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Part Two: After the Battle

VII

It was already mid-afternoon when Sophie and her dad turned back south, away from the battle. They rode without a word for a long time, keeping to the Vara River and its shores, until they came to its inflow into the Lesh north of Merrivan. The afternoon steadily cleared, and by evening there were only a few distant clouds, mere smudges on the sunset over the hills around Tenna and the province where both of them had been born.

Now, ahead of them in the last of the sunlight, was the ford of the road up west toward Tenna, which came across the River Lesh just below where the Vara came in from the northeast, and continued east for a mile before striking the old road to Merrivan, the way they had taken to get to the battle. They could see a camp of men there on the eastern shore of the rocky ford. These did not look like any part of an army, but they were heavily armed and there were several hundred of them.

“Is it crazy to head up Tenna way a little?” asked Sophie. “Just sort of check out what’s up?”

“I don’t know what the heck else to do,” said Dad.

“I’m not eager to see Merrivan again,” said Sophie. “I think we’re well out of that place.”

“You may be right, girl,” said Dad, “but you have a couple of the King’s gold coins—!”

“One gold left, actually.”

“Well, okay, and you still have plenty of silver ones in change, anyway—and they were paid by the fine townsfolk of Merrivan, as much as by anyone else. So I think we ought to at least try to think of ourselves as the King’s scouts still. For one thing, Sir Bodon—!”

“All right, Dad,” said Sophie, “tell me right now. What’s the chance he still breathes?”

“Two in three.”

“Well answered,” said Sophie with a grin. “So who are these guys up ahead?”

“Well, they’re not Kug,” he replied, “and they’re not knights, but that doesn’t leave much out. They could be just a very large bunch of ruffians, but they could be part of one of these two armies we just saw in action, they’d be little different from ruffians right now. Frungans would have further to go than our boys would have, so I’m guessing they’re some leftover of the King’s Army. Ask me how likely it is that he still walks among the living.”

“But we’re still his scouts.”

“Daughter,” he said, in his serious voice, “there are folk living in Merrivan, there’s a Royal Family, a bunch of folk in the royal household, and the whole array of dukes and counts and earls and all their families, and all the trades, and the great merchants, and the little old men with the stores, the flower lady, all these peasants round about—Olk’s going to come in here and take everything they have.”

“I know. You think someone might pull it together to stop him? I saw a lot of guys lying on the ground, and I had the feeling the King had already pulled out everything he could.”

“We have to give them the chance,” said Dad. “They paid us for that much.”

“And you think Sir B is alive?”

“Sure hope so.” He glared once more at the ford and the camp beside it. “Well, let’s move on up the Lesh valley some, find a campsite up in the woods, do some hunting.”

“Wait, we’re not going to go check these guys out?”

Dad gave the camp a really long, piercing look. Sophie, after a moment, decided to do the same. It seemed completely disorganized, but gradually she detected a very rudimentary order to it: six or eight tents here in a knot, six or eight there, ten or twenty more over there against the forest, chopping down a few trees for whatever reason, and around the edges, along the river, one or two or three tents at a time, with men sitting or standing or lying about on the ground. A few men fished.

“No,” he said. “I’m sure I don’t want to check them out any closer than I have to.”

“Because they’re a defeated army? Because they’re our army, and they lost?”

He took another moment, then turned to look at Sophie. “Because they’re not an army anymore,” he said. “I don’t think they’re all bandits. Some of them are just dislocated farm boys, much as I am, I suppose. They don’t know what they’re going to do, however, and I do know what I’m going to do, I have a whole bunch of options, believe me. I just don’t want to think about any of them.”

“I am with you there, Dad.”

“But,” he said, “one thing I am not going to do is lie around and do nothing because I don’t want to do any of the things I could do. People like that worry me. They get up to trouble.”

“Okay, so what to do instead of go check those guys?”

“I’d like to find someone in some semblance of authority,” said Dad, “Sir Bodon popping up would be nice, but I don’t suppose anything like that is about to happen.”

“So,” said Sophie, mounting up, “we’re still in the King’s service.”

“I say so,” Dad replied, mounting as well.

“We’re not giving up on him, never, and never is not this week, and not next week either?” she asked with a dry laugh.

“Not this week,” said Dad, “but frankly,” and he smiled ruefully at her for a long moment before finishing, “next week ain’t looking so good.”

So they rode for two more hours up along the Lesh in a land of a few farms and much woods. The farms did not look friendly. It was dark almost before they knew it, and as soon as they knew it, they pitched their little tent in a dense belt of woods. They worked for fifteen minutes and then they rolled out their bedrolls and threw themselves down.

“Have some more of this fine jerky,” said Dad. “And I still have some Tenna wine.”

“Let’s have it,” Sophie replied. “Tenna may not be there, but—!”

“You know, it wouldn’t hurt to know that, at least,” suggested Dad.

