Mystery Short Story A Killing Frost

Apr 15, 2023 | 2023 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Terrific Tales

by Martha Reed

This story has never before been published.

High Lord Seti Mereneptah hid his worry. The Ashkar citadel defenders were proving more resilient than expected. The planned-for easy spring siege had leached late into the parched summer season. The young nobles were restless.

“We need to attack,” Prince Melor insisted, shifting his fitted leather armor and wincing as he scratched his raw armpit rash. “The only things we’re fighting now are sand fleas and jock itch.”

Seti viewed their growing impatience with trepidation. Based on intelligence reports from his spies, he had promised the imperial War Lord a swift victory based on a glorious vision of returning to Mishtar with cadres of nubile sex slaves and looted temple treasure in time to enjoy the winter holiday feasts. Seti smoothed his frown. For the young nobles, the reality of war was looking too much like work.

“Cousin.” The War Lord shifted uneasily on his folding camp throne. “We knew this would take time. Our plan was to starve them out —”

“We’re the ones who are starving,” General Hemnureb dangerously interrupted, gripping his sword’s gilt pommel. “Dried goat’s meat jerky and biscuits twice a day? I haven’t had a decent shit this week.”

Neb-Parla loyally backed him up. “The water kegs are full of worms. We buried it in the sand, but even the Numian wine has soured to vinegar.”

“Look at my skin,” Ra-Memnon, the War Lord’s current favorite, trilled. Beautiful but vacuous, he did hold a direct pillow path to the War Lord’s ear. “I’ve gone crusty. I can only bathe in the sea. I need a freshwater bath and a scented oil massage immediately.”

This treacherous conversation chilled Seti’s skin. He knew how the Mishtar power echelon worked. If the War Lord paid heed to these complaints, he would quickly move to shift the blame from himself. The most qualified patsy was the low-born counselor currently standing silently at his side.

“Bring in the new captives,” the War Lord reasonably suggested. “Let’s take a look.”

The tent flap opened, bearing a stifling wave of gritty black sand. Seti caught his breath. The Ashkar defenders were taking serious measures with their useless mouths. At dusk, elderly men, women, and ugly orphaned girls were hurriedly shoved through the Citadel’s side gate, released to the undefended countryside to fend for themselves. Roving Mishtar patrols rounded up these pathetic wretches, gauntleting them through the soldier’s camp for entertainment before presenting them to the War Lord for his amusement and then dumping them either in the mass grave pit or the brothel tent.

Today’s roundup held eight civilians. Six skeletal men, one older woman with gray curls, and a wiry, bone-skinny teenaged girl. Flicking his finger, the War Lord took note.

“Kill the men and the woman. Give the girl to the troops.”

“You can’t kill her!” The kneeling girl gasped. “She’s the king’s taster. Head chef in the royal kitchen.”

“Shut up, you.” A foot slogger clobbered her sideways.

“A woman chef?” Neb-Parla scoffed. “Send her back to her spinning. She needs to spin her shroud.”

“Get rid of them.” The War Lord sat back, dismissively waving his hand and sounding bored and dull. Evidently, even raping and torturing captives for sport had lost its allure.

“One moment, my liege.” Seti studied the crouching older woman as an interesting new suggestion began to gel. “A royal chef? How long did you serve the Ashkar king?”

“Only my whole life.” Brazenly raising her chin, she met Seti’s eyes. “I developed the royal cuisine.” Blinking repeatedly, she scowled. “Until they threw me to you wolves.”

“What of it, Seti?” the War Lord harshly demanded. “Why are you wasting our time with this?”

Seti slowly turned on his heel, his heart pounding with risk and possibility. “How about a wager, my liege? Will you risk a bet?”

“Bet? What bet?” The War Lord quirked one eyebrow. “What wager?”

“The camp food is bland, I agree.” Seti linked his fingers. “Let’s put this Ashkar royal chef up against our camp cook. See what a woman can do.” He sweetened the pot. “A little competition might encourage our cook to improve the food in the officer’s mess.”

“I like that idea,” Ra-Memnon chirped. “Anything would be better.”

“Go on.” The War Lord sat up. “What’s the wager?”

Seti nervously moistened his lips. “If by the coming full moon, the officer’s cuisine has improved, I get double the estates and the treasure you promised. If it’s no better or worse, she dies.”

“That’s no bet.” The woman spat, sitting back on her heels, and pushing the curls off her face. “I’ll die in any case. I should go free.”

The standing guard backhanded her this time. Reaching over, the bony girl quickly helped her up.

“Let’s consider this.” The War Lord tapped his lips with his steepled fingers. “I want to be clear. Here’s our bet. Her evening meal must be better than the officer’s camp meal every night of the contest.” He emphasized, pointing his ruby beringed finger before resting his right elbow on his knee. “On the night that she fails, Seti, you both die.” His smile widened. “Do you accept the wager?”

