The ornately carved walnut doors of the dining room swung open, causing the four people sitting at the table to look up from their breakfast. A young teenage boy strode in, his dark hair slightly disheveled as if he hadn't taken the time to brush it. The attendants at the entrance closed the door behind the youth as he approached the table.
"So nice of you to join us, Halt," his father commented dryly.
A flash of annoyance crossed Halt's face, but he quickly schooled his features into a calm mask. "My apologies, Father," he said, slipping into the only empty chair at the table, which was, unfortunately for him, placed between his father and his brother. The former was shooting him displeased glances and the latter looked both smug and irritated.
"Did you get lost on the way here?" Ferris jibed in a low tone as Halt filled his plate with food. Deciding that the comment wasn't worth a verbal response, Halt merely glared at his brother and began to eat.
The rest of the meal was eaten in tense silence. Although the royal family of Clonmel tried to put on a loving and united front for the public, the truth was that that was, well... not the truth. The King and Queen often disagreed on many things—including how their children should be raised and how Halt should be prepared for the duties of the Crown; Halt and his father often clashed over the responsibilities Halt was expected to take up; and Ferris was resentful of the fact that it was Halt who was the Crown Prince. The only one mostly free of the family conflicts was Caitlyn.
She tried to keep up a lighthearted chatter, but fell quiet after a few minutes when no one responded to her questions. The only sounds were the occasional cough and the clinking of silverware on the plates.
"Halt, I expect you to be at the council meeting this morning," his father announced when he had finished eating. "All three of you," he continued, glancing at Halt, Ferris, and Caitlyn in turn, "will have to cut your afternoon lessons short. Baron Cloncurry and his wife are coming to visit and you need to be in the throne room to greet them."
Halt groaned internally as he heard his day being planned out for him, staring down at his plate so that no one could be able to see the poorly-concealed frustration in his eyes. He had been late to breakfast because he had been looking out the window, admiring the near perfect weather. It was the type of day that made him long to be out of the castle and away from all the responsibilities and duties of royal life. He had hoped he would be able to slip away into the forest at some point before his lessons, but it seemed that would no longer be possible.
The mere thought of the council meeting increased his already ill-temper. In his opinion the council was filled with sycophants and self-seeking brown-nosers. Whenever he had to sit in on a meeting, he always had to fight the urge to punch many of them. (After all, it would be most improper if the Crown Prince were to physically attack the council members.)
"And," the King finished, looking pointedly at his eldest son, who was still looking determinedly down at his plate, "I expect all of you to be on time."
When Halt felt that his eyes would no longer betray his emotions, he looked back up. Caitlyn caught his eye and grimaced sympathetically at him, knowing how much he detested council meetings.
His mother must have also noticed his mood because she spoke up in his defence. "Surely it is not necessary for Halt to join you in the council meeting this morning."
The King looked at her with narrowed eyes. "It is," he said sharply.
"But—" she began, before being cut off.
"He is the Crown Prince and it is necessary for him to come to this council meeting. One day he will be king and he must be ready to lead the country; that includes leading the council." The King's voice had a tone of finality in it, which his wife blatantly ignored.
"You have had him in attendance at the last four meetings. I doubt that not attending one would affect his ability to be king!" she argued, her voice rising slightly.
Halt knew where the conversation was headed. He stood up forcefully, his chair sliding backwards as he did so. "Excuse me," he said, unnoticed by either of his parents. He sighed and then all but ran from the room, followed closely by Caitlyn.
Ferris stayed seated for a moment longer and then stood too. "Please excuse me, Father, Mother." His politeness also went unnoticed as his parents continued to argue. He scowled before striding from the room, the voices of his parents following him down the hallway.
"I'm trying to make sure that Clonmel will have a king who knows what he's doing," the King replied heatedly. "If you would stop fighting me on every decision I make concerning him—"
"He's just a boy! Let him enjoy some time without all the responsibilities that you carry! Can't you see that it's crushing him?"
