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Those Who Help Themselves

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It was several weeks past Midwinter, and the cadets at Tentir had once again fallen into their routine of chilly classrooms and hair-raising fighting practices, broken by chores of varying degrees of drudgery and meals that arrived cold, even when they had left the kitchens hot.

"Hot almond pudding," said Rue, longingly, one evening. The members of Jame's ten-command were huddled around the fire in their leader's quarters, wearing every stitch of clothing they owned.

"Hot ale-punch, with apples in," added Quill.

"Mutton ribs Tastigon style, right off the grill and like to burn your fingers off," sighed Dar, and Killy swore at him.

"Why did you have to mention those ribs? I swear I can smell them now!"

There was a brief silence, broken by sniffing. "So can I," said Damson, incredulously.

There was an exasperated sigh from Brier Iron-Thorn, who was seated slightly apart from the rest. "Not such a surprise. The Commandant has honored guests tonight. I heard them arrive an hour ago."

"And they're eating spiced ribs?" said Mint. "Life is unfair!"

Jame smiled. The smell of the mutton - and other food, too, now that she was focusing on it - was awaking even her usually sluggish appetite. "The kitchen will make much too much food for the guests, as usual," she suggested.

Everyone contemplated this piece of information. "That makes it even more unfair," said Erim. "They aren't likely to share any of the leftovers - they'll just stuff themselves stupid."

Brier eyed their ten-commander and lourdan narrowly. "Are you suggesting we do something about this state of affairs, my lady?"

An awestruck silence fell. "That would be really difficult, without getting caught," protested Quill.

"Yes, it would be," agreed Jame, getting to her feet. "In fact, I think it could count as a proper raid."

The ten-command cheered, only to be hushed by Brier. "She's right," said Jame. "We have to do this as silently as possible."

Moments later, the Knorth cadets and their lourdan were sauntering casually down the hallway toward the main part of the keep, with Jorin at Jame's heels. To Jame's dismay, Gorbel was coming up the staircase toward them with his pook tucked under one arm. "Well, well, what have we here?"

"Knorth business," said Jame, firmly.

"Huh, raiding someone else's hall?" Gorbel's mask of boredom didn't hide his curiosity well at all. "It really is dull around here tonight," he added.

Jame eyed him speculatively. "I don't suppose you could follow my orders, if I could promise you that things will be much less dull in just a few minutes?"

"Oh, I might," said Gorbel, slowly. "What sort of trouble are we likely to find ourselves in?"

"That depends on whether you're as good at this as we are."

Gorbel grunted and fell into line behind the Knorth cadets, To Jame's relief, they met no one else before they ducked through a doorway half-hidden near the entry to the Jaran quarters. They crept down a very dark, steep stairway and around a couple of corners, losing the scent of the food for several minutes and then picking it up again, stronger than ever. "Halt," said Jame, softly.

She slid open a panel to reveal a narrow doorway. They were in the dim corridor behind the kitchen complex. There were several doorways along it, leading to the store-rooms and the scullery, as well as two different entrances to the huge kitchen itself, and crates and barrels lined the walls. "We need a distraction. Who can do it for us?"

Damson raised her hand, hesitantly. "Go on then," whispered Jame. The cadet crept into the hallway and headed down past the scullery toward one of the wells. Once she disappeared into the well room, they heard a breathtaking, bloodcurdling scream from that direction.

"She has a fine pair of lungs, " said Rue, admiringly.

The murmur of voices and clank of pots and crockery from the kitchen ceased. "What was that?" someone asked.

The voices now arose in a hubbub, and several burly scullions and under-cooks erupted from the doorways. "This way," said one of them, and the rest followed her toward the well.

"Let's go," said Jame, a moment later.

"But there have to be more people than that in the kitchen!" Killy protested.

"Are you always this organized?" asked Gorbel. "First storeroom looks dark. And empty."

"Good thought," said Jame, approvingly. They crept across the hallway. A barrel of apples stood open near the storeroom door. Dar grabbed a handful and raised his eyebrows questioningly at Jame. She shrugged. After they were all inside the store room, Dar wound up and pitched several apples down past the archway that led to the well. The confused noises coming from that direction stopped, then started again on a different note: mild panic. Mint shut the door to the store room quietly behind them.

The only light was a thin thread coming in under the door to the kitchen. It looked like it was very bright out there. "We need some of those lights out, first thing," muttered Jame. "Erim, Brier - that's your job."

