Plagued

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Late Night Visitor

Noddie could not sit still. She paced her room trying to sort out the jumbled mess in her mind. It was as though she was holding the countless pieces of a puzzle, knowing they all fit together, but having no clue as to which piece should be placed where.

The door to her room opened and Sarah marched in looking sulky. “They won’t let me go with them to look for Papa,” she complained, sitting heavily on the edge of the couch.

Relieved for the distraction, Noddie stopped pacing and replied, “It would probably be faster and easier to let the scouts do their job. You saw them last night; they are skilled and organized. You don’t want to be traveling in the middle of nowhere in the cold for days anyway.”

Sarah pulled a strand of hair. “I just hate sitting around here doing nothing while Papa is out there somewhere needing help.”

Noddie sat down next to Sarah. “I know. I feel the same. But there is wisdom in handing a job over to another who can do the job better than you.”

“That’s prophetic.”

“My father once told me that.”

“Ah yes, I remember you telling me about him.” Sarah leaned forward and put her chin in her hands. “So what did you think of Prince Lorance’s story? You’re an old friend of Mesha’s, right? He will be showing up here soon, does it bother you that he’s cursed? I mean, what if it’s dangerous?”

Noddie didn’t answer at first. Was she afraid of Mesha’s curse? After parting on such negative terms, she was more concerned about their crumbling friendship.

“No. The curse does not bother me. I knew he was cursed, and I have yet to see any ill effects.”

“True enough, I guess. Well, you and Lorance aren’t troubled, so I won’t let it bother me. I suppose we will have to start treating him with a little more respect, being in Irestead. He is a Prince, after all.”

Noddie blinked. She had not thought about that.

“I’m going to explore the upper rooms and find some lunch, do you want to come?”

“No, thank you.”

Sarah shrugged, “Suit yourself,” and left Noddie to her pondering once more.

At dinner the conversation was kept light and they all made an effort to avoid sensitive topics. With pride, Lorance told them of better days in Irestead and inquired after the homeland of his guests, taking enthusiastic interest in Milay and all of the places Sarah and her father had traveled. His eyes danced with excitement when Sarah told him of the flying machine, but fell when she explained with strangled emotion that it had been destroyed on the mountainside.

“When we find your father, I will fund his invention and see he is honored for his accomplishment,” Lorance declared. “Once he builds another, I want to be his first passenger!”

Jethrow was content to eat and listen, and didn’t say much except a few words here and there.

At the end of the evening, Noddie returned to her room and sat on one of the sofas, resting her chin on her arms. The fire in the middle of the room hissed and crackled. She was nervous about seeing Mesha again, wanting to make up with him, but afraid she had missed her chance. She recalled Jethrow’s words and pondered what Mesha being the cursed prince really meant. “There are severe penalties for not showing respect to royalty, especially in their own domain.” She never showed Mesha any higher respect. Although she had never been in such company, she knew that not bowing in the presence of royalty was punishable by incarceration. True, she had not known of Mesha’s heritage in the beginning, but then she had gone and argued with him, demeaning him and accusing him of the most atrocious deeds. He had every right to have her banished from this kingdom at the very least. Perhaps worse, depending on how angry he was with her. They were in Irestead now. Mesha’s country. And he held a lot more power than she did, being a common farm girl and a foreigner to boot.

Noddie started when the clock nearby chimed eleven. She stood, about to put out the lights and go to bed when there was a soft knock at the door.

She turned as it opened.

It was Mesha, dressed in clothes fit for a prince. His eyes were somber and his face worn, but none the worse for wear.

“Hey,” he said in a small voice. “My apologies, I know it is late, but I saw your light on.”

Trembling with nerves Noddie gathered her skirt in her hands so she could kneel and bow her head in respect. She could not bring herself to look at him.

“Noddie May, please don’t.” Mesha’s voice sounded pained.

“I know about the curse, and that you are a prince. I met Lorance.”

“I know.”

“Why didn’t you ever tell me?” Noddie asked in a small defeated voice.

Mesha didn’t answer.

Noddie did not trust herself to rise. “Forgive me. I owe you an apology. I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions or say the things I did.”

