The Knight and the Not-Quite-Lady, Part 4

Part 4: Of Attitudes, Apple Pies, and Secret Admiration

Even though she’d not had nearly enough sleep, the next day promised to be much more pleasant for Wynne, as Lady Magdalen decided it was time for the young ladies to spend some time in the kitchens. “Some of you may be fortunate enough to have at your disposal enough servants that you will not have to trouble yourselves with food preparation, but you must still learn some basic cooking skills.”

This should be the easiest part of my training, Wynne thought to herself. While her father had employed a sufficient kitchen staff, Wynne had often spent time in the kitchens helping the cooks prepare meals. She found it soothing to peel carrots and potatoes, and she enjoyed experimenting with different herbs and spices to see what new flavors she could create. Truth be told, she could cook almost as well as her father’s head cook Deirdre, and even better than her mother. She was certain she would enjoy her lessons this day. However, a few of the young ladies from more privileged houses cast a dark cloud over it as they grumbled and protested at having to do servants’ work.  “Who wants to get all sweaty slaving over hot ovens all day?” Lavinia protested, fanning herself vigorously at the prospect.

“Ugh, I hope I don’t have to chop onions,” Rosalynde said with an unladylike grimace, wiping her hands on her dress. “My hands will smell of them for days.”

Bronwyn let out a shrill yelp. “Does this mean we’ll have to touch dead chickens?”

Wynne and Anora rolled their eyes at each other, trying to suppress their giggles, and Wynne consoled insincerely, “No, Bronwyn, of course you won’t have to touch dead chickens.” When Bronwyn sighed with relief, Wynne smiled sweetly and continued, “I believe Berte will be preparing fish today.”

Bronwyn let out a shrill, horrified shriek and buried her face in Lavinia’s shoulder. She couldn’t bear looking at fish, dead or alive; she hated their bulging eyes and their gaping, lipless mouths. Wynne and Anora collapsed against each other, laughing, until Lavinia pushed Bronwyn away and leaned towards Wynne with ice in her eyes, hissing, “I’m sure Wynifrog won’t mind preparing the fish. She’s at home with slimy creatures of the moat, after all.”

Wynne narrowed her eyes and clenched her fists as she took a step towards Lavinia. Lady Magdalen clapped her hands and chastised impatiently, “Young ladies, I will have none of this foolishness!” Her eyes lingered on Wynne as though she alone were responsible. “Even if you never have to prepare food yourselves, it is imperative that you learn how to manage the kitchens in your household. The only practical way to do that is to spend time in the kitchens observing the cooks and helping out in any way they ask.”

Because Lady Magdalen didn’t want to overwhelm Camelot’s kitchens with all her young ladies at once, she divided them into groups; she assigned Wynne, Lavinia, Bronwyn, and Priscilla to help with the midday meal and Anora, Rosalynde, Caitlyn, Bernice, and Theresa to help with the evening feast. Wynne was disappointed that she wouldn’t be with Anora, but she knew that Berte would keep them all busy enough that she would not have to listen to the others’ taunts.

Two hours before the midday meal, Wynne’s group left the sunny sewing room and headed down the passageway towards the kitchens. Wynne had hardly been able to concentrate on her embroidery that morning as she looked forward to her time in the kitchens. As soon as the ladies were out of earshot, Lavinia began complaining about Lady Magdalen. “I still don’t know why we have to waste our time in a hot, stuffy kitchen, learning to do servants’ work,” she argued snippily. “If I hire a kitchen staff, I expect them to know how to run a kitchen without my having to teach them.”

Bronwyn tossed her head haughtily, making her thick black curls dance around her shoulders. “My sentiments exactly, Lavie,” she agreed. “Why, if ever I’d have to step in to instruct my kitchen staff, they would find themselves seeking another position.”

Wynne shook her head at their arrogance and was about to add her two cents when Priscilla edged between them and linked her arms with theirs. Lavinia and Bronwyn were the two most dominant in the group of young ladies, and Priscilla, one of the younger ladies, always tried her hardest to ingratiate herself to them. She never hesitated when it came to taunting Wynne, but she was obviously incomfortable with being disrespectful to Lady Magdalen. Looking almost pleadingly between Lavinia and Bronwyn with her large blue eyes, she said apologetically, “Ladies, surely you can understand; if you don’t know how a kitchen is to be run, then how do you know how to hire a competent staff?”

Lavinia and Bronwyn turned simultaneously to face her, glaring pitifully at Priscilla’s obvious lack of common sense. Wynne almost felt sorry for her as Lavinia sneered, “Isn’t that obvious, Priscilla? If the kitchen staff can’t cook, you’ll know when you taste their cooking.” She stuck her nose in the air and shook her head contemptuously.

“B-but wouldn’t you want to know they were inept before you hired them?” Priscilla asked sensibly. “How scandalous it would be to serve guests an inedible feast prepared by an incompetent kitchen staff!” Wynne’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. Although she was certain that even empty-headed Priscilla would know enough to evaluate a cook’s skills before allowing her to prepare a feast for guests, she hadn’t expected her to think about evaluating a cook before hiring her, and she nodded appreciatively. Maybe Priscilla wasn’t so empty-headed after all.

