II

The village was used to a few wanderers every year, and every so often a new family would arrive from somewhere worse and settle on a bit of empty land. Local customs were communicated to newcomers somehow. But this year already seemed a heavy one for travel and four little clans built four mud and timber hovels in four different patches of grassland. They got in fights and their kids tore things up but the new folk all looked unlikely to last the winter anyway. Other travelers just passed on, north to south mostly, without a word mostly. Sometimes a local would walk out in the morning and find something missing in his yard or his barn.

Once in June Sophie was reading to her nephew Will when the boy stiffened and concentrated his dark eyes on the open window. “What is it, Willy?” asked Sophie.

“There’s a man outside.”

The way he said it made her hair stand on end. She crept to the window and looked out. And there he was, standing near a tree in the dark yard, only the starlight on him. He wore a coat and a beat-up hat, and that was all that could be seen. She thought he was facing the house.

“Dad,” she said after a long moment, “there’s a man outside.”

“A what?” asked Dad from his chair across the room.

“What’s he doing?” asked Nell. “I’ll see to him,” said Jack, standing. Slim stood too, and the two of them moved to the front door. They looked at each other and opened it. They stepped out, and the light, and the family, crowded out into the yard. There was no man.

“Heard tell the Frungans are into the northern provinces,” said Lof the Smith on a hot July day as they sat and sipped Mom’s mild sweet wine in the shade of the big ash in front of the house.

“No one’s asked me to do anything about it,” said Dad. “I don’t know if I would even if they did ask.”

“King John’s got another army,” said Slim. “I heard Davy is off to Merrivan to sign up. What’s he thinking?”

“He’s not,” said Jack. “I wouldn’t fight for King John for all the money in Merrivan.”

“That’s not so much anymore,” said Nell. “Marie told me the Earl of Selish carried off half the Treasury.”

“I heard that too,” said Dick.

“He’s not the King John I marched under,” said Dad. “His father is cursing him up one side and down the other in the High Pavilion.”

“If he couldn’t stop them last year, how will he stop them this year?” asked Lof.

“Could be the end of Merrivan,” said Lof’s wife Matild. “Too bad.”

“Shopping was good in Merrivan,” said Nell.

“So,” said Sophie, sharpening arrows, “who’s going to be our King now? Olk?”

They all looked at her. The old men nodded, and Jack shrugged. “What’s it matter?” he asked. “It couldn’t be much worse than it was.”

“Bite your tongue,” said Dad. “You don’t know a thing, my little boy. Anyway, you know what I’ve been thinking, we never had it so good as now. No taxes, no interference—!”

“Yeah,” said Lof. “What is it kings and lords do for us anyway, for all the money?”

They thought about it and no one much wanted to reply. They sipped their wine, Sophie fletched her arrows as the golden evening came on, and then a dozen off the neighbor’s farm joined them in time to feast on a young boar. That night again, just like childhood, Sophie lay on her back in the yard and counted the stars. She could hear boys talking a hundred yards away, and then wandering off to look for trouble. She lay still, in a slight dell, sailing the voids of space while the wind whispered over her.

Several times in the month of August the farm and the nearby villages were troubled by strangers passing through. First several shabby families, a total of fifteen or so, came rolling through on carts pulled by oxen, sheep and fathers. They camped for a day and asked Dad for food, and how could he say no to the little girl? Then, a week later, four young men together camped on Muddy Cross and tried to get money from people passing. A fight ensued several days later, and the farmers around helped dislodge the four men. One of the four, and one of the younger farmers, were killed.

After that, the farmers were more vigilant about patrols and keeping in touch. So when two dozen men of strange dark features and blond hair passed by the farm, Dad sent Slim out to warn the farms around. The gang made straight for Tenna, where they occupied the inn until they too were dislodged with bloodshed, three of them and two of the locals dead.

In September Dad took some cattle and sheep to the fair, but this time he only took Sophie with him. Even though the last set of threatening strangers had come to Tenna, everyone assumed that the town was safer than the farms and villages, and the farm would need everyone it could muster for security. But then it became quiet again, as if the flow down from the hills were freezing up for winter.

