Neb couldn’t help but stare at the old man as they drove their wagon south to Kendrick. Neb had dragged him to it, pointing, and the old man had made a big show of hitching the horses to it and tying his own to the back.
“I’m glad you didn’t let this get away, Del,” he said with a wink.
Neb watched him scan the back of it, saw his eyes light up at the tools, and then climbed into the seat beside him.
When the guards had escorted him to the edge of their camp and pointed them sout knteifyhward, he’d thanked them profusely. Once they were out of sight, he leaned in to Neb.
“We’re not out of it yet, lad. They’ll have scouts shadowing us most of the way.” Neb nodded.
They rode in silence, stopping briefly to eat stale bread and hard cheese from the old man’s saddlebags. Neb lay back against the wagon wheel, stretching himself out. In the forests that edged the river road, birds flitted in the shadows and chirped at them. A kingfisher dove the river, coming up from the slow, wide waters with a fish in its bill.
He couldn’t speak to ask the old man if he was who he thought he was-but he also wasn’t sure that he should ask anything with Entrolusian scouts nearby. After all, if Sethbert had hated the Androfrancines so much that he crushed them like a garden snake beneath his boot, he couldn’t possibly love an Androfrancine Pope.
Neb still wasn’t sure if leaving the camp was the best of all possible choices, but the old man had made that happen without leaving him much room to protest. Perhaps, he’d seen Neb assessing the Overseer’s security. Neb wondered if he’d been that obvious.
And if the old man had seen it, others may have as well. So it was possible that Neb owed him his life. It was also possible that Neb had now missed his first, best chance to bring down the madman who had killed his father and robbed the world of Androfrancine light.
Now they rode for Kendrick with a wagon full of supplies meant for the Gamet Dig, far south and east, in the Churning Wastes. Questions rattled him, poking at him as if he were in a cage.
He glanced at the old man again. He was checking the back of the wagon, rummaging through one of Brother Hebda’s pouches as if it were his own. Neb leaped to his feet, feeling a surge of anger that he wasn’t sure what to do with.
The old man saw the look on his face. “I’m looking for the Letters of Credit and Introduction.”
Hot shame flashed through him, and Neb opened his mouth to speak. A flow of garbled words poured out, sentence fragments from the Nineteen Gospels, the Francine Codex and the other scattered bits that made up the Whymer Bible. He closed his mouth, then tried again with the same results. The old man grabbed up the pouch and pushed it into Neb’s hands. He leaned in close, speaking quietly. “There’s paper in here. And pencils. This will help our rather one-sided conversation. But do nothing until we know we’re clear of Sethbert’s men.”
Neb nodded. Later, once they were safely shut into a barn along the way or if they actually pressed through and found an inn in Kendrick, they would have many questions for one another.
The old man climbed into the creaking seat, and Neb climbed into the back this time, holding Brother
Hebda’s pouch to his chest. There was the snap of a crop and a high, sharp whistle. The wagon lurched forward.
As they rode, Neb’s mind wandered. A mad Overseer smothering the world’s best light and plunging them all into darkness. A beautiful woman with the sunrise in her hair and secrets on her lips. An old, strong Pope back from the dead to avenge his desolate city.
It belonged in a story-like one of the hundreds he’d read on those quiet days spent in the library. And the memory of it was so strong that Neb could smell the parchment as the rocking of the wagon and the warm afternoon sun gentled him to sleep.