The two older girls were also taken aback by Priscilla’s comment, and both stopped dead in their tracks to stare at her in disbelief. Wynne thought that maybe they had realized the wisdom in Priscilla’s words, but she was proven wrong when Lavinia spoke. “So you think slaving in the kitchens all morning will be a good thing?” she asked disdainfully. Smirking maliciously in Wynne’s direction, she continued, “Really, Priscilla, you’re beginning to sound as unladylike as Wynifrog, the Maiden of the Moat. Next you’ll be dozing at the table with blueberries drooling out of your mouth.”

So it had been Lavinia who was responsible for that, Wynne thought. She felt her face flaming as Bronwyn laughed a bit more loudly than was proper and added, “You’ll be known as Priscilla the Pond Princess.”

Lavinia snorted her agreement, and both ladies jerked their arms away from Priscilla to walk briskly ahead of her as she lowered her head in embarrassment. Wynne saw the hurt in Priscilla’s expression as their eyes met briefly, and she tried to smile encouragingly at her. After all, she was used to their taunts, and Priscilla wasn’t. Priscilla almost smiled back, but then caught herself, raised her chin, and turned away in a huff, picking up her skirts to hurry after Lavinia and Bronwyn. When she caught up to them, she glanced back at Wynne and whispered something to the two girls, making them laugh. Wynne sighed and continued walking a few steps behind them.

Once they had gathered in the kitchens, they waited as Berte finished giving orders to a servant girl. Noticing their arrival, she bustled over to them and greeted them in her deep voice. “I bid you ladies a good morning. Lady Magdalen has decided it is time for you to learn the proper running of a kitchen.” Lavinia and Bronwyn wrinkled their noses at each other, and Priscilla quickly mimicked their action. “The first order of business,” she continued, handing each young lady a kerchief, “is to bind your hair.”

Bronwyn held her kerchief away from her body with her thumb and forefinger, behaving as though she were holding a skunk carcass. “Why would I tie this into my hair?” she asked peevishly.

Berte returned her look with disbelief mixed with disgust. “We bind our hair when we cook so our hair doesn’t fall into the food we’re preparing.”

Priscilla nudged Lavinia and said loudly enough for Wynne to hear, “Perhaps Wynifrog should have tied her hair back for last night’s feast.”

Wynne felt her face grow red as the other three giggled at Pricilla’s joke. Berte glanced sharply at Wynne, suddenly realizing why the girl had been scrubbing linens far into the night after last night’s feast, but she said nothing.

After the young ladies had tied back their hair, Berte took them on a tour of the kitchens. As she showed them pantries full of flour, sugars, and dried herbs; storage cabinets filled with plates, bowls, and serving dishes; and a side room containing cookware and silverware, she could tell that Wynne was the only one of this group of ladies who had ever seen the inside of a kitchen. She took them into the larder where various smoked meats hung from hooks. Bronwyn whimpered and cowered between Lavinia and Priscilla, and Wynne stifled a giggle as she imagined throwing one of the raw chickens at her just to make her scream. Finally she yanked open a trap door and took the ladies downstairs into the root cellar and the wine cellars. Wynne inhaled deeply, loving the aroma of the stored fruits and vegetables.

As she finished the tour with the wine cellars, Berte led the young ladies back out through the root cellars. As she rounded a corner to where the bins of apples and pears stood, a man in chain mail suddenly stumbled out from between the bins. Berte cried out in fear, throwing hera rms out protectively to shield the ladies.The young ladies cowered against each other and screamed, except for Wynne, who tried desperately to peer around Berte’s girth ot see what was happening. The startled man jumped and dropped several apples onto the floor. “Beg pardon, Berte. I didn’t know anyone else was down here.” Gwaine! Wynne would know that voice anywhere.

Berte grasped her chest and chastised, “Sir Gwaine, you scalawag! What are you doing down here?”

He bent down to pick up the apples he had dropped. “I was just getting a snack to nibble on during training,” he replied, giving Berte a grin that would light a moonless night. Wynne thought she would faint dead away, he was so handsome. She bit her lip to keep from sighing aloud and giving herself away to the others. Turning his attention to the ladies behind Berte, he said, “Ah, I see our young ladies are helping in the kitchens today. Will you be teaching them how to make apple pie? You know its’ my favorite.”

“Oh, be off with you, you incorrigible rascal!” Berte laughed, wagging her finger at him. “I should give you an onion pie for scaring me half to death.”

Gwaine’s laughter filled the small room, and he bowed to them and said, “Ladies,” before bounding up the ladder.

As Berte followed him up the ladder, Lavinia leaned towards Bronwyn and whispered, “He is such an ill-mannered lout.”

“Isn’t he, though?” Bronwyn responded, starting up the ladder. She shuddered and continued, low, “I hear he’s not even a noble. I don’t know why the king would even knight someone like that.”