The voices became muffled and indistinct as Ferris turned a corner into an empty corridor. Well, he thought it was going to be empty. Halt was leaning against the wall, his shoulders slumped and his eyes closed. At the sight of his brother, anger and annoyance bubbled beneath Ferris' skin. He stalked up to Halt and grabbed his shoulder.
"You could at least make an effort, you know," he hissed. "Maybe try showing up on time for once."
Halt looked wearily at his brother. Usually he was on time—today being one of the few exceptions—but he knew that Ferris wouldn't listen to reason in his current mood. Undeterred by Halt's silence, Ferris continued his rant, voice growing angrier with each word. "Do you not care about being Crown Prince? Of course you don't. You are the second most important person in the land and you don't even care about it! All the privilege that comes with your rank, all the power and prestige—you don't care one bit about it!" He paused to suck in a breath. "You don't deserve to be Crown Prince."
"I would trade places with you if I could," Halt said, trying to placate his brother. It was the wrong thing to say though, as Halt's willingness to give up his position only served to infuriate Ferris more.
"It should have been me," he said venomously, conviction ringing in his statement. "You and I both know that I should be Crown Prince." He stared frustratedly at Halt for a long moment before turning heel and striding away, anger making his steps short and jerky.
Halt stared at the back of his retreating brother and sighed deeply. If only Ferris was the Crown Prince. Their parents would clash less often, Ferris wouldn't resent him, and his father would have someone actually eager to take up the Crown. Try as he might, Halt had never been able to truly fit into the royal life. Everything about his position made him feel like he was suffocating. The only time the pressure and stress eased was in the few and far between moments when he was able to slip out of the castle and wander in the woods. Nature seemed to have a calming effect that nothing else could replicate.
The sound of footsteps echoing down the corridor jerked Halt from his thoughts. Not feeling up to any more confrontations with his family, he pushed himself off the wall and hurried to his room. The council meeting wouldn't start for another half hour so he grabbed a book from a stack on his table, dropped into one of his comfortable chairs, and attempted to read.
It was after he finished reading the same page for the fourth time that he gave it up as a lost cause, opting instead to merely brood in silence. A quiet knock at his door caused him to look up. The top of Caitlyn's head was just visible as she peeked into the room. Seeing her brother sitting down, she came in and plunked herself down in the chair opposite him.
"So I was thinking," she began excitedly, "since there's no council meeting tomorrow, and there won't be any lords or barons to greet, do you want to go hunting?"
"That would be great Cait, but I doubt Father would allow me. He'll probably find something for me to do, like an extra lesson in diplomacy or—"
"No," Caitlyn interrupted. "I've already checked with him. I got him to agree that if you're on time and well-behaved for all of today, we can go out tomorrow." Caitlyn was one of the few people who could get their father to reconsider his opinions.
A small smile flitted across Halt's face at the thought of being free of the castle for a few hours. "Really?" he asked, still not able to fully believe all of what his sister was saying. When she nodded in confirmation, a grin burst across his face. Caitlyn was one of the only people who could make him smile like that. "Caitlyn, you are amazing! Thank you."
She grinned back at him. "You can owe me one later. Now it'd probably be best if you were going off to the council. It wouldn't be good if you were late."
Halt's good mood deflated a bit at the mention of the meeting, but he stood up nevertheless and headed towards the door.
The sound of his sister's voice caused him to half-turn. He raised a questioning eyebrow in her direction. Caitlyn giggled and then held out a comb.
"You might want to consider—" she mimed brushing her hair— "you know… looking a little bit more presentable?"
Halt frowned at her and she grinned back undeterred until his frown melted away. "Thanks," he mumbled, taking the comb from her grasp and running it quickly through his hair, giving it some semblance of order.
The rest of the day passed slowly, but not as agonizingly as it could have. The council meeting was still long, tedious, and boring. Lord Geoffrey in particular was being especially pompous and overbearing—so much so that Halt began to consider how much trouble he would be in if he threw the man into the castle moat. He decided against it in the end, knowing that doing something like that would probably result in him not being allowed to go hunting for a long, long time.
