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The Scourge, Page 2

Jennifer A. Nielsen

  Once the knife was in my hands, I twisted it around to saw at the ropes. In the process, I jabbed myself more than I would've liked, but when the last piece of rope snapped apart, I immediately forgot about the sting from the cuts. I pulled the gag off my mouth, then used the fabric to press at the wound on the side of Weevil's head.

  Weevil had too much hair--that was the problem with stopping the bleeding. He only got around to cutting his hair when I teased him, although, secretly, I liked it longer. His was lighter in color than most of our people's and stubbornly straight, making it stick out sideways after a haircut. But I liked that too. It fit his mischievous grin and the sparkle that always danced in his brown eyes.

  Except for now. Nothing about him was dancing right now, and that worried me.

  "Weevil?" I whispered. "Weevil, wake up."

  He stirred, thankfully, but his eyes weren't open, and soon he went quiet again.

  A couple of years ago, the farmer who lived nearest to my family was kicked in the head by his mule while plowing his fields. He'd walked into his home with a wound just like Weevil's. The man's wife put him to bed and even brought a pinchworm physician up to see him, which we only did at the most serious times. The farmer woke up a week later, perfectly well. Or almost. He remembered his kids, his mule, even remembered where he'd left off plowing before he was kicked. The only thing he couldn't remember was his wife. People said he was fine, that the forgetting was his way of getting back at his wife for all the times she'd yelled at him over the years. I had laughed at that, thinking maybe it was just one big joke.

  But I wasn't laughing anymore. Maybe what happened to our neighbor was real, and a hard blow to the head really could change your memories of people. What if Weevil didn't remember me?

  He had to. He had to remember me because, right now, he was the only person I had left in the world. I was scared, accused of having a disease that might get me sent to a place filled with actual sick people who would end up getting me actually sick. Sick enough to die. And now, whether he still had a memory or not, Weevil was headed there too.

  I shook his shoulder, gently, but hard enough to wake him up. "Weevil? Are you all right?"

  "No," he mumbled. "I can't remember ..."

  His voice faded, and tears came to my eyes. So this truly was the same condition our neighbor had. How damaged would Weevil's memories be? Would he remember me at least?

  "You can't remember what?" I asked. "Do you remember the rivers? We were supposed to dive for fish this afternoon, do you remember that? How we got here in this wagon? Weevil ... do you remember me?"

  Weevil rolled to his side, facing me. Blood had pooled beneath one of his cheeks, and a bump had formed on the top of his forehead. He opened one eye first, as if testing to be sure whether he wanted to wake up, then the second eye.

  "I can't remember why I ever decided to be friends with you," he mumbled.

  I almost punched his arm, but thought better of it and decided to save it for later. I did help him get to a sitting position, which was the least he deserved for trying to save me.

  He leaned against the wall of the wagon and asked, "How long was I out?"

  "Not long, maybe only fifteen minutes. You had me worried."

  "Good. It shows you care."

  I sat across from him and picked up my knife again, clutching it in my grip. "We're in a lot of trouble."

  "You're always in some sort of trouble, Ani. Why should this be any different?"

  "Look where we are!"

  "I'm looking at you, and even without much light in here, I can see you're a complete mess. Luckily for you, I've seen worse."

  For that comment, he received one of my special glares. "I only look this way because I ate a vinefruit, and I fell out of a tree, and I got in a fight with the wardens."

  Weevil smiled. "So it's been a slower morning than usual for you." Then his grin faded. "Tell me honestly, is there any chance you might have the Scourge? Have you been exposed to it?"

  "No!" Perhaps I said it too forcefully, or too confidently. We both knew nobody in the country was entirely safe. Then I added, "I don't have the Scourge, and neither do you. But I overheard the wardens. The governor wants to start testing the River People for the disease."

  Weevil checked the fabric I'd given him to see if his head was still bleeding. With such little light in this isolation wagon, it'd be hard for him to know for sure. He needed to keep the fabric in place.

