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Part Three: Merrivan and Killifar

XI

Four riders rode along the ridge road above the River Lesh the next day. They came down off the ridge and out onto a shoulder overlooking Merrivan from the northwest. It was a lovely sunny afternoon and they were tired and a little hungry. There were several thousand people ahead of them. The four looked from their horses, then dismounted and climbed onto a convenient boulder and had another look.

“The camp is still forming up,” said Marthen. “I’d say this is the vanguard. I make it, oh, two thousand, maybe three.” He looked at Sophie. “What do you say, Stilts?”

She smirked. Then she took a minute to do her own estimation. “I’d go three,” she said at last.

“Yes, yes, three,” said Irena. “One thousand there, one thousand there, one more thousand sort of moving about.” They looked at Dad.

“I concur,” said Dad. “And I’m going to guess that they’re not our guys.”

“Frungai,” said Irena. “Frungans.”

“You speak their language,” said Marthen.

“Don’ remind me. Is not like I want to.”

“Yeah,” said Dad. “I can’t think of a way her command of Frungan is going to help us deal with an army that’s gonna be ten thousand in a week.”

They stood there for a while, as the horses munched on the late grass heads. It was a challenge, grabbing them as they bobbed in the wind, but it was worth it. The humans did not have as rewarding a time. Finally, having neither said nor thought of anything useful, they climbed down and stood around next to their steeds.

“Okay,” said Marthen, “so here’s what I got. We either try to go in or we don’t. Let’s just stack up the reasons on either side.”

“We go in,” said Dad, “and we have to get past three thousand Frungans. And then we don’t know what we meet inside. It could be like when we were last inside Tenna, but scaled up for the population. Heck, they could put us in irons. They could chop our heads off. They could make us stand on the walls and attract fire. But, on the other hand, it’s shelter. Maybe.”

“And there’s this thing about how we owe the King,” said Sophie.

Marthen looked at Dad. “Well, and,” said Dad, “maybe, just maybe the King has an army of some sort. I mean, looking at this lot, he’d better. Because there’s more than just this, these, like you say, they’re just the first arrivals. But where else do you go if you want to find an army to fight the Kug? It’s the Kug we really need an answer for. So? Ask King Olk of Frunga?”

“How’d you feel about that, Irena?” asked Sophie.

Irena stepped away from the others and spat on the ground, accurately hitting the dead center of a round stone buried in the road.

“Okay,” Marthen said reasonably, “I guess we don’t negotiate with King Olk of Frunga. I hadn’t considered that option, but we can now put it discreetly aside. What is our other option if we don’t attempt to gain entry to Merrivan?”

“We head for Killifar, or somewhere like that,” said Dad. “We have kin there: my daughter Margery is there, with her husband good Perkin Paton and some number of my grandchildren.”

“So,” said Marthen, “are there down-sides to this? It sounds all right to me. Would they put up, oh, a Frungan refugee who dislikes the Frungans, and a former bureaucrat in the military establishment from Merrivan?”

“I am not Frungan,” said Irena. “Am Yetva. From Vyotol.”

“Sorry. My question remains.”

“Oh, she’ll take us in, I’m sure,” said Dad.

“So, why shouldn’t we just do that?”

“Well, who’s going to have an army? Because we had an army that could have faced the Kug and maybe done something useful like get me back on my farm, but we blew that against King Olk of Frunga. So where else do we get an army? Helark in the South? They’re not going to want to send another bunch of their finest young men up here to die in the woods. Killifar’s very nice, but it’s no bigger than Tenna, and Tenna wasn’t going to make an army that could face the Kug. So where else around here could make an army? I’m sorry to say this, but Merrivan may be the only chance we have if we don’t want to all learn to speak Kug.”

“Not option,” said Irena. “Want me spit again? I got plenty of spit. Have lots of spit for Gama Kug and extra left for King Olk of Frunga.”

“So,” said Marthen to Irena, “no fan you of King Olk, and no fan of the Kug. I take it you hold no opinion as yet of Good King John, Ninth of that Name.”

“I hold no opinion,” she said, “as yet. What is King John Ninth of Name like? Is he stupid like other kings?”

