“I can’t tell who’s who,” said Sophie as she and her dad looked down from a bush-shrouded lookout on the ridge top. “They look the same to me.”
“That would be the Frungans up there,” said Dad, pointing to the right, up the valley, “and this is King John here. They do look pretty much the same. I see some horses over there, I see some over here—but still, both sides will be mostly on foot.”
“And where are the Kug and their funny arrows?”
“Maybe the Kug were just scouts.”
“So why would they shoot at me?” she asked. “That risked being noticed. They were noticed, now I think of it. Scouts wouldn’t want that, would they?”
“So why would they shoot at you. Yep. You got a point there. Well, I dare say they’ll show up sometime, when we least want them to.” They gazed out upon the armies. Dad did a little calculation that involved measuring the air with lengths from thumb to pinkie. “Let’s see, say we’re four hundred feet above them. That seem right?”
Sophie thought a moment, then nodded. “Sure.”
“And the river down there by our camp, our guys’ camp I should say, that’s got to be eight miles. Eight?”
“I don’t know how you pick eight over five or ten,” she said, wrinkling her brow.
“Compromise. Now these—!” They gazed down upon the strangers’ camp. There were only a few fires, which was different from the smoky airs of the Merrivan camp. Still there was no denying there were a lot of men down there, and a fair number of horses. They seemed to be gathering into units now, and in spite of their efforts to remain concealed, they were trampling clearings in their forest cover. “Say six miles from here. Now the angle between—?”
“I make it between a right angle and a straight line,” said Sophie.
“You remember your lessons, girl, that’s good. All right. Say a hundred and fifty degrees. That means close to the two added together, eight miles and six miles, which would be fourteen, so call it twelve. They’re twelve miles apart. I think it’s close enough for a fight yet today, but it won’t be going by noon.” He grinned down at the presumptive Frungans. She gazed at him with a slight smile, wondering what he was thinking. He was muttering a little. He said, “I make it ten thousand, all right. Maybe more.”
“I don’t know whether you’re actually doing something or just bluffing,” said Sophie. “Do you know if you’re wild guessing or good guessing or—just bluffing?”
“No, I tried to count them,” Dad said defensively. “Don’t you go doubting me now, daughter. Of course the twelve miles could be six for all I know.” He gave it one more serious look. “It’s not less than six, that’s sure, and no way is it more than fifteen.” He frowned at the land below one more moment. “One of us has to go down and report,” he said.
“Can we both go?”
He shook his head. “One has to stay up here and watch. I won’t be long. I’ll be back before it’s started.”
He smiled. “I’ll be fine,” he said. “You stay under cover.” He mounted up. “Under cover,” he added, “but where you can see everything.”
Sophie fretted all morning about him, but she needn’t have. Just before noon, she was sitting on the limb of a maple, ten feet off the ground, when she saw him lead his horse up the deer path. By then, the two armies were approaching, but so slowly that it no longer seemed possible that they would fight today.
“Sophie!” he called in a stage whisper.
She dropped down behind him, with a crash that spoiled the surprise and nearly sprained her ankle. “Hey,” she said.
“Hey, you trying to sneak up on me?”
Dad rolled his eyes and shook his head. “It’s been decided to gather more information. We’re to watch and report every six hours. They’re sending patrols out to make early contact and then the commanders will know where to concentrate their forces for maximum, blah, blah, blah. All that military talk. So what are the Frungans doing?”
“They’re—well, Dad, I expect you can see for yourself.”
He took a look. “My eyes aren’t as good as yours anymore,” he said, “but sure enough they look like they’re easing up nice and slow. Kind of as if they wanted to take us by surprise.”
“How can they do that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they don’t know we’re up here. You know what that means.”
“No fire,” he said, pulling out a hunk of jerky and tossing it to her. “There’s lunch. Dinner’s still in my coat pocket.”
That evening, Dad went down again to report, while Sophie sat in her tree and watched the sun set over the valley. It got quite cold, and this time neither army lit fires. They were just too close to each other. Sophie could see bits of each army scattered among the trees, and she couldn’t imagine how they avoided noticing one another.
When Dad returned, she climbed down and they sat on a rock overlooking the river valley. There they munched on jerky and fruit and had a fair amount of wine, huddling together in the chill as they muttered their thoughts. “Gonna be a fight tomorrow,” said Dad.
“That’s obvious,” said Sophie. “I don’t see how they’re not fighting now.”