Seti swallowed thickly past the sudden lump in his throat. As the ambitious son of a baker, he had learned years ago that when destiny offers you a risky opportunity, you must take it. “Done.” He agreed. “The contest will start in three days.”

“No.” The War Lord’s smile grew menacing. “It starts with tomorrow’s evening meal.”


The frayed hem on Seti’s fine linen robe swept the sand like a twig broom as he escorted the Ashkar chef around the soldier’s smoldering campfires, deliberately kept smoky with burning dried horse turds to repel the clouds of vicious blood-thirsty mosquitos. The bitter smoke stung his eyes. “What’s your name?”


“I need to know something, Mirabel. Are you prepared to win this contest?”

The dark sand crunched as her wide calloused toes settled easily into the grit. “What’s in it for me?”

“It’s war.” Looking up, Seti studied the waxing crescent moon. “All I can promise is that we’ll get to try again if we survive each meal. He’s being very clever that way.”

She glanced up. “He wants you dead.”

“He does.” Seti grudgingly admitted. “The siege is taking too long. Things will get ugly if we don’t keep him entertained.” He idly scratched his cracked palm. “He can come up with some highly creative ways of making us suffer horribly before we die.”

“Things aren’t already ugly enough?” She scoffed. “And entertained until when? Until Ashkar falls?”

“Yes.” Seti turned down a lane between two rows of neatly pegged tents. “What’s it like inside the city? How are conditions inside the walls?”

“I’m not telling you that,” she muttered, following in his footsteps. “We may be working together, but you’re still my enemy.” She slowed. “Why did your army pick Ashkar? We’re farmers, potters, weavers. We don’t own anything worth stealing. Mishtar is mighty. You have war horses, chariots, bronze blades. What do we have that you want?”

“I studied a map,” Seti confessed. “Ashkar’s on the coast. I thought it would be an easy win.”

“You didn’t answer my question.” Her dirty fingers plucked his sleeve. “Why?”

Seti pulled his sleeve free from her grasp. “We needed something to occupy the young nobles. Their mothers worried they were getting into dissipations.”

“And you chose war for the answer?” she gaped. “Great Mother help us.”

“There is no Great Mother,” Seti snapped, turning toward a brown open tent. “That’s a superstition your priests use to keep peasants like you in line.” Flexing his elbow, he fiercely clenched his fist. “There is only might, and order, and the power to control what we create using force. We create our own destinies by the decisions that we make.”

She paused. “You really believe that?”

“I do.”

“The Great Mother orders nature,” Mirabel countered, circling her fingers toward the rolling hills. “You really believe there’s no knowledge left to be found in the natural world?”

“None. We’ve grown past that. Nature is under our control now.”

“Men always see things so narrowly,” she muttered, ducking under the greasy tent flap. “You focus on the task at hand and miss the greater vision.” Sighing, she studied the camp kitchen’s dented cauldrons and its limited setup. “I’ll need my own cook tent. With supplies if we’re going to win.” She dusted her fingers. “How many Mishtar officers are there? Forty? Sixty?”

“Why do you need to know that?” Seti suspiciously narrowed his eyes.

“I’ll need to know a number to prepare a proper menu.” She threw up both hands. “Men are big eaters; soldiers even worse.”

“120 officers, total. Six divisions, twenty officers each plus me and the War Lord.”

“That many? I’ll need help or we might as well stop this right now.” She thoughtfully plucked her lower lip. “I’ll need that girl, Lilis, who came in with me. She’s trained. She’s worked in the palace before. I must have her, at least.”

“I’ll pull her from the brothel tent,” Seti generously agreed.

“And three more girls to help with the prep … and at least two strong boys to fetch wood, haul fresh water, wash the platters, and get rid of the slop.” She scratched her chin. “It’s a lot to get ready in just one day.”

“Can we do it?” Seti asked.

Mirabel rested both fists on her hips. “Get me what I need. We might have a chance.”


The Mishtar nobles and senior officers were jammed cheek by jowl inside the great main tent, restive with anticipation. Seti was delighted to see that for the first time in weeks the War Lord looked keen and entertained. He had even bathed, put on fresh robes and oiled his beard.

“I like this idea, Seti.” He gleefully rubbed his hands together. “This is good.”

Raising his arm, Seti gestured. Two guards pulled the tent flaps open. Bowing low, Mirabel entered followed by the camp cook and a troop of barefoot slaves bearing loaded platters. With great relief, Seti noted the nobles eagerly nudging each other as the tent filled with the spicy aroma of cumin and toasted sesame seeds.

“Seti?” The War Lord eagerly leaned forward. “What did you bring us tonight?”

