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The Scourge

Jennifer A. Nielsen

  To all those who battle great odds and win.

  In my life, you know who you are.

  To each reader with a courageous heart,

  Ani is for you.























































  Few things were worth the risk to my life, but the juicy vinefruit was one of them. Even more so today because I was long past hungry. If I didn't eat something soon, my life was in danger anyway.

  Not immediate danger. Mama had poor man's bread at home and, indeed, was expecting me back soon for supper. But I couldn't stand the thought of gnawing on those thick crusts for yet another meal. Especially not now, not after spotting a vinefruit this close, in perfect ripeness.

  Getting it would be simple.

  Well, not simple in the traditional definition of the word. But simple, meaning that I intended to get that fruit if it was the last thing I ever did.

  It required a climb up a tall tree with thorns that tore at the only good dress I still owned. I also had to avoid the sticky vines that loved to tangle my arms and legs, leaving behind a terrible rash wherever they touched skin. So far, so good. All I had left was to shinny across a thin branch, avoiding the hecklebird that nested there. Hecklebirds were mean, with long narrow beaks that pecked mercilessly at whoever disturbed their eggs. Well, I didn't want the eggs; they were disgusting anyway. I only wanted the vinefruit next to the nest.

  So out onto the limb I went, patiently inching my way forward, listening for the hecklebird's ugly caw. I got about halfway out and then heard a crack.

  The limb snapped in half, and I clawed for anything that could keep me from falling. My hand found the vinefruit, which actually might've helped save me if it had not been so perfectly ripe. Instead, it came with me as I fell.

  I went down headfirst, crashing into another hecklebird nest, which sent a particularly foul-smelling bird fluttering into the air in anger. It'd be back. Then a vine caught my leg in a tangle, leaving me suspended in midair about twelve feet above the ground.

  I caught a yelp in my throat, reminding myself I was not the type of girl who panicked over ordinary near-death experiences. I was, however, a girl whose heart was racing far too quickly. I needed to breathe, to think. But mostly, I needed to not fall any farther.

  Granted, this had not turned out as well as I'd hoped. But my best friend, Weevil, had said he'd meet me here today. If necessary, he could help. It wouldn't be his first time saving me from my own stupidity. This wasn't even the worst mess he'd have caught me in.

  Blood rushed into my head, and everything around me turned upside down. My skirts threatened to tumble over my head as well until I bunched them between my knees. At least I still had the vinefruit. I had originally intended to bring it home whole to my parents, but it had crushed in my hand and would never last. Thick red juice ran in lines up my arm. Better that I eat the vinefruit alone than let it go to waste.

  That's what I told myself to pretend I wasn't being selfish. I knew my parents were every bit as hungry as I was. But I'd have to drop the vinefruit before unwrapping my leg from the vine, and that'd ruin it.

  The longer the vine stayed on my skin, the worse the rash would be, but I didn't care. My hunger now was worse than a little itching later. Despite the awkward angle, I ate the fruit, trying not to let the red juice stain my mouth the way it had stained my arm.

  I finished the fruit, letting the pit fall somewhere into the underbrush, when I heard the crunch of leaves beneath me. I swung my body around, expecting my friend. Then I immediately went still.

  "It figures we have to come get the grubs," one man said. "There're men younger than us who should be doing this work."

  These were wardens. Their cocked woolen hats gave them away. I prayed they wouldn't look up and see me. The wardens and my people weren't exactly friends.

  "Grubs" was a reference to those of us who lived up in the river country of Keldan. The term wasn't much worse than our description of the townsfolk below as "pinchworms," but they started the name-calling first, so we felt justified. Besides, pinchworms were known to eat grubs, so the nickname was accurate.

  "Governor Felling is punishing us for what happened last week," his companion said. "Punishing you and made me come along for protection."

  Protection? My people were peaceful. Well, we had been peaceful so far. If the wardens were here, then that might change. It all depended on what they wanted.

  Governor Nerysa Felling wasn't a popular leader. Compared to our neighboring country, Dulan, most of Keldan was poor, and everything the governor tried only increased the burdens already weighing heavily upon the people. Whispers of overthrowing her power grew louder, and increasing numbers of challengers stepped forward each year. Everyone knew Dulan looked at our borders with hungry eyes. It was only a matter of time before they attacked.

  Governor Felling was even more disliked by the River People, whom she loved to blame for the troubles in Keldan. Each year, she pushed us back, farther from the towns and higher into the hills, where food was more scarce. About a year and a half ago, she forcibly recruited several men, many of them River People, for an exploration north to find new resources. Weevil's father was taken amongst them. But the Scuttle Sea is famed for its terrible storms, something Governor Felling certainly should have known. The ship was lost. There were no survivors.

  There was only one reason Governor Felling still remained in power and perhaps only one reason why Dulan had not yet brought us a war.

  The Scourge.

