Plagued

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The Gorbeck Mountains

A tender silence fell that neither of them had any desire to break.

Noddie was about to go back to sleep when Jethrow sat up and looked toward the deck. “Something’s different.” He rose and ascended the steps. Pulling on his coat as he went.

After a moment or two, Noddie donned her own coat and boots to follow.

She found him standing at the railing his eyes as alert as a hawk’s as he stared into the darkness surrounding the ship. Jethrow’s fingers drummed on the railing. “Something’s wrong. I can feel it in my gut. McCarthy, where are we?”

“We’re approaching the Gorbeck Mountains.” Liels called. “Sarah, take the helm I’m lighting the frontal lamp.”

He strode to the front of the ship and, after turning a latch, pulled up a metal cylinder. There was glass on the front and knobs and a crank on its side. He lit a contraption on the back and turned the crank. A beam of light extended before the ship, lighting the vast mountain range before them. The side of the mountain was steep, interrupted here and there by ledges and ruts. And ahead of them was a gaping narrow canyon.

McCarthy secured the light and took back the helm. “We’re going to have to maneuver carefully to get through the pass. There’s only twenty feet on either side. I would feel much more at ease approaching her in daylight, but the terrain is too precarious to land.”

Everyone watched with trepidation as the mountain drew nearer, the pass dark and grim. Like thread through a needle. Noddie thought as they edged closer. How long would they have to squeeze through the pass?

Sarah chewed on a lock of her hair and Jethrow continued to peer at the dark rock in front of them. There was a crunch, and a sprinkle of pebbles fell from one of the ledges. Jethrow perked up and turned to study the ledge. His conduct was making Noddie nervous.

“Steady now,” McCarthy mumbled, as he coaxed the machine onward.

There was a low whizzing sound, which grew louder until—

BANG! Something struck the side of the airship, sending the deck swinging sideways. Sarah and Noddie were knocked off their feet. Jethrow gripped the rail and McCarthy stumbled to get Divinity back under control.

The air ship was struck again, and a spiked hook ripped through the wooden side and buried itself in the deck.

“What’s going on?” Sarah yelled.

Jethrow growled, “Mordekah’s men. They’ve set a trap for us.”

Another missile crashed into the side of the ship. McCarthy fought with the helm to keep her steady. Noddie pulled herself up and looked towards the mountain.

There was a wide outcrop above them and several smaller ones on both sides of the pass where the shadows of men darted two and fro, firing cannons and harpoons.

“Mr. Tensler!” Liels pulled out Jethrow’s confiscated knife and used his foot to slide it across the deck toward Jethrow. Jethrow used his own foot to kick it up into the air and, with one swipe, caught it by the handle. The two men looked at each other in quick understanding.

Another hook dashed through the side of the ship. Jethrow cut the connecting cords that anchored the machine to the mountainside where the robbers stood waiting. Then placing the knife in his mouth, and using his good hand, swung down from the airship on one of the ropes until his feet hit the cliff face. Noddie watched as he descended upon four unsuspecting robbers, manning a cannon on a lower ledge. Caught by surprise, the robbers didn’t have much time to fight back before slipping off the icy ledge as Jethrow spun around them with his knife. He pushed the cannon off the edge and watched in satisfaction as it crashed and dissembled on the sharp rocks below.

“Noddie, Sarah, GET DOWN!” McCarthy ordered as a cannon ball went sailing past the deck. The attacks were coming from so many sides Noddie didn’t know where to turn or where to take cover. She glanced up at the Gorbeck Mountains, which were growing closer by the minute.

“Mr. McCarthy, we need to back up!”

“She doesn’t maneuver that way, Noddie May,” McCarthy yelled over the constant blast of cannon fire, and yells from the mountain ledges. “The only way to go back is to make a wide turn and we’re too close to the mountain to do that. Our best chance is to enter the pass. The mountainside is too steep for them to follow.”

“But what about Jethrow?” Noddie looked down to where Jethrow was struggling against a larger man.

“Mr. Tensler can take care of himself. We’ll meet up with him later.”

A cannonball demolished the bow of the ship leaving the remaining wood burning around a jagged hole.

Noddie tried to get to Sarah, but another hook appeared between them, knocking over a lamp and ripping up the deck at their feet, leaving a burning gorge separating them.

Another cannon ball came screaming through the air and blasted the pile of supplies behind Mr. McCarthy. The force of it threw him to the opposite side of the ship. He struggled to get up, but was entangled by a long coil of rope that had become twisted around his arm and leg. As he struggled to free himself the ship was hit again.

The helm spun out of control with a loud racketing noise.

“PAPA!” Sarah screamed.

Noddie turned in time to see the airship crash into the wall of stone before them. Gears squeaked and cried as they snapped apart. Wood splintered and crumbled around Noddie’s feet. She tried to get her footing as the deck tipped, but the floor fell away beneath her. She reached for the side rail, but it was gone. A scream tore from her lungs as she pitched forward and fell head over heels through the exploding sky. Her mind was a panicked whirl, and the cold wind bit her face as it rushed past.

Then with a sudden jerk Noddie came to an unexpected stop halfway down the mountain. In a flurry of confusion she looked up to see Jethrow.

He had fought his way further down the mountainside at an incredible pace and was standing on a thin outcrop to catch her. He shifted her in his arms to get a better grip and stumbled closer to the mountain face.