They ate in silence, considering. They traded swigs on the bottle. Finally Sophie said, “Okay, maybe the Kug will have done their worst and pulled back by now.”

“I doubt it,” said Dad, “but who knows? And if so, maybe we can—?”

“Yeah,” said Sophie, “maybe we can.” She took another drink, passed the bottle back to Dad, and got up to go pee. When she got back, freezing under the vacuum of space, the tent was warm with Dad’s heat, and with the soft noise of his snoring. She crawled in and lay back to back with him, and for a minute she was besieged by all the things she had seen since that morning. The next thing she knew, she was waking from dreams of riding in a shallow river in the hills.

It was bright and chilly when Sophie crept out of the tent. She was surprised at how easily she was getting used to stuffing herself and her dad into that little tent. She was so sweaty that she practically could have squeezed water out of her shirt, but it froze as soon as she was standing outside; there was a cloud of mist rising from her as from the nearby river Lesh.

While peeing, it occurred to Sophie that she was always up before her dad. The old farmer, yeah, right, or maybe it was a sign of depression. She washed her face and a little of her body, went to talk to the horses about things, and then got back just in time to catch Dad coming out of the tent himself and stretching.

“Good morning, scout,” he said to her.

“Mornin’, sunshine,” she replied. “I’ll make tea.”

He went and used the same latrine, Sophie made tea, and then they sat and ate bread and dried beef and a couple of apples and discussed their direction. “Let’s cross right here,” said Dad. “It’s gravelly enough. We have some overland to do to get to the Tenna River.”

“I’m confused,” said Sophie. “We going west, northwest?”

Dad squinted. “Southwest,” he said. “We’re still a ways north of Merrivan.” He smiled at the woods behind them, and then downriver into the distance. “I’d actually say there’s a good chance someone in Merrivan can pull it out.”

“You think so, huh?” She sipped her tea from a metal cup. “Tenna too?”

He turned to squint southwest. “Oh, no,” he replied. “I don’t think there’s going to be much left of dear old Tenna. But we ought to go have a gander at it just the same.”

They saddled up and found that the Lesh was easy to cross up here. Then Dad led them up the opposite bank and straight into the river woods. By the time the sun was high they were following a trail up onto the table land between the Lesh and the Tenna rivers.

“Dad,” said Sophie after a minute, as they rode their walking horses along the ridge top, the trail passing from forest to clearing to forest again, “um, you know, if you don’t mind my asking this, um, honestly? What next?”

“You mean what the plan is? Well, we’re headed for Tenna.”

“No, I know.” She laughed. “Geez, Dad, I don’t even know how to ask this. Is this what being grown up is all about? Like, what on earth is going to happen next?”

“Ah, that,” said Dad. He thought about it for a good minute. Then, as they emerged into another scrubby clearing, he elaborated. “Sometimes you have no idea, things just come out of nowhere, and you sort of go, well, whatever you say, sweet Virgin.” They rode a little while she digested this rare moment of religious thought. She was about to say something when he went on, “And sometimes you can tell a mile away what exactly is going to happen, and yet you have to watch it happen anyway.”

“Like that whole military campaign we were just on,” said Sophie.

“Yeah. Like that.”

“So which one is like what we’re doing now?”

He took a minute before answering, “Well, I can’t wait to find out. I mean, I have an idea that the whole place was flattened, that it’s just a burnt spot on the ground, but really, who knows?”

“Tenna.”

Again, Dad took a minute. It was a nice day, it really was: the Autumn chill was dissipating in the steady sunlight, the air was clean and dry, there was hardly a cloud in the sky. The trees: somehow during the battle, Sophie had only had a sense of green turning brown, but here, in this light, the colors were incredible, sweeping down from their trail along the ridge across a valley of golden green, and then up to the next line of hills, red and purple and orange and the pale yellow of birches, and cresting with the impenetrable, immortal deep green of the pines. “Actually,” he said at last, admiring that view, “I was thinking of Merrivan. And, you know, everything.”

“So do you think we should have stayed with the army? They were going to eat Horseradish, I’m pretty sure they were. Don’t you think we did the right thing, leaving those losers behind?”

“No,” said Dad, “I’m sure we did the right thing, leaving those losers behind.” They rode down into the painted woods, and he went on. “It might look like cowardly treachery to someone of a chivalrous heritage,” he said, savoring the words as he let them go. “If you had, say, a real connection to the King in Merrivan. But I do not, I certainly do not. Nor do you. He paid me. He paid you. He didn’t even do it himself.”

“I’m with you that far,” said Sophie.

“Sir Bodon, I feel bad about, however,” said Dad. He laughed ruefully. “But I don’t think we’re likely to see him come up over the hill. And anyway.”

“And anyway,” said Sophie, “they were going to eat the horse.”

“They were, at the very least,” said Dad. “I had that feeling about Daisy too. I also had the feeling that a lot of people a lot closer to the King than you or me were a lot looser in their reverence for the command structure than we were. Anyway.”

