The wind snaked through the porous walls of the Old Stone Keep, lifting the tapestries and carrying in a fresh bouquet of dank river air. The hall was still empty, but I could feel that room's anticipation. The newly built tables, the freshly lit torches, the colorful tapestries, and cleanly swept floors all screamed at me that this was a room waiting to be filled. Tonight, in this room, the reins of power would finally be pulled taught and the Kingdom of Parna would again respond to their commands. I took a deep breath of chilled moist river air and held it until the taste of the river: the decay from washed away crops and the human wastes of the city over-powered the scented braziers and smells of fresh hay.
The cold wet drafts reminded me of my first days in this country 30 years ago and my time with my old tudor. “All of Parna is divided into fours,” Steward Bjorvon had said as we rode down from the mountains, “Four rivers, Four regions, Four faiths and Four peoples. “ Like most holy men, Bjorvon was an all-knowing smoke artists and like most blow hards he would sacrifice truth and twist facts to make a compelling narrative. Such was the case then, defining the nation as fours gave his story a theme. After 30 years in Parna, I would say that there are five important rivers, only three majors faiths, and at least seven regions worth distinguishing in terms of taxes and land value. But there are four tribes of people, and tonight our new King, a strong lad of 12 years named, needs to demonstrate to those tribes the kind of rule he can offer powerful men of his kingdom.
My mother told me that the best part about commanding a foreign people was their ignorance prevented them from recognizing uncouth or suspicious behavior. The Mitirangu servants that I had acquired to organize the banquet did not realize that a Warrior-Lord like myself should not concern himself with table arrangements, or seating charts. Thus, my servants carried out my instructions smoothly and without a single raised eyebrow. Indeed they kept me informed, as informed as a Queen, of the preparations for the banquet. Had I been able to find Ator peasants in Parna they would've been made uncomfortable by my interest and their gossip regarding a warrior's atypical behavior would no doubt make it way to the Ator lords and worse, their wives. Ivanvil servants, such that had served the previous king, were willful and difficult to manage, despite being able to keep a secret. Members of the Sabatallee tribe weren’t to be trusted in any situation.
But my Mitirangu servants had seen to my wishes and on the day of the banquet I sat two places to the left of the young king, and I placed Parna's two principle religious figures along side the king. The Chief Steward of Ro’arck and the High Priest Bell’ra flanked the boy. According to their sermons , these two religious leaders represent entirely different theologies and ethnicities, but as men they were both political animals.
The presence of the two most relevant holy men would confirm the king’s religious mandate and draw attention away from myself and my role as reagent. The gravitas of both theologians would also press a degree of restraint upon the crowd and force them to bare many insults without outburst: insults being an unavoidable design flaw of the royal court. The Mitirangu would be offend that the Queen, a Mitirangu herself, was not at the table, but the proud Ator Lords would be unable to accept any woman, much less a Mitirangu, to be seated while they ate. The placement of the Priest of Bell’ra on the king’s right might suggest to some that the King is going to favor the Mitirangu religion, but you can’t please everyone. Indeed better that those of wealth and power in the kingdom talk about the respective roles of the two churches in the new government and whether or not the Queen be seated or standing than discuss how I will handle the regency.
During the banquet, things were going well. The clique of newly established Mitirangu lords sat on the left side of the hall. Though they dressed their ethnic part, wearing long shapless sepia shiffs, sandals and carrying heavy walking staves, I knew better then to dismiss them as peasants. These men were not naïve to Ator ways such as the servants I had enlisted nor were they new to the halls of power. They were only new to the hall as occupied by this royal line. These were the wealthy “Big-men” or children of the wealthy Big-men that had ruled Parna before the Ator conquest. They’d possessed enough political savvy to maneuver themselves back into the halls of power within a generation of being disposed. It was one their daughters that had married the prince who is now king. A marriage designed to unify the Mitirangu and Ator interests regarding the management of land.
On the other side of the hall sat the Ator Lords. They are mostly holy warriors. Thus, they are clad in the bleached white tunics of Ro'arck's chosen, and each devotedly armed with flail or mace. For thirty years these men or their fathers had ruled Parna. They possessed the loyality of the professional soldiers, owned herds of horses and each Lord was himself a charismatic war leader and politician. But as group they are a pack of boastful trained killers certain of divine favor.
