Chapter 23: Heavy Memories
Excitement fills the colored halls of Valarheim for the upcoming New Years' dinner. Laughter and smiles can be seen at every corner as people relate the good times they had during the soon-to-end holiday season. Everyone feels like a happy family eagerly awaiting the New Year rather than a military organization that's recently had news of a potentially mighty new opponent.
And that light atmosphere, in turn, makes the sour look stamped on Hilda's face stand out like a dark cloud amid a clear blue sky. Her nighttime escapade plus the need to wake up early to help in the kitchen have taken their toll, leaving her with scant few hours of sleep – too few. The bags under the barely opened eyes, paired with the grouchiness that stretches across every corner of her glowering countenance, is telling of her foul mood this morning.
If there's one piece of good news for her is that she could finally take off the bandages on her hands. Despite how burned they were, her pale skin looks the same as always, down to the many calluses that cover her palms.
Following a cold bath that fails to have any sort of effect on her sleepiness, Hilda drags her feet across the corridors leading up to the dining hall. The way there feels longer than usual, though she is not sure if it's due to her current state or the haunting knowledge of the work that awaits therein. Still, Hilda knows it's her fault for leaving Valarheim at that time – she should've expected the generals to notice.
The dining hall itself already shows sign of intense activity, with workers busily bringing in hundreds of brass plates and silverware. The Scions will soon be here for breakfast and Hilda at least takes solace in the fact that she won't be waitressing today. This was, by far, the busiest day of the year back in Gustaff's bar and she'd rather not do so again. Not that she'd trust herself waitressing in this state – the light of the golden chandeliers above hit her eyes like darts, demanding that they close in submission. And that they do, as Hilda shields them with her hands and stumbles her way through the massive wooden tables, towards the kitchen.
She approaches its wide open entrance and steps into its white stone floor; dozens of red Alterium tables run from one side of the room to the other, holding iron pots, utensils and bright flames on each corner. Scion workers send dishes back and forth throughout the tables, manifesting trays across their smooth metal surfaces and sliding them along to the waiters. Despite how wide the kitchen in, the speed with which things are done is blinding.
One needs only look around to see that preparations for tonight's dinner are well underway. Hilda's nose is struck by a veritable cornucopia of smells, so varied that she can't even make out even the commonest of scents from among the rest.
The various recipes presented by the Scions over the past month require a tremendous variety of raw ingredients to make, from basic cuts of meat and vegetables to oddly-shaped roots and mixtures that bubble with colors Hilda did not expect food to take. If anything, the dazing combination of it all serves to quell her drowsiness slightly – her nostrils burn like she just inhaled embers.
"Over here, Hilda!" Owen calls out from the far corner of the kitchen. He waves for her to come over, his long blonde hair tied up in a tail that droops by his neck, where a fancy red and gold rimmed apron hangs from.
As she walks across the bustling room, dodging the frenzied workers, Hilda sees that he's plenty busy himself. Diligently taking notes and sorting myriad ingredients, Owen directs several people towards many different tasks. They respond with deference Hilda wouldn't have expected them to give anyone but Greta. The big lady herself isn't slacking off, though, and her booming voice can be heard barking commands from the other side of the kitchen.
"Hey there..." Hilda greets him, her voice muffled by a yawn that insists to pass through. "Guess you were expecting me, huh?"
"Lord Ryouma did tell me to 'await reinforcements'. Here, I figured you'd need this." Owen hands her a mug of steaming coffee, with a matching powerful scent bearing notes of ginger and more.
Hilda looks at the mug with a dejected sigh, hating when she's forced to resort to this awful drink – she hasn't even gotten rid of the aftertaste of yesterday's candy. Still, this may well be considered part of her punishment today. Rubbing her tired eyes, she takes in several sharp breaths and drinks a sip... and she is not ready for what comes, as shown by her face suddenly scrunching up like it's collapsing upon itself.
"Oh, gods! This is bitter!" she cries out, her body reflexively twitching as the taste runs amuck in her mouth. She holds her lips shut, feeling like the hellfire-tasting drink crashing down her throat is turning everything to coal.
"Heh, Dr. Matu suggested this traditional Kenyan recipe to me, though it seems a tad too powerful for our consumption." Owen laughs, taking back the mug as she shoves it into his hands. "Still, judging by your yelp, it's served its purpose."
"My f-foot's... gonna serve its purpose when it kicks your ass, blondie...!" Hilda growls at him, her twitching starting to subside as her hands clutch her reddened cheeks.
"I'd suggest against that, lest you anger Greta." He answers with a cheeky nod towards the yelling queen of the dining hall. "Now, come on; there are plenty of preparations to be done for tonight."
