It’s still dark when I hear the birds wake up from their slumber and fill the air with the familiar sounds of cheerful singing. Grumbling to myself, I flip my legs off of my cot at the entrance to the mine where I can still hear the plinking of picks and shale being shoveled away deep within the small hill Hearthholm rests against.
The miners would be reaching the halfway point of their night shift soon and my clansmen would doubtless be hungry after a long four hours in the mine.
If someone wasn’t here to ferry down provisions, I doubt the old timers would do more than grunt and keep working anyway.
With that eye rolling thought in mind, I shuffled my way through the morning chill towards the fire I’d set to simmering a cauldron full of mushrooms, celery, onions, garlic, and a large ham hock overnight. Taking care not to throw up clouds of dust I put a hand against the near eye level pot and tilted it my way without a care for what must be flesh searing heat transferring from the iron into my ungloved hand.
I’m a dwarf in this life. I… probably won’t be growing too much vertically anymore, but there were some nice perks.
Heat resistance, excellent night vision, superhuman toughness, and way more strength packed into a four foot body still growing into full stockiness.
“Hmm.” Carefully tilting the bubbling stock a little closer to nose level, I let the steaming scent of fresh mushroom and pork stock fill my nostrils.
The moisture makes my stubble itch something terrible, but to be honest having facial hair at my second go around of being fifteen stirs my inner flame of youthful masculinity pretty good.
Speaking of stirring, I pluck the shiny, stainless steel ladle from where it is hanging on the sturdy pole holding the chains keeping the cauldron aloft and stir the contents of the pot. As expected the vegetables have completely turned into mush while the meat easily falls off the bone and begins to tear into tiny, juice filled strips.
With a small sip to check for taste, I nod to myself and begin to pour in a sack of dried, lentil-like legumes into the reduced stock with a large helping of crushed rock salt.
In other times when I was in charge of feeding people, I would’ve tied off the veggies into a small sack and removed them at this point, but we dwarves abhor wasting anything. Being honest though, even when I was a human making a similar stew with a slow cooker, I’d just leave the veggies in the base anyway.
Growing up in a Korean household I loved the texture and taste of vegetables melting in my mouth. Too bad my new kinsmen weren’t big fans of watery soups.
With the legumes beginning to cook away and soak up the stock, I added a good amount from the bucket of previously boiled water I had lugged here from the filtering station my father and uncles had built next to the nearby stream long before I had even started crawling around. The rest of it I would save for cleaning the half dozen cast iron pans currently resting in a semicircle at the edges of the main cooking fire.
As for what I would be doing with those, well I was going to make a roux whenever the butter got here…
“Keeper Yumly! Good morning!” The warm voice of a woman followed by the tinkling of a cowbell cheerily called out from the trail leading up to the mine.
Turning from my careful watch over the cooking fire I see a relatively tall figure of very much womanly proportions slowly making her way towards me with a softly glowing lantern shading her form in gentle waves of azure. Behind her a small wooden wagon is being pulled along, holding the more perishable supplies I need to complete breakfast.
“Churner Mable. Impeccable timing as always.” I reply with a grin towards the bovine blooded demihuman and her undoubtedly freshly churned butter. “You really shouldn’t have to make these deliveries yourself.”
“And you should be looking for an apprentice Master Hearthkeeper! It’d make my life easier if you did!” Not biting in the least, doe brown eyes warm despite the chiding tut that follows. “You have been making inquiries haven’t you? You could pretty much tell the clan elders to paint over their rune walls and they’d do it in a heartbeat!”
The image of old dwarves furiously grumbling and doing something so unbelievable is enough to tease out a snort from my nose even as I retort.
“As if. Clan Hearthkeeper I may be, but I’m still a child in dwarven eyes. Most my age are busy with their own apprenticeships and the gods would sooner burn the world before and oldbeard or matron would learn from me.”
“Well… who says your apprentice needs to be a dwarf?” The girl of sixteen grins impishly, tugging at the cowbell around her neck in approximation of a deeply offended mountainfolk before bursting into giggles.
