Plagued

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Forming a Plan

They followed the mountain east, trudging through the snow. The wind picked up and more snow was falling, adding a fresh layer to the ground before them and obscuring their tracks.

Her sudden rush to Jethrow’s aid had caused Noddie’s ankle to throb worse then before, and their progress was slowed as she limped, leaning on Jethrow for support. They hiked up around giant boulders until Mesha beckoned them into a small, dry cave. The floor was smooth, but the walls and ceiling were made of the same rough dark stone as the outer sides of the mountain.

Mesha was already building a fire near the back of the cavern and in no time at all they were sitting around it, soaking up its warmth as the coats and gloves were set out to dry. Noddie’s boot was carefully removed again as Jethrow crouched in front of her, lifting her skirt to her knee, to examine her foot by the light of the fire.

Noddie felt the heat rising off her ears at having so much of her leg showing, but Jethrow wasn’t fazed. A dark bruise discolored her skin from her ankle to lower shin.

“You are lucky it’s nothing severe. Your ankle will be sore for a day or so, but should heal quickly.”

He extracted his good luck charm and gave it a small kiss before cleaning and bandaging the wound.

As he finished, Mesha approached handing them each a roll and steaming mug of broth. “Here, eat this. It is all I have, but it should warm you.”

They ate in unnerving silence, punctured every so often by a loud sniff from Sarah. Noddie devoured her humble portion feeling that nothing had ever tasted so good. Upon finishing his scant supper, Jethrow sat against the back wall glaring at Mesha. Much like he had when Noddie had been his prisoner.

Mesha and Noddie kept shooting glances at one another, each unable to meet the other’s eyes. As wonderful as it was to see her friend again, their sudden reunion had been so hostile she wasn’t sure what to say. A friendly ‘how have you been?’ didn’t feel right after Mesha almost stabbed Jethrow through. She felt she should explain her situation, but so much had transpired during their time apart she didn’t know where to start.

“So are you going to introduce me to your companions?”

Noddie jumped as Mesha’s question broke the silence, his voice sounding louder then it should after the absence of talk.

“Oh, yes. Um, this is Sarah McCarthy.” She motioned to Sarah, who was hiccuping over her mug. “And Jethrow Tensler.” Jethrow was still glaring at Mesha and didn’t respond. “They’re friends of mine,” she added when Mesha gave no response.

“Jethrow, Sarah, this is Mesha—”

Noddie’s voice trailed off in embarrassment as she realized she didn’t know Mesha’s surname. She had never asked. What sort of friend doesn’t know your full name? Overcome with shame, she looked to Mesha, hoping he would fill in the gap. He wasn’t upset, but he didn’t offer his name either.

“Uh . . . Mesha.” Noddie ended, trying to fix the awkward introduction. “A friend of mine from Hesterway.”

Mesha nodded politely to each of them. “My greetings, Miss McCarthy, Mr. Tensler. And my apologies for the violent attack, I thought you were a Mordekah robber.”

Sarah brushed a strand of unruly hair from her face, eying Mesha with interest now that she was calmer.

“How long have you been in this area?” Jethrow asked.

“Little over three days.”

“Have you been hiding here the whole time?”

“Yes. The robbers have been prowling around, but they have not found the cave yet. They do not know I am here.”

Jethrow glanced towards the cave entrance, “It seems safe enough for the time being.”

Mesha lifted his chin. “Please rest here for the night. It is late and between the weather and the robbers, it is too dangerous to leave.”

Now that introductions had been made, and everyone was warmed and fed, a muffled drowsiness descended. Sarah fell asleep the instant she finished her broth, slumping sideways onto the blankets Mesha gave her, snoring softly.

Jethrow sat gazing into the fire, rubbing his good-luck charm between his fingers and casting calculating glances at Mesha, who sat across from Noddie.

“What happened, Noddie May? Why didn’t you go home to Milay? How did you get all the way up here?”

Noddie rubbed her eyes and summed up the passed few weeks for Mesha.

When she finished Mesha ran a hand through his hair. “Of all the foul luck.”

“I came here to warn Uncle Lazren about Mordekah.” Noddie clarified.

