Reaching into the bowels of the splintered crate, Nora pulled out the last turnip. The sides of the pale round bulb had a few scratches. One side squished under her thumb as she tested for damage.
“We don’t have more?” she asked Helen.
The other woman snorted and shook her wide head. Coils of gray hair wavered at her wobbly jowls. Her raw hands and thick fingers slammed down the pestle into the mortar, grinding a handful of dried herbs.
“That’s the last crate until the next shipment.”
Nora sighed and set the turnip on the cracked wooden board beside a bruised onion, more black than brown, and a trio of stunted carrots. Hefting her dull cleaver in her nimble hands, she hacked off the inedible pieces from the vegetables and dropped them into the slop bucket. With careful precision, she began dicing the remains.
“You take too much care with his meals,” scolded Helen, plucking an errant maggot from the bowl.
Nora shrugged, shifting her linen dress on her thin shoulders.
“He shouldn’t be here.”
“Don’t let the Boss hear you say that.” Helen waved her pestle caked with ground rosemary at Nora’s nose.
Nora rolled her eyes.
“I’ve heard some of the Guards saying the same thing.”
Shaking her head, Nora set down her knife. She lifted the lid off the steaming cauldron hanging on a hook above a sputtering fire.
The strings of meat and ligaments on the carcass had fallen off, leaving bones poking out of the surface. Savory coils wafted out of the round pot, mixing thyme and bay with poultry and fat.
Nora skimmed off a thin film of scum foaming around the edges and flung the bubbles into the bucket.
“You’ll be making him a feast soon enough,” muttered Helen. She wiped her hands on her smudged apron and dumped her crushed herbs onto leg of mutton sitting in bloody juices.
“It’s the least I can do,” said Nora, collecting another ladle of foul scented foam. “Look at what you’re making.”
Helen massaged the herbs into the tough meet and scowled.
“Dinner for the Boss is different than dinner for his prisoner.”
Nora dumped her chopped vegetables into the pot and gave the simmering soup a stir.
“Do you really think he did it?”
“Must you ask this every night?”
“He just doesn’t seem the type for assassinating anyone.”
“A gallant smile and good looks can cover up an evil heart.” Helen beat the mutton with the heel of her hand. “His charms have gotten him better food than he would have had otherwise.”
Nora frowned down at the swirl of broth and softening vegetables. Toying with the edge of her apron drooping on her narrow hips, she continued stirring.
“I suppose you’re right.”
“Of course I am,” said Helen, smacking the defeated leg. Threading the meat onto a spit she carried the hanging mutton to another set of rods above the fire. Fat crackled into the flames as the roast began to heat. “I’ve seen more men pleading their innocence pass through these walls than you have years.”
Helen wiped the oil and herbs off her hands and onto a dingy rag.
“That’s stewed for long enough, Nora.”
Nora forced her hand to stop circling and set the ladle aside. She collected a square tray and wooden bowl from the cabinets on the other side of the small kitchen and set them by the cauldron. She ladled one scoop into the bowl, then went back to pluck some vegetables and the fattest pieces of meat from where they had sunk to the bottom. Unfolding the cleanest cloth available, Nora tossed the fabric over the bowl and shooed away the interested flies.
Helen snorted again and then focused on spinning the mutton.
Ignoring the older woman’s shaking head, Nora gathered the fresh loaf she had managed to bake while completing her other chores. The crisp crust steamed and she blew on her fingers as she tucked the dark loaf into the pocket of her apron, hiding the bulge in the folds of her skirt. She tossed a denser, day old loaf onto the tray, the stale round thudding on the wood as if made of stone. Adding a pitcher of boiled water and a pair of cups to the corner, she balanced the weight.
“Could you get the door?” she asked as she lifted the tray and held the meal close to her chest to keep from spilling.
“You wouldn’t want to drop anything,” said Helen as she hobbled to the door. The hinges groaned and the base of the wood scraped the stone floor.
Nora slipped through once the gap had widened enough and then set off down the dank corridors. Smoke billowed from the torches hung at intervals along the walls, the dark coils countering the fiery glow.
Nora kept her eyes on the tray, careful not to slosh the soup as her leather soled slippers snapped against the rocks. Scurrying, her heart beat rose to a swift pound against her chest. A labyrinth of turns through the prison’s maze of corridors finally brought her to the guarded base of the tower. Nora slowed as she reached Harold’s post at the locked door leading up to the cell.
