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?”

“I thought so. Where are you going with this?”

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

“Okay, you know you just have to ask.”

“It’s not that kind of favor.”

They were sitting by the fountain in the little courtyard behind the manor. Noella knew no one would bother them there. They were allowed to enjoy 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. “And we need to get back before we get in trouble,” he added.

They walked back together 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 weeks, they continued to eat lunch together as they always did, Noella bribing Joel with her sister’s cooking. 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 it. Well, she hoped he did. She thought about it all the time. In fact, she had not been paying close enough attention to her chores, and Cook had chastised her severely. Noella couldn’t afford to lose her job and tried harder to concentrate on the tasks Cook gave her. Though her job was only that of scullery maid, her family counted on everyone putting in their share.

Joel had it easier, well, from her perspective, she realized. 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 still thinking about what Noella had said. On his way through the kitchen, he slipped her a note: meet me by the tree. She knew he meant at lunch, and she was now waiting by the apricot tree. He was late, and she’d have to go back soon. She took the sandwich from the cloth her mother had wrapped it in that morning, 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 and wrapped Joel’s half in it. It was her best handkerchief and freshly laundered and ironed. She’d be asked about it next laundry day, but she’d deal with that then. She began hurriedly eating her part. She’d have to leave the sandwich under the tree where Joel would see it. He’d know it was for him. Noella was about to go when she heard gravel scrunching.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” whispered Joel. “I had to sneak out. Master is expecting a hunting party, and Hugh kept me busy all morning.” Noella handed him the sandwich. “Thanks. I’ve been thinking a lot, and you’re right.”

Noella started to say, “About what exactly?” when Joel interrupted.

“We need to leave. Tonight. Can you meet me behind the fountain at dusk?”

Noella gulped, but said, “Yes,” wondering how she would manage it.

“I have to go. Wear warm cloths. Bring whatever food you can,” and Joel was gone.

The rest of Noella’s day did not go well. She dropped a cup, and it shattered on the hard floor. Cook scolded for the longest time. At least it was one that just the servants used. Getting the broom from the pantry, she looked at all 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. “I’m not sure. I think 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. Maybe he’d left without her. Opening the curtain, she saw it was still light out, but it was fading. She cried with relief as she gathered her things. She quietly opened her bedroom door and listened. No sounds came from the kitchen downstairs. She checked the other bedroom doors—all open. Where was everyone?

Carrying her shoes, she slipped stealthily down the stairs. At the squeaky eighth, she held tightly to the railing and stepped silently over it to the ninth tread. 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, Noella 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 of them. In the pantry, she found apples and potatoes. Taking only some of each, she finished packing 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 outside 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 and as if she did this every evening. No running down the street, no rushing either, 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 nosey Magda, or her brother, even, could see her. Her brother wouldn’t bother to call out to her, 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. Beyond the forest, the last, lingering rays of the sun were slipping away.

This stretch of road was lonely. No one would bother her, or even see her, here. She knew the road’s secrets and the shortcuts to the back of the manor. 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 undetected. Besides, it’s just now dusk.” She could tell Joel was annoyed.

“You think it was easy getting out of the stables and off the manor?”

Noella 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 task is or anything, I’m not starting out with you saying it’s my fault. I get enough of that at home.”

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.” Joel 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. He doesn’t seem to have any trouble walking in the dark. She, on the other hand, kept tripping over small rocks and exposed roots.

“Here, give me your hand. You’re making too much noise.” Noella reached out and felt Joel’s hand grab hers. It was warm but so rough. Joel slowed his pace, and soon they reached the small, rock overhang where they sometimes met if they both had the same afternoon off.

“This feels deeper,” she Noella.

“Softly,” whispered Joel.

“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,” he comforted. “I think that was a practice round. And, yes, it is deeper. I’ve been scooping dirt for months. I didn’t know why until you said what you did three weeks ago. I think we can risk a candle. Did you bring any?”

“I, no, I forgot candles.” Noella was close to tears.

“No worries. I brought what we need.” They crawled as far back in the cave as they could, and Joel lit a candle. “There you are,” he said smiling at Noella. He looked closely at her. “You don’t have to be scared.”

“I’m not,” she insisted as she sniffed and wiped stray tears from her cheeks.

“We can’t stay here long, but I need to know what we have. I brought extra candles,” he pulled them from his pocket and gave them to her for the basket, “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.”

“Okay, then, we have enough for a several days. I want to get farther into the woods away from where they will be hunting. That means rough terrain. You okay with that?”

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

“Good girl. I’ll go first. Then, I want you to take my hand.” Joel crawled out cautiously and reached back for Noella’s hand.

Noella could only tell Joel 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. Noella could feel small branches bend as she passed.

“Try not to break them,” Joel whispered. Noella nodded forgetting Joel couldn’t see her do so. Her arm began to ache from the unnatural position, and she was almost walking sideways as Joel held onto her hand and walked ahead of her. Their progress was slow until the moon rose. He 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 still need to hold hands now that the moon is out?”

“No, not if you pay attention and stop immediately if it gets dark. I can’t risk having to call out for you.”

“I will,” she promised. Walking was easier now that she could see shapes and walk comfortably 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 at all? We’re almost there.”

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

“Just a few more minutes, I think,” encouraged Joel.

I hope so, thought Noella yawning and taking Joel’s 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,” Joel whispered and 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 the hut. “We can light a candle now,” he said aloud as he lowered his bundle to the floor and took the basket from Noella.

“They’re in the far corner,” she said as Joel rummaged in the basket. With proper light to see by, Noella looked around curiously. 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 belongs to my godmother,” said Joel. “She won’t mind that we’re staying tonight. We’re far enough away now that I don’t think anyone will come looking for us. Did you think to 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 doesn’t matter,” soothed Joel. “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 better that you didn’t. They’d be alerted 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. The rumor I heard was that they were going to give something to everyone who came to greet them. That’s why I said we should leave tonight. I wondered that you weren’t on the road. I checked earlier and saw your mother and sister. I thought maybe you’d slipped away through the crowd.”

“No, Mother sent me to bed because she thought I was ill.”

Joel looked at her thoughtfully. “I think we have someone watching out for us. 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 right now. 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 just go until we figure it out. If we’re being guided, we’ll go where we need to go, 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 they were worried. She hoped not, but how could they not worry.

“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.”

“No, I mean I left a note for both of us.”

Noella frowned, not understanding.

Joel hesitated a moment and then admitted, “I said we eloped. I thanked Hugh for everything he taught me and said, ‘Noella sends her family love and hopes they aren’t angry with her for leaving. 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,” agreed Noella 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 to cheer her up.

“Eggs? From where?”

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

Noella got ready for the day. When she came back in, she remarked, “It rained last night. I didn’t even hear it.”

“Me either. 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.