In the hot kitchen of the Smiling Pig Inn, Garland had finished feeding everyone and was starting the stock for tomorrow’s soup when the serving girl bustled into the hot kitchen and informed him that a dozen people had just arrived. They had taken all the places closest to the fire, which had left the regular customers feeling put out. Garland had to make a lot of fried potatoes, and the girl nagged him to hurry up. “Give them some soup,” he told her. “You know they’ll complain even louder if I serve them scorched raw potatoes.”
“No one’s fussier about their food than you are,” The girl said, and Garland took that as a compliment. She filled bowls with bean soup and would have forgotten to sprinkle them with bacon crumbs and caramelized onions if Garland hadn’t stopped her. She complied, rolling her eyes with exasperation.
“They’re already asking about tomorrow’s breakfast,” the girl reported when she returned with the empty bowls. “They have to leave at first light, they say. And they want to carry dinner with them when they go.”
“First light? Who’s in that big a hurry at this time of year?”
“They’re skating the ice road all the way to the coast, and the old timers are telling them the ice will break up any day now.”
Garland’s heart sank. When the ice broke up, it would be spring. And what would become of him then?
“The potatoes are done,” he said. “Take those plates out of the warming oven, will you?” He served, swiftly, slices of crispy roast pork, mounds of crackling fried potatoes, and scoops of steaming pudding, all in the time it took the girl to ladle out the boiling applesauce. Five months Garland had been cooking in this kitchen, from first snow to last, and no one had yet complained that their food was cold. In fact, no one had complained at all, and many had asked for more.
“Help me with this!” the girl said impatiently. Garland glanced around to make certain there was nothing on the stove or in the oven that demanded his immediate attention, picked up a tray, and followed her out into the public room.
The room was crowded, and everyone huddled as close to the fireplace as they could get. It might have been nearly spring, but that didn’t prevent the wind from blowing hard and bitter enough to find a way in through stone and mortar. People had taken off their coats and gloves, but tucked their hands in their armpits and loudly demanded that another log be added to the fire.
“Here’s supper,” the girl called cheerily. “Sizzling hot! Take the cold right out of your bones!”
“Is that the cook?” someone asked. “That was a fine soup.”
The newcomers crowded the trestle table. “Yow!” cried one young woman as she burned her tongue on a piece of potato. It seemed an unlikely group to be taking such a long, fast journey together, Garland thought as he distributed the hot plates. Members of a farm family usually bore a regional resemblance to each other even if they were only related by marriage, but these people did not look much alike. And in any case, it would be unusual for so many members of a single family to travel together like this. Garland had learned a little about farming during his years of wandering: a farmstead that missed spring planting time because its farmers were on a trip was surely heading for disaster.
The way they passed the plates to each other revealed a peculiar hierarchy. Among Shaftali, the hierarchy should be determined by age, but here the man most fussed over was not the oldest. While fetching salt cellars and mustard pots, Garland kept glancing at him surreptitiously, noting how everyone fell silent to listen to his trivial remarks.
Back in the kitchen, Garland cubed the leftover pork and mixed it with parboiled vegetables to make a filling for turnovers. He put together a sturdy dough—a tricky business to make a dough strong without making it tough—and seeded it with dried rosemary before breaking it into fist-sized balls and rolling them out.
The girl came in, and before she opened her mouth Garland said, “Bring them slices of dried apple pie. There’s clotted cream in the pantry.” He crimped the edges of the first turnover, and sprinkled it with a bit of salt.
“Is that for their dinner tomorrow?” the girl asked as she got the pies out of the warming oven. “Will it taste good cold?”
“Well, I’m spicing it up a little more than I would if it were eaten hot, and if those people have got any sense they’ll keep their dinner inside their coats so it doesn’t freeze.”
Garland flinched as the girl lost control of the pie server and wrecked what would have been a lovely slice of pie. “Who cares what it looks like?” the girl said impatiently.
Garland said, “So what do you think about those people? Are they Paladins?”
“They must be.” The girl frowned with concentration as she served out the dollops of cream. Garland had tried to teach her how to make each spoonful a work of art, but the lesson didn’t seem to have taken hold.
“That looks nice,” he said, to encourage her.
“You’re an odd sort of man,” she replied irritably, and then added, “It’s peculiar to see Paladins traveling at this time of year, don’t you think? Usually they winter with their families, don’t they, like ordinary people?”
This comment may not have been intended as a criticism of Garland’s irregular status, but he didn’t reply, and pretended to be having difficulty with the turnover dough. The girl finally said apologetically, “I guess some people don’t have families.”
