Part 3: Crossing Town
They found Collins out front, leaning on a little cart designed to be pulled by a single person. They’d seen its like at the bazaar, but this was even smaller than any they’d seen there. “I figured you wouldn’t want to carry your things any more than you absolutely have to.”
Tomas heaved a heavy sigh of relief as he backed up to the cart and unbuckled the straps across his chest and waist. He lowered the heavy pack onto the wooden bed as gracefully as he could, but it still almost pulled him down and landed with a heavy thunk. Kari chuckled to herself as she caught Tomas’ shoulder and the cart shifted on its wheels, then she gently placed her own, larger pack as well. Tomas wrapped his arms around Kari’s waist; she gave him a quick squeeze then said, “Are we ready?”
Collins nodded calmly, a small smile showing through an otherwise pleasantly neutral face.
Nodding back once, Kari moved to take the L-bar at the front of the cart.
“Oh, now, there’s no need…” Collins began.
Kari lifted the bar, testing the weight and balance of the little cart. “Let me thank you, Collins.”
He bobbed his head in a small, deferential bow before walking out into the street. “Onward, then.” As they began to walk, Collins and Tomas kept up a steady stream of small talk, but Tomas’ heart just wasn’t in it.
It must have shown, too, because after what became a particularly long break in the conversation, Collins said, “Tough night?”
Without thinking, Tomas said, “Yeah. Something was keeping me up all night.”
Silence began to stretch again, breeding anxiety in Tomas’ chest. Did you say something wrong? Will he think we’re unsafe to be around? What if I could have done something and he’s realizing how useless I am?
“We’ve all been there,” Collins said easily, clapping a friendly hand on Tomas’ shoulder. Turning to Kari, who was slightly trailing the two of them, he said, “What about you? Did you sleep?”
“Slept,” she said without turning her head or breaking her stride. “Horrible dreams, but it was sleep.” Looking closer, Tomas could see the stoop in her shoulders, the weight with which each step came down. [It had nothing to do with the cart she was pulling.]
He didn’t voice the concern he felt for her; Collins had already tried. Instead, he said, “Will our new room be safer?”
Collins sighed. “I want to tell you it will. I just don’t know for sure. I can give you some things to do to protect yourselves, but there’s work to be done before then. Things you must understand about the nature of the Struggle you find yourselves suddenly immersed in. I had hoped it would take them longer to realize you’d crossed the Mountains, but there’s nothing to be done. We can only move forward, and that’s just what we’ll do.”
Collins nodded mirthlessly. “I tried to convince you of this when we were first speaking plainly. We share a common enemy—one with considerable reach and resources.”
“How can we fight that?” Tomas’ exhausted mind was falling into despair.
“Frankly, we can’t. But we don’t have to. You could say our organization has…powerful allies. Allies with considerably more more power and reach than the enemy.” He smiled soothingly at Tomas. “You needn’t be afraid. You’re in good hands, and I’m not speaking of my own.
“The Mahb-wanna?” Tomas had to reach for the word.
Collins smiled faintly. “Well, yes, actually. But I was really talking about who they answer to, so to speak. But I’m getting ahead of us. There will be plenty of time to explain once you’ve settled in—and maybe a nap, perhaps?” He looked slyly past Tomas at Kari.
She smiled tiredly in response.
[The rest of their walk was done in calm, pleasant silence. Collins led the way; Kari trailed slightly behind. Tomas had been right: there was a more direct route to the school, and Collins had found it. Both Kari and Tomas were grateful for the shorter walk, and by the time they rounded that final corner, all they could think of was sleep.]