Seated among the Ator were a hand full of Ivanvil noblemen, mostly distant family of the King’s mother and were largely of no consequence save one: Hokam the Apostate. This paranoid and eccentric mage had raised himself to highest circles of power through will and ruthlessness alone. He sought no alliances and he needed no alliances, but many a man owed him a debt. I’d never want to be to the man that ever made him feel a fool. From the Sabatallee tribe there was the corpulent and wealthy merchant Ravennai and his entourage of family and sycophants. Like the King before, I knew that eventually the young King and I would need to ask Ravennai for a favor of cash or influence. Tolerating his singing and joking entourage would pay for itself eventually
Each faction hoped to influence the new King or at least keep others from gaining an advantage by influencing the young monarch. I publicly swore to the King’s recently departed father that I would protect his son and rule as reagent until the King’s majority. But in order to keep my position I had to appear humble before those assembled. I could appear in no way to be assuming the trappings of the crown. Aside from placing myself a seat away from the King and thus the throne I also made sure that my chair was lower than the kings and my wine goblet smaller.
All was well until my wife came into room. My Lady Drussell placed my dinner in front of me, a stew of wild elk in a trencher of barely bread. The Queen, a Mitirangu woman and not use to woman's role in an Ator court, placed the King’s meal down second. Lady Drussell’s insult of serving me, her husband, before the King did not go unnoticed and the room went silent.
The Mitirangu were incensed, the King’s father in-law jumped to his feet, quarterstaff in hand, and struck the floor loudly with his weapon. My Lady Drussell walked to the women’s chamber door and exited without paying him a glance and the Ator warriors laughed. “Staff is too small someone yelled” in Ator. I had to douse this flame before it got out control. So placing my hands at my side, I lowered my head and waited for the King to eat from his wife’s dish. As soon as he took a bite I said,
“Your Highness, did you know that I did not eat bread until I was older than you are now. It wasn’t until I came to Parna that I first ate a piece of bread.” I spoke loudly so that the room might hear.
“Did they not have bread in Ator?” the King said his mouth full.
“We did not when I was child, we had wheat dumplings, but they were boiled. We did not have true bread made with ground flour, milk, eggs, leavened and baked in a true oven. It was actually when I was on my way to Moltov’s court, your father’s court, at the age of 13. My tutor, a Steward by the name of Bjorvon and I had just crossed the Ven Mountains at the Falls of Goldenfraye, but rather than travel westward along the river, he took us South.”
“Into the Lower Hearnt, away from the capital. Why?” the young king asked, emphasing his knowledge of geography.
“Yes your highness the Hearnt, though at 13 I didn’t yet know the names of Parna as well as your majesty does at 12. Though, I do remember everything perfectly Bjorvon had our God Ro’arck touch my mind so that I might perfectly recall all that that glib cleric taught me. Yet I was not as quick as his highness is at this age and it wasn’t until we had been riding away from the river half a day in the rain that I finally thought to ask him where we were going.”
“Bjorvon said to me ‘The first thing everyman should do when he gets to Parna is head to straight to the village of Dibre (DEE-bray) and get himself an Mikate. (mee-kah-TAY).’
’What is an Mikate?’, I asked my master
“Well your highness, Bjorvon explained it to me as follows. He said ‘First let us do a little bit disambiguation; the word Mikate just means bread in Mitirangu. Actually it is the plural of the word mkate, which is refers to a loaf of bread. And if I may take this a step further, the Mitirangu actually have 114 words for bread. Indeed there is not a direct translation for the word “bread” in Mitirangu. Mkate’s are loaves of leavened bread, in which after the dough has risen it is brushed with in raw egg, stuck to a ceramic sheet and placed in a coal oven. The oven is important, Mikate is made in a coal burning oven. Mikate made in a wood burning oven or a dung burning oven just isn’t the same. That is one reason you can only get a true Mikate, in south eastern Parna, because they don’t have easy access to coal in the rest of the country.’
The King interrupted my story and asked “How can you get ‘A Mikate,’ if Mikate is plural?”
“Well Bjorvon explained the we were not actually getting bread or at least not just the bread, but we were getting cold pies made with that bread. He told me to steel myself to the discomfort of this journey for it will be well worth it ‘because, we are going to have the greatest cold pie ever made by mortal hands. ’
When I had finished that line I looked from the King back towards the Mitirangu lords. They were listening to my story. The king’s father in law actually corrected me. The Mitirangu have 121 different items that we Ator all call bread. One of the minor Ivanavil lords shouted “Toftskinka” after I had addressed the King.
“What is Toftskinka?” the King asked me. The poor boy had truly been sheltered.
