Plagued

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The Only One Left

The crisp smell of drying leaves carried the sharp chill of a cold winter on its way. Sunlight filtered through the branches wherever it could, but no birds jumped from branch to branch above and no squirrels darted up the trees as Noddie and Mesha hastened further into the grove. Neither wanted to speak of what had befallen the Lazren house. But the silence didn’t make it any less real. Noddie’s mind kept replaying the moans and screams that floated through the closet door last night. The quaking aspen leaves crackled and shivered, as though the echoes of those screams were flying among them. The servants, Uncle Lazren, and the guests. They had been perfectly fine not yesterday. She was stammering apologies face-to-face with her uncle only hours ago, and now they were gone forever. Her world destroyed save for one small, dark closet.

The closet.

How close had she come to dying? It gave her shivers to realize she had been scarcely beyond the reach of death itself. What would have become of her had she gone downstairs or been sleeping in her own bed that night? A coincidence had spared her life.

“Mesha are you sure we don’t have the plague?”

“Positive. The symptoms would have manifested themselves by now.”

“And no one else escaped? All those guests . . .?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then I was the only one.” Her eyes stung with the pain-laced words.

As awed as she was by this reprieve, there was a lingering emptiness. Of all the people, great and small, present in the Lazren house, she, and she alone, survived. Suffocated by guilt, she wondered whether she ought to hold a small memorial service in honor of those who died.

Noddie had been told in church that whether you treated a person with extra kindness or cruelty in life signified whether that person blessed or cursed you from the afterlife. She couldn’t think of any great kindness or cruelty her actions brought to anyone in the Lazren house. Her relationships with everyone had been mostly neutral. And she had not known Lazren’s guests at all. But as she survived while they hadn’t, their spirits were sure to haunt her.

She rubbed her chest in a circular motion with the palm of her hand to ward off ill intent. Her nanny often mocked her for believing such things, but last night was so surreal that the thought of spirits didn’t sound preposterous anymore.

“It wasn’t your fault, Noddie May. Don’t let guilt consume you. There might be a higher purpose in all of this. When tragedies like this happen all we can do is be grateful for the small mercies that become miracles. Your being alive, Noddie May, is a miracle to me.”

“How did you know I was in that closet? That I wasn’t dead?”

“A doctor was called to the Lazren house late last night. He came running back to town babbling about the plague. The townspeople were in a panic.” Mesha’s eyes narrowed. “Fear and confusion. That is what the plague is. The worst part is not the illness itself, but the fear of not knowing. Not knowing how to protect, not knowing how to fight, not knowing where it is going to strike next. People can lose themselves in troubled times like these. Illness doesn’t even have to touch them to corrupt their minds. The best of friends can rise up against each other. Loved ones are abandoned. The most terrifying and dangerous enemy is the one you do not know. The one you cannot fight.”

“But how did you know about me?”

His thumb stroked the strap of his pack absentmindedly. “I went to the estate. I couldn’t see you among the dead.”

“You saw—” Noddie swallowed hard. “You saw the bodies? Wasn’t that dangerous, getting so close? What if you—”

“Let’s not speak about such things anymore,” Mesha interrupted.

They came to a wide stump and Mesha slipped his traveling pack off his shoulder. “This should be far enough. ” He extracted some clothing and held them out to Noddie. “Here. Go over there and put this on. I won’t look.”

Noddie took the clothes behind a tree as Mesha turned his back and closed his eyes for good measure. Normally she would have been hesitant to dress with a boy present, but Mesha was the most trustworthy person she had ever met. This, however, didn’t keep her from feeling more shy than usual.

The clothes were nothing like the fancy dresses of ribbons and ruffles her uncle insisted upon her wearing. They were earth colors, plain and commonplace, consisting of a thick, maneuverable skirt, a white blouse, and a dark vest with a design of leaves and blossoms woven into the front, and a deep-green cloak which fastened around her shoulders. Mesha even provided her with a pair of sturdy boots.

