Petronus rode out three days later. Neb watched him and his escort leave the plains of Windwir and slip into the northern forests. There had really been no time for him to adjust to this new responsibility. But whenever he felt the panic rise in his chest, Neb remembered what Petronus had said to him.
“You’ve watched everything I do here,” Petronus told him that first night after Neb had asked him to reconsider his decision to put him in charge. “You won’t need to deal with the guard shifts or any other military matters. Just keep the work moving and the workers supported. Anything that can’t wait a day or two for a bird, decide by council or ask whoever Rudolfo attaches to you.” Then the old man had paused, smiled, and put a hand on Neb’s shoulder. “I know this is a lot. But I would not give you more than I thought you could handle.” And finally, he’d leaned forward, his voice low. “You of all people understand why we must finish this work.”
Neb had nodded, and from then on he’d spent every waking moment with Petronus, following him everywhere he went and asking him every question that he could imagine.
Now, three days later, he felt uncertain all over again. After Petronus vanished, he sent the workers back to their tasks. None of them balked. Then he checked the supply wagon schedule, the artifact wagon and the galley. While at the galley he had the cook pack him a lunch, and he started walking the line,
surveying the effort remaining. Having to move the snow first was extending the time, and though the cold wasn’t yet unbearable, they’d still had to shorten the shifts considerably. One of Neb’s biggest hopes
was that Petronus would issue a plea for help with the gravedigging effort.
Neb walked out each direction, trying to keep the hem of his new robes up off the snow as he went. They had carved Windwir into quadrants. The city proper-those parts within the walls-was the inner layer, quartered by north, south, east and west. Most of that section had been taken care of before the snow fell to take advantage of finding any artifacts while the ground was clear. Beyond the city itself, they quartered the outer layer. They’d finished the eastern and southern quadrants, but uncertainty about the Marsh King’s intentions-regardless of his words-had kept them from the north, and they were already digging trencey dut hes in the western quarter in preparation for the work beginning there.
By the time Neb reached the outer northern quadrant, he was ready to eat. He cleared a small patch of ground beneath a tree and pulled out two pieces of pan-fried bread and a slice of lamb. He ate the sandwich, sipping from his canteen between bites, and wondered for the twentieth time that day what the Marsher girl Winters might be doing right now and whether or not she wondered about him and when he would see her again.
He felt himself blush, and forced his mind back to the plains. She popped into his head more and more and he wasn’t sure why. He’d even dreamed about her twice. He was talking to Brother Hebda about the Churning Wastes and he saw her just outside the window, standing beneath a solitary pine tree in a vast wasteland, watching him with a strange smile on her dirty face.
Suddenly, someone sneezed, loudly, and Neb jumped. He looked around and saw no one. “I know you’re there,” he said.
“You are a Marsher Scout,” he said. And suddenly a thought occurred to him. “You are the same
Marsher Scout that took me to your king.”
Still, no answer. Neb shifted, wondering if he should ask what he wanted to ask next. He tried to push it
aside, but couldn’t. “Do you know the girl Winters?” he asked, feeling his face and ears go red.
This time, he heard a grunt. Neb decided to assume it was in the affirmative. “Tell her that Nebios ben
Hebda saw her beneath the tree in the Churning Wastes.” Another grunt.
Neb drew an apple out of his pouch and munched on it. Then, as if an afterthought, he pulled another. “Here,” he said, holding it up. “Catch.” He tossed it in the direction of the grunt and watched it melt into nothingness as the scout snatched it from the air.
Silently, they ate their apples. Then Neb stood up and stretched. “I have to get back,” he said. But as soon as he said it, he felt awkward. “Give her that message, please.”
One last grunt, and Neb turned and left the forest. All the way back, he stopped periodically and
scanned the snow for other sets of footprints. There had been enough foot traffic with the fighting and the patrols that he really couldn’t tell.
Was it possible that the scout had followed him all morning? Maybe he was still out there, carefully walking in Neb’s own footprints, hanging back but never letting the boy leave his sight.
Could it be that the Marsh King had assigned Neb a bodyguard? Unlikely. More likely, he was a scout on patrol or posted on the perimeter.
Still, the thought of that level of attention from a king made him smile. It wasn’t so long ago that the only kings he knew were in books.
Neb looked to the sky, saw that it was growing white, and moved eastward toward the river, putting his mind to the work ahead.