When we had returned, one of the first things which happened on the night we got back at the tavern, was that three miners from Aleuderis’ north Cornwall mine, the Ding Dong, came in and spent the evening eating and drinking with us. Named Black, Donque, and Balch, they were in good spirit, and told me that they had traveled all this way to South Cornwall just to have a seat at my table! I was surprised, and asked why.
“Because Sire Burian, our mine-master, has told us of your good cooking! Why else should Saint Ives’ers come so far?”
“I am flattered to hear you say it. Whence come you then?”
“Our Ding Dong Mine is the oldest and most renowned in Cornwall, near Saint Ives, and has been there for centuries. The ore lode is near limitless. Joseph of Arimathea, and Pythias the Greek, they both visited us— it goes back to ancient days, beyond the ken of the druids, and beyond even the thought of your idea of history. Men have worked the stones and fed the forges for ages immemorial, and”— He stopped. There was something he was not saying, and although I knew his boasting held some manner of his nature, the others were looking distinctly bothered by his saying so.
“Let us not go so far afield, Black,” said one of the other two, who sat, hat on lap, picking at a plate of stewed rabbit.
“If they who need to know need to know of our provenance, what be it our concern? Let them learn of it on their own.”
I thought I detected some irritation then that their friend was telling so much about their mine or their work. And why they should choose to keep him from speaking, that was disturbing, too, lest it be they had something to hide. But I was not concerned with what they could be hiding— I was only curious. The third man swallowed a great gulp of mead, and laid into me:
“You see, master taverner, we are engaged now in some dangerous work. Long have we worked and toiled, and we draw keen pay, but there are pressures... from the crown, perhaps, and perhaps, from those to our north, our fair dear cousins...”
By this I knew he meant the Welsh. And I dared not go into discussing it further, so I changed the subject, to the food and drink.
“And will ye have more of either?” I asked, looking back to my kitchen.
“Yea, taverner! More of this delightful ale and mead! We see not enough of it where we are...”
When they departed from The Lady, later in the night, not quite at closing, but late while dark, they left singing a strange song I had never heard before.
“Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to work we go...”
It did seem a bit odd that they would have such cheer to approach their work, but I do suppose the drink had helped them so.
And that night I had an even more disturbing dream than the first dream I remember of my mother. In it, I saw hordes of people—many of them were obviously victims of plague, as she was.
These were in the hundreds, and they hurried down the streets of a town (a town of which I had never in life even seen) through the tall corridors made by the half-timbered houses with wattle walls, along cobbles and flagstones damp with what must have been recent rain.
In the opposite direction ran men I could only think were obviously miners. Carrying picks and shovels and long black iron hooks, some of them trundling barrow carts before them, some of them bearing torches. They ran on other streets and were not confounding the pale, shrouded plague victims, who lurched and sagged and limped their way, sometimes looking behind them in fear of the sky.
And then I saw it and it was terrible. A great beam of light bright as the sun, and as long as the sky itself, of which you could see no front nor end, yet bore no sunshine heat— It swept its way across the sky, visible though through only the many holes in the clouds, and I could see the running people cast their hands to their heads for fear of the brightness, and I knew—this is the sword of God, on his Day of Judgment! And yet I knew not whether I were among the saved, or the damned, nor even which of those two groups of people running toward and away from me were either.
I awoke in trembling terror, but I had no words to speak of it, only it remained a dream I would remember all my days, for so strange it was like few others, it was too awful to forget.
I was at Trewidden to report to the nobles as to my last conversation with Sire Aleuderis Burian., the miner. I had come to this end quite beside myself because now, if I reported nothing, they could hold more suspicions on me and the other Cheshires than they had already.
I found them in the middle of preparations for a hunt. Eldfarm, the meanest and most senior of them, was giving out orders. All of them were now dressed up in their finest livery, as if it were a coronation they were attending, and not a hunt. There were houndsmen, and bowmen, and men to truss up the prey, and trumpeters.
“Tavernkeeper! You will attend with us! Take heed— we aim to kill a hart, and if we find one as well, a boar! And we should like you to cook him for us, when we do!”
Eldfarm had accosted me from his place upon the saddle of his mount, and took a bearing quite officious as he stated this. I found this actually somewhat flattering, although the compliment were more properly spent on Deprez, as he did all my cooking.
“You shall not lack for our fine presence in your tavern, young sire. We have now long learned to be bored of these castle cooks. They have grown fat, accustomed to pleasance, and impatient with their consideration of what they call their “wages” and their “rights.” We tire of them... and so...”
Eldfarm gestured that I was to join the party, now gathering on horseback and afoot in the castle’s courtyard, and I added Magdalene to their number of horses. Their “fine presence in my tavern” was such that I could well do without it, but in the circumstances, I supposed it would at least have to be endured.