The afternoon lessons were less boring. Ferris was refusing to talk to, or even acknowledge, him—something that Halt couldn't help but feel glad about. After the incident that morning, Halt wouldn't have known how to respond if his brother began talking to him with civility. It hadn't been the first time Ferris had expressed sentiments like that, but it had definitely been the angriest.
Baron Cloncurry and his wife were actually fairly decent people, in Halt's opinion. They had greeted the royal family with respect, but they also treated the castle servants with respect. While some nobles used their elevated status as an excuse to look down upon those of the lower classes, the Baron and his wife had acted decently towards any servant they came across, even going so far as to include 'please' and 'thank you' in any requests they made.
He returned to his room in the evening to find Caitlyn, and supper, waiting for him. They didn't say much as they ate, but unlike the silences that fell so often over the family meals, this silence was comfortable rather than tense.
"So when do we leave?" Caitlyn asked as the two siblings were carrying their dishes to the kitchen. Both of them were aware of the fact that there were servants who could do jobs like that, but neither of them really cared. Besides, it gave them a chance to stretch their legs.
"Just after sunrise?" Halt replied, balancing his tray in one hand so he could open the kitchen doors with the other.
"Are you asking me or telling me?" Caitlyn teased as she set her tray on the counter.
Halt rolled his eyes in her direction and sighed, but the effect was ruined by a small smile that was tugging on the corner of his mouth. "I was just trying to make sure you were good with it," he muttered, then repeated his statement, this time in a non-questioning manner. "Just after sunrise."
"Alright," she said. "I'll pack breakfast and you can find something for lunch. See you then."
She turned down a hallway that led to her room, giving her brother a cheerful wave before disappearing from view.
It was still dark when Halt slipped out of his room, carrying a small bag that he had packed the previous night. He padded softly through the near-empty hallways, enjoying the quiet. Most of the castle inhabitants were still asleep, only the odd servant or guard was awake.
He made his way to the stables, stopping by the armoury to pick up his bow and arrows. Although it was much more common for those of the royal family to be trained in swordsmanship, Halt had always felt drawn towards the bow. (Pun only sort of intended.) Ever since he had first picked it up, the bow had just felt right in his hands. He had spent countless hours practicing and was an above average shot as a result.
When he arrived at the stables, Caitlyn was already waiting for him, both horses saddled and ready to go. "You work quickly," he commented, a note of surprise colouring his words.
"Don't thank me," she said with a smile, "Jacob had them ready before I got here. He heard about our trip and got up early to make sure our horses were ready."
"Thank you," Halt said, turning to address the young stablehand, who promptly turned red at the thought of being thanked by the Crown Prince and his sister.
Jacob's mouth opened and closed a few times, doing a remarkable impression of a fish. "It… I was… You're welcome, your Highnesses," he managed eventually.
Caitlyn smiled at the boy before mounting her horse. She and Halt rode out of the castle, the clatter of the horses' hooves echoing in the quiet courtyard behind them. They reached the edge of the forest just as the sun broke over the horizon, flooding their surroundings with a faintly golden light.
"Do you want to have breakfast now or a bit later?" Caitlyn asked.
Halt looked at his sister and then twisted in his saddle to look back at the castle. A grimace passed over his face. "Let's go a little farther," he said. "There's a nice clearing—"
"The one with the big rock?" Caitlyn cut him off. She grinned when he nodded in confirmation. "Race you there! Loser has to cook lunch."
"Alright," Halt replied, and then discovered he was speaking to empty space, Caitlyn already having urged her mount into a gallop as soon as he had said 'alright'. Halt sped after her, but the head start she had taken worked to her advantage and she arrived at the rock a few moments ahead of her brother.
"You cheated!" Halt accused her as he swung down from his horse.
