There wasn’t room to struggle as both Noddie and Jethrow were seized and pulled from the tunnel exit. Sarah, Mesha, and Lorance were extracted as well and there was a tussle as the robbers held them all in place.
“Search them.” Mordekah ordered.
The key to Hulz Deep was taken from Mesha and the compass extracted from Sarah’s pocket. Jethrow’s bag was ripped from his shoulder and turned upside down, but by a stroke of luck the talisman remained hidden beneath his shirt.
Mordekah approached Noddie. There was a jagged scar on his brow surrounded by discolored skin, and her stomach leapt as she realized it was the result of her attack on Terrason Island.
“I’ll take that back,” He growled, as his clawed hand grabbed the pouch from her side. Opening it, he pulled out his black notebook and smiled down at it before placing it in an inner pocket. He checked to make sure the bottle remained before closing the pouch again. “Take them back to the ship and lock them in the brig. We sail on.”
The Tempest was anchored off the Shadowrock cliffs. Silhouetted against the rising sun, its battered form looked more brittle than ever.
Walking across the deck was like walking into a recurring nightmare, familiar, but frightening at the same time. The robbers forced them to a hatch leading down a set of loose steps. The brig was nestled below the lower deck in the hull and contained nothing but abused crates, a tangled fishing net, and barred cells.
A robber with a crooked front tooth smiled nastily. “Friends of yours, I believe?”
The group stopped short. Locked within the cells was Vince, who raised his head in naked concern at the sight of them, Preston and—
“Papa!” Sarah ran forward to take his cold hands in hers through the cell bars. Liels McCarthy breathed reassurances to her and framed her face in his hands. He was thinner and paler then before. His hat was missing and there was a bruise below his left eye, but otherwise he was unharmed.
Without pity the men forced Sarah away and thrust her into the cell along side his. Lorance and Mesha were pushed in with Vince while Noddie and Jethrow were locked into another cage entirely.
Their job done, the robbers left with arrogant strides. “Enjoy your trip,” one of them taunted before closing the hatch.
As soon as they were alone Vince rushed forward and enfolded both of the young princes in a tight embrace. “Oh, your high- I mean, Mesha, Lorance, thank goodness you are both all right! We thought—”
“We are well,” Mesha assured him, pulling out of the hug. “What happened?”
From the cell across from them, Preston answered, “They took us by surprise. My accompanying archers are dead, save for Tanta, who managed to escape. They kept Vince and I alive for questioning and ransom. We have failed you.” Preston hung his head in shame.
“It is not so.” Lorance assured him. “Under the circumstances, you could not have done more. We should have brought more men, but I feared drawing attention.”
“But did you get it?” Vince hurried to asked.
Mesha nodded. “Jethrow has it.”
They all turned to Jethrow, who briefly lifted the amulet from behind his shirt so they could see it.
“There have been a few complications,” Mesha said.
“Jethrow contracted the curse and cannot remove the amulet without serious consequences.”
Those closest to Jethrow stiffened. And Lorance was quick to explain; “The plague is dormant for the time being.
“It was my fault.” Mesha confessed. “He was trying to protect me.”
Vince was shaken, but nonetheless he turned to Jethrow, “Then you have done us a great service, Mr. Tensler.”
Jethrow shrugged a shoulder.
Sarah and Liels were sitting as close as the bars would allow. “Papa, are you hurt? Have they been feeding you? They haven’t hit you have they? You have a nasty bruise!”
“Hush, child,” Liels interrupted. “I’m all right.”
“We were so worried, Papa! We were looking for you; we sent scouts out and everything.”
“I am aware.” He addressed the others, “Thank you for protecting Sarah in my absence.”
“Obviously, we didn’t do such a great job as we are locked in here as well.” Jethrow gestured to the bars around them.
“Well, we’re together at any rate.”
Noddie let her head fall into her hands. After all they had gone through to escape they were now right back where they started. “Now if we could only find a way out of this mess.”
* * *
“By sore, Bro, you’re heavy!”
Mesha didn’t comment. From his brother’s shoulders, he continued to search the ceiling for a possible means of escape.
On the other end of the cell Vince winced and mouthed the words, “By sore Bro?”
“Will you hurry up?” Lorance grunted, legs shaking.
“I’m trying. This is not as easy as one would think.”
They all stiffened at the sound of the bolt being drawn back on the hatch. In an instant Mesha was back on the ground and everyone was looking off in different directions with hands in pockets or leaning against walls feigning innocence.
Worn boots appeared on the rickety stairs and a voice from above called after them, “He only wants Jethrow and the girl, Lazren’s niece.”
