Soapmaker Chronicles: Chapter 6 Part 2
(continued from May 21- Quentin and Elyse have repulsed a late night attack on the farm. When they awake the weather has turned and a blizzard has set in.
Throwing the dead man’s cape over the blankets on the bed gave us another layer of warmth. We couldn’t afford to waste anything, including someone else’s clothes. A long day that began in the middle of the night helped sleep come to us both. (4196 words).
Begin here (3285 words from here)
Morning moaned and howled, already missing the sun. Overnight the storm had turned into a blizzard that blocked out sight in all directions. Only the solid stone walls of the house kept its rage and commotion from us. Tying the rope between the house and the barn was just in time. It took four days for the fury to abate, and another one for it to give up completely. By then there was snow to my knees in the high spots, and drifts to my chest wherever it piled against anything. Winter gripped the world like she would never release it. The first exciting weeks of our life together was replaced by mutual fight against hunger and cold. The deer I’d killed earlier, and the horse from the fight, helped with the fight against hunger. Elyse was nearly always what kept me warm.
When sunlight brightened the east window in the bedroom that was our signal to rise. I’d get up first and stoke the fire. While she started breakfast I loaded her kindling box, and stacked wood by the fireplace to last the day. After breakfast I chopped wood to refill the back porch, then took Mike out of the barn to one of the fields. He grazed on young trees at the edge of the field if the snow was too deep. Or he’d dig through the snow to the frozen tufts of grass. Cleaning his stall and getting the goats a place to graze was next, followed by gathering eggs and checking on the chickens. Elyse usually stayed in the house. I brought her the eggs before going into my shop for the rest of the day. When Elyse ventured into the cold we’d hike around the farm, exploring nooks and crannies. Sometimes we’d find fox tracks, and once we guessed we saw a badger. One moment that took my breath away happened after an all day excursion. Late one afternoon she stopped and stared at something I didn’t see. Her hair and eyebrows were frosted by the cold, her cheeks kissed red by it, and her eyes sparkled in enjoyment of the moment.
We’d both heard of winter doldrums, which is one reason I insisted she come outside at least a few times. Her means of battling it was unique, and memorable. Evenings were usually spent fixing harnesses, or tools. She would sew or wash, or finish a project that didn’t take much light. But she decided that we would start making music. I told her that the mule could probably carry a melody better than I could, but the important thing to her was to try. Her voice was clear and beautiful, like a winter morning, and made my attempts feel futile. Somehow the house felt larger after we sang through the previous evening, and the doldrums were further away.
One week Elyse began complaining that I always dragged mud inside and would I just take my boots off on the porch and for crying out loud, this is the house and not the barn whenever I came back in. It was time to take her outside. When she ran out of things to do she’d start cleaning the house, and we were living in a polished world. One more day and I’d finish the Anti-Sorcerer Soap and we’d bundle up to explore again. That night I could see she was on edge. She didn’t even check whether I had taken my boots off and hung my coat up. Her intensity around the pot over the fire made me nervous. Perhaps I’d waited too long, and she had gone over the edge into winter doldrums. But there was excitement in her carriage and a flair to the way she brought the pot to the table that didn’t look like she was coping with being cooped up too long. Something was going on, because the pot had its lid on it.
“You’re smiling so wide it’s putting dimples in your cheeks. What’s going on?” I asked.
“Made something special.” she said, bouncing with excitement. “Open the lid.”
“What is this? Potato soup?” I asked. Somehow her smile got wider. “Where did you get the potatoes?”
“There’s carrots in there too. And tomorrow we can have some beets and fish.” she said.
“Did you become a conjurer? Where did this come from?”
“I knew you were putting the finishing touches to your Anti-Sorcerer Soap, so I didn’t want to bother you. I took a walk by myself. Right across the road from the garden is that stone pile. You said the people who build this farm must have thrown all the rocks from the fields they didn’t use there. Remember?” I nodded. “I climbed on top of it, to check out the view, and slipped off. A whole bunch of rocks started falling with me. The ones that fell exposed what looked like a door, so I pulled the rest away. The ones in front of the door made another pile, about as high as I am. When I opened it I found a root cellar. It’s almost as big as the house, without the bedroom. One part is under that pile of rocks, and another part is dug deeper. That’s where there are bins with vegetables and potatoes still in them. Plus, there’s shelves for more storage that have a few things on them. I had to pick through the potatoes to find some that are edible. Most of them are full of eyes and sprouting.” She was so excited, and it was good news. We had more food to eat, and something to feed the animals. Plus, we would plant some of it for food for later.
