The Palace was eerily quiet as Mordekah dragged her through the endless halls and foyers.
“You’d expect Lazren to come crawling to a place like this,” Mordekah murmured disdainfully, glancing at a nearby vase on a pedestal. “But there’ll be no one coming to back him up tonight. Let us see how he fares without a troop behind him.”
Noddie didn’t say anything. She was trying not to dwell on the sharp blade at her neck. It was long and broad and she shivered wondering if it had already been used tonight on the lifeless guards she saw on their way out of the dungeon.
Mordekah seemed to know exactly where they were going. There was a hunger in his eyes that made her nervous.
Upon reaching the main floor they stopped in front of an impressive pair of carved doors. Mordekah paused to hold Noddie in a firmer grip, then pushed the doors open.
The room beyond was long with a vaulted ceiling and second story balcony. Lines of tall windows were hidden behind velvet curtains and two raised cauldrons the size of bathtubs were ablaze with bonfires to add light and warmth to the room.
There was no floor save for two platforms. The one on which they now stood by the door and another on the far side of the room. Between two pillars on the back wall hung a massive tapestry donning the Irestead crest, acting as a backdrop for four magnificent black thrones.
Mordekah walked Noddie over a dark, glass-like bridge that connected the two platforms.
As they approached Noddie noticed Mesha and Lorance bound at the foot of the throne on the far right.
Mordekah stopped short as Lazren stepped out from behind the center-most throne and leaned against it, shifting Isca’s bottle between his fingers. “I wondered if you were going to show up tonight.” he said as though welcoming the robber to his New Years ball. On the seat of the throne was a sheathed sword, but Lazren made no move to pick it up.
Mordekah obviously had not planned on confronting Lazren so soon, but despite this alteration to his plans he was quick to compose himself. Straightening, his eyes narrowed on the object in Lazren’s hands. “Hand over that bottle, Lazren. Slowly.”
Lazren’s lips quirked up. “I think not.”
Mordekah’s grip tightened on both the knife and Noddie. Mesha’s eyes were darting between the two men as Lorance craned his neck to see.
“Don’t play games with me, Lazren, or I’ll—”
“You’ll what? It seems you have lost your men, Mordekah.” Lazren’s smirk grew. “Again.”
Mordekah forced Noddie to her knees, his knife never leaving the side of her neck.
Mesha struggled against his bonds like a fish in a net. “Leave her alone! She has nothing to do with this!” But Mesha’s yells fell on deaf ears.
“The bottle, Lazren,” Mordekah demanded. “And your surrender. Or I’ll gut your niece right here.”
A delicate silence filled the room. Out of the corner of her eye Noddie thought she saw the tapestry sway. Lorance must have noticed too because his head swerved to look behind him. Mesha went tense and sat still as stone.
Lazren continued to observe the pair in front of him. His eyes met Noddie’s for a brief instant, but there was only cold pity there, as if her death was nothing but an inconvenience that could not be helped.
The realization caused her mind to go blank, not knowing what to think or feel anymore. She didn’t plead or tremble, as she normally would’ve done, she watched in a daze as things played out before her.
“Go ahead, she is no concern of mine.”
Mordekah gave a low cannibalistic growl. Noddie saw the knife flash out of the corner of her eye.
Mesha yelled in alarm.
Noddie’s heart gave a strong beat of confused fear. Then her cheek began to sting and blood dripped down to her neck from the long cut.
“I’m not bluffing. I will kill her here at your feet.”
The burn of the cut and the blood wetting her neck brought the pain back, but it wasn’t physical.
Mordekah contemplated Lazren with a discouraged sneer. Then raised the knife.
Free of his bonds, Mesha leaped at Mordekah, intercepting his knife hand and forcing the robber to stumble backwards. Noddie used the distraction to scramble out of reach.
Lazren looked to where the boy had been restrained, surprised to come face-to-face with Jethrow. Before he could react Jethrow grabbed his wrist and tried to pry the bottle from Lazren’s strong fingers.
“Noddie May!” Lorance called from where he was tied up. “Finish where Jethrow left off.” He nodded to a sword lying next to him on the ground. “Hurry!”
Stumbling to Lorance’s, side Noddie lifted the heavy sword and struggled to saw through the cords binding him.
Mordekah regained his footing and threw Mesha off him with a wide sweep of his arm. He started towards Lazren, but was tripped up by Mesha.