“Oh,” said Marthen, “I think he does not exercise himself to develop new and better ways of being stupid, I think rather he tends to keep to the traditional stupid ways.”

“So, what do you think, Soph?” asked Dad as Marthen and Irena went on chatting about monarchy in theory and practice.

“I think those two get on way better than I might have expected,” said Sophie.

“No, about going in?”

“Oh,” said Sophie, “if we can get past the gate, we should be good. The problem is getting past the gate.”

“Sure,” said Dad. “And we go around the west side and hit one of the south gates, I’d think. But when we get inside?”

“Well, Dad,” she replied, “that’s when we’ll know if we really wanted to get inside.”

The four riders kept to the right after the road forded a wide stream and set out straight across intensively farmed bottom land toward the city of Merrivan. They tried to look inconspicuous. It seemed easy most of the time, as they passed among very recently abandoned farm houses and very recently emptied pastures and common fields. But it was a clear day, with not a shred of mist or shadow of cloud to hide in, and presently they saw a riding of six horses part from the vanguard camp and move to head them off.

“Can we avoid?” asked Irena.

“Just let me do the talkin’,” said Dad.

“No, let me,” said Sophie.

“I think not. And don’t even show that bow, much less string an arrow. Girl!”

“Yes, dad, fine, dad, yes, dad.”

“Any question, you two?” Dad asked Irena and Marthen.

“No, no, you talking,” said Irena. “Me stay mouth shut.”

It was long minutes still before the four riders met the six. The four were in no hurry, though they were easily visible the whole time across the flatland, and the six were waiting for them where two farm lanes crossed.

“Halt, halt, halt,” called the one who seemed to be in charge. Even the one word exposed his accent: not quite Irena’s but definitely not like Dad’s. He was clearly some sort of knight, while the rest of his delegation looked like farm boys. “Where be you going?”

“Ah,” said Dad, and he spent a few seconds thinking up: “And a good day to you, kind sir.”

“Good day to you,” said the Frungan knight. “Where be you going, man?”

“Ar,” said Dad, “south I believe, yeah, south indeed it is. South. Yeah. South, kind sir.” He gave the knight a sweet broad grin.

“South?” said the knight, also smiling. Dad nodded and grinned some more. “Where be you from, man, you and rest of here?”

“Oh ar,” said Dad, “this be me family, we be from up Tenna way, me wife an’ me kid here an’ me coozin an’ all. We don’ mean no harm, sir, that we don’t, just headin’ south t’ keep outa trooble from, if you will, the likes of thee an’ all.”

The knight took this all in with a half smile. The knight conferred with the eldest of his farm boy riders. He surveyed the other three and asked, “You rest, you say this all true?”

They all nodded. Irena grabbed Dad’s sleeve and pulled him down to her level to say something. The knight watched this, and Dad met his look. Dad said, “Me wife reminds me to mention as to how we be headin’ south t’ get outa the way an’ all, an’ not plannin’ t’ stay in yon city or even get anywheres near it, an’ you can follow us about if you wishes to an’ see, we be plannin’ t’ join me other coozin away south in Terlack an’ all, not plannin’ t’ come back atall sir.”

“One horse,” said the knight with a smile, “not like other horses. Where wife got horse?”

“Ar,” said Dad, “that be a pony what we bought las’ year off a feller from up over the hills. Don’ know where from, not like the others round here you see, is it?”

“No, not like other horses,” said the knight. He looked at them for a minute, then conferred with the elder farm boy, then, his smile wavering just a little, he waved them on.

“Thank ee, sir knight,” said Dad.

“Sure you go not in city,” said the knight. “We kill every man in city. Yes?”

“Yes,” said Dad, “indeed yes, aye, and a fond farewell, sir knight.”

The four passed onward and the six turned back toward the camp, and a little further on, Sophie said, “Nice accent. Come up with that yourself?”

“Your dad,” said Dad, “is a man of many talents.”

“So, kill every man in city. Do you think we need to tell them that?”

“Who?”

“The residents of the city.”

They all turned their heads to look at the nearest of the rambling walls of Merrivan, mere wooden stockade walls on this side, half a mile off. They slowed but did not stop moving southward. “I guess we ought to, at that,” said Dad, “although I grant my heart ain’t in it.”

