Simon could smell the village before he could see it. He would rather have smelled the leeks he knew grew wild in these parts, but years of experience had taught Simon that every scent carried important information. This one was no exception. It was a smell he had not smelled for years, but it was instantly recognizable — acrid smoke from a fire doused with human slop. The message was not spoken, but was nonetheless clear — go away, you’re not welcome here. Indeed, although smoke was still coming from several of the chimneys atop the small ring of huts, Simon saw no lights or movement through the broken shutters covering most of the windows. Still, the night was cold, it had been raining for two days solid, and Simon Salamagundi was not one quickly turned away. He led his horse through the muddy common to the first house and knocked on the door.
“Hello! Anyone home?” he called. Several small sounds were his only answer. He pushed on the door gently. It was securely latched.
“We’ve no room here. Look elsewhere,” came a small, defensive female voice from within.
“I just want a place out of the rain,” chided Simon softly.
“We’ve no room, and no food to feed you,” retorted the woman. “Please leave.”
Simon didn’t argue. Hospitality required an offer of a meal, even in these rude dwellings, and, after the ‘gatherings’ of the past war, little food was left for non-combatants. Instead of arguing, Simon started toward the next hut. He muttered wordlessly to himself as he sloshed along. What had started as a simple trip to secure some spices for his stew had turned into a two-day journey, and now he had to endure the fragile hospitality of this war-torn land. He promised himself that next time he ran out of sage he would wait for the next ship, rather than seek it out on his own! Thirty feet of mud later, he reached the door, and knocked again.
“Hello! Anyone here?”
“What do you want?” This time the voice was male, but no less wary.
“A spot out of the rain, please,” Simon responded, trying to sound innocuous.
“We’ve no food and no fire. Try elsewhere.”
Simon sighed. “I need no food or fire, just dry!” He replied, exasperated. No reply was forthcoming, however, and so he moved on to the next house.
The war has hurt us all, Simon thought to himself as he slogged through the mire to the next hovel. The area had once been civil and gentle. Even though the raiding parties disappeared with the fighting, no one wanted to appear to have anything at all, for fear that what little they had might still be taken away. He cursed silently. The wound would take years to heal. He approached the next door, and knocked.
This time the door actually opened, and a small child stepped into view, one thumb innocently stuck in the mouth. Simon smiled, a faint warmth entering his heart, but the child was whisked from view and the door closed. “We have no room, please move on,” called a firm female voice from inside. Simon shrugged and did so.
Several more houses yielded several more rejections. By this time the rain had stopped, and one moon emerged faintly from the clouds. Simon moved to a high spot in the common, above the mud, and stood looking at the dark circle of houses. He stared for several long moments, then sniffed the air again.
“I think a change of air is in order,” he said to no one in particular. He then took the reins of his horse and walked back the way he came.
The moon was a handspan higher in the sky when he returned, with what dry wood he had been able to find lashed to the saddle. He stopped at the high spot in the common and began to build a small pyramid of branches. That done, he turned to the pack on his horse. He slid out a short piece of latchet-wood, the fragrant aroma filling the dismal common. It had been a gift from Ittosai, to be used as incense. Such a stick was worth more than the entire village. He stood a moment, looking around at the huts, as if trying to decide if the immediate environs were worthy of such a extravagant offering, then he hunkered down by the small heap on the ground and began shaving thin slices off the precious stick.
After a handful of the fine shavings had accumulated atop the sticks, Simon returned for his tinder box. Fortunately there was little wind, and a gem of flame soon graced the miserable clearing. At once a heady cloud arose from the small pieces of the pungent wood, almost driving away the earlier, evil stench. He then turned back to the horse, and uncovered a large pot.
Simon grimaced as he struggled to free the stew-pot from the pack. He wryly remembered a promise he had made himself; that when the pot got too heavy to lift, he would stop cooking. His arms were still hale, however, and the weight of the utensil was manageable. He finally freed it from its encumbrances, and set it on its three legs over the fire. He had almost left it home, but now he was glad he had brought it.
