The Task: Part 2

Although the rain ended during the night, swift clouds still scudded across a dark sky. Noella was glad for the hood on her cloak. They walked near the edge of the woods until they heard the echo of a hunting horn. Joel put up a hand and listened carefully scanning the trees and sky, as he did so.

“They’re a distance away,” he said, “but I don’t want to chance it.” He gestured towards the woods. When they reached the safety of the trees, he stopped. “I’m glad your cloak is dark. A bright color would stand out, especially in the open. I think we need to stick to the woods for a while.”

“It’s Magda’s cast off when she got a new, pretty one,” said Noella. “I didn’t want it. Now, I’m glad. How long do we have to stay in the trees? It’s so dark.”

“I don’t know. At least for today, I think.”

The ground started to rise and became more rocks than mulch. Their pace slowed. They came to a large boulder that seemed to end in the sky. “Wait here,” said Joel as he climbed over the boulder. Lying down, he pulled himself to the far edge and surveyed the land below. Noella so wanted to know what was happening but she was not about to climb out onto that large a boulder. Joel came back grinning. “The hunt party is way below us and off in the distance. We’re good now.”

“That’s good, but Joel, it’s starting to get darker, and I’m hungry. Can we stop to eat?”

“It’s past noon. Yes, let’s.” When Noella opened the basket, she saw Joel sigh. “I think we can each have an apple. That leaves two for later.”

“No bread and jelly?”

“Maybe later.”

“I’m used to it, but you have to be famished.”

“I’ll survive,” he said stoically, but Noella noticed he ate slowly. They tossed their cores into the underbrush.

“This way,” said Joel. Noella wondered if she could play guess-how-many-this-ways. As often as Joel said it, she guessed 25, then changed it to 50. That seemed like a lot even if he said it several times a day.

“Joel?”

“Yah?”

“How long do you think we’ll be out traveling like this?”

“I don’t know,” he shrugged.

“Guess.”

“Guess?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.” He thought a moment. “I think we’ll be out three weeks, maybe a month.” He hesitated, “maybe even a bit longer.”

“A month?” she asked incredulous and changed her guess to 100.

The day continued to darken as more thick clouds rolled in. Dusk arrived hours early. Joel motioned to a rock, and Noella sank onto it gladly. “Since they’re so far away, can we light a candle?”

“I think that would be all right,” he said looking carefully through the trees.

Noella set the basket on a rock and found the candle they’d started yesterday. Joel lit it. “I wish we had a lantern or at least something to shield it,” she said as a breeze ruffled the flame. She quickly cupped her hand around it. “Joel, how are we going to figure out what we’re supposed to do?”

“I don’t know.” He shook his head slowly and repeated, “I just don’t know. We should get going. Here, I’ll carry the basket.” Noella gathered her cloak around her with her free hand but dropped the cloth as she again shielded the flame against a gusting breeze. Joel was still looking around. “This way,” he said finally. Noella giggled. “What?”

“Nothing,” she said but thought, I think that’s four for today.

As dusk settled in and shadows disappeared into themselves, all anyone would be able to see was a tiny flame making its way slowly through the trees. Joel came alongside Noella and took her arm. “We’re going on rougher ground now. It has the best possibility for a place to bed down for the night.”

They walked slowly, Joel holding tightly to Noella, who was concentrating on the candle. Abruptly, he stopped, and she almost ran into him. “What?” she whispered.

“There’s a small hut ahead. Master has a few like it for keeping things handy for his woodsmen and for other things,” he added. He didn’t elaborate. He didn’t have to. Noella had heard the stories about people who didn’t come back. They were told the people had simply left, but everyone knew there’d been trouble beforehand.

“Should I blow out the candle?”

“No. It’d be too late now anyway. If someone was there, they’d have seen us already.” Turning to Noella, he saw she was scared. “No, it’s okay. No one is there. I can tell.”

“How?”

“Look.” Noella looked. “Tell me what you see.”