  The disease first appeared three hundred years ago. It swept through our country and cut our population by a third. Fear of its spread shattered our economy, isolated us from neighboring countries, and created outcasts of my people, who were accused of originating the disease. The scars it caused within Keldan were still apparent today.

  After four long years, the terrible sickness went away, and the people of Keldan were free to breathe again in peace. The worst tragedy in our history was over.

  Or so we thought.

  Last year, the Scourge returned.

  This time, it started in the priso
ns on Attic Island, cleaning them out entirely before it moved into the general population. It was a disease without mercy. Highly contagious, but with no clear sign of how it was transmitted. Symptoms were nearly impossible to detect until it was too late, and there was no treatment. The Scourge always ended in death. Always.

  The one good thing Governor Felling had done was hire physicians who determined that if the disease was caught in its earliest stages, even before symptoms appeared, then it was less contagious. They used the old records to develop an early test to identify and isolate Scourge victims, which seemed to keep the disease from spreading as quickly. But for those who did test positive, Attic Island was transformed into a Scourge Colony, where victims were sent to live out the rest of their short lives. It was the governor's way of hoping to contain the disease. Fear of the disease spreading over its own borders had also kept Dulan at bay. For as long as the sickness reigned, Dulan would not cross Attic Island's waters.

  The disease wasn't Governor Felling's fault, obviously. Inheriting that problem was just her bad luck. But she was the River People's bad luck. Proof of that was in the wardens' presence below me.

  I craned my head enough to see the two men. The first warden, the stockier one, had requested a break to remove a rock from his boot and was taking his time about it. "Governor Felling ordered us to take five grubs for testing." The shaking of his voice betrayed his worry about being here. "If she only sent two of us to get them, how does she think that'll go?"

  Five of us, to test for the Scourge? Since we were isolated from the towns, so far the Scourge had not touched my people. We never mixed with the pinchworms except on the rare occasions when we needed supplies, and in those cases, we never went to towns where the Scourge had appeared.

  So why was the governor sending wardens to test us for the Scourge?

  "It may sound like a hefty punishment, but it's deserved," the second warden said. "Grubs always cause the worst uprisings."

  What was he talking about? There was no uprising. The last trouble we'd caused happened when those men were taken for the exploration, and even that was minor. There'd been nothing close to an uprising since then.

  A caw sounded off to my right. An angry, nasty caw that only could have come from the hecklebird. The hateful thing was back, but why now?

  No doubt it smelled the vinefruit juice that had dried on my arm. It knew I'd disturbed its nest. It wanted revenge and would get it now, better than the bird could've ever expected.

  That bird would expose me to the wardens below.

  The wardens looked in the direction of the bird's warning cry. They instinctively ducked because such a foul sound would make even the stupidest people--such as the wardens, for example--crouch to protect themselves.

  I used the moment to pluck a stick off a nearby branch, ready to take a swing at the bird. All I could hope was that the wardens would crawl away, like any pinchworm would, and then I could fend the thing off until I got free. It had been foolish of me to hang here while eating the fruit. Even if I got down now and even if I escaped the attention of the wardens, the rash that would soon appear on my leg from the vine would cause me a fair amount of itching.

  Except the stocky warden heard the stick crack and looked up. He called to his companion and then shouted up at me, "You, girl, my name is Warden Brogg, in the service of Governor Nerysa Felling. I order you to come down."

  "If you want me, come get me!" I shouted back. I could take a swing at the warden just the same as the hecklebird. They were equally ugly.

  "I might," Brogg replied.

  No, he wouldn't. Even the lowest branch wouldn't hold his weight, and I doubted he could climb to the top of an anthill without pausing to rest. Climbing required a special set of muscles that most pinchworms didn't have.

  However, they did have axes, and the second warden, a tall man with legs too long for his body, pulled out his ax now, which he began using to chop at the tree.

  "Stop that!" I yelled. "When this tree falls, it'll land on you. I don't care about that, but it'll crush me too."

  "Then come down!" Brogg called.

  "Can't you see I'm stuck?"

  Even the hecklebird knew that. He dove directly at me, sharp beak open. I swung for it and missed, but it forced the bird out of my way. It came around again and pecked at my arm, leaving a small nick there. I swung a second time, and a few feathers fell before it flew away. I hoped I had injured it as much as it had just hurt me. Maybe the vinefruit hadn't been worth it.

  The wardens below seemed to have traced the vine holding my leg to its root in the ground. Now they were chopping at it. I knew they had the right vine, because it shook every time the ax hit.

  "Leave me alone!" I raised up my body and took hold of the vine, which would now leave a rash on my palms. Then I began working my leg free. Otherwise, I'd fall on my head, which from this height would leave me with the kind of headache that made people permanently stare off into empty space.

  They kept chopping, cutting through the vine, which dropped me almost a third of the way to the ground before it tangled on something else. I cursed at the wardens, then pulled my leg free. At least I was right side up when the vine finally gave way and I fell the rest of the way to the ground.

