Story for the Day: The Crumble Returns

While Count Rosse is Alasdair's greatest nemesis, he has another enemy which is far more dangerous than His Grace of Horrid Fashion ever could be: like his father Prince Draeden, Alasdair was born with an overactive appetite, but unlike his father, Alasdair was not born with the hyperactive metabolism to complement his ravening constitution. Through tremendous willpower, he is able to ignore most of the pies and desserts that Martje makes for the keep, but there is one desert that he always finds impossible to resist.  

Bows were made to the king as he passed, compliments and congratulations were given him on his magnificent sweater, and Alasdair said his thanks and engaged with all those who would ask his attention, when the scent of something, something familiar and pleasant, something warm and comforting attacked his senses. The faint nidor of roasted meats basted with garlic and honey, the mellifluous hints of lemon and rosemary, the buteracous aroma of pie crust and pasties though all delightful and pleasant in their way held no charm for him; it was the scent of something far more desirable, something far more dangerous that assailed him: the mesmerizing fragrance of cinnamon and rhubarb, of nutmeg and baked apples, of crumbled flour drizzled over with molasses brought him directly to the kitchen. He inhaled as he came to the doorway. That had better not be what my nose says it is, he said to himself, praying to the Gods that she had not made his favourite dessert. It had better not be what I think it is or I will have to give Martje a very stern talking. His stomach began curmuring. It is what I think it is, isn’t it? It is a crumble, isn’t it? By the Gods-- I told her on purpose not to make it.

                “I know you told me not to make it and all, Majesty,” said Martje, coming to him upon perceiving his coming to the threshold, “but my nephews begged me for it, and sure I couldn’t say no. I didn’t have it in me to break their wee hearts.”

                “You might have broken them for my sake,” Alasdair sibilated, in a fevered hush. “Couldn’t you have at least waited until later or tomorrow? Then someone would have been able to finish it or take it away, but now if you’ve made more than one of them, everyone in the kitchen will be forced to eat it.”

                “Well, Majesty, nothin’ to be done about it now. As well you might come on in and join the others. You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want.”

                “Yes, I do!” Alasdair shrieked.

                “There are plenty who will eat such a dreadfully delectable abomination for you,” said Boudicca, coming to join them at the door. “The twins will surely help you there.”

                Alasdair peered into the kitchen and found Aiden and Adaoire reveling in a hearty breakfast of bacon and buns with Dobhin sitting beside them, sipping his black tea and picking the chimbles of a scone as he listened to the twins recount their holidays at the Siedh Maith, Dobhin glorying in their accounts, and the twins being jovial and assertive as usual, despite Martje’s attempts to cover their mouths to spare everyone their vulgarity.

                “Where is it?” he demanded, scrutinizing the table and the counter.

                “Still in the oven, Majesty—“

                “Then that is where it will stay until I leave the kitchen.”

                “Aye,” Martje sighed. “If that’s what yer wantin’, but the top’ll burn if I keep it in longer than another fifteen minutes.”

                “I’m sure the twins and the children will gladly eat it anyway, burned top or no. If I don’t see it, I can pretend it isn’t here. In the oven it stays.”

                Martje was forced to concede here, for while she had
Alasdair and the evil crumble
made a promise to her nephews, her allegiance was to her king, and as she had disobeyed one to please the other—though she did not understand why the sight of a mere crumble should so discompose him—she must relinquish all further remonstrances in favour of the king’s equanimity. She must let the crumble burn, but as Beryn would be by in an hour hence, there would be someone to appreciate her efforts. Beryn would have the top, the children the middle, and the twins the bottom, and with all this settled, Martje stepped aside, and Alasdair entered the kitchen.

