Plagued

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The Life’s Sake Vow

Noddie crouched on a ledge a foot above the water. The space around her was filled with the light roar of the ocean and a rhythmic drip, drip, drip of the water jumping off the end of a rope hanging at her side. Bruised and drenched to the skin, she shivered. The tunnel had ended in a narrow hole overlooking a steep drop-off to the water some ten feet below. The exit was surrounded by boulders protruding from the side of the island blocking the end of the tunnel from an outsider’s view.

Jethrow barely paused to tell her they were going to swim out to one of the demolished ships among the rocks before making the jump with Noddie in tow.

The sudden drop had been shocking enough before they hit the icy water. The swim to the wreck was not an easy feat. The churning water fought them with endless force, unexpectedly tossing them and bashing them into rocks.

The battered ship was lodged, upside-down, between two boulders. The hull slept belly-up like a tortoise shell among the crashing waves. Upon reaching it, Jethrow showed her how to dive under and emerge inside. Then he lifted her onto the ledge with instructions not to move or speak before he dove under again.

When her leg fell asleep Noddie shifted positions, watching the reflection of the water paint wavy patterns on the wood above her.

Jethrow was gone for a long time before resurfacing.

“Dive under and come back out, but stay close to the wreck.”

Noddie was cold and stiff and the salt water looked unappealing, but she did as she was told.

Jethrow was waiting for her on the outside with a narrow wooden boat that had a small contraption with a crank attached to the back. He pulled her up into the boat and used a long pole it to guide them through the perilous waters, pushing off rocks and the wooden skeletons of ships.

Once clear of the rocks, Jethrow took Noddie’s shoulder and pushed her down to the bottom of the boat. Noddie understood and lay crouching out of sight. Hunching over, Jethrow grabbed the crank next to him and awkwardly began to turn it. Hours passed and Noddie resisted the temptation to peek over the edge to see whether the island had disappeared from view. The waves rocked hard against the modest boat causing it to tip and sway, water spraying over the side. The movement of the ocean became more prominent, causing Noddie’s stomach to protest against the rough treatment.

Finally, Jethrow nudged her with his foot. “You can sit up now.”

The island had shrunk behind them, hardly visible in the moonlight. In all directions there was nothing but endless waves of water and sky. It made Noddie feel small and lost.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“The nearest land is Triwater. There’s a waterway that leads into the city of Salvida.”

“Are you sure this boat can get us there?” Noddie questioned as a furious wave splashed over the side.

“These boats are used specifically by the Mordekah robbers to travel back and forth from the city to the island for food and stolen goods. Terrason lies fairly close to the mainland. Nonetheless, it will take us hours to get there.” He gestured to the crank. “This will propel us forward for a while, but it has to be cranked at regular intervals. You’re going to have to help.”

Working the propeller was hard work. Noddie’s shoulders ached and her arms grew heavy, but she was determined not to show any weakness before Jethrow.

After changing shifts for the hundredth time, Noddie slumped against the side, planting her chin and hand on the rim of the boat.

“We’ll rest for a moment.” Jethrow rolled his shoulder, then lit a lantern and set it between them where the glass-protected flame could illuminate their faces. He leaned back, and pulled the strange coin from his pocket.

“What’s that?” Noddie asked as the gold object caught the light.

Jethrow held up a small gold chain from which dangled the coin etched with curious markings.

“Charm,” he said simply. “Keeps bad luck, and witches away.” He rubbed the article between two fingers.

Seeing him so calm when she was so worried and confused irritated Noddie. When she thought of all she had been forced to suffer in the last few weeks, a trickle of anger grew into a reckless desire to take action.

“What was so important about that compass?”

Jethrow didn’t need to ask what compass she was referring to. “It belonged to Mordekah.” As this compass was the reason for much of Jethrow’s misfortune she expected him to be angry and deny her an answer, but to her surprise he merely rubbed his eyes and answered in an, uncaring tone as though they were talking about crumpets at tea.

“Why was it so important?”

“Supposedly, it was the only compass that could guide one through Hulz Deep.”

“The cave? What was all that talk about a treasure? And a curse?

“I don’t know. I was new to Mordekah’s gang. I hadn’t learned all their secrets and ways yet, and there are some secrets Mordekah never reveals.”

“Like what?”

“I’ve overheard things. Whispers in the dark. Information I’ve gathered on my own. I believe the first Mordekah Robbers originated in Irestead. Mordekah must have been a young man then. They quickly rose in numbers and strength, and over the years acquired a great deal of riches. It is said that as their murders and theft continued, their spoil grew until it rivaled that of the king. They hid it all away in a secret cavern.”

“Hulz Deep.”

Jethrow nodded. “Mordekah became wary of the greed of his own men and feared that the cavern would be discovered by the king’s soldiers. These concerns haunted him every waking hour. Then one day he heard tale of a banished witch and sought her out.”

