It’s my birthday today! Yup I have one of those things too. It’s the one day where I like getting attention and all that sort of stuff, but in true hobbit style I’m giving stuff away today, you know the sort of present like stuff.
The first of the things I’m giving away today is Wandering to Belong, my fantasy short! You can pick up a copy on Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk (or any other amazon ebook store) and you don’t have to pay a thing.
Also I’ve got an excerpt of my latest release, For Such a Time as This, for you to read below, you can also get that on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
“Ishtar! Grab the damson pudding, over there, that’s it,” the bustling older cook yelled as he added two more jugs of wine to the trolley in front of him. Ishtar did as she was instructed, placing the dish in the final space on the laden vehicle.
She leapt out of the way as Malden pushed the little cart towards the door. He would take it up to the waiting room right outside the dining hall, giving Ishtar and the other assistant cooks a moments respite.
Ishtar slowed her pace as she checked on the hot puddings still cooking in the oven. In less than half an hour another damson pudding, two more cherry and almond cakes, four giant apple and cinnamon pastries and a cocaya bread and raisen pudding would go up with another large helping of red wine.
She gave the other three females a few instructions as they waited for their chef and master to return. Despite Ishtar being a simple slave like the other girls they did as she asked without complaint or fuss.
Not wanting to be idle when Malden returned, Ishtar rolled out more pastry into a long rectangular shape. The pastries seemed to be a favourite with the guests Andreas was entertaining that day. She sliced up the soft dough while her mind drifted to other things. She had made this dish so many times she could do it in her sleep.
Malden returned as she was ladling the apple mixture into the centre of the final of the six pastries.
“Good, good Ishtar… Where’s the cinnamon. Ah here it is, sprinkle that on them. Kimi, put that over there, good, good. Now let’s get started on another… Thank you Penalay.” Malden continued on telling his assistants what to do as he bustled around as well.
For the next twenty minutes all of them rushed around the kitchen preparing, stirring, slicing, mixing and fetching to create another trolley laden with food. The task of pre-empting what the feast would run out of was their sole purpose.
When Malden left with the next serving Ishtar paused to slow her rapid breathing. Her feet ached and she silently said a prayer to Tanayth that the feast would end soon. They had been in the kitchens for the last fifteen hours and there would be at least two hours of tidying and preparing for the following day.
Ishtar almost dropped the pudding she was retrieving when Malden came rushing back in. His slender frame quivered before her and no words came out of his opening and closing mouth. Her eyes went wide; silence was not normal. She rushed the dessert onto the nearest surface and went to him.
“Fetch that stool Kimi,” she said as she took his arm to support him.
“No, no, I am fine,” Malden found his voice and waved everyone away. “We can stop cooking. The feast is over.”
All the girls smiled and put down their tools. Ishtar stood waiting for Malden to explain what had happened.
“The Queen, she… she didn’t come.” He paused and she opened her mouth to ask what he meant but got no further. “King Andreas sent for Hasina and she refused him. She would not attend the feast.”
All the girls gasped.
“What did the King say?” Ishtar’s eyes were wide with fear.
“She’s to be beheaded. Immediately.”
The three girls whispered amongst themselves and Ishtar put her hands over her mouth to stop herself from making any embarrassing sounds.
“All of you can take a break for a few minutes. You’ve all been working very hard today.” Malden turned from them and busied himself tidying his kitchen. The three younger slaves rushed from the room, still talking amongst themselves. Ishtar gently tidied beside Malden, stacking the empty bowls as he put their contents in containers or the bin.
She watched him while she worked. His hands shook as he fought to keep going. If she kept busy near him she knew that he would soon tell her everything he was thinking.
“Why didn’t she do as she was asked?” The King doesn’t like to look the fool and his advisers are even worse. Listen carefully Ishtar, don’t ever give the King reason to be angry with you or ever upset his favoured people.”
“I won’t Malden. I’ll always do what you tell me to. The King thinks you’re the best chef in existence and we’re all leading easier lives because of it.”
Ishtar pictured her little room on the floor above. She had the good fortune of Malden’s favour and Malden had the King’s. Very few slaves had their own private rooms.
Malden had been kind to her ever since she had arrived, showing her how to hide her elven nature so none of the humans realised she wasn’t one of them as well as teaching her to survive. He had warned her several times of what they would do if her true race became apparent.
She stood a little taller than the other human girls her age, but being thinner stopped anyone being too suspicious. She had dyed her silver hair a dark brown and wore a head band to hide the points of her ears. No one even suspected.
