1635: The Eastern Front — Snippet 55
“I’m exhausted,” said Baldur Norddahl, as soon as he sat down at the table. “How soon are we leaving? Ten days? I may not last.”
Caroline Platzer spooned some pork dumplings into a bowl and handed it to him.
“Dumplings for breakfast?” he complained. “Again? It’s no wonder I’m exhausted.”
Caroline thought that was amusing, coming from a man who thought a proper breakfast centered around salted fish. She herself had found it hard to adjust to almost all aspects of Scandinavian cuisine, with the exception of pancakes covered in lingonberries. Those were delicious. The best that could be said of the rest of it was that mashed carrots were innocuous enough and meatballs were sometimes decent — if the spices were kept under control, which Swedes seemed to find it difficult to manage.
It was no wonder they’d gone a-viking back in the Dark Ages. Driven by indigestion, drawn by the promise of good English food.
Thankfully, it was almost over. Just another week and a half, and they’d be rid of the Mad Queen and her court full of dwarves.
Kristina looked up from her own bowl of dumplings. “Stop complaining! You think you’re exhausted? You get to hide most of the time. Try being me.”
The Swedish princess was in a cheerful mood, as she always was in the morning. Within two weeks of their arrival in Stockholm, they’d begun the practice of sharing breakfast in one of the smaller kitchens in the palace that Ulrik and Baldur had appropriated on the grounds that they needed their own Danish cuisine.
The Swedish officials who oversaw the running of the palace accepted that readily enough, even though so far as Caroline could tell the only difference between Swedish and Danish cooking was that the Danes used more cheese and sausages. Like Swedes, they doted on salted fish.
For breakfast. The Ring of Fire had a lot to answer for.
Perhaps the worst of it was that Caroline had had to learn to cook the damn stuff herself. These informal breakfasts also served them as impromptu gripe sessions, and it really wouldn’t do to have servants overhearing the conversation.
Naturally, that meant the woman in the group had to do the cooking. The seventeenth century wasn’t the bottomless pit of male chauvinism that Caroline would have supposed it to be, in those hard-to-remember days when she’d lived up-time. Assuming she’d ever thought about the seventeenth century at all, which so far as she could remember she’d had the good sense not to. Still, some attitudes were so ingrained that they just weren’t worth fighting over, if the issue wasn’t really that important.
So, she cooked and the men ate. She served them the food, too. On the plus side, they didn’t think anything amiss when she sat down at the table to join them. Even more on the plus side, her willingness to cook minimized Baldur’s periodic let-the-man-show-you-how-it’s-done seizures. On those nightmarish occasions, Norddahl would show off his Norwegian skills at high cuisine.
That meant fish, of course. Salted fish. Smoked fish. Salted smoked fish. Spicy salted smoked fish.
Caroline’s father had done the same thing — with hamburgers and steaks, though, not this godawful stuff — in outdoor summer barbecues. She could remember her mother saying on those occasions, “Men. They’re still in the caves, you know.”
She’d been wiser than she knew. Caroline felt a pang of loss.
“May I have some more dumplings, please?” asked Kristina.
“Just one.” Caroline spooned the dumpling into the princess’ outstretched bowl, then spooned two more into a bowl of her own and sat down. “Or you’ll get fat.”
“Ha!” jeered Kristina. With some reason. The eight-year-old girl seemed to have the metabolism of a furnace.
Leaving the food aside, and the unpleasantness of dealing with Kristina’s mother, Caroline thought this trip had had a couple of positive effects on the princess. For one thing, without her usual down-time ladies in waiting to keep disorienting the kid and reinforcing her bad habits, Kristina was starting to develop some social graces.
Courtesy, first and foremost. Neither Caroline nor Ulrik — nor Baldur, certainly — treated the girl like she was the sunrise and the morning dew. Once Kristina had started absorbing the initial lessons, she’d quickly figured out that if she was polite to the servants of the palace they would in turn do favors for her. Like helping her hide from her mother and her mother’s many obnoxious toadies.
More important, though, Caroline thought, was that the trip had produced a subtle but profound shift in Kristina’s relationship with Ulrik. She’d grown closer to the Danish prince and had begun to rely upon him.
Trust was not something that came easily or readily to the Swedish princess. That had become apparent to Caroline early on in her relationship with the girl. At the time, she’d ascribed it simply to Kristina’s innate character, but the experience of this trip had modified that assessment. Caroline could now easily understand how the girl’s upbringing would have shaped her in that direction.
If her father had been around more often, things might have been different. In the presence of Gustav Adolf, Kristina was a much happier and less difficult person than she was at most other times. But the king of Sweden, while he was obviously very fond of his daughter, was a man with many ambitions and preoccupations. He simply hadn’t been around that often as she grew up.
Ulrik didn’t have as much in the way of sheer raw intelligence as Kristina did. The girl was almost frighteningly precocious. But he was still a very smart man in his own right. What was more important, in Caroline’s opinion, was that the Danish prince was also a wise man. Amazingly so, in fact, for someone who was only twenty-four years old. Ulrik had an ability to deliberate that you’d expect in a man twice his age — assuming the man in question was a wise man himself. He was prudent without being unduly cautious; temperate without being indecisive; and his automatic first impulse in the face of any problem or challenge was to reason rather than emote.
Caroline Platzer thought very highly of Ulrik, just as she did of Kristina. And, as she ate her dumplings at the same table with them, never thought twice of her presumption in analyzing and guiding the future rulers of much of Europe.
Why should she? She was a social worker, just doing her job, in a time and place that really needed the job done.
A field outside Dresden
“This will do nicely,” announced Eddie Junker. Hands on hips, he surveyed the pasture again. “Very nicely.”
Noelle Stull turned to the farmer and handed him a pouch full of coins.
“Remember, you have to put up a good fence. There’s enough in there to cover the cost.”
Eddie nodded. “Very important. Or you might have a dead cow and — worse still — I might have a dead me.”
The farmer didn’t argue the point, once he finished counting the coins. “Not a problem. Keep my sons busy after they finish man-ma” — he stumbled over the English word a bit — “manicuring the pasture. Or they’ll waste too much time in the taverns.”
“Remember,” Eddie said sternly. “Not one stone left in the field bigger than my thumb.”
He held up the thumb in question. Standing next to him, Denise Beasley looked up at it and laughed.
“That thumb! A rhino could stumble over it.” She held up her own thumb. “No bigger than this one.”
The farmer squinted at the much smaller appendage, then shook his head. “Too much work.”
“Leave it be, Denise,” said Eddie. “My thumb’s not all that big and –”
“I’m the expert on your thumb, buddy, not you, on account of –”
“Hey!” squawked Noelle.
Denise gave her a cherubic smile. “On account of I’ve hitchhiked with him.”
“It’s true,” said Minnie. “Eddie’s thumb can stop a truck. Of course, it helps when Denise and I” — here she hoisted her skirt and stuck out a leg — “show off too.”
The leg was in stockings, but the stockings were very tight. The farmer looked a lot more intrigued at the sight than a man in his late forties with a still-living wife and three sons ought to look. But Noelle supposed it was hard to blame him. Minnie Hugelmair didn’t have her best friend Denise Beasley’s almost-outrageously good looks, but she was a still a healthy and shapely young woman. True, she had a glass eye and a little scar there, but people of the seventeenth century were more accustomed to such disfigurements than up-timers were. Smallpox left much worse scars on a face.
“I think we’re done here,” Noelle said. It was less of a statement than a plea.