“Five days to go,” Matthew muttered to himself. He was leaning on the countertop, head bowed as he contemplated this latest turn in his life. A master magician, he’d established the scientific route of runic algebra. Tamed the wild magic of the northern barbarians and turned it to practical, intelligent use. Now he was watching a pan of potatoes to make sure they didn’t boil over.
Bernard seemed to be enjoying himself at least. Matthew looked at his would-be travelling companion. The artist had an obsessive attention to detail. He had a constant need to rearrange everything around him into aesthetically pleasing patterns.
Matthew watched Bernard preparing a salad. Cutting uniform strips of lettuce leaves, he had a good eye for measurements. The leaves went onto a plate decoratively laid out like an opening flower. He diced the crunchy stems and mixed them with diamond shaped slices of red pepper before depositing the mixture in the centre of the ‘flower’.
“Are the potatoes done yet?” Bernard asked while sprinkling the salad with a pepper mill.
Matthew awoke from his daze and looked back at the boiling potatoes in time to see a mass of frothy starch bubbles surge over the edge of the pan and sizzle on the hob below. He sighed, knowing he’d have to scrub it off later, and removed the pan from the heat.
He sprinkled some chopped parsley over the potatoes and dropped in a few dollops of mayonnaise. Matthew stirred the mixture idly, nearly mashing the potatoes. The lack of care irked Bernard and he stormed over and took the pan from Matthew.
“You’ll ruin the texture if you do that,” he exclaimed.
“Oh, as if it matters,” Matthews exclaimed. He received a disparaging look. The potato salad soon joined the rest of the ‘flower’ and was arranged, with more than necessary attention to potato size, around the central mound to form an outer ring.
Matthew couldn’t understand why Bernard did it. Yes the man was an artist, he could understand that he wanted to make anything a work of art. But it was just a meal. The food arrangement would last only a few minutes before a hungry customer gobbled it down destroying Bernard’s precious work. Besides which it wasn’t as if they were working in a fancy restaurant.
No, the place they had found temporary work in was something of a run down bed and breakfast stroke pub. It had a reasonably healthy amount of business, but that was more due to its convenient location in a big city than with the frankly rather run down state of the establishment.
The kitchen was kept in fairly good nick, about as good as any poor man’s home. It was clean certainly, but there were scratches and chips in the countertops, the oven and the hobs had growing patches of rust and the taps had to run for five seconds before you got clear water.
The other ‘chefs’, or out of work street urchins, were a rowdy lot. Most of them were only in their teens and the majority of their ‘discussions’ concerned the women they knew. They shouted across the kitchen, boasting, teasing and competing with one another.
When Matthew and Bernard had first arrived the boys had bullied and cajoled the artist for his decorative food preparations. Matthew had more than once scared them away from the man, a little bit of magical fire did the trick, but only temporarily. Fortunately the proprietess of the pub had taken a shine to Bernard’s creation and threatened the boys with unemployment if they bothered him again. Now the two travellers were left mostly to themselves.
“Five more days,” Matthew whispered to himself. He’d calculated their earnings and predicted living costs. Five days should be all they needed. Then they’d have the minimum amount to leave the city and make it to the next town without starving or having to sleep on street corners.
Bernard lifted the salad plate and balanced it on his arm along with two main courses and a basket of bread rolls in his other hand.
“There’s one of them shadow things under there,” he said as he left through the kitchen doors to deliver the food.
Matthew sighed again and bent down to see under the countertop. Sure enough there was a tiny creature there. They looked a bit like rabbits that had been covered in soot. They hid in the shadows and had been following Matthew for months now. He wished he knew what had caused the attention.
The creature twitched and darted to and fro, never leaving the cover of the shadows. Matthew reached into his pocket and pulled out a notebook. Adjusting his glasses he turned the pages until he found the spell he wanted.
He chanted the syllables of the runes and when he had finished the little creature burst. It left no trace of its existence save for the residue heat from Matthew’s spell.
They were harmless at first, and that made exterminating the creatures a little bit more cruel. But it was necessary. If left alone the little creatures grew and began to swallow things. Nik naks, coins, shoelaces at first. Then chairs, tables, small animals. Few would see them coming as they hid in the shadows, blending with them in a literal sense. Eventually they would become giant size. That was when they’d swallow a human. It was necessary to kill the little ones.
They’d learnt that lesson the hard way, after Bernard had seen a small one and convinced Matthew to let it follow them.
Bernard returned to the kitchen unburdened of the plates. He set straight to the next order. A shepherd’s pie that would no doubt consist of a perfectly balanced mashed potato to mince ratio.
Matthew didn’t mind Bernard really. The man was difficult at times, made more than one naive mistake and all in all was more of a burden than anything else. But the company was nice he had to admit.
“Five more days,” Matthew muttered.