Friday, February 16, 2007

The Asgard Stories

The Prophecy

Midnight Alchemy

“Why me,” Jens thought? “I’m just the boot boy, and any one of the kitchen staff could have been sneaking a midnight snack, or it could have been one of the Royal Guards for that matter. They’re always in the kitchen. Why couldn’t it have been one of them? They’re brave and would have told. I didn’t mean to spy on the princess. Why did she have to come down while I was there?”

Fresh berries were a seasonal treat and the crates unpacked earlier in the day offered a temptation Jens couldn’t resist. He had waited several hours after everyone in the castle was asleep before he dared to sneak down to the kitchen. Barefoot, the boy had navigated the dark hallways and circular steps without making a sound.

The head cook personally checked all the fruit and vegetables, and culled the choicest produce for the royal family. There was always a lot left over, and Jens was pleased to find the berries already separated and in bowels on the preparation table. There were several large soapstone bowls with berries that had not been chosen for the royal family. What was left was appreciably less than what had been delivered and Jens was sure that the kitchen staff and senior royal attendants had already eaten their fill. As such, he started to feel less guilty about sampling “his” share. Now that the tasty berries were within reach, his pangs of guilt disappeared in favor of those of desire and hunger.

“I’m just as important as any of the kitchen maids. Why shouldn’t I enjoy a few berries that no one will miss,” he rationalized as he scooped a handful into his mouth?

The berries had been wonderful, but in retrospect Jens wished he had never eaten a single berry, and he felt sure that none would ever taste the same again.

When Jens first heard the footsteps, he presumed one of the maids was sneaking down for the same purpose, and he might not have hidden but for the realization that the person coming down the stairs was wearing shoes with metal toes, an affectation peculiar to the princess, and the soft but unmistakable clicks confirmed her identity as surely as if a Royal Herald had announced her name.

The pantry served as a convenient hiding place but even with the door closed, Jens could still see most of the kitchen through the cracks. Of course he looked, but afterwards, he wished the door had been solid.

“If only I’d never looked, or had tried to look but couldn’t see,” he thought.

The princess was carrying a sack, which she placed on the table. There was something wriggling inside and Jens wondered what creature was trapped, and for what purpose.

After lighting candles in the wall fixtures and several on the table, the princess started a fire under a small black cauldron she had filled with water. The candlelight softened the princess’ gaunt features and imparted a warm yellow tone to skin that normally looked pale and anemic.

She wore a long black tunic gathered at each shoulder with oval brooches, between which hung a string of carnelian beads that connected with a larger round brooch in the middle of her chest. The brooches were silver and had an intricate design of intertwined serpents with tiny rubies set in their eyes. Under the tunic she wore a gray silk chemise without sleeves that was buttoned at the top with a carnelian bead the size and shape of a small acorn. Her bare arms were thin and wiry and reached out to similarly shaped fingers capped with nails bitten to the quick. An amber clip secured thin translucent hair that was plaited, and fell over her back and between her bony shoulder blades.

“In this light she almost looks pretty,” thought Jens, but then the princess’ red eyes flashed in the firelight. A cold chill rippled down his spine and erupted as goose bumps on the back of his neck, and Jens thought otherwise.

Once the water was boiling, the princess opened the sack and removed a toad the size of a kitten, which she dropped into the water before the poor creature could so much as croak a protest.

The princess stoked the fire and again brought the cauldron to a boil and then went back to the table where she rummaged in the sack and removed several items.

Jens watched while the princess placed the bloated body of a dried fish covered with tiny spines, the skull of a small animal, some brittle leaves, and the dried roots of several different plants in an alabaster mortar. She ground these items with a pestle and transferred the resultant dirty gray powder into a wooden bowl. The cauldron with the boiled toad simmered on the fire, and the princess skimmed a translucent oily scum from the surface with a wooden spoon and added the thick fluid to the powder in the bowl. As she mixed the contents she chanted an incantation most of which Jens could not hear. The only words that he thought he heard were, “the living dead,” and these only because the princess repeated the phrase several times.

After the princess added the oily scum, the powder in the bowl turned from dirty gray to glistening white and crystallized into what looked like salt or sugar. Jens watched as the princess carefully transferred the white granules into a tiny vial, taking special care that not a grain came into contact with her skin.

The princess carefully cleaned the mortar and pestle, and put the bowl, spoon, and sack into the fire. When the flames were high she immolated the remains of the toad on the tiny funeral pyre. Once the toad had been consumed the princess dowsed the fire with water from the cauldron. After a glance confirmed that all evidence of her nocturnal visit was gone, the princess placed the vial into an inside pocket of her cloak, and left.

Jens did not come out of the panty until the soft clicking had disappeared far up the stairwell. When he did, the vapors from the toxic fire still lingered, and made his eyes, nose and throat burn.

“Poison,” he realized, “but for whom?”

Jens considered whether he should inform the King, but like most of the castle staff, he was frightened of the red-eyed princess, and the fear hindered his otherwise good intention. He spent an agonizing day trying to steal the courage necessary to do the right thing, but each time he started towards the royal chambers, he lost his nerve and returned to his cleaning duties.

Later that day, as he was cleaning boots in the stables, he learned that Queen Freyja had collapsed and died within seconds of eating some vegetables that she had salted. When Jens cried everyone thought his grief was for the Queen, but his tears flowed just as much for shame as for sadness.

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