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IX

They packed up in an unhurried way. Dad and Sophie made sure to have another good look at Irena’s possessions, and she took the opportunity to comment on theirs.

“We could use good blanket,” she said. “My blanket is no good, yours—!”

“It doesn’t cover something or other,” said Sophie, shaking hers out before folding it. “Feet or hands or shoulders or elbows. Or I roll on my side and my butt’s stickin’ out.”

“I’ll go you that new blanket,” said Dad, “and raise you a new tent. This thing, we didn’t even put it up last night so you don’t know how very roomy it is, but me and Big Girl here, we both fit in that thing, though there wasn’t room for other stuff like arms and feet. We’d get to know each other real well if you had to crowd in there.”

“Is getting cold,” said Irena. “We need more than tent. You go someplace? I ask for real.”

“We taking her with?” asked Sophie. “We taking you with us?”

Irena and Dad looked at each other, and for just a moment Sophie felt like she was a kid between two adults. “I can go just me, alone,” said Irena, “but, okay? I like to go with, is safer.” She bent over to stuff her skimpy blanket into her beat-up bag. “Could be useful for you,” she said, facing the bag.

“She could,” said Dad, and Sophie suddenly lurched from feeling like a child to feeling like a parent, of a boy who brought home a stray cat.

“Okay. We’re taking her with us. Um, like I say, that might help, it’ll certainly give us more to talk about around the old campfire.” She smiled at Irena, then clapped her dad on the shoulder. “So where are we going? Shall we say Merrivan for now? After we have a look for the old homestead?”

“That is the plan,” said Dad.

“And not through Tenna.”

“It just don’t seem worth it, do you think?”

“Okay. So, around on the north side, or what?”

“Well,” said Dad, gazing out across the flat low scrubland they were in, “we are a tad north of Tenna, so yeah, let’s head due west. Which is that way.”

“Okay,” said Sophie, “let’s saddle up and all, huh?” She looked from Dad to Irena.

“Um,” said Dad, “yeah. You don’t have a horse.”

Irena looked from Dad to Sophie. There was a lot of looking at one another. Sophie rolled her eyes and said, “She can ride behind me. Then maybe we get her a horse.”

“Get me a horse?” replied Irena. “I don’ ride horse much. I don’t know.”

“Darlin’,” said Dad, “we may have to hightail it, getting away from pursuit and all. You never know. You’ll want a horse. Um. You ride ever?”

“Okay. I ride horse,” said Irena. She smiled at Horseradish. “Is beautiful horse. It is.”

“Thanks,” said Sophie, smiling. She patted the big horse.

“Still,” Dad said, “if you’re going to be with us for a while, you’re going to need your own ride.”

“Okay,” said Irena. “Where we get horse?”

Sophie looked at Dad. “We’ll, uh, have to see about that,” she said.

They mounted up, Irena behind Sophie on Horseradish, who hardly noticed the extra weight. The day warmed a little, and the mist changed imperceptibly into a thin rain. The three of them and their horses got slowly soaked as they made their way through light woods and unharvested fields. Irena hung onto Sophie’s belt, usually with just one hand, as all three riders spent most of their time surveying the flatland around them.

They had ridden slowly for an hour or so, hardly talking, when they came to a field with a functional wooden fence. They came to the fence and stopped, the horses side by side. Across the field, which seemed not as overgrown as the others they had seen, there was a rambling house. A few little horses, midgets compared to farm laborers like Horseradish and Daisy, were tied up outside.

“I’m counting up,” said Dad. “How long ago did we leave Tenna?”

“I don’t know,” said Sophie.

“Ssh.” He was talking to himself. Then he said, “Welp, let’s see. We camped a night between here and Merrivan. We was in Merrivan what, five days? Maybe a week. What do you say to that?”

“Sure,” said Sophie. “A couple days before we met up with Sir Bodon and at least four more after.”

“Right. And then we was three nights camping on the road north, I think. And then the battle, and we was coming south and we had two nights since then, and last night. So, say two weeks from when we left Tenna.”

“Seems like two years,” said Sophie.

“Seems like two hundred years,” said Irena, “from I left Vyotol.”

“Time flies when you’re having fun,” said Dad. Irena looked at him funny. “You never heard that? They don’t say that in Yetva or whatever? Time flies like a bird, my daddy used to say, fruit flies like an old apple.”

“Fruit? Flies like?”

“It’s a joke,” said Sophie. Irena just put her eyebrows up, and let them drop again.

“But these here boys,” Dad went on, “they would’ve been here before Tenna fell, maybe before it even got completely besieged. I bet the outriders, the raiding parties, they’d’ve come through a place like this early and taken it over. They could’ve been here three weeks, four maybe.”