"No I didn't," Caitlyn defended, picking up on the teasing note that coloured her brother's voice, "You were just distracted and I used that to my advantage. Apple?"
Halt took the proffered red fruit with a word of thanks. After looping the horses' reins around a conveniently low hanging branch so that they wouldn't wander away, the two siblings enjoyed the rest of their breakfast. It was nothing fancy, just some bread and cold bacon, but Halt felt that it tasted better than any other breakfast he'd had in a long time.
Being away from the stress and pomp of the castle was already doing wonders for him. The quiet rustling of wind in the trees and the cheerful chirping of birds was a welcome change. He closed his eyes and sighed contentedly, drinking in the calm.
"Knew you'd like it." The quietly spoken words drew his attention to a smiling Caitlyn.
A long moment passed before Halt replied. He wasn't usually one to share his feelings, but there something about his younger sister had always made him open up in a way no one else did.
"Is it bad that I feel more at home out here—" he gestured to the surrounding trees and bushes— "than I do in the castle?"
The question hung in the air between them for a minute before Caitlyn slowly shook her head. "No, Halt, it isn't." She paused before continuing. "Home is meant to be a place where you are happy and free to be yourself. If you can't be those things in the castle, then it makes sense that it doesn't feel like home."
There was a long pause as Halt digested her statement. Then he jumped to his feet, grabbing his bow and arrows on his way up. "Well I should probably start hunting, otherwise we won't have anything for lunch."
Halt knew Caitlyn was adept enough to recognize a diversionary tactic when she saw one, but thankfully she didn't comment on the sudden change in topic.
"Alright," she agreed as she rummaged around in her bag and pulled out a sketchbook and a charcoal pencil. She settled herself more comfortably in the grass with her back against the stone, then glanced up at her brother and teased, "Just remember you have to cook whatever you catch."
Halt nodded once before turning and disappearing quickly into the forest.
For a while, Halt didn't attempt to hunt, opting instead to merely enjoy the calming presence of the surrounding forest. There was still dew in the shady spots where the sunlight had not yet reached, and Halt took a moment to appreciate the way the dewdrops sparkled as they caught the light.
Before he began to hunt, Halt closed his eyes and just listened; attuning himself to the rhythm of the forest. When he felt sufficiently in-tune, he opened his eyes and scanned the ground intently. He was rewarded with a trail of small paw prints that glistened on the dew-covered grass, fairly recent by the looks of it. He pulled an arrow out of his quiver and nocked it on the bowstring, reducing the amount of movement he would have to do when he came upon his prey. The less movement, the less chance of startling the prey away.
Carefully, each movement steady and as silent as he could make it, Halt followed the trail. It wasn't long before he came upon the young hare that had made the trail. The little creature was nibbling daintily on a blade of grass, unaware of the danger creeping up on it.
Ever so slowly, Halt pulled back the string. Some part of his movement must have been noticed by the hare, for its ears flicked straight up and it bounded speedily away. Halt sighed and relaxed the tension on his bow. He wasn't too worried about losing the hare—it was still early, so he had lots of time to find something else.
It didn't take him long to come across a rabbit, and this he shot with ease. What did surprise him, though, was how far away he had gotten from the rock and Caitlyn. It took him a good half hour to get back to her and by then the sun was high in the sky.
Caitlyn was engrossed in her drawing, her lips pursed in concentration as her charcoal pencil moving busily across the page. Yet when she heard the rustle of leaves and undergrowth that signified Halt's return, she looked up immediately.
"Any luck?" she called out in greeting.
In response, Halt held up the rabbit. Seeing it, she smiled, and her smile was so infectious that Halt found himself smiling too.
"Is it alright if I close my eyes for a bit while you sort out lunch?" she asked, smothering a yawn with the back of her hand.
"Yes," Halt replied.
"You know how to prepare that?"
"I'm sure I can figure out how to cook a rabbit, Caitlyn," Halt said. "It can't be that hard."