Hilda glares at him with narrowed eyes and a long pout. At length, she harrumphs and answers. "...Fine..."
That concoction did manage to reenergize her but, in truth, she'd prefer dealing with drowsiness any day of the week than have another taste of it. Still, there's too much to be done for her to focus on that. Hilda has plans to pay him back the next time they're sparring, though...
Owen tosses a red apron of her own, matching everyone else's, and brings Hilda into the metaphorical vortex that's swirling in his table. While Greta's taking care of serving breakfast right now, he's taken the job of having everything set up for when cooking starts in the afternoon.
Owen's left a tall pile of recipes by the table's end with each assistant meant to pick one, gather up the ingredients to the cooks and help as needed. Hilda finds herself progressively more amazed by how many different things they'll be serving: there are dishes from Italy, China, Bahrain, Ethiopia, New Zealand, Chile and oh-so-much more. The Corps multinational structure brings in food so different, Hilda can't even pronounce many of their names.
Still, the regular workers know their way around the more exotic ingredients and are quick to point out what she's meant to grab.
As dishes are put together, they're moved to the cold storage room, its double steel doors sitting amid the far stone wall of the kitchen. Illumination is provided by a frozen sphere of ice the size of a melon that floats in midair, wafting chilly waves off its glistening body to keep the temperature steadily low.
Edda would probably kill for a room like this at the bar... Hilda thinks as she brings in more and more food.
For the next few hours, it's nonstop work for her, Owen and the kitchen staff. This is hardly how she wanted to spend a chunk of this day but it, actually, proves to be a surprisingly effective endurance exercise. The constant movement, carrying, chopping and stirring gives Hilda's arms, legs and back a heavy workout, droplets of sweat forming on her brows despite the low winter temperature.
After helping stir a huge bowl of some Russian cookie dough, Hilda goes pick up the next recipe to work on. As she mouths the ingredients to herself, it soon stands out to her like an old friend.
"Mayonnaise, smoked salmon, dill, bread... cream cheese... Oooh." Her eyes widen in surprise and a pearly smile cracks in her lips as she realizes what this recipe is for.
"Something the matter?" Owen asks from his part of the table, raising an eyebrow with slight curiosity towards her intent staring at a piece of paper.
"Oh, it's nothing." Hilda clears her throat and walks over to him like an excited child on Christmas morning, merry haste in every step. "Do you know what this is?"
Owen, busy stirring another dish, bends over and takes a look at the recipe – it's quite the long list of ingredients. Still, he answers her with a brief shake of his head. "I can't say that I do... Do you?"
"Yeah! It's smörgåstårta – sandwich cake – and it's sooooo good!" she says, lightning crackling across the ground as she zips around to gather the ingredients, dumping the lot of them in front of him. "I forgot to suggest anything for today, so you make this for me and I might forgive you for that crazy coffee."
"I've already quite a lot to do... Can't you ask someone else?" Owen groans at the large pile of food Hilda's brought but, as she puts her hands on her hips and glares daggers at him, it's clear this is no request. "Oi... Very well. Since you care that much."
"I do, I do. It was my dad's favorite dish, see?" Hilda thanks him with an eager smile, grabbing a knife and helping with preparation. "It's been ages since I could afford to eat this, what with his death and Litnir going to crap..."
"I see. He lost his life in a cave-in, right?" Owen asks.
Hilda turns to him with lips slightly puckered with surprise. "Yeah. How do you know about that?"
"Paula, during our tour in the Banks Island outpost. While you lay passed out, she spent quite a while painting me a picture of who you were, what you'd gone through... All in the interest of changing my opinion of you," he says.
"Oh, that girl..." Hilda sighs as her brow deepens with frustration, running her hands across her face. Her eyes trail over to the kitchen windows, providing a clear view of the tundra outside – maybe she'd get lucky and catch sight of her friend again?
She appreciates Paula's help back then, of course, but also knows that she was probably already training to hunt those Wraith creatures. Yet, the girl still saw fit to support her and help bridge the gap between the then-quarreling Novitiates. The thought of all this brings several pangs of sorrow to Hilda's heart, now finding herself unable to help when Paula is the one having difficulties. What kind of friend is she if she cannot do something to alleviate at least a bit of her problems?
Owen notes the dark cloud that's settled in her gaze and decides to try and pull her attention back to lighter subjects. "Regardless, I am amused that a dish means this much to you. I can relate to that, in fact."