“I don’t have time to deal with you.” With an angry swipe, Mordekah’s knife slashed Mesha’s left arm. Mesha collapsed with a yell and Mordekah held the boy’s shoulder to the floor with his boot as he prepared to cut his throat.
The struggle between Jethrow and Lazren had become more violent. Jethrow kicked Lazren in the knee, but not before Lazren displaced his other leg. Knocked off-balance, both men fell to the ground. The bottle slipped between their hands like soap and clinked against the floor before rolling toward the platform’s edge.
“Noddie May!” Noddie had hacked through most of the cords when Lorance’s shout caused her to look up. Dropping the sword, she bounded forward and caught the cool glass before it reached the abyss.
Standing firm, Noddie turned and raised the bottle in a fist high above her head. “Stop!”
Noddie’s trembling was hardly noticeable, her expression unwavering, as every eye in the hall turned towards her. Lazren’s eyes narrowed. Jethrow looked concerned, and Mordekah’s face went pale with dread, his attack on Mesha forgotten.
“Stop. Or I will shatter this potion and we will all feel the effects of the plague.” She was glad they could not hear her frantic heart beat. Her voice had never sounded so certain and threatening.
As her words died away a high cackle bounced around the room and Isca’s voice rang out from the far corners. “Oh this is sweet! The revered Martis Lazren, the king of robbers, and the heirs to the Irestead throne, all in one place and suddenly the little farm girl is the most important person in the room.”
The shadows gathered. The fire in the cauldrons blazed higher with a heat and intensity that pierced their eyes. Then Isca was standing on the platform as though she had been there all along.
Mordekah backed away in dread. Leaving Mesha to scowl at the witch from where he sat on the floor, trying to stem the flow of blood from his arm. Jethrow’s hand went to his lucky charm and Lazren gave a victorious smirk.
The room was clouded with hatred and fear. And in this distinct moment Noddie understood how each of them was chained together by revenge. It was all one vicious cycle. Isca’s vengeance against Irestead and Mordekah, Mordekah’s fear of Isca and hatred of Lazren, Jethrow’s troubles with Mordekah and disquiet of all things witchcraft and Mesha’s resentment of his own curse. She marveled at how these petty affairs had resulted in the death of so many others who had nothing to do with any of them. Hatred and revenge were really nothing but an endless, killing plague.
“Mordekah, you’re here too. How convenient. I’ve waited a long time for this night and it would not be complete without you.”
Mordekah was little more than a frightened animal, threatened, but growling and snarling nonetheless. “Keep away, you old hag! Your enchantments don’t concern me. You have no power anymore. You must be growing weak indeed to send little girls to do you bidding.”
Isca’s smug smile only grew at his words. “Believe what you will, thieving scum.” She made a few casual paces towards Noddie. “Ah, little Noddie May. I knew you would be useful. So scared and pliable, so desperate to help and do the right thing. Pathetic, but useful, nonetheless. I was going to have Lazren enter Hulz Deep and retrieve my amulet once I heard how he bested Mordekah. But then you came along and saved me a lot of time and trouble.”
“You stay away!” Noddie ordered defensively. She didn’t know where Isca heard her name, but it did not bode well for her.
Isca stopped, the smile falling from her face. “No need for that, dearie. Put the bottle down.” she said, trying to sound soothing, but coming across as annoyed. “This threat of yours is an empty one. It’s a controlled version of the plague and will not spread. It will take the life of whomever breaks it. Besides, half of us would be unaffected.” Her haughty gaze drifted from Mesha to Jethrow. Her deadly gaze falling to the glimmer around his neck. “Lazren, that robber has my amulet. Bring it to me.” She barked.
Lorance leaned forward as much as the bonds would allow. “Wait! Not now! You’ll release the plague!”
Lazren took no heed of his words, pulling the sword beside him from its casing.
“Leave him alone!” Noddie shouted in desperation.
Isca thrust her hand towards Noddie and an invisible force slammed into her chest, throwing Noddie backward, several yards down the bridge. The assault left her dazed and gasping for breath.
Lazren was about to advance on Jethrow when Mordekah attacked from the side with a bellowing roar. Lazren turned to parry the blow. The king of robbers lunged again and again, each blow calmly deflected by Lazren’s steady blade. With each strike Mordekah became more enraged, Lazren’s lazy indifference, adding fuel to the fire. His anger made his attacks stronger, but wild.