“Who?” asked Sophie.

“Kug,” said Dad. “Those ain’t local horses. Those are Kug horse. They like ‘em small. See? We don’t have that breed around here.”

“Yeah, I see that,” said Sophie. “But this isn’t a Kug house.”

“No, it’s not. Their houses are round, so I understand it. No, but it’s a Kug house now.” He rubbed his unshaven jaw: he hadn’t even hacked at the whiskers since the morning before the battle. “No,” he said, “there’ll be some dead farmers somewhere over there. Kug wouldn’t even bury them, lucky if they don’t plain eat them, but I suppose they’re eating their livestock.”

“Kug don’t eat man flesh,” said Irena. “Eat pretty much every other thing but that.”

“Okay, correction accepted,” said Dad amicably. “It don’t rule out much.”

“So,” said Irena, “why we sit here look at them? Why not we keep going now?”

“Nervous?” He laughed, but quietly. “That’s because you have brains. Okay, Soph, let’s take these horses a little further, see what we can see.”

They returned to the woods and in a few minutes they were following a thin track. Presently they came to more fields, but these were overgrown, uncut. The one fence they saw was down. They saw a house, which looked abandoned, and then another. They passed another band of woods and came to more fields, and ahead they could see a fallen house. There were dogs and smaller animals, but absolutely no sign of human life.

“Want to see closer?” asked Dad. “Or not?”

“Where are we relative to Tenna?” asked Sophie.

“Probably a little past it by now. North and a bit west, headed due west.”

“How can you tell?”

“Ah, I’m not going to give up all my secrets,” he said. “So?”

“Sure,” said Sophie. She looked over her shoulder at Irena. “You okay?”

“What?” asked Irena. “Go look? Okay, we go look, but—!”

“Oh,” said Dad, “we’ll be quite ready to hop on and ride off like the wind, trust me.”

The house was a ruin, but it was a recently burned ruin. Beyond it lay a village: like Sophie’s house near dear old Mudwick, this had been a farmstead just outside its hamlet. The hamlet in question had been entirely razed. Its layout was clearly visible, but in a year or two it might look like it had never existed.

They stopped in the yard next to the house. There was a body, much decomposed in the ongoing rain, sprawled across the path. Daisy carried Dad around it, and Horseradish followed suit, and Sophie did not look closely to unravel the mystery of what parts were sprawled which way. On the other side of the house, they paused, and Sophie dismounted. Irena and Dad did not.

“Soph,” said Dad.

“I just want to look a little, okay?” she replied.

He rolled his eyes, then waved. She shrugged and set off down the trail and soon she was amongst more burnt houses. The common field in the middle of town, with its pond and stream, looked fairly normal. More bodies lay about: three more that Sophie let herself notice. There were also hoof prints and boot prints, mostly eroded in the rain. A big fire in the middle of one house lot had big bones in it, the bigger bones of a cow. A number of pieces of log stood nearby, evidently the chairs of the diners at the victory feast.

Sophie knelt down to examine the bone, the cinders, the dirt.

She let herself think through what had happened. Perhaps many people had gotten away. But some were still here when the Kug came. The barbarians would have thundered in on their little horses, shooting their whistling arrows from horseback. Old lady in her doorway, whistle, thwack, thud. Child running with toy, whistle, thwack, thud. Man trying to save his little girl, whistle, thwack, thud. Little girl, slave maybe. Or butchered.

And from there to Mudwick was not a far leap. Sophie could just about stretch the map of this village to fit the village near her house. Ned’s dad’s place there, Lof’s shop there, the wood bridge there, the shrine to the Virgin there.

Our house, just down that lane, around the old oak, between the two big pines, and then you see it, barn first, then house, a couple milk cows out front watching for Sophie to get back from fishing. Cats in the window of the barn, more in the windows of the house. Ol’ Yellow Dog hobbling up, then gallumphing out with a smile on his dumb old happy face seeing her.

People had lived here. She could see them. They had been here for lifetimes, centuries untold. Suddenly it had all ended. The Kug had come from somewhere, and they had come here. But it wasn’t the Kug that Sophie saw in her mind. Someone else had been here. The Shadow Man had been here.

She knelt there for a minute. Then she found she was hearing something. The patter of rain. The sound of a horse breathing. Not one of her horses. She knew them too well.

She stood up. She took her bow from her shoulder, and strung an arrow. It was the one that had killed Irena’s associate.

Dad and Irena were on Daisy and Horseradish, chatting amicably. Three Kug warriors sat on their own little horses about thirty feet away, screened by an unkempt hedge. Two of them had bows, and they were drawing the strings back with great patience, aimed at Dad and Irena. The third was watching their targets with a memorable grin. He was the commander.