“Isca? Mordekah mentioned her name.”

“Must be, I suppose. I don’t like enchantments. Whoever she was, Mordekah met her on the road outside a small village one cold night. Mordekah can be a seductive gentleman when he wishes to be and, through flattery and sly talk, persuaded her to accompany him and three of his men to the local pub for a drink.

“I heard one of the robbers rambling about it once while drunk. According to him, they sat at a secluded wooden table in a corner. He bought her many strong drinks, and let the fiery liquid dull her senses. They talked late into the night, Mordekah’s slick words weaving through her ears soft as silk.

“As the hours wore on he began to ask her about sorcery. And she answered him. She even drew sketches and wrote spells and secrets in his little black book. As the night drew to a close, Mordekah and his men ambushed the sorceress. They overpowered her and stole many of her powers and fortune. They fled leaving the witch alone, shamed, and in the most frightful rage.

“At once, Mordekah used her magic to protect his beloved treasures from his own covetous men and outsiders. His work was foolproof. Only one who knew its location could find the entrance. Only one who had the key could open the door. Once inside, only a certain compass could guide him through, and only his own black book contained the clues to get past the obstacles guarding the chamber. He never dreamed that one day these same obstacles and guards would keep him out. His plan worked perfectly. He could visit the cavern whenever he wished, but no other could enter without him. Any who tried would meet an untimely end.”

“What went wrong?”

“What happened to the cave is somewhat shady as Mordekah forbade all from mentioning the incident, but from what I gathered, the witch Mordekah robbed, cursed the cavern and the treasures within. Declaring she would not rest until Mordekah, and every one of his men was dead.

“In the following years Mordekah’s followers fell one by one, all dying horrible deaths. It’s rumored that of the original gang, only three besides Mordekah himself, remain alive today. Though who they are, I do not know.

“Mordekah never went back to the cavern. He traveled south and began anew. Finding Terrason, he gathered new men and continued his aims and secret traditions. But ever since he has lived in fear of the witch and her deadly curse, certain that in her lust for his blood, she would one day come and finish him off.

“These facts seem true enough, confirmed by Mordekah’s speech the other night, but anything beyond this is guess work. I am not sure why, but he gave the key and the compass to two of his two most trusted men for safe keeping, apparently without telling them the significance of the objects. As I’m sure you’ve worked out by now, I stole the compass from Stemlin. I wasn’t part of the Mordekah Robbers back then, just a vagabond thief stealing petty cash and trinkets. By the time Stemlin discovered his loss and tracked me down, I had already sold the compass to a passing traveler. Terrified that Mordekah would hear of his fault, he bargained to spare my life if I would find and return it. I was forced to join Mordekah’s group so he could keep a close eye on me.”

Jethrow leaned against the side of the boat his head in his hand.

“I searched everywhere for that blasted compass, but I never found the woman I sold it to, and have never seen or heard of the compass since.”

Examining his injured hand Jethrow continued, almost to himself, “Stemlin would have been in trouble with Mordekah regardless. The compass was already broken when I stole it.”

“And the key?”

“I know nothing of the key, but evidently it is lost as well.” Jethrow snuffed the lantern and motioned for her to start turning the propeller again.

The city of Salvida was intertwined with deep canals and waterways entangling the land like a spider’s web. Bridges stretched over the rivers and thin multi-level houses packed tightly along the narrow empty streets, built ten feet above the water. Street lamps lined the edge of the canal with a dusty, yellow glow, and the water reflected in greenish-blue ripples on the undersides of the bridges. There were boats everywhere, beautifully painted with canvases and pillowed seats which looked much more comfortable than the plain wooden boat she and Jethrow occupied. There were posters all over the wall of the canal. Wanted posters. With a twist in her stomach Noddie recognized many of them to be Mordekah robbers, including one of Jethrow.

Jethrow barely gave the notices a glance as he stood with his pole, pushing them through the waterways to the more vacant parts of the city. They docked off to the side of a tunnel created by a wide bridge where there was a stone platform a foot about the water. A set of stairs led upward to where the bridge met the street.

The small bump of the boat hitting the platform was the most welcome greeting in the world. Noddie climbed out while Jethrow secured the boat. What a relief it was to be back on solid ground again! She was finally free to go her own way. Jethrow had surprised her by keeping his vow and she was grudgingly grateful.

“Well, thank you for your help. I never would have gotten away on my own.”

Jethrow paused in his work and looked up at her, expression unfathomable.

“Bye.” Noddie turned to leave.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

Coming to a halt, Noddie looked back over her shoulder.

Jethrow stood in the boat his good hand holding up the pole like a king’s staff his bandaged hand on his hip.