“Sophie, men usually have to be told to fight a battle. It isn’t a natural thing to do. Men don’t naturally fight. They—!”
“I think they naturally fight,” said Sophie. “Isn’t it when you get drunk that you act natural? I’ve seen drunk men. They fight.”
Dad digested that with a smile, and eventually said, “Of course, bring in the Kug and it’s all out the window. They’re a different breed.”
“I guess they must be on the far side of the valley. The Kug. Up in those rough hills.”
“I suppose you’re right. But Sir Bodon says that the generals have some scouts from down South, scouting all around over there in those hills, and they haven’t found any sign of anything like that.” He huffed.
“They’re from down south though,” said Sophie. “They don’t know what to look for.”
“They know what they want to see,” said Dad. “They don’t want to see Kug. And Kug don’t want to them to see Kug. So they don’t.” They gazed into the dark. “Wonder what they’re up to, up here, these Kug. Seemed they had plenty to do pillaging our province. They already finished with Tenna?”
“Maybe Tenna didn’t take long. It’s a matter of whether they burned first then pillaged, or the other way around.”
“Tenna’s not getting anything Tenna doesn’t deserve,” she said, thinking of the councilmen and the drunken louts.
“Sophie. I must really draw the line. It’s not—!”
“I know. I know.” They stared into the black sky. “I’m sorry, Tenna. Yeah, there were some good folk there. The lady who bought our livestock. Some of them farmers.”
“Think of the refugees, Soph. They fled their villages, and only to be sacked and probably massacred ten or twenty miles down the road. Well, anyway. We’ve thought of it, now we can stop and think of something else.”
They sat in silence for a little. “Well,” said Sophie, “nice weather lately.”
Sophie and her dad curled up, in their clothes, under a bush, blankets all around them and leaves piled over most of the blankets. Neither one could sleep for a long time. Then they slept, and Sophie’s sleep was troubled by fleeting disconcerting dreams. By now she was used to waking up from disconcerting dreams in the morning. What was new to her was waking up to remember that a battle of twenty thousand men was supposed to be going on a few hundred feet below her camp site.
The sky was mostly grey with a few gaps of blue, and a warm light wind came up the valley from the south. Sophie slunk away to pee, and when she slunk back, her dad was up and ready to slink away himself. He came back and they ate some hard bread and an apple each and drank some water. They didn’t say anything until the edge was off their hunger.
“Think it’s gonna be today?” she asked.
“What?” he asked.
“The battle, silly.” He grinned.
At that moment a wild chorus of cries came up from the valley.
Sophie and her dad jumped up. They stared at each other. Then they clawed their way out of the bushes and crept to where they could see down. Even after long staring, all they could tell for sure about the valley below was: there were a whole lot of men down there, trampling all over and yelling. Now the clash of metal came up to them as well.
“Someone needs to go down there,” said Dad, “probably both of us.”
“Why? Tell them there’s Frungans attacking them? I think they know.”
“Sophie, you’re here as a messenger. They might just need you right now to take messages. I might as well go with, they might send me with you. Or they might have me find them some Kug barbarians.” They stared downward for another few seconds. “I sure can’t stand to be up here while that mess is down there,” he added.
“Well, then, let’s both go.” Sophie was not especially eager to get near some thousands of men who had murder on their minds, and who probably had to get soused to get in the mood, but she knew she had to get it out of the way, so in another minute they were leading their horses down the steep deer-path and in half an hour they were riding in the woods on the valley floor. The din was a little more distant. The first thing they met that had anything to do with the battle was a hundred men sitting and standing around in a clearing.
“Are they us?” Sophie asked Dad.
“Hey, scouts,” called several of the men standing nearest to them. “Hey, scouts! What’s up? Are they coming?”
“We ain’t seen them down here at all,” said Dad.
A gentleman rode up on a fine horse. “Are you Sir Bodon’s scouts?” he asked.
“We are,” said Dad.
“So what’s the situation?”
“Frungans are attacking all along this side of the river,” Dad replied. He pointed north. “Go that way and you’ll run smack into them.”
“How many?” asked the gentleman.
“They look to have the same numbers as we do,” said Dad. “No sign of the Kug.”
“May it stay that way,” said the gentleman. “Sergeants, bring your troops forward!” Orders were shouted through the company. The gentleman saluted the scouts, who saluted back and continued toward the camp.