He pulls out a piece of parchment from his apron's front pocket and shows it to Hilda. It seems to be a recipe, judging by the quantities listed, but she can't make heads or tails of it. Everything is in what she assumes is Welsh, the cursive writing looking more like a random squiggles than anything else. It does appear to be somewhat old, however, judging from the discoloration, creases and tears across its rough texture.
"Um, what does this stuff mean?" she asks, handing him back the parchment.
Owen takes it with more care than Hilda would expect from something seemingly commonplace, gently folding it into his pocket. "It's my mother's cawl recipe, a favorite of mine and my father. A rather simple dish, really, but she often made it at the end of a busy training days; its taste begets many fine memories."
"That's back when you were a kid, yeah? I never got to ask yesterday, with the mess in Usoluk, but how's a regular day for a widdle baby knight?" Hilda places her elbow on the table in front, propping her chin and giving him a playful look.
"A squire, thank you very much... And, in a word, it is busy. My father always had my peers and I following a strict routine: in the morning we'd study strategy and techniques and, in the afternoon, we'd train or support citizens in need," Owen tells, his eyes resplendent as vivid images of his childhood play in his mind. "Though we were young, there was little time for fun. 'The people and the sword are, and will always be, your highest priority,' he used to say."
"Well, guess you weren't joking when you said you weren't pampered. Still, your dad sounds like an alright guy," Hilda says.
Owen nods back at her, pride of his family running unhindered across his smiling cheeks. "Indeed, he was – we, squires, all saw in him an ideal to aspire for. The other children in Dartham Palace didn't see the appeal in such a childhood but it's one I wouldn't trade for the most comfortable of upbringings."
"Good man," she taps him on the back. "We've a saying about that here in the north, you know? 'Have seeds take root early, lest winter sweep them away'. Playing's good and all but kids who do that all day won't be proper grown-ups – we can't afford that."
"I believe it's your turn to share, then – how was your own childhood? And since this is your request, help me by chopping these, please." Owen pokes her with a dill sprig, handing a bunch of the little things and a knife to Hilda.
She answers him with a snarky huff, though does as asked. In truth, she helped her father every once in a while as he was preparing this very dish; the smell of the fresh salmon and lime, the noise of dill being chopped atop the wooden board, are just as she remembers. The familiar fragrances make her heart swell, commanding simpler times to emerge from Hilda's heart.
"It was good, especially while Litnir was doing well. Like you, most of my mornings were spent in school, where this sixty-year-old woman would try to get a whole bunch of noisy kids to pay attention to math and stuff. I remember that the only time I'd cut her some slack was during art class." Hilda laughs, looking at Owen with a small semblance of childish glee in her eyes.
Meanwhile, he looks back with such doubt one would think she proclaimed herself the Queen of England. "'Art class'? I'm having difficulty picturing you doing such things."
"I'll have you know that my hand paintings were the best around." Hilda playfully waves her fingers at him. "But my favorite time was afternoon. That's when my and I friends would just go crazy and play away."
The glow in Hilda's gaze makes it clear how dear these memories are to her. The joy with which she tells her story fills the air around her with vivacity; despite all there is to be done, those nearby can't help but feel at ease.
A joking grin cracks upon Owen's lips. "Oh? What happened with taking roots early?"
Hilda fires back with a quick chuckle. "Hah, I was about five and dad was still alive – studying was good enough. Our games were a big workout, though!"
"Is that so?"
"Yeah; you see this here?" She shows him a small T-shaped scar in forearm. "Litnir kids had a habit of getting together to play Scion. So picture me, my brother Henrik, and about seven others running around yelling and waving sticks at each other."
"Sounds like bedlam, especially for the townspeople," Owen quips.
"It was but we had fun." Hilda punctuates her answer with a deep, satisfied sigh; the smile she bears right now is one seldom shown but, then again, she seldom feels this way. The last time was when they defeated Nokor's Risen. It is short lived, however, fading away as quickly as it emerged. "But all good things come to an end, right? Dad died about a year later and stuff started going south for our town."
Owen carries on preparing her dish but keeps a firm gaze on Hilda, listening to every word of his partner's story. "What happened then?"
"Fate forced me to grow up, I guess; Gustaff gave me and Henrik a room and I started working there full time to thank him," she answers with a dejected shrug.
"Didn't you want to continue your studies?"
Hilda meets him with a slightly condescending look and a wry laugh. "Did you not get the 'things were going south for Litnir' bit? Teachers are rare up here and, in a year, they couldn't afford to keep her around. Still, I was lucky; dad had a lot of old books and Henrik was a bookworm, so he taught me during his off hours as a guard."
