The Task: A Fairy Tale in Four Parts: Part 1

“We’re friends, right?” asked Noella.

“Sure, yah,” said Joel wondering why she was asking.

“Good friends?”

“Why are you asking?”

“I need to do something, and I need your help.”

“You know you just have to ask.”

“It’s not that kind of favor.” They were sitting by the fountain in the kitchen garden of the manor. Noella knew no one would bother them there. They were allowed to go into the back gardens, and it was their lunch time. She unwrapped the sandwich she’d brought, and tearing it in half, handed one part to Joel. She watched him take a bite.

“Uhm, that’s good,” he mumbled as he chewed.

“Magda made it. She’s a good cook. Joel, I need to do something,” she started again.

“You said that already.” He eyed her over his sandwich.

She sighed heavily and pursed her mouth and then just dived in. “Okay. We have something to do.” She put the emphasis on “we” and put up a hand when Joel looked as if he was going to say something again. “I don’t know what it is, but you do,” she rushed on. “You hold the key to the whole thing. I’m just supposed to go with you to help you.”

“I don’t know anything I’m supposed to do except take care of the horses,” he replied. “I do know we need to get back before we get in trouble,” he added.

They walked back quietly. At the kitchen door, Noella said, “Please think about it.” She entered the kitchen to start her afternoon tasks. Joel headed to the stables to walk the horses.

Over the days, they continued to eat lunch together as always. He didn’t bring it up, and she didn’t either, but every time he looked at her, she could see in his eyes that he thought about what she’d said. She thought about it all the time. In fact, she had not been paying close enough attention to her chores, and Cook had scolded her severely several times. Noella couldn’t afford to lose her job and tried harder to concentrate. Her job was only that of scullery maid, but her family counted on everyone doing their part.

Joel had it easier. He lived in the stables and had his meals provided for him by the manor and by her. He was always hungry, but, so was her brother. Her mother said it was because her brother was young and worked hard. Well, she was young and worked hard, too, but maybe young men were different.

Three weeks passed before Joel gave any indication he was thinking about what Noella had said. On his way through the kitchen, he slipped her a note: meet by tree. She knew he meant at lunch, and she was now waiting by the apricot tree. He was late. She’d have to go back soon. She took the sandwich from the cloth her mother had wrapped it in, split it in half and looked around for something to lay it on. She couldn’t go home without one of her mother’s cloths. She finally pulled her handkerchief from her pocket. It was her best handkerchief and freshly laundered. She’d be asked about it next wash day, but she’d deal with that then. She began hurriedly eating her half. She’d leave Joel’s part under the tree. He’d know it was for him. She was about to go back when she heard gravel scrunching.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I had to sneak out. Master is expecting a hunting party, and Hugh kept me busy all morning.” Noella handed him the sandwich. “I’ve been thinking a lot, and you’re right. We should leave tonight. Can you meet me behind the fountain at dusk?”

Noella gulped, but said, “I think so,” wondering how she would manage it.

“Wear warm cloths. Bring what food you can,” and Joel was gone.

The rest of Noella’s day did not go well. She dropped a cup, which shattered on the hard floor. Cook scolded for the longest time. At least it was one that only the servants used. Getting the broom from the pantry, she looked at the food stocked there. I can’t steal this. Even if I could manage it, I can’t make myself do it.  She shook her head in dismay. At home, she was quiet. She tried to pretend to be her cheerful self, but her mother looked at her hard several times before calling her over.

“You aren’t running a fever. Let me see your throat.” Noella obediently opened her mouth. “You need tea and bed.” Alone in the room she shared with Magda, she dressed in an extra layer of clothing and got under the covers to think and plan.

*          *          *

She awoke with her heart pounding. She hadn’t meant to fall asleep. The room was dark; she’d missed dusk! Joel wouldn’t know where she was. Opening the curtain, she saw it was still light out, but it was fading. She cried with relief as she gathered her things. Quietly, she opened the bedroom door and listened. No sounds came from the downstairs. Where was everyone?

Carrying her shoes, she slipped stealthily down the stairs. At the squeaky eighth tread, she held tightly to the rail and stepped silently over it to the ninth. Peeking over the half wall, she checked the sitting room. No one was home. She made herself breathe and sat to put her shoes on. When she found herself dawdling, she shook herself. “It doesn’t mean they won’t come back any minute.” She got her cloak and the basket she carried on errands. Finding two fresh loaves of bread, she took one. In the pantry, she found apples and potatoes. Taking only some of each, she packed the basket, remembering to put in a sharp knife and utensils. At the last minute, she added two small plates and cups.

