The King of Eastern Shore had only one daughter. As he lay in bed, awaiting the long rest, he called her to his chambers.
“Soon you will be heiress to the wealthiest kingdom in all the land. But I have neglected much during my time. Our merchant fleets are fast but they are not strong and there are pirates on these waters. Our army is weak and our walls could not defend us against a true threat. The most profitable trade routes have made for us great alliances with kingdoms and empires across the sea. But they have also made us the object of envy and greed to those with whom we share this land.”
“What would you ask of me father?” the princess asked.
“What a father may ask of all daughters and a king may ask of a princess. I urge you to marry a prince of Iron Hall.”
Entire empires lay in ruin, having wasted every soldier and every resource trying to thwart the well trained armies of Iron Hall. A kingdom that lay to the west of Eastern Shore, it was surrounded by a wall that no army, beast, nor force of nature could penetrate. And it was known to the King of Eastern Shore that the King of Iron Hall, who also awaited the long rest, had three sons.
“Any city that shelters an heir to the throne of Iron Hall will have the protection of their armies. Their engineers would benefit from the knowledge and goods we can acquire from lands across the sea. Your marriage to a prince of Iron Hall would be the birth of the wealthiest and most powerful empire in the world.”
From her bedroom window, Princess Alethea gazed at the sea. She wished for a better solution but when the morning came, only ships returning from their journeys sailed into port. And nothing washed upon the bluffs well below the castle.
She sent a messenger to the King of Iron Hall, relaying her father’s wishes as if they were her own. For if she was to marry for the purpose of alliance, she wanted her subjects to know her decision was that of a competent ruler and not merely an obedient daughter.
When the messenger returned, the king’s reply read:
These are times of sorrow and of swift action. A most beneficial alliance would there be if our kingdoms were bound by marriage.
In three days my eldest son, Prince Elpstar will pay you a visit. Should this match be suitable, my one request is that I may witness the ceremony. I too am nearing the time of my long rest. I am proud of all that I have built and to see my son happy as he takes the throne would be my greatest reward.
Alethea summoned the head cook to her chambers. Graham was a plump old man who served the King of Eastern Shore and his court since before Althea was born.
“We must celebrate the prince’s arrival,” she declared. “Make him feel welcome in our home. I count on you to prepare a feast that will satisfy his belly and his soul.”
“It is my pleasure to serve you, Your Highness,” Graham said with a bow. He could barely contain his glee as he left Alethea’s chambers and returned to the kitchens in search of his first apprentice. He found the boy plucking chickens in the larder and grabbed him by the wrist, roughly dragging him to the stables.
“Listen here, boy,” Graham said, in so only the apprentice would hear. “Before I served the King of Eastern Shore as head cook, I was a pot scrubber just like you. I began my long and distinguished career in the kitchens of Iron Hall. There I witnessed the birth of the prince who’s visit is imminent and I know that he has a taste for porcine flesh.
“An eternal feast awaits me. And what a story I shall have for those who went before me that I served the fattest and finest pig to the future king and queen of a brand new empire. You go now and find me that pig. The best that may be prepared and placed before Prince Elpstar. Do not fail me and you will be the new head cook.”
The apprentice set out at once. At first he tried the butchers in the nearby villages. Then he went from a farm on one end of the kingdom to a farm on another. He asked every owner of every shop and tavern, every captain of every boat and no one had a pig to sell.
“A strange blight has killed all the sows,” they all said. “There hasn’t been a pig within the walls of Eastern Shore going on a year.”
For two straight days the apprentice searched, stopping only to water his horse and to eat just enough to carry him further. Never did he rest. Never did he sleep. He searched the woods for wild boar but there was none to be caught and none of the huntsmen he encountered seemed to have found any in their travels. When the sun came up on the third day, the apprentice feared that he would fail in his mission.
He found himself at the edge of a forest, looking out at a vast stretch of land. The ground was hard and dry, the dead grass crunched beneath the horse’s hooves. All he could see that gave him some hope was a cottage in the distance. The closer he got the further his heart sank. There were gaping holes in the tiled roof and the steps were broken. The apprentice shivered from the sight of the windows, without drapes or glass to keep away the cold. Behind the cottage there was a fence in need of mending but mud within was still wet, with signs it had been disturbed. A familiar scent tickled the apprentice’s nose and he drew close to investigate. Sure enough there it was. A tiny runt of a shoat with its head happily buried in it slops.
The apprentice tied up his horse and carefully climbed the steps of the cottage. The door was closed but through a tiny window he could see the weak glow of a fire on the hearth.