"If you say so," Caitlyn replied. She closed her sketchbook, placing it and her pencil in her bag before moving to a sunny spot and stretching out on the grass. She pillowed her head with her hands and closed her eyes. "Wake me up when it's ready, mkay?"
"Will do," Halt replied.
Before dealing with the rabbit, Halt built a fire. While he had been hunting, Caitlyn must have collected firewood because there was a pile of dry sticks and branches beside the rock. Using his knife, Halt shaved off small curls of kindling, arranged other pieces of wood around them, then used his flint and steel to set the kindling alight. Soon he had a fire that was crackling cheerfully.
It didn't take long for Halt to skin and debone the rabbit. He had been hunting before and had no problems field dressing whatever animals he caught. The problem came when he had to cook the rabbit. As he stared between the pieces of rabbit meat and the pot, he came to the realization he had never actually had to cook a rabbit (or anything really). In Dun Kilty food was always prepared for him, and someone else had always done the cooking on previous hunting trips.
"It can't be that hard," he muttered to himself, determined not to wake his sister to ask for advice. He had assured her he could cook a rabbit, so he was going to cook the rabbit.
Using a tripod-ish structure he made from green branches, Halt hung a pot over the fire. He tossed in the pieces of meat, hearing them sizzle when they hit the bottom of the hot pot. He stirred them until they were brown all over then he picked up his canteen to add water, only to discover it was empty. Caitlyn's was empty too.
With a muttered curse under his breath, Halt set off towards the stream that was close by. He filled both canteens and then jogged back to the fire. He wrinkled nose at the acrid smell in the air and noticed with alarm that the pot was smoking.
Quickly, he dumped the contents of his canteen in the pot. The water hissed and the smoke was replaced by steam. Halt sighed in relief—disaster averted.
Now what else went in soup?
Earlier, Caitlyn had mentioned that she had packed food in her bag, so Halt rummaged around in her bag, moving aside her sketchbook to find a large carrot, two potatoes, an onion, and some green plants with small leaves that Halt presumed were herbs. All of these were soon chopped and added to the pot; landing with a sploosh into the simmering liquid.
Taking the wooden spoon, Halt gave the contents of the pot a stir. He narrowed his eyes at the black bits that were floating happily on the surface. Where had those come from? Mentally, he shrugged. You couldn't mess up soup, could you?
He figured that the carrots and potatoes would need almost half an hour to cook, so after cleaning his knife and dealing with the rabbit carcass, he refilled his canteen yet again. Then he settled himself on the soft grass, his back against the sun-warmed rock. Every couple of minutes he roused himself and stirred the soup, but other than that he simply relaxed.
The air was warm and still. Off to his right there was some sort of bug that was buzzing drowsily. The wind wound its way through the trees, making branches sway and leaves flutter softly. The atmosphere of the forest was just so different from Dun Kilty. Here, there were no bickering parents, no boot-licking nobles, and no resentful brothers. No one ready to criticize him for not being the perfect prince he had never wanted to be.
Not for the first time, Halt wondered what it would be like to get out of Dun Kilty. Out of Clonmel. Out of Hibernia even. Gallica was supposed to be nice, and no one there would know about his heritage if he didn't tell them.
His gaze caught on Caitlyn and immediately he shook his head, banishing those thoughts. He wouldn't think of leaving, because even though he wouldn't mind leaving everything else behind, he couldn't leave his sister.
As if sensing that he was thinking about her, Caitlyn yawned and then sat up. She stretched her arms above her head and rubbed her eyes with a fist before looking drowsily at him. "How's lunch coming along?" she asked.
"I think it's ready," Halt replied, peering at the soup. It had turned a murky grayish-brown colour and the black bits from before were still there. He had a sneaking suspicion that they were burnt bits from when he had left the meat for too long to go get water, but what Caitlyn didn't know wouldn't hurt her… he hoped.
"Could you pass me the bowls?" he asked.