“Noddie May, please get up.” His voice was almost pleading and she glanced up at him without raising her head.

“Are you still angry with me?”

Mesha approached her and, clasping her hands in his, guided her to her feet. “No. You are a dear person to me, Noddie May. You saved me at the patrol tower despite our harsh words.”

His eyes fell to the floor. “I owe you my gratitude. You have been a good friend to me, yet, I have not been a good friend to you. I should have been the one to tell you, Noddie May, not Lorance. But you must understand, I hid it for such a long time. I did not want my people rejecting me, those I care for rejecting me. I was afraid of losing your friendship, and it was because of that fear I almost lost you. I did not realize what I was doing until it was too late. For all those words I gave you about being brave, I was the one overcome by fear.”

“I’m not afraid of your curse, Mesha.”

“You do not know what it is. It is not what you think, Noddie May.”

“What is it?”

Mesha gestured to the couch and they took a seat, turning slightly to the side so as to face each other. Mesha stared at the fire for a long time before speaking.

“The curse is death. The plague cannot touch me because we are part of the same magic, from the same caster, Isca. You might think that being immune to the Scorenza is a blessing, but it is not. The curse saps my energy and endurance. It makes me tired and weak. And gradually, it is taking my life. I sense more of my life is eaten by the curse with every passing year. I do not know how long I have left to live, but it is not as long as I would have lived otherwise. Every dark thought or deed comes with a price, and the fact that the curse was not cast by me makes no difference. It is the purpose of curses to destroy and diminish. In the end, the curse will have no qualms with killing the host.

“I can see where someone has died from the plague. It lingers like an afterimage. And I can sense when someone is about to die. Can you imagine? Having some kind stranger smile at you, and you look in their eyes and realize they carry the plague and they do not know it yet? How do you smile back at a person knowing something like that? How can you meet their eyes knowing they will never see tomorrow?

“I’ve always known I was the one with the curse. Ever since we heard the story. Lorance and I were playing in the courtyard. We found a dead rat in the garden and Lorance wanted to scare our nanny with it, but after he picked up the body there remained a motionless ghost were it had lain. Lorance couldn’t see it, but I could. It frightened me. I begged Lorance to put it back and he gave in to my plea, but the image did not fade until the next day.

“When I was told about my father’s dealings with the witch, I became more terrified of people learning about the curse than of the curse itself. I did not know what they would do with me when they found out. Would they kill me, or lock me away forever? Lorance comforted me. He told me he would say he carried the curse if the worse happened. There were many near misses. We sometimes had to lie or make up excuses for my random behavior. Lorance was best at it. He came to my rescue many times.

Then one night I had a horrid nightmare. There was a corpse of a crow in the middle of a wooded path. The corpse ripped open and a vile black smoke rose out and killed every living thing in the forest. Then the most terrifying woman I had ever seen appeared. She reached out her hand as if to grab me and said something in a strange tongue. I awoke in a panic and realized there was a horrible feeling in the air. That was the night the plague appeared in the city. I do not know how, but I knew it was she, the witch who cursed me. I could feel it through the curse. It was the same sorcery. Noddie May, I can see the plague. It is like a ghastly black smoke hovering in infected places.

“I had to find her. I had to find some way to make her remove my curse and stop whatever dark magic she cast on Bolzenar. Although sorrowful, Lorance understood. I snuck away soon after and have been searching for a way to stop the plague ever since. I spent the first year getting out of Irestead and finding my way south. I tired often and did not travel well, but in time my strength grew. Although I still became weak, those occasions have become few and far between.

“The next year was spent trying to find Isca. I looked everywhere for the faintest whisper of some dangerous person or place. My findings led me to inner Grendar, where I met a dead end. Without any further clues to follow, all my searching led to nothing. I was lost and alone. Guilt weighed heavily on my heart when I heard the black gate closed. I had given up hope. I thought to myself, what was the point? What good could I do?

“That’s when I met you.