“Well, show it to me.” I insisted.
“After we eat.” Elyse replied. “I’ve been wanting something besides meat and dumplings for weeks and I’m not going to let this get cold.”
Second helpings for both of us was an indulgence we didn’t have often. It was already dark when she served supper, and the cellar wasn’t going anywhere, so we decided to wait until the next day. In the middle of the sing-along that night we both stopped.
“Quentin,” she paused.
“Why did the people who abandoned this farm take such care to hide a root cellar?” I asked.
“Exactly.” she said. “Even if all those rocks were already dug from the fields it would have taken a day or two to pile them over the cellar, and to hide the door the way they did.”
“What a lot of work to preserve some potatoes.” I said. “Especially when they abandoned the rest of the place.”
“Don’t forget the beets, did I tell you there’s beets there, too?” she said.
“I love beets.” I said. “But not enough to hide them away in a root cellar somebody may never return to.”
“If I had something else that I didn’t want anyone to find I might put it in that root cellar.” Elyse completed my thoughts. “Bury it under all those vegetables. If nobody found the cellar for a few years they’d start to rot, and who’d want to go digging around in it then?”
“If someone did occupy the farm, though, they’d dig out all the rotten stuff, and find it for certain.” I countered. “If I wanted it to stay hidden I’d make it look like it belongs there.”
“Are we talking gold?” she asked. “Jewels, maybe?”
“I’d take that stuff with me.” I said to her nod. “But maybe a map to more gold, or a jar of Aqua Vitae.”
“That’s a thought.” she said.
With those kinds of thoughts we finished supper, cleaned up, snuffed the candle and vowed to search the cellar in the morning. It proved disappointing. No chests of jewels, no chalice of Aqua Vitae. It was earthy and ripe, and cold. Parts of the shelves were so roughly made that they looked like they had been split instead of sawn. Only the top of them had been planed, and that not with any precision. It was as wide as my hand in places and no wider than my little finger in others. Unless Elyse was right, and whatever was hidden was buried under potatoes or beets, there was nothing hidden.
“Found the treasure.” Elyse told me a few days later. “It’s strictly for me, though.”
“Like finder gets it all?” I asked.
“Something like that.” she said. “More like finder has more use for it than you do. They hid a cookbook. I was looking through the cellar for stuff that’s still edible. I’ve cleaned out one of the bins and gotten down to the bottom. It’s a stone base. Anyway, then I decided to take those crockery jars off the shelves. I’d wash them up and we could store something in them. I picked one up and dropped it because I didn’t think it was going to have anything in it. Didn’t drop it very far, but hitting the wood didn’t sound like it should. I almost missed the sound. Instead of a solid thunk, like you’d hear dropping something on a board that thick, it sounded hollow.”
“Hollow? Like it was rotting?” I asked.
“Hollow, like that thick part was really a compartment. Like if you reach to the back of the shelf you feel the opening, and could feel there was something back there. I had to take everything off it and tilt it to get it off the supports. Pulled this out of it.”
A heavy leather-bound volume lay on the table, looking freshly cleaned. It still had a musty scent, like it had been in the cellar for years. Inside was drawings as well as recipes. Whoever wrote the book drew the plants she used in her dishes, drew pictures of the pots and measures, even whimsical illustrations of hands sowing seed, small scenes of farm life, and even magical creatures. She began the book with an illustration of the farm house, so we knew that all the dishes in the book could be made from local ingredients. And it really was a treasure.
“How could anyone willingly give up something so beautiful?” Elyse said. I had no answer. I wondered the same thing.
Although I’d never had a complaint about Elyse’s cooking, following the newly found cookbook transformed great tastes into spectacular ones. Farmers eat basic foods, meat and potatoes, and vegetables and fruit we grow. With help from the cookbook Elyse took our meager fare and made it tasty as well as nutritious.
There had to be something more in that cellar. I knew it. Or that cookbook had to be a magical book, disguised as a plain cookbook by a magical spell. Even this far from anyone and any wizarding folk, I dared not try revelation spells on it. No telling how long the effects of my attempt would linger, or what unsuspecting wizard or witch would wander by and be effected. After all, my wizard took me to that mountain village mainly because it was remote and unoccupied by other magicians. That’s where I caught my malady.
But he didn’t catch it. At least the Council didn’t ban him from magic. They banned me from performing spells in order to protect the magical community. Him they brought right into the capitol, to serve them. If anyone was to be feared it should have been the wizard who was with me when in my ignorance I tried every spell and charm I knew. If anyone was also afflicted it would be him. He should be carrying the malady too.
