The Task: Part 3

The Task Part 3

The sun was setting when Joel knocked on the door and took Noella back to the stables with him. The inn keeper had given him enough supper for them both. They ate and were full for the first time since leaving. The horses got quiet. Joel put a finger to his lips and crept silently to the door and listened. When he came back, he said quietly, “No one is supposed to arrive tonight, and it’s quiet outside, but I don’t want to talk loudly in case someone is nearby.”

Noella nodded.

“What name did you give?”

“I told her my name was Mary. What did you say?”

“David.”

“I thought you might.”

“We can stay a few more days, but then we’ll need to leave even if the stable boy is still sick.”

“I agree,” and Noella told him about the sick woman’s daughter.

In the morning, Noella’s patient seemed better. The woman’s daughter left when Noella arrived and was gone all day. It didn’t seem quite right somehow, but that was none of Noella’s business. Her patient was stronger and able to sit for a little while, and she ate the meals Noella brought her. Joel came again at sundown. After another good dinner, Joel said, “Let’s take a walk.”

They strolled to the tower, Joel telling Noella what each building was and what lay beyond the town each direction. Noella realized quickly this was more than just a tour but was meant to look like one to anyone else. She paid close attention and memorized landmarks and where they were. When they got back to the stables, Joel said, “We’ll leave at noon. The stable boy will be back in the morning. I’ve stowed my bundles out of town. Leave the lantern and your basket here. I’ll take them out there, too. If I don’t come for you, meet me by the willow tree I pointed out.” He looked Noella and said slowly, “Do not tell the woman or her mother that you are not coming back. It’s okay,” he added when Noella looked scared.

Noella got up early and put on a smile as she left the stables. The woman greeted her with, “My maman looks so much better. She even sat up last evening. I would like to hire you. You could have a room here.”

Noella noticed she didn’t mention anything about Joel, but it wasn’t uncommon for servants to live separately. “That is very kind of you,” said Noella. “Your maman is very sweet.”

“Good, you can move your things in this evening, or I may be back at noon. You could do it then.”

“Yes, ma’am,” she said before going upstairs.

Noella was a bit fidgety, and her patient looked at her oddly a couple of times. Noella was about to make up a story about Joel but thought better of it. She began chattering happily as she worked. “It is a lovely day outside, a bit cool, but it’s sunny. Would you like me to open the curtains?” Her patient gave a faint smile and nod. Noella opened one partially, and when the woman did not flinch or turn away, she opened them both. A soft light flooded the room. “Is that all right?”

“Yes,” said the woman.

Noella smiled fondly at her. “I’m going to make soup and do laundry.” She picked up the cloths she wanted to launder and her cloak.

“Do you want to lie back down?” she asked.

The woman shook her head. As Noella closed the door behind her, she heard the woman say, “God speed, Mary.” She so wanted to go back in and say, “I wish I could stay, you remind me of my grandmother, I hope you get well,” but she made herself walk down the stairs.

Noella prepared the soup and cleaned the kitchen again. She wasn’t sure how it got so dirty in the little time she was gone each night. She straightened the sitting room and laundered several small cloths and a nightgown. She was hanging them on the line when she heard the gate open behind her. Joel was beckoning as he looked over his shoulder. He was also holding Noella’s cloak. “Come,” he whispered urgently.

Noella put a clothespin on the last cloth and followed Joel out the gate. They crossed behind the row of houses. When they reached the stables, Joel put up a hand, checked the sidewalk, and beckoned to Noella. They crossed to the tower and then from the tower to the bushes at the side of the road. It wasn’t until they reached the willow tree and group of bushes that Joel stopped and handed Noella her cloak. She put it on as a chilly gust reached her.

“How … ” she started but stopped when Joel shook his head. He handed her the lantern and basket. She hadn’t even noticed them there beside a low bush. As dark clouds started swiftly moving in, the flame shone brighter. Joel quickly tied a cloth around the lantern, picked up his bundle of blankets and a homespun sack she didn’t recognize and started walking.