As each of them emerged from the hole in the floor, Gwaine was there to extend a hand to help them. Lavinia and Bronwyn looked down their noses at him and gave him a “Hmph!” before stalking out of the storage room into the kitchen. Priscilla gave him a half-smile and a curtsy before scampering after her friends. Wynne made sure the others weren’t watching before smiling broadly at him and saying, “Thank you, SIr Gwaine.”

He rewarded her with another blinding grin and replied, “You’re welcome, lass,” before kissing her hand and winking at her. As he turned to hurry out the door, he leaned towards Berte once more and whispered, “Remember–apple pie!”

Wynne stared after him for a second and sighed contentedly before turning to follow the other ladies. As Berte shut the heavy trap door, she teased, “I suppose you’ll be wanting to bake apple pies for dessert?”

Realizing her feeling for Gwaine were written all over her face, Wynne raised her eyes to Berte’s, not knowing what to say. First Merlin, and now Berte had noticed her love for the hnadsome dark-haired knight. If the other young ladies ofund out–oh, good heavens! If Gwaine found out–she would be mortified. She had to work harder at concealing her feelings.

Berte assigned each of the ladies to one of her assistants for the lunchtime tasks. Lavinia helped with bread and rolls, Bronwyn and Priscilla helped prepare the venison stew, and Wynne helped with desserts. Soon the kitchen bustled with activity as everyone went about their tasks. As she expertly peeled, cored, and chopped apples, Wynne heard Berte givingi nstructions nad offering corrections.

“Really, Bronwyn, you can hold on to the carrots as you chop them. You won’t cut off your fingers if you’re careful.”

“Priscilla, dear, don’t mince the venison. The knights like chunks of meat in their stew.”

“Lavinia, you needn’t punch the dough quite so hard; you’ll make the bread tough.”

When she came over to check on Wynne’s progress, she found the servant standing back watching Wynne work. When Berte gave her a questioning look, she said apologetically, “I’m sorry, mum. She’s so quick and efficient that she needs no help. I’m…learning from her.”

She chuckled warmly and pinched Wynne’s cheek. “That’s my lass. If you weren’t noble-born, you’d be taking my place someday.” Wynne smiled and sighed, almost wishing she could be a cook–or even a court physician–instead of a lady.

When the midday meal finally arrived, Wynne and the other young ladies helped the servants carry the food into the smaller dining hall. Unlike the others, Wynne had truly enjoyed her morning in the kitchens. There were spots on her dress and streaks of flour in her hair, but she didn’t care; she felt she had truly accomplished something, and she grinned from ear to ear as she set the food on the tables.

Wynne and her group ate in the kitchen with the servants, returning to the dining hall every so often to retrieve empty dishes or to refill platters or soup tureens. At last it was time to take the desserts out. In addition to Wynne’s apple pies, there were fruit tarts, pears simmered in cinnamon butter, and rich sugar-frosted cakes. Wynne carried apple pies to the knights’ table and watched Gwaine’s reaction out of the corner of her eye as she set the largest pie right in front of him. His brown eyes widened, and he stopped talking mid-sentence to stare hungrily at the pie. Sir Leon and Sir Elyan on either side of him turned to him in amusement. “Will wonders never cease?” Sir Elyan joked. “I thought nothing existed that would make Gwaine stop talking.”

Sir Leon laughed and replied, “Perhaps we should pack a few pies on our next quest.”

Wynne stifled a giggle and hurried back to the kitchen. She wanted nothing more than to see Gwaine’s expression when he took the first bite, but she didn’t want to be conspicuous. She was so intent on getting back to the kitchen that she didn’t see Berte lean in close to Gwaine and whisper, “Wynne made the apple pies all by herself. Taught my assistant a thing or two as well.”

Gwaine smiled broadly as he took a huge slab of pie and sank his teeth into it. “Mmmmm,” he hummed delightedly as the flavors danced on his tongue. He quickly finished his slice and cut another. Each bite seemed more delicious than the last, and by the time he finished his second slice, he thought he’d died and gone to heaven. Sir Leon and Sir Elyan, too, had sampled the pie and found it delightful. They joked back and forth that Wynne was certainly not awkward and clumsy in the kitchen.

As Wynne was returning to the dining hall to finish clearing away dishes, the knights were just leaving to return to training. Gwaine sidled up to Wynne and said, “I hear you made the apple pies.” When she nodded breathlessly, he smacked his lips consideringly and continued, “It was…good. Not quite enough sugar, and a bit too much cinnamon.” He winked at her and finished, “If you want to keep practicing your baking skills, I’d be willing to taste your efforts.”

As Gwaine sauntered out of the dining hall, Wynne stared after him, all but devastated, till Sir Leon stopped beside her. “Pay no mind to him, Wynne. He’s just having you on. He all but licked his plate clean after eating half the pie himself.”

Sir Elyan added, “Leave it to Gwaine to find a way to get more apple pie. ‘I’d be willing to taste your efforts.’ What a dollophead!”

They turned to leave the hall, and Wynne’s heart soared as she carried dishes into the kitchens. She would gladly bake him an apple pie every day if it made him happy. Maybe someday she could even sit with him as he enjoyed it.

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