“We’ve been walking for hours!” Sarah had begun to complain a few miles back.
Mesha was guiding them further east, hugging the steep mountains. Daylight revealed the breathtaking mountain range with its sharp-edged peeks, as well as the endless plane of snow surrounding them.
“Stop your whining!” Jethrow barked when he had had enough. “Noddie’s walking on a bruised ankle and she’s making less noise than you!”
Noddie, who was using Sarah as a crutch, was about to voice that she wouldn’t mind a break either when Mesha called out.
He rushed toward a bare tree leaning in a precarious slant near the base of the mountain. The snow thinned to a frosty crust over the ground. Noddie didn’t see the entrance until she was standing right next to Mesha.
The passage was little more than a wide crack in the side of the cliff about eight feet in height. The air inside was warmer and Noddie pulled the hood of her coat down.
“Lead the way,” Jethrow instructed Mesha.
They had to turn sideways to fit through the opening, but once inside, the walls widened enough to allow two people to walk comfortably shoulder to shoulder and stretched so high they nearly blocked out the sky.
The ground was clear, save a light brush of snow along the edges. Noddie’s ankle did not agree with the uneven path that slanted and twisted around boulders and up inclines. Already tired and sore from the trek through the snow, her limping caused her to fall behind.
“Hold up,” Jethrow called after a few minutes.
Mesha stopped and twisted his neck to look back as Jethrow squeezed past Sarah and the cliff wall to get to Noddie. He crouched down with his back to her. “Climb on.”
“You want me on your back?” Noddie asked in surprise.
“It will be faster this way.”
She climbed onto Jethrow’s back and clutched his shoulders as he rose with a huff.
“Am I too heavy for you?” she asked.
Mesha said it would take most of the day to get through the pass. He would stop and lean against the wall at times, saying he needed to get his bearings, but as there was only one way to go Noddie suspected that Mesha tired easily. His breaks were short, however, and they pressed on.
“So how did you find this side route?” Jethrow called up to Mesha.
“A friend told me about it. But I had to find it on my own.”
“I imagine that took a long time.”
“You’re pretty determined and independent.”
“I presume you’re much the same.”
Jethrow gave a bark of laughter. “Perhaps not as much as you. I was somewhat lazy in my youth.”
The corners of Mesha’s mouth tugged upward.
Sarah was fidgeting and kept pulling on strands of her hair as if trying to straighten it out. “Sure is tight in here. I mean, really tight. It would be bad if we got stuck. No one would ever find us. Do you think there’s enough air in here? I can’t see the sky at all—”
“Sarah, you’re babbling,” Jethrow said.
“Oh, sorry. I just—”
“Miss Sarah, are you claustrophobic?” Mesha asked.
“Claustrophobic. It means small tight places make you nervous.”
“No! Well, I don’t think— I just prefer to see the sky is all.”
“You’re claustrophobic.” Jethrow stated.
Sarah glared at him. “You weren’t so tough and confident when you first got in the air.”
Noddie smiled into the collar of Jethrow’s coat at the memory.
Mesha instructed Sarah, “Try closing your eyes and picturing an open space, or concentrate on your breathing.”
“Just don’t run into a rock.” Jethrow smirked.
A few hours later they came to a sandy area that was wider than the rest of the pass and Jethrow stopped them to rest. They ate a modest meal with vigor, and although Jethrow did not say anything, Noddie could tell he was concerned about how small their food rations were.
Noddie insisted on walking as the smoother, straighter path allowed her to keep up with only a minor limp. The long hike with little to no change of scenery, was starting to wear on their company. Sarah was more agitated than ever, clinging to Noddie’s arm with her eyes closed.
“We are coming up to a difficult portion,” Mesha told them. “There is a flat shelf we are going to have to climb up on. Then in three more miles we connect with the main pass.”
“That’s when things are going to get dangerous. Stay on your guard.” Jethrow instructed.
Shortly after, they reached the place Mesha spoke of. The path was blocked by a mound of rubble topped by an overhang of rock above their heads.
“All right, Noddie, let’s get you up first.” Jethrow said. Mesha made a step with his hands and, clutching Jethrow’s good hand for balance, Noddie hoisted herself up to the top of the ledge. The stone was smooth and cool with nothing to grip. While hauling herself over the edge, she lost her hold on the rock. Her foot slipped from its feeble foothold, and with a small startled cry she fell back off the ledge.
Jethrow managed to catch her at the last minute, but the pouch at her side was pulled loose and the force of the fall caused it to hit the ground and burst open, expelling the little black book and Isca’s bottle, which rolled from its handkerchief, mercifully undamaged.