Noella had to hurry to keep up. After going one way for a bit and then turning to go in the opposite direction just to seemingly turn back to where they had originally been going, they made their way through the forest. The sky continued to darken, and Noella wished they could use the lantern. A tiny bit of light escaped through the top, which Joel had left uncovered to let the flame breathe, but with its sides covered, the lantern was mostly dark, and their path, shadows.

After an hour, Joel stopped at a group of rocks. “We can sit a minute. We need to keep going though.”

“Why, Joel? Who’s going to come after us?”

“No one,” he replied, surprised.

“But we sneaked out of town.”

“I didn’t want anyone seeing the direction we’re heading. The woman will be angry and will probably tell everyone she knows how you just up and left. If any of them saw us, they could spread …”

“I do understand, Joel,” interrupted Noella.

“I just don’t want us to be the main gossip,” he finished.

“But why we are hurrying now?”

“It may start raining soon. We need shelter.”

“Oh, I thought with everything else you said …” her voice trailed off.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t explain earlier. The inn keeper is a friend of the old woman you were nursing. He asked me how your first day was. When I told him what you said about the daughter, he said we’d have to leave. She is known to treat her servants very poorly, even isolating them and working them almost to their deaths. He wanted his friend to get better and hoped this time might be different.”

“When I took laundry downstairs, I heard the old woman say, ‘God speed.’”

“She knew, then. It’s okay. She’ll not tell her daughter. The innkeeper gave me provisions. Your basket and this sack are full. He told me where an abandoned cottage is. We should head there.” He turned to pick up the sack. Noticing the lantern, he pulled the cloth from it. The light spread out around them.

They found the cottage quickly. Leaves were in front of the door, the shutters were closed, and the latch string was out. Taking the lantern from Noella, Joel inspected the interior. “We’ll need to clean up a bit, but there are no animals, and whoever was here didn’t leave trash.”

Bigger than the hut belonging to Joel’s godmother, this one had an alcove and a tiny inglenook. It did not have a bed piled with inviting covers, Noella noticed sadly, but it did have a bed frame, and one chair and a small table. It would have to do, especially when Noella heard thunder sounding a warning.

“I’d better hurry,” said Joel. “Can you start a fire?”

“Yes, I know how.”

“Everything is in the basket,” he said as he hurried out with a bucket. Thunder rumbled again.

Noella looked around, noticing the cottage wasn’t as clean as Joel had thought. She sighed and, finding a peg on the wall, hung up her cloak and rolled up her sleeves. “At least the fireplace has been swept,” she mumbled, as she started the fire. In a small cupboard, she found a broom and started sweeping. She wished Joel would return so she could wash the table. Just dusting it wouldn’t be enough. She turned her attention to the bed. It would take both of them to pull the ropes taut. Where was Joel anyway? She was starting to get annoyed and then had to admit she was worried.

As they approached the cottage, she had noticed a small lean-to and wondered if it might contain anything useful. She wrapped her cloak around her and was about to go out when she went back and opened a shutter and set the lantern on the ledge. Opening the door, she was hit with a spray of fine rain. She gasped and pulled her hood farther over her face as she dashed around the side of the cottage.

Joel was on the ground, his foot twisted at an odd angle. “Joel,” she cried and ran to him.

“I’m not hurt, I’m not hurt,” he kept repeating as Noella started crying. “My boot’s caught.”

“I can’t see what to do. I’m going back for the lantern.”

“I can walk,” he started to say.

“What, and drag a trap with you? No, wait there.”

Running as quickly as she could against the wind and rain, Noella grabbed the lantern and, seeing Joel’s walking stick by the door, tucked it under her arm and ran back to Joel. The light showed a trap clamped around the end of Joel’s boot and digging into the leather. Noella surveyed the trap a moment and found the hinge. She carefully worked the walking stick into an opening. “Sorry,” she said as the stick pressed against his ankle, and he grunted.