Once Noddie managed to get air back into her lungs, she sat up with a moan, clenching her fist.
It was empty.
She had dropped the bottle during her fall.
Before she could scan the ground for it Isca appeared on the bridge in front of her.
“Sorry, Noddie May, you are no longer of any use to me. She made an odd gesture while voicing strange words and Noddie was filled with a racing heat as though her blood had risen to boiling temperatures. She tried to stand, but fell back as strength was sapped from her body. She was feverish. Sweat beading across her skin. The world blurred in a confusing array of color and sound.
It was witchcraft. Noddie shook her head trying to focus. She had to find the bottle! Sluggishly she felt around on her hands and knees, eyes streaming and burning, praying the bottle did not fall over the side.
Time lengthened, as her search yielded nothing. Every move stung and it was becoming hard to breathe. She tried to wipe the sweat from her eyes, but it made no difference. Her vision began to tunnel as a burning pain erupted deep within her midsection. Then her hand nudged something and she caught the bottle before it rolled away.
As soon as her fingers closed around the cold glass the fog in her head cleared. Air hit her like a winter gust as her body cooled and the world came into focus again. Collapsing in relief and exhaustion she held the bottle close to her chest, panting as she tried to summon strength back into her aching limbs.
While the others were preoccupied, Jethrow crawled over to Lorance. “We’ve played right into their hands,” Jethrow said, hacking at his bonds. “Everything is going wrong. I do not trust this witch.” His hand gripped the talisman around his neck.
“So sorry to hear that.” Isca appeared before them. “Lorance isn’t it?” she addressed the young prince. “I don’t think we’ve met. Not since that fateful night I left Irestead. Mesha certainly made himself a nuisance enough for the both of you. The resemblance between you is sickening.”
From under a moldy shawl she drew a bone-handled sword with a red blade. “I should have done away with both of you that very night. I hoped my curse would kill you in time, but as the fates would have it, I must kill you myself.”
Lorance gazed up at her from his vulnerable position.
Jethrow lifted his own blade and her attention shifted to him instead.
“Don’t be a fool, young robber. Give me my talisman and step away and I will let you live.”
“I think not.”
Her face twitched and her curled lip revealed a broken tooth. “You suffer from the plague. I can smell it on you. You want the pain to stop, do you not? Once I use the talisman all will be restored. As I restore my youth and power, the plague will be overridden. I will make it quick, and then you will be whole again. Now hand it over.” She stretched out her hand palm up.
Jethrow locked eyes with the witch. Then he turned, and with a final swipe cut through the last of Lorance’s restraints.
With an infuriated scream Isca raised her sword and swung at the young prince. Jethrow leaped forward, intercepting the blow. There was a crash like cymbals and a flare of red light as the blades struck. Jethrow was knocked off his feet. His blade clattered to the ground.
Lorance shook off the cords and grabbed the sword, ready when Isca made her next attack. It came hard. He stumbled, but managed to keep his feet. Calling upon all his swordplay experience, he dashed around trying to avoid as many collisions as possible. He had never faced an opponent such as this before. Isca was not skilled, but every swing of her hexed sword made his eyes twitch and every clash shot a bolt up his arm that made his muscles convulse.
The battle between Lazren and Mordekah had grown fierce. Their weapons moved so fast they were blurs of motion as the two men danced around each other in a flurry of spins, parries and blows. Both were breathing heavily and adrenaline ran through their veins in hot waves.
Lazren’s jacket was torn and there was a cut where Mordekah nicked his shoulder. Mordekah was bleeding from numerous areas, but their pains went unnoticed in the heat of battle.
“ENOUGH OF THIS!” Isca screeched. She threw a strange powder into the cauldron above her and a plume of dark smoke thickened and expanded. Engulfing both Lorance and Isca in a suffocating blanket.
Jethrow stopped in his tracks as the dark screen covered the prince and the witch from his view. He dared not strike blind for fear of killing Lorance.
Lorance gave a few heaving coughs and squinted through watering eyes, holding his sword ready.
The blow came without warning and knocked Lorance to the floor as the sword spun from his grasp once again. Hissing, he held his aching hand to his chest. Isca loomed above him as though formed from the smoke. She raised her sword and the dry throaty words of a spell spilled from her lips.
