It was the hall closet all over again. Only this space was bigger and colder, made up of identical smooth, gray walls, floor, and ceiling, with the exception of a thin grate next to the floor, which allowed air to pass through from outside. There was no light and the door was bolted from the outside.
Noddie sat in the corner with her forehead on her knees trying not to think.
Once the others had seen the scratches she was hoisted off the ground by two of the officers with strict orders to put her into quarantine. They ignored Mesha’s angry objections, and Jethrow’s accusations, as they half hauled, half carried her away to an abandoned warehouse now used for this very purpose.
Numb with shock, Noddie felt disconnected from everything, as if she were watching these things happen to a stranger. The threat of the plague had always hung over her head. Heaven knows she had had too many near misses with death already. She always accepted the possibility, even harbored a nightmarish fear that she could become a victim to the scorenza. Now that she had, the truth was surreal. Perhaps deep down she never really believed this would happen to her. This was something that happened to other people, the stuff of stories.
Her dazed mentality cleared and there was nothing to distract her from the overbearing fear that filled her heart and mind. The ghosts of memories drifted before her eyes and made her skin prickle. She showed no symptoms yet. No fever, no sores, no breathing trouble, but it was only a matter of time.
Unable to contain it any longer, she cried over her unfortunate fate until she became too exhausted to weep anymore. In the end she just sat and thought.
Her body was extremely sensitive to the world around her, the cool air, the smooth floor, the sharp smell of winter and smoke drifting from the grate. More noticeable was the steady rhythm of her heartbeat, the way each breath filled her lungs, every blink and movement. The human body was a miraculous thing. And yet, so vulnerable.
It was torture, waiting to die. A part of her wished the scorenza would take hold so she could get it over with. She started to envy the thousands of people who died quickly and unexpectedly, not knowing they had the plague until the last moment. She wished she did not have to die here, in the dark, alone. It would be a comfort to have Mesha or Jethrow here to hold her hand. She wished she had shared last words with them before the officers dragged her away. If nothing else, she would like to thank them for all they had done for her. When the time came would her friends still be here? Or would they be on the train?
She thought of her home. Her beautiful Rosedust Valley. Her parents and friends. At least she had been able to say good-bye to them, even if she meant it to be temporary. How ironic it was, that after sending her so far away in order to be safe from the plague, she would die of the scorenza here.
Looking over her life she was content, if a little saddened. Perhaps she had not done everything she dreamed of doing, but she had done some great things. Things she never believed herself capable of, which eased her heart to a degree. She had come a long way and had been so close; so close to saving her uncle Lazren. Perhaps the others would fulfill the task she could not.
Mesha, Jethrow, the McCarthy’s, Lorance, Vince. She thought fondly of each of them in turn and hoped they would be able to dispel the plague and revive Irestead and Milay.
With nothing else left to do Noddie began to pray. She was not naive enough to expect to live past the next twenty-four hours, but the prayers themselves would help comfort and calm her.
Suddenly there was a loud clang as the bolt slid back and the door opened. Mesha peeked into the room followed by Sarah.
“Mesha! Sarah!” Noddie’s heart filled with relief at the sight of them, but turned to dread once her mind caught up to her emotions. “What are you doing here? You’ll get the plague!” she exclaimed in a hoarse whisper.
“You don’t have the plague,” Mesha answered in the same hushed voice, adjusting the door so it appeared closed behind them. “And I couldn’t get it from you if you did.”
His words did not register right away. When they did she collapsed back against the wall. “I— I don’t have the plague?”
“But the man- He touched me- he—”
“You still have Isca’s bottle don’t you?”
Mesha knelt before her. “I figured it out, Noddie May. The bottle is a potion concocted by Isca’s magic and holds an enhanced version of the plague. Remember, her magic cancels out. The amulet, my curse, your bottle, they all act the same way to repel the plague. When Isca first gave it to you she said it would protect you. It is a natural guard against the Scorenza.”
Noddie’s heart fluttered like a baby bird. “Are you sure?”
Mesha covered his eyes. “I cannot believe I did not realize it before. Of course she would need to give you something to immunize you to the curse! She could not risk losing you in Hulz Deep or the infected land of Irestead before you could return her amulet to her. It was her plan from the beginning.”
“I really don’t have the plague?” she couldn’t help but ask one more time. Mesha could see death. If he said she was not going to die then she could trust his word.
“No. You do not have the plague.”
“We came to get you out, Noddie May darling!”
Noddie took the bottle from her pouch. The liquid reflected against the colored glass more beautiful than it was before.
Mesha nudged her arm. “Come on, we are going to get you out of here. The others are waiting for us.”
They crept out of the warehouse through a busted door on the north side. The world outside felt refreshed. Much like a clean bed sheet after a thorough scrubbing. The details she had always taken for granted, the ever-changing sky to the sparkles in the snow, appeared wondrous to her eyes.
