Plagued

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Battle on the Ice

It was several hours before the bald robber entered the cabin again. Without saying a word, he untied Noddie from the chair and pulled her towards the door.

“What are you doing?” panic colored Jethrow’s words for the first time. “Where are you taking her!?”

The man didn’t bother responding. Noddie craned her neck in time to see Jethrow’s anxious expression mirroring her own, cheek bruised from his encounter with Phil, before the robber shut the door firmly behind them.

The night was clear, with a breeze as sharp as knives. Noddie shivered, wishing she had her coat and gloves back. The Tempest was sailing close to the jagged ice-blocked shore in order to avoid the perilous icebergs farther out.

The wind rippled Mordekah’s long coat as he stood on deck, hands on his hips as he grinned in triumph. He was entering upper Irestead like an king.

“The scouts of Irestead are rumored to take orders solely from the king. They are revered as the best spies and soldiers in the world. I find it impossible to believe a ship such as this would pass by their borders unnoticed. And yet, they make no move to thwart us. Which leaves me thinking.”

He turned to face her. “What is it I am missing? Is it the plague?”

Noddie didn’t answer.

“Oh, you’re are going to play this game again?” he lifted his chin and observed her through narrowed eyes. “You know, it really is a bother having to hold so many prisoners at once, so I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. Unless you start talking, I will kill one prisoner for every five minutes you keep silent until all of my questions are answered. I imagine you would not want to be responsible for the brutal deaths of your friends?”

Sweat froze on the side of her face. She couldn’t let her friends be harmed, but she couldn’t reveal Lorance and Mesha’s identities. They were in trouble either way. No doubt Mordekah planned to kill them all in the end, regardless.

“Why do the scouts not rain their cannons upon us?”

Noddie had not forgotten how Mordekah could see through lies so she settled on a half-truth. “They-they don’t want to harm the prisoners.”

Mordekah’s brow twisted in suspicion, but he moved on to another question. “Can the talisman around Jethrow’s neck hold off the plague?”

“Yes.”

“Will it break the curse on Hulz Deep?”

“We believe so.”

“How do I break the curse?”

“Only Isca can break the curse.”

“LIAR!”

A hot sting blossomed on Noddie’s cheek as he struck her.

“Why did you go to such lengths to retrieve it?”

“It’s all Isca’s doing.”

“YOU KNOW ANOTHER WAY, I KNOW YOU DO!”

“There is no other way.”

Mordekah raised his hand again, but before it could descend the ship gave a lurch and groaned.

“Tork!” Mordekah yelled at the man overseeing the helm, “Watch—”

But there was no one there. The helm spun one way and then another by the wind. With a growl Mordekah turned toward the mast, “Blade, take the helm—”

But blade was not where he had been standing a minute ago either. In fact, the whole deck was more deserted then it was when Noddie first stepped out onto it. The men that were left could sense something was amiss and started drawing their weapons, moving away from the sides.

Mordekah stiffened, vigilantly observing their surroundings without moving his head.

The tension was broken when the thin-faced man stepped up from the hatch leading to the brig. “Sir, you should see this. It was taken from one of the younger men.” He held out Lorance’s gold pocket watch bearing the Irestead crest.

Noddie watched as Mordekah reached out to take it, understanding dawning on his features.

Whooooosh! An arrow darted out of nowhere and struck the watch with astonishing aim, knocking it from the startled man’s hand. With a war cry Irestead scouts and archers jumped from various hiding places in a fully armed ambush. The air was rent in a ruckus of cries and shouts, punctured by the blasts of rifles and the whiz of arrows.

In the confusing din, Mordekah seized Noddie and dragged her away from the worst of the fighting. Her struggles did no good against Mordekah’s strength. She was being taken away and the scouts were too busy to notice.

“Give it up girl. There’s no one to help you.”

Noddie looked back at the captain’s cabin, obscured by gunpowder smoke and falling bodies. That wasn’t true. Jethrow would save her. He made the life’s sake vow, and he had never failed her yet.

“Hold it!” an archer stepped forward with a taunt bow. The woman had a darker skin tone than natives of Irestead and her hair was pulled up in a tight bun. It was Tanta the scout that had escaped when Vince’s party had been overtaken.

Mordekah placed Noddie in front of him as a human shield. “Fire and she dies.” As he spoke another robber, with a crossbow of his own, appeared at Mordekah’s side.

They were at a standstill, each glaring into the others eyes, searching for the slightest hesitation. Each poised to kill, and Noddie was caught in the middle of it.

There was a pounding of feet as Jethrow came running towards them with another scout.

The robber next to Mordekah fired at Tanta, who narrowly avoided his bullet. Her own shot hit the robber in the chest as Jethrow jumped on Mordekah. Noddie’s head was knocked and an elbow jammed into her side before Mordekah’s grip loosened enough for her to slip out of reach.