“Toftskinka, is the other main ingredient in a Mikate. It is an Ivanvil meat dish. The organs of a sheep, along with bits of meat and sinew are mashed up, mixed with spices, salts and put into a ceramic container with a lid. The Ivanvil dig a hole fill it with hot coals, place the container in the hole and cover it. The Ivanvil say a few magic words and then let it sit in there for hours. The meat is cooked inside the container, which actually seals itself while it is cooking. The Ivanvil have been making this for years. When Kress and your ancient ancestor Parna himself, sunk the castle of an Evil Queen, it had large store of Toftskinka in it. An Ivanvil miner exploring an ore vein came upon the sunken castle’s store house three hundred years later and found a dozen Toftskinka jars unbroken. He fed his entire family for a month with those jars, and the Ivanvil have huge families. Indeed Lord Hokam himself makes a good Toftskinka. Toftskinka are delicious, do not spoil, but served alone they can be too salty and greasy for most palates. ”
I pushed my wife’s stew completely aside, “The cold pie is made by taking two mkate loaves and cutting or scrapping away the crust that was attached to clay sheet in the oven. Then while the bread is still hot you place a big slice of cold Toftskinka in there. The heat from the hot bread gets all the grease and mutton fat flowing and it seeps into the pores of loaves”
The First Brother of the Church of Bell’ra spoke up in his sputtering accent. “I prefer Toftskinka served with mikatunda (fruit breads)”
The giant bejeweled form of Ravennai lumbered up to the royal table and said, “Ossa does not make mikatunda.”
The king looked at me quizzically. “Who is Ossa?”
I replied with a nod towards Ravennai, “Ossa is the baker of Mikate in the southern Hearnt. My old Ator master Bjorvon took me a hundred miles out of my way just to visit Ossa’s oven. It is not a true Mikate bread pie unless the mkate were baked in Ossa’s oven.” I nodded aplogeticly at the high priest.
The King expressed mild surprised, “I didn’t know I had any woman bakers in my Kingdom.”
Before the first brother of Bell’ra could speak I explained, “In the Mitirangu villages, most of the ovens are run by the Priests of Bell’ra, we Ator are not bakers and the Ivanvil typically don’t mill their grain to flour. But Ossa is a Sabatallee.”
Ravennai added, “Ossa is a cousin of mine your grace.” I doubted that was true, but I would let Ravennai interject himself as he wished.
The King looked around, only the High Steward of the Church of Roarck was not paying attention, and he asked. “But Ossa makes Mitirangu bread even though she isn't Mitirangu?”
Ravennai explained, “We Sabatallee are not just great horseman and breeders of horseman but also great craftsmen. We learn what ever skills our friends from other tribes are willing to teach us.” Ravennai wanted to King to allow the Sabatallee to own their horse herds again but still pasture them on the King’s land.
The King nodded in acknowledgement towards Ravennai. It was a gesture I taught him. The nod was a subtle way of telling a subject that their time with the King was finished. Ravennai took the cue and returned to his table. Then the King leaned over the High Steward and asked me. “What makes this Ossa’s woman’s bread so special, she can’t really make a better bread than Priest’s Bell’ra? All their bread is blessed.”
The High Steward of Ro'ark hurmphed at this praise of another faith by his king, and I explained that Ossa herself enchanted her breads. “Ossa uses Sabatallee Rune magic, she draws runes into the dough of each loaf before she bakes it. These runes are wards that prevent the bread from growing moldy, too dry or soft after it comes out of the oven. As long as the rune is still on her bread it tastes a fresh as the day it came out the oven. Additionally, Ossa runes also puts a hex on the bread, so when you…”
The King, looking perplexed, shouted out to Lord Hokum. “Lord Hokum, what is the difference between a warding rune and a hexing rune?”
Hokum, as per his style, spit out his mouth full of food onto the table and replied, “A warding rune prevents change and a hexing rune induces a change.” The sound of Hokum’s voice gave both the high priests of the land an opportunity to hurumph. They made no effort to hide their disgust with Hokum who was a publicly avowed abstainer from all faiths.
The King’s mother had been Ivanvil, and despite her eventual disgrace, the King’s father had made an effort to raise his son to respect Ivanvil traditions. There is always something seductive and appealing about the Wisdom and Arts of mages. This can be particularly true in the eyes of young men who might see practitioners of magic as having some insight into the world that other men may not. I worried that I might have a rival for the King’s attention in Hokum.
To that end, I explained to the boy king in a low voice that “Hokum, while a great scholar of the arcane, is not a master warding and hexing such as Ossa. Hokum studied the ancient whispers and learned how to pluck at threads of fate but the true masters of the rune magic are the Sabatallee.”
“Which magic is stronger,” his grace asked me.
“The Gods are stronger,” replied the First Brother.
“But among the magics I add that the arts of runes and the arts of whispers are as different as Mitirangu breads. Hokum’s art is powerful, the great hero Kress was part of the same tradition as Hokum.”
