The Hidden Passage
Captain Moss gave Noddie a small cabin below deck and cautioned her to stay inside as much as possible. The room was crammed with barrels and smelled of salt and fish, but Noddie was grateful for the privacy, a luxury she had not been granted on her first passage.
By evening she was horribly ill. Nerves and the constant rocking of the ship pounded on her stomach like a rug beater. She lay moaning in her bunk for hours and never noticed falling asleep.
After three days, her makeshift cabin became rather snug. The lantern was running out of oil, and there was no one to distract her from the stomach pains and dizziness. If she didn’t get some fresh air soon she was going to go mad. Pressing her lips Noddie glanced at the door. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to step out for a minute? She needed to find some oil anyway. The allure of fresh air and a view of the sky alone was enough to convince her.
The hallway outside was empty, as was the main deck. The sky was clear and a host of stars formed a sparkling diamond necklace above with a pearl of a full moon glowing at its center. The air was cool and Noddie leaned against the bulwark breathing deeply. At long last her stomach began to settle and her senses cleared. She groaned in relief.
There was no wind, and the Tempest sat lost on a sea of glass. All was quiet. Very quiet. There was no one about at all. Feeling as though she was the only living person on a ghost vessel, Noddie tore herself away and returned below to look for oil.
At the end of the hall she found a hatchway leading to the hold, packed with provisions. Even after Noddie lit the lantern she found hanging on a post, the cargo space was dim. Noddie shifted through bags and crates. Oil would probably be kept somewhere safe, but easily accessible. She approached a large trunk that stood in the shadows. Kneeling, she unlatched the two bolts on the front and pried up the lid.
The trunk was empty save for a molding coil of rope. Noddie frowned in confusion. Why would they keep such a bulky trunk around if it were not being used? There must be something else in it? She felt into the dark corners of the trunk, her skin meeting dust and cobwebs. Then her fingers caught something: two indents in the back of the trunk. Noddie’s hand fit inside and she found she was gripping a cold handle. Rotating her hand, the handle snapped up with a little force.
There was a deep pop and the trunk lurched forward.
Her heart flipped at her discovery, Noddie extracted her hand and pulled the trunk toward her. It swung forward on hinges as if it were a door. Bringing with it the part of the wall it was sitting against. The back of the trunk was the wall itself.
Bubbling with excitement Noddie crouched next to the gap in the wall. This must be one of the hideaways Mesha had told her about. She lifted the lantern and peered into the dark compartment. The space inside was small with the musty smell of rotting wood. There were more indents in the wall across from her, although these were wider and deeper like a carved stepladder.
Setting down the light, Noddie looked back at the shadowy room around her. She tapped her finger on the floor a few times then ducked down into the secret compartment. Once inside, she found she could stand. She gripped one of the higher indents in the wall above her head, placed her foot into a step and began to climb.
At the top she found an open space stretching out before her. She must have found more than a hiding place, this had to be one of the tunnels. The dark space was chilled and stuffy, and the walls creaked and moaned around her with the sway of the ship, but that didn’t take the excitement out of her discovery. She wanted to know where it led, but worried about such a passage not being secure.
As she turned to climb back down the sound of voices floated down the tunnel like phantoms towards her. Pausing, she looked back and realized the sounds were coming from a light shining up from the floor a fair distance ahead.
Curiosity poured over her, daring her to find out what was there. After a brief moment of silent debate Noddie hoisted herself up, moving deeper within the tunnel.
The space was wide, but the ceiling was low, the wood gritty and scratchy beneath her hands. There was barely enough room to crawl. Her skirt quickly tangled around her legs and she had to lift it above her knees before continuing, grateful she was alone.
The light filtered up from a wide gap in the floorboards. Noddie peered down into a bright, crowded room. Directly below her was a polished desk baring papers, maps, candlesticks, and glasses of wine.
A closer inspection of the well-furbished room led her to believe she was above the captain’s cabin, making the low ceiling above her the quarterdeck. But captain Moss was nowhere to be seen. Only crew members were there contending in a heated debate.
“Don’t fancy the sea much. I don’t think this heap will be able to get us up north in the first place.”
“She’s a sturdy one, she’ll hold. The Tempest was the best we could get.”
“We couldn’t have just stolen a better one?”
“Why go through all the trouble to steal a vessel when opportunity handed us this one so nicely?”
“Ha ha! That fool of a captain handed it right to us!”
“But we don’t fight well on the sea! We’re no seamen. And it will take weeks to get to Irestead.”