A person who lacked a family was assumed to be at fault, and so most vagabonds made some effort to counteract this social disapproval by concocting ornate tales of family tragedy or betrayal that made them look like victims or heroes. However, Garland did not know enough about Shaftali families to be able to conduct such an elaborate pretense, so he always declared that his past was too painful to talk about. For nearly five years, that approach had kept people from prying, but it also had kept them from even considering offering Garland a permanent home. He was lucky to have this temporary position, lucky that the innkeeping family had found themselves unexpectedly short-handed when Garland happened to be wandering through last summer But two young people would be marrying into the innkeeping family come spring, and both of them were reported to be competent cooks.
Garland sometimes wondered what would happen if he told someone he was a Sainnite. It seemed to him the truth should earn him sympathy, but he thought it much more likely the truth would get him killed. Those Paladins out there in the public room, for instance, who even now were gobbling up his delectable pie, they would nod with satisfaction, belching as they washed his blood from their hands. “One less monster in Shaftal,” they might say. “Too bad he was such a good cook.”
Later, with the pots washed, the leftovers in the cold cupboard , and the next morning’s bread dough rising in the lingering warmth of the oven, Garland finally got around to serving himself a little supper, and went out into the public room to eat it. Most of the guests had left for home or gone to bed, but the twelve ice travelers remained; some huddled by the good oak fire still trying to get warm, while others took turns sharpening their skate blades. Garland went to sit at an empty table, but someone called, “Hey, cook!”
It was the Paladin commander, beckoning him over. “No, bring your meal and join us. It’s warmer over here.”
Garland protested to no effect. One of the Paladins had already risen up to make room for him, and he found himself seated beside the commander. His appetite evaporated. He knew his Shaftalese was as good as anyone’s; he knew his appearance was nothing extraordinary, both language and appearance having been given him by his Shaftali mother. But he did not particularly trust his ability to tell believable lies.
“You’re awfully thin for a cook,” the commander commented. “Are you just getting a chance to eat?”
“It’s been a busy night,” Garland said. He took a spoonful of the soup, and though he analyzed its construction—the onions were bitter, but that couldn’t be avoided at this time of year—he did not actually enjoy the taste. He glanced sideways at the commander. Older than Garland, probably in his forties, the commander had a rough look about him: a face burned to leather by wind and sun, an untrimmed, grizzled beard and tangled hair. Garland noticed no piercings in the man’s earlobe. He looked again to make sure, and accidentally caught the man making a similar survey of him.
“I’m Willis,” said the commander, and introduced some of the others nearby.
“I hear you’re skating to the coast,” said Garland.
The others energetically recounted tales of their journey, and in the telling made their chilly, effortful trip seem more adventurous than miserable. Garland managed another sneaking glance at the commander. He did not even have scars on his earlobe from old piercings. Most Paladins were irregulars, recruited into the war after the Fall of the House of Lilterwess some twenty years before, but Garland had often heard that Mabin would promote to commander only those who had taken Paladin vows, as this man apparently had not. So these people were not Paladins after all. But what were they?
Willis turned to Garland, who hastily jammed a chunk of meat into his mouth. “We hear you’re not one of the innkeepers. You’re a wandering man, taken in for the winter.”
Garland nodded, chewing.
“You’ve put some fine food in front of us tonight—” He looked around, and his companions uttered enthusiastic confirmations—excessively enthusiastic, Garland thought.
“Thank you,” he mumbled, and stuffed in another bite.
“So what is it you’re seeking? What would it take to end your wandering?”
It was a shocking question, and not only because Garland realized he was being recruited. He swallowed, and said carefully, “Sir, fact is I’m a coward.”
Garland had surprised Willis in return, he saw, and this was not a man who liked to be surprised. “Cowardice? There’s no such thing! People who believe enough in what they’re doing, that belief overrides fear. That’s what bravery is. You just need something worth believing in.”
The serving girl had gone to bed and wasn’t around to come to Garland’s rescue. If he suddenly declared he had to check something in the kitchen, it would raise suspicions rather than fooling anyone. Garland said, “I do believe in something: food. And I’m still a coward.”
Willis apparently decided Garland had to be joking, and uttered a hearty laugh that all his sycophants echoed just as heartily.
“Give me your hand, brother,” said Willis. Helpless to refuse, Garland reluctantly let his hand be clasped. Willis’s hand was warm, rough, his grip strong. “I’m going to tell you something that happened to me,” said Willis. “And when I’m done, you’ll have something to believe in.”
For a single, dreadful moment, Garland felt himself begin to slip. These people wanted him. And wasn’t that, after all, what Garland sought? He wanted it so badly he almost could believe it was possible he could belong with these—but what were they? Garland applied himself desperately to his plate, thinking that the sooner he finished, the sooner he could claim exhaustion and take himself off to bed.
It quickly became apparent he would run out of food before Willis ran out of words. “I was a wandering man like you, once,” Willis began. “You remember all that business in South Hill, five years ago? Well, you must have heard about the Wilton garrison being burned down, at least.”