"Hm. He sounds like a fine man," Owen says calmly but notices something shifting in Hilda's face. The few glimmers of joy still present in her eyes begin to evaporate with every word she utters, replaced in turn by tension inching across the faint smile frozen in her narrowing lips.
"Oh, yeah... my brother was something else. Kind, confident, smart, strong as all hell but never stuck up about it."
Her hand, busily chopping the dill sprigs, tenses up in kind and accelerates. Her chops grow fiercer and fiercer, ripping the herbs with violence.
"He was really dedicated, training and studying every day. Nothing could keep him down... unlike his baby sister."
Owen looks on in silence, concern marring his brown eyes. Hilda ignores him, however, as her brow deepens, twisted with barely contained anger, as her mouth contorts in disgust. Her knife speeds up once more, slamming against the chopping block with loud knocks. Toc-toc-toc.
"Still, he was always there to help me; when I got hurt, when I cried my eyes out over dad, when I didn't understand anything... Whenever I thought things were bad, he helped me see that we'd be fine."
Toc-toc-toc-toc-toc. The noise of her knife grows with each heavier swing, tearing into the wooden block and sending splinters flying. Her voice remains firm and unchanged, but a note of deep pain can be heard spreading within.
"Yeah, my brother had everything he needed to be a great man..."
Toc-toc-toc-toc-toc-toc-toc. The dill spring has long since been carved into minuscule shreds; her hand does not stop, though. It keeps hacking at the block, deeper and deeper, until it finally tears the piece of wood in half. Hilda's eyes explode and burn with a surge of emotions – anger, sorrow, hatred, fear. She grips the knife and jams it into one of the halves, barely missing her other hand.
"... And, then, he died," Hilda grunts through her teeth, a sound so very faint but as heavy as a boulder. Her hand, sweaty from all the work, slipped off the wooden handle when she stabbed with the knife and slid across the edge. Trembling like she's been shoved into a frozen lake, her palms rock madly against the sharp edge; but she does not feel its bite sinking into her flesh.
Her blood pools on the kitchen table, eyes locked at the ground with a panicked glare. Hilda stands paralyzed, breathless as though the air is a bottomless ocean and she all she can do is sink.
Owen intervenes to bring it back to shore, however, taking a step closer and giving her a hug. Warmth irradiates from his frame, spreading throughout Hilda and cutting across the tension in her muscles like a summer's breeze. His strong arms hold around her shoulders tight but, also, kindly; just enough for her to feel as though she is safely cradled within.
Hilda breathes in deep, letting herself relax in Owen's hug for a small while. It almost feels like she's back in Henrik's arms. As the air fills her lungs once more, her surging memories vanish back into her mind – under control once more.
Owen lets her go as her trembling finally subsides, looking into her eyes with a steely, but compassionate, gaze. "I apologize if that was out of line but it felt necessary."
"Aah... No, I appreciate it. Don't worry." Hilda sighs but still manages to meet him with a weary smile. "Sorry, I just get emotional when I talk about Henrik. It's like..."
"Like a part of your heart has been carved off and, yet, you're forced to carry on without it. I know from experience how you feel, truly," Owen says, his firm voice wavering ever-so-slightly with a heavier note.
Hilda tosses her kitchen knife, now bent and crumpled, into the trash and conjures a stream of electricity in the gash on her palm. Violet light fills the injury and the skin begins stitching itself together. She answers Owen with a sympathetic chuckle, running her hands through her hair, as she says under her breath: "I hope you don't, actually."
"Hm? How so?" he asks, his eyebrows descending with concern.
Hilda gives him a pat on the shoulder and starts cleaning up her end of the table. "You don't want me to start freaking out again, do you? Come on – back to work."
Owen looks at her like he wants to object but sees in her defensive aura and stance – constantly avoiding anyone's sight – that she will not continue this conversation. He acquiesces with a somber nod of the head.
"As you wish; I won't pry into sensitive issues. Though you do understand that we – Lord Ryouma, Lady Vanessa, Lady Alexandra, Paula and I – are all willing to listen if you wish to talk, yes? You needn't bear any weight alone."
"'Course... Thanks," Hilda says, looking at him with the haughty gaze of one who's already had plenty of people tell her that over the years. "But, really, don't worry about it. Everyone's bugged by bad memories, right?
Owen puckers his lips and raises his brow, a clear display of doubt in the sideway glance he gives her. Still, he shifts his attention back to the recipes. "Some more than others... But, if anything, I suppose I can help by cooking your dish to perfection, hm? Summon forth good memories to alleviate the bad ones?"
Hilda turns her eyes to face him once more, flashes of light slowly returning as her bleak countenance breaks into a legitimately grateful smile. "That would help, yeah."