Her heart started thudding again as she approached the front door. She thought she heard her sister, but it was two of her sisters’ friends chatting and laughing as they passed. Opening the door, she tried to close it calmly as if she did this every evening. No running or rushing, just Noella taking something somewhere, maybe some food to someone who was sick. Yes, that’s what I can say if I’m stopped. The sky was darkening, and she knew she had to hurry. The curve at the end of the row of houses, usually so close, seemed miles away. She knew better than to look back. That invited attention. Any moment her mother, or the nosy Magda, or her brother, even, might see her. Her brother wouldn’t bother to call out, but he would know it was her and would say something at home. He would also know which direction she had gone. She played the how-many-steps-left game. She guessed twenty and counted to calm her rising panic. Twenty-three. As she rounded the curve, she could see over the manor’s rock wall. Past it, the last, lingering rays of the sun were slipping away.

This stretch of road was lonely. No one would bother her now or even see her here. She knew the road’s secrets and the shortcuts. Well, she should. She’d walked it every day for two years. She jumped and almost screamed when Joel stepped from the shadows. “What took you?”

Her heart still pounding, it took her a moment to answer. “It’s not that easy to leave my house unseen. Besides, it’s just now dusk.” She could tell Joel was annoyed. She was about to say, Sorry, when she thought, no, I’m not going to start a trip letting him ride roughshod over me. She stopped in a shadow. “I don’t care how important this is, I’m not starting out with you saying it’s my fault. I get enough of that from Cook.”

Joel blinked. Noella could see his eyes flash, but then she heard him chuckle softly, “Good for you, Noella. I’ll keep that in mind.” He pointed a direction. “This way.”

They walked quickly to the edge of the forest and crossed into its darkness. Joel must be a cat, thought Noella as she tripped over small rocks and exposed roots. He doesn’t seem to have any trouble walking in the dark. Joel reached back. “Here, give me your hand. You’re making too much noise.” Noella reached out and felt Joel’s hand grab hers. His felt warm and rough. Soon they reached the small, rock overhang where they sometimes met if they had the same afternoon off.

“This feels deeper,” she said.

“Softly,” he whispered.

“Why? we’re in the woods. Who’s to hear us?”

“You’re a town girl, Noella. You’re going to have to trust me and do as I say.” Met by silence, Joel explained quietly, “It’s not to boss you around. It’s for our safety. The woods have ears. No person may be near, but loud noises scare the animals. Even if you think you are being quiet, the animals think you are being noisy. They try to get as far away as they can. Someone a mile or more away could see deer or rabbits where they aren’t used to seeing them. From several miles away, anyone looking can see birds fluttering above the canopy. They’ll know something is different. If they come to investigate, there’s a good chance we won’t get to complete our task. Others know these woods as well as I do.”

“Oh,” whispered Noella. “I’m sorry, Joel.”

“It’s okay. I think that was a practice round. It is deeper. I’ve been scooping dirt for months. I didn’t know why until you said what you did.” They crawled as far back under the rock as they could, and Joel lit a candle. “There you are,” he smiled at her. “We can’t stay long, but I need to know what we have. I brought candles and flint.” He pulled them from his pocket and gave them to her, “and a knife and some string,” he whispered as he showed her the sheath on his belt and the heavy twine tied around his waist under his jacket. “I brought my blankets. Nights will still get cold.”

“I have a loaf of bread, some potatoes and several apples. I also have two each of plates, cups, forks, and spoons, and a paring knife.”

“We have enough for a several days, then. I want to go farther into the woods, away from where they will be hunting. That means rough terrain. Can you handle that?”

“I may be a townie, but I can hike,” she declared staunchly.

“Good girl. I’ll go first. I want you to take my hand.” Joel crawled out cautiously. Noella could only tell he was still there from the smell of his clothes—a warm, comfortable, horsey scent. She wished they had a horse to ride. As she reached out, she felt his hand find hers and give it a tug as he started. She could feel small branches bend as she passed.

“Try not to break them,” he whispered. She nodded forgetting he couldn’t see her. Her arm began to ache from the unnatural position, and she was walking almost sideways. Their progress was slow until the moon rose. Joel stopped when the clouds that had been obscuring it moved off. “We need to make it to the dell before we can safely sleep,” he said softly. “You doing all right?”

“I’m okay. Do we need to hold hands now that the moon is out?”

“Not if you pay attention and stop immediately if it gets dark. I can’t risk having to call out.”

“I will,” she promised. Walking was easier now that she could see shapes and walk on her own. It helped, too, that the forest floor was deeply mulched here with years of decaying leaves that cushioned exposed roots and rocks. The moon shone steadily for another two hours. Then, a wind picked up.