He released his breath. “My liege, for starters we have garlic hummus with grilled millet flatbread followed by a sautéed whitefish in a lemon parsley celeriac sauce with wild peas, and a summer pear tart in a red wine reduction.”

“Finally!” Ra-Memnon eagerly reached for the bread. “Food we can eat.”

“Wait!” Hemnureb commanded. “How do we know she hasn’t poisoned the food?”

Seti smiled. “Because she is going to taste everything first.”

Dramatically pulling a horn spoon from her belt, Mirabel fearlessly dug into each dish.

“And the other choice?” The War Lord looked to the camp cook.

“My liege.” Sweat dripped off his chin as he blanched. “I’ve prepared succulent roast kid with mashed turnips.”

“This is so good.” Ra-Memnon swooned over his bowl, greedily licking his fingertips. “Is there more of this? I must have this hummus from now on with every meal. I insist.”

“Well done, Seti,” the War Lord laughed. “It appears we have a winner.” He spoke around a large mouthful of food. “You get to keep breathing.”


The next evening the nobles were so impatient for their meal they jostled the dancing boys and girls aside to see the new offerings.

“Isn’t it ever going to cool down?” Ra-Memnon complained, lifting his curls, and delicately fanning his neck. “Isn’t it supposed to be fall soon?”

The camp cook’s crew arrived first, bearing steaming cauldrons of greasy onion soup with stringy melted cheese and damp knotted barley rolls. Mirabel followed with platters of crisp savory roasted game birds and arugula lightly dressed with olive oil and wild citrus vinegar, tossed with toasted honeyed and cinnamon nut meats with sliced ripe melon for dessert.

“This will not do,” the War Lord stated darkly, looking at the camp cook while swiping the pooled sweat from under his eyes. “You need to up your game.”

“It’s not fair, my liege.” The cook cried foul. “She’s cooking for 120 officers. My staff is cooking for over a thousand men. Of course, I can’t cook at her level.”

“That seems a fair observation,” the War Lord paused, benevolently placing his hand over his heart. “What do you suggest? Speak up while I’m listening.”

“Keep her out of my supplies.” The cook looked more than a little wild-eyed. “Make her forage for what she serves from now on.”

Laughing again, the War Lord folded his arms across his chest. “Agreed.”


The third morning the foot soldiers cheered as Mirabel sent half of the brothel boys and girls out naked with woven seagrass baskets to scoop silvery anchovies from the incoming tide. The other half climbed up into the hills flipping rocks to gather land snails, wild greens and fennel, plump morel mushrooms, and purple striped beans.

That night she served the tasty fingerling fish and snails fried crisp on a bed of braised mushrooms and tender spinach with creamy freshly made goat’s milk cheese, juicy crimson pomegranate seeds, and spiced crabapples.

The camp cook dispiritedly served buckwheat pancakes filled with a chewy goat stew.

“I’m done, my liege.” He slumped, looking beaten and ashamed. “I’m an army cook, not a chef, even though she’s a woman. This stew’s as good as it’s gonna get.”

After the evening meal, instead of feeling triumphant, Seti grew anxious as murmurs spread throughout the camp: “Why do we have to eat this slop? Look at what the nobles and officers are getting. We should be eating that. If we’re fighting like brothers, we should be eating like them, too.”

As he feared, the mutinous grumbling quickly reached the War Lord’s ears.

“I’m beginning to doubt your wisdom, Seti, in suggesting this competition.” His look darkened as the hints and grumblings grew more pointed. “Fortunately, I don’t think this contest will last much longer.”

Gasping at the obvious threat, Seti stepped outside to get some air, a shiver thrilling his spine as he recalled the Mishtar legend of silent assassins sent to sleepers in the night, strangling their victims with horse gut bowstrings because it made no noise.


Standing outside Mirabel’s cook tent, Seti studied the Ashkar chef with new respect although last week’s strain clearly showed on her face. She had come into the Mishtar camp thin, but now she looked skeletal, the flickering firelight highlighting her bronzed skin stretched taunt across her cheekbones.

“Don’t let me startle you.” Seti spoke softly from the velvety darkness. “You need to be prepared. It was a valiant effort, but the War Lord is going to win my bet.”

She straightened, mopping the sweat off her brow. “The kids are doing their best. I can have them collect mussels and clams, and crabs for the next few days, but there’s not much wild forage left. Plus, first frost will be coming down from the mountains soon.” She walked to his side. “We’ll still have rosemary for flavor and garnish, but the frost will kill off what few wild greens remain.”

Seti studied the encompassing mountain peaks backlit ghostly blue by the bright first quarter moon. The snow line was moving further down their rock-strewn slopes. “How much time do we have?”

