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author: hazard_us ([livejournal.com profile] hazard_us)
email: scorpio_kaur [at] yahoo.com



At the foot of the castle in the mountain kingdom at the farthest edge of the known world, there was a town. In this town, there was a tavern and in that tavern was a woman named Otthild.

Otthild worked in the kitchen. She had never cooked for anyone fancier than the town smith, but she knew how to stretch a larder through long, mountain winters and she could make turnip stew taste like a different meal five nights out of seven.

One night, Otthild was washing dishes in the sink when she heard a commotion in the common room. She wiped her hands on her apron and stood in the door, at the border of her own kingdom – the kitchen.

There were soldiers in the common room, wearing their red winter wool capes. They were pushing the patrons out into the winter snow.

"But it is a cold night and these people have not finished their meals!" argued the tavern keeper.

Soldiers were not quick to anger tavern keepers since they too had to have a place to drink, but the soldiers ignored him. They worked grimly, rushing the customers out, pushing tables against the wall, and laying out furs on the packed dirt floor. They flinched at the voice that yelled over the wind.

"That smith better have Lightning shoed in two hours or I will - I will - "

Otthild did not learn what it was the voice would do. It was not her concern and the preparations were not complete. She went back into the kitchen, but the voice carried, even over the roar of the wind, the fire in the hearth, and the clattering of dishes in warm water.

"I must sit in here?"

"Our apologies, Your Highness, but this was the only place suitable."

The tavern keeper rushed into her kitchen. "Come out here, Otthild. It is the princess!"

This was not as wonderful as it might have been in other kingdoms. Their king was old, but not wise. Their queen was not beautiful or gracious and had small dogs that snapped at any person that came near her. Yet it was not the king or the queen who worried their subjects so. They were not the ones who drove themselves through the town in a silver carriage with tiny bells, pulled by stallions named Lightning and Thunder, and carried a whip that was not reserved solely for her horses.

The entire staff, consisting of Otthild and the stableman, presented themselves to the princess.

"We will serve you as best as our limited means can," the tavern keeper said.

The princess sniffed. "I doubt you peasants could fix me anything I could stomach."

"Beg your pardon, Your Highness, but my cook can do anything in the kitchen, god bless her," said the tavern keeper proudly. He had fought in the Fae Wars and was afraid of neither wolf nor man, but he hadn't the sense to be afraid of a princess.

"Oh, can she?" the princess asked. "I doubt that she could match the skills of my head chef. He has fed crowned kings in castles and cruel princes from hot lands. He can make sauces that bring tears to your eyes and carve ice into sculptures."

"As for sauces, it depends on the kind of tears it brings and the wind can carve ice well enough," replied the tavern keeper. "But I doubt your chef can make tea without leaves and pie from naught but what you'll find in a winter briar patch."

The princess eyed Otthild carefully. "Your cook is a witch?"

"She has magic in the kitchen at least," said the tavern keeper, who believed sarcasm was cleverness.

The princess’s eyes glittered like a magpie's seeing a diamond for the first time. "Then your witch-cook shall work for me. Immediately."

And with that, Otthild was installed in the palace kitchens and made head of the castle's kitchen staff. She was not overawed at the marble counters and found the giant ovens to waste too much heat. All in all, it seemed very big, inefficient, and impersonal and she missed the tavern.

That first evening, the princess called Otthild into her presence and told her, "You shall make what I desire, at any time at night. The minute you fail me, I shall whip the skin from your back."

It did not take long for the old chef to hear of this threat, to find the princess, and to suggest that perhaps her breakfast was lacking.

"Certainly I could never give you the breakfast you deserved, Your Highness, but I am a mere man. Now that you are employing a witch..." And the princess became uncommonly thoughtful, which was rare indeed.

That night the princess called Otthild to the grand hall. In front of the lord and ladies, she ordered, "I shall have peaches tomorrow for breakfast or I shall have you whipped."

Otthild nodded, curtsied and went back to her kitchen.

In the cavernous kitchen, the staff despaired. Where would Otthild find peaches in the middle of winter? Her skin would be torn from her back for certain.