“You going to take over cooking?” Elyse asked. I was on the front porch taking advantage of the lengthening sun to read and ponder her cookbook.
“You know, when Audrex, my old wizard, took me to the Council, they forbade me from ever casting a spell or a curse again. Doing so could pass it onto any witch or wizard near. Audrex wasn’t constrained. In fact he’s now part of the Council Guards.”
“I’ve been thinking something.” she replied as if I hadn’t said anything. “If I was going to hide a treasure I’d put something valuable where it could be found easily, and make it nearly impossible to find the real stuff. This cookbook is a great find, but not worth protecting the way it was. I think you’re hunting for a magical hiding place when it’s a regular one.”
“Wouldn’t a spell hide something better than digging into the earth?” I asked.
“Unless a wizard knew something was hidden on this land. He’d then use magic to reveal it. You told me yourself how easy it is for any competent wizard to find missing things.” she reasoned.
“Yeah. And when he couldn’t find it he’d curse the land in anger. Hence, the Kurce-wyrms.” I said.
“Or, he sent the curse to drive the owners away, thinking they’d bring the treasure with them. It’s easier to ambush someone on the road than it is to hunt an entire property.”
“Let’s think.” I said. “Previous owner has a treasure that a wizard wants. Wizard curses the land to drive the owner off it. As the owner is on the road the wizard arranges for robbers to take everything. Then he hunts down the robbers, kills them and finds what he’s looking for. He gets to look like the hero for pursuing justice when he’s got the treasure and no live witnesses.”
“Except that the previous owner was smart enough to know what the wizard was looking for and hid it the common way.” she replied. “Then he hid something that resembles the treasure where it could be found. When you find something you usually stop searching. This cookbook is the distraction. You’ve been pouring over it for days now and you’re not using magic. How long do you think a wizard would spend on it? Days? Months?”
“So we’re looking for a book, a book of magical knowledge perhaps.” I said. “Then I deflated. “Since I can’t do magic any more it’s useless to me, and better left hidden away.”
“Unless,” she said, “it’s got knowledge of your malady, and a possible cure.”
“You think maybe?” Hope swelled for a moment. “That means we’re looking for another book, only this one full of magical knowledge, perhaps.”
Sunset was in another hour or so. Handing the cookbook to her I nearly ran to the cellar. Cursing myself as a fool for forgetting any source of light I turned to get some candles. Elyse was way ahead of me, carrying a lit lantern.
“Since I’ve spent more time in the cellar than you have, I remember how dark it is.” she smiled. “Let’s go look.”
We rapped on shelves, we knocked on the walls. I grabbed any and all protruding stones in the wall, and pulled. Then I pushed against each one of them. She grabbed and rattled the shelves, even sticking a knife into the wood of the support pillar and beams. Everything was solid. Nothing moved or wiggled. This was a well-built cellar, complete with stone floor. Stomping on it revealed no loose stones. Only by digging up every one, and tearing out every stone in the wall would we find the hidden chamber, if it existed. We were going to have to be satisfied with a marvelous cookbook.
Perhaps a warm woman’s body lying next to me, her breath against my chest and her hair tickling my arm and belly helped me think clearly. Elyse’s calm breathing and her bare thigh against mine told me how safe she felt, how secure. Stone walls surrounding us had kept cold winds away. They had helped repel invaders, and everything within was hers, including my arms. She claimed she slept better when they were wrapped around her. She reminded me of the treasure we were looking for. Now I knew where to find whatever was hidden in the root cellar. Resisting my first instinct to jump up, take the lantern and hunt for treasure became very easy. No treasure can replace the heat in my chest that comes when Elyse sleeps so quietly against me, or awakens with such a smile I can see it in the dark.
“You helped me think last night.” I said over the eggs she’d just taken from our chickens and cooked for breakfast.
“You helped me dream.” she replied with a mischievous smile.
“You have an ‘I can make more dreams come true’ look.” I told her. “Stop that, at least until I finish what I’m saying, okay?” I countered.
Remaking her expression Elyse turned her face into a bland mask. Any observer would think she’d done what I asked, until they looked under the table and saw her ankle caressing my lower leg.
“Back to the subject.” I nearly stammered. “Last night the way you were sleeping showed me how safe you feel.” She nodded. “Being on the farm protects you, the stone walls of the house protects you, and most of all I will always protect you.”
“I’ve done my share of protecting you, don’t forget.” she’d lifted my trouser leg and was stroking my bare leg with hers.