Sophie and her dad and the woman Irena tossed everything onto the horses and nominally tied things down. They left the fire smouldering, as a distraction to pursuit. Perhaps the four dead bodies would distract as well. Then they made themselves as scarce as possible, as quietly as possible. By far the loudest noise in Sophie’s ears was her own heartbeat, until they were miles away eastward.
They stopped in a dense patch of wood and looked around. Suddenly the gloom under the pines was night-like. After a moment, Dad jumped down, and the women followed suit, and they set about putting up the tents.
“Do we need these?” asked Sophie.
“Gonna be chilly tonight,” said Dad.
“Agree,” said Irena. “Cooooold. Under starry sky, is always cold.”
They had the old tent up in one minute, and it was Dad’s idea to put the skin up as a sort of extension. This took one more minute of work by Dad and Sophie; when they were done, Irena had a bit of fire going. Then the three of them stood around it and stared at each other in the slightly enlightened gloom.
“Dad,” said Sophie.
She wrestled with herself for a few seconds and then said, “I just killed four guys. I just shot four guys dead. Yeah. I’m pretty sure they’re dead. Dad, what does that make me?”
“Sophie,” he started.
“I don’t want to play this game anymore. I’m tired of this game. I want to go home. I just want to go the heck home. Can I go home now?” She stared into his glittering eyes, and then she suddenly turned to Irena and fell weeping into the woman’s arms. “But there’s no home,” she gasped out, and then she went back to sobbing.
Irena proved equal to the task. She held Sophie, standing by the little fire, and said, over and over, “Is okay. Is to be okay. Will be okay. Is fine. Is okay.”
Dad bent down and put another dead limb on the fire. “Wish someone would tell me that,” he muttered.
“Is going to be okay, John,” said Irena.
“Sophie,” said Dad, “we don’t know, we didn’t—!”
“We do know. The heck,” said Sophie. “The heck. I only killed six guys. I only killed. Six. Guys. Was that how many I killed? I do lose count after a while.”
“Soph, darlin’,” said Dad, “you killed in self-defense. Am I right? Don’t—!”
“Okay, yeah,” said Sophie through more tears, “I killed those guys and they were going to kill me. But I—!”
“Is true,” said Irena, still loosely hugging Sophie. “Was going to kill you. Us.”
“But,” said Sophie, “I mean.” She blubbered a bit. Irena continued to comfort and Dad, unable to think of what else to say, continued to build the fire. Sophie got herself together and partly separated from Irena to say, “I mean, I grew up on a farm. I was raised by my mom and my dad and my brothers and my sister and my sister-in-law and my grandma. I played in the mud. I ran in the woods. I picked the flowers. And—and these four guys, I think I’m pretty sure they grew up somewhere, they had a hut or something, I don’t know, they played with stuff, they played in the mud, they ran in the woods, they picked flowers, they had moms and dads and sisters and brothers and—!”
“They are murderers,” said Irena.
“Well then,” said Sophie in as adult a way as she could manage right now, “I am also a murderer. Maybe it was self-defense. But those guys came here because they were supposed to come here, and they are not going back. Someone is not going to have a dad because of me. Someone is not going to have her son come home because of me.” She stopped and cried a little more.
But Sophie knew she could not cry forever. She could not even cry for long. She straightened, and gave Irena an I’m-all-right squeeze. They partly separated. She looked at Dad. He was looking straight at her, as he used to when she was in trouble.
“Sophie,” he said. “Listen to me.” So she attended, and so did Irena, stopped in their mental tracks by his tone of voice. He had to think what to say, and they just watched, as the fire grew and lit them in dapples from below. “Listen,” he said again. “What I’m going to say is not happy. It’s not a nice thing. But it’s true. Okay?”