Mesha flew into view with a battle cry, the smoke parting before him. With one sure stroke the sword was knocked from her grasp and the spoken curse halted. Mesha had wrapped his arm in a makeshift bandage formed from his torn shirt. His sudden appearance enraged the witch. With another frustrated scream she raised both arms, hands clawed like jumping spiders as her snarled hair flew about her blotched face.
The smoke was sucked towards her where it solidified and turned into a wriggling mass of black tar-like vines, whipping out against them. Two tendrils wrapped around Jethrow’s arms and legs as another tightened around his neck. His knife dissolved against the smoke as though it were acid. The cold bonds pulled Jethrow down and held him fast as he strained to escape their putrid touch.
Mesha dropped his own weapon and swatted the black vines away with his bare hands, the curse within him causing the smoke to dissolve and shrink back.
When the dark vines touched Lorance they transformed back into smoke and encased his entire body. Lorance coughed as his lungs restricted. His eyes rolled back and his struggles ceased as the smoke hardened around him into a shadowy ice block.
“Lorance!” Mesha knelt in distress beside his brother. He placed his hands on the hard surface, but other than a hiss of steam the dark coffin did not change form.
Isca leered. The use of magic caused her wrinkles to deepen and her skin to sag. She extended a weakened, clawed hand towards where Mordekah and Lazren were fighting and muttered another foul curse.
Mordekah gave a gasping scream as his muscles froze. A vein throbbed in his neck as he tried to move his feet, but they were stuck to the floor. Prickling sensations rose up his back and raised the hairs on his neck. “I –I can’t move!” His wide, terrified eyes darted over to where Isca was snarling at him.
“So is the fate of those who steal from Isca Felendelpha!” she screeched.
Mordekah turned to look forward again just as Lazren plunged his sword through the robber’s chest.
At first Mordekah couldn’t believe what happened. Then the pain overwhelmed him and the curse was broken. He stumbled back and fell to his knees, a single trail of blood escaping from between his lips.
“No!” Mordekah rasped. “I won’t go this way!”
Lazren stepped forward and retrieved his bloodied sword. “As I said before, you fell the moment your hideout was cursed. You’re nothing but a crazed and desperate man. All your followers are gone.”
“I will get more men and rise to become greater than before!”
Without a word Lazren stabbed him through again.
Another gasp and Mordekah collapsed sideways to the floor.
Lazren watched as the life left the man’s eyes, wiping his hands on a handkerchief all the while. “So ends the once great Mordekah.”
Tossing the handkerchief away, Lazren turned on Jethrow. Without touching him, Lazren ripped the amulet from Jethow’s neck, the delicate chain snapping with one strong tug. Jethrow’s back arched and he gave an almighty scream. The torturous sound caused a surge to go through Noddie, enabling her to raise her head. Lazren gave the writhing robber plenty of distance and tossed the amulet to Isca.
Iaca grasped the amulet in both hands and raised it above her head with a mad laugh of triumph. “Yes! At last! My old friend, restore my power to me again!” The amulet came to life, blazing like a miniature star.
“Release him!” Mesha took an enraged stance in front of Isca motioning back to his encased brother.
Isca cackled. “Not so arrogant now are we? My how the tables have turned!”
Mesha’s eyes burned with anger, but he was still defenseless, as he stood hunched and grasping his injured arm. “What? Are you going to burn me from the inside out?” he asked in a mocking tone. “Even with your amulet, you’re hexes cannot touch me while I carry the curse.”
Isca laughed again. “Why burn you from the inside out when it would be so much more satisfying watching you burn from the outside in.”
With a wave of her hand the fire in the torches flared up in writhing pillars of fire. They devoured the tapestry before the cauldrons collapsed, falling from the platform to the floor far below. In another instant the floor became a raging inferno licking up toward the suspended platform and walkway, and eating away the curtains at the windows. Smoke and sparks blackened the ceiling, but oddly shunned the platform and the magic amulet thereon. The fiery remains of the tapestry cast Isca’s features into shadow, but her eyes blazed just as bright.
“Tonight Irestead will fall at my command starting with the palace of Gondorren.” She pressed her palm against the wall behind her and there was a wrenching crack. The wall split under her touch and the crack spread around to the balconies.
Isca closed her eyes and leaned her head back as flares from the amulet washed over her.
