Plagued

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The Last Ship

Noddie and Mesha left Isca’s hut unsettled. Eager to put as much distance between themselves from the bog as possible, Mesha led the way down the boardwalk and back though the forest as though he knew the place by heart.

Mesha would have been Noddie’s anchor of confidence in the dark forest if he himself didn’t have her so confused. The joy of seeing her friend again was strangled by embarrassment and uncertainty. She was thankful for his help. But it felt awkward walking next to him after what she witnessed. Questions fought for a place in her mind. She wanted to ask him how he got here and why he came. She had never seen Mesha act as he had with Isca, it was as if he were a completely different person, but then, how well did she know Mesha?

Mesha never talked about himself. Or his past. Not a word.

She stole a glance sideways at her friend and he sensed her discomfort.

“Isca is a foul one, but she has lost most of her venom to old age,” he said.

“Ah” —Noddie averted her gaze— “Thank you. For helping me.”

“What were you doing so deep in Deadwood forest?”

“I got lost. The road to Bocksbay was blocked.”

Mesha nodded once in understanding.

Noddie rubbed Isca’s bottle with her thumb inside her pocket. “She kept asking for my name.”

Mesha nodded. “Isca can have an advantage over you if she learns your name.”

“She knew your name,” Noddie pointed out.

“She has known my name for a long time. Besides, her mischief does not work on me.”

“She said she had cursed you.”

“That was a long time ago. She has cursed many in her time.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing overly threatening. I prefer not to talk about it. Anyway, this is not a good place to be speaking of curses.”

“What should I do about this?” Noddie held up the odd bottle Isca gave her.

“Just keep it with you. I am not sure what it is, but I’m certain it will not harm you. Nevertheless it is a sinister object. I would be careful not to let anyone see or touch it, and as Isca warned, take care you do not break it.” He said this so emphatically that Noddie felt as though she were being scolded, but when Mesha looked at her there was nothing but worry and concern in his eyes. “Isca is a sly one and I fear she will try to use you for some foul purpose. I will sleep easier once you are safely back in Milay.”

They emerged from the forest to find dry fields that stretched out in vast blankets under the night sky, where a few clouds obscured the stars. Crickets chirped in the grass and against the horizon a multitude of yellow lights flickered. The city of Bocksbay.

“We can enter the city at dawn,” Mesha stated swinging his pack from his shoulder. “No point in going any farther tonight.”

They made camp and stewed beans for supper. Noddie watched the fire eat away at the logs. The flames bobbed and swayed like dancers; the popping crackle of the wood like a song. The atmosphere was so calm it was hard to believe the world around them was concealing such terrifying things as witches, robbers, and plague. Or that an hour ago, she had been trapped in Isca’s bog.

Noddie had just finished her second helping when Mesha spoke up, “tomorrow I will help you get onto a ship in Bocksbay and see you off.”

She looked up at him from over the fire then returned her eyes to her empty bowl without saying a word.

As usual, Mesha could sense her distress. “I am sorry I cannot go with you to Milay.”

“I wish you weren’t so secretive all the time. It’s as if you don’t trust me,” Noddie said in a bitter tone.

“No, Noddie May,” Mesha answered gently. “I trust you more than anyone. It is mostly for safety that I do not share certain things with you. Perhaps I will tell you everything someday when all this plague business is over. I would like very much to visit your home in Rosedust Valley and see the farms and mountains. Then we can talk freely.”

When she didn’t respond he ran a hand over his mouth thoughtfully before confiding, “I need to find a member of my family.”

That grabbed her attention. “You have family alive somewhere?”

“Yes, but I don’t know where. That’s all I can tell you for now.”

Recognizing a peace offering for what it was, Noddie let the matter drop, drawing meaningless designs in the dirt with her finger. “Must I cross the sea alone?” she asked.

Mesha took her calloused hand in his own and gave her a gentle squeeze. “Don’t be so frightened. You can do this. Now get some sleep. You will need it.”

“I can’t. There’s too much on my mind.”