“Hey stupid,” called Sophie.

The Kug all turned to look. Her arrow was in flight, silent as a cat. It hit one of the bowmen in the face, and he went down. The other started, then pulled back to fire on Sophie, but she was fast to reload. His arrow flew whistling—high in the air, and before it landed he was out of his saddle, another arrow in the face.

The commander pulled out a long knife and kicked his horse in the gut. It leapt to charge Sophie, who pulled another arrow, but the horse suddenly turned aside and the man kept going, a lesson in physics as yet unexplained by any scholar’s calculus. He slid on his face almost to Sophie’s feet, another arrow in his back. It had come from Dad’s quiver.

Dad was by her in a moment, still on Daisy. Irena coaxed Horseradish over behind him. She wasn’t looking at Dad and Sophie: she was scanning the scenery. There was nothing to see.

“Girl,” said Dad.

“I’m getting too good at this,” said Sophie. “Well, lookie, Irena, we got y’all a horse.”

The little horse was friendly enough, to Irena and to Sophie and her dad, who talked to horses all the time. The little guy didn’t want a saddle, but that seemed to be all right with Irena.

Dad dumped out the warriors’ packs. Irena started right in picking over their food: some herbs, a little pan, a hunk of lard, something like cheese, some dried meat. She wouldn’t take any of the other Kug stuff except for their blankets, which were beautiful and thick. Each rider had one blanket, and now Sophie, Dad and Irena each had one more blanket. One of them even had a stretch of animal skin that could function as a tent.

“Kind of tempted to take a few of these knives,” said Dad. There were at least a dozen, all in a style not seen in these parts: good steel, curved prettily, with handles of bone or antler. “Maybe the arrows too, what think you?”

“I think not,” said Sophie. “I don’t mind a couple knives. But my arrows are better.”

“I’d have to agree,” said Dad. “Sometimes silence is golden.” He looked up at Irena, who was now astride her new horse. “You all right, Irena?”

“I’m okay,” she said. She grinned, which held their attention, and then she said, “I have horse.”

“You sure do,” said Dad. “Let’s use it.”

They went back the way they had come, back to the trail in the low woods, and they turned west as the drizzle gave way to a clammy afternoon. They rode in silence, Sophie in front. West of Tenna they were in empty hill country again: the Tenna River was away south of them, and the Muddy came in from the northwest still some miles on. After a couple of hours, when they were mostly dried out and not terribly cold, they began to see the edges of a village again, but it was not dear old Mudwick. It was just as well. The village appeared to have been totally wiped out.

They sat on their horses in the shadow of a dense little coven of pines and surveyed the ruins: in the foreground, the burnt hulk of a barn, and the merest footprint of what had been a house nearby; beyond that, more broken buildings and a few very rotted human remains. But there was also a sign of life: several houses, a hundred yards away, stood intact, with a couple of goats in their front yard. In front of the little group of houses flew a sort of banner: a spear was stuck in the ground between two of the houses, and from it flew a few strips of brilliantly colored cloth in the fitful breeze.

A woman, dark and little with long, braided, thin blondish hair, came out to say something to the goats. They looked at her and she laughed and told them something else—in a language Sophie did not know. Dad turned his horse and rode back into the woods. Sophie and Irena followed.

They took to the trails in the wooded hills again and turned westward. The clouds were breaking up in the west, and a fresh breeze was drying out the forest. It was also hastening the fall of the leaves, the gold and orange and red of maple, the pale yellow of birch, the golden brown of oak, and the various contributions of ash and beech and elm and chestnut. For a while, they could have been riding to visit an aunt in another town. For a while, Sophie could have wished that they would ride this way forever and never reach any destination.

She was increasingly feeling the nearness of home. The mix of trees, the color of the boulders, the texture of the dirt, the smell of the lichens, the way the wind blew, the shape of the hills, it was all steadily approximating where she was born. But she knew she was not going to dismount in front of the house tonight, and lead Horseradish into the barn, and skip back to the kitchen door, already smelling dinner and a pie. She knew. She had already decided, over the days, that there was no point in deceiving herself about that, no point in keeping that particular article of faith, that she would find her home unchanged, and her place within it.

But it did not mean that she saw any reason to confront the change in circumstance to the extent of actually seeing what was left of the house and family. Her mother dead? Her barn burned to the ground? The fences down, the animals just charred bones in a fire pit? She could admit that something like these things was likely. She felt she had to admit that. But that did not amount to a reason to see.

So she rode up the trail, in front of the other two, strangely reluctant to actually get anywhere. She did not slow Horseradish down—that would have been against the rules.