When they got around to the south end of the city, they found its gates loosely manned and far from crowded. Masses of peasants were not pouring into Merrivan for sanctuary, nor were they pouring out of Merrivan for refuge elsewhere. The four dismounted and approached the towering stone gate—the rest of the wall here was still wood planks, but the gate was something to see. Marthen and Dad walked in front. Marthen nodded and smiled at each of the five guards they saw in the vicinity of the gate; Sophie didn’t notice much else, as Daisy, striding along in front of her, chose their entry into the city as the moment to leave some things to stink outside. So, stepping carefully, Sophie returned to Merrivan, city of no epithet.

The sun shone down on Merrivan, home of perhaps twenty thousand people. Like any city, it had its own internal gravity that made it, to an extent, immune from events. It was Sophie’s first and only city, and now, with a hostile army outside, Sophie really got what that immunity amounted to. It wasn’t that people didn’t know there was a hostile army outside. But they were in here, with walls to block out the view, with twenty thousand drinking buddies, with still enough food for the foreseeable future.

“Yeah, the future,” Sophie said aloud, standing in an irregular plaza a block in from the gate, looking at her three companions a little distance in front of her. She looked at Horseradish, who actually turned his head to give her a sideways look. “The future’s not this week,” she told him, “and it’s not next week, but it just might be the week after. Huh?”

She sauntered up to join the others. Dad was saying to Marthen, “So I guess it’s your turn to go exercise your connections and all, and we’ll find lodging for a bit, how’s that sound?” He looked back and smiled at Sophie. Irena was eying all the people in the plaza with equal suspicion.

“Tell you what, Squire,” said Marthen, “you and me find lodging, and then you and me go find my connections. There has to be something going on at the Halls. But who knows what? By the Virgin, what I would give to have Sir B show up about now.” They both looked around, but Sir Bodon did not choose that moment to appear.

“So you’re worried about security,” said Dad. “You want me with to help out with security. Thinking of your bag?”

“Oh, I’m not taking the bag,” said Marthen. He looked up at Sophie. “I could take her as security and leave you and the lady with the room and the bag, but all in all, I think it best we do it this way. Uh, you don’t mind, you aren’t offended or anything—?”

Dad laughed. “No, no,” he said. “This is good. One guy, situation like this, it’s just asking for trouble. Two together, it’s just a lot more formidable.”

“And,” said Marthen, “no offense, but a girl, even a formidable girl like this one, in a place like the Halls? It was trouble enough when, ah, when there was someone actually in charge.”

“No offense taken,” said Sophie. They looked around. “Because you know, even a formidable girl like this one, I have to make people know I’m formidable by, you know, slugging them or something before I can actually get them to realize how formidable I actually am.”

“And we can’t have you slugging every male in the city,” said Marthen.

“No,” Sophie agreed. “It’s inefficient.”

So the four of them went down the Main Street and found an inn with a reliable-looking stable, and went in to make a deal on a couple of rooms side by side. It was agreed that Dad and Marthen would share a room (and a bed) and that Irena and Sophie would share another. Then they got a bit of lunch in the common room, and Dad and Marthen left the women in their room with Marthen’s bag. Marthen showed them what was in it.

“I keep good accounts,” said Marthen, “as I think you may recall. See? What do you make this?”

“Well,” said Sophie, looking at the ordered piles of coins they had made, “134 gold, 82 silver, 55 copper. Plus assorted papers and a change of clothes.”

“I plan on taking a bath tonight,” said Marthen. “I’ll wash my dirties and put on my cleans. Dare I ask about your sanitary practices?”

“No, yeah, you dare,” said Sophie. “I’ll do the same, though I think I’ll use a different tub.”

“I asked,” said Dad. “It comes with the room. I don’t mind using Master Marthen’s water, nor letting him have it first, though I think I’d like to go ahead of his and my laundry.” He looked at Irena, mostly out of habit.

“Oh, by God,” she said. “I need bath so bad. And have only one clothing.”

“We need to get you some more,” said Sophie. “You boys wanna pick something up while you’re out?”

“Ah, no,” said Marthen, “maybe we leave that to you.”