“A hut.” Joel looked expectantly at her. “And, uh, oh,” she said suddenly as the scene crystalized in front of her. “The leaves are deep and blown against the door.” Joel nodded approvingly. Gaining confidence, she looked again. “The shutters are closed, oh, and the latch string is outside.”

“Very good. We can spend the night here.”

Inside, the hut was clean but dusty. “No one’s been here for a long time. In fact,” he said thoughtfully as he looked around, “I don’t think they use it anymore.”

Noella looked around but couldn’t see what Joel was talking about. “How can you tell?”

“Nothing is here, no supplies, nothing stacked for future use: no tools or firewood. It looks like they cleaned up, maybe were going to stock supplies and equipment, but didn’t, which means it was abandoned for whatever reason.” He looked at Noella and shrugged. “Our gain. Bring the candle. I think we can risk a fire to heat water. I saw a brook a little way back.”

Outside, the clouds had cleared and a half moon was rising. Joel gathered wood from back of the hut and found a discarded bucket. “We’ll be comfortable tonight. Not like last night but enough,” he said, taking the wood inside and readying the fireplace before he headed to the brook.

In his absence, Noella looked around. The size of a large shed, it had enough room for them to stretch out to sleep, and a small fire would keep them plenty warm. If they only knew what it was they were supposed to be doing. Noella sighed as she turned to the back wall. Joel was wrong. A few things had been left behind. She spotted a walking stick in one corner. On two pegs hung a lantern and a small iron pot. Lifting the lantern down, she could see it was dirty but serviceable. She spilled some wax on the floor and set the candle. Taking the extra handkerchief she’d brought, she wiped out the lantern. She was resetting the candle when she heard him come in.

“Hey, that’s great,” he said. “Where was it?”

“Hanging on the back wall. There’s a small pot, too,” she said pointing, “and a walking stick.”

Joel looked them over. “They’re castoffs. When they cleared out, they must have decided these weren’t worth taking, but we can use them.” He rinsed the pot. Seeing it was tight, he lit the fire and set water to heat. “I don’t think we can cook in it, but we can heat water for washing.”

“We could put potatoes or eggs in it, couldn’t we?”

“Yah, sure, but we can just put them in the embers.”

“Can we have potatoes for dinner?” asked Noella hopefully.

“Definitely,” said Joel putting two in the embers and then adding two more.

They heard rain start up and looked at each other. Joel spread the blankets on the floor, and they sat on them as there were no chairs. The potatoes stopped the rumbling in their stomachs. The rain tried its best to lull them to sleep, but they were silently and separately awake thinking about tomorrow and the day after that and the days that stretched out past those. They finally both drifted off and awoke to another dark day. The only light in the hut was from the candle.

“I forgot to blow it out, but, Joel, look. It’s still burning.”

“I don’t think it’s even lost any wax,” said Joel. “I’m not sure what to think of this.”

“Someone is still looking out for us,” offered Noella. Joel nodded but looked uncomfortable. “This is a good thing,” she added.

“I guess,” he shrugged.

“Why wouldn’t it be?” she asked. She was encouraged by the stoic flame, but, in the face of Joel’s dismay was beginning to doubt.

“If I don’t figure out what we’re supposed to do, will our help leave us? I don’t know, and I don’t know what to do.”

“I think this is supposed to encourage us that you, that we, will figure it out.”

“I hope you’re right. Let’s clean up. I don’t want anyone chancing on the hut and wondering who was here.”

After wiping away their recent presence, they went outside to a gray, blustery day. The lantern protected the candle. The flame remained upright. Joel looked around for direction, but before he could say it, Noella suddenly knew. “This way,” she said, wondering if she had to count that one.

Joel looked surprised but followed. They made their way deeper into the forest, Noella carrying the lantern and basket and Joel with his bundle of blankets, the pot and walking stick. By afternoon, they arrived at a stream. Too small to be called a river, it was nevertheless too wide and fast for them to walk across even if they held onto each other. “If we follow it downstream, we’re likely to come to a town, and I can’t reckon where we are because it’s been dark,” said Joel.