“And despite everything, you were so happy and kind and optimistic. You showed me there were things worth fighting for. Worth living for. You were the only real friend I ever had besides Lorance, and it was nice. Before I knew it, I had someone else I wanted to protect. You, my people, my family, I wanted to protect Irestead, and this Rosedust Valley you spoke of so fondly. A place I had never seen! I gained a new determination. I was not about to let these curses, either the plague or my own, take the good from this world. I was willing to do anything to protect even the smallest bit of it.

“Eventually I heard that travelers were disappearing in the old forest to the south. I left to investigate and found Isca. She did not know who I was at first, but realized the truth when she could not curse me, for I was already cursed and the existing magic canceled anything new she tried to throw at me. As troublesome as it was, I discovered much from interrogating Isca. I had to read between the lines as she never gave me a straight answer, but I verified that the plague was a curse and one of her own. I also suspected she was up to further mischief, but could not be sure of what. I never did persuade her to tell me how to lift the curse.

After meeting with Isca I made preparations to return home. I needed to speak to Lorance and my uncle, but first I would return to Hesterway to give you a proper good-bye. The next day was Lazren’s dinner party. When I heard that plague had appeared in the Lazren estate, I was terrified. I thought you were dead. I ran straight to the manor. Then, through the curse, I realized there was still someone alive in the house. It was you! I couldn’t believe it!

“I remember every detail of that day. They left the door ajar. It whined in protest as I pushed it open and stepped inside. I could see the black haze of the plague, neither liquid nor gas, invisible to any normal human eye, floating around the elegant ballroom and reaching halfway up the grand staircase. I could see them, where the dead had lain, their light transparent forms all wearing fine dresses and costly apparel strewn about the floor or draped over furniture.

“I remember the bright morning sunlight spilling into the house from the windows and open door behind me; a mockery in such a dark, stained place. Despite it all, I went upstairs and found you. The curse hadn’t touched you. I could not believe that fate, which had been so cruel to me, would grant me this one mercy. This one reprise.”

Mesha sighed. “I tried to send you back home where you would be safer, but when I went back to Isca, intending to try and discover one last clue about how to dissolve the curse, I was shocked to find you there as well.”

Mesha gave a humorless laugh. “You are quite frustrating, Noddie May. You were the one thing I wanted to protect the most, and somehow, you kept winding up in the darkest most dangerous areas of my past. I do not know what Isca is planning, or why she gave you that bottle, but I dread it. And the way she did so right in front of me, mocking my questions, makes it clear she wanted me to know. All of this is connected somehow. I was desperate to understand, and she was giving me a hint of some kind.”

He stopped to run his hands through his hair.

“I apologize for the way I acted at the pass, Noddie May. Rest assured Lorance gave me a spectacular chastising concerning how ‘un-gentlemen like’ I have been. By that time I had traveled a great distance and had become tired and overwhelmed. The secrets I carried for so long were beginning to weigh me down and returning to Irestead made me suspicious and frightened.”

“Jethrow once said that a life full of secrets is a weary, lonely, and fearful life.”

“He was not wrong. I believed you were safe from Isca and the robbers and suddenly here you were, once again so close to where the plague was at its worst. You had already questioned me about the witch’s curse, and I couldn’t have anyone finding out the truth. I didn’t know what to do. And I was afraid.

“You asked me once what my biggest fear was, Noddie May. It is being alone. It is being the one who watches while everyone I love and care for dies a terrible death until I am the only one left. I am dying, but not as fast as the plague victims, and it is torture to watch everything crumble around me without being able to stop it. I do not want die alone after all else has died. I do not want to be alone.”

Noddie felt too numb to speak. She knew what that felt like. She, who had been the sole being to survive the plague at the Lazren estate. It was unsettling to think that something she already experienced was Mesha’s worst nightmare. Not when he was supposed to be the fearless one.

“I am determined to end the plague. To save our kingdom and Rosedust Valley, but I have agreed to let Lorance help me. I have done what I can on my own. I don’t think Jethrow is aware of how right he was in the Gorbeck cave. I am not going to run away again. And, Noddie May, I am going to help you find your uncle Lazren.”

“Thank you.”

They sat watching the fire for a long time.

“Do you forgive me, Noddie May Grace?”

“Yes. I forgive you, Mesha.”

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