From the well in the center of the common he drew a pail of water. This he poured into the pot, under which the still mostly wet wood hissed and flamed fitfully. He then drew another pail of water, and with it in hand began rummaging about on the ground. After a few moments he found a large stone beside a post, a stone about the size of a double fist. This he dropped in the pail. He found another stone, about the same size, and chucked it in the bucket too. Soon a third and fourth joined the first two. Simon then straightened and walked back to the fire. From the pail he drew the now-clean rocks, one by one, and dropped them in the pot. After returning the bucket to the well, Simon returned again to the camp and lifted a small skin of wine off the saddle. After dragging a handful of his precious sage from the saddlebag, Simon drank a swallow of wine for warmth and, after a small prayer for luck, poured the rest in the kettle, followed by the sage. He returned the skin to the saddle, grabbed his tools, then squatted down by the fire and began stirring the mix with a big spoon.
Any good fisherman knows that patience is a virtue, and Simon was no exception. He waited, and stirred, poking the fire occasionally, for about ten menes. Finally a nibble came, in the form of a slight figure, in the shadows beside one of the huts. Simon smiled to himself, careful not to look up and scare the boy. It took almost as long for the lad to gather enough courage to leave the shadows.
The first one is always the hardest, Simon reminded himself. After one starts the others will fall in, but it’s always a trick knowing what to tell the first one. Fortunately the lad provided the answer with the first words he spoke.
“What’tcha cookin’?” Simon almost turned away as the gust of leek-tainted breath struck him full in the face. Instead he smiled triumphantly and beamed up at the lad.
“Stone stew,” replied Simon. He carefully drew a spoonful of the thin liquid from the pot and sipped it theatrically, smacking his lips in satisfaction. “Almost ready.” He looked up at the boy, enthusiasm in his voice and expression. “A good batch it is, too.” His voice grew wistful. “All it needs is …”
“Is what?” the boy asked.
“Oh,” Simon replied, “if I only had some leeks. That would make it perfect!”
“Well, I have some leeks!” replied the boy. “I got them back in the stable! Didya want me ta get them?”
“If you want,” replied Simon, casually. The boy raced off. Simon watched him go, stirring thoughtfully. Fortunately he had managed to keep a straight face while sipping the tasteless broth. At least he had gotten all the mud off the rocks!
After a moment the boy was running back, a handful of limp tubers flopping in one hand. He thrust them at Simon.
“Thank you, sir,” Simon replied gallantly. “Here, stir,” he said, handing the boy the spoon. Expertly Simon peeled and sectioned the aromatic roots, tossing them in the boiling water as the villager churned it, rattling the rocks against the sides of the pot. “This will be fine stew,” admonished Simon knowingly. “It’s always good with leeks.”
“I like leeks,” remarked the boy, his face almost inside the pot.
“Which is your house?” asked Simon slowly.
“Oh, I don’t live in a house,” replied the boy, “not since Pa went off to fight, and Ma died.”
Simon’s heart sank. An orphan to the war, living alone. How many others were there out there, bereft of family, fending for themselves? The villagers would be less likely to follow an orphan’s example, to boot. Perhaps stone stew would be their main course tonight after all. “Well,” he told the lad, “you will eat with me tonight. Stone stew is always best shared,” he added, a bit louder, for the benefit of other ears.
He needn’t have bothered. When he looked up he saw a young woman watching him, a small girl peeking out from behind her ragged skirt.
“Hello, stranger. Do you still need a place to stay tonight?” Her voice was soft and carefully modulated. No doubt torn between caution and the hope that I have some food I can share, Simon thought.
“No,” he replied, “I think I can stay out here.” He made a show of stirring the ‘stew’.
“What’s in the pot?” she asked.
“Stone stew,” he replied, thinking hard. This wouldn’t be as easy as the boy. What would a woman like that have tucked away?
“It’s good stew, too!” announced his first helper, startling Simon. “Even better than potato soup!”
Simon gratefully took the cue. “Not that there’s anything wrong with potato soup,” he quickly amended. “Why, even stone stew tastes better with a potato or two.”
