Plagued

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Noddie May’s Dilemma

These men were not Mordekah robbers. They wore purple uniforms with a sash, and a band slanting from the hip to the opposite shoulder. Sewn into the cloth was a crest bearing a sword and hammer crossed in front of a dark mountain. Most of them sported fine beards and mustaches.

The men hoisted them all to their feet. Sarah gave a defensive cry of, “Let me go! Get your hands off me!”

A fourth man, wearing a shiny badge stepped forward. “Drew, report?”

“It’s a group of children, sir,” the man holding Noddie answered in confusion.

“Children?”

Jethrow came running back up the path towards them and stopped abruptly as the men turned their lights on him.

“Who goes there?” the man with the badge called.

Jethrow shielded his eyes with one hand. “Who’s asking?”

“Chief Borden, leader of border patrol for Irestead. It is our responsibility to watch the pass. Are you the guardian of these children?”

“Close enough.”

“What is your business here?”

“We are just passing through,” Jethow answered.

“Travelers?” the man snorted. “No one travels to or from Irestead these days. How did you get through the pass?”

“Carefully.”

“Sir!” a younger man holding Mesha beckoned to his commander.

From the moment the border patrol arrived Mesha had been trying to hide his face, his shoulders hunched. The only thing keeping him from turning away was the man’s strong grip on his upper arms.

Borden walked over and firmly griped Mesha’s chin turning the boy’s face toward him.

“Mesha Auventon.” The man pronounced.

“Are you sure it’s him?” the other asked rolling his shoulders in a nervous gesture.

Borden raised the light higher as Mesha strove to look aloof and unconcerned.

“Has to be. Detain him.”

Edgy, but determined, the men moved to restrain Mesha’s hands.

“What is the meaning of this?” Mesha demanded.

“Mesha Auventon, we have orders to place you under arrest for the practice of evil sorcery and allegations of murder, including, but not limited to, members of the royal family.”

“By what authority?” Mesha asked, outraged as he tried to wrench his arms out of the border patrol’s grasp.

“By command of Lewis Hemlin under the direction of the current steward of Irestead, Fawnton Nile.”

WHAT? That’s insane! He would never—”

“Lock him up. We will send a message to Hemlin tonight.”

The men dragged Mesha off, while he struggled and yelled, “Get off, you cannot do this! You do not understand!”

Unconcerned, Borden turned back to Jethrow, Noddie, and Sarah. “Until we can confirm your identity we’ll have to ask you to come with us. If you are, as you claim, innocent, this should not be a problem.”

None of them responded, too shocked by Mesha’s unexpected arrest.

“Take them back to base.”

Base turned out to be a drafty stone tower of uneven stone. While Mesha was locked in a cell at the top, Noddie, Jethrow, and Sarah were seated on a bench in an office room on the ground floor. The room contained a desk and a purple flag bearing the same symbol found on the men’s clothes in black and red thread. Noddie concluded this must be the flag and crest of Irestead.

Despite the stove in the corner, it was chilly and Noddie pulled her coat tighter around her. Jethrow kept trying to warm his ears with his gloved hands until he gave in and put on the furry cap he had been so reluctant to wear in Bailin. Sarah raised her eyebrows with a knowing expression and he sent a warning glare her way as though daring her to laugh.

Borden sat behind the desk and started going through papers while asking questions.

“State your names please.”

Jethrow gave their names, watching Borden for any signs of recognition when stating his own. But the man didn’t react as he continued to take note.

“Very well, and what is your affiliation with Mesha?”

“We only met him recently. He directed us through the pass.”

“You claim you are not associated with him?”

“We know nothing about him or his past. What has he done?”

“All I know is what is stated in our report. It’s confidential information. Whether the accusations are true or not is yet to be seen once he receives trial under Lewis Hemlin. I only carry out orders. Now, what is your purpose in Irestead?”

“These girls have been separated from their family. They are hoping to find them here.”

“The persons in question?”

“Sarah is looking for her father, Liels McCarthy. And it is urgent that we find Noddie May’s uncle, Martis Lazren.”

The man paused and looked up at Noddie, “You’re Martis Lazren’s niece?”

“Yes, sir. I was told he would be in Irestead.”

Borden straightened his papers. “We are expecting Martis Lazren, but he hasn’t arrived yet. Personally, I don’t see how he’s going to make it through the pass with all these robbers about. Then again, you lot made it through somehow. If you wish, you may remain here on the off chance that he arrives. As for the other, Liels McCarthy you said?” he shuffled through his papers again. “I’m afraid no one has entered Irestead by that name.”