"This will take some thinking and I will need quiet." Otthild ordered them all from the vast kitchen. She made them swear that no one would unlock the doors. "For if you do, I cannot promise that I can protect you."

In the morning, the princess sat in her gold, high backed chair with her whip on her right. The servants placed a silver platter in front of her. On it was a tart, delicate and warm. Even those in the back of the hall could smell the scent of peaches that burst forth when the princess used her gold fork to break its crust. The princess squealed with delight and ate the entire tart up.

And for that morning at least, Otthild kept the skin on her back.

Afterwards, a squire said that he had snuck out of bed and gone to the kitchen when Otthild was preparing the tart. He had seen strange flashes of light and heard howling and cackling. But when he had touched the door, it had burned his hand and he had fled back to his bed.

The staff was not surprised. Only a witch could have found peaches in midwinter.

The head chef was not convinced of Otthild’s witchery and he quickly had the princess's ear again.

That night, the princess summoned Otthild. "I shall have coffee, but not from my stores. I shall have coffee from the same stores that the Empress Sultana drinks from. I shall have this or I shall have you whipped."

To be sure Otthild did not use coffee from the princess's stores, all the bags had been taken away and all the beans had been counted. The old head chef had overseen this all, smiling.

Otthild said nothing but the kitchen staff feared for her. How would Otthild get coffee from the Empress Sultana when that kingdom was leagues away? Also, the Empress Sultana was not known for sharing; she would take some persuading. Otthild’s skin would be torn from her back for certain.

Otthild ordered them all from the vast kitchen. She made them swear that no one would unlock the doors. "For if you do, I cannot promise that I can protect you."

In the morning, the court assembled to see if the princess would have her Sultana coffee. The princess sat in her gold, high backed chair with her whip on her right. The servants placed a silver platter in front of her. On it was a china-bone teacup. Even those in the back of the hall could smell the rich roast of coffee and chocolate. The princess drank the cup and asked for another.

And for another morning, Otthild kept the skin on her back.

Afterwards, a footman said that he had snuck out of bed and gone to the kitchen. He had heard a wolf howl from behind the door and smelt sulfur and brimstone. But when he had touched the door, it had frozen his hand and he had fled back to his bed.

The staff was not surprised. Only a witch could have brought coffee from a land a thousand leagues away.

The old head chef was still not convinced and he quickly had the princess's ear again.

That night, the princess summoned Otthild. "I want an egg as big as twenty," the princess ordered. "And I want it boiled for breakfast."

The staff withered as soon as the princess left. There was only one egg that was as big as twenty and that was the simurgh's egg. Simurghs ate elephants and were bigger than houses. The simurgh's nest was found on one mountain in the middle of the First Desert - and that desert could not be reached in a year, let alone in one night and back.

The staff shed tears for their cook, fearing that her skin would be torn from her back for sure.

"Don't be silly," Otthild said. She ordered them all to bed and made them swear that no one would unlock the doors. "For if you do, I cannot promise that I can protect you."

In the morning, the court assembled to see if the princess would have her egg as big as twenty. The head cook watched with glee as Otthild approached the princess's throne alone.

"Your Highness, I could not make your breakfast as you pleased. I could not find you an egg as big as twenty," Otthild admitted.

The princess smiled and picked up her whip.

Otthild clapped her hands once, and a silver platter was brought out; one that could only be carried by four of the staff. "I apologize again, Your Highness. Their eggs were big this year; I could only cook you an egg as big as thirty."

The platter was flourished and on its silver surface was indeed the largest boiled egg that any man or woman in the castle had seen.

"It's as big as a dog!"

"No, it's as big as a bull's head!"

"An egg as big as thirty!"

The princess pursed her lips. "Well! I can't eat it over there."

And the staff kept their silence until they filed back into the kitchen. It was there that they whooped and hollered, slapping each other on the back as if they had fought the simurgh and stolen its egg themselves. Only a very powerful witch could have found and cooked an egg as big as thirty.

Afterwards, a pageboy said that he had snuck out of bed and gone to the kitchen. He smelled cooking eggs and heard Otthild cursing. When he had touched the door, it had opened, but something had thrown a pot at his head and he had fled back to his bed. His fellow pageboys made fun of him for telling such a stupid story.