Noddie took a deep breath and forced her shaking limbs to cooperate. She needed to get the bottle to Jethrow before it was too late. The red and black burns of the plague were already spreading. With effort she managed to lift herself up onto her hands and knees. Although the smoke did not touch the platform, the smell and heat irritated her nose and throat.
There was another monstrous bang as a section of the balcony crashed down on the walkway, which shattered and crumbled away. Twisting cracks lined the remaining surface of the bridge and shot like bolts of lightning toward where Noddie was sitting, their deep snaps more threatening than the jaws of a hungry beast.
Noddie held absolutely still, not daring to breathe, as her weight sent tiny cracks jutting from beneath her hands and knees.
“Noddie May don’t move!” Mesha ran to the edge of the platform and dropped down, extending a hand toward her. Noddie’s heart pounded as one by one more cracks appeared across the ever-weakening surface. The hungry fire below her flickered in orange and red laughter against the dark glass of the crumbling walkway.
“Noddie, very carefully, take my hand.”
Trying not to tremble, Noddie slowly lifted her hand and extended it towards Mesha. A much deeper crack jutted toward her knees.
The walkway shattered all at once. Razored pieces flew around her, cutting up her skin and clothes. Noddie screamed as she felt the support under her vanish and gravity caught her in its merciless grip. The shards rained down onto the surging flames. Mesha’s hand darted forward and caught her wrist. The sudden stop in her fall jarred her arm and hurt her shoulder, but she looked up at Mesha with grateful eyes. His face was red and twisted with the strain of holding her weight and the heat of the room made his face and hands sweat.
“Give me your other hand!”
Noddie lifted her other arm, her hand clutching Isca’s bottle. Mesha caught her wrist and tried to pull her up, but her empty hand slid into his and he lost strength before he could get her onto the platform. Noddie wished she could help, but there was nothing to brace her feet against and nothing but Mesha to hold onto.
A shadow fell over them and they looked up to see Lazren standing before them. With an amused smile he knelt and plucked the bottle from Noddie’s sweaty hand before rising again.
“Give that back!” Noddie pleaded desperately.
“Lazren!” Mesha looked as angry as he had while facing Isca, but he was helpless to stop him without letting go of Noddie.
“It would be so easy to push you over the edge right now,” Lazren said, tilting his head.
Mesha’s hand slipped a few centimeters and he tightened his grip.
“Uncle Lazren, please! Help me!” Noddie cried.
Lazren gave Noddie the same high chinned grimace he always gave when something displeased him. “I was going to spare you, but you’ve proven to be too much trouble.”
“You wouldn’t let me die. You’re not a bad person. You took me in. You never tried to hurt me.”
Lazren raised his eyebrows. “My mistake.”
“I CAME HERE TO SAVE YOU!” Noddie screamed.
“And that was yours.”
He reached towards Mesha, but was pulled back by Jethrow at the last second with an exclamation of disgust.
Mesha shifted into a more stable position and pulled with all his strength. Noddie used him as leverage to haul herself up far enough to grab the edge of the platform. With more struggling and frantic grabbing Noddie was finally able to haul herself onto solid ground.
Shaking and panting they turned in time to see the last of Jethrow’s strength give out. He fell gasping, pressing his forehead to the surface of the platform. The sores had spread to his neck and cheek.
Lazren stumbled back giving himself a once over, but the bottle clutched in his hand kept Jethrow’s curse at bay.
With another angry cry Mesha jumped upon the man, scratching and kicking as he tried to claim the bottle. Lazren held it out of reach while trying to shield himself. Mesha landed several blows and Lazren staggered to keep his footing. As Mesha left a scratch across his cheek, Lazren spat, “You arrogant little pest!”
Noddie ran to help but it was too late. Lazren got an arm under Mesha’s chest and threw him so hard the young prince slid across the floor and collided with one of the black thrones.
Jethrow shuttered and collapsed to the ground, his back to them.
“Uncle Lazren, Please!” Noddie begged in frustrated tears. “Let Jethrow have Isca’s bottle, you don’t need it! Please! I’ll do anything!”
Lazren barked out a laugh. “What? The robber? Was he your friend, Noddie May?” he taunted.
“It will make no difference. It’s already too late for him. And soon your fate will be the same. Isca’s magic is already resetting itself. You were a fool to come here, Noddie May.”