Mesha put his head in his hands and said something in another language before lifting his head again. His expression was full of pity and sadness.

“You should not have come here, Noddie May.”

“It’s nice to see you again too,” she said sarcastically.

“I mean it, Noddie May. Forget Lazren. He can take care of himself. It was a mistake to come here.”

“How can you say that? I know you never liked him much, but he took care of me for a year. He captured over half of the Mordekah robbers. He deserves to know his life is in danger.”

“Have someone else tell him.”

“And then what? He’s the only family I have east of the Rovian Sea, and he doesn’t even know I’m still alive!What else can I do? I can’t go home anymore, Mesha.” Noddie’s voice cracked.

Mesha heaved a sigh. “This place is dangerous. More so than it appears. The robbers have been sneaking around for months. Two days ago their numbers grew to twice as many. There are bloody secrets passing in the depths of these mountains and beyond them it gets worse. There is a plague infested land where the sun does not shine and the wind rips through you like shards of glass. A crumbling kingdom shut up by a high black wall and miles of barren land where nothing grows and nothing lives. That is what lies ahead of you.”

“I know that.” Noddie’s voice was firm, her face strong.

Mesha leaned back in astonishment, studying her as though seeing her for the first time.

“You should have taken Jethrow’s advice; you should have gottem away from the robbers and the plague.”

“What about you?” Noddie demanded. “If this place is so dreadful then why are you here?”

“I need to be here. I have something important to do.”

“That’s a vague answer.”

He frowned and Noddie folded her arms, refusing to avert her eyes. In the past she had let Mesha’s evasive words slip aside in respect for his privacy, but things were different now. His business concerned her this time.

When Mesha realized she was not going to back down he rubbed a hand across his forehead. “I need to get into Irestead.”

“Why?”

“I am trying to sort things out. I have a lot of questions and I am looking for—Well, I think I know someone there who might be able to help me.”

“Who?”

“I cannot tell you.”

“What have you been looking for Mesha?”

But Mesha shook his head as he continued to stare at the ground in frustration.

A tired sigh escaped from between Noddie’s lips. She had gotten no more answers from Mesha then when they had started this conversation, and she was too tired to think anymore.

“We can figure things out in the morning.”

“I think that would be wise. May sweet dreams find you, Noddie May.” He walked to the opposite side of the cave and made himself a comfortable place to sleep.

As soon as he left, Jethrow moved to crouch at Noddie’s side and bent to speak softly in her ear, “That boy is hiding something. I would be wary of him.”

“You’re not the picture of innocence yourself,” Noddie retorted.

“Perhaps. But there’s something wrong about him.”

“Mesha is a nice person,” she said.

Jethrow looked away unconvinced, “Time will tell.”

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Move aside please, Sir.”

“It’s Jethrow.”

“I asked you to move aside.”

“I don’t think so. I want to know where you’re going.

“It is not your business.”

“I tend to make it my business. Who’s here with you?”

“No one.”

“Where are your parents?”

“They are dead.”

Noddie awoke to arguing. As soon as her groggy mind came into focus she sat up and saw Mesha scowling at Jethrow, who was blocking the cave entrance, arms folded across his chest.

“You expect me to believe you came all the way out here alone without any assistance?”

Mesha refused to speak.

“Look, I can help you. Which robber are you related to?”

“It is not like that.”

“Whom did you steal the sword from?”

“I did not steal it. It is mine.”

“A likely story. Just answer the question, I’m not going to turn you in.”

“What’s going on?” Sarah awoke and sat up, rubbing her eyes, her hair flat in odd places from sleeping on it.

Jethrow and Mesha’s tempers cooled upon noticing that the girls were awake.

“Where were you going?” Jethrow asked Mesha again in a less demanding tone.

“I was going to look around,” Mesha stated.

Jethrow’s eyes narrowed, “Come sit down. We need to talk.”

“I do not need to talk to you about anything!”

“No one is going anywhere until we know where everyone stands.”

Mesha’s gaze drifted back to Noddie, and then over to Sarah. He gave Jethrow a sour look before walking back to the smoldering fire pit.

Jethrow poked the embers with a stick to gain extra warmth. As soon as he joined them Sarah asked, “What about Papa?”

