could do this one thing that every girl my age since Edys has been able to do. She had refused everyone’s help because she had been so sure that she could do it alone. How hard could it be?
Mother tried to offer suggestions. Even Bard, in his way, tried to help. But I was too stubborn and too proud, and for what? So that I could have a grand dramatic unveiling and everyone would be so impressed and tell me how clever I am. What a foolish little girl I am!
She sobbed quietly to herself for a few minutes, alone in Wilmar’s garden.
Perhaps it’s not so terrible. She dropped her hands into her lap. Maybe I won’t make enough. Everyone can have one bite or so. Or maybe some people won’t get some, but everyone else will tell them how wonderful it is. Making too little isn’t a crime, after all. It’s a mathematical miscalculation. I’m not a cook! I’m twelve! How could I have known how many of a rare and hard-to-find fruit I would need? No one could blame me for that. No, I’ll get up, and finish the dessert as best I could, and people will just have to be happy with that.
She stood, dried her eyes, and froze. There in the centre of the garden was a tree. A tree laden with fruit: round, pale green fruit with rosy tops.
‘Wilmar, you rogue,’ she whispered. The fruit came away from the tree easily, and her arms were full when she went back into the kitchen. Snow dusted the threshold where she’d left the door open in her panic. But it turned out to be a wonderful accident. When she checked the pudding it had thickened nicely. Not as thick as she wanted it, but well on its way, and hundreds of fat golden bubbles rolled happily away in the pot of mead. She grinned to herself as she began to peel the new pears.
The rest of the recipe progressed on greased wheels. She ladled the pudding into a ceramic dish, covered it and set it in the oven until the pears were finished boiling in the spiced mead. She checked each half to make sure it was perfect and then drained them and set them out on a plate in the snow for a few minutes until they were cool enough to handle. Then she brought them back in and sliced them as thin and uniformly as she could. With thickly covered hands, she pulled the pudding from the oven, lifted the lid and gloried in the cloud of perfumed steam.
It was hard not to smile as she arranged the bright yellow pear slices in fan patterns across the surface of the pudding, covered it, and set it back in the oven. She would leave it there until the feast began, then she would remove it, glaze the top with a mixture of honey and water, and carry it out to the feast.
Rona practically skipped all the way to her chambers, the smell of triumph fresh in her nose. She had only scarcely an hour to prepare, so she had to be quick.
This year, the seamstress had made her a gown of lavender and silver silk, with a wool lining, and ermine cuffs and bands around the slashed sleeves. She still wore her woollen stockings underneath and chose her white slippers, and took the rest of the time to twist her hair up with ribbons and braids. She inspected herself in the mirror one last time before swinging on her cloak and going to join the court in the Great Hall.
The Festival of Midwinter was a magical celebration every year, with or without a royal Wintersufel. Holly garlands decorated the Great Hall’s five long tables, studded with bundles of white-berried mistletoe. Candles twinkled in lanterns around the room, ivy wound up the support beams, great sprays of pine needles splashed everywhere, and whole spices crunched underfoot across the sweet rushes on the floor. Everywhere was light and warmth and rich colour.
The room was already almost full when Rona entered. The courtiers in their sumptuous holiday best, all of them preening and strutting about like peacocks and swans, toasting each other with spiced wine to a prosperous year ahead. They all bowed respectfully to her and a few wished her luck on her Wintersufel, congratulating her on her passage into womanhood, and expressing interest and excitement to see what she had come up with. She couldn’t help but beam around. They would be impressed!
‘Don’t you look proud of yourself,’ Bard said behind her. He beamed, dressed in green and brown.
She threw her arms around his neck and whispered, ‘Wait till you see!’
‘That good?’ he whispered back, squeezing her. She nodded gleefully as fanfare blasted through the chamber. She put a finger to her lips.
King Cyneric was dressed head to foot in shades of rich red with gold accents and tan fur, and Queen Genova wore an exquisite gown of midnight blue, studded with glass beads that winked in the candlelight. They made their way to the high table and Rona and Bard took their seats beside them. An attendant closed the doors behind the king and queen, but did not lower the bar. It was a calm and peaceful evening outside.
The night was young yet, and it was traditional that there be a show before the feast, but this year Rona just wanted them to get on with it. The acrobats and jugglers were very good and she applauded heartily with the rest, the players who performed the story of the Holly King were also very good, but the minstrel who sang the tale of Queen Edys in honour of Rona’s Wintersufel made her nervous. Thankfully, he was the last act and when he was finished and the raucous applause died down, it was time for Rona to make her presentation. The entire room looked up at her as she and her mother rose gracefully and excused themselves from the Great Hall.
The kitchen was bustling again and Wilmar was back in the middle, wielding his spoon. Rona was pleased to see that her dish was still in the oven where she had left it.
Queen Genova took her daughter gently by the arm and said, ‘Now, I want you to know that I had every faith in you that you could do this. But just in case it didn’t turn out quite the way you wanted, I did make a little something.’ She smiled encouragingly and Rona nodded in thanks, suddenly a little nervous.