“Can you hurry? We’re almost there.”

“I think I can though it’s getting harder to see again.”

“Just a few more minutes,” encouraged Joel. I hope so, thought Noella yawning and taking his hand again. I’m not sure I’ve ever been up this late, maybe during carnival. No, not even then. An owl hooted. She could hear it flapping through the trees. “We’re here,” he ushered her through a curtain of green into a tiny clearing that held a well with a bench by it, a garden, and a small thatched hut. Noella stood open-mouthed until Joel tugged her hand and pulled her inside. “We can light a candle now,” he said as he lowered his bundle to the floor and took the basket.

“They’re in the far corner,” she said. With proper light to see by, Noella looked around. A small well-scrubbed table and two wooden chairs were placed near the fireplace. Across from it stood a kitchen hutch. Across the room, a bed heaped with covers beckoned. “What is this place?”

“It’s my godmother’s cottage. She won’t mind that we’re staying tonight. We’re far enough away no one will find us. Did you put your pillow under the covers to make it look like you were there?”

Noella shook her head sadly. “No, I didn’t think of that.”

“It probably doesn’t matter. It only fools someone who isn’t looking closely.”

“Oh, I share a room with my sister. She wouldn’t have been fooled at all.”

“Then, it’s good you didn’t. They’d know something was up. I heaped hay under an old blanket in my room. If anyone walks by, they’ll think I’m there unless they call for me and I don’t answer.”

“I still don’t know why no one was home when I left.”

“You don’t? Did Cook not say anything or anyone at home either?”

“No. What?”

“Manor and town were invited to see the hunting party ride in. I heard they were going to give something to everyone who came to greet them. That’s why I said we should leave tonight. Everyone was distracted, excited about seeing the riders. I wondered why you weren’t on the road. I saw your mother and sister. I thought maybe you’d slipped away through the crowd.”

“Mother sent me to bed because she thought I was ill. They forgot to tell me.”

Joel looked at her thoughtfully. “We have someone watching out for us. Hugh told me to go see the hunt party. You were able to slip away easily. I started scooping dirt from under the picnic rock where we could have hidden if we needed to. My godmother is gone to her sister’s. We’re being guided.”

“Maybe it’s the someone who wants us to do whatever it is we’re supposed to do. Do you know what it is yet?”

Joel shook his head. “No. You still think I’m the key to this?”

“Yes, I’m sure you are.”

“Then, we are going to keep going until we figure it out. If we’re being guided, we’ll go where we need to, but now, we should get some sleep.”

Noella took off her cloak and her extra dress. The bed was as comfortable as it looked, and she was soon asleep. She woke to bird song. At first, not sure where she was, she heard movement and peeked over the covers. Joel was stoking the fire. Oh, that’s right; we left last night. She wondered if her family was worried. She hoped not, but how could they not be.

“You’re awake. Good,” Joel began when Noella interrupted.

“They’ll be worrying, Joel. We should have done something.”

He came and sat on the edge of the bed. “I did. I left a note.”

“Oh, I wish I had.”

“I mean I left a note for both of us.” Noella frowned, not understanding. Hesitating, Joel finally admitted, “I said we eloped. I thanked Hugh for everything he taught me and put, ‘Noella sends her family love and hopes they aren’t angry with her. Please tell them.’ I think that will satisfy everyone.”

“Oh, Joel. It’s …” her voice trailed off.

“How else could we have left? They would never have let us.”

“You’re right, of course,” she agreed with a heavy heart as she got up.

Joel showed her the water he’d heated and where things were. “I got eggs,” he offered.

“Eggs? From where?”

“My godmother keeps chickens. I’ll make some breakfast.”

She went to the door and looked out. “It rained last night. I didn’t even hear it.”

“This cottage is sound and tight, especially with the shutters closed. It’s good that it rained, and, especially, that it was windy. It cleared away our tracks and scents.”

Noella cut bread and placed a slice on each plate. Joel added eggs and brought out a small jar of jelly. “I don’t think she’ll mind, but I want to thank her by leaving the cottage ready for her return.” Her mouth too full to respond, Noella nodded her agreement.

After they ate, they cleaned everything. Noella remade the bed neatly and drew fresh water from the pretty little well; Joel chopped and stacked firewood and cleaned the chicken coop and left extra feed for the chickens. “Let’s go,” he said as he kissed his fingers and placed them on the door in farewell.

“You didn’t leave her a note,” said Noella.

“She’ll know it was me. This way.” He pointed south.