“One thing at a time,” Jethrow answered curtly.

“We have to rescue Papa!”

“We don’t know where Mordekah’s men have taken him. And even if we did know, there are too many robbers. We wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“We have to do something!”

“It’s not worth the risk. Your father will not thank me for delivering his daughter to the Mordekah robbers.”

“You’re just a cowardly, selfish—”

“Enough! You are acting foolish. We have more pressing matters to discuss.”

Sarah gave him a cross look and turned away with her arms folded.

Jethrow glared at Noddie as though expecting her to argue about something as well, but she only shrugged.

They rekindled the fire and managed to cook a bland porridge. Mesha and Sarah chewed with deep frowns that had nothing to do with the taste of the food.

“All right, listen. Things are difficult right now. We can’t stay here. Sooner or later this cave is going to be discovered and we don’t have provisions to go back. We must take the pass into Irestead. Should Liels manage to escape on his own, he will meet us on the other side.”

“You’re going to take us to a plague-infested land so we will be safer?” Sarah asked looking at Jethrow as though he were crazy.

“That’s our best option.”

Sarah groaned and lay back on the ground, covering her face.

“We’ll make for the pass as soon as we settle one more thing.” He turned his full attention to Mesha. “I’m not leaving you out here on your own. You said last night that you’re trying to get into Irestead. What is your purpose in going there?”

“That is no business of yours.”

“As we are all headed for the same destination, it would make sense to travel together. You’ll never make it through the pass on your own.”

“I do not need your help.”

“The pass is never traveled without a company, even in better times. To take the pass in winter unaccompanied is suicide. Even a Mordekah robber has more sense than that!”

“I suppose you would know, sir.” Mesha responded in a deep voice.

Their eyes shot daggers at each other. With much effort Jethrow spoke, slow and even, “Listen to me. I trust you just about as much as you trust me, but these are desperate times.It’s not solely you or I at stake. You’re a clever boy. From this area, if I’m not mistaken. I’m guessing from Bailin or Irestead. You’re too familiar with the territory, and you spoke in the language of the north last night.”

“So what?”

“So, we could use your help getting through the pass. You’ve obviously traveled it before. The rest of us are strangers here, and I would hate to end up ambushed or lost.”

Mesha’s expression softened as he glanced and Sarah and Noddie.

“We need a guide and, like it or not, you need someone to watch your back. I’m suggesting a compromise.”

Noddie watched their exchange with growing astonishment. Because of Mesha’s wise insight and confident manner he always appeared older in her mind. Now seeing him next to Jethrow, she was able to see him as he was. Wise and mature to be sure, but still a young man. A boy only two years older than she.

Mesha huffed, “I told you, I do not need you.”

Jethrow studied Mesha again and this time there was a somber look in his eyes. “You’ve been through something horrible. And you’ve been alone for a long time. Perhaps in more ways then one. You’ve seen terrible things. I can see it in you. There’s a darkness that never quite goes away.”

Mesha turned to him with a strange expression as if Jethrow had just shared a deep secret.

“I don’t pretend to understand you,” Jethrow continued. “But if you let me, I can help you. At least as far as Irestead.”

For a moment it seemed as though there was no one else in the world besides Mesha and Jethrow sitting together reading one another’s eyes.

Then Mesha responded, “There is another way. A smaller path that runs alongside the pass before they connect two-thirds of the way through. I have only used it once when coming out of Irestead. I am not sure where the entrance is from this side, and we would have to walk out in the open for a while, but if we find it, we can bypass most of the robbers and make it through undetected if our luck holds.

“Well, unfortunately we seem to be lacking luck lately,” Sarah grumbled.

Jethrow rubbed his chin, “Might be our safest course, but it does us no good if you can’t locate it.”

“I do not know exactly where the entrance is, but I’m sure of its whereabouts. I will know it when I see it.”

Jethrow rose to his feet. “Let’s pack up, then. Time is of the essence.”

They put out the fire and retrieved bowls and gloves. Jethrow began shoving things into his bag and Noddie heard him muttering to himself: “I’m far too soft for my own good. How do I end up in these situations? I was a Mordekah robber for Pete’s sake.”

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