I tossed a handful of corn to the hens, as they gathered about my feet, joyfully pecking at the fresh food. They were gladdened by such simple pleasures-it was easy to make a chicken happy, it seemed. Free of the worries of the world. I smiled. They seemed to speak in soft undertones to one another, clucking and chirping, as half grown chicks still cowered by their mothers, our gallant rooster gazing over his little family.
The sound of hoofbeats made me turn abruptly; I could hear my mother greeting someone. I slipped out from behind the chicken house, peering my head around the corner. I instantly recognized Jon Hanway's striking countenance and his handsome bay. Back so soon? I furrowed my brow, watching as a young girl appearing about my own age, slid off the back of his horse, her red hair shimmering like a flame in the summertime sunlight. With a slight nod, Jon Hanway spurred on his horse and headed up the road back towards town, leaving the strange girl with Mother and Jacob.
Nellie was her name. That was all we seemed to get from her at the time being, quiet and never really speaking. She was silent through lunch and silent as we went about our chores. Who was she, and where did she come from? How did she know Jon and why did he bring her here? Mother seemed to know something of why she was here, but did not share with us as we went about our day. I could only seem to glean small things from observing her.
The sun was sailing high in the sky that afternoon, as I beckoned Nellie to grab two large baskets with me and head up to the blackberry bushes up by the road. Many years ago when I was a little girl, Father had planted them right behind our fence. I remembered transporting water with Mother, Ed, and Luke-Jacob not yet born-from the stream and watering the little bushes as they grew. That seemed so long ago-the bushes seemed to reach for the sky, and I was so much older, practically a woman rather than a girl. The memories were bitter-sweet.
With a few simple instructions, we began harvesting the blackberries, plump and ripe on their branches. As I worked, I popped one into my mouth, letting the warm, sweet juices swim around on my tongue. Nellie seemed to notice, and watched me swallow, a slight, curious envy in her eyes. "You can have some," I smiled at her. "Go ahead, try one."
She gave me a shy smile and hesitantly picked a berry, putting in on her tongue. Her face lit up as she chewed, turning to grin at me when she was finished, "That was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten in my life.....or at least in a very long time."
I was content, glad that I had gained some ground with this peculiar girl. We lapsed into silence again as our baskets began to fill. A bird nearby began to sing most sweetly, catching both of our attention. "Why don't the birds eat all these blackberries?" inquired Nellie after a moment. "There are so many-there doesn't seem to be one berry missing."
"They eat some," I smiled. "But my father planted several bushes down the way, and has always said those bushes were for the birds. At first, I thought he was joking. Yet then I realized that the birds really only ate from those bushes. Every spring, my father plants a few more bushes for the birds."
"That's ridiculous!" laughed Nellie, her face exhibiting all it's pretty features.. "Is it true?"
I shrugged, "Last I looked, those bushes were well pecked by the birds. My mother says that our birds are fat! And soon they will not be able to fly!"
She giggled, "Your father must be some sort of wizard. Where is your father, now?"
I paused, looking down at my basket, "He left for war weeks ago, my two brothers as well."
"Oh," her good emotion drained from her face. "My father and brother are gone for war too."
"Have you heard anything from them?"
She shook her head, speaking so softly I had to strain my ears to hear, "No...they could be dead for all I know."
We stood in silence, thoughts swimming through our heads. "Have you heard anything?" Nellie looked at me hastily.
I opened my mouth to speak, recalling the information that Jon had told us the other night when he supped with us. Supposedly secrets. I took one glance at Nellie's desperate face.
Stepping closer to her, I said in an undertone, "I have heard that war has yet to begin. But they have crossed the river and will be in Handrin in less than a fortnight. No one has been killed on the account of war.....yet."
Nellie seemed slightly relieved, giving me a slight, uneasy smile. "That is good, for now," she answered, turning back to pick more berries. I was glad she did not ask where I had received my information. She looked at me again, suddenly saying, "I feel so....useless. With all the men gone as war approaches, I can't do anything as a woman, and feel helpless to assist my family or country in anything. Everyone seems to act as if war is not happening, and there is nothing I can do about it!"
I smiled sadly at her, the irony of her words strange to me, "I have been thinking of similar things the past week. I-,"
A shriek interrupted us as we whipped around to look. A lady was on a horse, but nearby a horse was running free and a girl was curled in the dirt of the road. I dropped my basket, leaping over the fence and bolting over. I knelt at her side, looking over her short, petite body. She looked as old as I, her black hair strewn across her face and her elegant riding gown coated in dust. "Can you stand?" I quickly asked her, still looking her over for any serious injury.
"My ankle...my foot" she gasped, reaching for her right foot. I looked up-Nellie was approaching the horse, trying to snatch it's loose reins, and Mother and Jacob were jogging across the fields to us. The other lady, quite a few years older, dismounted her horse and was kneeling across from me, her face contorted in worry as she ran her hand through the girl's hair.
I crawled over to the girl's feet, unlacing her right riding boot. She winced as I gently slipped it off, looking at her swollen foot. "May I feel it for injury?" I looked up to the older lady, who was some sort of mother or guardian to this girl.
She nodded quickly, and the girl cried, "Yes! Yes! Please!"
Carefully as I could, I felt the ankle in my hand, but nevertheless she yelped out in pain, attempting to withdraw her foot from my hands. "It seems a sprain, though it may be quite severe. Mother!" I called; she was close by now. I rapidly explained the situation and she felt for herself.
"I believe you may be right," she then spoke directly to the girl. "Hello, Dear, we are going to get inside my house with some nice cool water for your swelling and some food for you."
"Thank you," she breathed, and the older lady gave Mother a grateful smile.
"Here,"Mother ordered, grabbing up the girl's arm and shoulder. "Go on the other side, Katrina, and we'll carry her into the house. Jacob, would you kindly grab the lady's horse, and, oh, thank you Nellie, you have the other one. Come now, I'll..."
I didn't bother to hear the rest as Mother continued her hosting speech as we carried the strange girl up the way to our house, the older lady following close behind as Nellie and Jacob went to go stable the horses in the barn.
The girl turned her head and murmured in my ear, "I'm Eliza. Thank you."
I smiled at her, "Pleasure meeting you. I'm Katrina."