“The house is clean,” said the man as he walked out of Daphne’s house. “Their only weapons were a few hunting knives, and we found no evidence of extra people living here.” The woman standing outside the door nodded.
“Call off your dog and we’ll leave,” she said. When Daphne clicked her tongue Lemon looked up expectantly. He still hadn’t figured out where the strange man was hiding his cheese, but he could smell the remnants of it. Isaac wrapped his muscular arms around the dog’s neck and gently tugged him away. The motley crew slowly dribbled away from the house, but as they walked down the dusty path to the main road one of the youngest soldiers turned around to stare at the woman and boys who were watching them leave.
There was something off about this family. If only they’d found some scrap of evidence to warrant further investigation. As they walked away his commanding officer slowed down her pace until he caught up with her.
In a low, quiet voice she gave him his orders for the next few days.
Paige limped up the path to Daphne’s house, her long, white hair slowly wriggling free of its braid. She wore a tunic smeared with a dry, light brown substance Daphne couldn’t quite identify, and she leaned heavily on her walking stick as the younger woman approached her. It was quite unusual for Paige to walk this far at all, much less on her own at the hottest part of the day. Nevaeh normally travelled with her mother on the rare occasions that she needed to walk more than a few miles.
“Would you like some water?” Daphne asked, a little surprised that anyone would come looking for her at her home during harvest time. If not for her tender knee, Daphne would have been digging up the harvest with her sons this afternoon, but there had been so few visitors lately that no one knew it had been bothering her again.
The woman nodded. Daphne ushered her inside for a cup of warm, stale well water. Lemon was sleeping soundly underneath the kitchen table, but he opened one groggy eye and thumped his tail in recognition of the family’s closest neighbour.
“No one’s sick here,” Paige said with a note of surprise. She’d always held a sneaking suspicion that the gods were just. Surely they would show more mercy to a woman who worshipped them and followed even their most heartbreaking rules than to someone who did not.
“No, we’ve been lucky so far,” Daphne said as she set the cups down. “How are you?”
“We need help,” Paige said. The sickness had struck her household particularly harshly. The baby had slipped away quietly. While his father, older brother, and sister seemed to be on the mend, Paige could not say the same thing for her daughter or granddaughter. She described her long, gruelling days caring for a house full of sick relatives as her grandson-in-law staggered through the harvesting process. Only one other neighbour had been within walking distance for an old woman with a bad hip, and he had been too overwhelmed with his own sick family and overripe harvest to offer any assistance. As much as she privately disliked Daphne, Paige had no choice but to ask for help.
Daphne listened to Paige’s story quietly. Last year she and her sons had finished their harvesting and food preservation with time to spare, but now only two of them were physically able to carry those heavy baskets home. Once her sons came home this afternoon she’d be busy drying and preserving everything as quickly as possible before insects or mould snatched away months of hard work.
“We can’t help with your harvest until ours is finished,” Daphne said. Food shortages were on the way, and if she didn’t look out for her own family they’d starve over the summer. “But we can help you bury the baby.”
“How soon will you be finished?” Paige was in no position to argue.
“A few weeks,” Daphne said. “Although once the harvesting portion is completed I’ll be able to spare one of my boys while the other one helps me preserve the rest of our provisions.”
Would her crops hold? Paige could only hope so. The pitiful amount she’d managed to put away so far wouldn’t keep her family alive for more than a week.
Melvin Watts inched the notebook out of his boot as the old woman walked by and dutifully jotted down a description of her. He was too far away to hear their conversation, of course, but she was the first visitor this house had seen in the past two days. Before he heard her hobbling up the path Melvin had been resting his eyes in the shade of the rocks he had wiggled in between. His dusty uniform and naturally light brown hair blended in well with his surroundings. It wasn’t quite camouflage, but it was difficult to see him if you weren’t expecting to find a tall, thin boy lying down in the dirt.
Melvin’s commanding officer had insisted this family was hiding something, but so far his surveillance had turned up nothing. Privately he doubted the two old women were in cahoots but orders were orders, and it was better to earn a sunburn through boredom than on the battlefield.