The first time I see her, it’s just a glimpse. I’m standing in the inn’s common room and the other warriors straddle chairs and call for ale. While some reach for a serving wench or boy, cheeks to pinch, a life to grasp—my stomach growls a monster’s growl. I should be slain; the growl is that fierce. I smell the roasting lamb, the unmistakable sneeze of freshly ground peppercorns, and garlic, but it’s all hidden behind the kitchen door.
A woman swears and laughs and swears again from that kitchen, and a boy comes out balancing trenchers of bread across his arms. Behind him, I see her wipe her hands across the measured curves of her hips. The back of her head is covered in short dark hair. She picks up a silver knife before the door slams behind the boy and the bread is at my table and I have thoughts for nothing else. But when I’ve stuffed myself to bursting, I hear her laugh again, and I’m not sure if I’ve imagined it or not.
After my companions and I have reveled away our fears for tomorrow’s campaign and some of them have passed out onto their tables, I rise to find my own bed.
She stands at the door of her kitchen, leaning, arms crossed beneath her chest. Her forearms are thick and knotted like braided dough. Her blouse is half unbuttoned, leading my eyes down the V between her breasts. The sheen of sweat, like condensation, makes me thirsty. She’s watching me—probably all of us, but I prefer to imagine that the sly smile is just for me.
“Gods’ blessings for the food,” I say, tipping my head.
“Come back alive,” she says. “There’ll be more.”
Her voice is delicious.
I come back alive.
She hands me my meal personally. There is no meat; war has ruined grazing and bloated the prices. But there’s butter, and rosemary, and warmed carrots that crunch when I bite them, and small roasted potatoes, skin crisped but flesh so soft that… I have to swallow tears. My friends hoot and cheer and pound the tables with their—blessedly—finally—empty fists.
I meet her that night in the kitchen. She has cleaned, but it still smells like yeast, that fermenting precursor to everything I’ve missed for months. A thumb of pale flour streaks across her dark forehead. Her hair has grown into short dreadlocks since I’ve been gone. She flings the rag over her shoulder and takes me by the hand. Pulls me closer. Leads me to her workspace. I am delightfully confused. When she bends me over and presses my breasts to the tabletop, I am delightfully afraid.
I’m not prepared for the dough-maker’s fingers, her fists, her forearms, the heels of her palms in the knots of muscle on my back as she pounds and stretches away the marching, the swords, the crouching, the shields, and the dead.
When my groans diminish to whimpers, and my whimpers slip to sighs, she lets me rise. My muscles sag with languor and I slump against her table. We stare at each other, two women alone in a kitchen with no intent to cook.
“Has anyone ever told you that you’ve skin the color of caramelized onions?” she asks. She brushes my scarred hand with burn-calloused fingertips. My hand. I imagine onions gone soft, brown and sweet, almost burnt.
With a scandalized laugh, I fall in love.
And so I stay with her, in the inn, for the next month. I never go hungry.
I am not so lucky the next time we leave.
Fewer than half of my companions return with me to her inn, and I, I can’t even turn my head or nod because of the jagged slice from my lower neck crossing to my left breast. The stained bandage is a foul butcher’s apron.
“I’ve got bread knives could do worse,” she says. But the tremor in her voice, and the way her eyes skim my lean, broken form, tell me that even she is unsure.
She delegates the kitchen to a younger woman not yet grown into her shoulders, and leads me to her room. She lays me down.
When she comes to me, her hands are cleaner than I have ever seen them. She unwraps me like a parcel she has waited too long for—uncertain she wants to see what’s inside. The smell assaults us both, and the battlefield stitching is an insult to precision.
She examines me like a piece of meat, and treats me as such:
First, she wipes me clean and pats me dry, humming under her breath, silent only when I wince. Then she leaves, and several minutes later, returns with a bowl of fresh herbs. Lavender, its scent covering something almost as foul as I was. Comfrey. I close my eyes as she presses them against my wound. I imagine her in her kitchen, chopping and tearing them, mashing them to paste, forearms rigid, forehead wrinkled in concentration. She is humming again.
I open my eyes and she smiles, then rewraps me. She nods, satisfied, but her lips are tight, twitching.
When we kiss, we taste salt.
© 2018 by C.L. Clark