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Sketches: The Master Herbsman

This sketch is set in the world of Thalandria, more precisely, in the country of Whyla. It was written while I was working on the actual map of the region. It brought the region to life for me.

Across the Birkland Plantation the smell of fresh baked bread filled the air. Dawn was only an hour away but by the time the inhabitants had risen, the central kitchen would be ready for them. And when the task of providing a hearty breakfast was done, there was dinner to worry about. Life in the plantation’s kitchen seemed a never ending string of meal planning, food preparation and clearing up. The only duties that Aras really enjoyed were the shopping journeys. Most of the meals’ ingredients were produced on the plantation grounds itself. Only rarely did the occasion arise that required an expedition to the markets down at Farley or even to the city stalls of Chali.

The annual Spring celebration was such an occasion. It was a time to start a new apprenticeship or have a joining ceremony. It was a time for new beginnings and the end of feuds and scarcity. For Aras it meant the first trip away from the plantation since the beginning of last year’s autumn. He ached to pass the strong fences that encircled the plantation grounds and feel the freedom of treading the forest floor and walking a path that belonged to no one. Freedom and wanderlust pulled at his attention, causing him to burn his hands as he took the hot fresh loafs from the oven and set them to cool on the breakfast rack. He cast an anxious eye at the path that lead from the main house to the central square where people gathered for their morning meal. In the fading darkness, the square and the house looked to be slumbering, on the edge of springing awake.

“If only he would hurry,” Aras muttered as he held his burnt hand into a jug of cold water. If the Master Herbsman was waiting much longer, he would be mustered into the breakfast serving army. Once busy with that repetitive task, he might miss the Herbsman and be denied this escape from routine boredom. Aras was lucky that day.

Thalen Ithyla, Master Herbsman, was just rounding the corner of the kitchen’s ovens, when Valas, Mistress of the Kitchen reentered her domain.

“Many blessings on this fine morning to you, beautiful mistress,” Thalen said and bowed with a flourish, his hat held in one hand.

“Don’t waste your flattery on me, Master Herbsman,” Valas said but she straightened her apron and dusted off some of the flour that had stuck to it.

“No indeed, I am merely stating a fact. I have not even began to flatter.” Thalen aimed a smile that didn’t miss it’s mark. She smiled back, almost without thinking. “I am here this morning to ask a humble favour of you, dear mistress.”

“Oh?” She eyed the man warily, her smile already fading.

“I will be traveling upriver this morning, and I had hoped to enlist the company of your scullery boy.”

Her head whipped round to where Aras was still cooling his burnt hand. Aras tried to look meek, mildly surprised, and very much not eager to go.

“Hmm, him eh? She made a dismissive gesture with her hand. “What use can you have of a lazy nitwit like him?”

Thalen shrugged, his eyes drawn to the freshly baked breads.

“I need someone to carry for me on the journey. I’m sure he would do. Is that … dark Whylan loafen?” He licked his lips.

Valas, against her better judgement, took up a damp cloth and folded one of the loafs into it.

“Here,” she said, “take this and the boy. You will be doing me kindness on the latter and an honour on the former.”

“Oh but please, great mistress!” Thalen looked embarrassed. “I can’t just accept a gift so rare and wonderful.” He paused and then began to search his pockets. He smiled triumphantly as he found a little vial, full of dark-green dried leaves. “Let us exchange a gift then. Your loaf for this vial of cambria.” He glanced at the boy. “Oh, and I’ll relieve you of your scullery boy, of course.”

Mistress Valas seemed in doubt but her eyes never left the little vial as she pretended to weigh the trade. Then she sighed and passed him the bread. “I cannot let this chance of a little cambria pass by, as well you know.” She picked up another loaf and placed it in his hands on top of the other one. “It would only be fair to trade you two of these for the herbs. I do not want to be in your debt.”

Awkwardly, he tried to give her the vial, juggling the loafs in his hand. Then he rolled his eyes and called out to Aras. “Here boy, take a hold of these loafs. Be careful. They will have to sustain us on the journey.”

Aras jumped and took the loafs from Thalen, so the man could hand the vial to Mistress Valas with another flourishing bow.

“It is always a pleasure doing business with you, Místress of the Kitchen.”

She coloured at the emphasis and took the vial. “Now take the boy off and leave my kitchen. I am already behind with the day’s baking.” She pretended to busy herself in the kitchen as Thalen and the boy left but by the prickle in his neck, Aras knew she was watching them from the open window.

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