The houndsmen led the way, walking each with four leashed hounds, so that there were some sixteen of these, all snapping at their restraints, and yipping and yammering, seemingly held back only by the strongest efforts of the sweating men who followed them.
Next, the nobles four all rode horseback, along with myself. Eldfarm, and Beaufort, and Carldwiss, and Sugarsop. Then followed the second bowmen, all waking on foot. and then the trussers, carrying two long stakes with thongs to secure the catch to the pole, once they had killed it.
The party headed for the forest north of the great glen of Trewidden and the marshland of the Coombe and the Spring of Saint Piran. The trail turned into the wood, and soon the gay sun had been covered all up by the deep dark branches of elder, pine, and beeches.
Now the dogs had a scent, and began to sound out.
“Release the hounds!” yelled Eldfarm.
The posse of houndsmen unlinked the chains holding each dog fast, an as they released each, it tore off in a certain direction, in which lay the hart.
The trumpeters gave a great blast, which if anything besides the barking dogs had not alerted it, was guaranteed now to accomplish a warning on its soul. And indeed, this warning gave the hart a full quarter hour to elude the dogs, and by the time they reached it, Eldfarm and the other nobles had their bows to hand. But two of the footmen archers also carried bows and had notched arrows yet ready.
The dogs had cornered the hart in a clearing beside a thick hollyhock bush . One of the footmen with nocked arrow shot, and the arrow quickly found its mark in the hart’s neck.
“Foul!” cried Eldfarm, “I get to kill the beast! I am supposed to get first shot at the hart!”
“A thousand pardons, sire, “ exclaimed the archer, “But I felt...”
“You felt? You felt nothing, churl!” Eldfarm screamed at the blushing footman.
“This is not protocol,” said Carldwiss.
“You are right, Carldwiss,” answered Eldfarm. “And this knave shall pay!’
The hart lay bleeding on the forest floor, an the trussers were soon upon it with their knives, bleeding it, and tying it stoutly to one of the long staffs.
Next, Eldfarm ordered the footman himself tied with trusses.
“When we get back to the castle, it’s the pillory for you!” Eldfarm laughed.
The other nobles sneered and mocked the scared man, but they were done with him for the moment, and as the houndsmen gathered back up all the dogs and secured them, Eldfarm laid out the next item of the hunt.
“We shall catch next a boar! I have heard there are many in thee woods, fed on beechnuts and acorns, and full of good fat meat. Let us off to make one, away!’
The trumpeters blew again, partly to celebrate the killing of the deer, partly to announce the new quest. after another quarter hour of determined following the hounds, which led us many directions, but no sure one, finally one of them had something. And it began to bleat and bay, and soon the others took it up, and now all the dogs were set loose again.
But this time all they had scared up was another deer.
“We must best to ignore it. One deer per hunt is all the king would allow us, friends. We shall spare this young doe, out of the mercy of our heart, and search for game anew!”
Once more the hounds were leashed, and once more, another half hour elapsed before they had found something to concern us. The trumpet blew and the hounds were off.
This time it was not a boar they had roused, but a badger, and the little beast was frightened to the edge of its den, but it would not back down. It pawed and swiped at each dog as it took its turn at belaying it, and it bit one dog fiercely through the neck, so that its yelp was a sorry thing to hear.
“Let me do the honors!”
Eldfarm rode up close and put an arrow through the noble little scrapper. It looked all about it with a sad question in its eyes, and then died.
“’Tis not a boar, sir Eldfarm. ‘Tis but a badger.”
“Quiet, Beaufort, it is a beast of prey, and we have slain it. Let us continue!”
So the hunt continued, all through the afternoon. There was still no boar, but they had managed to hunt, trap, and kill a badger, a brace of hares, and a fox. I shook my head at what they might plan to do with the fox, but by then, the trumpets blew one last time, the nobles all shook hands and decided they had had enough of a day of things, and the crestfallen archer was led along in the back of the train with all the carrion that had been collected on the hunt.
When they reached the castle, the poor man was set into the pillory, and Eldfarm and the other nobles had quite a time, throwing rotten turnips and rutabagas and artichokes at him. After half an hour, they pointed to me, and let me know they were now bound to The Lady, where I (well, Deprez, actually) was to turn all their game into delicious morsels surmounted by piquant sauces, and they would have wine, and they would have ale, and they would have good fresh sweet cheeses with all this.
So it was somewhat with a grudging heart I brought them all to The Lady, put up their horses, and finally let my own horse graze on the barley fields.
The trussers brought to two long staffs with the game catch to the kitchen, and deposited them with Deprez. I stood by him as he looked it over.
“A fair deer it is, yes? But what are these other beasts?”
“As you can see, Deprez, they are a fox and badger, and a pair of hares.”
“Yes, but who has ever cooked a fox or badger? An’ just looka that fox. He is so thin, he’s not but got a girdle ‘bout his waist!”
“Well, obviously our ancestors did... It matters not how lean the beast is...”
