Noddie was certain that they had both been shot. Splinters of wood, smoke, and gunpowder encompassed them in a roaring hurricane. Jethrow threw them both down behind the steel cover of a steam car. The sound of pistols lulled in favor of yells and pounding feet as their attackers reloaded.
“Are you all right?” Jethrow examined the singed holes in their clothes and Noddie’s hair that was now missing a braid.
“I-I think so.” She couldn’t stop shaking. Her heart was beating so hard it hurt.
His hand went to his good luck charm and he mumbled something about miracles. Then he took her arm and moved them deeper amid the line of automobiles. “Mordekah’s men,” he explained shortly.
“How did they get here so fast?”
“Probably stationed here from the beginning. They’ve been waiting for us.”
They both dropped and covered their heads as another wave of gunfire pinged off the body of the steam car. As soon as it passed, Jethrow lifted Noddie over the edge of a landed ship. “Get under that tarp over there.” He hauled himself over as well before taking out his knife. Noddie ducked beside the sacks and packages as six knife-baring men came running toward them yelling war cries.
Another snap of gunfire struck the air and the robber in front fell to the ground.
Jethrow looked behind him as a man with a busy blond mustache stepped from the shadows. “Steady there!” he called as he took out another robber with his pistol. Jethrow turned back in time to slice a robber trying to jump him.
Together they each downed three more men, but a second wave of robbers was surging forward from hidden corners. The mustached man shot a pug-nosed robber in the face before shouting, “Start her up, Sarah, an’ get us outta here!” in the next second he would have been stabbed in the back if Jethrow hadn’t gotten to the robber first. As Jethrow withdrew his knife, he turned to meet the man’s eyes. The helpful stranger gave a nod of appreciation before facing the next attacker.
Noddie ducked lower beneath the canvas, covering her ears to ward out the claps of gunfire and screams of death. The sharp smell of gunsmoke made her nose wrinkle. Her wide eyes were pulled by the violent fight before her. A fire roared to life inside a large stove-like engine with a long pipe leading upwards from the top. Noddie was so startled she fell out from under the tarp. A gigantic shadow slowly rose over her, growing bigger and bigger. It took her a moment to realize it was a strange expanding cloth. Ropes holding it to ship went taut until the bag hovered over them like an enormous cigar-shaped thunder cloud.
Noddie stared open-mouthed as a big-boned girl whose cheeks and nose were flaked with freckles, knelt beside her with a wide smile.
The robber’s halted their attack and backed off several paces in order to size up this new threat.
The deck below them jerked, knocking Jethrow off his feet, and started to float upward like a dandelion seed carried by the wind. Noddie stumbled forward and clutched the rail, watching in horror and fascination as the ground and the robbers shrunk below them. It was disorienting, knowing there was nothing below the ship to hold them up, and yet they were staying up!
Jethrow forced her to duck and cover as the robbers started firing at them again. Noddie’s ears felt muffled before a popping sensation set them right again. Wind blew through her hair and her skin tingled with wonder. She tried not to think about the fact that there was more air beneath her than solid ground as she began to feel a familiar queasiness in the pit of her stomach. Was it possible to get sick in the air as one did on the sea?
When the curses and gunfire had fallen into the distance she peeked over the edge again. The land spread beneath them like patterns on a patchwork quilt. The sky around them alighted in golds and blues with the first rays of dawn, the cotton clouds painted with pink. Light bounced off the spires and windows of the city of Salvida, making them sparkle and shine. This had to be an airship. A vessel that could sail on the wind. Noddie had heard of such things in southern countries, but she had believed such stories to be myth. She looked over at Jethrow, who was gripping one of the ropes so tightly his knuckles were white. He looked afraid to move, certain a wrong step might send the airship toppling.
The mustached man straitened his hat and waistcoat, then ran his fingers over a nick in the railing from a stray bullet clicking his tongue against his teeth. “Didn’t expect that much excitement. Of course, I didn’t expect to pick up some unexpected passengers neither.”
Jethrow slowly pulled himself to his feet under the man’s gaze. “What is this thing?”
“Divinity. Greatest airship model to date. Built and designed by yours truly.”
“You built this?” Jethrow eyed their surroundings as though weary it would all fall apart at any moment. “And you are?”
A giggle drew their attention to the girl standing at the helm chewing on a lock of her hair. She looked about Noddie’s age and wore a vest and belt over a short dress and knee-high laced boots. A pair of goggles sat in her bush of curly brown hair.
“My daughter, Sarah,” McCarthy explained briefly. “Now then, Jethrow Tensler, isn’t it? Why don’t you tell me about them Mordekah robbers?”
He pulled his pistol, aiming at Jethrow, who stood calm, but eyed the end of it with unease.
“What makes you think we are associated with them?”
