1. The Battle of the Kitchen
I was plucking a newly slaughtered fowl for tonight's dinner when the argument between Cook and Second Cook reached its loudest. Three of the younger apprentices stopped their tasks and scurried out of the way, as Cook began to bellow in Westron, and Second Cook bellowed back in kind, but adding oaths in Rohirric that sounded most awful, not to mention impertinent.
They had been going at it for over a week now. I think the trouble began when Cook, who had served for years in the Lord Denethor's kitchens in the City, had removed to Ithilien with our young lord and lady, and found that the Princess had brought an old servant along to be Second Cook. 'Twas odd enough to have a man as Second Cook, but this one had, like he was always telling us, served the Lady Éowyn since she was a child, and knew what foods were proper for a Lady of the Mark. Cook disliked taking guff from anyone, much less a horse-mad bumpkin as she sometimes called him. This latest battle had erupted in the absence of Lady Inzilde, our Housekeeper; who usually enforced peace between them. But she was laid up still with a chill that had become a bad hacking cough, and refused to return to our clean kitchen until her coughing stopped.
"Your dishes are fit only for your dirty old nag!" yelled Cook.
"Warg-dottir!" shouted Second Cook. "I was cooking for the White Lady's moder and fader before you ever learnt to make your soppy, watery puddings! You say one more word about my mare, and I will make you eat that serving-spoon, Bikkjuna! He banged the wooden stump of his peg-leg on the floor.
Cook banged the serving ladle on the table, and rounded on him, looking like an angry stork.
Just then, the door to the main hall opened. Our lord himself entered. All noise suddenly ceased, save for the broom dropped by little Tarannon, the youngest apprentice.
The kitchen seemed suddenly much smaller.
"Master Aelbert, Mistress Saerwen; what grievance makes you shout so loudly as to be heard throughout the Hall?" Lord Faramir asked. His voice was quiet, but it filled the kitchen. I could tell he wasn't pleased. So could Cook, who blushed. I'd thought she had cold water in her veins instead of blood.
"My lord, she insults my horse and my cooking!" Second Cook blustered, his arms folded. He was twice as broad as our Lord, who merely looked him over from head to toe, as if the Rohir had been as young as me or the other apprentices.
"And Mistress Saerwen?" The Lord asked; well, more like he demanded; only he said it politely.
"My lord, this is the kitchen of your home, not some farm in the outlands of Rohan," Cook said, lifting her head as if she were a ladyship. "Aelbert can cook, but his fare is worthy only of stable-boys and pig-tenders, not the Lord Steward of Gondor and his Lady."
Our Lord's face became even sterner than before. I tried to make myself look smaller. I had heard tales of his father, the Lord Denethor, dismissing half the staff of his kitchens over one spill at table or argument over supplies.
"I must tell you all," the Lord began, gently-like; "How pleased my Lady and I have been with the progress of our home here in Emyn Arnen, how well you have served us as we all set down roots in a place not settled in so long, in a house that is still being built. You came to us from the City, from farmsteads on the Pelennor, some as far as Lossarnach and Dol Amroth, and Rohan, and you all have worked hard and long."
"So it is with surprise that I hear such discord in my own household as would befit a nest of Orcs, not good folk of the Free Peoples," he went on. "By rights, it would be your Lady who would address this matter, but she is indisposed."
"Oh, my lord, will she be all right?" My own little sister, Merelin, piped up; for she adored our Lady; and dreamed of being her maid one day.
The Lord smiled down at her, his face softening a bit. Whew! I guess the brat's speaking out of turn didn't annoy the Prince much; though I doubted that Cook would approve.
"As you know, the Lady Éowyn is with child," The Lord said. We all knew. The news had been announced four weeks past, and there had been a feast that had lasted far into the night, with the Elf-lord Legolas, and the Lord Húrin, and even the Queen, attending. "She tends now to feel weary in the evenings; and would rest undisturbed. My Lady has asked me to settle the quarrel as I see fit."
Lord Faramir frowned. "I am most displeased that my Lady should be bothered, at such a time when she should be able to count on her house being in good order, by such ill temper as we have heard voiced within this kitchen."
His eyes seemed to stick all of us, boring into our hearts. I remembered hearing how the great wizard, Mithrandir, had taught Lord Faramir the secrets of ancient lore and who-knew-what-else. Second Cook bowed his head and even Cook looked dismayed. "Forgive us, Lord," she said; "I would not trouble the Lady Princess for all the world. But Aelbert started it; he will not take my orders, he insists on having his own way here."