“Good morning,” he called to whomever might be inside. “I have come from the Castle of Eastern Shore at the orders of the head cook. I seek a pig which we will feed to the future king of the empire that will be when our future queen is wed to a prince of Iron Hall.”
There was silence. Then,
“Come in. Please, do come in. We rarely get visitors.”
The feeble voice belonged to an old man. When the apprentice walked in, he saw the man sitting in what seemed to be the only chair in the cottage. The arms and legs of other furniture now fed the flames on the hearth.
The old man looked up from his chair, tightly wrapped from head to toe in blankets. His face was worn with time but his eyes were bright and his smile did what the fire could not. The apprentice removed his hat as if he were in the presence of nobility.
“Forgive me for intruding,” he said, sincerely. “I only come to you in this desperate hour, as I have searched the kingdom for a pig and have found none. You have in the pen outside a pig that would suit my needs.”
“That pig is all that we have.”
The apprentice turned and saw a man standing by the back door of the cottage. Beyond the door was the pen, where the shoat now wallowed in the mud. The apprentice introduced himself to this new man, who was scarcely a year old than he.
“I heard you,” the young man said. “And I heard your plea to my father. The answer is no.”
“Don’t be so rude, boy,” the old man said with a chuckle. “This apprentice comes from the Castle of Eastern Shore. He is an emissary of your future queen.”
“Be that as it may,” the young man said. “We cannot give you our pig. Don’t you see that we are pour and my father frail? This shoat is all that survives of the blight that killed every pig in the kingdom. It is the only thing that may restore my father to health so that we may finally leave this land that yields no crops.”
The apprentice looked once more at the shoat in the pen. It looked so healthy and yet it was so scrawny. It could barely fill a bowl of soup, much less was it a worthy beast to slaughter for the prince. The apprentice looked to the old man, who smiled at him and into the eyes of the weary son whose lines grew deeper than his father.
“Of course I cannot bring myself to take this pig from you,” he said. “I thank you for your time and wish you good health.”
When the apprentice returned to the castle, Prince Elpstar had already arrived. The village was alive with dancers and jugglers. Musicians performed in the street, tamers displayed strange and exotic animals, and poets of varying talent entertained the crowds with verse.
The apprentice was not to enjoy the festivities. For when he showed Graham his empty hands, he was beaten until he could stand no more. And while he lay, injured and bleeding, Graham paced about the kitchen.
“Go to the larders,” he told all his cooks. “Get every chicken, every turkey, every pheasant and duck. A feast of fowls will please Prince Elpstar and Princess Alethea. Make every dish I taught you and make it without mistake. You!” Graham pointed to Linn, a young woman who had served in his kitchens since she could walk. “You are my new first apprentice. You will see to it that these novices and scrubbers do not botch up this meal. Serve me well and you will be head cook when I have earned my eternal feast.”
Through the night the kitchen fires burned. Every bird in the castle was plucked, cleaned, and prepared. The cooks worked tirelessly until the rise of the sun and under the watchful eye of Linn, they made no mistakes.
When Alethea and Elpstar sat down to a feast, Alethea was quite impressed.
“Such a meal I have not seen,” she said. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
Elpstar grimaced and scoffed.
“You must never have eaten at all, if you think this is quality.” Elpstar started with a chicken. He finished every morsel, cleaning every bone and finishing every piece of garnish. “Goodness me, was this chicken depressed before it lost its head?” Then a whole turkey. “Such cruelty. Were I this animal’s family I’d seek vengeance at once.” Pheasant and duck. “The food tasters must really hate you, Your Highness. Marriage would be a blessing no doubt. How can you boast such wonderful trade when it’s clear your kitchen staff has never seen a speck of spice in their lives.”
Alethea clenched her fists and concealed them beneath the table. She ate slowly, enjoying every piece, but her appetite was waning. Elpstar took a long sip of wine, though he had finished half the bottle.
“And this swill,” he crowed. “Wine comes from grapes, not the puss of bunions. How can your kingdom be considered a threat? Just throw this at them along with the food and you’ll be more feared than my own armies.”
Finally, Alethea had heard enough.
“Will this night be an example of a whole lifetime with you? If so then good riddance. Leave the bottle and go. Get out of my sight.”
Elpstar threw back his chair and swept out of the room. Not without shouting, “One star falls upon this night and no more. I’ll be glad when I am home.”
Alone and relieved at the silence, Alethea finished the rest of the wine in a few deep gulps then summoned Graham to the dining hall. Her speech was slurred and she could barely keep her head up as she told him, “This meal was exceptional. Feed the rest to anyone who is hungry.”
“At once, Your Highness.” Graham concealed a sigh as he passed the orders onto his staff.