  After he'd checked, he said, "The Scourge is a terrible disease. You know as well as I do what it's done to other areas of the country once it set in. If the governor wants to test the River People, then it means she's trying to protect us the same as everyone else."

  "When has Governor Felling ever cared about River People? We're only useful when it's time to collect either taxes or explorers." Weevil flinched at that last part, and I instantly regretted the reference to his father. "I know how awful the Scourge is, but protecting the River People is not the reason we're here."

  "Well, then she wants to be sure that we don't spread the Scourge to any of the pinchworms. Listen, Ani, I don't want someone making my family sick or yours. These are hard times, and hard decisions must be made."

  I'd made plenty of those hard decisions already, and so far had avoided any serious consequences. Until now.

  "We're not sick," I said, even less sure of myself than before.

  "Then she'll test us and find out the only thing wrong with you is that you're foolish enough to challenge a hecklebird for a vinefruit. And the only thing wrong with me is that I decided to be your friend. We'll be home by nightfall."

  I knew how important it was for him to get back home.

  When they came to take his father for the exploration north, Weevil offered himself up instead, claiming that his father was far more valuable to the family. But Weevil was rejected; he was a finger width too short. That same summer, he grew three finger widths in height--I think it was a matter of pride for him. Unfortunately, his father never returned.

  Weevil had five younger siblings, all of them with far less interesting names. Once his father left, Weevil became responsible for providing for them. Although he did the best he could, it was never enough. That bothered him, more than he'd ever admit, even to me. Or maybe, especially to me.

  I was my parents' only child and, as such, the center of their world. When it was time for that exploration, the wardens never came for my father, possibly because they knew the north would be entirely explored, pillaged, and settled before they ever got his cooperation. Unfortunately for my sweet mother, I was far more like my father.

  I had her long dark hair, lean frame, and round eyes, but that was where our similarities ended. The fire constantly beneath my skin belonged entirely to my father. Whenever trouble happened with the River People, everyone's first question seemed to be, "Where's Ani?"

  We had ridden for some time in silence. The sun gradually shifted overhead, letting in less light from this angle. Because of that, I couldn't tell if Weevil had fallen asleep again. Finally, he said, "What is that sound you're making?"

  "When I fell from the tree, my leg got tangled in the vines. It's starting to itch."

  "Don't scratch it."

  "Why not?"

  "Because scratching is the second-worst sound in the world."

  "Live with it, or I'll show you the worst."

  He smiled, then came over to sit beside me. He took my hands and gripped them in his. "Now you can't scratch."

  I pulled away and scooted to another part of the wagon. "You should stay back from me."

  "You'll give yourself scars." He reached for me, and when I sat farther back, his brows pressed together. "What's wrong with you?"

  "I just think you should stay back."

  He was silent a moment. "Are the wardens right? Tell me again, could you have the Scourge?"

  "Of course not."

  He didn't believe me this time. The change in his expression was subtle, but even
with such little light, I saw the tilt of his brow. The problem was that he knew me too well, enough to sense when to doubt my words.

  Still watching me, he said, "It probably takes more to get the Scourge than just sitting beside a victim."

  "How sure of that are you?" I asked. Neither of us really knew the answer.

  Finally, he leaned his head against the wagon. "I'll stay away, then ... unless you scratch."

  I lowered my hands and clasped them together, forcing myself not to think about the pestering itch. "How's your head?" I asked.

  "Every time this wagon drives into a pothole, I feel like that warden is hitting me with his ax again."

  "If I had some thrushweed, that would help." The River People knew every plant and its uses. Pinchworms thought we were less educated than them because we didn't have their expensive medicines or tests like the governor would probably try to administer on us. I figured we were just differently educated. They knew the world that came out of books, but we knew the world that went into them. I'd have loved to see a hungry pinchworm challenge a water cobra for its fish. Mostly because no River Person I knew would ever try such a foolish thing. In river country, we all learned early to respect things that could swallow us whole.

  "I hear you scratching again," Weevil said.

  "The itch is so bad it stings," I said, but I stopped.