His thumb caressed the back of her hand a few times. Then he perked up and twisted about for a stick which he used it to draw a circle on the ground. He divided the circle into sections and wrote symbols in them that Noddie didn’t recognize. Then he pulled two oddly shaped stones from his pocket and held them up. “This game is called Pendesha.”

“Pen-desh-a?”

“These are called pawnds. You toss them and get points depending on where they fall and the position they land. Each symbol represents a number of points that will be added or taken away.”

“Like a dice game?”

“A little, but some positions are harder to acquire than others. It involves both skill and chance. I’m afraid I was never the best at it, but I thought you might be interested. Here, give it a go.”

“You want to play a game? Now?”

“Why not? I would like to make one last happy memory before you leave tomorrow. Let us forget everything else and pretend we are back at the rock wall surrounding your uncle’s place. We will talk and play as we did then.”

A wistful sadness touched Noddie’s heart. Those had been happy, innocent times. Times when Noddie’s biggest worry had been about her parents and whether she would ever be able to please her uncle. She recalled the days she spent teaching Mesha to pronounce words properly and the time Mesha had bandaged her up after scraping her knee. Thinking of such memories left her feeling as though she had lost some precious treasure forever.

Remembering what her father always told her about finding joy in simple moments, Noddie sat in a more comfortable position on the edge of the circle.

The stones were lighter than she expected. Noddie gave them a shake before tossing them into the circle. They landed in the same position without touching and Mesha explained that that was worth two points, but because of the symbols they landed on those points were canceled out.

“It is not an easy game.” Mesha reassured her. “I knew someone who got up to one hundred-and-five points in one game, but I could never pass thirty five.”

They played several rounds together, thoughts of plagues and witches forgotten in favor of the two colorful stones. As they played they chatted and reminisced and Mesha gave her his largest smile yet. The smile gave life to his handsome face and made Noddie want to scoot much closer than was proper.

As Noddie won their last game Mesha placed the pawnds back in her hand. “You know, Noddie May, a little something that I have learned. 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 can be your best until the very end then you will never really lose.”

He rolled over and pulled his blanket over his shoulder. “We should sleep. May pleasant dreams find you.”

Gripping the stones in her hand, Noddie wasn’t sure she understood what Mesha meant.

The city of Bocksbay looked just as it had when Noddie first stepped off the boat a year ago, overwhelmed by towering buildings without yards or porches, and cobblestone streets crowded with people and the occasional steam car hissing vapor from tall stacks. Carts sold merchandise as children and dogs chased each other through the throng. And the loud rumble of bargaining and gossip was alive in the salty air. Punctuated here and there by the loud call of sea birds.

As they reached the shipyard the last cluster of buildings fell behind to reveal the Rovian Sea. At first Noddie had been frightened of its vastness and power, and her first voyage had done nothing to make her less weary. She focused on its rhythmic motion and the way the sun glittered off its surface as if in an effort to calm her. Mesha was right. There could be beauty in frightening things if you looked at it the right way.

A man with thick hairy arms, and a sunburned nose sat behind a weather-worn podium bearing a thick book, picking grime out from under his fingernails.

“Pardon, Sir, when is the next ship to Milay?” Mesha asked.

Noddie would always admire the adult like confidence that Mesha possessed whenever he spoke to strangers.

The Man scratched the side of his neck and ran a finger down the yellowed pages of his book. “No more ships ta Milay. Ports all closed.”

They exchanged worried glances.

“There must be something,” Mesha persisted. “A cargo ship perhaps?”

“Well, Captain Moss is bound for Milay. Or was planning ta anyway. A Jonah, if I ever heard o’ one. Don’t reckon he’d take passengers, though.”

Mesha sent a smile toward Noddie. “Where might we find Captain Moss?”

Moss stood next to a loading ramp of an old wooden ship, wearing a disheveled hat and frowning down at a sheet of paper in his hand. He had deep-set eyes and hardly any eyebrows. He was talking to a thin, long-nosed man beside him.

“I don’t recognize any of these men.”

“I tell you, they are all good men, Sir. I’ve sailed with them before and they are all hard workers. Their last captain fell victim to the scorenza in a neighboring town. All they want is a ship and captain to get them home.”