Mordekah threw a punch that caught Jethrow in the mouth, and he fell back as Mordekah bolted. Tanta let loose another arrow, but missed, the shaft sinking into the mast.

“Blast!”

Jethrow took up a knife from a fallen robber and swiped the back of his hand against his bloody lip. “Here.” Jethrow tossed something to Noddie and she caught it in surprise. It was her pouch, containing Isca’s bottle.

“Where did you get this?” Noddie asked.

“Swiped it off Mordekah during the struggle. I don’t like you having it, but I feel leaving it in Mordekah’s possession would be far worse.”

Tanta stepped between them. “We must have haste. Where are the others?”

“The brig.”

“Lead the way.”

They ran to the hatch and Noddie hurried down the loose stairs. All of her friends were on their feet peeking through the bars at her.

“It’s Noddie May!” Vince announced. “What happened? We were afraid they—”

“We’ve come to get you out of here.” Tanta rushed down the stairs behind Noddie, pulling out a long lock pick.

She released Preston first. “We need you. Go quickly. Sandra has your bow.”

“Take the McCarthys to safety,” Lorance instructed as Tanta freed Lieles and Sarah. “We’ll follow.”

Preston motioned to the travelers, “Follow me.” The McCarthys were quick to oblige.

“You should go with them,” Jethrow instructed Noddie as he held the bars steady for Tanta.

“I want to stay, I want to help.”

“Aaaaah, this isn’t working. It’s stuck!” Tanta complained.

“Here, let me.”

She moved aside to give Jethrow room. He barely fit the pick into the lock when the bars above them were hit with a loud clank, startling them all. Jethrow was knocked to the floor and Noddie shrank back behind the cell as the bald robber attacked. Tanta moved forward to fight him off.

Jethrow was attempting to rise when Phil pinned him down.

“Just you and me at last, Jethrow,” Phil declared. Jethrow’s eyes darted to where his own knife lay a few feet away. Phil reached for his hammer. “You’re going to pay for what you did to my face.”

“It’s an improvement,” Jethrow growled, then hastily moved his head to avoid taking Phil’s hammer to the nose. The strike smashed into the floor and Jethrow reached his knife. He slashed Phil’s thigh and the man yelled like an angry bull. Jethrow kicked his rival away and stumbled to his feet making a beeline for the cell.

There was a deafening crash and the whole ship shuttered and tipped, knocking everyone off their feet. Then with an earsplitting crunch, the far wall exploded and water gushed into the brig, shattering the staircase to splinters.

“My sore, that’s cold!” Lorance exclaimed picking up his feet.

Cold was an understatement. The water stung Noddie’s skin like bees, stealing her breath and sapping her strength. “What happened?” she gasped, gripping the bars.

Mesha hissed. “We must have run aground. The ice leading out from the shore has pierced through the hull. We must get out of here quickly before she sinks.”

Noddie looked about in panic. The stairs were shattered pieces of wood floating around the brig how would they get out?

Lorance cried out as the ship tipped again and the wall behind the cell gave out as more water broke through.

The wave forced Phil against the opposite wall and swept Noddie beneath the hatch. She climbed up on a box to escape the frigid water.

A shadow fell over her and she tilted her head back to see Mordekah standing on deck, looking down into the hold. “I shall tell your uncle hello from you,” he called down angrily.

“NO!”

But it was too late, he shut and bolted the hatch, Sealing off their escape. The water was rising fast and they were trapped.

“Noddie May!”

Noddie reached forward and pulled Jethrow up beside her. Jethrow hoisted himself up and braced against the beams across the ceiling. He pushed and pounded against the hatch, but it did not give.

“Jethrow!” Vince yelled.

Jethrow turned in time to delay Phil’s attack, accidentally knocking Noddie into the water.

“You idiot,” Jethrow spat as he struggled to hold the hammer at bay, “We’ll both drown in here!”

But Phil’s rage consumed reason. And with a roar, he twisted the hammer out of Jethrow’s hand to make another swing.

Resurfacing, Noddie half swam-half walked back towards the locked cell.

“Where’s the lock pick?” Noddie hollered through the bars.

“Somewhere in the water,” Mesha responded. “It was swept away when the first wave came through.”

Jethrow subdued Phil as Tanta disposed of the other robber. She hurried over and grabbed Phil from behind, and he turned to confront his new opponent.

Jethrow labored over to Noddie, who had gone numb with cold. “We can’t find the lock pick!” she vented.

“Never mind it!” Jethrow shook the bars of the cell and found one side that had been knocked loose from the second wave.

“Can you slip through here?” he asked pointing to a gap in the corner of the cell.

“We’ve tried, it’s too narrow,” Vince answered. By this time the water had reached waist level.