“Upstream it is,” said Noella as she started walking along the bank. Joel was still pondering the stream when he looked up to see a tiny light sending inviting rays into the darkness. His mind registered Noella’s form, but it was as if the light was what was important. He noticed small animals and birds peeking from the underbrush and the trees. They’re drawn by the light, he thought, surprised.

“Noella,” he called softly. He saw her stop, and he ran to catch up.

They walked until they were too tired to go any further and bedded down in a shallow depression. The temperature had moderated, and thick bushes protected them from the breeze.

“Leave it burning,” Joel said as Noella was about to blow it out.

They awoke to another dark day. They both immediately checked the candle. Still as tall as it had been when Noella placed it in the lantern, the flame burned strongly. Noella quietly said, “The candle wasn’t short enough to fit in the lantern until we found the lantern.” Joel looked at her, his forehead wrinkled in thought. “I mean, the candles we have are all too tall. It had burned down to the right height to fit when we found the hut, and the lantern was there.”

“But now it’s not burning down at all.” He shook his head. “I don’t know what that means,” His “I’m not sure I like it,” remained unspoken but hung in the air.

Noella bit her lower lip and then offered, “I think it means we are doing the right things.” Joel looked at her. “We’re being watched over and helped along the way. Maybe we just keep doing what we’re doing until the candle burns down. Maybe that’s what tells us to change what we’re doing.”

“And you thought I was the one who knows what that is.”

“And I am still sure of it. I’m just here to help you do it.”

“What if we’re doing everything wrong? What if our invisible guide is leading us into doing bad?”

“Are you superstitious?” asked Noella, surprised.

“No, well, maybe a little. Things are often not the way they look.”

“Oh, that’s very true,” agreed Noella, “but it’s usually easy to tell with a bit of looking past the surface. You’re not bad, Joel, and you felt we should do this.”

Joel shrugged and looked in the basket. He almost said, ‘Let’s start and hope we get breakfast later,’ when he realized neither of them could do that. “Okay,” he sighed. “Cut the last of the bread.” Breakfast only took a minute. Noella handed everything to Joel. He grabbed her hand and helped her climb out. As she picked up the basket and lantern, she heard him say, “This way.”

They’d only walked part of the morning when they came to the outskirts of a small village. They stood on the grass next to where a dirt path and cobblestones converged. “I don’t recognize the village, do you?” he asked.

“No. Is this Covington?”

Joel turned to her, surprised. “You think we’re that far south?”

“I don’t know, but I’ve heard tell it has a bell tower like that.” She pointed down the village’s street to where the cobblestones split and made a circle around a small, decorative tower.

“Yes, I think you’re right. Then, it’s safe for us here.” They started walking, but Joel stopped and added, “We have to look as if we belong together and are just doing what we always do.”

“I understand.” Noella straightened her shoulders and smiled at him.

As they started up again, a man approached. “A good morning,” he said courteously and nodded his head at each of them.

Noella took a small step back to let Joel take the forefront. She’d seen other women do this when they and the men they were with entered her village. Her movement seemed to be accepted by the man. “A good morning to you,” replied Joel. “We’re traveling through and need to replenish our supplies. Might someone have work for a hostler and a kitchen maid?”

“Well met,” said the man. “My stable boy took sick, and I could use someone for a day or two. I know of no one needing a kitchen maid, but can you sit with the sick, miss?”

“Oh, yes, sir. I nursed my granny for a year,” replied Noella.

“Come with me,” he said and led them to a tall, narrow house where he knocked. A middle aged, worn looking woman answered. “Margaretta, this is a young couple in need of work on their travels. The miss can nurse.”

“Oh, bless you,” said the woman. “Come in.”

“Thank you,” said Noella as she looked at Joel.

“I’ll send him back to you this evening,” the man said to her kindly as he and Joel continued towards stables just visible down the street.

“What’s your name?” the woman asked.

