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An Invasion in Seven Courses

Amuse-bouche: Take one remote coastal castle. Add sea-raiders. Drain the blood of one king. (Arrows, cut throats, or beheadings are all acceptable--ask your butcher.) Send one princess into hiding, garnished with a daring midnight escape.
Reserve one queen for later.
Salad Course: Lettuce, silphium, and dandelion leaves, in a dressing of wild carrot seeds, white wine vinegar, and pennyroyal.
"I need herbs." The queen's fingers pinch tight against the gold-chased chatelaine at her belt, the tools on their chains gently clinking as she moves.
The cook glances over her shoulder. The raiders don't come often to the kitchen, but you never know. "I'm happy to discuss this week's menu," she says loudly.
"The raider-lord wishes to marry me," the queen says carefully. Her fingers pause on the little knife strung on its chain to the chatelaine. "In three weeks' time. He will want his wedding night."
"Ah," the cook says. "So any offspring...?"
"Would be heir, since there is none other." The queen's fingers tighten further on the little blade, until her bones and sinews press against the skin. "There can be no offspring."
"I see." The cook considers the rows of herbs growing neatly outside the kitchen door, some grown from seeds preserved by her mother and grandmother before her, and their mothers and grandmothers before them. Some of them have properties beyond the flavor they can lend a soup. "A salad from the garden will be just the thing."
Fish Course: crab stuffed with goat cheese, thyme, and garlic, rolled in breadcrumbs; to be fried in melted butter.
A knock at the kitchen door startles the cook into wakefulness. She was nodding over her notes for the festivities. The raider-lord insists on a proper feast, as if it was a real wedding. Course after course after course, with the poor queen on display, as if her husband wasn't killed by the bridegroom not a fortnight before.
The cook shuffles her papers to the side and goes to the door.
"You shouldn't be here," she hisses, and pulls the cloaked figure into the kitchen and a fierce hug at the same time. "If you were found out--!"
"I won't be." The princess shakes back her hood and the homely firelight reflects off shining black curls and a proud nose--her father's. "I want to see my mother."
"You can't," the cook says bluntly. "The raider-lord sleeps in the doorway of her room, and will till her monthly courses--and the wedding." The princess flinches.
"Tell her she won't have to marry him." The princess glares upward like she can see through the floor.
"I wish that were so--"
"Tell her!" The princess' face contorts, like she wants to yell or cry, but in the end she does neither, but pulls a net from under the cloak. The net wriggles as she sets it on the table. "I caught some crabs. They're her favorite."
Fowl Course: One wild-caught swan baked in a coffin, to be stuffed with a mourning-dove, to be stuffed with a starling, to be stuffed with boiled eggs soaked in red wine, studded with cloves and sultanas.
The cook's arms are floury to the elbow when the raider-lord comes to the kitchen. He watches her roll out the dough, fold in butter, roll the dough out again. His eyes on her hands make her uncomfortable, but this is her kitchen, her domain. She waits him out.
"Witch," he says, finally.
Her hand is on the rolling pin without conscious thought, muscles built from hours of lifting sacks of grain and punching dough already tense--conscious thought would say don't do anything threatening around a warrior; this warrior in particular, who has killed so many she knew and loved, who killed her king.
But instead of killing her too, his mouth quirks up at the edge. "Wise woman," he amends. "That's how we say it in the islands."
"What do you want of me? My lord," she adds hastily, but he's already taken her measure and seen that bowing doesn't come to her naturally.
He opens his hands and inside them is a mourning dove, neck neatly snapped. "On the islands," he says, watching her, "brides eat them for luck. To bring strong sons to their husbands. You will serve these to my bride."
"I will," she says, because she can see that wise woman won't save her if she disobeys. It's not her sort of cookery at all--and more fool him if he expects a spell to work in the hands of one who doesn't believe in it-but just in case there's some sort of magic in the bird itself, she'll have a swan eat it. There are swans all over the coastlands, ornery and mean as snakes, and shitting all over everything. Let a dove work magic past that.
Course of Viands: Mutton braised in tincture of wine and thyme slivered over a bed of sauteed mushrooms; ox haunch roasted on the spit and served with a glaze of orange and persimmon. Red wines broached from the cellar.
The evening sky of the wedding night is red as blood, shot through with orange and gold. The cook is in the hall instead of the kitchen, carving the meat with a cleaver, sweating like hell, both from the heat of the fire and from anticipation unfulfilled, a string pulled to the breaking point: fear that the princess will come to avenge her father and free her mother.
Fear that she won't.
I can't count on any of that, the cook reminds herself, and does what she can do.
By now, everyone in the hall has been drinking, either in celebration or with grim determination, and they fall on the meat like locusts--with the exception of the queen, who looks at the door too often.
"Are you expecting someone, wife?" the raider-lord says, leaning over the bundle of thyme that is the centerpiece on every table.
At that moment, the doors bang open with all the force of a summer squall. The figure within, silhouetted by moonlight, is lean and dangerous with the rapier in her hand, but all too frail compared to the raider-lord's bulk. The silhouette raises a sword, pointing it at the raider lord. "Unhand my mother."
The cook sighs; not happy the princess is here, but relieved the waiting is over. She whispers words her grandmother taught her to greatly increase the efficacy of her herbs--in this case, the soporific mandrake hidden within the thyme. Around the feasting hall, a sweet herbal scent drifts up from the bundles on the tables.
The sea-raider pulls the axe he wore even to his wedding, not heeding his new bride's hands on his arm, holding him back. "Make me."
Oh dear, thinks the cook, and keeps whispering.
The princess rushes the raider, but he twists aside. She has anger on her side, but he has a hundred raids' experience, and the reach and breadth on her as well. He knocks her sword away and swings his axe toward her unprotected ribs. The queen's hand on his arm fouls his swing, and he snarls at her. Then a look of confusion slides over his face like the shadow of a cloud, and the axe falls to the ground. All around the hall, the raiders slump into their trenchers, soundly asleep.
Sweet: pears stewed in sweet white wine with cinnamon, honey, and ginger, served with a side of overwhelming relief.
Three women sit in the kitchen gardens, eating dessert. It's one of the few places in the castle not full of sleeping people.
"You should have let me kill them." The princess takes a mutinous bite of pear.
The cook swallows her wine and stretches sore arms. The raiders were a heavy burden to carry to their dragon-headed ship, even with all the castle folk pitching in. "I'm not that kind of witch, and I don't want to be. They'll sleep for a hundred years on their boat, and who knows where they'll wake up."
"What do we do next?" The queen's voice is barely a whisper.
Breakfast, afterwards: Take one remote coastal castle. Add sunlight just cresting over the waves, illuminating a ship filled with sleeping men, floating away from the castle. In the window, one queen, seeped with worry and heartbreak.
And in the kitchen, one witch cook, adding flour and herbs to the day's bread dough, stirring in hope.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 10th, 2017
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