“I’m going to try and lift this up, swim underneath and through the breach to the outside.”

“Understood. Lorance, you go first.”

Jethrow took a low, firm grip on the wet bars and with a strained groan lifted the entire barred wall of the cell up. Lorance wasted no time in diving under the grate and through the hole in the side of the ship.

“Noddie, you go too!” Jethrow ordered through gritted teeth.

“What about Isca’s bottle? Won’t it shatter?”

“Temperature won’t affect a magical artifact. Just keep it in the pouch, it will be okay,” gushed Mesha.

“Mesha!”

At Vince’s command, Mesha dove under as well and disappeared after his brother.

Jethrow dropped the bars and summoned more strength as Noddie pushed aside some of the rubble that had floated in their way.

Grunting against the strain, Jethrow lifted the cell again.

“Can you get out as well?” Vince checked.

“Yes. Just go! Quickly, this is heavy!”

“Tanta!” Vince called to the scout before diving under and with a swift kick propelled himself out into the sea. At Vince’s call Tanta shoved Phil away, causing him to be submerged in the high water, and as quick and graceful as a fish, dove under the water, into the cell, and out.

The bars slipped in Jethrow’s hands, making the space below even smaller. With a deep breath Noddie bent down and pushed herself under Jethrow’s hands. She resurfaced inside the cell. Getting her footing she braced herself to hold up the bars to help Jethrow come through. Her eyes focused in time to see Phil attack Jethrow with a wide swing of his hammer. Jethrow dodged before swinging himself inside the cell. “GO!”

Letting the cell wall drop behind them Noddie ducked under again. A roaring filled her ears as she grabbed the edge of the hole and pushed herself out, Jethrow following at her heels.

There was a numbing pain and darkness as water filled her nose and stung her eyes. She lost all sense of direction as the dark water surged about her in an attempt to swallow her. She sensed Jethrow pull her upper arm, but could not feel his hand.

In what seemed like an eternity, but was less than a minute, they surfaced, lungs burning, and crawled up onto the ice.

Dizzy, Noddie tried to take in her surroundings. The abandoned ship was leaning to one side, impelled on the ice behind them. The battle between robbers and archers had moved to the snow-covered wasteland, a storm of shouts and the clashing and banging of weapons, lost in the mix of bodies and blood crusted snow. A countless group of robbers swarming from the south were joining the fray, leaving the loyal warriors of Irestead outnumbered.

“Come on.” Jethrow pulled her to her feet and they ran. Noddie couldn’t feel her legs let alone place one foot before the other. Her teeth rattled and she was shivering so violently it hurt. Already her clothes and hair were freezing and stiffening.

The ice cracked beneath their feet. They stopped short as the mast fell before them, striking the ice and throwing shards into the air.

BOOM!

They turned to see a robber about to stab Jethrow in the back collapse. Liels McCarthy pointed his smoking pistol to the sky after taking down their unseen attacker. The others were behind him in an instant.

“We must relocate to a safe place!” Vince yelled over the sounds of combat. Their group ran further inland as the ice at the water’s edge crumbled and with the groan of a dying whale, the Tempest sank beneath the sea.

The battle surrounded them in a living nightmare. Archers running in to protect them were falling one by one as the robbers pushed forward.

“We should call a retreat.” Lorance said in distress. They can’t win this way, they’ll all be slaughtered.”

The guard forging their path placed a hand on the prince’s shoulder. “Be at ease, your Highness. This is only the first wave of our planned attack, meant to draw out all the robbers into one body.”

A horn blared. A war cry rang out and the robbers faltered in their attack as a humble army swarmed over the ice, all armed with firearms, axes, and other weapons and armor. They came from the east, in an endless parade of shouting warriors.

“The reinforcements!” Lorance crowed in triumph, “They finally came!”

The guard shot down another robber. “Yes, your Highness. We received word at the Lone Palace shortly after you left for the Shadowrock Cliffs.”

Irestead’s makeshift army plowed into the battle, attacking like a pack of wild dogs. The robbers scrambled to reassemble themselves, and the battle continued fiercer than ever. The recruits were not trained fighters, but the flame burning within them to protect their country, their princes, and their families, fueled their strength and determination.

Lorance moved as though to join them, but Vince grabbed his arm and pulled him onward as they continued running across the snowy plain. Lorance knew better than to argue. He was trembling so hard from cold he wouldn’t be able to hold a sword even if he had one.

Noddie suddenly realized she was on her knees. Her body felt oddly detached as though she were floating in a dream without feeling or consciousness. Words became muffled as though her ears were full of cotton. Her eyelids were heavy. She thought she saw a massive sleigh pull to a halt in front of them and Jethrow turned and said something muffled before her world tunneled into darkness.

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