An earsplitting grinding made them both look up. The cloth bag deflated. Wood, gears, and other random objects fell from the deck into the dark abyss below. A burly robber grabbed McCarthy from the airship and pulled him to a wide ridge on the opposite side.

Jethrow set Noddie back on her feet as the remnants of the air ship slid down the side of the dark mountain towards them. On the edge, standing on what was left of the deck, was Sarah, clutching a beam to keep herself from sliding off.

“SARAH JUMP!” yelled Jethrow. The machine was ten feet above them.

At first Sarah looked horrified, but as the ruins of the machine gave another jolt she leapt from the fractured deck and was caught by Jethrow, who had to step back to regain his balance. The icy side of the ledge fell away, and the three of them slipped over the side.

They fell for a short time before hitting the lower side of the mountain, which slanted outward. Noddie plummeted through the darkness, rolling and sliding in a terrifying descent as she scrambled to get a hold of something on the bare icy incline.

Her breath was knocked from her when she landed hard on even ground.

She lay still, struggling to fill her lungs with air again. She had landed at the base of the Gorbeck Mountains. Snow crusted on her coat and in her hair. She tried to move and felt a deep ache in her bones and a sharp pain in her foot.

“Are you hurt?” Jethrow appeared at her side.

“I don’t know,” Noddie mumbled.

He took hold of her with his right hand and tried to pull her up when she cried out.

Jethrow stilled at once. “What is it?”

“My foot.”

She looked down to where her right foot rested next to a sharp rock jutting out of the snow. Her boot had come off and lay a few feet away.

Jethrow tenderly took her ankle in his hands and examined it while she steadied her breathing. “Doesn’t look broken. Sprained maybe. You may have dashed it on that stone.” He reached for her boot and slipped it back on while Noddie hissed in discomfort.

“Try not to put too much weight on it. I’ll mend it later.” He turned to help Sarah, as she arose with a groan.

“Get up. We need to find cover,” Jethrow urged, but he was interrupted by an unearthly noise.

All three of them turned in time to witness the crippled remains of the airship, engulfed in flames, hit the sharp rocks and snow with a deep rumbling crash.

Sarah dissolved into tears. Noddie also felt a sense of great loss as she watched the downfall of the amazing flying machine.

“Quickly now.” Jethrow half-dragged Noddie as they struggled through the rocks and deep snow until they found a small alcove. The girls pressed their backs against the cold rock, breathing hard. Sarah was still sobbing uncontrollably.

“Divinity, she’s gone! She’s destroyed! Oh, Papa!”

“Here now, enough of that.” Jethrow scolded. “The robbers have an interest in that airship. No doubt they want one for their own purposes. As your father is the only man alive who knows how to repair or rebuild it, they will need him alive.”

Another sob.

Jethrow stiffened and held up his hand.

Noddie heard it too, the crunch of footfalls in the snow behind them. Jethrow’s hand went to his knife. The footsteps were coming closer. They tried to blend into the shadows of the alcove until the perpetrator was a few yards behind them. With a roar Jethrow spun around and there was the loud clang of metal as two blades met. Jethrow staggered upon seeing that his opponent was a younger man, wielding a short sword with blue and purple gems encased in the hilt. This was all he was able to gather before his opponent struck again. Jethrow parried the blow and tried to get back on the offensive.

As their duel developed it was clear that the boy was skilled as he evaded every attack and never left and opening. The air rang with the clash of their blades and snow flew around their feet as they darted to and fro in a mind-numbing display.

For several tense minutes the two seemed evenly matched, but Jethrow was not as strong with non-dominant hand and the snow grabbed at his boots, slowing his movements.

With a well-timed swing from his opponent, Jethrow was disarmed and fell back into the snowbank. The boy pulled his sword back for a final strike.

Noddie rushed forward. “No! MESHA, STOP!”

Mesha faltered.

In his moment of distraction Jethrow grabbed his fallen knife, leaped forward, and disarmed him with a forceful upswing.

Mesha stepped back and glared at the older man as Jethrow stood at Noddie’s shoulder holding the sword.

Noddie stared speechless at her friend. Mesha had grown a few inches taller since she saw him last. He wore a coat, boots, and gloves, similar to Jethrow’s, but the neck of the coat was looser with a connecting hood. His reappearance was so unexpected he was like an illusion.

His eyes traveled from Jethrow to Noddie and his flushed face melted into one of anxious confusion.

“Noddie May Grace? You are supposed to be in Milay! What are you doing here? This area is crawling with Mordekah robbers!”

“No Kidding,” Sarah growled in sarcasm. She stood a little ways off, her eyes puffy, cheeks tear-streaked.

“A lot has happened since we last parted,” Noddie said. Her voice choked up.

Jethrow didn’t loosen his grip on the two weapons. “You know this boy?”

“Yes. He’s a friend.”

Mesha gave a confirming nod, looking serious again.

Jethrow examined the sword in his hand. “This is a very fine blade,” he said, eyeing Mesha suspiciously.

“Yes, it is.”

Jethrow tossed the sword back to him.

Yells and shouts carried on the wind. Mesha looked back at Noddie. “We should retire to a safer location. Follow me.”

Noddie and Jethrow exchanged a glance before following Mesha. Sarah moping behind them.

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