“Fine, fine!” He stared at the list in his hands again. “Generally I don’t take on a new crew without first seeing credentials. But under the circumstances— This being our last voyage for a time, only those planning to stay in Milay are going to sign up.”

“You won’t be disappointed, Sir.”

“All righ. All right. Away from me. I have things to do.” He stuffed the paper in his coat as the other man departed.

He noticed Mesha and Noddie standing there. “Yes?” he asked in an annoyed fashion.

“Am I addressing Captain Moss?” Mesha asked.

“Perhaps. What is it you want?”

“My friend needs to get to Milay.”

Noddie felt the captain’s eyes look her up and down.

“No passengers this voyage.”

“Pardon me, Sir, but it is important. We can pay you properly.”

Moss folded his arms. “Where are your parents?”

“Milay,” Noddie answered.

The captain gave a huff. “A likely story. Trying to run away from home no doubt.”

“She has been staying with relatives for the past year,” explained Mesha. “They have since passed on.”

Moss looked back at Noddie as her eyes fell to the ground. He examined her with such seriousness that he could have been deciding which remedy to use for a fever.

“This is no voyage for a lady.” He said bluntly. “You see this ship here?” he motioned behind him. The dilapidated ship wasn’t as big as some of the others. She creaked and moaned every time the wind hit her the right way. There was no figurehead and the style was strange and foreign. Gold words under the rim displayed the name, Tempest

“Bought this ship after arriving in Bocksbay. Cost me everything I had and she was the on one I could get. Bad luck! It’s all these times have given me. A fat load of bad luck! My last ship contracted Scorenza. We lost over half the crew including my first mate. The people of Bocksbay wouldn’t let us port. Had to burn her at sea with all her dead. We were lucky they allowed the remaining crew to come ashore in longboats. Not one of my men would sign with me again. Had to acquire a whole new crew and I’m still short of hands. You don’t want to be on this ship.”

The captain’s story left Noddie’s mouth dry, but Mesha was not deterred. “Yours is the only ship left to Milay.”

“There will be only men aboard. I run a strict schedule and everyone will be pulling double time. Well, on your own head be it. Just know I won’t be taking responsibility for whatever happens.”

Shortly before departure Noddie gazed up at the Tempest with uncertainty. Mesha appeared at her side and fastened a small leather pouch around her waist. “Keep Isca’s gift in here. It will be more secure and you do not have to worry about it getting lost or broken.” His eyes drifted up to the vessel as well. “I know the ship is old, but she is strong. She will get you home. No need to fear.”

“It’s shaped funny.”

Mesha laughed. “This is an old passenger ship from Carosone, a country far beyond the northwest ocean that Irestead and Triwater went to war with years ago. During the war there were many nightmarish battles and countless prisoners and hostages taken, some among the royal families. These ships were created to help smuggle these prisoners back home on both sides. They say that every ship contained several hideaways and secret passages to be used in case the ship was ever searched or attacked.

“After the war a treaty was made that neither country would associate with the other again. Although, it’s said that every once in a while smugglers would sneak into one country or another by these ships. They were then used for cargo before they all fell into disrepair. The innovation of steam power drove away the demand for such vessels. No one makes ships like these anymore. The Tempest is probably the last of her kind.”

Turning to face Noddie he continued, “Just think, Noddie May, in a week or two you will finally be back home with your family.”

“Thank you, Mesha. You were always a good friend.”

Mesha’s smile faded to match her own torn expression. “I will miss you, Noddie May. Travel with safety.”

Noddie launched forward, giving Mesha a strong hug. He seemed surprised before returning it wholeheartedly.

“I will miss you too. I hope you find your family, Mesha. Promise you won’t forget me? That you’ll visit Milay someday?”

“I Promise.”

As the Tempest set sail. Noddie stood on deck with a parting smile and wave. She would not cry or show her anxiety. She would pretend to be brave. From now on she would take control of her life and stop worrying about things she could not change. Mesha’s returned wave, as the ship slowly pulled her away, once again, toward an uncertain and frightening future.

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