Irena and Sophie had a look at their room, which had a nice little bed on the floor, and carefully chose places for their pathetic little bags of possessions. Then they went into Dad and Marthen’s room and sat on their bed looking at Marthen’s bag, in which the coins had been hidden again. There was a commotion on the stairs, and then a tub of warm water was being dragged down the hall. Some discussion ensued, and presently Sophie was sitting on Dad’s bed reading—a bird book handed down in the family—and Irena was in the water.

“You’ve been very quiet,” said Sophie.

“Am enjoying,” said Irena.

“When do I get to enjoy? I want to enjoy.”

“Look,” said Irena. “In Merrivan, I am Frungai. Yet to King Olk of Frunga, I am not Frungai, I am Yetva. He catch me, he ask question, what I am doing with folk from here. What I am doing? I am not know. What I am doing? What you are doing? What you are doing, Sophia?”

“How did you know my real name is Sophia?”

Irena looked taken aback. “Is what Sophie means? Means Sophia.”

“Oh. Well, anyway, yeah, it’s probably good for you to keep that accent of yours to yourself while we’re in Merrivan.” She stood up and walked around the little room. “Which won’t be too long, I don’t think.” She sat back down by Irena.

“Could be weeks until King Olk be ready to make something,” said Irena. “Could be King John make army by then, good enough to keep city anyway. Lots go wrong in war time. And winter is come quick. Could snow tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow??”

“No, not tomorrow,” Irena conceded. “Going to be clear for many days, many days. But, you get meaning, is not month, two months, King Olk has, can’t make siege all winter, is bad.”

“So he makes his move fast,” said Sophie. “I don’t know. I just don’t think this is going to work out. What am I looking for? When we were headed for, you know, Mudwick, I thought maybe that was what I was looking for. I guess that didn’t pan out. But that’s not what I’m looking for anyway. You know? What are you looking for?”

“Place to live in peace.” They both nodded sagely. Irena swished, then leaned toward Sophie. “Listen,” she said, though it came out as leessen. “When I was age you are, I thought, have man, have family, have house, farm, a cow. Had that stuff. Also had book, my father taught me to write, I copy books for people. I make ink, I make paper even. Not rich, but, but had enough, had enough I could loose—lose—is loose, or is lose?”

“Lose,” said Sophie. “Loose is like the opposite of tight. You had enough you could lose.”

“Had enough I could lose enough, and now? Have what is in bag. Want? Want to live in peace, maybe have cow, have books.” She smiled. “Is too much to want?”

“No, nope, no, not at all,” said Sophie. “Yeah. We could find a place to farm. A house. Some cows, sheep. Chickens. I want cats, a big ol’ dog. I want Dad to have stuff to do, be happy.”

“Want man? Want children?”

Sophie looked off into the imaginary distance. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’m liking it like it is. I guess maybe someday, but not for a while. I just want a place to live, like you say, in peace.” She stood up. “But I know one thing.”

“No peace,” said Irena. “Is too many army around.”

“Yeah,” said Sophie. “That peace thing is going to take some work.” She stood up and put the bird book back in Dad’s bag. “Okay. My turn. Come on, I have dirt on my dirt.”

When Dad and Marthen returned, Sophie had bathed and was showing Irena her sword moves at half speed in the men’s little room. “Whoa, whoa,” said Dad, “don’t damage anything, watch that candle dish.”

“Hey, I’m being careful,” Sophie replied. “Whatcha know?”

“Well,” said Dad, “stew’s in the common room, and no one’s in charge at the Halls. Want to hear about it now, or over stew?”

“And wine,” said Marthen. “In the common room. It smells wonderful, and I was basically living in the Halls the last few years so I can only imagine what it would smell like if I still had my sense of smell.”

“Okay,” said Irena, “common room. Even though I must keep mouth shut there except eating.”

“What?” asked Dad.

“She doesn’t want people to notice her accent,” said Sophie.

“She’s got the right idea there,” said Marthen.

“It’s actually okay?” asked Dad. “I know you hate not talking, Irena.”

“Is big pain,” said Irena, “but I can eat horse.”

“What? Oh, you could eat a horse. Ha! No need for that just yet, in dear old Merrivan.”

