Merek was an ordinary man. He woke each morning before dawn and made his way to the miller’s home, gathering the grains he would need for the day. Then with his heavy sacks, he would stride up the hill to the massive outdoor oven near Lord Ulric’s home.
When he arrived at his workspace, the apprentice boys had already finished cleaning the stove and adding the fresh coals to the oven for today’s batch of bread. Merek would combine his ingredients, humming softly to himself as he kneaded the smooth dough, feeling the mixture coming together under his fingers.
When he felt the elastic stretch of the combination, Merek knew it was time. He would set the dough aside to rise and notify the apprentices when it was ready to be placed in the oven. He always smiled as he worked. Baking brought him joy, and his life had a purpose. He loved that his creations fed the Lord and his family and nourished the people of the village.
As he finished the last loaf of the day, his smile widened, delight evident on his face. The apprentice boys knew him as a jolly man, but this was different. This look said more.
Merek patted the large pocket on the front of his apron and bellowed, “Today is a special day.”
The two apprentices eyed him expectantly but kept their mouths closed, not wanting to ruin the magic.
“Tomorrow is the festival of Christmas. We shall celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus with wassailing and merriment, and most importantly, sweets!” From his pocket, he pulled the unique spices and sugars that Lord Ulric bestowed to him each year. The boy’s eyes grew wide, and looked to him with excitement.
“We are to create enough sweets for the whole village!” he whooped. With that, Merek and the boys got to work preparing for the feast tomorrow. Mixing and baking, drizzling the sweet, sappy goodness over the finished product. Just as the sun was starting to sink below the horizon, Merek removed the last sweet roll from the oven.
“We did it, boys,” he exclaimed, “tomorrow we celebrate!”
Merek sent the boys home before they finished cleaning, giving them a chance for some extra rest after a hard day’s work.
“I’ll clean this up,” he told them heartily. Whistling a merry tune as he put the ingredients into the giant cabinet. He swept the work area with the same care he poured into his baking, moving the broom back and forth to the music in his mind. Taking one last look at the oven, he smiled at an incredible day of work, then made his way back to his cottage in the village, alone. Trudging the whole way home, knowing all that awaited him was his cold lonely bed.
A small face framed with angelic blond hair and hidden in the shadows of a nearby tree watched as he made his way down the hill.
Alyse was a plain, unpretentious laundress working in Lord Ulric’s household. She never complained about the chores and was often the first of the laundry girls to arrive. This morning the giant iron cauldron was already warming under the coals. Murial, the eldest of the washerwomen, was smiling broadly.
“What is it?” Alyse asked, the curiosity plain in her voice.
“Today, we have double the work,” Murial said and paused, building the intrigue.
“Well, I don’t imagine that is what has you smiling,” Alyse giggled, “out with it!”
“It's the Christmas festival tomorrow!” Murial exclaimed happily, “Lord Ulric always gives us a day to celebrate, with an amazing gathering. You will love it!”
An immense grin spread across Alyse’s face as she got to work setting out the metal washboards and filling the basins with warm water. An idea was forming as she settled in to scrub the dirty clothes.
Alyse was a dreamer. When she first arrived to work for Lord Ulric, she had become fascinated with the idea of becoming a baker. The warm smell of the fresh bread cooked each morning would make her mouth water with delight. When the baker had called for apprentices, she went, feeling hopeful, but instead, the steward’s two young sons received the positions. She hadn’t even a chance to state her interest.
Instead, each day when she had finished her duties, she would sneak down to the massive outdoor oven, and hide behind a nearby tree, learning what she could. When the apprentice boys or the baker wasn’t looking, she would snatch up the discarded flour or a broken egg that was not used and stored a few hot coals in one of the unused small pots.
After the bakers had cleaned up and left for the night, she would creep in and practice the skills.
She loved watching the Baker. He was a genius, and his passion for the craft showed true on his face. If only she could train under him for real, she could be a master. Alyse made do with what she had and had become quite adept at baking.
Each morning that followed, Alyse would be sure to bring her creation to the serving girl that got the lord his breakfast. The girl told Alyse that Lord Ulric always raved that he had the best baker in the lands. These words made Alyse’s heart swell with pride.
This night the bakers didn’t leave until after dark, but she learned many new skills as she watched them create the wonderful holiday concoctions. Better still, when they cleaned up, Merek had forgotten to lock the cabinet that held all the spare ingredients. Having a full range of components could be her chance to prove that she deserved to be a baker.
Alyse spent the rest of the evening mixing and baking. She made sure to keep a soft smile on her face and to hum lightly, just as the baker did when he cooked. Just before sunrise, she had her masterpiece.
The large tart was overflowing with fresh berries doused in crystalized sugar and drizzled with a sweet sticky syrup lightly on top. Alyse’s mouth watered, wishing she could sink her teeth in her creation, but this one was for Lord Ulric. Tomorrow she would prove her worth.
The sun rose the next morning, a bright orange ball casting its warm glow over the lands. It may have been the longest night of the year, but today would shine bright. Merek arose and burst out the door, with a light spring to his step. His concoctions were already laid out on the serving table by the men and women of the house.
When he arrived at the grounds, Merek set up in a spot near the great tables overflowing with sweets to watch the joy on everyone’s faces. Food was what brought people together, from the lowest urchin to the lord himself. And of all the foods, none brought so much joy as confections.
Before long, Lord Ulric made his way to the great table. It was the tradition for him to take the first taste. He perused his choices, passing the sweet rolls and puddings, and settled in front of a giant bun laden with cinnamon and sugar.
As his hand reached out to take his choice, a small voice spoke plaintively.
“M’lord, I have prepared you a tart like no other, and I would be honored if you would try it.”
She was a dainty thing, with soft blond curls framing her face. Her head bowed low, not meeting the lord’s eyes, as she curtsied.
The lord’s eyes flared angrily, “What is this? I have the best baker in all the lands, why would I eat this refuse!”
Merek felt his anger growing. Who was this imposter to be stealing the joy from his favorite moment of the year? Then she turned her head to him, and their eyes met. At that moment, it was as if all the stars and planets were in perfect alignment.
Merek’s anger dissipated. “M’lord, this is my newest apprentice, and she has created this masterpiece under my tutelage.” he lied, not knowing how close to the truth it was.
He wasn’t sure what had prompted him to do this. If the tart was awful, he could lose the position he loved so much, but the look in the girl’s eyes reminded him of his love for baking.
Lord Ulric frowned, eyeing Merek suspiciously, then decided to take a small bite of the tart. In an instant, his face transformed. Blissfully his eyes closed as he savored the flaky crust. He proceeded to shove the rest of it into his mouth in one bite and looked at the table for more.
“Marvelous,” he intoned, licking the sticky sugar from his fingers. “You chose your apprentices well!”
But Merek had not taken his eyes from the young woman. He nodded and wove his way through the crowd to her. “I suppose this makes you my apprentice now,” he whispered gruffly. He wanted to hit himself, how stupid that sounded. “I’m Merek.”
He extended his hand to hers, and she reached for it, her touch sending a wave of warmth through him.
A smile bloomed on Alyse’s face. “I suppose so,” she replied, not taking her eyes from him. “My name is Alyse.”
That moment formed a lifetime partnership.