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The great bell in the central watchtower of Kronengred boomed the same warning as it had for more years than the most diligent scholars could remember. A heavy vibration of sound penetrated every one of the aged buildings huddled comfortably together, rising even to the castle on a mount which rivaled the height of the bell tower. Though the dark of the passing winter season still held in thick blots around alleys and doorway, yet the bell's call now sounded to all responsible citizens—those who had kept Kronengred's prosperity and safety alive—to be up and about the day's labors.
His Highness, the Duke, might wriggle deeper into the covers of his great bed, but in the tiny cupboard (one could certainly not dignify it with the title of "room") off the vast kitchen of the Wanderers Inn, Willadene sighed herself into sitting up, the musty straws pricking through the ragged cover of the pallet beneath her, meeting her every movement with familiar scratching.
Her first real act was always the same. Before she reached for undersmock her hands went to that small bag, warm between her small breasts, and lifted it to her tormented nose. A deep sniff of the crushed spices and herbs within cleared her head, but the dull ache from last night's long service in the taproom did not go away.
Now she dressed hurriedly, pulling on clothing which had been cobbled down from a much larger size, so worn that its color was now a uniform muddy gray. Smells—it was always the smells against which she had to brace herself each morning. She was sure sometimes that those invaded her very dreams, bringing shadows of nightmares. The kitchen was no flower garden for the pleasuring of some lord's daughter, that was certain.
She was still twisting her lank hair up under a kerchief when she heard, as she had feared, the clang of pans harshly slammed down together on the long table. Aunt Jacoba was the only one who dared to use those utensils without order, and, by the sound of it, she had a monumental temper to work off this morning.
"Willa—get you here, you lazy slut!" That voice, which even sounded like a badly scrubbed kettle, arose on the end of one crash. Certainly Aunt Jacoba had deliberately swung the big porridge kettle on its hanger so that it had rebounded from the smoke-darkened stone of the wide hearth.
Willadene (sometimes she forgot she had once been called that—it had been years now since the great plague had decimated the inhabitants of the city and she had been grudgingly accepted under the orders of the district Reeve by her father's cousin as a scullery maid, or scullery drudge) hurried into the kitchen.
Wisely she had been on guard and so dodged the heavy tankard which might have struck her senseless if it had landed true. There was no easy greeting from Jacoba when she was in this foul mood. Swiftly the girl reached well over her head and pulled down a flitch of bacon. She had to fight with all her strength against the smell of the meat—it was never of the first quality and always kept too long. Jacoba pinched each pence when it came to supplies for the majority of those eating early in the morning. Perhaps they were still so drowsy they were able to choke it down in a dull fog of half sleep.
Jacoba had turned to the stirring of the vast pot of porridge which had been set to cook slowly the night before. Figis, the waiting boy, his face still masked with most of yesterday's grime, was slamming bowls onto a tray. He did not look up, but Willadene sighted the bruise near his eye. There was an ever-going feud between Figis and Jorg, the horseboy.
She sawed away at the bacon with a knife which Figis should have sharpened yesterday. What she turned off now were not smooth slices but ragged hunks to be put in the footed skillet, when she knelt in the ashes which had drifted out from the fire to thrust her burden close enough to the flames for its contents to begin to sputter.
Longing to pull out her spice bag and use it as a defense against the heavy odor of the now-crisping meat, Willadene hunched her shoulders and held on, grimly determined not to attract any attention from Jacoba.
The big woman was sawing at rounds of yesterday's black bread—now near stone hard. These were the plates waiting to hold the bacon and wedges of cheese. The fare might be of third or even fourth grade, but Jacoba did not stint on portions.
Then she turned to ladling out porridge—there were five bowls waiting. Willadene haunched in upon herself.
So fortune had not favored her. Wyche had stayed the night. When she had crept away as the last two candles were near to guttering out in the taproom he had still been there, the huge bulk of his body half sprawling out of the one large chair which the inn owned. The odor of mulled cider of the strongest had not been enough to hide that other stench exuding from him. It was not only that of unclean flesh and/or filthy clothing but something else of which she was aware but could not put name to—though now and then the inn sheltered other patrons who carried the same odor and mostly they had been an ugly lot.
She must ask Halwice—
"Burn you that and you'll feel the fire yourself."
Willadene jerked the skillet back, its three legs grating on the stone. She had wrapped her hand as tightly as she could against the bite of the flames, but she still could feel the heat as she approached the table, striving to hold the heavy pan straight. Jacoba took her time inspecting the bacon.
At length she spiked hunks onto the waiting bread, for the most part impartially, though the last portion was doubled. For Wyche, of course. Tilting the skillet now with caution Willadene poured a measure of the sizzling grease over each slab of plate bread.