“Mary,” Noella said quickly. As she followed the woman, she wished she and Joel had discussed this problem earlier. Noella wasn’t a common name, and she didn’t want to give it. She wasn’t sure Joel knew her middle name, but, then again, if a girl’s first name wasn’t Mary, her middle name probably was. She had to think a moment whether she knew Joel’s. She was pretty sure it was David, but Joel being a common name, he might feel he could use it.

The woman was opening a door to an upstairs room. “Mary, this is my maman. She’s very sick. I’m not sure what to do. She’s been like this for days.” Noella saw an old woman lying in a disheveled bed. The woman was almost gray and was breathing shallowly. She reminded Noella of her grandmother, and she immediately put down the lantern and basket and took her cloak off and went over to her. Taking her hand, she waited to see if the woman would open her eyes. She gently rubbed the woman’s fingers. Soon, a bit of color came into her cheeks and she turned to Noella and opened her eyes but blinked against the light.

“Can you close the curtains?” Noella asked. The woman’s daughter complied. “Thank you, and show me where I can heat some water?”

“Certainly.”

“I’ll be right back,” she said to the old woman. “I’m Mary.” She followed the daughter back downstairs and waited for the water to heat. Noella realized suddenly that she had forgotten she wasn’t in her own house and had to be mindful she was a servant. She asked with more deference, “Do you have a towel and cloth or a sponge? I’d like to bath your maman’s face.”

The woman got what she needed. “Thank you, Mary. I have to leave for my job at the milliner’s, but I will be back this evening. There’s food in the pantry. I don’t know what she’ll eat.”

Noella took the water carefully upstairs, went to the bed and propped the woman up against the pillows. She rinsed the cloth in the warm water and washed her hand and arm. She could see the woman relax. She washed her face and then took stock of the covers. “Are you cold, Maman?” she asked. The woman shook her head. “Then, I’m going to air the blankets.” She threw back the covers. My, they were heavy. Looking around the room, she found a shawl on a chair and making a roll of it, stuffed it at the bottom of the bed to take the pressure off the woman’s feet. As she replaced the sheet and first blanket, she heard her patient sigh. Noella spread the second blanket loosely on top of the first. “I’m going to make something to eat.”

She hung the blankets on the line to air and went into the kitchen to see what she could find. The larder was well stocked. Noella diced vegetables and shredded meat into a pot and made the soup she used to make for her own grandmother. That was just two years ago, thought Noella. “I miss you, Granny,” she said softly. While she waited for the soup to cook, she cleaned the kitchen and organized the larder, exchanged the blankets on the line, and finally, satisfied the soup was the way she wanted it, made two bowls. She quickly ate one of them with a thin slice of bread. Cutting another thin slice, she buttered it and took it and the bowl upstairs. The woman seemed to be eagerly waiting for her.

As she fed the woman, Noella chattered happily. Putting the spoon in, she looked down and saw the bowl was empty. “Would you like another, Maman?”

“No, thank you,” whispered the woman much to Noella’s surprise.

“I’m going back downstairs,” said Noella, “but I’ll check on you in a bit.” She made the woman comfortable. Back downstairs, she busied herself straightening and dusting. She was startled when she heard the front door open and saw the daughter enter. The woman halted abruptly and looked around. Noella was momentarily confused until she again remembered she was the servant and a stranger. “I hope it was all right, but your maman is sleeping, and I wanted stay busy.”

“All right?” the woman asked. “I’m just so thankful. I haven’t had the time to do anything since she took ill.” Looking closely at her, Noella saw it wasn’t time the woman needed, but energy. She offered, “I made enough soup for your dinner.”

“You made soup? She ate?”

“Yes.”

“Are you an angel?” the woman asked.

“Oh, no, just a kitchen maid.”

“And a miracle worker,” added the woman.

The woman went upstairs to check on her maman. When she returned, she simply shook her head. “You’ve accomplished in less than a day what I couldn’t in two weeks.” Noella sensed this as the compliment it was meant to be, but she wondered if it might turn to jealousy and distrust if she stayed too long. She wished Joel would come back for her.