"I think we need another distraction, my lady," said Brier.

Jame could think of one, but she wasn't about to resort to her darker talents on what was basically a lark. "Gorbel. Your pook."

"Eh?"

"Do you think you could persuade it to run amok in the kitchen?"

Gorbel plucked at his lower lip. "It might chase an apple if I threw it. Do you think that cat of yours would chase the pook? I won't have it harmed, mind you."

"Oh, very good! Jorin ... ."

Dar handed Gorbel an apple. Rue eased the door to the kitchen open just a bit, and Gorbel pitched the fruit out into the kitchen, where the cooks that they could see were huddled in small groups, talking anxiously. "Twizzle, fetch!"

The pook romped inelegantly through the door. Jorin started after it, and the pook took to its heels in earnest, charging between two cooks and knocking over a small table loaded with bowls full of carefully measured ingredients. A gabble of dismay arose. As the heads of every cook and scullion turned to see what was happening, Brier and Erim shot through the door and started snuffing candles and dowsing torches. "Come on!" shouted Jame. "Grab whatever you can and run!"

For the next sixty seconds, everything was pure chaos as Jame, her remaining eight, and Gorbel stormed the hearths and worktables. It took the cooks the better part of that minute to even understand what was happening. By that time, most of the raiders had fled back through the storeroom with their spoils, Gorbel trailing more slowly in their wake with Twizzle once more tucked under his arm. Jame flashed Rue a grin and nodded to the main kitchen doors back to the hallway. With Jorin following closely, they drew most of the hastily organized pursuers away from the storeroom and then slammed the hallway doors in their faces. Rue managed to shove a barrel in front of her door, and Jame upended a crate of walnuts in the shell in front of hers.

"Hurry!" Damson had the hidden doorway open and was gesturing frantically with one hand, a large bottle clutched by the neck in the other. Rue, Jame, and Jorin sprinted up the hallway toward her. As she slid the concealing panel shut behind her, Jame saw three furious cooks run out the door she had closed, only to start skidding on and stumbling over the loose walnuts. If only everything in life could go so smoothly, she thought, and ran up the darkened corridor after her ten-command.

They burst into the Knorth quarters in triumph. Rue had a deep dish of steaming manchet bread, complete with oven mitts to handle it. Dar had a rack of ribs dripping grease down his tunic. Mint had a basket crammed with hot little fruit turnovers, some crushed, but all still smelling deliciously of sweet juices. Killy was juggling a platter with a large fish encased in pastry, steaming where the crust had split. Niall had a covered pot that turned out to contain greens with bacon and onions. Quill had a large, warm loaf tucked under each arm, and Erim had a skillet full of hot sausages and mushrooms. Brier had a jug of ale in each hand, and Damson's bottle turned out to be red wine, grabbed from an open crate in the hall. Jame had made off with a large cheese and vegetable tart. And wonder of wonders, Gorbel had a huge skewer - "Long enough to be used as a cavalry lance, in a pinch," said Erim, admiringly - strung with four fat capons basted with oil and honey.

Brier set down the ale jugs and, nodding at Jame, went back down the hall to listen for pursuit. The rest of them set out their hard-won victuals and collected platters, cups, knives, and spoons. Twizzle and Jorin were made much of and fed tidbits. Just as they were wondering whether they should start eating without Brier - before the food became as cold as everything else they'd eaten lately - they heard her knock at the door.

Damson let her in. She had a flat wooden box in her hands and a strange expression on her face.

"The Commandant's compliments, and he'd like us to dispose of this gift from the Coman visitors, as he has no intention of rotting his teeth with it," she reported.

The box was full of benne-seed confit balls. Quill sampled one and promptly found his teeth all but hopelessly stuck together. "Hhhht, ghwa' oo ah oo ow?" he moaned. Gorbel snickered unkindly.

"He didn't say anything else?" asked Jamie.

"Yes, He also said, 'Congratulations on a successful raid. Should there be any recurrence of such activities, the responsible ten-command will be on latrine and sewage duties for a month, and stables for a month after that.'"

Rue raised her mug of ale. "Three cheers for the Commandant!"

The cadets cheered enthusiastically and proceeded to devour their feast. Jame looked over at Brier, tidily tucking away a large platter of capon and greens, and winked at her. The five-command gazed at her lady solemnly for a moment and then nodded.

There was just the faintest hint of a smile on her face.