"Not so, you witch!" snapped Second Cook. "My lady Éowyn wanted her special buckwheat pudding, that I cook for her since she was little girl. And you said she must not have it, that you knew her needs better than I!"
"Because you know nothing about the needs of a woman with child, old fool!" Cook hissed back, very stork-like now. "The sour cream and raisins in that pudding are too much for a woman in her condition, she will sick it back up, poor lady. I've borne three strong sons and I know what kind of fare suits a pregnant woman's belly. Just let me make her some good wholesome Gondorian porridge; I learnt it from Mag herself. She used to make it for Lady Finduilas when she carried you, my Lord!"
"Enough!" Our Lord's voice cut sharply through their noise. "Both of you, be still and hear me."
The Cooks shut up straightaway and indeed stood very still.
"Mistress Saerwen, you speak of my mother and the goodness of the foods of Gondor. The pregnant women of Rohan eat wholesome food of their own lands. The Lady Éowyn has consulted with healers and her midwife in the matter of proper nourishment during this time. I trust her judgment to order her meals." The lord looked around at us all, his keen eyes stabbing us like knives. "And so will all of you; whether the Lady desires buckwheat pudding, smoked sausage, or tea with lemon and toasted bread."
Second Cook made a sniggering sort of noise in his throat.
"Lady Éowyn and I will countenance no discourtesy among our servants," The Lord went on, more gentle, but looking right at Second Cook. "Be they from Gondor or the Mark. I would have you all remember that the food of Rohan has not only nourished the valiant Riders who came to the aid of Minas Tirith in its darkest hour; the food of Rohan has also nourished your Lady. I would hear no insult to the folk of Rohan or their food or the horses that brought them to deliver us on that dark morning. Neither will I hear insult to Gondor or her people."
"Cook, you invoke the name of Mag," The Lord said, going stern again. "I have known Mag since I played at her feet as a child and ate the wonderful cakes she baked for my brother and me. And I know full well that she would never permit the meanness in her kitchen that I have heard here this eve."
Lord Faramir looked up and down the line. They say he could read the hearts of men; and I truly believed it in that minute; seeing those bright grey eyes of his searching into mine like all my life was a book that he was opening.
"Anyone, be they of Gondor or Rohan, who does not wish to treat their fellow servants with respect may leave this house," the Prince finished. "We come from many other places, but we are all of Ithilien now." And with that, he turned and left the kitchen.
There was a sort of sigh heard 'round the kitchen. Everyone was catching their breath, I guess. Cook and Second Cook sat down on opposite benches, looking tired.
Maybe a minute later, Cook stood up and brushed her hands on her apron. "Well now, we have a dinner to finish," she said. "Let's be at it, then."
The others dispersed, returning to their task. Heading back to the fowl; I heard Cook's footsteps stop. I couldn't help turning. She had stopped by Second Cook.
"Master Aelbert, I did not mean to insult your horse," she said, kind of stiff-like. "My brother is one of the grooms; and he has mentioned it is a good, gentle beast."
Second Cook rose up heavily, making a big business of shifting his weight. He finally answered: "I should not have called you those names, Mistress Saerwen. You are..." He hemmed and hawed a bit. "You are fairer than any Orc."
"Well!" She was surprised. I couldn't help but giggle. I supposed Cook was not ill-favored for an old widow. She was over forty years, after all. But Second Cook was even older.
Cook rounded on me right quick. "Don't you have some chickens to finish plucking, girl?"
I scurried back to the table, and my chore. As I washed my hands again and set about plucking the bird, I heard Cook and Second Cook talking about the buckwheat pudding that our Lady wanted. Talking, not fighting! And I thought of all I had heard about our Lord Prince. Perhaps he was a wizard's pupil after all, for it surely had taken Magic to bring peace into our kitchen.
A slightly less polished version was posted in January 2010 in honor of Imhiriel's birthday.
Mag the Cook, the beloved Cook of Steward Denethor's kitchens, is a delightful original character who I did not create. Luckily, Annmarwalk, who created Mag, gave me her permission to mention in this tale. Thanks also to Ann for culinary advice and the term "Second Cook".
Bikkjuna is, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, Old Norse for female dog:
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.