So Sophie and Dad and Horseradish and Dad’s favorite mare Daisy and twelve obedient sheep and two pretty good goats and six hogs securely roped together headed for the Fair. Sophie and her mom got up before light, got everything ready and then spent an hour waiting around while Dad made sure Jack and Slim and Nell and everyone else knew what was expected of them. Dad was suddenly thinking of a lot of things that might be expected of them. Perhaps it was because the unexpected covered so much ground.

Finally the two of them were off. It was still early, and the trip, according to Dad, “ought to take a whole long day and that only if we got off by dawn.” They did not get off by dawn, but they did not stop in the villages on the way. Sophie noticed especially the lives of the villages, each one different, each one the same as all the rest including her own. And underneath the eternal, bustling lives of the working villages, she could just sense the new, acidic taste of anxiety, just like in her own home town this past year or two.

They got to the Fair and soon found that things were tough all over. The great market and farm show was half its normal self, and the other half of the usual space in town was taken up by squatter families in lean-tos. Outside Tenna’s wooden stockade walls, a shanty town was beginning to spring up. Last year at the Fair Sophie had gotten used to the boys looking at her, but now it was the cows that were being ogled.

Dad sold his stock at record speed. One of his usual contacts in Tenna, a widow named Elsbeth Allett, paid good silver for the lot. “Maybe I should dicker,” she said, “but I haven’t time, I have to get these beasts to Merrivan to sell again.”

“Maybe I’m the one who should dicker,” said Dad, fingering his coin, “but this is more than I’d usually get even if I sold them one by one and bargained all the way. And with all the strangers in town I’m glad to hand the good beasts over to someone else to worry about.”

“Aye, the new folk look a hungry lot,” said Elsbeth Allett. “Pity they haven’t a penny.”

“Where are they coming from?” asked Sophie.

“Up north, out west, off east,” replied the merchant. “Some will settle, and some are welcome, but some look like no more than robbers and lowlife, and they won’t move on as long as the Fair gives them easy marks.”

“Trouble in the world,” said Dad. “I feel sorry for them.”

“I don’t but I do,” said Elsbeth Allett. “The way those men there watch everyone going by—if they don’t mean evil, then I’m a dormouse. And yet without a King—! How are things up where you all hail from? What’s it called?”

“Mudwick,” said Dad, and Sophie thought, my home town.

“Don’t know it,” said Elsbeth. “Well, how is it up at Mudwick?”

“I won’t lie,” said Dad. “Folk are scared of their own shadows. Like you say, without a King—well, a King worth the name, anyway. Who’s in charge in Tenna, anyway?”

“Ah,” said Elsbeth, “town council, bunch of screw-ups. Not sure what’s going to happen. Things are in a dizzy twist, that’s what I call it. No one talks of the King here these days.”

“No one does?” said Sophie.

The two elders rolled their eyes and shrugged their shoulders, and with nods and a few pleasantries they hurried on their way.

Normally Dad pitched a small tent in the fields outside the walls, but the situation as well as the money in his pocket talked him into putting down a shilling for a room at the inn. They had some stew and a couple of pints in the common room, where they listened to locals complaining about the weather, then to drunken locals singing.

The room had two little bunks, a bench, a couple of shelves and a copper basin. They went right up and lay on the bunks talking—quite the life of luxury. “We’ll stay the night, then shop a bit in the morning and be home by afternoon,” Dad told Sophie. “I’m going to have a bit of wine and hit the sack.”

“I think I’ll have some too,” said Sophie.

“That’s my girl!” He pulled the cork out of his bottle and took a long drink. Sophie took the bottle and took the same long drink. “Wine is good for you,” said Dad, “don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.”

They drank a third of the bottle and talked about the farm and the summer and the coming winter, and after twenty minutes Dad was nodding off. Sophie watched him with a smile, then corked the bottle and got up. A few minutes later she was out in the dirt street in front of the inn, swinging her sword through its practice moves while passers by gave her a wide berth.