Sarah put her face in her hands as Jethrow said, “Last we saw him he had been taken prisoner by the Mordekah robbers.”

“If the robbers have him I wouldn’t hold out much hope. They have always been a problem, but recently they’ve grown in numbers. We have called for reinforcements to help us fight them and reopen the pass, but the recruits have yet to arrive. We pray they are able to make it here within the next three days. If we can overtake Mordekah’s men we will free your father as well. Perhaps given the circumstances it would be convenient for all of you to stay here for the time being.”

He rose from his desk. “Come along, we will get you some food and a place to sleep for the night.” Jethrow stiffened as the chief looked back at him before passing through the doorway. “Nice hat.”

That evening Noddie journeyed outside, bundled up against the bitter cold, to seek a few minutes of solitude. Another dark endless landscape stretched before her making her feel small and insignificant once again. The Gorbeck mountians stood as fierce, roughened guards, their presence more menacing then comforting and she longed afresh for the greener, softer mountains of Rosedust Valley.

Word had come during dinner that the border patrol would be moving Mesha to a more secure location tomorrow. It was likely that, once they took him, she would never see Mesha again.

Noddie jerked her head in anger. Well, it was as Mesha had said; it was none of her business. Why should she help if he didn’t want her around? Guilt immediately followed this thought. Mesha had been her friend. And yet, he could be responsible for crimes too horrible to mention. Wasn’t it right to have him face justice? Would doing so displace her loyalties as his friend? Which was more right and honorable? Her duty to the law or her duty to her friend? Was one more important than the other? What was the greater sin? And what about her duty to her family? To Lazren? Once free, Mesha would leave. He would not stay to help her find Lazren. Could she risk it? Should she?

She had never felt so torn in her life. All her memories of Mesha both good and bad flew about like falling leaves swaying to and fro.

It took a long time for her to come to a decision.

She could not abandon Mesha. Not like this. She might regret it later; her choice might influence hundreds of faceless people in the future, but that was for the law to decide, not her. And until she knew for sure what Mesha had done she would not discard her first friend in Grendar to face imprisonment and uncertain death.

Noddie lay with the quilt pulled over her head as she waited for the midnight hour when the night shift made their rounds outside. Finally she heard the patrol pass outside their door towards the main entrance to the tower. With great care not to wake Sarah and Jethrow, she pushed the quilt aside, and slipped into her boots before creeping from her bed to the door.

“Haven’t you forgotten something?”

Noddie flinched and looked back to where Jethrow was laying wide-awake in bed looking at her.

“You’re going to need these.” With a smirk Jethrow held up Borden’s key ring on one crooked finger.

She was about to question where he had gotten them, before remembering that Jethrow had once been a thief and thought it better not to ask.

“Don’t get caught,” he instructed as she took the keys.

“You realize this is going to get us all in a lot of trouble?” she whispered.

Jethrow shrugged. “Whether Mesha is guilty of the crimes he is accused or not, I told him that if he got us through the pass I would watch his back. And I intend to.”

With a determined nod, she left the room and made her way to the main staircase that reached every floor in the tower. She had explored the area beforehand, being sent away by a guard near the top. She hid in a small nook in the wall behind a worn statue of a fighting soldier. A guard she didn’t know was sitting at the top of the stairs, sipping from a tarnished mug.

Noddie was trying to think of ways to get passed him when there was a low rumble like thunder. Shouts echoed through the tower and a crash came from the floor below. The guard dropped his mug and stood at attention, sword raised.

Another officer appeared halfway up the stairs panting, “Robert, there’s an attack, we need you! Borden is sending Gary to cover your post!” Without further explanation the man turned and rushed down the stairs with the guard following.

The moment they were out of sight Noddie rushed up the rest of the stairs, astonished by her luck. She would only have a few minutes before the replacement guard showed up. As helpful as the distraction was, Noddie’s heart fluttered with worry as another stone-trembling boom echoed from outside.

The top landing hosted a single door with a barred window. Mesha was sitting curled up against the opposite wall. He looked up in surprise and confusion as Noddie thrust open the door, shouts and bangs erupting from the stairs behind her.

“Mesha, come on!”

