Plagued

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The Darkness Beneath

The farther they descended below ground the colder it became. The guards led Noddie beyond a line of cells and down another flight of steps before opening a padlocked door and thrusting her in.

The dungeon was a long room of cold, gray stone and a low ceiling. Pillars separated the area into sections while beams crisscrossed overhead. A single stone step separated the back half of the cell from the front. Menacing chains and shackles hung from the walls. The whole place reeked of filth and despair.

Jethrow rushed to her side as the door bolted with an ear-shattering clash behind her.

“Noddie May!”

Noddie grabbed Jethrow’s shirtsleeves in her fists and cried in despair, “Oh, Jethrow what have I done?” Discouraged and grieved, she could no longer hold back the flood of sobs. In a rush between tears and hiccuping breaths she told Jethrow what she overheard.

“I only wanted to help! I don’t know where to go or who to trust. My parents have probably caught the plague by now. They might be dead! And I’ve destroyed Irestead. Now Lorance and Mesha and everyone else are going to die!”

“Stop it!” Jethrow spat harshly taking her by the shoulders and giving her a subtle shake. “Noddie May, pull yourself together! Mesha and Lorance need you.”

Choking back a sob, Noddie wiped the tears away with the palm of her hand.

Jethrow gave her a few minutes to collect herself before continuing in a low, gentler voice, “You’ve been betrayed, by someone you trusted and that is always hard. But you can’t let Lazren win. Things have changed Noddie May, as circumstances sometimes will.”

Noddie sank onto the step, squeezing her eyes shut. She felt worn and raw, as if she had been stripped down to her bones and her soul had been prodded and abused. She wanted nothing more than to sit in a corner and never move again.

“It’s too much, Jethrow. I’m tired. I’ve been struggling and running for too long. And I don’t want to fight anymore. I’m just a frightened farm girl from a peaceful valley. I don’t belong here. What do you want from me?” she questioned in a defeated voice.

Jethrow sat beside her. “Only your best, Noddie May. That’s all anyone can ask for. You’re much greater than you think you are. You just aren’t able to see it until after trials like these are over.”

Noddie stared at the floor. “I feel lost,” she whispered placing her chin on her knees.

Jethrow leaned toward her, resting his forearms on his own knees as he watched her face. “Do you remember when we were in the labyrinth of Hulz deep?”

Throat burning, she nodded.

“The maze was changing around us, but we stayed on course because we had the compass to guide us. For several months of the year Irestead is trapped in a cold darkness, but the people are able to endure because they know if they wait and hold strong, the spring will come and the sun will shine again. It’s their faith that gets them through.

“Everyone will face their own days of darkness at some point in their lives, and we must find our own speck of light. Like Sarah’s compass in the maze, or Irestead’s faith in the sun, if we stay focused on one important thing we will be able to make it through the dark.”

Noddie listened with rapt attention. It was out of character for Jethrow to talk in such a comforting tone, let alone about things like hope and faith. Somehow that made his words powerful enough to silence her tears.

Jethrow sat up and shifted on the cold, hard stone. “What is your one thing, Noddie May?”

Noddie pondered his words. Jethrow allowed her time to think before saying; “You’ve come a long way already. What do you have to show for it?”

Noddie stared into the darkness of the prison. What did she have to show for it? She thought of everything she had seen, everything she had done these past few months.

Some of the trials she faced came about by her own mistakes or wrong decisions, the demons of her own weaknesses. But she had also fallen victim to the choices of others. Suffering the afflictions of both broken trust, and the selfish actions of people she never met.

By far the most frightening battles had come from no one at all. They were the ones she couldn’t fight or run from, when all she could do was stand firm and weather the storm, hoping that when it blew over she’d still be there. Her thoughts turned to the time she spent in quarantine. She was in her own type of quarantine now, only this time the threat was different.

No matter where her challenges came from, she had borne them all the same. And in the end, it didn’t matter. What mattered was what she chose to do.