The next day, after an early fog and a brief rain, the clouds settled in. The number of refugees in Tenna doubled. Nobody among the locals seemed to know where they were coming from or what they were fleeing, and no one had gotten up the gumption to ask.

In any case, the clouds opened up before the day was well underway and the rain and drizzle went on into the afternoon. Dad and Sophie looked out from the inn’s doorway at the uncertain weather, and all the other uncertainty, and decided to stay another night.

“Another shilling, then,” said the old man innkeeper, hardly looking at the coin as he watched the open door. “Have some stew and a pint or two,” he said, still staring past them.

“Thanks, inn-keep,” said Dad. “Come, girl, let’s go see how the wrestling goes.”

In the evening, as Sophie and her Dad were coming out of the arena where a local boy had pinned a boy from Merrivan for the wrestling title, they saw someone familiar.

“Hey,” said Sophie, “isn’t that Ned?”

“That’s his parents too,” said Dad, “the wright and the, uh, wright’s wife. Go talk to them, Soph, they must be up for the Fair.”

“Why do I have to talk to them? You’re the only one of us that likes any of them.”

“Now Soph. You go. I—I don’t like them that much either. But—well, I’d like to get some news of back home. You know, all these vagrants make me wonder what’s going on in the wide world.”

Sophie began weaving through the crowd. Suddenly she emerged from a knot of people and saw the wright’s family, all eight of them including a grandmother and a cousin. They were standing, sitting or lying on the ground in a tight group, with a pile of belongings around them. They had put up a canvas sheet as a tent, and arranged some bedding underneath, and now most of them were waiting while the wright’s wife made some kind of stew over a fire of sticks.

Sophie turned around and went back to her Dad. “What did they say?”

“Let’s talk about it back at the inn,” she replied.

“I couldn’t talk to them, Dad,” she said as they ate some stew in the common room. “I mean, a month ago Ned came a courting. Now—!”

“So you got scared to talk to them?”

“Well, Dad, I mean there was all their stuff. I mean, what was I going to say? ‘Hey, how’s it going, Ned, going on a pilgrimage or something?’ I mean—!”

“You’re embarrassed for them because they’re not here for the fair like we are,” said Dad. “They’re fleeing. They’ve lost their home. Well, Sophie, when we find out what’s going on, we might learn we’ve lost a few things too.”

“What do you mean?”

“Why do you think they’re here? They’re from our town, Sophie.”

She put it together and wondered what had taken her. She found she was fingering her grandmother’s scarf, which she had brought with her from home out of whim or superstition. “But that means—!”

“Sophie, we have to think. We don’t have news yet. I’d like to cut out and go home, but we have to wait till tomorrow morning anyway. Maybe your Mom will turn up tomorrow right here in Tenna, and we can move in next door to Ned.”

“I hope it was just panic,” said Sophie. “I hope the wright just heard a rumor.”

“I hope so too,” said Dad. “Lots of rumors. One day one of them’s going to be true.”

The next morning, between sun and showers, the father and daughter mounted up and headed for home. They’d gotten about an hour up the road when they met a sizeable column of new refugees. There wasn’t anyone from their village, as far as they could see—but there were the entire contents of two villages about five miles from where they now stood.

“No, not Frungans,” said a young man. “They’re from west over the hills, Kuhur warriors. They’re taking the land they want, and killing a lot of folk. Must’ve been a hundred came to our village, but that’s only a part of what came over the Muddy River.”

“Any news of the villages and farms along the Muddy?” asked Dad. “Town of Mudwick?”

“Mudwick, huh?” said several. “Never heard of it.”

“Some of those people came through our neighborhood day before yesterday, and yesterday,” said the young man. “I guess the Kug have been scouting all year, and now they’re here in force.”

“And they have magic,” said an older woman.

“Don’t know about that,” said an older man, “but they have these arrows what whistles as they flies.”