Garland had heard about it, all right. That had happened in his first months as a deserter, the first summer that Cadmar had been general. Garland hadn’t yet learned to trust his ability to disguise himself as Shaftali. People’s anger at the Sainnites had been running high that year; and with every reported atrocity in South Hill, it had risen even higher. Never mind that the Sainnites had taken as bad a beating as they had given—their garrison practically burned to the ground, and who knows how many seasoned soldiers killed or disabled. Of course Garland could not ask someone to explain to him why, if the violence in Shaftal was such a terrible thing, no one became outraged at, or even mentioned, those dead Sainnites.
Willis had been telling him about his own involvement in the events in South Hill, and Garland didn’t want to care or pay attention. Now Willis was saying, “And that was cowardice. That commander was always holding back. And Mabin, backing him up, that was cowardice too.”
Garland looked up from his nearly empty plate, shocked. Even among the Sainnites, Councilor Mabin was a legend. Someone else at the table said swiftly, “Oh, Mabin is a great leader, no doubt about that! But perhaps she has lost her vision. Thousands of fighters she’s got at her command—maybe not as many as there are soldiers, but close enough—and yet she won’t let them take offensive action. A few decisive blows is all that would be required!”
“She doesn’t believe enough,” someone else murmured. “She doesn’t believe in Shaftal enough.”
These other voices fell immediately silent as Willis took up his tale again. “So I left South Hill. And for a good long while, I confess I was giving in to despair. I don’t know how long you’ve been without a family, but for me a year was nearly enough to kill me. There I was, half frozen in an inn like this one, begging someone to spare me a penny so I could eat a bit of bread. Well, you know, it leaves a person thinking that he really is of no account. And that was when I heard the story of the Lost G’deon.”
Garland looked around himself. Everyone at the table appeared transported by devotion. After all this talk of courage and belief, Garland belatedly realized what these people had actually meant. They believed—he’d never seen anything like it before—and what they believed in was a story. Garland had heard the story, of course, but when he heard it the first time—that same winter, apparently, that Willis had first heard it—he had given it no importance. He had thought that this wild tale of a big woman piercing Mabin in the heart with a steel spike was just another legend about the Councilor’s astonishing ability to survive. But eventually Garland had figured out why Shaftali people were enthralled by this story, a reason that several people at the table were now repeating in an eager chorus: “Only the G’deon can spike someone’s heart and leave the heart still beating. Only the G’deon can do it, without a trial, to put that person’s life in the G’deon’s hands.”
“And a question came to me,” said Willis, his voice more and more taking on the sonority of speechmaking rather than of conversation. “I thought to myself, If there’s a G’deon in Shaftal, then why does she not act to free us of the Sainnite curse? Why does she spike the heart of our brave, much admired general? And then she came to me, the Lost G’deon herself.”
“You’ve met her?” Garland cried.
“A vision,” impatiently muttered the woman at his left. Apparently, this was not the proper time to interrupt Willis.
“She came to me,” continued Willis. “And she said, ’Don’t you see, you fool? Mabin has failed Shaftal. And so have you,’ she said to me. ’But I’m giving you one last chance. Act decisively! Rid Shaftal at last of the Sainnites that befoul the blessed land! Eliminate the Sainnites, and I will come at last. Do not make me wait!’” Willis’s voice had risen to a shout; now he lowered it to a murmur. “That’s what she said. And I was pierced by her words, I say, pierced to the heart. And from that day on I’ve lived only to do the G’deon’s will.”
He turned to Garland, no doubt to check the effect of his words before he delivered the final persuasive speech that no doubt had convinced each of his devoted followers to join the company.
Garland stood up. “Good luck to you!” He fled, even leaving his dirty plate behind. He ran full tilt up the stairs to his bedroom in the chilly attic, and bolted the door for the first time since he had become a resident. They could easily kick down the door, of course, but the innkeeper family would surely not stand for that. Surely not!
His sweat was ice cold. He was shaking so he could hardly stand, but was too terrified to sit. His ears ached with listening, but he heard only the sound of the roof creaking the way it always did on a windy night.
After some hours he finally convinced himself to get into bed, and, some hours after that, to fall asleep. His dreams were full of bloodshed. He ran and ran, but wherever he fled, his mother’s people and his father’s people were in battle with each other. And then Shaftali and Sainnite both turned on him crying out, “No one of your heritage will ever cook for us!” “So what?” he replied, absurdly. “At the rate you’re killing each other, there soon will be no one to cook for!”
He awoke late, with an innkeeper pounding on his door, and by the time he stumbled downstairs, Willis and his people were long gone.
EARTH LOGIC, copyright © 2004, Laurie J. Marks