“It does?” remarked the boy, almost disappointed.
“Well, I have some potatoes, if it helps,” replied the woman, a ray of hope in her voice.
“It would, thank you,” replied Simon. “Perhaps you and your potatoes could join us.”
With a nod she sloshed off for her contribution, leaving her little girl to stare at them. The boy leaned over to Simon. “You didn’t have to ask *her*,” he sneered. “She’s got *lots* of stuff, ’cause she don’ give *nothin* to nobody else!”
“Now, now,” Simon replied calmly, “it’s very hard these days, and people are just afraid to share, that’s all. We need to show them that giving something away doesn’t mean you have less.” He let the boy ponder that thought as the woman returned, a small basket in her hands.
By the time the potatoes were cut to Simon’s specifications, two more villagers had appeared, both older women. Simon repeated his sipping act for them, this time with actual appreciation, as the flavor of the broth had begun to develop. His praise of the sauce was tempered this time by a reference to herbs.
“Ah, I’ve got some niiice broot-weed,” replied the one woman, “just the thing for stone stew!”
“Nooo,” hissed the other, “not for stone stew! For that you need cabbage and dill!”
“No you don’t!” replied the first, her voice getting shrill.
“Oh, you’ve never made a good batch of stone stew in your life!” announced the second. She turned to Simon. “I’ll be getting the cabbage and dill!” she replied firmly, then tottered off, the first nagging behind her. Simon looked at the young woman and the boy, who both rolled their eyes. Every village has at least one, Simon thought. This one’s got two. He almost chuckled at the old crone’s comment. She was truthful in spite of herself — the other woman never had made a batch of stone stew! He then shuddered at her mention of the bitter weed. He almost wished he could dig into his pack for some more of his hard-bought hoard, but that would ruin the illusion, and perhaps the villagers growing generosity. He sighed, resigning himself to whatever mess he and the others ended up with.
And so on it went, with people showing up in ones and twos, until most every villager had made an appearance. Each returned to their respective humble abodes, some for carrots, some for a few crusts of bread, some for salted meat. Finally Simon’s pot was full, and with the whole village gathered around Simon could no longer smell the awful scent that had first greeted him.
“This has got to be one of the best pots of stone stew I’ve ever made!” shouted Simon to the lot, who gave vent to a cheer as they stood around, bread and bowls in hand. Simon carefully lifted out the four rocks and carefully set them aside, their purpose served. “And you can keep these, for your next batch of stone stew,” he admonished the group. When no response came he looked up. Each person was staring fixedly across the common, a peculiar expression on their faces.
Simon stood and looked to where the road emptied into the village. There, walking slowly forward, were five men. Their expressions were haggard, and by the postures of both groups Simon could tell they were strangers here. One of the newcomers, taller than the others, shuffled and carried a dead goose. One other was carrying a bow, and all had swords. As they drew closer and stopped, Simon realized that they were all wearing their cloaks inside out, the seams showing. One had strange stitching on his right breast. It took Simon only a moment to realize he was looking at the reverse of a insignia.
“Beinison turncoats,” muttered someone tensely. Simon took a sharp breath. The familiar stench had returned.
The Beinison deserters stopped in a line, staring tensely, but the tall one continued shuffling forward after the others had stopped. His face was set in the slack expression of one not too bright. He peered at the group, and his eye caught sight of the pot. There was a long moment of silence, then he smiled loosely and spoke.
“What’cha cookin’” he asked.
Simon looked down at the fire. A few shavings of latchet-wood had fallen to one side, and Simon now nudged them back into the fire. Again the fragrance arose.
“Stone stew,” replied Simon simply.
“Huh,” chuckled the big one. “I’ve had that before. Do yuh need a goose?” He raised the animal high, drawing started looks from all on both sides.
Simon smiled at the wisdom in the simpleton’s words. “We need whatever anyone will share with us.”
“Okay,” replied the man. He gave the goose a good hard look, then turned back to Simon. “Do yuh have to pluck ‘em first?”