  He raised his head and stared at me. "What will the governor think if you show up with a rash all over your leg? Rashes are a sign of sickness."

  "They're also a sign of someone whose leg was caught in a sticky vine."

  "Pinchworms don't know about sticky vines. All the wardens know is you refused an order to come down and talk to them."

  "Well, in the first place, I couldn't obey his order because I was stuck in the tree. And in the second place--"

  "In the second place, you wouldn't have obeyed it because you never do as you're told," Weevil finished for me. "Listen, the wardens are angry, and you probably will get some sort of punishment for refusing to obey them. Maybe it'll be a fine or work hours in the towns. But they won't send you to the Colony because neither of us is sick. We'll be home soon."

  "I hope you're right," I said, though maybe he was wrong. There were things he didn't know, couldn't know.

  "I hope I am too," he said. This time, the doubt in his voice was unmistakable. That worried me more than anything else. Even Weevil wasn't sure he was right this time.

  Both Weevil and I were asleep when the wagon stopped sometime later. It was completely dark outside now, meaning we had traveled much farther than I had expected. Scourge testing was available in Windywood, the nearest town to my home, but that was only an hour away by wagon. We were nowhere near Windywood anymore. Nowhere near home.

  One of the wardens seemed to be tending to the horses while the other had gone off, probably to notify a doctor of our arrival.

  "Be ready," I said to Weevil, drawing the knife from my boot.

  But Weevil shook his head. "This isn't the time to fight, Ani. Not yet."

  So I replaced the knife, but made sure it was in the boot with my uninjured ankle. Then I stood in the wagon, partially to test my other ankle--which hurt and had started to swell--and partially so Weevil would not offer to help me up. I was pretty sure he understood that too, because although he stared at me with concern, once he saw that I could walk, he didn't offer any help.

  Warden Brogg opened the door and had his ax raised against us, which made me smile. Was he expecting us to charge at him, yelling some crazy battle cry? Then the knife shifted in my boot, and I remembered that until Weevil had advised otherwise, charging at him had been my exact plan. The crazy battle cry was optional.

  Brogg's eyes shifted to the ropes that had been on me before. "You were supposed to keep those on."

  I smirked at him. "You were supposed to tie them with real knots."

  Weevil nudged me with his arm, a warning not to start any arguments now. But then he smiled too, as if he wished he had thought to say it first.

  "If you hadn't fought us, we'd never have tied you in the first place," Brogg said. "For your own sakes, take my advice and cooperate."

  My eyes narrowed. "If I had obeyed your orders before, would I still be here right now?" When he failed to answer, I nodded. "Just as I thought. Cooperating would only make your life easier, not ours."

  "We are cooperating." Weevil's voice was low, and he spoke slowly. "We'll come out together, without fighting. In exchange for that, wherever we're going next, you must keep us together."

  He took my hand. I started to pull away, but he mouthed the word "together" and redoubled his grip.

  I nodded back at him, and when Brogg gave us permission, we jumped out of the wagon. My swollen ankle landed badly and Weevil started to help me straighten up, but I pulled my hand away and balanced myself.

  "That's better." Brogg cocked his head forward. "Now walk."

  It hurt to walk evenly, but I forced myself to do it. I couldn't stand the thought of Weevil reaching out to help me again. I felt his eyes on me, and if I looked, I'd have seen the worry in them. He knew I was hurting, but I gritted my teeth and refused to look back at him.

  Or maybe his worry wasn't about my ankle. Maybe his thoughts were the same as mine. What if I do have the Scourge? What if they're right? Because if I was being honest with myself, I knew it wasn't impossible.

  I hated having to be honest with myself.

  We had driven into a large courtyard with an even larger building straight ahead. It was square and plain with an enormous green cross flag of Keldan hanging from the roof. A government building, then. The closest one of this size I knew of was in Marisbane, very far from my home.