“Funny,” said Sophie. “I notice whenever you call someplace ‘dear old,’ you’re basically kissing it goodbye.”

A few minutes later, with their possessions trusted behind the unlocked doors of their rooms—except for Marthen’s bag, which sat in Sophie’s lap—the four of them pulled up benches to a long table in the crowded common room. Sophie and Irena sat on one side, and Dad and Marthen on the other. A lady came by and dropped off crocks of stew, and then, in receipt of a silver coin, came back with a jug of wine and four cups. She still had nothing to say, but she smiled this time. Everyone around them, including the elderly tradesmen literally rubbing elbows with Sophie and Dad, seemed happy to ignore them.

After the waitress left, they turned to the stew, and Dad and Marthen took turns talking. “So, yeah,” Marthen said. “My old stomping ground is all in a tizzy.” He looked at Irena, who shrugged, so he went on. “The arms stores are empty, and the one thing that’s still happening is that men are there making spears and arrows and as soon as they set out a box of arrows, someone takes it. No one’s brave enough to stop anyone, and everyone’s now armed to the teeth.” He looked at Irena, who shrugged again.

“We got basically ignored,” said Dad. “Picked me up this nice old knife.” He pulled from his pants a knife that must have reached to his knee. It was straight and heavy and clearly much used, and it was dull enough that it would mostly function as a sort of edged cudgel. “Not going to chop onions with it, but it’ll work for some things.”

“Can I?” asked Sophie. He handed it over. She stood up, and almost immediately a man passing by behind her stopped to cop a feel. She turned and put the butt of her left hand hard into his right eyebrow. Then, her left hand dropping to his elbow, she kneed him in the groin hard enough to lift him off the ground. He was her height and weight, but she was young and strong and restless and he went down with a thump and a short slide on his back. If anyone else looked at what had happened, they turned their attention back to their food immediately. Sophie swung the knife a couple of ways and then put it up in a blocking action, tossed it, caught it by the hilt, flipped it and caught it by the blade, and handed it back.

“Nice work,” said Marthen. “Impressive.”

“It’s a good shield, that’s what it is,” said Sophie. She sat down and leaned toward Marthen. “So what about our King?”

“Oh, he’s still up at the castle,” said Marthen in a very low voice. “His knights from the south are with him. One suspects he’s thinking about going on a long vacation, a pilgrimage to the coast lands perhaps.”

“People think this?”

“People say this,” said Dad. “Fellas at the Halls. But he’s biding his time. Maybe he can’t get out. Maybe someone has something on him. Or, maybe the knights from the south are all deluded, and they’re deluding him.”

“Or maybe they actually can beat this King Olk,” said Sophie.

They all looked at Irena, who shook her head emphatically. “I would have to agree,” said Marthen. “They have five hundred tops. The militia is maybe three thousand, enough to man the walls, but the walls frankly are not worth manning. Don’t you think, Squire John?”

“I’d have to agree too,” said Dad. “They should be fixing them up, but they’re not. Tell you what’s mostly going on at the Halls. Mostly drinking. Some fighting, a bit of whoring, but mostly drinking. Now it’s true that you might want to get your men drunk right before battle, but not for the whole two weeks before a battle. It’s one thing to fight drunk, it’s quite another to do it hung over.”

“Yeah,” said Marthen, “the reason there isn’t a riot all over the city streets most of the time is that the riot is pretty much right there at the Halls and thereabouts. It was never a great place for law and order, funnily enough, but now it’s basically where you go for free alcohol.”

“And free weapons,” said Dad, hefting his new used knife.

“So,” said Sophie, “King’s probably looking for the right time to bug out, common folk are only here because there’s no place else, and what they have for an army is on a multi-week bender. Where does that leave us?”

They sat there looking at each other and slurping stew, mostly tubers and mushrooms with a faint flavor of mutton, but tasty and warm.

“It leaves us,” said Marthen at last, “checking our list to figure where we go next.” He took another good slurp of stew, then wiped his trim little beard on his sleeve. He took a drink of wine. “Well,” he said, “no hurry, anyway, we should have a few days to sound things out, and still have at least a week to put distance between us and imminent disaster. There’s at least time for a whole string of hot baths.”

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