Caitlyn handed him the two wooden bowls she had packed earlier. (She was very good at thinking ahead and packing things.) Halt filled the first bowl and handed it back to her, then scooped some soup into his bowl. When he turned around, Caitlyn was peering intently at the soup.
"So… what do you think?" Halt asked.
Caitlyn looked up at him and blinked. "Oh, I haven't had a chance to try it yet." She plucked her spoon from her bag, dunked it in the soup, and after a moment's hesitation, she popped it in her mouth.
It was only because Halt was watching her closely that he saw the shock and disgust that flashed across her face. To her credit, however, she quickly schooled her features into a forced smile that hid a grimace. She swallowed, then nodded. "It…" she paused, and finished her sentence after some deliberation, " … certainly tastes."
Halt raised an eyebrow, suddenly feeling that perhaps it was possible to mess up soup. He took a spoonful out of his bowl and immediately spat it right back out. He coughed and scraped his tongue with the back of his hand in an attempt to get the taste off.
"Caitlyn, that is absolutely foul!" he cried. "Why on earth would you swallow that?"
She passed him her canteen. "Here, this should help." Halt accepted it gratefully and guzzled the water greedily.
"You made such an admirable effort," she explained earnestly, "and I didn't want to ruin it."
"I think I already did that," Halt muttered. He tried to hide it, but he was disappointed and annoyed with himself. It had been such a good morning, up until his disaster of a soup. Now they would have to go hungry or head back early. "I should have known it would be bad when I saw those black floaty bits."
"They add flavour!" Caitlyn defended.
"Burnt flavour!" Halt countered, starting to feel angry, although he didn't know why.
"Fair point," she acknowledged. She glanced wryly down at her bowl of soup before looking at him, her eyes sparkling with humour and a grin spreading across her face. "But you have to admit, it is sort of funny. Your soup is absolutely horrible!"
Halt looked at her being so cheerful despite the situation, and all his anger, disappointment, and annoyance faded away. She giggled, and after a moment, so did he. The giggles devolved into full blown laughter, and the two of them ended up sitting on the grass, clutching their sides as they continued to laugh.
"I thought… you said… cooking… a rabbit… wasn't that hard," Caitlyn managed to gasp out.
"Yeah, well, they're trickier than I expected," Halt said. He sobered slightly, then sighed. "I guess that's it for lunch. I'm sorry."
"That's okay." Caitlyn scrunched her nose. "I'm not feeling very hungry now, anyways." She laughed again, then gasped as an idea hit her. "I should teach you to cook! That way I never have to suffer through something like that again."
"I look ridiculous!" Halt grumbled.
It was a few days after what Caitlyn had aptly dubbed 'The Great Soup Disaster', and she was taking her self-proclaimed mission to teach Halt to cook very seriously—which was how he had ended up wearing a purple apron decorated with embroidered yellow flowers.
Caitlyn stepped back to survey him, pursing her lips and tilting her head to one side as she considered his appearance. "It suits you," she declared.
"The ridiculousness?" Halt questioned, glowering down at the offensive piece of fabric.
"That too. Besides, Iseult won't let you let you in the kitchen without one." She twirled it around in a circle to show off the one she was wearing. "I've got one too."
"You actually look good in green!" Halt protested.
"Oh, stop complaining. Let's go!" Lightning quick, Caitlyn darted forward and grabbed his wrist. With a surprising amount of strength, she began to drag him out of his room and down the hallways towards the kitchens.
When they reached the kitchens, the head cook greeted Caitlyn with a warm hug, which Caitlyn returned eagerly. "You just can't stay away, can you, lassie?" She held Caitlyn out at arms' length. "It's good to see you again."
Caitlyn smiled. "It's good to see you too, Iseult."
Iseult glanced appraisingly at Halt, a wary tension in her eyes. "You've brought your brother with you. Welcome to the kitchens, Your Highness." She curtsied.