And for another morning, Otthild kept the skin on her back.

Now Otthild was a clever young woman and she had fulfilled each task the princess set before her, but she feared the day that not even her cleverness could save the skin on her back.

What Otthild did not know was that the lords and ladies talked of nothing but the presentation of the egg. They talked so loudly that even the seneschal, who rarely took note of anything but accounting books, tax records, and supply sheets, took notice.

The seneschal was an upright and honest man. Though he served the royal family for years, protecting the royal treasury from their spendthrift ways, he did not turn a blind eye to their horrible deeds. He disliked casual cruelty and outright stupidity and knew the princess was guilty of both. He did like cleverness and resourcefulness, and from what he’d heard, Otthild had an abundance of each. He also heard that Otthild missed her own kitchen-kingdom at the tavern keeper’s inn. So he decided to help and protect her from the princess’s cruelty and stupidity, in his own way.

It was not long before the old head chef was encouraged to find new employment. Without someone whispering in her ear, the princess quickly returned to asking for her favorite dish, beans on toast, and the old king and queen never wanted anything more exciting than broth. Otthild made it taste like a different dish five nights out of seven, even if they didn’t appreciate it.

Some time later, the seneschal found time to be alone with Otthild in the kitchen. He ordered the servants out and said, "Otthild, there have been discrepancies in the larder. I can imagine why we are missing a bottle of peach brandy and apples, when neither has been on your menu, but I am confused as to the missing beets."

She answered, "In wars long ago, coffee was scarce, but beets were not, and soldiers can be very resourceful."

He smiled and said, "And I still cannot figure out the egg."

"I would not be much of a witch-cook if I gave out all my secrets," she said. "But I might be persuaded. You see, my lord, a witch's kitchen is her own kingdom and I am getting very homesick."

The seneschal was not a stupid man. He contrived to send Otthild back home with a clever story. (He told the king and queen that the kingdom’s budget could not support both a witch-cook and the princess’s horses. Of course, the princess chose her horses.) Otthild was soon back in her kingdom in the tavern, cooking at her stove and washing dishes in her sink - though the tavern keeper was a bit more careful about what he said about cookery and witches.

And every year, at midwinter, the seneschal would send Otthild various ingredients, including two oxen bladder. And Otthild would present the seneschal with a boiled simurgh egg at his quarters in the castle.

the end



Author's note:
Peach brandied apples are decent enough substitute for peaches - especially when you can't remember the last time you had fresh ones.

Beet coffee was used as a substitute for the real stuff in the South during the Civil War blockade.

An egg as big as twenty can be made with twenty eggs, separated. And as the book says "boil the yolks in one bladder, fast bound up as round as a ball, being boil'd hard, put it in another bladder, and the whites round about it, bind it up round like the former, and being boil'd it will be a perfect egg." But it's a bit of a pain... so salt liberally with curses of your choice.

Date: 2007-12-02 03:28 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] uminohikari.livejournal.com
Very creative!! ♥ I like how the foods can actually be made, unlike most fairytales where magic is all the explaination you get.

Date: 2008-01-05 11:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hazard-us.livejournal.com
Thanks! I went to a class on early American cooking and that's what inspired this. It was neat to research what people did to make due when they didn't have the normal ingredients!

Date: 2007-12-12 11:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
Hee! I love a story about clever cooks and cruel princesses. I also adore that you used trickery instead of real magic, but did so in such a clever way.

(I've had one of those giant eggs* once, and it is really fascinating!)
(*Well, not by myself.)

Date: 2008-01-05 11:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] hazard-us.livejournal.com
You've had one! That's so neat. I only learned about it at a talk about early American cooking and found the whole idea so clever! The title of the dish (the title of the story) is what inspired this.

^_^ Again I say, that's so neat.

Date: 2008-01-13 06:02 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pukingtoreador.livejournal.com
I had a feeling it wasn't really magic, and I loved how the shoe dropped.

Date: 2008-10-02 05:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] artillie.livejournal.com
This feels like it could be something straight out of the books I read when I was a little kid, which makes it automatically awesome. Plus it appeals to my inner culinarystudent!nerd. Beet coffee? Really? That's so neat.

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