“I guess you’ve noticed things are not the way they used to be. I noticed too, and I don’t like it one bit, but no one asked me. I guess you’ve started to notice this basic fact: life is not fair. It’s just not the kind of thing that’s fair, okay? You do a job for someone and they pay you what you agreed: that’s the kind of thing that’s fair, or not fair. You build your farm, raise your family, sow and reap and sow and reap and do everything by the rules, everything the way your dad and your granddad did it, everything the way you’re supposed to, to maximize the good stuff and minimize the bad stuff, and then one fine day some army shows up and you’re out of your house and if you’re one of those people in that village they burned down, you’re dead, your dad’s dead, your kid’s dead, your horses, your sheep, your cows. The whole thing, all you made, all you gathered, all you built up, it’s all turned upside down. You’re out on the road, you’re hiding in the woods, all you own is in your bag on your horse. Your next meal is probably running around still looking for its next meal. Is its life fair? That turkey or that rabbit or whatever? So when some guy decides it’s best to shoot you rather than let you keep breathing, yeah, you shoot him first. You leave him lying in a pool of blood. You don’t have to spit on him, I wouldn’t, but maybe he would’ve spit on you. But yeah, you shoot. Because one thing that I will not accept, little girl. I can accept that you kill a man. I can accept that you do it without a thought. What’s this, six in one day? I can accept that. I can accept that you’re sixteen and you’re as tall as I am. I can accept a lot of things about you that I might not have thought I could. But I cannot accept that you are the one lying in a pool of blood. Do you understand that?”
“Because at this point, it comes down to choices. Are you going to keep going, or are you going to sit down and die? Or, are you going to ride away from this, or is that guy? Which one of you is going to be lying in a pool of blood? Because back there by the tent, it sure as heck was going to be either you two, or them four. You chose wisely. That’s all there is to that. Questions?”
She looked at him. “No,” she said, “no, I’m good.”
He looked at Irena. “I think she choose right too,” said Irena.
“You don’t shoot, do you?” he asked.
“No,” said Sophie, “but she throws a mean rock. She might’ve saved my life.”
“Really,” said Dad, smiling at Irena.
The woman shrugged. “You choose,” she said. “So, dried meat is dinner, okay?”
The three of them decided without much discussion to post watches. Dad watched first, and at midnight he woke Sophie, and she was falling asleep under the bright cold stars when Irena suddenly woke from a bad dream.
“Is fine,” she said, as Sophie tried to comfort her. “You sleep, me watch now.”
“I have no idea how long I watched,” said Sophie.
“I get your father up if I get sleeping,” said Irena. “You sleep.”
“I darn near got sleeping already,” said Sophie. “Sure you’re okay?”
“I okay.” They looked at the lump that was Dad: he seemed to be muttering and twitching. “I not only one have dream.”
Sophie, however, had hardly a dream at all before she woke to the sound of Dad getting the biggest pan out of his pack to fetch water in. She got up and she and Irena got the fire going good and soon they were drinking herb tea and chewing on the chewiest remnant of the dried meat.
By the time the sun was well up, they were on their horses. They turned east again, but bore to the left, north, uphill, and took to the high ground. They did not make great time, but they saw no one and they took two turkeys, one each for Dad and Sophie. That night’s roast was excellent and they had meat left to hang from a high branch and take with them.
The next day the three slept in, sort of, and Sophie found the Sun above the horizon when she rose and crawled out of the tent. Again the feeling of sweat evaporating into snowy vapor woke Sophie right up. She fetched tea, and she and Irena were already trying to sip it when Dad came out, went off to pee and came back to join them. They took the one remaining drumstick and passed it around and soon they were all licking their fingers and picking the last bits.
“Is good,” said Irena, cleaning her teeth with a fairly clean fingernail. “Is good dinner, is good, you say breakfast.”
“Yeah,” said Dad. “Because you fasted all night, and now you break your fast.”
“It is good,” said Sophie. “You spiced it somehow, what did you spice it with?”
“Is, ahh, I don’ know how to say it,” said Irena. “Kind of mint.”
“Mmm, well,” said Sophie, looking at Dad, “Mom wouldn’t have used a spice like that with turkey, but I gotta say, it works for me.”
“Yup,” said Dad, examining a bit from between two teeth and then chewing it thoughtfully, “things sure do change.”
By mid-morning they came to the rocky end of a ridge. They could see below them to the east the great valley of the Lesh and beyond it, perhaps, the Vara; to the south the Tenna River drained its own wide valley. The sun was bright, the wind cold and sharp. The leaves were just past their prime, but were still incredible.
“You can see forever,” said Sophie, the little girl inside her peeking out.
“I never see so much at one time,” said Irena. “Is very,” and she just giggled and shook her head.
“Amazing,” said Dad. “Marvelous. Astonishing. Beautiful. A sight for sore eyes. And so on. You’re here the right time o’ year, little lady. Reds and oranges and golds and purples—!”
“And not a horde of invaders in sight,” said Sophie.
“Ah, yes, there’s that. And it’s been over a day since my Soph has killed a man.”