Jethrow and Mesha both turned to stare at the items revealed and Noddie felt awkward and shy as though they had glimpsed something indecent.
Mesha crouched to check the bottle and Jethrow set Noddie back on her feet with a glare. “Is that what I think it is?” he growled motioning to the black book.
Noddie’s eyes fell.
“You have Mordekah’s black magic book? Where did you get it!?”
“I didn’t mean to take it. It was in the same bag as the keys!”
“What were you thinking keeping something like that?”
Jethrow noticed the bottle in Mesha’s hands. “What is that?”
“Nothing,” Mesha answered a little too quickly, trying to recover it with the handkerchief.
“It is none of your business!”
“Do not take me for a fool! What are you not telling me?”
“I got it from Isca,” Noddie confessed in a small voice, earning a reproving look from Mesha.
“Isca? You mean a witch!?”
Noddie hugged her arms and looked away pursing her lips, wishing she could melt into the stone.
“YOU HAVE BEEN CARRYING A WITCHES BREW AND MORDEKAH’S CURSE BOOK? NO WONDER WE’VE HAD SUCH ROTTEN LUCK! WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?”
“You can’t blame Noddie for the attack at the pass.” Sarah jumped to her defense. “You and your stupid superstitions!”
“This has nothing to do with you. You’re lucky I let you keep that accursed compass!”
Sarah puffed up in anger. “What’s wrong with my compass?”
“Your mother’s compass belonged to Mordekah too! That worthless piece of junk is the reason I got dragged into this whole mess!”
“That’s a lie! My mother bought it for me fair.”
“Who do you think sold it to her, you idiot girl? I did! After I stole it from Mordekah’s men.”
The blood drained from Sarah’s face. “What are you saying?”
But Jethrow already turned his burning eyes back on Noddie. “We are not taking those things any further!”
Mesha scoffed. “You would rather she left them here? Where the robbers might find them?”
“Better them then us.”
“They would use them against us.”
A host of emotions flickered across Jethrow’s face.
“They are not yours to take!” Mesha yelled. “If you knew how deeply we are all submerged in this whole evil ordeal you would see these things make little difference. The bottle at least must stay in our possession!”
Jethrow and Mesha glared at each other for a long time. Then Jethrow growled, “On your own head be it. This will bring us nothing but misfortune and death, you mark my words.”
Noddie replaced the items into her side pouch and they climbed up the rocky ledge in a heated silence. Sarah refused to even look at Jethrow. Once they were all on higher ground Jethrow turned abruptly and marched further down the path rubbing his good-luck charm fervently between his fingers.
Noddie wanted to cry. She had not seen Jethrow this angry since Terrason. Things had been going so well before and now they were all fighting amongst themselves.
The silence continued until they reached a point where the path veered sideways and connected to an adjacent path. The original pass was much wider than their side route. The walls were rougher, but it was brighter and a narrow sliver of sky could be seen above. Sarah look up at it with appreciation. Noddie eyed the cracks and ledges in the walls above them and braced herself as they slipped around every corner for fear of meeting one of the Mordekah robbers.
Suddenly Jethrow grabbed Mesha’s arm and pulled him roughly behind a bolder.
“Hey! What are you—?”
Mesha’s angry exclamation came to an abrupt end as footsteps were heard and a moment later two men passed by. Jethrow gave Mesha a meaningful look and the boy had the decency to look apologetic.
“—Mordekah’s orders. We are not to move until we hear differently,” a gruff man was saying. “He wants us to keep and eye on the place and block the pass.”
“Waste of time, I say. No one journey’s to Irestead anymore. Not with the plague, and Lazren isn’t stupid enough to—”
The first man turned upon the second and hissed in his face, “Watch your tongue. Or one might suspect you of foregoing the unspoken rules.” He didn’t wait for a response but turned and continued walking. The second man followed with a red face and his hands deep in his pockets.
“All I’m sayin’ is I don’t like being this close to that place. Makes me nervous is all. Things are wrong there. The wind makes awful noises at night—” he broke off mumbling incoherently.
The two men passed, but they stayed crouched behind the boulder until Jethrow was certain it was safe to continue.
“Great, they’re patrolling the area,” Sarah grumbled looking after the men.
Jethrow straightened his coat, “Never mind them. Let’s move on.”
“What are the unspoken rules?” Noddie asked as they picked their way around rocks.