He didn’t need telling twice. As he reached her, Noddie grasped his wrist and pulled him out the door and down the stairs. Mesha let her lead him along, lost and uncertain, “Noddie May, why are you—”

“Shhh!” Noddie pressed them against the wall as four men rushed down the adjoining corridor ahead of them. Then they continued down the spiraling staircase. Noddie’s heart pounded with each step as they descended. If anyone came up the stairs she would not be able to see them until they were standing nose to nose.

She breathed a sigh of relief as they reached the main level and were about to continue to the back door, when Jethrow came running towards them.

“Jethrow, what’s happening?”

“Mordekah robbers. You can sneak off while they have the border patrol distracted, but be careful!”

Noddie had only taken one step when Borden appeared in the doorway. Noddie, Mesha and Jethrow were frozen in place by his sudden presence.

They all jumped to action at the same time. Borden darted forward to grab Mesha and Jethrow caught the larger man by the side and forced him up against the wall. Noddie and Mesha ran for the back exit.

Upon reaching the door Noddie fumbled for the keys. She unbolted the lock and forced the door open in record time. Mesha dashed out at once, but by this time Borden had thrown Jethrow off and seized Noddie from behind.

Mesha skidded to a halt and turned back to her.

“Run, Mesha!” she screamed.

Mesha hesitated. It was the first time Noddie had ever seen such naked emotion on his face.

“GO!”

He turned and fled.

Borden swore and threw Noddie into the arms of another officer before giving chase. Jethrow struggled against another man behind her as Sarah came running down the hall toward them calling, “Jethrow, Noddie May darling, what’s happened? What’s going on?”

A mighty blast assaulted Noddie’s ears and rattled her bones. The whole tower trembled. A second explosion followed and the man holding Noddie screamed for them to ‘GET OUT’ as stone and beams rained down from the ceiling.

They all tumbled out into the snow as a section of the wall crushed the back door. Another cannonball hurtled through the air and smashed into the tower as their group scrambled to get more distance. The tower collapsed. Tumbling to the ground as though it were made of children’s blocks.

The Mordekah robbers and the border patrol were engaged in battle on the open wasteland around the crumbling tower. It was a kaleidoscope of smoke and fire, yells and cries of pain, the clash of metal, and blasts of gunfire. There was no sign of Mesha or Officer Borden. Noddie hoped they had not been killed in the mayhem around them.

The officer holding Noddie released her in order to defend himself as a robber attacked from the side. Sarah had been pushed sideways into the snow and Jethrow was helping the other officer fend off three other robbers.

Noddie tried to get out from underfoot and got about ten feet before she was shoved to the ground again. A grisly man loomed above her. His matted hair hung in his bloodshot eyes and his stench made her cringe. He forced her into the snow by the shoulder with one hand and with the other raised a long, curved knife. The blade shone through the dark.

There was a whistle and a thud as the man jerked and twisted before falling sideways, the shaft of an arrow sticking from his back. Noddie looked up to see a group of men and women bounding forward through the snow like a herd of deer across a meadow.

They were all dressed in spiked boots and violet coats covered by silver breastplates. Matching scarves were wrapped around their faces leaving only their eyes visible. They were firing arrows from intricately designed bows at an astonishing speed. Despite the dark and cold the archers rarely missed their mark and all around the Mordekah robbers were dropping.

A second group of strangers appeared as fast as the first and the sharp cry of gunfire added to the din. The robbers were no longer trying to fight, but etreating toward the pass.

Noddie’s head spun. Between the torrent of noise, the fast flurries of snow, and rapid movement on all sides, she could barely come to grips with what was happening. Then it was all over. The gunmen lowered their rifles and the archers stood squinting into the distance. A cold wind swept through the corpse-scattered area.

Sarah was still lying stunned where she had fallen and Jethrow was eying the archers, trying to discern if they were friend or foe.

But the new company either deemed them innocent or nonthreatening. They lowered their bows.

“Hey!”

Mesha appeared in front of Noddie and held out his hand, followed by a tall anxious-looking man whose hood was down displaying fair, wavy hair.

“Are you alright?”

Noddie let him help her up, but didn’t release his warm hand from her own.

“Oh, Mesha! You’re all right! What are you still doing here? You should get away while you can.”

At first Mesha looked taken aback, mouth puckered with confusion.

Then he smiled.

Noddie released him and jumped back with a gasp. This was not Mesha’s small, sad smile. This smile was wide showing a perfect line of white teeth, and reached up to twinkle in his eyes. Whoever this boy was, he wasn’t Mesha.

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