  I landed hardest on my right ankle, but I didn't think it was broken. It stung, though, preventing me from running away. One warden grabbed me, the taller man, who, it turned out, had an iron grip.

  He pulled me to my feet and then said, "What's your name, girl?"

  "What's yours?"

  "Warden Gossel, in the service of Governor Ner--"

  "Yeah, I already heard the rest." I grunted. "My name is Ani Mells. I've done nothing wrong, and I'm an honest citizen of Keldan. Let me go."

  He sent a mocking look to his companion and held out one of my arms, the one with the vinefruit stain on it. "Look at this, Brogg--reddened skin. That's one symptom of the Scourge."

  "It's fruit juice, you fool," I said, struggling against him. "The pit is somewhere beneath your feet, and the approximate size of your brain, I'd guess. Let me go and I'll find it."

  "And look at that open wound on her other arm," Gossel said. "That's probably how she got the disease in the first place."

  With my good foot, I tried to kick at Gossel, but only collapsed on my sore ankle. "The bird just did that to me," I said. "You saw it."

  Brogg knelt in front of me. He ran a finger along my lower leg where the vine had already irritated the skin. "Rash here, and the skin is warm. Fever."

  "I don't have the Scourge," I said. "I'm not sick."

  When I squirmed, Gossel tightened his grip on me and said, "We're taking you in to be tested, but just from looking at you, it's obvious how that test will come out."

  "You can't take me away!" I wiggled free, but he got me again. "Don't do this!"

  "Get her quieted down," Gossel ordered. Then my arms were pulled behind me, and Gossel began tying them with rope while Brogg stuffed a rag into my mouth and tied it in place with another rag. I fought them, but at that point, it wasn't hard for them to carry me out of the clearing to where I saw an isolation wagon parked.

  My panic rose. They really were taking me, without reason, without explanation, without even telling my parents. As far as they'd ever know, I'd have just disappeared.

  The back of the wagon was already open, and they tossed me inside. Then Brogg hefted himself in to tie me to one wood-paneled wall. I struggled against it, but with every passing moment, their hold on me was increasing.

  I had done nothing wrong, and nothing was wrong with me. They couldn't possibly believe that the signs they were seeing on my body were symptoms of the Scourge. It was only because of the vinefruit--surely they knew that! This couldn't be happening.

  "Untie her," a voice ordered.

  I sat up while Brogg turned around and slowly raised his hands. Beneath my gag, a smile widened on my face. It was my best friend in the world, holding a hunting knife. Late to meet me
, as always, but at least he was here now. Weevil had come to help.

  Admittedly, Weevil's parents had given him a name that hardly helped with the fact that my people were known as grubs. But Weevil didn't seem to mind, so neither did I. He was strong, and friendlier than he looked at the present moment, and most important, he would never let the wardens take me away.

  "This poor girl has got the Scourge." Brogg's sympathy was as fake as a painted coin. "We're taking her to be tested. If it turns out she's healthy, she comes home."

  "She's plenty healthy," Weevil said. "The Scourge hasn't come to the river country."

  "What if it has?" Brogg was slowly oozing his way out of the wagon. "It'd wipe out you grubs within a month. Only way you can be safe is if your people let us test you."

  "We'll take care of ourselves," Weevil said. "And we'll take care of Ani. Let her go or I will throw this knife. I never miss."

  Privately, I rolled my eyes. Weevil often missed. Hopefully, Brogg wouldn't test his aim, especially if he was standing anywhere near me.

  Weevil was so intent on Brogg that he failed to notice the other warden who was sneaking up behind him. I squealed and gestured with my head for him to look back. Weevil turned, and Brogg dove from the cart and pounced on him. Weevil rose up for the fight, but Gossel took the butt of his ax and crashed it down on his head.

  I screamed, muted by my gag. Weevil had stopped moving, but they grabbed his body and threw him into the back of the wagon with me. Blood seeped from a wound on the side of his head. I tried not to panic. Head wounds bled a lot; that didn't always mean they were serious.

  Sometimes they were very serious, though. Weevil wasn't moving.

  "These are only children," Brogg said. "If this is how the grubs are going to be, we'll need more than just you and me."

  Gossel nodded. "Let's take these two. If the governor wants five, she can come get the rest herself."

  And the door slammed shut behind us, leaving us in almost total darkness. Minutes later, the wagon began driving away, taking us from our home.

  A knife was in my boot. I had expected it to fall out while I was hanging upside down in the tree, but by the angels' mercy, it had somehow stayed in place.

  I kicked that boot off now and then contorted my body in any way necessary to slide the knife closer to my hands, which were tied near the floor of the wagon. It wasn't easy, and the lack of grace I showed in managing that trick would've made my mother's hair curl. She had given up on me acting like a respectable young lady years ago.