Late that night Elle crept down the hallway that led to the kitchens. The castle was quiet, not just because the servants couldn’t talk, but because everyone was asleep. It was the dog watch of the night, and Elle had spent hours tossing and twisting in her bed. She was so restless Jock had abandoned her after the first hour.
“If I can’t rest I may as well get a snack,” Elle said, following the corridor.
When she entered the kitchens, Elle was shocked to find Bernadine, alert and working. The doughy woman was puttering around her domain, arranging gleaming pots and inspecting fresh produce, and she was not alone. Heloise sat on a stool at the table Bernadine bustled around, nursing a cup of steaming tea.
“Bernadine, Heloise?” Elle said, alerting the women to her presence.
Bernadine smiled and beckoned Elle in. When Elle stalled, somewhat embarrassed to be seen by the older women in her dressing gown, the cook waddled forward and grasped her hand, pulling her into the warmth of the kitchen.
The air smelled like freshly baked bread, and two fireplaces blazed with cheerful flames. Jock slept on his back, his belly exposed to the world, cuddled next to a kitchen cat that was kept to keep the chateau clear of mice.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Elle said, sliding onto a stool next to Heloise.
Bernadine smiled at Elle and wrote, You came to the right place, before she grabbed a fresh loaf of bread with a towel and started sawing at it with a formidable looking knife.
Heloise retrieved another cup and saucer. She poured out a serving of tea and presented Elle with the cup.
“Thank you,” Elle said, sipping the tea. It was chamomile, lightly sweetened with honey. It warmed Elle from the inside out, and took the stiffness out of her shoulders.
Bernadine slathered butter on a steaming slice of honey oat bread before she placed it on a plate and slid it in front of Elle.
Elle bit into the rich bread, sighing with satisfaction.
Now, what has you upset? Bernadine asked.
“I’m not upset, it is merely that I cannot sleep,” Elle firmly said before sipping her tea.
That’s the worst lie you’ve ever told. Heloise wrote.
You clearly have something on your mind. Tell us, you’ll feel better, Bernadine urged.
You’ve raised Bernadine’s curiosity now. There will be no silencing her until you tell, Heloise wrote when Elle delayed replying by eating more warm bread.
“I was thinking of the mountain hag,” Elle said.
Heloise crossed herself, and Bernadine puffed up like Jock when he barked at Severin. Neither Bernadine nor Emele had taken the news of the mountain hag particularly well when Severin and Elle returned from their ride. Elle half expected the ladies maid to insist on sleeping in her room that evening.
Bernadine tugged on her mask before writing, It is a good thing His Highness was able to protect you.
Heloise nodded once and raised her tea cup in a silent toast.
The memory is keeping you awake? Bernadine added to her slate.
“In a way,” Elle said. “I don’t understand why Severin protected me.”
It is the duty of a man to protect his companions, Heloise wrote.
“To a certain extent, that is true. But the hag was threatening him, and I don’t believe it was a mere play. She would have harmed him.”
His Highness is too good of a soldier to be taken down by a mountain hag, Bernadine wrote, her small lips twisted in disgust.
“But why did he even take the chance?” Elle asked, cradling her tea cup.
His Lordliness will make extravagant sacrifices for those he treasures, Heloise wrote with some wryness.
“I cannot be important to him. I’m nothing but a rooftop prowler,” Elle said.
But you are important to him, Bernadine wrote.
Only His Greatness can answer that question, Heloise said, spinning her slate for Elle to see.
Bernadine eagerly scribbled away on her slate. How do you feel for His Highness? Is he important to you?
Elle stared at Bernadine. “After staying here for so long one would think I would no longer be shocked by your boldness or match making ways.”
Bernadine has the subtlety of an avalanche, Heloise wrote.
Bernadine silently chuckled, nearly bowling Heloise over on accident with her plump backside when she walked around the table to check a pot boiling over the open fire.
Heloise turned so her pronounced nose thrust in Elle’s direction. At minimum you feel friendship for His Worthiness. You laugh and enjoy your encounters with him.
Bernadine eagerly waddled back to her slate on the table. If the roles were reversed and it was you facing the mountain hag for His Highness’s sake, would you do it?
“Of course, but that’s different. He is a sovereign. The country needs him.”
You would not try to save him for any other reason? Bernadine asked.
“I don’t know,” Elle said, eating the last bite of her bread.