He looked at her, suddenly contrite. “Anyway,” he said after a moment, “as you can see,” and then he turned and waved toward the southeast, “away down there the Lesh and the Tenna come together and the Lesh leads on down toward Merrivan. And I guess that’s where we’re headed.”
“So what we think?” asked Irena.
“What we think?”
“Yes. What we think, you folk, your King, he fight good now when Kug come to his gate, ask for gold? You think he and King Olk make good friends, fight together Gama Kug?”
“My impression,” said Sophie, “was that King John had already raised his last army. We don’t even know if he’s still alive. But I’ve been, uh, informed,” and she gave her dad a sharp steady look, “by a certain authority, that I am still in the pay of the people of Merrivan and so I have some sort of obligation as far as that all goes.”
“Ah,” said Irena with a little laugh, looking Sophie in the eye, “and this authority, he think that if you go to Merrivan and find that Merrivan is, is—!”
“A basket case,” said Dad. “Which it will be, I’m taking all bets, ante up everybody.”
Irena blinked at this bit of verbiage. “Basket? Case?” she said after a moment.
“Bad off,” said Sophie.
“No one’s gonna be in charge,” said Dad. “I’m betting.”
“Betting?” Irena repeated, still confused. “Is betting going in basket case?”
“No, no,” said Sophie. “A basket case is a hopeless situation. I have no idea why. Get it?”
“Basket case,” said Irena.
“Oh yeah,” said Dad. “Tenna was a basket case when we went through a couple weeks ago. Merrivan was in fine fettle—okay, Merrivan was in good shape, it was well off. Now, battle lost, King maybe dead, armies marching toward it with all deliberate speed from at least two directions—it’s gonna be a mess.”
“Mess,” said Irena. “Like kids make.”
“Yeah. But worse.”
“We want go there anyway?”
“Yeah,” said Dad. “Carefully.”
“Like we go Mudwick, carefully?”
Dad took in a breath. Irena kept looking at him, and Sophie kept looking at her. Irena clearly knew she had said the wrong thing. But Dad let his breath out and shook his head. “Yeah,” he said. “Carefully. And I don’t mean we won’t be ready to put arrows in anyone who looks at us funny. You comprehend that?”
“Yeah,” said Irena. “I comprehend that.”
After a little more discussion, Sophie and Dad and Irena got their horses to carry them down off the ridge southeastward. They rode through the noon hour and then they paused for a bit of leftover turkey. They stood around their horses pulling hunks off the remaining meat in the bag and talking softly. Sophie was smelling the wind and smiling in the sunlight and then they were wiping their hands on their pants and climbing on their horses again.
“You gonna name your horse, there, Irena?” asked Dad. “Mine’s Daisy and Soph’s is Horseradish.”
“Horse Radish?” repeated Irena.
“It’s a spicy root,” said Sophie. “I think you’d like it. Anyway, I guess I thought it was a cute name when this big boy was a colt.”
“Okay,” said Irena, “I think about it.”
With that, they rode on gently downhill through thin pine woods until they came out on a track running more or less their direction with a slight bias to the left, and this they followed until it came out in a wide field. There was a house on the other side, and smoke was rising from its chimney. The place was fairly rundown but to them, at this point, it looked as pretty as a mansion of the rich and just as menacing.
There was a man tied up by the back door of the house, not too far from five big horses. The man saw them as they got within thirty feet, jumped up and clearly stopped himself from saying anything.
Two more men, big and hairy and not at all tied up, came out of the back door and left it open. They were talking in grunts in a language recognizable as a variant of Sophie’s local dialect. Their words could not be distinguished because they did not talk very well. They looked up and saw the three riders.
“Henga,” called one of the men, grabbing a spear from beside the door.
“All right, now,” said Dad, “no call for suspicion. We’re soldiers of the King in Merrivan, ain’t we, Soph?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Sophie, her bow across her lap, an arrow gently nestled on the string. “You guys soldiers of the King too?”
“Oh, aye,” said the man who had called out. “You got any news there, have ya?”
“Yep,” said Dad, “come down from Tenna way, Kug pretty well in charge there, thinking o’ coming this away before snows, they are.”
“Is that so.”
They all remained as they were, three on horse, two standing by the door, one standing tied up. The door opened and two more men came out. There was a soft sound and then a thwack, and one of them fell back into the arms of the other, an arrow in his chest. His own arrow flew high and landed behind the riders, sticking up out of the crushed hay. Sophie had another arrow on the string. “So, Dad,” she said, “you figure that was justifiable?”