They passed more of their army moving forward in the woods, exchanging what little they knew for what little the soldiers knew. Morale seemed quite high, but for a while they couldn’t find any commander higher than a few men, usually on horseback, who commanded individual companies. These exchanged a few sentences with them as they moved up, but didn’t know and hadn’t thought about what the overall strategy was, or where King John and Prince Sylvester were in all these woods.
The sound of fighting, which still consisted largely of shouting, grew behind them as the sun rose and occasionally peered through the gaps in the clouds. Presently the shouts were joined by a low and rising mixture of moans.
The camp was still where it had been. There were empty tents and empty stables, there were pit latrines and piles of refuse, and there was all the stuff belonging to all the King’s men, guarded by a dozen or so of the King’s men. These, not the best in the army, gave the two only the briefest glance.
Dad led Sophie right up to a couple of hefty older men who were sitting on some luggage in front of a big tent. “The Royal Palace,” Dad explained as they rode up to the front of it. “Excuse me,” said Dad to the two men, jumping down. Sophie jumped down behind him. The noise of battle, a low grinding din, came from 180° of directions behind them as they faced the tent.
The two hefty men stared at them for a moment, then one said to the other, “Anyway, it was Margaret was married to the Duke before, but she survived him.”
“Excuse me,” said Dad.
“I hear tell she had him poisoned, not what he didn’t deserve it,” said the other.
“Excuse me, but we—!” Sophie started.
“Anyway, she remarried,” said the first.
“Some marquis or other,” said the second.
“Excuse me,” said Dad, waving both arms at them. The sound of hooves turned Sophie around. Sir Bodon and three others rode into the camp, wheeled, saw Sophie and headed for her.
“Girl,” cried one of the others with a look and voice as if he’d been angry at everyone he met for the past two hours, “get to the left and tell Sir Milus to get his men in line.”
“They have to move up, got that, girl?” said the man next to him.
“Left?” asked Sophie.
“That way,” said the first horseman.
“Squire John,” said Sir Bodon, “can you find out in the next quarter hour if the Kug are over there?”
“Yes and yes,” said Dad, remounting. Sophie mounted up too, and off they sped. On the other side of the camp, he pointed Sophie at some men a mile or so off toward the fighting. “Milus has the biggest beard on that side of the battle,” he told her. “I’ll be looking for Kug. You don’t go near any of them.”
“You either,” she called over her shoulder as she turned Horseradish toward the fighting.
In two minutes she was approaching a few dozen men, lying around with wounds and injuries. Through a few trees she could see the Vara River. The noise of fighting was just ahead in dense woods. “Where’s Sir Milus?” she asked them. They waved her on. She rode up through tall grasses toward the trees. A dozen more men stood around nervously in a trampled area among large bushes. They looked up at her but said nothing.
The noise ahead grew suddenly louder by the addition of a chorus of shouts and cries. The nervous men looked up and readied their weapons: spears, pikes, a few swords, and one with a long shovel. A whistling whine, and an arrow landed twenty feet in front of Horseradish, sticking up out of the sandy soil. More shafts landed, humming like bees: one hit the guy with the shovel, and he fell over, the arrow sticking out of his neck.
Sophie did not have long to think about the poor man, who died quickly: where he was from and whether he left loved ones and what it was all for, none of these things had time to enter her mind. Men came bursting from the brush, shouting incomprehensibly. Arrows began to land amongst the bushes: several men fell. A hundred men or more were passing her, while more yet came out and turned to fight or to see what was behind them. Sophie, instinctively, drew her sword, while Horseradish, acting on his own instinct, backed away.
A handsome middle-aged man with a moustache and blood on his forehead raced out, then stopped and shouted to Sophie: “Tell the headquarters: they’ve broken through! Milus is down! Archers across the river—!” More arrows landed about, some of them short, skinny ones that whistled, while others were long and hefty and silent. The handsome man ran among those fleeing, trying to rally them. He took one more moment to shout at Sophie, “Go! We need help!”
She turned Horseradish around and headed back, as the handsome man tried to form his men up again. Men were falling still behind her, but that was what happened in battles. She just didn’t want to know about it. Back in the camp, there was somewhat more commotion now. More men on horseback had gathered, dressed in fine mail with helmets and mask-like visors. Sir Bodon sauntered over to her, his visor up to reveal a worried face.
“They said Milus is down,” she told him. “They aren’t moving up, they’re falling back. Archers across the river.”
“They’re not—are they?” he asked.
“Whistling arrows,” she said. “Those little ones. Dad says Kug have arrows like that.”