“The rules that all Mordekah robbers live by. Mostly, never act against Mordekah’s orders. And every man for himself”
Mesha brushed dirt and snow from his leg, “We are almost through. Let us hope we can make this last stretch without notice.”
The walk through the last portion of the pass felt like the longest to Noddie. At last the never-ending walls parted ahead of them like curtains revealing a final prize until they fell away completely.
Jethrow stopped outside the mountain pass and surveyed the land before them. A gray, barren wasteland of snow and ice under the dark cloud-covered sky.
“It’s so dark,” Sarah said. “It shouldn’t be this dark yet, should it?”
Jethrow explained, “We are now in Irestead, and it’s the middle of winter. They get very little sun here. It won’t fully shine until spring. These are the dark days of Irestead.”
“I thought there were big cities in Irestead?”
This time it was Mesha who answered. “This is no-man’s land. It will be several days journey before we reach the first city.”
Several days across open land? How would they hide from the robbers? They didn’t have enough food to make such a trip.
“Papa isn’t here,” Sarah stated in a forlorn tone.
“He might still come.” Noddie tried to reassure her. “We made good time through the pass.”
Jethrow ushered them all back into the pass and into a secluded side area.
“You lot stay here, I’m going to scout around.”
As soon as he left, Sarah found a clear spot to lie down while Noddie and Mesha sat with their backs to a pile of rocks similar to the low rock wall that had encircled the Lazren estate back in Hesterway. The comparison brought back bittersweet memories and Noddie was forced to realize how much things had changed since then.
“I sure hope Papa’s okay,” said Sarah. “Now that we’ve lost the airship, where are we going to go ?”
Noddie didn’t have an answer.
Sarah pulled the compass from her dress pocket and stared at the worn expression of her reflection. “Noddie May darling, is it true what Jethrow said? About my mother’s compass?”
Noddie shifted. She didn’t want to hurt Sarah, but it would be better for her friend to know the truth.
“It’s true. It originally belonged to Mordekah. The robbers will be looking for it.”
Sarah held the compass to her chest with misty eyes.
No more was said after that, and at length Sarah started drifting off. Noddie crouched against the stone feeling as barren and empty as the land ahead of them.
“You should not have allowed them to see Isca’s bottle.” Mesha chastised. “I told you to keep it hidden.”
“It was an accident.”
“I also warned you not to break it. Do you have any idea what would have happened if that bottle shattered? You could have killed everyone.”
“Stop it! It wasn’t my fault! Do not treat me like an ignorant child. I have done a lot of notable things as of late. Things that you weren’t there for.”
“You have not grown much, Noddie May, and I am not always going to be there for you.”
It took a few moments for the meaning behind Mesha’s words to sink in.
“You’re going to run off again,” she accused.
“I cannot stay here. I have to go on.”
“Aren’t you going with us to find my uncle?”
“I want nothing to do with him.”
“And what about me? I thought we were friends! Why don’t you tell me where you’re sneaking off to? In fact, why don’t you tell me how you know Isca so well?”
“Leave it alone, Noddie May,” Mesha warned.
“You never tell me anything, Mesha! Not about your past. Or your family. Not even your full name! What do you know that you won’t tell me? Is it about the plague?”
“I SAID LEAVE IT ALONE!”
“NO! I’m tired of secrets!”
Mesha glared at her and said in a low threatening voice, “You should be more careful, you do not know what you are dealing with. And it is dangerous to get mixed up in things that do not concern you.”
Noddie wanted to punch the stone beside her. “I’ve dealt with plenty.”
“As in trekking across the country with someone like Jethrow Tensler?”
“He was the only one there to help.”
“You cannot trust a Mordekah robber.”
“He’s not a robber anymore and he never wanted to be a part of them in the first place. Besides, if you would have stayed and helped me instead of running off all the time—”
“I was there to get you out of a locked closet in a plague-filled house!”
Noddie’s brows drew together with suspicion. “Yes, you were there. How did you know where I was? That I was even alive? In fact, how did you get in untouched when the first floors of the house were contaminated by the scorenza?”
Mesha turned away. “NEVER MIND! I should have just left you there!”
With tears of anger welling in her eyes, Noddie responded, “See if I help you the next time you land yourself in a tight situation.”
“Fine. I do not need your help. You would never be able to help me anyway.”
“You’re the most selfish, arrogant person I have ever met! I don’t see why I ever considered you my friend!”
A bright light blinded them both from over the rock behind them. Noddie squinted through the blazing beam of a strange, box-shaped lantern to make out the silhouettes of three men.
“Well well, what do we have here?”