“I don’t see why we have to go there anyway. We’ll all get the plague for sure. It’s a dead man’s mission.
There was a loud bang as the man with the long nose, whom Noddie had seen talking to the captain the day the ship set sail, slammed his fist on the table.
“Enough of your griping! You’re getting paid well enough, you will stick to your vow!”
“But isn’t the man already dead? It was in the papers and all. Killed by the plague. Him and all those other high and mighty saps.”
“Only rumors. He’s not dead.”
“You’re absolutely sure?”
“Positioned at his house all night wasn’t I? I saw it all. A doctor arrived shortly after the plague cleaned the place out and immediately ran back to town for aid. I watched their work. His body wasn’t among the dead.”
“That’s all we’ve got? Why would the idiot travel to that godforsaken country in the first place? It’s not worth it!”
“My my, not complaining are we?” A low, sharp voice made silence fall in the room faster than a stone in water. The voice sent a chill throughout the men, which lifted right up to the rafters and danced down Noddie’s spine.
“A n-no, Sir. Just-just looking over options of course is all,” the long-nosed man stammered. All of the men were looking in different directions, tense, as if a large poisonous snake had slithered into the room.
“I should think not.” There was the thud heavy boots as the man entered. Though he remained out of her line of vision Noddie was assaulted by a great fear of this man she could not explain. She lay as still as possible praying the boards beneath her wouldn’t creek and give her away.
“Just looking over options is it? Sounded a bit to me like some of you are having second thoughts.” Every syllable dripped with anger.
Pieces of a broken chair scattered the floor.
“Lousy, unreliable, cowards! Have you no pride? Are you not all members of the Mordekah Gang! Each one of you took a vow of blood when you entered here and I will have any traitor having second thoughts gutted out and hung from the yardarms as a constant reminder of what happens to fools who let their minds wander to where they ought not be!”
The men cowered and Noddie trembled uncontrollably. The Mordekah gang! The Mordekah robbers were on this ship!
The man continued in a softer voice, dark as poison. “Now does anyone feel they need to voice an opinion?”
The room was silent.
“Good. Then if there are no problems we will get back to the business at hand. No, Boren, Martis Lazren was not killed when the plague shadowed his house. That rat slipped out of danger again. Lazren will not be as easy a target as others have been. He’s cunning, and his wealth allows him extra protection. Have you already forgotten that we lost over half our men at his hand? No, this job will require more skill and planning. This time it’s personal, and on a much larger scale. I will gut him myself, slow and painful. I’ll teach him to make a mockery of Mordekah!”
A knife was stabbed into the desktop below.
Noddie choked on the dust around her. Lazren? Her uncle Lazren? Her mind spun, trying to grasp all that was being said. Her uncle Lazren was alive! And the Mordekah robbers were planning to kill him!
No one ever dared to say anything against the Mordekah gang. No one knew who was secretly a member. They were ordinary people mixed in with the crowd in every small town and bustling city. They could never be caught because they corrupted the courts and made bloody deals with each other that exonerated the guilty. Any man who tried to seek out or imprison their members would be silenced.
If Mordekah’s men were after Martis Lazren he must have offended them, and judging by what the man said, this wasn’t a matter of greed or a loose tongue. Lazren had done something to threaten these villains. “We lost over half our men at his hand.” Noddie remembered how Lazren had started taking long trips after hearing of Mr. Medlock’s death. How he returned from his last (and longest) departure in the dead of night. Noddie had been kept awake by the heavy storm outside and spied her uncle from over the upstairs banister. He was sodden and tired, rainwater dripping down his noble nose and sturdy chin as the butler took his coat. But within the soft glow of the lamp she could make out a triumphant gleam in his narrow eyes and his thin lips perked up in a rare smile. Lazren must have discovered members of the gang and brought them to justice, a feat thought to be impossible.
Noddie’s respect for her uncle grew tenfold. As strict and arrogant as he was, he had had the courage to do what was right. At the risk of his own life he avenged the innocent of these fiends who expected the secrets they soaked to hide their evil deeds.
Mortekah spoke with determination, “Lazren will be reaching Irestead in a few short weeks, and we have to be ready for him when he does. In the meantime we will be sailing up the west side of Irestead. I expect everyone to do his share of the work around here.”
Noddie’s fingernails were digging into the wood beneath her. These men had a lethal trap in wait for her uncle, and he would walk unknowingly right into their net. He was going to be murdered and she was the only one who knew about it! She was the only one who could save him. She had to find her uncle and warn him.