“Yeah,” said Dad glumly, “they do that so they’ll terrify you more. Works, too, don’t it?”

“It was enough when they set fire to my house and slew my two sons,” said an old woman.

Dad looked at Sophie. “We ought to go see,” he said.

“No, no, no,” said several refugees. “No, don’t go up that way. If your folk was peaceful, they might be all right if the raiders didn’t want their land. If they gave up their livestock, they’ll be fine. But if you two come up from back here, they’ll shoot you as soon as they see you.”

“And think what will happen to her,” said several, pointing to Sophie.

“Nothing’s gonna happen to me,” said Sophie.

“Needn’t fear any of that,” said an old man. “They’ll think you’re a young man and kill you right away.”

“We still have to go see,” said Sophie.

“Hope we see you again,” said several.

So Sophie and her Dad rode on a ways. They came without warning to a village they’d ridden through on the way to Tenna a few days ago. It was burned to the ground.

They stood there in a light drizzle staring. They could make out a dozen house outlines and some implements, a broken plow, a few tools. There were a few corpses, not looking at all like anything living.

All of a sudden the sun peeked through a crack in the clouds. Their eyes adjusted. There was a noise ahead of them, where some ruins flanked a little brush along a stream.

The sun pointed out the body of a young woman lying across the path. The noise came again. The sun vanished again. Some struggle was occurring in the brush on the other side of the village.  Now they began to discern more bodies, under the trees, under the fallen thatch and timber. The whole place stank. Without a word, the two of them backed their horses out of the clearing that had been the village. Sophie heard or felt something behind her.

By that time she’d had enough of things glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, or heard but not seen. She slid off of Horseradish and yanked out her father’s sword. Before them, just out of the brush on either side of the trail, were four men in leather with metal studs, holding axes and clubs. They had dark skin and blond hair, their thin pale greasy beards peeking out from their leather helmets. They looked formidable, but they were all shorter than Sophie. They advanced, leering, on the armor-less blond-haired girl.

She whacked the nearest one with the flat of the sword, hitting him right on the metal cap to his helmet. He went down in a heap. The others gawked, so she whacked the next nearest on the ear—a solid hit. His prognosis included a long-term ringing in the ears, but for the short term he too went down. The other two backed off into fighting crouches.

“I’ve had it with you guys,” said Sophie, turning back to her horse. The two stood up and advanced. “Gosh darn it,” she said, turning back to them. “I’ve had it up to here!” She swung the blade level with her shoulders. The edge took one of them on the top of the head, right under the metal cap of his helmet, and when he went down a piece of his skull wasn’t attached. The fourth man also fell, having failed to notice Dad’s axe handle.

“Let’s go,” said Dad, shaking. Sophie was shaking too. She gave the man she had killed a brief appraisal, then got on her horse. They were out of the village before any more Kug warriors could confront them.

They turned their horses and headed back to Tenna. When they were almost in sight of the town, Sophie said, “Maybe everyone will be fine.”

“We can’t do anything for them now,” Dad replied.

That evening they sat in the common room with pints of ale. “Dad,” said Sophie, “what could have happened back there if—?”

“Sophie,” he said, “you killed a bad guy. You did it. That’s really something.”

“That was nothing,” she replied. “I didn’t even think.”

“You can’t think,” he said. “You did what you should have. You can’t, uh, think about whether he’s a good person or not.”

“I don’t care if he had five kids back home, wherever he came from. I don’t care about that. Maybe I would’ve felt different a year ago, but I saw how they looked at us, I saw that woman dead. Darn it, Dad, what’s going to happen? There are so many more of them, I know there are, there were plenty more just in that village that we didn’t see. We were lucky to get out at all. How are we ever going to—? I mean, what can we—?”

“Well,” Dad said with his customary bravado, “there’s still us.”

“They might be fine,” said Sophie. “I mean, Mom, Jack, Slim—!” She met his eyes, blue into blue. “They might be fine,” she said, and sipped her beer. “And if not, well, we still got us.”

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