It seemed as though the kitchen staff had just realised what was going on because a hush fell over the room as Rona made her way to the oven.
‘Please, my lady. Let me,’ a scullion said quietly, shooing her out of the way so that he could lift the heavy hot dish. Rona backed away and watched as he set it on the table. She took his towel, reached out, and lifted the lid. The whole room gasped. Rona grinned.
The pudding was perfect. The pears had just begun to brown at the edges, but were still creamy and yellow in the middle, and when Wilmar stuck a long thin knife into the pudding between two slices of pear it came out clean.
It was a thing of beauty.
The Queen sighed in relief.
‘What did you make?’ Rona asked her.
‘I made a vegetable soup, with roots and barley and…’
Rona was only half listening. A number of the kitchen staff were looking at Wilmar in concern and his face betrayed an expression of embarrassment.
‘What?’ Rona barked at him. He looked up at her sharply.
‘I…nothing.’ He paled, all trace of obsequious grandiosity gone.
‘You made something,’ she said incredulously.
‘I, I did no such thing!’
‘It was a pork pie, my lady, with vegetables and fruits of the season,’ a scullion piped up, earning a mighty swing with the Spoon Sceptre.
‘Let me see,’ Rona directed, and Wilmar rather sheepishly led her to a mammoth pie hidden away in the pantry. ‘Oh, Wilmar,’ she breathed, half in awe, half admonishing.
‘Wait!’ a frantic voice called from outside. ‘Wait! I didn’t know you were doing this now!’
Wilmar and Rona poked their heads out of the pantry as Bard dashed into the kitchen
‘Not you, too!’ Rona cried.
‘I didn’t think you’d have enough pears,’ Bard panted, leaning on his knees.
‘I found some more.’ Rona glared at Wilmar, who looked away. ‘What did you do?’
‘I mixed mead and apple juice and mulled it,’ Bard said, clutching his chest. ‘I’m no good with food, but I know my way around wine.’
Rona opened her mouth to respond, but was interrupted by a cautious knock at the garden door.
‘What now?’ she laughed. A junior cook opened the great door to reveal a hooded and cloaked figure stepping into the kitchen holding a massive basket.
‘Is it starting?’ he asked, lowering his hood. ‘I am Halli, the baker. Forgive me, my lady, but the king thought you might need a little help with your Wintersufel. You needn’t worry. I told no one I was coming here.’ He pulled back the cloth in the basket and showed her the gigantic ring of braided bread, tiny pieces of candied citrus peel glittering like jewels.
‘All of you, all of you!’ she yelled, laughing at the utter nonsense of it all. ‘Not one of you had faith in me! I’m sorry, Halli, that my father is not here, and that you must bear his portion of my gall. You all thought I would fail! Well, now you see that I can do woman things as well as boy things, and I’m not so bad at either.’ She took a deep breath and settled down into herself, then gave all of them a hug and a kiss. Except Halli, who she gave a hearty handshake. ‘I know you all did it so that I would not be embarrassed, and for that I thank you. But tonight, we will only serve my dish. Which I did well. All by myself. And I’ll decide what to do with the rest of this tomorrow.’
They all milled about while she made the glaze and then helped Wilmar take everything up to the Great Hall. After the bulk of the feast was finished, Wilmar and his staff took their seats in the Great Hall and waited with the rest of the court for Rona to appear and present her Wintersufel.
‘With this dessert, I swear that while I am queen, even in the bleakest of times, the people will always have something sweet to give them hope of a brighter–‘
A great gust of wind blew the doors open with a loud bang. Everyone jumped. Through the open door, a dark speck moved against the white of the snow. The way it moved and the cloth fluttered about it confirmed that it was human. Alone in the cold in the biting wind that she herself had been in the night before.
‘-Future.’ She composed herself and continued the ceremony and serving out the pudding as an attendant shut and barred the door.
Everyone seemed very impressed, and there was a round of warm congratulations and applause when the course finished. But Rona herself was preoccupied. She graciously accepted the praise and good wishes as the festival drew to a close, never taking her mind from that lonely person in the snow.
She leaned in toward her mother.
‘I have decided what I will do with all of the leftover food.’
The next day, I sent messengers to every house and pauper in the village. Each man, woman, and child, who had too little to celebrate Midwinter was invited to the Hall for a second day of feasting. That night they were served the vegetable and barley soup to ward off hunger, a slice of pork pie to keep poverty at bay, a piece of citrus bread to remind them that they had the ear of the king, a warm cup of spiced cider and mead to let them know they always had friends. There was even a little pear pudding left over, made with that most rare and magical of all fruits, to give them a little hope, even in the bleakest of times.
And from that day forward, the day after the festival of Midwinter was known as the Feast of Rona, and generations to come would cherish it even more. It was not my intention to begin a new tradition, but I am glad I did.