The King had always been enthusiastic about the stories of the ancient heros of Parna and at the mention of Kress he quickly added, “Yes, and he used his magics to push a whole castle into the earth.”
I returned the boys smile and said “True my Grace, but whisper magic is a like song when it is over it is as gone as a breeze. Rune magic can be held forever, an mkate loaf with one of Ossa’s wards on it will be as a fresh as the day it was baked a hundred years from now. Ossa also puts a hex mark on the loaf as well, this second Rune is all but perfectly finished all you need trace a line along the side of the mark and the bread will warm itself in your hand. I have heard of sailors and soldiers trapped in torrential storms enjoying hot meals because of Ossa’s runed Mikate.”
The King asked, “Why don’t we have our bakers put Runes like that on the bread?”
“The rune’s are Ossa’s secret. It is not enough to simply copy a Rune. In order to imbue it with magic, the writing of the rune must be performed as a ritual. These rune rituals may include simply whether or not a brush or stylus stroke was made up to down or top to bottom. Conversely, they may demand fasting or even a certain posture on the part of the artist. The Sabatallee’s have practiced the runes for years, but I am not sure any one rune artist has mastered all the Runes.” I noted that the room had grown fairly quiet listening to my story.
“So it is the magic that makes the Mikate special?” the young royal asked me.
“Horsebane!” shouted one of the Ator lords.
In response to that the High Steward of the Church of Roarck cleared his throat and said in agreement “Horsebane”
“Yes, mkate, Toftskinka and the rune are only three parts of a true Mikate pie. To be a real Mikate you spread crushed horsebane root between the two piece of bread of as well. Growing up in Ator, I was familiar with Horsebane, I grazed horses and I’ve seen the beast avoid those leaves like they were poison. But Horsebane isn’t poison it just has a very strong burn to it. The first time I had horse bane was on that trip to Ossa’s. Horsebane, only grows in Ator, and Bjorvon was bringing horsebane as a gift to Ossa. Bjorvon was not a small or naturally proportioned man. He enjoyed his food to excess and to this end he was a true friend to every great baker, brewer, hunter and cook from the Tumult Ocean to the Nili Sea. One night as we sheltered by a pitiable fire beneath the great Ven mountain range that makes up the Eastern border of your Kingdom he insisted that I eat a pinch of Horsebane paste.”
Several Ator men shuddered or snickered, I looked at them and, “Which of us hasn’t fallen for that trick in our youth? The pure horsebane burned my tongue and the delicious pain shot up through my nose. I could feel the spice in the back of my head. I danced around with pain and actually started chewing grass in search of relief. However, don’t let this discourage you my king, because when it, horsebane paste, is spread across a warm Mikate, and it is mixing with the grease from the Toftskinka it bring the flavors of the bread and spices in the meat to life. In fact my King, that is why I am not eating what my wife prepared me. She is from Ator and as we know the Ator do not understand the art of food. When I remember the taste of a true Parnan Mikate meat pie I can’t bring myself to eat anything else.”
The banquet went as well I could hope after that.
Later that night I was in my small keep on the far side of the Capital. My wife had stayed behind at the royal residence. This was for the best because it gave me time to spend with my mistress. Yet the lack of dinner had left me too famished to preform any task other than eating. With my paramour waiting patiently by the bed, I carefully removed a bundle from the hinged floor chest I had owned for decade. Taking the item wrapped in fine flax linen, I moved to the small corner table that held a single candle. As I folded back the oily fabric, I disrupted an decade old ruin that had been carefully drawn over the layers of cloth. Once it was broken, I inhaled the odors of fresh baked bread and spicy salted meat.
Underneath the cloth wrapping was a perfectly persevered Mikate: The bread, the Toftskinka and horsebane paste all perfectly fresh and moist as they were when the warding had been painted on. I drew the line down the side on the second hex mark on the bread with my finger nail and as the bread heated it sent another wave salty and savory aromas into the little room.
“What is that” my Ator born mistress asked me.
“This is an Mikate, a truly Parnan dish. This piece of food represents all four tribes of Parna.”
I lifted up the metaphorical representation of the Kingdom and took a bite. The bread was crisp on the outside and chewy in the middle and filled with salty and savory flavors of the Toftskinka. This particular Toftskinka was made more with sage and rosemary, which gave it a fuller more complex taste. All this was before the of horsebane’s burn that brought tears to my eye and caused my nose to run. As I chewed I let out a sigh of satisfaction.
“Is it good my lord,” said my woman.
“It is exactly what I want. And I don’t intend to share it.”