“But we are of a civil sort. These beasts are more valuable for their skins themselves, than to be eaten...”
“Yes, that is true, and they did ask me to tell you —preserve the skins and heads! For they wish them as trophies, or to wear. But cook them, they demand it!”
“What the— well, alright. But no telling what kind of taste they will get from this!”
“Just do this, Deprez— poach the hares in wine, fricassee until well done. Dress the fox and badger neatly and nicely with peaches and pears, make do with lots of herbs. Flay off the venison, and serve it as large rump roasts, and spit the ribs. For all that, they may be generous with us. Or so we hope.”
I turned to Pamela.
“Pamela, the retainers of Devon are outside and should be seated at our best hearthside tables. It is the ones who came before. I tried but was not able to disinvite them. Please be sure that they are seated from enough away from our regulars that neither group will be upset by the other’s presence.”
“I shall try, Julian.”
“’Tis not a matter of trying— it must be done. For if they hear talk forth of complaint as to how they are managing— should I say rather, mismanaging— the castle, then they will only see fit to make people more miserable, as due punishment!”
“It does sound as if thee men are sore fellows.”
“Indeed, Pamela, indeed. And wot that I they not be guesting here! But we need the business, and it was their idea to come, not mine. They made great words as to our cook’s finesse and grace and skill, and that speaks well for him, and us in general. So off to it!”
I did not like speaking so to Pamela, but she well understood all the implications, and was gone before I had even finished giving my order.
Outside in the hall, peasants had arranged themselves about one of the posts and were playing at flechette, and one fellow kept winning the bull’s eye, even (once) landing his dart exactly at the center atop of his previous one! This made for a lot of good applause, and I watched as Pamela led in the Devon retainers to their preferred place near the fire. The peasants kept at their game, and paid scant mind to the rich men now taking their seats.
Eldfarm, obviously the one more and most full of himself and his position than the others, took a chair at the center of the table. To his right was the other noble he had been talking most with in the hunt, Carldwiss. On the left sat the other two retainers, Beaufort and Sugarsop. Pamela served them wine and ale, and it seemed to me, that all was well. So I went outside again to look after Magdalene and Panoptes, and the chickens.
Our rooster, Ajax, had set himself up on a perch in the chicken shed and from here had a wide view out of doors toward the ground his hens most often scavenged. All the birds seemed well cared for, and for this again I was heartily thankful of young Will. Speaking of Will, I noticed that now he was nowhere to be found, and that was unusual. It turned out that Wilmot had unhorsed all the nobles and was caring for them. Will, he told me, had taken the day on a lark, and had not come in as usual. Because I had set off early for the castle on my errand, and had returned late from the hunt, Will had taken presence of mind to escape his duty for the day. I considered what that might mean, and relented from thinking of dismissing him. But I would set to him on the morrow, just to be sure it did not happen again.
Deprez had, by his having been ordered to do so, set all the “desirable parts” of the slain beasts aside, and the heads and fur (with the little footpads, even, ripping blood on the tiles) were stacked upon a counter top, separate and aside from everything else. He whistled as he worked away and set them all to roast, basting them with herb butter, taking care that none of them should burn, even though they be odd fare for game.
“What do I care? Zey killed it, I only cook it. Eet is not for me to eat, zo vy should I sink it matters? Besides, zair is really only one rule to cook any type of beast, and zat is, cook it well, all the way through. I will give the guts to Meester good-dog, he looks like he could use them.”
Indeed, Panoptes did look quite eager to sample the innards of the victims of the hunt, and was soon seen dragging tripes off out of doors to his little place by the chicken coop, and chowing down with gusto.
When the meal was ready, Pamela and I carried the animals out on silver platters to set before the gentlemen.
“Which is which?” asked Carldwiss?
I pointed them out.
“There is the badger. There is the boar. There is the fox. These are the rabbits. And there is the hart, of course.”
The nobles went to work with a vengeance, each man taking the beast he was charged for, and as was their usual wont, tossing the bones upon the floor, crackling them underfoot. I was happy that the morning before Pamela had changed the rushes for the floors (she would travel each week up the Coombe to the banks where many grew, and pulled enough to strew across the whole hall of The Fallen Lady) and while the new ones were now early greasy, at least they were there at all. I did not want to have someone slip on some greasy forgotten bone and have to answer at court for it.
Their laughter and raucous rudeness echoed around the hall, actually, the better part of that evening. When they decided to depart, we handed them the pile of bloody furs and heads. It fell to the lesser of all four, Sugarsop, to ride with them all tied to the edges of his saddle. What they would make of them later I had no thought. Perhaps the heads would be mounted on boards and hung on the walls. Perhaps the furs would decorate their sumptuous cloaks. But either way, at least I was now rid of them, and that was that. When I retired back indoors and eventually closed for the night, slamming the door closed was more than a hapless gesture, what is more, it felt right.