“Anyway,” said Sophie, “I guess cross Merrivan off our list of places to visit. Been there, done that, didn’t enjoy it much. What next?”

He looked at her, then laughed. “After Tenna.”

“After we see what’s left of Tenna. You want to try and find out about the farm.”

“I do, yeah.”

“Well, all right,” said Sophie. “How hard are we planning on trying this time?” They looked at each other. He was trying to gauge what to say, and instead she said, “I think we shouldn’t risk too much on it this time. I just don’t think we should.”

“Okay, all right,” said Dad. “The way I see it, if it’s all there, if they’re, Ann, you know, and all of them, if they made it through what happened up to now, they’re likely to be there in a month. Maybe not to the end of winter, but a month, two months.” He looked at her again. “Just please don’t ask me how likely they are to be all still there and all.”

“Ned said they were still there before,” Sophie offered, mildly, thinking of something else. What she was thinking about was that neither she nor her father had any appetite, after what they’d seen the past few days, for overturning that rock just yet.

All that day they rode west, mostly following one trail or another, seeing no humans, only moose, birds and squirrels. “We’re a bit to the north of the line from Tenna to the river,” Dad explained as they sat on Daisy and Horseradish at the apex of a long east-west ridge, looking out and down. “The actual road we took to Merrivan is up that next ridge southwards there.”

“Ah,” said Sophie. She remembered that ride, every step into new territory. It seemed like centuries ago and it seemed like yesterday afternoon.

“We’d see some farms as we went, if we’d stayed down there. But there was those boys by the ford, and we didn’t feel sociable.”

“No we didn’t,” Sophie agreed. “Dad, what are those guys going to do? Couple hundred armed hungry men without anyone in charge?”

“What keeps men from behaving that way anyway?” asked Dad. “Get married, settle down, raise a family. Then you have something to protect. And you and the other folk in the same situation, you can raise a militia and a sheriff’s posse and make sure things don’t get done ill. Those boys—!” He shook his head.

“They need to get married?”

“Ahhh, forget it.” He laughed, sort of. “If only it were that easy. Now you got me thinking about the things men do to women.”

“I read one of your books,” said Sophie, “about how some tribe kicked out all its young men folk, and they went and defeated the next tribe over and took their women, and they started a new tribe, and that was the start of some old Empire or other. Was that true?”

“You mean, did that happen? You’re talking about the Rape of the Someone or Other. Maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s not exactly. Maybe the women after they got carried off started bossing the men around and that’s what they needed.”

“That how you and Mom—?” Sophie stopped on a dime and swallowed.

But Dad only laughed. “Naw, it was all her idea, that was, that we should get married. Good idea, too.” He laughed again, then shook his head. “No, I’ll tell you, what I know about how men treat women when they can, when they’re young and full of it. Maybe that thing actually did happen. But it wasn’t simple. It wasn’t pleasant. It wasn’t any fairy tale. Shall we?”

“Okay,” said Sophie. She followed him down off the high point, and they dismounted and walked the horses down a steep pitch before mounting up again, and then they were riding side by side on a wide flat trail under open woods. “Dad,” she said.

“Oh great.”

“Dad, is this what the world is like? People take what they can, men take what they can, you can only have what you can take from someone else and hang onto?”

They rode some distance. She could see the reply forming in his mind. Finally, not looking at her, he said, “No, Sophie. No, that’s not all there is to it. Dang it, it’s complicated. Times like this we live in now, seems like that’s the way it is. Ten years ago, it seemed like you could build something and your family and neighbors and even the, you know, nobles and lords and so on, would all work together to make everyone’s lives better. Seemed like that.”

“So it depends on what the times are like?”

“Sophie, stop a moment.” She did, and so did he. “Soph,” he went on, “you can’t even always trust yourself. That’s a fact. But look. You can always trust me. You can always trust family.” He laughed without humor. “Now even that ain’t true of everyone,” he said. “I got me a good family, you got a good family.”

“I have a heck of a dad,” said Sophie. “That’s a sure thing. And I love my horse.”

“Yeah. You can trust your horse. I got a good one too. And a good daughter. Well, let’s get a few more miles behind before we camp, sound good?”

They did get a few more miles in, and then they camped. A turkey dashed across their trail, and fell with Sophie’s arrow in it, and that chose them their camping spot. It was a lovely starry night, and the wind almost spread the joy of their fire to the rest of the forest. They sat side by side, practically in the fire on its windward side, blankets behind them, eating and tossing the bones in the fire. The uneaten parts they bagged up and hoisted high in a tree.

The next morning Sophie got up, found a stream and cleaned up a bit, came back frozen to the bone and found Dad getting up. They exchanged pleasantries, and he went to relieve himself and clean up, and then they ate a bit of turkey and took off.

In a couple of hours they were down from the highlands and among the abandoned farms on the eastern outskirts of jolly old Tenna.

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