“Nora,” said Harold. The guard’s leering gaze swept over her like an oily cloth. Leaning in his spear he set one gloved hand on the edge of her tray. “What do you have for him today?”
Nora felt his eyes smear over the soup and then linger on the square collar of her dress.
“Same as yesterday,” she said, yanking the tray from his touch, “and the day before that.”
“But it’s always a pleasure to see.”
Nora narrowed her eyes as Harold gave her a sneering grin, exposing the holes of his missing teeth between the yellow and blackened ones clinging to his gums.
“You know what I’m waiting for,” he whispered with a sour breath.
Nora adjusted her hold on the tray and poured out a cup of clear water. Harold claimed the drink and snagged the hardened loaf off the tray. He tore into the stony crust and softened the morsel with a glug.
Nora waited as he gnawed and endured his famished gaze until he neared the end of his snack.
“Helen will be expecting me back,” Nora pressed as Harold guzzled the last drop and managed to swallow down the last crumb.
“I’m sure she will.”
“No doubt she’d take this up herself if she thought I was dawdling.”
Harold’s leer fell at the idea.
“No doubt,” he grumbled, and then pulled out the ring of keys at his belt. He inserted one iron shaft into the lock on the door, turned and pulled.
Nora scampered through. Her trek up the spiral stairs increased her pulse to fierce gallop. The slice of sea breeze through the arrow slits in the tower’s wall reached through her leggings and chilled her ankles. She kept her hands tight on the tray’s edge even as her fingers began to numb. She slowed as she reached the peak of the spiral in order to catch her breath.
“Evening,” she said to Thomas.
The guard by the door to the cell nodded from his lean against the stone. Nora gulped as she felt his hard eyes pass over her, then the tray, his thoughts obscured by the shadow of his cowl and his typical silence. The keys jangled from his belt as he opened the thick padlock while the rest of the leather and cloth in his uniform gave a soft moan.
Nora tucked away freed wisps of her raven hair behind her ears as Thomas opened the door.
He peered inside for a moment then pulled back and motioned her through.
Nora jumped as the door closed behind her. Steadying her knees, she began a sedate walk across the cell. Her gaze drifted to the body sized lump lying on the posted bed in the corner.
Walking on her toes, Nora headed over to the wooden table and chair he had pulled beside the single window. A bare slit of light fell upon the paper and quill he had been granted.
Nora set the tray on a bare section of table and then collected the warm loaf from her pocket. She set the bread beside the napkin covered soup. Gnawing on her lower lip, she turned and peered at the lump.
He hadn’t stirred with her entrance, the slam of the door nor the smell of the meal. The straw mattress in fact had failed to crinkle with any kind of movement or even breath.
Maybe he’s sick, she thought, her heart leaping into her throat.
Clutching her apron in tight fists, Nora glanced at the door. Thomas’s shadow hovered before the barred window but she felt his gaze lingering elsewhere.
Padding across the thin rug covering the stones, she halted at the side of the bed. Arching up on her toes, she peered over the lump.
Straw stuck out from the single blanket bundled into the shape of a man.
Nora froze as she stared at the faux body and noted the rest of the missing bedding.
A gust of wind coiled through a set of stones above her head. Only moving of her eyes, she glanced up. Fading light trickled through a crease in the rocks near the pointed ceiling where mortar had been scraped free and the stones reset.
The door creaked as Thomas opened the cell.
Nora blushed, the heat flushing her whole body. She kept her eyes downcast as she dashed away from the bed and through the door. She felt Thomas watching her as she began down the spiral stairs.
Behind her, the cell door closed with a thud and a jangle of the key and lock sealed the prison.
Nora felt her heart soar. The steps flew under her feet as she descended. She made sure to keep her head down and bit down on her lips as she passed Harold in order to hide the sparkle she felt dancing in her eyes and the smile wanting to spread across her mouth. Her chest felt like bursting as she reentered the kitchen.
“Took you long enough,” grumbled Helen.
“Sorry,” Nora said breathlessly.
Helen scowled. “You alright girl?”
“Yes,” she answered quickly.
Helen added a few hunks of mutton on to the plate prepared for the Boss. Holding out the tray, she kept her grip on the edges as Nora reached out to take the next meal to be delivered.
“Are you certain?”
Nora felt the blush returning and dropped her eyes to the tray. Swallowing down her words, she only nodded in order to keep Helen from guessing the truth.
“That man will only bring you trouble,” Helen warned as she released the tray. “Be sure to keep your head about you.”
Looking up, Nora gave Helen a confident smile. “Oh I am, Helen, I am.”