                The table and all gathered round were under the glamour of the coming holiday: the girls sat finishing their gifts, their knitting needles clicking and clattering away, their hands busy with making the last alterations to their socks and mittens and hems; the women mantled over their teacups and exchanged a few good pieces of country scandal, deliciating over who had made a dreadful piece of work of what, and laughing amongst themselves of who would be spending his holiday at the Seadh Maith; and the men sat with their coffees and cream, listening to Jaicobh, who was recounting an old yarn from the Diras Herald in sad want of embellishing. Jaicobh held taut the paper and read aloud the story telling of a thief on the road, adding a few garnishings along the way, and while Tomas and Dobhin and the twins listened with unabated interest, Alasdair sat beside the children, to hear them decide upon who was going to be receiving which gift, taking a few slices of oat bread for himself and claiming the salted butter, his cogitations divided between his humble breakfast, Jaicobh’s soft voice telling tall tales of Tyfferim’s heroic dairy farmers against the rogues on the road, the gentle tinkling sounds of spoons skimming the insides of teacups as the women stirred their tea and milk, the shy hue of the girls displaying their finished pieces, and the notion of the rhubarb crumble being only a few steps away, a notion which Alasdair was desperately trying not to think about. He listened to Boudicca engage the girls and try on anything that needed fitting, wondered at what time his surprise for Rautu and indeed the rest of the keep should arrive, and ate his bread and butter, begrudging the wretched crumble now weltering away in the oven. The women chattered on, the children decorated the commander and finished tying their ribbons and bows, and Alasdair was enjoying the quiet cheerfulness of the kitchen when his eye caught Martje moving toward the oven. Instantly did he think to command her against opening the oven door, but she tuned toward the counter, to start the fire and put the kettle on, and Alasdair was obliged to lay by his protestations for the present.

                “You need not worry, Alasdair,” said the commander, her arms beribboned and outstretched as the girls were making their last alterations. “Once that crumble is well-singed, your subconsciousness shall lose interest. If you are so terrified of its leaping from the oven to attack you and force its way into your mouth, you could merely have the children demolish it. I’m certain they should be happy to do so.”

                “You don’t want your crumble, Uncle Majesty?” said Maggie, untying the arm warmers she had laced around her aunt’s arms. “Didn’t my mother make it just for you?”

                “Well, yes—and no—You see, it isn’t a matter of not wanting it, Maggie…” Alasdair began, but he found his condition difficult to explain to a young girl who must have delighted in anything half so good. He could relate the horror of his youth, the roundness, the portliness, the avariciousness of an appetite he inherited without the powers of an overactive constitution to compensate, but it was cruelty to talk of having too much to a girl who, as a child, had known so little and who saw every supernumerary pleasure as a great indulgence. “Tell you what, Maggie,” said Alasdair, with renewed spirits, “your mother made that crumble for your cousins, but I know they would share it with you if you’d like to have some. Why don’t you have some of the crumble? I’m sure you’re hungry enough for it.”

                Maggie was all brimming delight. “Really, uncle?”

                “Yes, and in fact I think you should be the first to taste it and give your mother your opinion on it.” Alasdair stood from the table and gave Maggie his empty plate. “Here, Maggie. I’m sure your mother can outfit that with a nice slice for you. I’ll just go and see how your aunt Carrigh is getting on in the tailor.”

                Unassuming as he was when he turned to leave the kitchen, Alasdair was forced to practice a chary sense of affected unconcern when moving toward the door, for, in hearing Alasdair make the crumble over to her daughter, Martje opened the oven, and the warm current of baked butter and honey-stewed fruits billowed forth, attacking Alasdair and weakening his resolve. He turned his face aside, his hand screened his view of the oven, and telling himself “Don’t look, don’t look, I’m not looking, I refuse to look at the oven,” quit the kitchen, hastening down the hall with long strides, never turning back until he had reached the door to the tailor. He gave a panicked knock, the door was opened, Alasdair leapt inside, and he was safe: he had escaped all threat and intimation of the crumble, and it would probably be gone in an hour hence, when the rest of the children from the great hall joined their cousins in the kitchen. He need only sit and wait, and seeing Pastaddams bent intently over an intricate woolen piece, Jutstina and Carrigh embroidering gold-beaten threads into a jerkin with Myella and Brighel playing together at their feet, Alasdair knew he had come to the right place to forget his confectionary vexations.