Mesha and Sarah pulled her down the street and back into the narrow alleys until they arrived at the train yard. The station was a massive, domed building with tracks leading off in all directions.
Gard was waiting for them in a steamy doorway near the back. He shot an wary glance at Noddie, but only said, “The others are already on board. Come along. Discreetly, mind, and if anyone asks, you don’t know me.”
As they entered the main station Noddie’s eyes grew in wonder. Made up of pillars and arches, the glass ceiling vaulted high above, blocking the freshly falling snow. Multiple lines crossed through the building, but only two steam engines were stalled at the station, each on its own set of track.
Men in uniform walked up and down the platforms directing workers, who were unloading one train and transporting the cargo, everything from lumber and coal to produce and spices, onto the other.
The Endeavor was a handsome jet-black steam engine with matching boxcars. It was larger and more impressive than Noddie imagined.
A train whistle blew, and its clear sound reverberated throughout the station. Gard waved them over to a car near the end that looked as though it had once been a passenger car, but had been gutted out and was now packed with boxes and trunks.
“Conceal yourselves. From here on out, you’re on your own. Anything that happens is out of my hands.” He made to leave but stopped to whisper a swift, “Good luck. You’ll need it.”
They ducked behind a large trunk as doors were slammed secured and the train released a hiss of steam. Smoke puffed up in spurts like a panting dragon, and with a jerk the Endeavor crept forward. The floor rumbled beneath them and the clank of the wheels rattled as they picked up speed and the Endeavor began its final stretch toward the forbidden capital city.
“Gave us quite the scare,” Vince commented as Tanta gave Noddie a strong hug and Liels tugged her braids with affection.
Seeing them all brought tears to Noddie’s eyes.
“I’m so glad you are all right!” Lorance told her. Under Vince’s disapproving eye he corrected, “I mean, it pleases me to see you well, Miss Noddie May.”
“Thank you Lorance.” Noddie sat on an old seat beside Jethrow. He reached out and briefly squeezed her shoulder. Noddie smiled, recognizing the gesture as Jethrow’s way of saying he was happy to see her safe. She had the impression he was a lot more upset by recent events then he let on.
Lorance pulled a crate closer and sat down on it before asking, “So how are we going to get the amulet to Isca without, pardon me for saying, killing off Jethrow?”
Noddie had a plan. “I will give Jethrow Isca’s bottle beforehand. It should have the same effect as the amulet and keep the plague at bay.”
Jethrow turned to face her. “You realize that by giving that up you will be left vulnerable yourself?”
Noddie pursed her lips. “We’ll make the exchange right before we present it to Isca. If she keeps her word we will no longer be threatened by the plague. I doubt it will take long to undo the curse.” she turned back to Lorance. “This is the same train you rode when you escaped form Bolzenar isn’t it?”
“Yes.” Lorance squirmed before addressing Vince, “We are going to pass through the dark again, aren’t we?”
Vince’s face went taut before replying, “Yes, I’m afraid the last stretch of our journey will be through bottom-top tunnel.”
“Bottom-top tunnel?” Jethrow asked with a raised eyebrow.
Tanta nodded, “Yes. So named because it is said the tunnel is so dark one cannot tell which way is up or down. The north half of the iron wall is built into the mountain range behind the city. The royal palace has its own station hidden inside the mountain unknown to the public. Its purpose was to prevent people intending to harm the royal family from sneaking dangerous items into the cargo. In order to reach the station we will be passing under the mountain itself. That is bottom-top tunnel.”
“And about how long are we going to be in the dark?” Liels asked.
“About two hours.”
“Yikes. I don’t fancy being in the dark so long.”
Mesha drew his legs up and encircled them with his arms. “It will be unpleasant, but it cannot be helped.”
The car became stuffy and Jethrow slid open the window admitting a chilly gust with bits of ash. Noddie spent much of the train ride sleeping or staring out at the endless landscape of ice and snow. At times she could see a city or town in the distance, nestled between rocky hills and pine forests.
The track slanted down a steep hill and Noddie leaned her head out to gaze ahead. Drawing closer was an arched portal leading into the base of a looming snowcapped peak.
Jethrow looked out from behind her. “The tunnel.”
With a bang the door to their car slid open and a group of armed men entered the room.
“Stowaways, stay where you are! By order of Lewis Hemlin, you are hereby under arrest for illegal passage by the king’s private train into the forbidden city of Irestead.”
Those who were seated leapt to their feet and Noddie saw Jethrow finger his knife as Vince placed himself in front of the guards.
“This is a royal matter. As the royal instructor and caretaker I order you to stand down. Leave at once or you will be guilty of disloyalty to the throne by threatening the heirs of Irestead.”
The foremost guard laughed, “You hold no power here, Vince. And there’s no one to back you up. No one to give witness. I would surrender quietly, if I were you. We are approaching bottom-top-tunnel and there’s no telling what accidents may occur in the dark.”
The color drained from Vince’s face. “This is murder and treason! I will not stand for this!”