"Please, just call me Halt." His father would have a fit if he heard Halt instructing someone to call him by his first name, but Iseult seemed to approve of his offer. Besides, Caitlyn was on a first name basis with her, so it couldn't do much harm and he much preferred people to use his name rather than his title.
Her gaze softened and she smiled warmly at him. "In that case, welcome to the kitchens, Halt."
"Could we make some soup?" Caitlyn asked. "I want to teach Halt how to cook."
"Of course you may, lassie." Iseult steered the siblings through the busy kitchen to an out-of-the-way corner. "Soup's a good choice to start with. It's almost impossible to make wrong."
Caitlyn laughed and nudged her brother with her elbow. "Hear that? 'Almost impossible to make wrong!'" she whispered to him.
Halt frowned. "It's easy for her to say—she's had years of experience," he retorted.
Iseult gave them both knives, then disappeared into a back storeroom. She came back with a small basket of onions, carrots, parsnips, garlic, potatoes, various herbs, a small container of salt, and a little bag of flour. She also had a small chunk of beef.
"Alright both of you, listen carefully. I'll explain what to do, but then I have to be getting back to my work and I'll only be able to check in on you every once in a while." She waited until Halt and Caitlyn nodded their understanding.
"You'll want to be chopping that beef and then coating it with a mixture of flour and herbs. Then you'll fry it with some oil until the pieces are brown all over. Take those out of the pot and fry the onions, a couple pieces of carrot, and the garlic. Once the onions are soft, add the meat back in, along with the rest of the carrots, parsnips, and potatoes. Then you'll be adding in the herbs, water, and some wine."
Iseult paused in her instructions, scanning the ingredients she had collected. "I'll have to get you the wine. But," she shook her finger admonishingly at the siblings, "don't you even think about drinking it—it's for the stew. Your father would have my head if I let you two get drunk in here."
"We won't," Caitlyn assured her.
"Once you add the wine, then you'll put a lid on the pot and just let it boil until everything is tender." Iseult paused again. "Do you remember all that?"
Halt nodded. Compared to all the things he had to memorize—such as a list of over twenty monarchs, many of them with annoyingly similar names (he still wasn't sure why that was something that was considered important to know off the top of his head)—remembering the recipe was simple.
"I'll leave you to it then. Try not to burn down the kitchen." And on that encouraging note, she left.
Working together, Halt and Caitlyn made short work of chopping the meat and vegetables. The onions were especially pungent, and Halt's eyes started watering as he sliced them. Unfortunately for him, he made the mistake of wiping his eyes with the hand that had been touching the onions.
"Aaaarrrrgggghhhh!" he cried. He squeezed his eyes shut tightly as they stung and burned.
"Halt? What's wrong?" he heard Caitlyn's voice, coloured with a mixture of confusion and concern. She must have noticed what he had been cutting because when she spoke again, she sounded more understanding. "Oh, onions? Just blink a lot, okay?"
After a few minutes with tears running down his face, the stinging subsided and the two siblings continued preparing the stew. When they reached the part where all they had to do was let the stew simmer, Halt and Caitlyn leaned back against the counter and simply observed the kitchen.
At first glance, it seemed to be a chaotic mess, with no discernible rhythm. Yet as Halt continued to watch, he began to pick out subtle patterns. It was like one of the more complicated dances that he had been forced to learn the steps of, except less rigid and more free-flowing.
He could feel someone watching him, so he turned his head and met Caitlyn's gaze. For some reason, she looked quite pleased. Halt raised an inquisitive eyebrow in her direction.
"You're smiling," she said in response to his unspoken question.
Surprised by her observation, Halt considered his emotions. At some point while he had been working with Caitlyn to prepare the stew, he had unconsciously relaxed. The tension and the pressure from high expectations that normally felt so suffocating had fallen away, leaving him with a lightness and sense of freedom that usually only came when he was out of Dun Kilty.
There was just something so refreshingly different about working in the kitchen. The carrots didn't try to worm their way out of paying taxes. The potatoes didn't shower him with flattery and empty compliments in an attempt to get on the good side of the future king. The herbs didn't bitterly resent the fact that he was crown prince because he had been born first.