  Considering that we were near government offices, the building didn't seem particularly well guarded. This struck me as odd. Surely, others suspected of having the Scourge had been dragged here in the last year. Didn't they resist the test? Maybe not. Maybe pinchworms always did as they were told, like fence-trained sheep. Well, let them bring in a few River People, and they'd think differently about the need for more guards. If they had brought five of us in, as the governor had ordered, we'd be in a full battle by now.

  "We want to speak to whoever's in charge," Weevil said. "Is that you, or the man who played batball with my head?"

  "Warden Gossel is my superior," Brogg said, "but until you're tested for the Scourge, no one can set you free." He led us to his left toward a series of much smaller, empty-seeming buildings, including a narrow one that was undoubtedly meant for us. It was a lone prison cell, with a thick log roof and metal bars along one wall.

  I dug in my feet and shook my head. "This is a place for criminals."

  Either Brogg didn't hear me, or he didn't care. He unlocked the door and held it open for us. "You'll stay here until morning, when the physician will test you. There's only one blanket. I suppose you two can fight over who gets it."

  "We don't fight," Weevil said.

  We didn't used to, I thought. But we will. That seemed inevitable now.

  I went into the cell first. It had a small bed, ideally sized for anyone who was the approximate height of the average rabbit. A chamber pot was in the corner along with a bucket of water that probably hadn't been changed in several days. I wouldn't touch either of those. This cell was clearly designed for only one person. For that reason, I was grateful to Weevil for making the deal he had with the warden. We'd have been split up otherwise, and I couldn't bear the thought of finishing this night without him.

  Once we were locked in, the warden stood on the opposite side of the bars and stared at me. I stared back, determined not to be the first to look away.

  "What were you really doing up in that tree?" he asked. "Spying on us?"

  "If I were spying on you, I wouldn't have been caught that easily. As I told you before, I was eating a vinefruit. I would've shared some if you'd asked." Or dropped it on his head.

  "If you weren't spying, why didn't you announce you
r presence?"

  "Why didn't you announce yours? You were on our lands, not the other way around." I shrugged. "The warden who dragged Weevil's father off to die at sea looked a lot like you. For all we know, it was you."

  "That wasn't me." Brogg scuffed his boot on the ground. "You should've announced yourself," he mumbled. "I'll come back for you in the morning."

  As soon as he had gone, I sat on the bed to take the weight off my ankle.

  Weevil immediately turned to me. "Whatever secret you've been keeping from me, it's time to say it. Do you have the Scourge?"

  I ignored the fierce itch on my leg so he wouldn't bother me about that too. "I told you already, I don't have a single symptom!"

  "That's not what I asked. You're hiding something, Ani, and obviously worried about how this Scourge test will come out."

  "No, I'm not."

  Yes, I was, and he knew it.

  "Who exposed you to it? If any of the River People are sick, you can't keep that a secret, for everyone's sake. Once the symptoms appear, you're contagious. As soon as we get back, we have to warn the others."

  "It's none of them!"

  "Then who?"

  I turned away and began massaging my foot. To do a proper job, I should've removed the boot first, but I didn't dare. I worried that with the swelling, I'd never get the boot back on.

  "Let me check it." Weevil's tone turned sympathetic now.

  "It isn't that bad," I said. "You saw that I can walk on it."

  "You were limping."

  "I can walk."

  "Fine. Now tell me again, do you have the Scourge?"

  I sighed, wishing these questions would end. Or better yet, that there was no need to ask them. "If I thought I did, do you really think I'd expose my family, or any of the River People? Or you? I'm not sick, Weevil. I only want to go home."

  He hesitated a moment and looked around, making sure we were alone. "Then that's what we'll do." Weevil reached into his own boot and pulled out a long quilting needle. "For this, I need your knife."

  Most people considered Weevil's and my friendship as unlikely as a deer voluntarily spending time with a wild boar. He and I had fixed reputations--everyone knew which of us was the deer and which was the boar.

  Weevil was often asked how we could be friends, as if he was only nice to me out of the goodness of his heart, or maybe because my mother paid him on the side. Nobody ever asked why I was friends with Weevil. I was considered to be on the receiving end of his charity.