Plagued

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Past Regrets

“A good morning to you, Noddie May!” Mr. McCarthy called as Noddie appeared on deck rubbing her eyes. The newly risen sun fought to be seen through a dense cluster of clouds, and in the distance, mountains rose as dark, misty giants. They were rockier and more jagged then those of Milay, but the sight of them made her heart skip.

“Oh, how I’ve missed mountains,” she moaned in longing.

“Don’t be so eager yet. We’re going to have a load of a time getting over them. Harsh territory that is,” Mr. McCarthy called from the helm. “Today we’ll be reaching the city of Bailin.”

Sarah bounced with excitement, “How much longer until we get there?”

“By my estimate, little over an hour.”

“Bet you’ll be happy to get your feet back on solid ground, am I right, Jethrow?” she called over her shoulder to where Jethrow had just emerged from below, tousle-haired and groggy-eyed.

“Shut it, girl! You talk too loud.”

Unlike the McCarthy’s, who were early risers, Jethrow was not a morning person. Dawn found him stumbling around the ship in a daze and Sarah was slow to learn that if you didn’t want him to bite your head off you didn’t talk with him until at least an hour after he woke up.

By the time Jethrow was fully awake a clustered, block-like city had appeared in the distance.

If taking off in the air ship had been an alarming experience, landing was more so. At first the descent had appeared gradual, but it became more apparent the closer they came to the earth. It made Noddie’s heart stop to see the rocky ground rushing up towards them. The machine jarred and swayed, then slid several yards after touching ground before coming to a stop outside the city gates. The McCarthys jumped into action to secure her, their hands made quick and sure by experience.

Noddie was still shaken with nerves several minutes after they landed, feeling as though she left her stomach up in the air. She had the odd sensation that the ground was moving beneath her as she stumbled around like a drunkard before sitting down, pulling herself together. Her embarrassment was eased by seeing Jethrow leaning over a boulder looking just as out of sorts as she was.

After the bag had been deflated and folded away, Mr. McCarthy scoured the air ship, making sure that the inner workings were functioning correctly. He tightened things here and there and made a few adjustments to mechanical parts as the others were put to work cleaning. They scrubbed the deck, polished the rails, wiped and oiled gears, and swept out the engine under the overcast sky and gusts of searing wind.

“Longest she’s ever gone without a tune up.” Mr. McCarthy jumped down, wiping his hands on a stained rag. “Held up well, didn’t she? Now let’s get proper clothes and a nice meal.”

“We shouldn’t stay here long,” Jethrow muttered.

McCarthy nodded, looking serious. “Just one night. We leave first sign of dawn.”

It started to snow as they walked through the city gates. As much as Noddie enjoyed her time on the air ship it was refreshing to be back on firm ground again. Bailin was draped with colorful banners and flags, which made up for its drab buildings. Except for the storefronts, all the windows were small with wooden shutters. Narrow stairways, and archways stretched over paved streets where tall fire pits were spaced at intervals. People in heavy coats were warming themselves near them as they stopped to speak with passing friends.

Noddie, Jethrow, and the McCarthys sought shelter from the cold in the shops, which were warmed by fireplaces behind iron grates. McCarthy bought Noddie a tall pair of fur-lined boots and a similar hooded coat, as well as a pair of mittens and a funny pair of fuzzy bloomers to wear under her dress. Noddie had never worn so much before and felt buried in the layers of fur. Jethrow received boots as well, and a long fur-lined coat that bunched up around his neck in the Bailin style, with a sturdy pair of gloves.

“I’m not wearing that.” Jethrow scowled at the furry round cap McCarthy was holding.

“You will. All men around these parts wear them.”

After acquiring more appropriate attire McCarthy dragged them to several other stores where he purchased tools, fabric, and food packages.

Sarah skipped beside them through the falling snow as they huddled in their new coats. “Can we visit Town Square? I would love to see the iron bridge again—”

“We don’t have time for sightseeing,” Jethrow cut her off. “Mordekah’s men could be anywhere, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had spies in this city as well. We have to get into Irestead as soon as possible.”

Sarah dug her hands into her pockets. “Sour grump.”

They found a nearby restaurant and occupied a table as Mr. McCarthy ordered a warm, spicy stew that was set at the center of the table in a large pot. The stew contained thinly cut vegetables and meat and came with warm bread.