The guard advanced and hit Vince with the brunt of his gun. Vince fell back, tripping over a crate amid shouts of anger and concern. They all moved forward as one to attack.
Then everything went dark.
Through the window, Noddie could see the light of the entrance fly away like an unreachable dream, growing smaller and smaller behind them as they hurtled onward. There were shouts and grunts as they were all thrown into a blind scuffle. The crashes of dislodged cargo were interspersed with the sliding and banging of the compartment door. Something, or someone, knocked into Noddie and she fell sideways, hitting her knee on the corner of a box. She scrambled away, feeling along the wall and the floor.
Never had she been anywhere so devoid of light before. Her farm in Rosedust Valley could get dark come nightfall, but there was still the gentle glow of the stars and moon. Oddly enough, even Hulz Deep had been lit by fire or sorcery at all times. Here, there was nothing but all-consuming darkness, made more eerie by the sounds of fighting and the clattering of the train. It was unsettling, knowing her eyes were open, yet unable to see anything. Her mind kept reasoning that any time now her eyes would adjust and she would be able to make out shapes and outlines. But it was not so. She could sense objects and people around her and it made her feel terribly vulnerable not being able to place exactly where they were.
Then someone grabbed her hair and shoulder and began to pull her away. She resisted until Mesha’s voice whispered in her ear, “Noddie May, it’s me.”
Noddie ceased her struggles and allowed Mesha to pull her behind a bureau near the back of the car. By trial and error they managed to hide themselves beneath the cargo.
“Vince, I found Noddie May.”
Noddie rubbed her useless eyes, wishing she could see something besides emptiness. “What happened?”
Vince answered, “Those men knew we were on board this train. Either someone tipped them off or we were too careless. Could be one of them saw us through the compartment window while making rounds.”
Lorance’s voice came from Noddie’s left. “They must have discovered us recently. Otherwise they would have confronted us long before we entered the tunnel.”
They heard Vince shift around. “It makes no difference now. Let’s keep our heads down and wait out the darkness. Hopefully the others managed to get away as well.”
Noddie pulled her knees to her chest. It was going to be a long wait.
At length, the door to their compartment was heard and heavy boots walked across the floor. The light of a lantern cast rays across the cargo and up the walls, dispelling the darkness as it was directed from one area to another. Despite her racing heart and held breath, Noddie was overcome with relief as the light granted her the gift of sight in this short reprieve.
Vince pressed them closer to the floor as the footsteps drew nearer. Then the door slit open and shut again and a voice called out, “Anything?”
“Nothing,” the closer voice responded. “We apprehended four of the intruders. They’re bound and locked in the second car under guard.”
“They are of no consequence. It is Vince and the boys we must concern ourselves with. Word of this must not leave the train or it’s our necks.”
“What about the others? We can’t allow them to live now they know of the king’s supply train. Should we shoot them on the platform once we reach the station?”
“No. We will consult Hemlin first. He said to alert him should anything happen. Continue the search for the others. We don’t have much time.”
The second man left and the first continued to shift about the stacked goods. Although he came close multiple times, he did not find them and left the car, taking the precious light with him.
They allowed the darkness and silence to settle again before Lorance whispered, “We need to help the others.”
There was the whisper of rustled cloth before Vince answered. “No. There’s nothing we can do without being captured ourselves. I’m afraid the others will have to fend for themselves for now.”
“But—” Noddie started, but Vince assured her, “They’ll be alright. You heard the guards; they don’t plan on killing them, at least not yet. Once we reach the station we’ll return to the palace and send help from there.”
No more was said as they waited out the dark.
At long last, Vince pulled them out and they squeezed through the rear door to crouch on the end of a platform. The darkness was more frightening with the cold wind tearing at her hair and clothes and the loud chug and clanking of the train echoing through the tunnel.
Then the cavern around them lightened. A clear bell sounded from the front and the Endeavor crawled to a stop.
Vince peeked around the car. There was the flickering light of torches ahead and ordered shouts and responses. The four of them cautiously slid down onto the tracks and picked their way along the edge of the cavern wall, creeping through the shadows.
The cave contained nothing but the tracks, and a platform outlined by torch lamps. Two men and a woman in uniform were conversing with the conductor while six others started opening doors and unloading cargo.
Vince directed them behind the platform without being seen. They followed a path through another tunnel. Noddie wobbled on cramped legs, and Lorance stopped to shake out the prickling sensation in his foot, but no one complained.
Five minutes later, twilight greeted them from up ahead. Reaching the mouth of the tunnel, their view was opened to reveal a dismal landscape. A vast city of impressive, if gloomy-looking, buildings all encircled by a high dark wall in the distance. Everything was cast in a gray hue, interrupted by glaring strips of red cloth hanging limp from over half of the windows and doors.
Vince spread his arm to encircle the land before them, “Welcome to the capital city of Irestead,” He said in a low solemn voice. “Bolzenar.”