“You can look now.”

Mesha opened his eyes and turned to face her. “You look nice,” he said.

“Thanks,” Noddie mumbled. Her heart fluttered and she couldn’t meet his eyes.

Mesha examined the torn dress before walking off the path and clearing leaves and brush away with his foot.

“What are you doing?”

“We are going to have to burn your old dress.”

Noddie went rigid. “Does it contain the plague?”

Mesha dug a shallow hole in the freshly cleared earth. “Not that I can tell, but it is better not to take chances.”

She wouldn’t have been surprised if that were true. When she had first arrived the residents of the Lazren house had not wanted her to stay, fearing she might contain the plague. Lazren convinced them that if that were the case she would have died during the voyage across the Rovian Sea. Nonetheless, he had her cotton dress destroyed and Noddie had been scrubbed down until her skin was raw.

She knelt beside Mesha as he made a fire and they watched the hungry flames consume the material. Then Mesha extinguished the flames and refilled the hole, burying Noddie’s last connection to Hesterway once and for all.

They returned to the stump and Mesha gestured to the pack. “There is food and water in there.”

Noddie sat down and helped herself. “Where are we going?”

“Bocksbay.”

“Bocksbay? Why?” Noddie asked around a mouthful of bread and cheese.

“You need to board a ship for Milay. Grendar will soon halt all passages to keep the plague at bay. Now will be your best chance to get home.”

“I can’t go home.”

“I thought you’d be happy. You’ve been homesick for Rosedust Valley since the day you arrived here. You were always telling me how worried you were for your family. Didn’t you say you felt guilty for leaving?”

“You told me not to feel so. And how would I pay fare? My parents spent all their savings to send me here.”

“I’ll pay for your fare.”

“But what about the plague?”

Mesha snapped a twig in two. “It will not matter. The plague will reach all corners now. At least this way you will be in a familiar land and can find someone you know to stay with if your parents—” The rest of the sentence hung in the air like a poisonous spider.

He averted his eyes and threw the broken twig away. “Meshen hed, Noddie May.”

“What?”

“Meshen hed. In my native tongue it means ‘forgive me, I meant no offense.’” He stood and slung the pack over his shoulder. Noddie brushed the crumbs off her skirt and joined him on the path.

“Can’t I stay with you and that old couple in Hesterway?”

“No. I’m no longer residing at the Mickinen’s place. That was a temporary arrangement. You can not stay here. You will be run out of every town once they get wind that you were at the Lazren estate. I am afraid fear of the plague will wring out any attempts at pity and mercy.”

“Are you coming to Milay with me?”

“We’ll see. It might be time to return home myself.”

Noddie knew that Mesha was not from these parts. He never spoke about his family or his past and Noddie tried not to pry. She suspected that Mesha had come from a plague-infested land as well. He certainly seemed to know a lot about the scorenza and a shadow passed over his face whenever the subject was addressed. But then, Noddie didn’t want to think about the plague either.

They made it through the grove and passed the town at the bottom of the hill, stopping only to eat. Their path led them through the edge of an old forest that stretched toward the towns from the south.

The scratches Noddie acquired from the rose bushes made her skin itch, and she resisted the temptation to scratch them as the day wore on.

“It’s getting dark,” she observed. “We should find a place to spend the night. Mesha?”

Mesha was staring at a cluster of scratches in an old tree trunk. His fingers brushed across the deep trenches and a new light, like a match being struck, entered his eyes. Without a word he stepped off the path heading deeper into the forest.

“Mesha!”

With a jolt, Mesha stopped and turned to look at her as though only just realizing she was there.

“Pardon?”

Noddie pressed her lips. “Where are we staying tonight?”

“Oh, here will do.” His gaze returned to the dark trees before him. His hand was twitching and sweat was forming on the back of his neck.

“Here? We can’t sleep here. Mesha!”