“Frungans sure don’t,” he replied. “Name the devil.” He turned his horse and shouted to the others, who now amounted to a cavalry of fifty or so. “We have Kug archers across the river,” he shouted. “Kug archers. Milus is down. The left is falling back.”
“Can’t be Kug,” shouted a knight with an accent from the coast.
“And yet they are,” shouted Sir Bodon. He turned to Sophie. “Get over to the right. Pull them back to the edge of camp. Then we’ll try and find the King in all this: he’s supposed to be somewhere in the middle. We’re obviously going to have to hold up the left.” He pulled his visor down and headed back to the others, shouting at them to come over to the left side.
Sophie took another look behind her: the left wasn’t crumbling so fast yet that the retreating rabble were visible from camp. She nudged Horseradish, who took a look himself, and then the two rode off eastward. In a few minutes they were alone in light woods, and even the sounds of battle were faint.
She came out into a field and stood, screened by a line of yellow bushes. A hundred yards ahead, bands of men were slugging it out on foot. From here it just looked like a big fistfight. She got up her courage and sauntered up. There were a few men lying about in the casual poses of death, and some cast-off and broken weapons, and a few limbs as well. She still didn’t feel she had time to feel anything. A couple of men materialized from the fighting: a huge red-bearded fellow with some wounds and a big club, and a hefty old man with a scraggly grey beard and a spear. “How’s the King doing?” the old man asked her.
“I don’t know. Sir Bodon says to fall back to the edge of camp.”
“What? Why?” asked the redbeard, as if it were an insult.
“The left is falling back,” she said. “I think Sir Milus is dead. There’s Kug archers coming across the river.”
The redbeard rolled his eyes, then turned and shouted. “Fall back, men! Fall back! In rank! In rank! Fall back in rank!” Some of the men turned, and several were brained as they looked back. He rolled his eyes and ran over as if to move them himself.
“We’re doing pretty good over here,” said the old man. “Not doing so good on the other side? Too many of those Southerners over there.”
Sophie smiled. “Too many Kug there,” she said. “I have to go find the King.”
“Long live the King,” said the old man with sincerity. He grinned and waved his spear.
“Take care of yourselves,” Sophie said, wondering what the old spear-man’s contribution to the cause could possibly amount to. She turned and rode back to the light woods. When she got there, she turned right, west, toward the river. She took one last look to her right, back across the field. She could see the soldiers backing up and fighting, backing up and fighting some more. They were still in good order. She could hear the red-bearded man shouting still behind her as she rode on.
Sophie met nothing at first, not even dead bodies. She felt she was nearing the river, which was definitely too far. She saw a clump of fighting in the distance under the trees to her right, maybe a few dozen of each side. None of them looked anything like a King or a Prince: they just looked like a bunch of drunken louts pounding each other in the street in front of the tavern. She stood and watched them for a minute or two: above, the clouds were giving way grudgingly and thin rays of autumn sun were slipping through the bare trees.
She cut back, southeast, to the rear and back toward the center, and then stopped when she could see the tents of camp through the trees. Nothing much going on there. She turned due north toward where the line of battle should have been. A mile along a trampled trail, and she saw several dozen men coming her way. They looked dazed, and many were wounded.
“Who are you?” she asked. They stared at her as they approached and began to pass her on the right. “Where’s the King?” she asked one of them.
“Back there,” he said, waving behind.
“You guys are the wounded?” she asked. Naturally they didn’t bother to answer. “Well, the left’s falling back, and so’s the right,” she shouted at them as they wandered past. She watched them disappear into the woods in the direction of camp.
Sophie turned and looked north. The sounds of clash were not so loud now, but there seemed to be a lot of whimpering far ahead, a chorus of snivels. She got Horseradish to hustle forward across a grassy belt and into more trees. She came to a dry stream, and found herself in among a hundred or more corpses. A few were alive still, lying there moaning. She looked down at one, a brown-bearded young man who stared at the sky and said, “Ohhh, ohhh, ohhh.”
“Where’s the King?” she asked him. He looked at her, then went back to moaning.
Another band of men materialized from the woods ahead: several dozen, then maybe several hundred on either side of them. They were armed and armored just like the rest of the infantry: not very well, compared to the knighthood. A few were wounded but most had the unfought look of reserves. They came down to the stream bed, and one of them called to her with a concerned look: “Hiven farken garben harven hiven” or something like that. Sophie thought about that for a moment, then turned her horse and headed back with all speed.