Her heart tightened as she realized what this meant. She needed to find Captain Moss and tell him the Mordekah gang were on his ship. Greatly outnumbered they would have to flee. Perhaps take a lifeboat and reach the closest land possible. From there she would have to find her uncle without having any clue as to where he might be, or else travel to Irestead on her own.
Noddie pursed her lips, dreading every moment of this plan. As usual, all the things that could go wrong were running about in her head. How far was the closest land? What if the lifeboat sunk? What if they were caught? Where was she to look for her uncle? There was so much uncertainty. But she must do it. For Lazren’s sake. Be brave, Noddie May. One thing at a time. Find the captain first. He’ll know what to do.
With great care she began to crawl backwards the way she had come.
A loud creak and a moan, akin to a waking beast filled the passage and before Noddie could do so much as gasp, the boards beneath her splintered. With a jolt in her stomach Noddie pitched forward.
There was an eruption of noise as she flipped downward and landed on her back upon the desk, in the middle of the room. A great fluttering of paper, and bashing clangs as candlesticks, bottles, and bronze figures crashed against the floor.
Several pairs of rough hands grabbed her from the desktop. Shadows danced about like devils.
Noddie was hauled across the room until her back hit the wall. There was the shine of a knife in front of her and the air grew hot as her blood turned cold.
“Stay your knife, Stemlin.” The room grew silent as Mortekah spoke.
Stemlin, the long-nosed man, paused, panting with anticipation. Noddie could feel his hot breath on her cheek and his long knife pressed against her neck. The steel was so cold against her skin it burned.
“She heard everything, Mordekah. She’ll squeal for sure. Best to silence her now.”
“I’ll tell you who to silence around here.”
With a fowl look Stemlin removed the knife.
Mordekah walked forward and Noddie saw him for the first time. He was tall with broad shoulders and deep-set eyes with heavy brows. The shadows that fell across his square face looked so natural they seemed to be part of his features. He gazed down at her with a slight smile as though he found the whole situation amusing.
Noddie was shaking so hard she was amazed the men were able to keep such a painful hold on her. Her heart was hammering her ribcage so hard it hurt.
Mordekah pulled the captain’s list from his pocket and glanced at it with raised eyebrows. “Well, well, well. You must be Noddie May. And here I expected you to be a man.”
A few of the robbers chuckled.
Smiling he leaned forward and peered into her eyes. “You heard everything?”
Noddie was too frightened to speak, but her silence gave her away.
Mordekah straitened and fingered his square jaw. “Well now, what’s to be done with spying little girls?” he oozed in mock puzzlement.
“Wait a minute, I know this girl!” another man exclaimed.
A man with a chunk missing from his ear strode closer to get a better look at Noddie. “I know this girl. She lived at the house with Lazren. A relative, I think.”
Mordekah folded his arms. “Are you sure, Blade?” his voice was deep with warning.
Blade didn’t take his eyes off Noddie, frowning down at her as if she were a stain he needed to remove from an expensive rug. “Scouted the place didn’t I? I think one of the maids said she was a niece.” Mordekah leaned forward and studied her face. “There’s no resemblance. But if she turns out to be, this could change things.”
Noddie tensed, waiting for the blow to fall.
Mordekah glanced around and spoke to the room as a whole. “In the event this girl is indeed a relative to our Martis Lazren she could be very useful to our cause. We will be keeping her unharmed for now. Jethrow,” —his gaze rested on a man in his late twenties with olive skin, dark hair, and stubble on his chin— “I’m putting you in charge of her. Take her down to one of the lower rooms and keep her there until we fix the brig.”
Jethrow’s lip curled up as he glared at Mordekah. Clearly he did not appreciate this new assignment at all.
Mordekah gave him no more notice, turning his back on Noddie and waving a careless hand. “Now, put her away. We have other things to discuss.”
Noddie panicked. If she allowed herself to be locked up she would never be able to escape and save her uncle.
With an eruption of desperation and strength Noddie tore herself from the hands holding her and sprinted towards the door. Outside, she raced to the nearest lifeboat and lifted the cover. The moment she did so something in the lifeboat rolled toward her. It was the captain. His face was stiff and his pale eyes reflected the cold moon. He was dead.
Noddie jumped back with a scream and hit something solid. A thick arm wrapped around her shoulders and a cold knife was once more placed at her throat.
A cold sarcastic voiced hissed into her ear, “Here now, you’re not going to give us any more trouble, are you?”