Figis had gone off with the tray of bowls and the pot of honey for the sweetening of their coarse contents. Now he returned for the rest of the meal.
"The merchant from Bresta," he said, keeping well away from Jacoba as he spoke, "said as how he found him a roach in his bowl. See—" He had put the bowl on the table and there was no mistaking the black creature. "Said as how he was going to speak to the Reeve—something about meat he had not ordered—" The boy sniggered, easily evading Jacoba's doubled fist. Catching up the second tray of bread, meat, and a large round of cheese he was gone before his mistress could round the table.
Figis had little sense, Willadene thought. Jacoba had a very retentive memory. Sooner or later the boy would pay for his pertness. Though what he warned might well be true—a few more complaints to the district Reeve and Jacoba could find herself in trouble.
In fact, Willadene had come to wonder, through the days of her servitude here, why the cook had so long escaped any real censure for her lack of cleanliness and her questionable products.
The Wanderers Inn was, of course, Jacoba's own. But no building in Kronengred was really owned by anyone but the Duke, even though the same family might shelter in it for generations. The Duke undoubtedly had more important things to think over than the lacks and temper of an innkeeper.
It had been five years since the great plague, which had seated Uttobric on the ducal highseat. He had been a relatively unknown and distant member of the family, but the only male fortunate enough to escape the all too devastating death. The only male—but there was one far closer to that honor—the last Duke's daughter, Lady Saylana. She had been widowed also by the march of the disease, but she had a son (luckily away from the city when disaster struck), and there were those who lifted an eyebrow significantly, or perhaps even dared to whisper behind a hand, when his name was spoken in passing. Thus Uttobric had a rival—or the threat of one—though Kronen law did not change and by all rights the rule was his.
"Get you in to the tap, slut," Jacoba said. "Wyche wants to clear his morning throat. Be sure you draw the best—Hmm—" There was something in that "Hmm" which kept Willadene from immediate obedience.
"You are but one and twenty days away from Reeve listing as a full woman, scrawny and stupid as you are. Upchucking good food and saying it makes you sick. Sick! It is only that stubborn will of yours tryin' to lie to your betters. No—you've no looks to you. But you're young and might wash up better. Wyche was taken a fancy to you, girl. Don't you give him any black looks. As one set over you by the Reeve himself I has the right to choose a man to take you off my hands. Wyche must be mazed to want you. Now get in there and, as I have said, do the pretty for him. Be glad you are gettin' a man as has a full purse—sure he has offered enough wed bounty for you to promise that."
Somehow the inn mistress had talked herself into a good humor. Now she laughed, roaring coarsely. Willadene was well aware that her utter horror of this promised fate must be read on her face.
Halwice—if she could only get to Halwice!—though she could not be sure the Herbmistress would even listen to any plea. She thought longingly of that quiet shop and of all it had seemed to promise since she had first found it. If—if she could serve as Halwice's cook maid—she could cook and well when she had the chance—that would be heaven. But twenty days lay between her and any free choice, and Wyche was waiting, Jacoba moving toward her, a big fist raised. Willadene went, her hands pressed tightly against her bosom as if the faint scent still rising from her bag could arm her against the future.
She scuttled around the edge of the wide door, intent on reaching the shelf by the already tapped barrel so she could fill a flagon as soon as possible. Giving a quick glance over her shoulder, she saw that the big chair was empty, and she looked a little wildly ahead to her goal—hoping that Wyche was not lying in wait there.
However, his broad back fronted those in the room as he stood by the major window, curtaining the light from those behind him. Four of them—all dressed in that sturdy travel-worn leather and heavy cloth favored by out-city merchants. They were all wearing badges, which meant they were legal and registered wayfarers, protected by tradition from any trouble within the borders of Kronen—except, of course, from those inhabitants now outside the same laws.
The eldest of the three was picking with his belt eating-knife at the half-charred bacon before him, disgust plain to be read on his face. He was trimly neat, his short gray hair curling up in the back about the border of his bowl cap. There was a flash of ring on his knife hand, and it was plain he was prosperous in his trade. Now he pushed aside the slab of greasy bread and uttered a sound deep in his throat which brought the full attention of his three companions. Two of them were plainly of lesser rank in their guild, but the youngest had the same wide nose above a smallish mouth and shared the older man's other features to a degree which made it very possible they were father and son.
"The road guard has been thinned again." There was an angry note in the older man's statement. "We passed a full half company coming down from the west hills, bag and baggage—and not on leave either. I tell you whoever gives such orders delivers us like geese to the poulterer!"
Both of those seated, one on either side of him, nodded. But the youngest one moved his head in the smallest suggestion of a shake as he stared straight at their leader.