With a sudden unpleasant jolt Noddie realized she didn’t know where she was going. In fact, she didn’t even know where she was. But she wasn’t about to tell Jethrow.

“You’re not expecting to go off on your own? My vow was to protect you until you were safe from danger. Just because we are off the island does not mean they won’t be looking for you. No one, not even the robbers themselves, know who all of Mortekah’s men are. Not unless they give a secret sign. Any face you see on the street could be a spy for Mordekah. You are not safe yet.”

The blood drained from Noddie’s face. She did not just escaped a den of thieves only to be stuck with one again. Especially Jethrow, her previous captor. Despite his recent assistance she did not trust him.

“You’ve done enough. You don’t have to come with me.”

“Yes I do. The Life’s Sake Vow cannot be broken. I will be remaining with you until it is fulfilled.”

Noddie’s feelings must have shown.

“I assure you, I don’t care for the arrangement any more than you do, I am eager to pursue my own course, but the vow has been made. There’s no undoing it now.”

Deep down Noddie knew he was right, but the thought made her insides feel empty. She opened her mouth for a retort, but none came to mind and she shut it again.

Jethrow stepped out of the boat and walked purposely past her, “Come.”

Noddie eyed him suspiciously. “Where are we going?”

“As Mordekah has plans up north, south would be our best option.”

“I have to go north,” Noddie said.

Jethrow stopped and twisted back with a frown. “What?”

“I have to warn my uncle Lazren about Mordekah.”

“You’re not serious? Lazren’s a powerful man. He can look after himself. He might already know.”

“And what if he doesn’t? What if I can tell him something that will help? I have to be sure.”

“We are not going north. Mordekah will expect you to go running to your uncle. You’ll be playing right into his hands.”

Noddie placed her hands on her hips. “I have to find him. He thinks I’m dead. He doesn’t know I survived the Scorenza plague. I need to see him one last time.”

“You’ll get caught again!”

“Well, I can’t get to Milay anymore—” She pressed her lips to fight against the burning in her throat. “I will never get home now. Where else should I go?”

“Into hiding would be the preferred option.”

Noddie watched the lamplight play across the surface of the water. It was tempting to run south and hide away from it all; to never have to face the robbers, witches, or the plague again. But she would never be able to look at herself in the mirror if her uncle was murdered because she was too much of a coward to warn him.

Taking a deep, cleansing breath, and with the overriding sense she was sealing her own doom, Noddie turned and said, “I have to go north. I must find my uncle. I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t.”

Jethrow growled, glancing over his shoulder. “We can discuss this later. After we’ve found a more secure location.” He grabbed Noddie’s arm and ascended the stairs. “You’re going to have to trust me. If you don’t follow my directions exactly, how and when I give them, we’ll both be swimming in our own blood, understand? Now, Stay close to me.”

They slunk to the outskirts of Salvida where rows of boathouses lined the canal. Behind them lay a wide lot with stacks of fishing crates and old tarp-covered steam cars.

Keeping a hand on Noddie’s shoulder, Jethrow peered around the corner of a boathouse. “I don’t like this,” he mumbled. “It’s nearly dawn. The fishermen should have come for their boats by now.”

Noddie peeked past him as well. He was right. It was eerily quiet.

Suddenly the air around them exploded and the crates behind and beside them were blown to pieces.

ks I’m dead. He doesn’t know I survived the Scorenza plague. I need to see him one last time.”

“You’ll get caught again!”

“Well, I can’t get to Milay anymore—” She pressed her lips to fight against the burning in her throat. “I will never get home now. Where else should I go?”

“Into hiding would be the preferred option.”

Noddie watched the lamplight play across the surface of the water. It was tempting to run south and hide away from it all; to never have to face the robbers, witches, or the plague again. But she would never be able to look at herself in the mirror if her uncle was murdered because she was too much of a coward to warn him.

Taking a deep, cleansing breath, and with the overriding sense she was sealing her own doom, Noddie turned and said, “I have to go north. I must find my uncle. I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t.”

Jethrow snarled, glancing over his shoulder. “We can discuss this later. After we’ve found a more secure location.” He grabbed Noddie’s arm and ascended the stairs. “You’re going to have to trust me. If you don’t follow my directions exactly, we’ll both be swimming in our own blood, understand? Now, Stay close to me.”

They slunk to the outskirts of Salvida where rows of boathouses lined the canal. Behind them lay a wide lot with stacks of fishing crates and old tarp-covered steam cars.

Keeping a hand on Noddie’s shoulder, Jethrow peered around the corner of a boathouse. “I don’t like this,” he mumbled. “It’s nearly dawn. The fishermen should have come for their boats by now.”

Noddie peeked past him as well. He was right. It was eerily quiet.

Suddenly the air around them exploded and the crates around them were blown to pieces.

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