I learned things I hadn’t known before, she realized. I found things I didn’t know were there. Things inside me. A new determination sparked to life inside her heart and slowly grew until its warmth consumed her.

Lazren thought I was special because I was the only one who survived the plague at the estate. But that was not my doing. Neither were the attacks from the Mordekah robbers, or Isca, or the effects of the plague, but I faced them all the same. And I will face this too! And I will come out the all the better for it!

And she meant it. Bit by bit her fear dripped away until it faded completely, leaving something new and strong in its place. Hope, faith, purpose . . . courage.

She recalled Mesha’s words from, so long ago, “When you find that you cannot win and all the odds are against you, all you can do is your best. But as long as you are your best until the very end, then you will never really lose.” He was right. She didn’t know what she could do. There was no way for her to fight. She didn’t possess a weapon, nor did she know how to use one. She was vulnerable to the plague now that she had lost Isca’s bottle, and she was in a place where she didn’t know one floor from another. But it didn’t matter. Now if she could just figure out what to do.

“We have to get out of here.”

“That would be nice,” said Jethrow.

“You’re a thief aren’t you? Couldn’t you pick the lock on the door or something?”

“No. I don’t have a lock pick. Besides, it’s bolted, and the guard outside would hear me.”

“There must be another way.”

“We are in the Gondorren Palace dungeons, Noddie. It’s impossible to get out of here.”

“Isca did,” she said suddenly, remembering the story. “Isca was locked down here after she cursed Mesha and she got out.”

“Isca is a sorceress. She had magic. We don’t.”

Noddie stood. “Maybe traces of that magic are still here. Let’s look around. We might, at least, find a clue as to how she did it.”

Jethrow looked skeptical. There was a rustle and squeak from beyond the light and he eyed the floor uneasily. “Fine. But I don’t expect we’ll find anything.”

They scoured the dungeon, running their hands over the chilled walls, examining pillars and scraping straw away with their shoes. Noddie felt into the dark corners as the scuttling of rats made Jethrow too jumpy.

“It’s no use, Noddie,” Jethrow breathed as he leaned against a pillar. “There’s nothing here.”

Noddie didn’t respond, but continued to analyze the back wall of the prison. She could not be defeated here!

Yet, Jethrow was right; they were running out of time and needed to come up with a new plan. Slumping in defeat, Noddie halfheartedly moved the heavy, icy chains to the side.

That’s when she saw it.

“Jethrow!”

Jethrow crouched at her side and saw it too. They both smiled as if they had discovered pure gold. They found better; two lines marked the wall with an arrow pointing between them. This was more than Noddie could have hoped for.

“Do you remember how to open it?” he asked.

She nodded. “Touch it and say, ‘Auntem’.”

She stretched her hand forward to do so, but Jethrow caught her wrist. “Once this opens, let me go first. If it’s safe I’ll call for you.”

Noddie made to protest but Jethrow cut her off, “We don’t know where this leads. Or who might be waiting at the other end. If we—”

Something hard slammed into Jethrow’s side and he flew to the right, striking his head against the nearest pillar. Not a second later Noddie was grabbed from behind with the all too familiar chill of a knife below her chin.

She turned her head enough to see Mordekah’s face.

“What a horrible place for an innocent girl. Don’t worry, Noddie May, I’ll get you out of here,” He said with fake concern.

He hauled her to her feet and dragged her backwards toward the prison door, which Noddie realized was wide open. How did they not noticed him open the door? How had they not heard the key in the lock or the screech of the hinges? She struggled, looking frantically at Jethrow, who was blinking rapidly, lying where he had fallen as though trying to piece together what happened.

“Jethrow! JETHROW!”

“I would stop struggling if I were you. My knife hand isn’t as steady as some,” Mordekah breathed in her ear as he tightened his hold.

Jethrow managed to sit up, leaning against the pillar and clutching his head while swaying with dizziness. By the time his eyes cleared, Mordekah was standing at the dungeon entrance.

“Take a good look, Jethrow,” Mordekah called. “Whatever happens now, you won’t be seeing her again.”

Then he slammed and relocked the door.

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