"The affairs of the highborn," one of the others remarked, "seldom are settled to our satisfaction. Remember there are more disasters than the plague. There has never been Kronen blood turned against Kronen blood. However...." His voice trailed away and he shrugged.
In Willadene's hands the flagon was now brimming full, but she shrank from crossing toward that bulky back, sniffing its foul odor. However, Wyche had not changed position. She was determined now that he was entirely intent on what lay beyond the bubbled glass of that window. Dare she ease her way to that small side table almost within his reach to empty the flagon into the waiting tankards, slip back before he was aware of her?
Only, fortune failed her now. He shrugged his huge width of shoulder and turned his head. In his fat, puffed face his small dark eyes looked like a pair of dry, shriveled raisins. But his mouth gaped in what he might consider a welcoming smile.
"Good fare for the belly, wench." He swung farther away from the window and stuck out his bristly paw of a hand. Swiftly Willadene passed him the tankard. However, when he raised it to his mouth and was gulping its contents he deliberately raised his other hand to slap palm to the wall, cutting off her flight. His blubber lips had pursed, and, bringing down the tankard after that hefty pull, he eyed her from head to foot and back again.
It seemed to Willadene then that that odor she had never been able to identify strengthened until she wanted to gag.
"Skinny," Wyche remarked, "but you're young and Jacoba swears you are still a maid. Though that state will not be with you for long now." Before she could do more than flatten herself against the wall, her hands again seeking her amulet, his huge face loomed above her, and her skin shrank from the rough touch of his lips.
"Yes, a bargain, I'm thinking. There won't be any youngsters hanging around gawking at such as you. Jacoba says you can cook—and a full table before him and a warmer for his bed at night is all any man wants. You're as skittish as a spring lamb." The tip of a fat tongue passed over those thick lips which she felt had left a kind of scum on her own skin. "I likes 'em so—it don't take long to tame 'em—"
What more threats he might have added Willadene did not know. Those she had just heard had sickened her. But Wyche's survey of her was interrupted, and she felt the door to the left—the one giving on the outer world—opening. Did she have a chance? But to run without any protector of rank was folly. She could be named vagabond and driven out of Kronengred—though she was sure that Jacoba would not willingly lose the bride price. She heard the tinkle of a small silvery bell as two cloaked and veiled women came in, a girl in a drab cloak at their heels, in her hand a basket already laden heavy enough to draw her childish body to one side.
"Food for those in hunger as is the second commandment." The first of the women to cross the threshold swung her bell again, its tinkle echoed by the one in the hand of her companion.
Stools scraped across the flagstones as the four merchants got to their feet and bowed. Their leader advanced, digging one hand in his belt purse, and Willadene caught the glint of what could only be a silver coin.
"Well has your Great One favored me." The first of the cloaked Sisters of Bright Star was already bringing forth a plump bag of her own into which he dropped his offering, his fellows swift to follow his example.
"What prayer would you have us set for you?" the woman asked. It was difficult to see her features so deeply she was veiled.
"That of safe travel—-for me, Jaskar of Bresta, and for these, my companions. Such petitions are needed in our present days, Sister."
"Evil always awaits beyond the bonds of light," she returned as Jacoba came into the room.
"What's to do—?" the inn mistress began and then, catching full sight of the women, she stopped short. "You"—her attention swung to Willadene—"if the guests be through, then clear the table."
Thankfully Willadene put room between her and Wyche. The girl with the basket lugged her burden up to the board, and Willadene hastily crammed in those rounds of well-greased bread. By the looks of what already lay within the basket the Sisters had had good fortune in their begging round of the taverns and noble houses of the section this morning.
"Fortune favor you, goodwife," the Sister commented, but when her small serving maid tried to raise the basket she near sent it and its contents toppling to the floor.
"It would please the Great One," the Star follower added a moment later, "if you would lend us this girl of yours to our aid. We have only one more place to cry for alms and she would be quickly back."
Excerpted from The Scent of Magic by Andre Norton. Copyright © 1998 Andre Norton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 24, 2006
Posted June 5, 2001
This book by the brilliant Andre Norton was a masterpiece of Fantasy-Fiction.I enjoyed reading about the special young healer and the mysteries of a Ducal court.
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Posted December 30, 1999
I read this book and fell in love with Andre Norton's way of writing. She clearly knows her herbs and judging by the titles of the other books, she must know a lot more about the other senses. I just hope everyone else has time to read this...
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Posted October 22, 2013
On a whim, I checked to see if this old favorite of mine was in ebook form. Hooray! It was, and on rereading it, it's as good as I remembered! It's also better than many written today!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.