After half a mile, she stopped and thought about it. None of the dead looked kingly or princely either. She turned to the left, toward the high ground, and rode along at a walk, the noise of woe and clash sounding, now loud and now soft, from various points on her left.
A voice on her right called, “Ho, girl, scout!” She stopped and looked, her hand on her sword. It was a young knight from the south.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Tell anyone you see to regroup along the edge of camp,” he said. “We’ve done all right in the center, now we just have to take the vanguard and march it left to cut off where the enemy’s advanced too far. You get the right back to the camp.”
“We’ve done all right in the center?” she repeated.
“Where’s the King?” she asked. “And the Prince?”
Doubt suddenly entered the young knight’s face. “What did you see? Were you up in the middle just now?”
“Yeah, and I didn’t see a thing,” she said, “but a pile of corpses and some guys who sounded like they were speaking Frungan.”
“Well,” said the knight, “get the right back to the edge of camp.” He rode off the way she had come, headed toward the river.
Sophie spent the next hour wandering in the woods at the foot of the ridge. The woods were far from quiet, but the noise of battle was definitely less than before. She met a few dozen of her own army, wandering southward toward the camp already, looking confused. She saw a few more clumps of battle, but no one there seemed interested in moving the fight to other ground. In dense woods, she came upon two men, heavily armored, slugging it out with clubs and shields in a shaft of sunlight. She found many dead men. But she didn’t see a soul who seemed interested in her orders, so she turned back south to get new ones. It was then she met a sizeable part of the King’s army.
She came out onto a knoll, a rocky outcrop on one side of a hill, and stood there on her horse looking down on that track in the woods, running north and south, here with open fields around it that had once been farms. On it, there were some little crowds of men. A large crowd were on horseback, and they engaged in a sharp affray while behind them a large band of men on foot hoofed it southward. Suddenly half the horse were breaking off and scattering south, southeast toward her and southwest. The rest, in three disciplined groups, pursued the fleeing riders. Sophie looked down from her unexpected vantage point, and below her rode past a band of a hundred or so knights bearing the heraldry of Helark and Faravon: Prince Sylvester, his helmet dented, was among them. The foot proceeded south at a run.
But then the Frungan cavalry, for she could now identify Frungan green and gold banners among them, turned on the fleeing infantry. The two groups came together, and stopped and did something to each other. Sophie couldn’t tell who did what to whom, but she got the idea that a lot of men were going down, but few of the horses. She shaded her blue eyes and pierced the intervening air. Yes, in the afternoon sun, what must have been the largest remaining corps of the Merrivan army was being slaughtered or scattered by armored knights bearing Frungan signs.
Sophie raised her eyebrows and let out a puff of air. She looked up at the sun: early afternoon. The sound of dying cries came from a mile or so away. She turned her horse south again and headed for camp.
By the time she got there, it was inhabited by perhaps a thousand men, mostly on foot, mostly wounded. They were picking through the luggage and getting ready to head on. She saw no one she knew, not the redbeard, not Sir Bodon, not the handsome guy with the mustache and the head wound, not Prince Sylvester or King John or the optimistic young knight; not Dad. Sophie stood there on Horseradish, looking around.
“Get the horse,” someone said to someone else. “Hey girl, give us the horse.” Dozens of the rabble turned her way looking as if they saw steaks when they looked at Horseradish. Sophie gave them one frown and took off toward the river. Behind her, the army was interrupted in looting its own camp by the appearance of several long rows of Frungan cavalry from the woods to the north.
More men burst from the brush on her right. Her steed startled and reared back like a prize stallion, but they just ran by, and some fell to the whining arrows. To her right, shapes were moving in the brush, charging forward and already almost in the open.
Sophie nudged Horseradish forward. He was a smart horse and rarely needed much nudging: he hurled the two of them forward across the open space. Warriors were breaking through the brush, then standing to fire whining arrows into the retreating soldiers. They had strange armor, and dark skin with pale blond hair, and bloodthirsty smiles.
Girl and horse got into the woods along the river and found themselves alone. There were bodies floating downstream.
She turned downstream herself, and rode about a mile when she saw another horse ahead of her. It was Daisy. She went up to investigate, and just as she came alongside, someone dropped from a branch behind her, landed on Horseradish’s fat rump and fell to the ground with a mild curse. It was her dad.
“Man, am I glad to see you,” she said.
“Heh heh, the feeling’s mutual,” he said, climbing onto his horse. “Let’s get out of here.”