“Go on girl, take a break with the others,” Malden said as he shooed her out of the room. She soon found Kimi, Penalay and Olivian sitting in the nearby courtyard. They looked up at her as she came over to them with a thousand questions on their young faces.
All three were younger than her and had been captured together from one of the last human settlements that stood against the King. As such they had known each other before arriving. Whenever anything happened they always banded together to talk about it.
Ishtar found it difficult to get to know them. They were strange to her and she had been alone for a long time, but Malden encouraged her to make an effort and the girls were always pleasant to her face.
“Do you really think that Queen Hasina will be beheaded?” Kimi asked. All of them had wide eyes that darted around the courtyard, almost expectant of someone jumping out from behind the trees to behead them too. Ishtar couldn’t help smiling at their naivety. The kitchen was a world apart from the King himself.
“I think so, she disobeyed the King,” Ishtar replied.
“But doesn’t he love her?”
She shook her head.
“Even if he did he would need to show he cannot be disobeyed. But there is no need for you three to fret. We are all safe here with Malden. He has looked after me since I was five. He will look after all of you as well.”
Ishtar went and sat with them on the stone bench. The conversation subject changed to their cooking and the feast they had managed that day.
A few minutes later all their names were called from the kitchen and the trooped back to their work. Malden and his helpers would need to get some of the food prepared for the following day.
The King always requested a particular cake in the afternoons and the fruit in the recipe would need to soak in brandy all night; and the pastry and dough would need time to settle.
Ishtar threw herself into the last of the day’s tasks with as much effort as she could muster. The sooner everything was done the sooner she could rest her feet. Rushing around the whole day had caused the arches in her feet to ache remorselessly each time she put weight on them.
Malden continued his running commentary of the activities and requirements of the kitchen to the four girls. They all worked hard but Ishtar the hardest. Her stamina kept her going longer than the others and the heat from the many ovens affected her the least of all of them.
“Put that over… that’s it, thank you Ishtar,” Malden said as she pre-empted his command. “Now where’s that fruit mix?”
“It’s already finished and soaking,” she replied, pointing to the bowl Malden sought.
Two hours later Ishtar swept the last of the dust, flour and dropped food out of the door into the courtyard for the birds. Malden was the only person left in the kitchen with her. Everyone else had been allowed to go off to sleep.
As soon as she had finished her final task of the day she put her hand to her forehead and wiped away the few beads of sweat which adorned it.
Taking her by surprise, Malden hugged her. He then held both of her hands in his and looked at her, a gentle light in his eyes and a parental smile on his face. She waited, expecting him to explain his thoughts but he did not. Instead he let her go and waved her out of the room.
“Go on now, go get some sleep.”
Ishtar did not need telling twice. She scurried off to her little room as fast as her weary legs could take her. Fortunately, she did not have far to go. Her private room sat only a flight of stairs and short corridor from the kitchen. It nestled in the wall of the great castle and had just one small window to the outside, not that she was ever there when the sun was up to send any light through it.
She sank into the straw mattress on the wooden bed frame, which creaked and groaned in protest of even her light body. A small set of candles lit the otherwise dark room, casting an ever changing and flickering glow over her few possessions.
In one corner stood an old wooden wardrobe. Its surface had lost any varnish it had once been covered in and Ishtar had to avoid getting splinters whenever she opened it. Her desk sat beside and appeared to be the newest of her furniture even though it had been Malden’s father’s for twenty years before she had been born.
On top of the desk sat Ishtar’s most treasured possessions; her sewing box and materials. She made clothes and other pretty accessories when she had free time from her duties, although that was seldom.
Malden had given her a few small coins for mending some clothes of his and a few more when she had made the uniforms the new girls had needed. It had not been much as the King frowned upon the slaves making money but it had bought her everything she’d needed to make the few things she could make time for.
Ishtar rarely got to wear the items she made but it didn’t stop her making them anyway. Her latest creation was an elegant dress, similar to something she had seen the previous queen wear once. It had a flowing floor length skirt which tapered backwards into a small train and a deep v neckline.
However, the dress was not finished. The hem was many feet long and she only managed a few minutes sewing each day by candlelight. If Malden knew she was making herself late for bed every night making the dress he would get angry and stop giving her any money at all, so she only did a little here and there to not arouse suspicion, and tonight she wouldn’t do any. The feast had gone on so long she needed to sleep.