Mesha jumped and his eyes cleared as he turned back onto the path. “Meshen hed. What were you saying?”

“It’s not safe here. We could get attacked by robbers!

“There are no robbers around here.”

“So says you. Uncle Lazren’s colleague Mr. Medlock was murdered by robbers a few months ago.”

“Mr. Medlock was a rich man. We have nothing of value. Besides, the perpetrator wouldn’t stick around to get caught. He would have left the area by now.”

“You can’t be sure.”

Mesha shook his head and placed his hands on her shoulders. “Noddie May, you’ve had a trying day. You’re unsettled after what happened to your uncle and the others. Do not worry so. Now, help me gather some wood for a fire.”

The fire warded off the cold for the most part, but it didn’t keep Noddie from wrapping herself in a blanket and jumping at small noises as her eyes darted around the trees towering over them like gruesome giants. An owl hooted nearby and the clicking of insects invaded the night. After a light dinner of beans and dried fruit Mesha played with his hands while struggling to sit still.

“Noddie May, I am not going to be able to accompany you to Bocksbay.”

Noddie lost her breath and her head snapped up so fast she hurt her neck. “What? Why?”

“There are things I have to do here.”

“What things?”

He kept his eyes downcast. “Hard to say. I am not completely sure yet. I am sorry.”

“You expect me to accept that? You’ve been avoiding my questions all day.”

“Please, trust me, Noddie May. It’s better this way. You’ll be all right, this path will lead you straight to the coast and I put a map in your bag just in case.”

“But it will take me at least two more days to get there!”

By tomorrow evening you’re going to reach a small town called Calloway. There’s an inn there. The innkeeper, Mr. Clark, is a friend of mine. Tell him you know me, and he will get you a room for the night. I’ll leave a money bag with you.”

“I don’t want to do this alone!”

Mesha met her eyes. “You need to be brave, Noddie May. You do not have your parents or your uncle here to help you now. You must start making decisions and standing up for yourself. Take control of your own life. You are growing up. It is time to take these childish fears and worries of yours and cast them aside.”

Noddie gripped her bowl. She was a coward and she knew it. She was always frightened of something. Her mind always ran to horrible possibilities, making her jumpy and nervous. But what frightened her most of all was the dark future that stretched before her. “Milay is still plagued by the scorenza,” she reminded him. “What if it’s already too late? I can’t do this! I’m too afraid!”

A log in the fire pit snapped and collapsed, sending a spray of ash and cinders. Mesha scooted closer to her and turned to meet her eyes. “You can not let fear cloud your mind. Do not let it change you into a bitter, distrustful person.”

“There is much to be frightened of,” she said.

“But there is much to see and enjoy as well. And if your eyes are shut tight with fear, you are going to miss it.”

Noddie hung her head. “I wish I were brave like you.”

“You are brave, Noddie May. You just don’t know it yet. There are different types of courage, and sometimes the strongest, bravest people are those that face their own fears and faults, and stand up for what they know to be true. Remember, worry does nothing but waste time. It is action that moves life forward.”

“It is hard to act without courage.”

“Then pretend.”

“What?”

“Pretend you are brave. If you act like the person you want to be then within time those actions will define you. You will find your courage by being brave.”

Noddie held her arms around her knees. “Isn’t that a lie?”

“It is not a lie. It’s progression. We all must work to improve our character. As long as you’re not putting on a different face for ulterior motives it is a process of growth. Now let us get some sleep.”

Mesha crawled under his own blanket and Noddie lay on her back, gazing up at a patch of sky between the branches where a few stars winked down at her. The trying events of the day had left her exhausted in both mind and body. Before succumbing to sleep she asked, “Mesha?”

“Yes?”

“Are you afraid of anything?”

“Yes. Everyone is afraid of something, Noddie May.”

“What are you afraid of?”

Although she could not see him Noddie could tell he was smiling.

“Perhaps I will tell you one day. May sweet dreams find you, Noddie May.”

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