The sun broke through. The forest, along the side of a long hill to their right, was suddenly filled with golden light. They all took long breaths and let them out smiling. They rode on up a long slow slope, then crested a small ridge in an opaque pine forest, then descended and emerged into a wild meadow, the sun an inch above the horizon before them.

Far across the meadow, Sophie could see a stream lined with trees. The trail came down to it and even from here she could see a wooden bridge.

“Well,” said Dad, coming up next to Sophie.

“This is it,” she said. “This is the place.”

She looked at him, beside her, horseback to horseback. He looked from her back to the distant bridge. “Ayup,” he said. “That there is the mighty Birch Brook. On account of, you know, all the birch trees along it.”

“I don’ understand,” said Irena, coming up on his other side. “Is no birch, is oak, how you call, is mulberry, lot of mulberry.” In her mouth it sounded like moolbeddy.

“That’s why they call it Birch Brook, you see,” said Dad, an old joke of his. “Welcome to jolly Mudwick.”

“Dad,” said Sophie.

He looked at her. He took in her feelings, which seemed to be streaming off her face like heat off a workhorse in the summer. “Well,” he said, “here’s what I propose. Let’s back off into the woods a bit and camp. Then we have a good, careful recon in the morning light. Sound okay?”

Sophie sighed. “It sounds very okay,” she said. “Very, very okay.”

“Is okay,” said Irena. “I get vote?”

“Sure you do, little lady,” said Dad.

“Okay,” said Irena. “What you want dinner, last bit of Kug jerky?”

“Ah, no, I think I’ll hunt a bit if it’s all the same to you,” said Dad. “Sophie? You mind getting the tent up? We might need it.”

“Oh sure,” said Sophie. She looked at Irena, who smiled at her. Sophie turned to Dad. “Seriously, Dad, don’t take chances, okay?”

“Okay, my love,” he said. “Same to you.”

They retreated into the pine woods and picked a flat enough spot. Sophie and Irena easily got a fire going, and then set about putting up the old tent and the new one, the skin they had gotten from the dead Kug warriors, tied between two trees as a lean-to against the wind.

“Irena,” said Sophie, “did you ever hear of the Shadow Man?”

Irena didn’t answer at first. Sophie looked up from her work on the knots. “Of course,” said Irena. She shut her mouth as if she had given enough answer. They finished their work and stood stretching. “Only we say is woman,” Irena went on. “Babalaka. Means Granny Laka. Go about very slow, lives in woods, in house back in woods made of skins and bark. You out walking in forest, you see her house, is bad. But she come dark night time, come into house, walk about rooms, look at everything, if she look at you and you wake and see her eyes, you die.” She said this lightly and Sophie looked at her. Sophie thought she would be smiling, but she wasn’t. “She take your child,” said Irena softly. “She take your father, your mother. She take your brother, sister.”

Irena met Sophie’s eyes. “Have you seen her?” asked Sophie.

“No,” said Irena, wiping her hands on her tunic. “Only see her work.” She nodded left and right and said, “So, Shadow Man, he is?”

“Kneel down,” said Sophie softly.

Irena looked at her oddly, then slowly knelt. Sophie knelt too. Then she stood up fast, her bow in her hand. An arrow was on the string, then it was flying.

Sophie knelt again. There were harsh voices. Sophie looked into Irena’s eyes, her finger over her mouth. Irena whispered, “Is Kug, is speaking Kug.”

Sophie rolled her eyes. She stood up again, turned thirty degrees left and shot again. She ducked down as a thump told her what had become of her arrow. She scurried to the right, screened by the tent. She looked back: Irena threw a broken pine bough up and behind, and two arrows whistled through it as it flew.

Sophie came out on the other side of a big pine. Two men on horses were standing in front of the tents, their little bows ready again.

Instead, it was Sophie’s arrow that flew, silent as an owl in the night, and the nearer man took it in the neck. He fell toward his comrade, who turned his horse and brought his bow around to aim at the big blond girl.

A rock hit him in the side of the head. Irena said something to him in his own language. He turned, a look of terror on his face. Sophie’s fourth arrow hit him just below the ear.

“This time,” said Sophie as she and Irena looked at their work, “the Shadow Man was a woman.”

“Was two woman,” said Irena.

They stood looking for some time. Then they heard the crashing charge of another horse, a larger one, a mare named Daisy. They turned and here came Dad like the King’s Messenger. He jumped down.

“I see you’ve been busy,” he said, panting. “We gotta go. Let’s toss these things back on the horses and get the heck out of here.” He looked from one to the other and then down at the last two men Sophie had shot. “I shot one of these myself,” he said. “Missed the second one.”

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