You can’t feed a baby a steak, seared and charred with deep cuts over a grill. Crisp and taught tissue sealing in the blood and flavor inside. Served with fresh wild asparagus, perfectly tender and crisp the front teeth so it snaps quietly in your mouth. Idune’s mouth watered as he fed a small fire tiny sticks and tufts of dry grass. He was famished, watching the flames and mouthing his Uncle’s words: you can’t feed a baby a steak. He felt the night grow colder around him, creeping in on his small glow of warmth left. The stillness of the air settled like a shadow as he blew into the coals. The dark fell, and his baby had grown into a healthy little furnace no bigger than a cabbage.
Idune heard wheels turn through the silent din.
Wood clackied against wood and grew louder with stubborn hoof steps. When the sound was in sight, it bayed to a stop. Idune couldn’t see and tensed as footsteps approached through the dry, dirty grass. It felt like ages, one maybe two travelers. The road was well traveled, the only highway connecting the river towns in the valley. He knew what to do, and when two figures took shape against the light of the fire, he stood up.
“Greetings, fellows. Come, sit by the fire and warm yourselves.”
Two men emerged from the backlight, one older than the other, soft in the cheeks. The younger one was dirty with a dirty frown of hair on his upper lip.
“Fellow travelers indeed, young firekeeper. We gratefully accept your invitation.” They both plopped down, loud and weary.
Idune sat back down, keeping a fair distance across from them both, “As long as there are seats, a fire is never frugal with its bounty.”
“Well said, and well spoken my friend,” replied the older gentlemen. Large folds and wrinkles lined his face. He once weighed more than he does now, but it seemed that he kept his health. The younger one wore a leather cap with greasy strands of black hair escaping from its bottom.
The older man leaned forward with a smile, “What brings you to the land between towns, unless you have a bed hidden back there I can’t see?”
“The dirt is cheaper than a smelly worn cot,” Idune said, “I prefer to sleep outside anyhow.”
“I see,” the old man replied, “I would much prefer a soft warm bed, if I’m honest, but times are lean, and in lean times, we must forgo the luxuries we once enjoyed in bounty.”
His younger friend laughed sarcastically, “here we go with the lean times bit. You were a sheep herder you dim coot.”
The old man snapped his head, “I was no sheep herder you petulant twit!” His anger was palpable. “I commanded flocks across this valley, I traded in hundreds and spent in thousands. You couldn’t wear a shirt in the middle republic without touching a strand of my wool. The mills cowered in fear when they saw me coming. I saturated their production line and squeezed them until their profit was mere pennies per head. Power, you uppity perp, wool was power and a warm bed wherever I went.”
Idune was uncomfortable. He quickly tried to turn the conversation back to the banter of strangers, “What do you carry along the road these days, wool still?”
They both laughed now, which was a bit unsettling, “wool, wine, nails, bits of whatever we find and feed,” the old man answered. “Traders, I suppose, for what it’s worth. Not much to do but eak out what you can. And how about you, what keeps your belly full?”
Idune couldn’t help but smile on an empty stomach, “food and provisions,” he said.
The old man raised his eyebrows, “Provisions? You carry naught but pack, unless you are hiding bushels of apples behind under your bed back there.”
“My cargo doesn’t need cart or horse,” Idune said, “Mushrooms, for the kitchen.”
His eyes lit up, “Mushrooms! Oh, love mushrooms, golden brown in butter or stew. Here, let us have some. We can share some corded hare and make it as dish.” The old man nodded at the and told him to get to their bags, and after an exaggerated effort, the young man emerged with a long braided cord of meat.
Foul stuff, Idune thought. Corded hare was the lawless protein of the region. More often than not you could find four or five different rabbits in the three strands of meat, weaved together in a dry, gamey string. It was all too plenty, as rabbits were one of the few bountiful beasts in the valleys these days.
Still, hunger never says no. To share a meal was sacred, but his stomach would settle for blasphemy at this point.
“I’m afraid the mushrooms are not for eating,” he confessed with a bit of pride, “they are most likely worth more than your cart. I ferry them for my father, a chef in the merchant kitchens in Porto Monilia. He is no master, but he is masterful yet.”
There was space in the moment as the flames cracked. The old man sunk down into the light of the fire, Idune could see a bit of loss on his face. He knew the look, he’d felt it and seen it felt, even though he was still a young man. The mushrooms were more to him than a good meal.
“Still,” Idune spoke up, “I wouldn’t be a chef’s son without knowing how to brighten up a bit of corded hair. Pass it here and let me see what we are working with.
The men exchanged looks and shrug, and handed the cord over to Idune. It was about three feet in length, a full serving from the butcher or bandit that sold it to them, the same thing as far as Idune was concerned. He could tell right away that any vitality the hares might of had in life was stamped out along with it. The braids of meat were a dull, cloudy grey. It would need to be soaked for days just to soften it up to a tender bite. He brought the braid close to his nose and breathed deep. He smelled the dust from the road, the grease from the young man’s hand and hair, and then a bit of the flesh. One of the rabbits lived a long life, another a short. He felt up and down the cord and found a stiff bit of scar tissue, perhaps a failed trap or deep thorn. It would need more than what he had on hand to turn it into something special, but when in doubt, reach for the chef’s best friend.
Idune pulled a small, worn wood canister from a deep circular pouch on the side of his pack. He turned his pack around and pulled out a small, shallow skillet, black with fire and seasoning. He flattened the fire with it before putting it directly onto the coals so every inch was touching.
Finally, Idune reached to his hip and unsheathed his knife. He measured up the cord and cut off enough for three modest servings, not wanting to presume too much with food that was not his own. He broke down the braids and lay them on a the lid of his leather pouch, flat against the ground. Idune washed the leather with a bit of water, and then the meat. As his audience watched, he began mincing the hare into what might as well have been ground pepper. He made quick work of it, adding another splash of water to the pile. Idune turned to the now glowing skillet and doused it with water, which evaporated before it hit the metal.
Idune turned toward the younger man, “May I see your cap, good sir?”
He reached up and handed him his hat. Idune filled it with the last of his water before picking up the hare in handed and spreading it on the skillet. As the meat hit, it made almost no sound, having not fat to sizzle. Idune flipped the cap onto the skillet. The young man’s eyes grew worried, but just as he sat up to say something Idune removed the cap and took the pan from the fire. Idune opened the canister and pinched a bit onto the meat, grinding it in with the flat of his blade.
“It will be cool enough to eat shortly,” he said. The two man came around Idune’s side of the fire. The old man reached down, picking up a bit of the near scalding meal with his finger tips, dropping it in his mouth. His eyes widened and he turned to idune and exclaimed, “Salt!”
Idune’s father would be furious if he knew that that he had wasted such a precious bit on such a sorid dish, but he didn’t care. The hare tasted incredible, the best thing he could remember eating, but he couldn’t remember much in the moment. The three devoured the meal and fell asleep by the coals.