“It’s okay. Just try to,” He started to say when the trap sprang. “How did you do that?” he asked, incredulous.

“Here, lean on me. Are you hurt?”

“The teeth didn’t get me, just my boot, but my ankle twisted. It’s not bad though.” He picked up the trap and his bucket. “You can go back. I’ll follow.”

“No,” said Noella. “I’m staying with you. Here, hand me the trap.” Joel gave it to her and refilled the bucket. They made their way back to the cottage: Joel with the stick and bucket and limping slightly, Noella with the lantern and an empty, dangling trap.

Joel shut the door firmly in the face of the storm. “How do you know how to spring a trap?” he asked as Noella commanded, “You’re drenched. You need to get out of those wet clothes.”

“My brother likes to trap. I think it’s cruel, so I learned how to spring them.”

“Lucky for me,” said Joel.

“Yes,” replied Noella, “but what is disturbing is that it was there and that the inn keeper sent us here.”

“I know.” Joel had had the same thoughts as he sat in the rain trying to free himself. He took off his drenched clothes. Between them, they wrung out his trousers, shirt, and jacket. Noella laid them by the fire.

“Did you go into the lean-to?”

“No, the trap got me before I got to it.”

That stopped Noella, who had been about to go back out. “Was the trap a warning to stay clear of it or to protect what is in it?”

“Pandora’s box or Alibaba’s cave?”

“Yes. I wanted to see if there was anything we could use to lay over the ropes, so we don’t have to sleep on the floor.”

Joel nodded thoughtfully. “I think we’d better content ourselves with the floor tonight. For one thing, it’s too wet and dark. For another, I don’t want us to keep going in and out and showing a light.” Noella quickly closed the shutter and then drew the latchstring in.

Joel was inspecting his boot. “I think the only damage to it was when I tried to pull it out. Of course, there are some holes from the teeth, but it is still good for walking.” He looked up to see Noella’s eyes big and her mouth trembling. “Yes, we’d better talk about everything,” he said with a sigh. “The innkeeper was friendly,” he began.

“I thought the woman was, too, but she was just trying to get what she wanted.”

“I think the innkeeper is a good person. Not because he was friendly,” he added, “but because he was honest. I couldn’t sense anything deceptive in him.”

Noella was about to counter his argument when she remembered Joel worked with horses. She felt that gave him insight most people don’t possess.

“I can accept that,” she said, “but it still doesn’t explain a trap guarding the lean-to.”

“Oh, it wasn’t,” said Joel.

“No? Where was it, then?”

“In the underbrush.”

“But …” Noella began. She then sat down by Joel and said, “Tell me everything that happened.”

“I went out to get water. It took some time to get the pump going. It hasn’t been used in a long time. I had the bucket full when lightning flashed, and I saw something glint in the underbrush. I went to see what it was and stepped in a pile of leaves, twisting my ankle and springing the trap. I was surprised that I could drag myself as far as I could until I realized the trap wasn’t staked.”

Noella got the trap and inspected it. “It’s really rusty. I’m surprised it sprang. It hasn’t been oiled in ages. I think it was simply forgotten,” she shrugged.

“And I thought you were just a town girl,” grinned Joel.

Noella blushed. “But what glinted, Joel? Not this,” she said holding up the trap.

In the firelight, Joel could see how rusty it was and was thankful it had only bitten his boot. “I don’t know. It only winked once, but I think we’re safe for the night. We’ll leave the lean-to and the underbrush until tomorrow.

“All right,” Noella agreed as she looked in the basket and the sack. “So much food,” she remarked as she made a modest meal for them.

The rain continued, the fire kept them warm, and the floor was acceptable as a bed. Noella got up once to turn Joel’s clothes and to poke the fire. The candle sent out its cheerful glow making Noella smile. “Thank you,” she whispered.