At his words Isca gave another cackle. Tides of light and darkness rippled across her, transforming her before their eyes. Her wrinkles smoothed, the sags of skin lifted, and her back and shoulders straitened. She was becoming strong again, but despite her youth she was more hideous than ever. Her skin held an unearthly glow, and darkness whipped around her as though she were a merciless goddess or deranged siren.
“At long last! My powers restored again! Irestead will fall and my new life will begin! None shall dare to defy me. All shall fear Isca Felendelpha! Her strong laugh rang through the hall as though ten witches were mocking Noddie’s failure.
Suddenly a pair of hands grasped the talisman in her hands and yanked sideways. The witch turned to meet Mesha’s burning eyes.
“YOU!” she shrieked in outrage. “What are you doing?”
“Giving you back your curse!”
Lazren strode toward Mesha, sword in hand.
“NO!” Noddie leaped upon her uncle, the force knocking them both to the ground. There was a loud crack and the tinkling of glass.
Noddie lifted herself enough to meet Lazren’s wide eyes.
“Noddie May, what have you done?”
Their eyes were drawn to Lazren’s open palm that was embedded with shards of glass, the dense liquid pooling in his palm and cascading through his fingers.
Noddie jumped up and backed away, shaking her head in denial. This couldn’t be. After all that bottle had been through, the traveling, being thrown about, the scuffles, how could it break now?
Lazren rose on shaky legs, still staring in terror at his open palm. Then he started panting. Red and black sores appeared over his skin as his limbs shook.
Noddie was frozen in horror.
A dark wind materialized and encircled Lazren until he was hidden from view. His screams filled the hall reaching up into the rafters, the smoky gale transforming to dust and flame. The whole room grew hot and sticky as the curse filled the farthest corners. The flames were dimmed and the platform darkened.
The light of the talisman grew brighter in contrast and Mesha threw back his head as his whole body erupted in black flames. No sooner than they had appeared, the flames died away and Isca let out a blood-chilling scream as the talisman shattered in their hands and fell in pieces to the floor. The dusty remnants faded away like frost melting on warm skin.
Mesha fell to all fours as Isca swore. The flames in the room extinguished as abruptly as a candle being blown out. The black substance encasing Lorance melted away. And with an indescribable noise the wind surrounding Lazren died to nothing. The spot where her uncle stood mere seconds before was terrifyingly vacant. Martis Lazren was no more.
Isca gave another banshee-like scream. The glass in the tall windows shattered and crumbled down. Then everything went dark.
When the lights re-lit themselves seconds later, Isca was gone.
Ghostly pale, and staring at the spot her uncle was last seen, Noddie’s knees gave way.
Mesha crawled over to her. “Noddie May?”
When she didn’t respond he became concerned. “Are you well?”
“I think so.” Noddie whispered. “What happened to Isca?”
“Fled. But her spell to destroy Irestead was not completed. The clash between her magic and my curse was too much. The amulet is gone. Isca is younger now, but carries only weak, simple magic. She only had enough power to escape tonight.
“I removed the curse and extended my depleted lifespan. I am now as though the curse was never placed.”
“And the plague?”
A weak whimper issued from where Lorance lay. Mesha was at his side in an instant. “Lorance!”
Lorance didn’t move, but he gave another low groan. “Sore, I hurt.”
Mesha took his brother in his arms and looked at him with a worn, but sincere smile.
With a sharp intake of breath, Noddie ran to where Jethrow had fallen and knelt next to him.
She held her breath. Waiting. Hoping.
Jethrow’s shoulder twitched. Then he stirred. Turning he propped himself up on his elbow. The sores were gone. Jethrow lifted his left hand and stared in wonder at the smooth, clean skin and miraculously healed wound. He flexed his fingers and rotated his wrist. When he turned back to Noddie he was wearing his lopsided grin.
“You’re all right,” Noddie said, her voice choked with emotion.
They were safe and it was over. The plague, Mesha’s curse, the Mordekah robbers, there was nothing else to hurt them now. No more fear.
Overwhelmed by the joy and relief of having made it through, as well as the heart-wrenching sorrow and hurt over the fate of her uncle, Noddie lapsed into loud heavy tears.
She sobbed hard and long and for once Jethrow didn’t say a word against her distress, but with a gentle hand, pulled her close and allowed her to weep against his shoulder.