“I’ve made it a habit to read body language. And wanted posters. I ran into a cheeky customer a while back. Those thieves have had their greedy little eyes on my flying machine since I arrived in Salvida three days ago. I would have thrown you over the edge by now, except you saved my hide back there. And I must admit, the presence of a young girl has me baffled.” He glanced to where Noddie was fearfully watching the exchange. “She doesn’t have the eyes of a murderer. Just answer my questions and don’t try anything. You’re not as steady on your feet up here. It’s a long way down and there’s no one up here to aid you.”
“I’m afraid we’ll be of little use to you. We’ve only managed to escape from them ourselves. I believe they wish to use the girl for ransom. I’m returning her to her uncle up north.”
Noddie turned to stare at Jethrow in surprise.
“That’s very considerate of you, for a robber.”
“I made a vow.” Jethrow said simply.
“I’m more inclined to think you’re the one holding the girl hostage here.”
Jethrow’s eyes narrowed. “I am no longer a member of the Mordekah Robbers.”
McCarthy studied Jethrow carefully as though trying to detect a lie as Jethrow continued, “I can tell you what I know, but it isn’t much and I doubt it will help you. I plan to go into hiding myself once I’ve fulfilled my vow.”
There was a tense silence before McCarthy mumbled, “I should turn you over to the authorities I should.”
They stared each other down.
“Where, up north, are you taking her?”
“Irestead? The plagued land? I wouldn’t go there if I were you.”
“That’s where her uncle is. Just land this thing and we’ll be on our way. We won’t bother you anymore.”
“I don’t think so. How’s I to know you won’t kidnap the girl and go running off back to your buddies once I let you go?” He fingered his mustache. “No. If you say you’re going north than I will take you there myself.” He waited as though expecting them to protest, thinking he had caught Jethrow in a ruse. When they didn’t respond his brow wrinkled.
“You can get me to my uncle in Irestead?” Noddie asked hopefully.
McCarthy looked defeated. Then he sighed and scratched his straw-like hair under his hat. “Irestead is risky, the wind that far north is cold and harsh and I’m not sure Divinity can handle it.” He contemplated more before answering, “I can take you across the border. Over the Gorbeck mountains, but I don’t dare go any farther. After that, you’re on your own.”
“Fair enough,” said Jethrow.
McCarthy’s eyes hardened again as he focused on Jethrow. “This is for the girl’s sake. Make one wrong move and it’s over you go. Do you have any other weapons?”
Jethrow’s eyebrows fell deeper. “No.”
“Give it to me.”
At first Jethrow didn’t move. Then, reluctantly, he held his long silver knife out, handle up to McCarthy.
McCarthy took a step forward and confiscated it.
“I’ll let this go for now, but I’ll be keeping an eye on you, robber.”
Jethrow shot a nasty look at the man’s retreating back.
That night the McCarthy’s made up makeshift beds on deck. Noddie lay waiting until everyone else fell asleep. Once Jethrow’s breathing had become even, she pulled the soggy cloth bag from her pocket. She had almost forgotten about Isca’s bottle since escaping from Mordekah. She feared it had been shattered or lost during her frantic swim in the waters around Terrason. She examined it closely and was relieved to find it undamaged. Wrapping the bottle back in her handkerchief, she returned it to her pouch, tossing Mordekah’s sodden bag aside.
As soon as the bag left her hand Noddie sensed something was off. She looked at where the bag lay, lumpy in places. Frowning in confusion, she picked it back up. She thought she had left the keys back on Terrason, but—
Noddie reached in and pulled out a small black book.
Her eyes widened as she stared at the article in her hands. Her first instinct was to turn and throw it over the side, but faltered. This book contained Mordekah’s secrets. She could be holding the means to confound him.
With numb fingers she flipped through the delicate, wrinkled pages. The contents of the first five sheets had been washed away, but the proceeding ones, while battered and misshapen, were legible. There were lines of script in a northern language and notes and dates written in the same pointy, messy handwriting. There were hand-drawn maps with certain areas marked, and several pages bearing a long list of names. Many names had small symbols and numbers beside them while others were crossed out. She wondered if the people listed were robbers, victims, or targets and whether the numbers indicated groups, skills, or something else entirely.
Turning a few more pages she rested on a two-page spread displaying a complicated design of bold, multicolored lines thinning out to graceful curls or sharp points. The picture had been painstakingly inked, elegant, but strong. It reminded her of her uncle Lazren, brutally powerful, but with a noble, desirable image.
Flipping the page over, she saw another drawing. Two vertical lines overlapped with two more lines forming an upward point between them. The whole thing was encircled in a loop. Below it was a single spiky word. Auntem.
Noddie tilted the book so the moonlight could fall across it. What could it mean?
Nearby Jethrow shifted in his sleep and Noddie hid the book in her pouch with Isca’s bottle.