“Until first frost? Two more days, if not sooner. It’s already late. It should’ve come during the waxing crescent.” Mirabel studied the pock-marked moon in the blue-black sky. Rubbing the raised gooseflesh on her forearms, she repeatedly sniffed. “I can smell winter riding the wind.”


Overnight, a bitter frost swept down the mountain slopes, blanketing the high plateau and settling on the rippled dunes. The waving beach grasses instantly withered to tan lifeless stalks, shaking their desiccated husks over the hoar-frosted sand. Unhappily stomping their hooves, the picketed chariot horses snorted steam.

Ra-Memnon shivered. “I didn’t bring the right clothes for this.”

“He promised we’d be home before winter,” Prince Melor snarled, holding his hands over a glowing charcoal brazier. “What is he thinking?”

Then the camp herald shared evil news. The disgraced camp cook was found hanging in his tent. It seemed an ill omen.

“Combine both cook tents,” Seti ordered, grasping at the quickest solution to multiple problems. “The Ashkar chef will cook for the whole camp now.”

The War Lord rose. “Have her prepare two days’ worth of food. We’ll attack the citadel at dawn. I’m going to sack that city. It’s time to end this siege.”

Mirabel sent the slaves into the frosted hills to gather anything they could find. They returned carrying baskets half-filled with wrinkled red beans, knobby tubers, and wilted greens.

“Typical,” a toothless Mishtar sergeant spat, watching Lilis weaving between the cooking staff, spilling peeled and cubed tubers into the rows of simmering cauldrons. “We finally get a decent cook, and you’re giving us soup?”

“Celeriac root and red bean soup,” Mirabel replied easily, distributing the raw beans between the pots. “It’s the best option for an army. Easy to reheat.”

“I’ll have some now.” Grabbing a clay bowl, he hesitated. “You taste it first.”

Mirabel shrugged. Snatching her spoon, she dipped it in the gently steaming soup, pursed her lips and cautiously sipped. “It could be hotter, but it’s good.”

“Fill your bellies, boys.” Turning, he shouted to his platoon. “It’s easier to carry food in your gut than in your rucksack. That’s not for you, slut.” He roughly shoved Lilis aside. “Slaves stay hungry today.” Wiping his chin on the back of his hand, he guffawed. “Don’t worry. You won’t stay hungry for long. We’ll be killing the whole lot of you tomorrow.”


The yellow camp dogs started howling at first light as slaves ran through the empty lanes, singing praise and shouting: “They’re dead. Great Mother be praised! They’re all dead.”

“What are they saying?” Rising on one elbow, Lilis’ eyes widened. “It’s a miracle.”

“We cut it close.” Mirabel studied the rows of silent tents. “We were tested. First frost should’ve come with the waxing crescent moon.”

“Why does moon phase matter? Mirabel, what did you do?” Lilis cocked her head as understanding dawned in her eyes. “You poisoned them. How?”

“Undercooked red beans and celeriac root in the soup.” She turned. “Both are safe to eat until a frost kills the plant’s top growth. Then they turn deadly poisonous.”

“But I saw you eat the soup.”

“I’m immune.” She dry-rubbed her hands. “I came near to death many times as a taster learning the herbs and poisons to protect the royal family.”

“But what if we had eaten the soup? The Ashkar slaves?” Lilis sputtered, appalled. “Would you have killed us to save the city?”

“Perhaps.” Ducking her head, Mirabel left the tent, heading for the great ramp. “The trick was in the timing, and in not doing that.”

Following her uncertainly, Lilis jolted to a stop. “You weren’t cast out, were you? The king sent you to do this thing. The way he sent me to assassinate the War Lord, and I … failed.”

“Your killing the camp cook for me was effective enough.” Mirabel grasped the girl’s thin hand, leading her forward as she raised her chin. “Strike the head from a snake and you’re still left with its body. Killing the War Lord alone would’ve done little to save Ashkar or end the siege.”

She strode uphill as the great city gates slowly opened. “He brought 1,000 soldiers with him that needed to be dealt with, bless the Mother, she who sows and reaps.” Mirabel’s eyes gently crinkled as she smiled. “I took my orders from the queen.”

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Also listen to our new mystery podcast where mystery short stories and first chapters are read by actors! They are also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Spotify. A new episode goes up next week.

Martha Reed is a multi-award-winning crime fiction author. Her short story, “The Honor Thief,” was included in the Bouchercon 2022 Anthony Award-winning anthology, “This Time For Sure,” edited by Hank Phillippi Ryan. Martha’s Crescent City NOLA Mystery, “Love Power” won a 2021 Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award and features Gigi Pascoe, a transgender sleuth. She is the author of the IPPY Book Award-winning John and Sarah Jarad Nantucket Mystery series. Visit her website for more.

1 Comment

  1. Cute ending! Love it.


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