Jethrow turned and hissed softly in Noddie’s ear, “Do not mention anything that could link them to Lorance and Mesha. If the Mordekah robbers find out they have the two heirs of the Irestead throne prisoner—”
He didn’t need to finish. Noddie knew. They had been fortunate, the casual clothing the boys wore into the cave kept the robbers from looking too closely. So far no one recognized the young men, but someone was bound to discover their identity sooner or later.
The door to their cell squealed in protest and chubby hands pulled Noddie out. “Well, long time no see.” Phil sneered in her ear. She flinched away from his rotten breath.
Both Noddie and Jethrow had their hands tied behind their backs. Jethrow gave a yelp of pain as the other robber, a man with a thin face and bristled hair, pulled against his injured hand while tightening the cords. Then Noddie got a brief view of the other’s worried faces as they were marched upstairs.
They were taken straight to the captain’s cabin where Mordekah was waiting for them, examining a sharp sword while leaning against the desk.
“Phil, what is your report?” he asked as soon as the door was shut.
“The men sent into Hulz Deep have not returned. Since the curse is still in effect, we can assume they failed.”
“Fools. It’s unfortunate,” Mortekah replied without a hint of concern.
Phil shoved Noddie forward a few steps. “Beats me what this lot was after, going down there, if not to lift the curse. I’m sure with a little persuasion the girl would be willing to tell us all about it.”
Mordekah tilted his head with a smirk. “I’m sure she will. As for the cave, we will move onward for now and return to Hulz Deep afterwards. Lazren has already crossed the border. I believe he will attempt to enter Bolzenar.”
The thin-faced robber asked, “What about the scout that escaped? We can’t have her reporting our whereabouts to the steward.”
Mordekah wiped the blade with a cloth, unconcerned. “Why not? The capital city is as dead and closed off to the world as a tomb; there is nothing the steward of Irestead can do.” He stood and tossed the cloth aside. “Now let’s clear up some unfinished business, shall we?”
Phil forced Noddie into a straight-backed chair and tied her down. Jethrow was thrown to his knees at Mordekah’s feet.
The king of robbers stepped forward fingering the sword lovingly. “I put this off for far too long.”
“NO!” Noddie struggled against the bonds, cutting into her arms and wrists as Mordekah readied the sword above Jethrow’s head.
“Kill me and you kill us all,” Jethrow said.
Mordekah paused, torn between caution and distrust.
Jethrow glared up at him with bared teeth. “I carry the curse of Hulz Deep. If you kill me, or take the talisman from about my neck, the plauge will be free to infest every living soul on this ship.”
“He’s bluffing,” said Phil.
“The proof is on my right arm.”
Mordekah motioned to the thin-faced man, who came forward with a short knife and sliced the top of the bandages from Jethrow’s forearm, revealing the tortured skin of the Scorenza.
The robber flung his knife away, fearing contamination, and retreated as far from Jethrow as was possible.
“Just because he has the curse does not mean it will spread in death.” Phil’s face was twisted in fury, causing the scar he received from Jethrow to be thrown into greater relief. “I will do it myself if you—”
“LEAVE HIM!” Mordekah was furious, but there was a flash of fear behind his eyes.
There came a swift knock and a bald man opened the door, “Sir, we’re about to pass the Shadowrock Cliffs. Soon we will be approaching the western scouting fort of Irestead. If we are seen they could fire upon us. What are your orders?”
Mordekah contemplated Jethrow as though he had lost a fabulous prize. “Keep them tied and locked up for now. I will find a way around this later.”
Another chair was placed back-to-back with Noddie’s and Jethrow was tied down as well. Mordekah sheathed his sword and left with the bald robber, calling over his shoulder, “Phil, send men to question that group of scouts in the brig. I want to know what post they belong to and to whom they report. Find out any other news about Irestead you can.”
Phil paused in front of Jethrow and hissed into his face, “I don’t believe you’re that risky to kill.”
Jethrow responded, “You’re a lot more daring now. I noticed you didn’t take part in the fight in Hulz Deep. Stayed away from the cursed cave and let others do the dirty work.”
SMACK. Phil backhanded Jethrow hard across the face. Noddie winced at the sound. Her heart went out to Jethrow.
“You’ll get what’s coming to you, Jethrow, you can bet on that.” Phil spat on him, then left to follow orders, slamming and locking the door behind him.
“The plague is the only thing keeping me alive,” Jethrow gave a humorless laugh, “Go figure.”
“Did you hear? My uncle Lazren is here.”
“And the scouting post, you already told them this is Mordekah’s ship. What if they blow us out of the water?”
“Tanta escaped. She will have sent a message to the others by now. The scouts will not fire upon the ship for fear of harming their princes.”
“Then they can’t save us either, and if we don’t do something soon the robbers are going to discover Mesha and Lorance. Jethrow, what are we going to do?”
Jethrow did not have an answer.