“This soup is called campto,” Sarah explained to Noddie as she dished herself a third helping. “It’s eaten with everything here and is served with a variety of breads and a strong drink called botcha. Papa let me taste botcha once. It was vile. I couldn’t even swallow it, but a lot of men like it around here. The bread is the best part. Bailin has some of the largest ovens in the world and are famous for their assortment of freshly baked breads. Here, Noddie May darling, try a bite of this!”

Sarah reached over the table, knocking over the saltshaker in the process, to snatch a thick slice of bread from the basket.

“Sarah, manners, girl!” her father exclaimed before continuing his own conversation. He was trying to convince Jethrow that the hat sitting on the table beside him was not as silly as he believed.

“I can’t understand why you won’t wear it.”

“It looks ridiculous.”

“Once you get cold enough you won’t care how you look.”

Jethrow leaned back folding his arms. “I disagree.”

“Here now, I got a good price for that hat. They are well coveted around here and this one is of fine quality.”

Jethrow raised an eyebrow at the hat, looking as though it had insulted his masculinity.

McCarthy dipped a corner of bread in his stew with a shrug. “You should decide what you want to do for the night. They’ll be shutting the gates in a few hours and then there will be no getting in or out until sunup. Usually we prefer to find a nice inn somewhere, but lately I’ve been kipping down on the air ship to keep watch during the night.”

“It might be best if we all did. You deserve a good rest. I can keep watch tonight. Besides, I don’t like the thought of you staying on the outskirts alone.”

“I’ve got my gun.”

“It won’t do you much good if you’re ambushed.”

McCarthy shrugged, “I do what I can. How well can you fight with your hand like that?” he jerked his head towards Jethrow’s bandaged hand lying on the table. “I’ve seen the way your right hand stumbles when you eat. You’re left-handed aren’t you?”

Jethrow shrugged a shoulder, but didn’t meet Liels’ eyes as he tried to pass it off as a matter of little consequence. “It’s on the mend. You’ve seen for yourself, I can fight if I have to.”

“How does one come by an injury like that?” Liels asked.

Noddie dropped her spoon, which clanged loudly against her bowl.

Sarah was scooping up the dregs of her stew oblivious to the ominous atmosphere that had descended at their table.

Jethrow gave Sarah’s pocket a calculating look before turning away. “I was in a fight,” he answered.

“Hmm.” Liel’s grunted. They could see the cogs working in the man’s mind. No doubt he knew there was more to it than Jethrow was admitting. He had not missed the contemplative focus Jethrow showed toward his daughter, but he let the matter go.

“It does seem to be well cared for. Who fixed it up?”

“I did a little, but as luck would have it there was a man with better medical experience in the vicinity at the time.”

“You know healing?”

“My father was a doctor and my mother a nurse and midwife. They taught me a thing or two when I was younger. I’m no doctor, but I can set broken bones and heal small wounds. This isn’t the first time I’ve received an injury.”

“Your parents were doctors?” Noddie asked in surprise. For some reason, it never occurred to her that Jethrow, or any of the Mordekah robbers for that matter, might have a family. It was a bit unsettling to think there might be someone at home waiting for them at the end of the day. “Where are they now?”

“Dead. They were attending plague victims and became infected themselves.”

“Oh. My condolences.”

Jethrow waved a hand in her direction, as though to wipe away the past. “Finish eating so we can go to bed.” He then instructed Sarah, “Throw a pinch of that salt over your shoulder.”

“Why?”

“Ward off bad luck.”

Pardon?”

By morning the air ship was sailing the skies once more on its hasty route to Irestead. Noddie had to readjust to the sensation all over again, but regained her balance quicker this time, and the queasiness left her after a few short hours.

On deck, she came upon Jethrow, jumping about and lunging to and fro. It looked like he was dancing.

“What are you doing?”

Jethrow didn’t stop to look at her as he continued in his antics. “Practicing. Our discussion in Bailin made me realize that should we be attacked I will need to be able to fight. Without my fighting hand I’m at a disadvantage.”

Noddie sat down to watch until Jethrow slumped against the side, breathing heavily.

“I must be more out of shape than I thought,” he huffed, looking disgusted with himself.

McCarthy said, “Don’t be too hard on yourself, Mr. Tensler. It’s the high altitude is all, takes your breath away, quite literally.

Sarah, however, never lost her breath or her energy.