"Yeah, I guess I am," he replied.
She giggled. "Maybe you should look at getting a side job as a cook."
Halt's smile fell. "I doubt Father would ever approve of the Crown Prince working in the kitchen like a commoner. It wouldn't be dignified enough," he muttered sourly.
As soon as the words left his mouth, Halt wished he could take them back. Caitlyn was spending time with him, trying to find something that he enjoyed doing, something that would distract him for a little while from the responsibilities and worries that came with being the crown prince. (And Halt had to admit that, to a certain extent, it had worked.) But now, with one single thoughtless comment, Halt had managed to ruin the mood of the previously cheerful afternoon.
He sighed heavily and dragged a hand across his eyes. "I'm sorry, Cait. I shouldn't have said that."
She smiled at him, but the smile was filled with concern and sadness. "It's okay. Plus—" her tentative smile morphed into a mischievous grin and she poked him in the side— "you can make it up to me by not making any more horrible soups when we go out hunting."
Halt grinned, then retaliated by poking her, laughing when she yelped in a very unprincess-like manner. (It was only later as he was lying in bed that he realized how effectively Caitlyn had distracted him from his dark mood.)
When the meat was tender and the vegetables could be easily poked with a fork, Caitlyn called Iseult over to taste their stew. Halt and Caitlyn watched her anxiously as she smelled the contents of the pot, then tasted a small spoonful, blowing on it to cool it slightly. Her face gave nothing away as she swallowed and ran her tongue around the inside of her mouth.
Finally, she nodded. "It could do with a little more salt, but it's acceptable."
Normally, Halt would be disappointed if someone told him that his work was only acceptable, but as he had been observing the kitchen earlier, Halt had come to the conclusion that Iseult held those who worked in the kitchen to an extremely high standard. So he figured that coming from her, acceptability was almost a compliment.
"Now if you two want, you can each have a bowl, and I'll serve the rest for supper," Iseult commanded.
Halt and Caitlyn served themselves and had eaten only a few spoonfuls when a page boy entered the kitchens. His gaze fixed on Halt and Caitlyn, and Halt would have been amused at the comical expression of shock and confusion on the boy's face at the sight of the Princess and Crown Prince eating stew in the kitchens if the boy hadn't started to make his way over to them, dodging various kitchen workers as he did so.
"My apologies for interrupting your Highnesses, but the King has requested that Prince Halt join him for the afternoon's council meeting," the boy recited dutifully.
Halt bit back a groan. "I will be there shortly," he replied. The page nodded, then slipped back through the busy kitchen workers and out the door.
Halt placed the unfinished bowl of stew on the counter and turned regretfully towards Caitlyn, about to apologize for having to leave. However, she waved away his apologies before he voiced them.
"Don't worry about it. I'm sure Iseult will allow us to come back again. I think she's taken a shine to you—she did, after all, call our stew acceptable."
"Thanks, Cait." He turned to go, but had only gone a few steps when Caitlyn called out to him.
"Halt!" Her voice was tinged with amusement.
He looked back at her and made a 'what?' gesture with his hands.
She flapped a hand in his direction, smiling as she did so. "You're still wearing your apron."
Glancing down, Halt was surprised to see that she was right. Truth be told, he had completely forgotten about it.
The mental picture of himself striding confidently into the council room while wearing a purple apron with yellow flowers made him snort mirthfully. His father and the stuffy councillors would be appalled and their facial expressions would be priceless. Caitlyn must have been thinking the same thing, because she began to laugh.
Halt pulled the apron off, handed it to her, and walked out the door, a hint of a smile still on his face.
A/N: Hi guys! I hope all of you are doing well! This story came from me wondering how Halt learned to cook. In the books he likes to cook and is fairly good at it, but I don't think cooking would be a skill taught to princes. So, this is what I came up with.
Anyways, thanks for reading and have a great day!