Neb felt the weariness deep in his bones now that the work was done. He’d walked Windwir twice in
the last week to be certain, but despite the winter’s storms they’d finished ahead of schedule. And though the sense of accomplishment permeated him, he felt a sadness in the midst of it. Over the months, he’d seen more and more of the Marsh girl, Winters, and they’d fallen into a routine together. At least twice weekly now, she met him out on the northern edges of the camp, when he could discreetly slip into the forest. They walked together, and somehow, somewhere along the way, their hands had touched and
then joined so that now, whenever they walked alone, they did so hand in hand. They had not kissed again, but Neb found himself thinking of it all the time, uncertain of how to bring that about again.
He laughed as he walked north across the empty plain. Over the last several months, he’d commanded a camp of gravediggers, presided over discipline, even buried some of their own dead when the war crossed into their work. He knew how to order and inventory the supplies for a camp, and he found himself suddenly undeof s sorstanding and even proposing military strategy. All impressive for a boy of fifteen years.
Sixteen now, he realized suddenly. Sometime in the last few weeks a birthday had slipped past him unawares.
He had learned much and had proven much, but he still did not know how to kiss a girl.
As he approached the line of trees he called out, and she broke from them, running nimbly across the ash and mud.
“Nebios ben Hebda,” she said, smiling and out of breath. She looked around the field and looked south to what remained of the gravediggers’ camp. The tents were already coming down as the workers began their exodus. A small contingent would be traveling north with Neb to aid the construction of the new library. Most were scattering to what homes they could either find or make or return to. “You really are finished,” she said.
Neb nodded. “I am. Petronus and Rudolfo should arrive tomorrow. I’ll ride back with them to the
Ninefold Forest to see what help I can be with the library.”
Winters smiled. “Your work here was impressive. I’m certain you will be an asset to them.”
He smiled, feeling the heat rise in his cheeks. Odd how only she could do this to him. “Thank you,” he said. “Shall we walk?” He extended his hand to her and she took it.
They walked to the river first, pausing there to watch a deer at the far side. They’d never come so close before, but nature reasserted its rule quickly. Someday, Neb thought, if no one built here, this plain itself might return to the forest it once had been.
As they walked, they didn’t speak this time. Before, they’d talked about his dreams and the Marsh King’s dreams and where they intersected. He’d always been amazed at her grasp of those-as if she were in them, herself. And she had been on a number of occasions, or at least the image of her.
She’d shown up in other dreams, too, that Neb could never talk about. Just thinking about them made his hands get sweaty and his mouth go dry. In one of those dreams, they lay beneath a clear canopy looking up on a moon far more massive and blue and green and brown than the one that hung in their night sky. They lay there naked in their own sweat, holding one another in their arms. She had rolled into him in that dream, her body sending shivers through him as she whispered in his ear.
“This dream is of our home,” she had said, and he’d awakened afraid that she really had been there, not just some image of her conjured out of his imagination and his desire.
As they turned west and walked with the river to their back, they feor b/dill into a rhythm. After a while he looked over to her, and saw the sadness on her face.
She looked at him and as if reading his mind, she explained. “We will never have these times again,” she said. “I will miss them.”
Neb shrugged. “I’m sure we’ll see each other again, Winters.” He knew he should say something else, thought about it, and hoped they were the right words. “I want to see you again,” he said.
She squeezed his hand. “I do, too. But it will be complicated.”
He stopped, suddenly knowing what to do, exactly what to do, and the words tumbled out before he could think himself out of them. “Then come with me, Winters. Surely, the Marsh King would understand and grant you this? Perhaps Rudolfo would speak to him on our behalf. Come and help me with the library.”
She stopped walking and dropped his hand. A wry smile played on her face, and the beauty of it, despite the smudges of mud and ash on her face, made his heart ache. “An interesting proposal, Nebios ben Hebda.”
He blushed at the word “proposal,” and starting reaching for words to dismiss his outburst. But she continued before he could finish that dismissal. “What would I do in the Ninefold Forest? How could I help with this library?” She took a step closer to him, and his nose was alive with the earthy scent of her. He could feel heat radiating from her, and he willed his feet forward one step.
Just one step. And then the kiss. But he couldn’t do it. “I’m sure Petronus would have work you could do,” he said.
She chuckled. “I’m sure he would. But I’m less concerned about his plans for me and more interested in
Neb’s felt his face go red and lost control of his tongue. He opened his mouth, but the words escaped him utterly.
Her eyes were playful now. “Childhood is but a day behind us, and adulthood looms ahead of us the day after tomorrow. Whose house would I share? What family would I have?”
The words came out suddenly before he could stop them. “We’d be together,” he said.
She laughed. “Would you take me as your bride, Nebios ben Hebda, and grant me a Gypsy wedding filled with dancing and music? Is that what you would do?” She paused. “I suspect that’s not something Androfrancines do.”
It wasn’t; he knew this. Though there had been special dispensations down through the years, strategic alliances anoic nt d such. And with the Order so completely shriveled now, it wouldn’t be out of the question. Still, he’d not considered marriage at all in this. He really hadn’t considered anything beyond the fact that he did not want to be away from the Marsh girl.
Her face went serious now, but it remained soft. “I know you’ve seen my dreams of home.” Neb’s mouth dropped open, and he felt panic rising.
She reached out and took both of his hands, holding them loosely in hers. “You have seen my dreams. I have seen yours. We do not need to concern ourselves with matters that the Gods have already spoken to.” She leaned in and kissed his cheek. “No matter where we go from each other, we will always come back.”
You’ve seen my dreams of home. The words resonated within him. Not the Marsh King’s dreams. My dreams.
She stood still before him there, her eyes searching into his own, her lips slightly parted as she watched and waited to see if he would hear the words beneath her words.
“You are…?” His words trailed off as he tried to make sense of it.
She nodded. “Today is the day I have held in my heart with hope and fear. Though the dreams give me great hope, and my fear is only that my deception might somehow hurt your trust in me.”
Neb looked into himself. Surprise seemed to overwhelm any hurt he might feel, yet it made sense. Never had he seen the burly, fur-clad Marsh King in his dreams, but she had intersected them again and again. And her deception made sense to him. Just his few months leading, he’d come to realize quickly how carefully a leader had to be with who knew what. It wasn’t a matter of trust, he realized, but of practicality. Hers was a secret that could take the teeth out of the Named Lands’ carefully sown fear of the Marshers. To find out that a slip of a girl was the power behind that army…
Her eyebrows furrowed, and concern washed her face. “Nebios, I-”
Neb didn’t wait for her to finish. The moment arrived and he recognized it for what it was. Without thinking, without giving himself even a second to hesitate and change his mind, he stepped forward and wrapped her in his arms. He enfolded her and pressed himself to her, his mouth moving in slowly even as her head came back and her eyes closed.
Then Neb kissed the girl whose dreams shared his own, the girl who was in all actuality the Marsh King that the New World trembled to think of.
He kissed her and kept on kissing her, hoping that the dreams were true and that their paths would croopataliss again.