I frown in return, narrowing my eyes and harrumphing with a scratching motion against my chin. “Blasphemy! What foolish nonsense are you spouting now you scraggly cheeked child!? You’ve obviously spent too much time above ground, yes, the sky must be sending its insidiously fluffy cloud clutches into your feeble mind!”
And laughter follows from the formerly gaping mouth of my childhood friend taking her cue from my own guffaws.
“Hee~” Soft tinkles continue to brush past amused lips even as Mable manages to eke out a modicum of self control and decorum. “You know, you being you doesn’t really help the elders see things your way.”
“Probably. It’s why I cook instead of argue. It’s hard to make a point when your mouth is full of good food and even harder to grimace when you’re trying not to grin.” I nod to myself wisely, feeling pleased with creating a fitting metaphor of ‘actions speak louder than words’.
“As you say Master Yumly. Your food is most delicious.” The woman responds with a sagely nod when the groaning of a hungry belly fills the clearing. “Ah.”
My, is that a flush upon those dearly pinchable cheeks Miss Mable?
“The forest spirits must be excited for spring if the trees are already singing so loudly.”
“I-it’s the truth!”
“Stop looking at me like that you troublemaker! Don’t make me stop delivering your goods!” The young woman pauses in her tirade when she notices that I’ve spirited away the small barrel of butter and have begun slapping sizzling heapfuls of delicious creamed fat into my cast iron pans.
“That’d be a pity. I do enjoy having someone to taste test my meals before they get served… I guess I could find someone else?” I note with a look up into the formerly dark skies being slowly backlit by the glimmering rays of the late winter sun happily shining from the heavens.
Grumbling under her breath, the cow demi hitches up her skirts to plod her way heavily next to me and crouch down as I mix batch after batch of roux with care.
Pans not being worked on are pulled further away from the coals to be cooled with those being stirred placed closer to the fire to bubble away merrily. Soon the mixtures thicken and darken and I begin to ladle liquid from the cauldron into the skillets, taking special care to spread the roux into a cream and get rid of any forming lumps.
Wordlessly I put a hand out when the color of my first pan of roux has turned that perfect shade of caramel. A moment later Mable brings out a loaf of bread I had finished last evening from her wagon with an eager, audible swallow of her throat.
I take the bread and press down on it with my strong fingers. The crack of good bread accompanies the orchestra of crackling coals and the bubbling of the stew that is nearly ready for the roux to be added into the mixture.
Before that however…
Another pinch of rock salt is added into the first test pan and a large hunk of bread is used to churn the mixture until the tough bread is properly covered in hearty gravy.
It’s a shame that we don’t have a ready source of eggs or spices other than rock salt, but to be fair…
“Hmmmm~ Oh that looks tasty~” My morning helper gulps, growling belly being completely ignored.
This level of bachelor level home cooking is enough to have me be seen as some kind of cooking prodigy already.
I’m not sure if I could handle the power I’d have at my fingertips if I just had more ingredients.
“Here.” I grin most fiendishly, pointing the sopping chunk of gravy slathered bread towards my friend who leans forward with hooded eyes and full, pink lips wide open.
“Mm… ah… hot…” Mable mumbles, cheeks flushed in pleasure as beads of sweat trail down her slim neck and wets the fabric of her work tunic.
Without thought, laces are roughly pulled open by an insistent hand to reveal creamy cleavage. Previously darkened gravy closer to the color of chocolate than the white of flour shines brightly in the sun as if untouched by the caramelization process to drip down puffy lips and onto the pink flesh. Unbidden, the sauce continues to travel down to impossibly soft looking caverns, but refuse to sink within. Instead the white cream trails along the line of the young woman’s heaving cleavage to stain and disappear into the barely held together cloth that normally keeps the demi’s assets hidden from the world-
I close my eyes, breathing deeply and reopen them.
“This is so good!” The cheerfully bright face of my childhood friend grins with chipmunk like cheeks, the former visage of heavenly majesty being nowhere to be seen.
On some level I realize that I haven’t been reborn into a hentai world, but I might be somewhere that is infinitely close to that terrifying dream.
Because I am not just seeing things.