“You’re going to be over the Gorbeck Mountains in another day or two,” she reminded Noddie. “Aren’t you concerned about going to the northland? It’s colder and darker there. And the plague is everywhere. Aren’t you afraid?”

Noddie didn’t answer.

“It’s okay to be afraid. I think I would be afraid of the northland. I’m afraid of spiders, can’t stand the things.”

Noddie adjusted the collar of her coat. “A friend of mine once said that everyone is afraid of something.”

“What are you afraid of, Jethrow?” Sarah called over to where Jethrow was sitting with his arms folded.

“Nothing.”

“Oh, go on, I told you mine. So. . .?”

Jethrow glared at her before looking away. “Rats,” He answered. “I hate rats.”

Noddie dreamed of the plague again. Except this time she was stumbling through the dark trying to find someone while shadowy figures grabbed at her.

With a painful gasp she jerked awake. She lay panting, as the nightmare dissolved leaving her in her hammock below the deck of the air ship.

A single lantern hung from the post beside her. Jethrow was lying awake in his own hammock nearby, watching her.

“Nightmare?” he asked as Noddie sat up.

She nodded.

Jethrow studied her more, then said, “It is said that bad dreams are the worries and regrets you hide away.”

“That would make sense. I worry about a lot of things.” Noddie confessed straightening her blankets.

“The robbers and your uncle?”

“Not just.” Noddie lay back, placing her hands behind her head.

“I think about my home. My family. I was sent to Grendar with a group of other children and families as soon as a Scorenza victim appeared in our valley. Sometimes I wonder if I abandoned my parents and my home. I should have stayed. But I was too scared. And now I will never get back home. I may never see them again.” She squeezed her eyes shut as her chest tightened. “I’m afraid all the time. Of everything. I’m afraid to go back, I’m afraid to go forward, I just feel so . . . stuck. And weak. I wish I had more courage.”

Jethrow snorted. “Idiot girl. What do you think courage is? It was courage that lead you to attack and escape from the most dangerous man east of the Rovian sea, and it is that same courage that leads us to Irestead now. Don’t let the presence of fear fool you. Courage is putting those fears aside in order to do something more important. It isn’t something you have. It’s something you earn. Personally, I’ve been astonished by the way you’ve handled the situations we’ve found ourselves in. You’re . . . not bad company.”

He said this last sentence so low that Noddie almost didn’t catch it before he turned his head away.

Noddie glowed, realizing that this was Jethrow’s way of a compliment and lay on her side to face him. “I’ve been meaning to thank you. About helping me find my uncle, I mean. You have no idea how horrible it is knowing that someone you care about is going to die. I may not be able to help my parents and I don’t know what I’m going to do for my uncle, but it soothes my soul to try. I hate feeling so helpless.”

Jethrow’s brow scrunched up and his face became pinched. “I know. There’s nothing worse.”

“Were you there? When your parents were taken by the plague?”

“No, but my little sister . . .”

Noddie propped her head up on her elbow looking at him in interest. “You had a little sister?” when Jethrow wasn’t forthcoming she asked, “What was her name?”

“Anna. When our parents died some years ago she became my responsibility. She had a gentle spirit. A sweet face. She was always smiling. Thought her big brother could do anything in the world. Then she got sick.”

“The scorenza?” Noddie whispered.

Jethrow shook his head. “Just your common fever. I treated it to the best of my ability, but she kept getting worse. I never forget her cough. She would cough so hard and so much, it racked her whole body. I would stay up with her every night.” His face twisted in anger as he looked down at his hands. “She died in my arms. Right in front of me, and I couldn’t do a thing to stop it. I couldn’t help her. I swore I would never be so useless again. She was eight.

Noddie didn’t know what to say. It was unlike Jethrow to be this open about himself, especially about something so sensitive.

Jethrow pulled out his good luck charm and examined the way the light played across its surface.

“She gave me this, you know. After she was gone I didn’t have anyone worth living for, nothing to lose. I ran far away. Got into fights, became a thief, I didn’t stop until I ran into Mordekah, and then things got worse.”

Jethrow lay back and stared up at the ceiling. “I’m still running. Though not only from Mordekah. I’m afraid that if I stop something horrible will catch up with me.”

“What are you running from?” Noddie asked.

A crease of thought appeared on his brow and his eyes glazed over, as though he had never considered the question before. A silence stretched so long that Noddie no longer expected him to answer.

“Her. And myself.”

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