“Seeing as he had an arrow he wanted to do something with,” said Dad, “and seeing as I did not perceive a single turkey or deer in the field back there, yes, I think I’d have to call that justifiable.”
He looked at the two men standing by the back door. The fourth man let his dead friend down gently and stood up, his hands raised. “We don’t want no trouble,” he said.
“There’s four here, counting the dead,” said Dad. “And five horses. Now why’s that?”
He looked at Irena. She put a hand on Sophie’s arm. Sophie looked at her, then where she was looking. “Nope, nope, nope,” said Sophie. “You don’t do that, you.”
An arrow flew from a narrow window. Sophie ducked sideways: it would have missed her anyway. She straightened and put an arrow in the window. Dad had his bow out and an arrow on the string: the man in the door, halfway to having his dead comrade’s bow, chose wisely and let it drop. The other two backed up, their hands up and open: the spear man let his spear fall to the side with a hollow clunk.
“Okay,” said Dad, his bow at ready, “here’s how it’s gonna be. You have two horses more than you need. You give up one of them to us. And you give up your prisoner. And whatever he had with him. If you don’t think this is fair, we can continue dealing on the basis we’ve been up to now. Would you prefer that? What do you say?”
The man who had dropped the spear ducked his head a bit and said, “No sir, we would prefer what you said first. Can I, ah, get my knife, like, to you know, cut them ropes and—?”
“Ah, no,” said Dad, “you-all just stand there like you’re doing, it looks great. Irena, would you do the honors?”
Carrying out the deal was not without its complications, but the deal itself was simple enough and in half an hour the three, with one addition, were riding away down the road. The remaining horses of the men in the house were running free, and while they would likely be caught and returned to their duties, it would delay the men from foolish pursuit.
That evening, the four riders made camp in yet another ruined farm house just out of sight of the road. The former prisoner, a little man who was not clean but was cleaner than he had been after a cold bath in a stream, was examining his recaptured bag.
“Is it all there?” asked Sophie.
“Not all of what I had in there at one point,” said Marthen, “but all I had when those gentlemen took me in. I daresay they had not worked out how to divide the assets.” He was stroking his neat little beard: Sophie struggled to recall if he’d had that neat little beard when they had last met before the battle, oh, ten years or a week ago.
“I daresay,” said Dad, “that mathematics is not their strong point.”
“They knew there was more of them than us,” said Sophie. “Fat lot of good it did them. But all that stuff you have to take into account when you shoot out a window, you know. Wind speed, tricks of the sunlight, allowing for the arc and so on, they weren’t sharp on that.”
“No, they were not especially sharp,” said Marthen. “And yet they managed to take me prisoner. Ridiculous really, I should be more careful.”
“They should be more careful,” said Dad. “Getting my daughter pissed off. Not a good idea.” He gave Sophie a worried look. “Too soon?”
“No, no,” said Sophie. “I’m over it. I’m a big girl now.” She smiled sweetly. He raised his eyebrows, then looked at Marthen.
“You two,” said Marthen. “I would have known if anyone came out of that battle smelling like roses, it would be you two. And who is the lady?”
“I am called Irena,” said Irena with all her charm. “And you are?”
“I am called Marthen,” said Marthen. “Edgar Marthen, in fact, but no one ever called me Edgar except for my mother.”
“Do you think Sir Bodon got out of that battle?” asked Sophie. “I thought he was the only one in the leadership with any brains.”
“Oh, he was the only one in leadership with brains,” said Marthen. “So no, I haven’t seen him and no, I’m not optimistic.”
“And do you still work for the King in Merrivan?” asked Dad.
Marthen gave him a long look, then raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “I guess I might,” he said. “He got out, you know, him and most of the knights from down south. We lost at least half our men up on the Vara River, but the knights always find a way, don’t they?”
“That’s generally been my experience,” said Dad, “though we did lose a fellow from Tenna a year back who seemed a nice enough guy despite being Sir. Anyhow, we going to Merrivan together? See how the King fares? It’s been our estimation—!”
“That we still owe him a couple of gold’s worth of service,” said Sophie. “Paid by you, actually.”
“I well remember,” said Marthen. “I thought for a few days there maybe we had a chance. I guess we did. A slim chance, however. Well, I have to say, after being tied up for two days and nights and kept in the yard like a milk cow, seeing you’s giving me that same feeling.”
“Of maybe having a chance?”
“Yeah, that one,” said Marthen. “I don’t know a chance of what, but something.”