Tags

, , , , , , , , , ,

XIII

“Damn it! Damn it, damn it!” cried Sophie, jumping up from where she had been sleeping against the door. “Dad, wake up!”

“What? What?” asked Dad. He jumped up from the floor in front of the shuttered window. Marthen and Irena still slept side by side, in their clothes, on the bed. Sophie shook one, then the other by the feet. “Soph,” said Dad, “something burning?”

“You and your amazing intuition,” said Sophie. She threw open the shutters while the other two stirred and Dad fumbled with his bag.

“What’s going on?” asked Marthen groggily.

“Getting out the window,” said Dad, also a bit groggy. “Inn’s on fire.”

“Ah, check that,” said Sophie. “Inn’s not on fire. City is.”

“What??” was the gist of the response from the other three.

“Come on, you guys,” said Sophie, after judging the distance out the window to the street for one second. She turned around, climbed out the window, let herself down until she was hanging by her hands from the sill, and then dropped onto a pile of lumber. It half collapsed, but she kept her footing and looked up. Irena was just dropping, and Sophie half-caught her. They both half-fell off the pile, which further collapsed.

“Great,” said Dad, “now I have further to drop.”

“Get on with it,” Sophie advised. “The next block is on fire and there’s lots of people running in the street.”

“Ah, damn it,” he said, and then he crouched in the window and took a long hop off a short sill. Sophie and Irena jumped forward and managed to slow his fall so that he didn’t quite injure himself. Then they turned to look and Marthen was in the window with his bag. “Well, come on,” Dad called, “we need to get the horses.”

Marthen fidgeted. “Toss the bag down first,” said Sophie. He clearly didn’t want to, so she said, “Just drop it, I’ll catch it, I promise I’ll stay and catch you too. Marthen. Squire Marthen. I promise I will catch you—!” Before she could say “too,” he closed his eyes and let go the bag. She caught it and found it heavier than expected, and she let it slide to the woodpile at her feet, and then she stood and here he came too. He wasn’t that much heavier than his money.

“Whew, thanks,” said Marthen as Sophie set him down. Dad put his bag in his hand. “You know, you could have made off and left me.”

“No we couldn’t,” said Sophie.

“We are leave town, right?” asked Irena.

“Well, it’s on fire,” said Marthen, following Dad further up the side alley.

“Is invaded, Frungans, they come in,” said Irena. “If not already, then soon.”

“She’s right,” said Sophie. “These guys weren’t ready to fight anyway. And the walls on the east and west are just wood. It burns.”

“They were in already,” said Dad. They gathered around him. They were about thirty feet from the other end of the alley, where they could see people crowding in the next street to the north. The crowd was somehow simultaneously milling and being pushed backwards, westwards. Some were stumbling this way, into the alley, but then turning around as if this was not the way to go. Dad gestured to a gaping window above them. “Stable’s through there.”

“What the?” But now she could hear the whinnying, wailing really, of horses, and the sounds of men yelling from through the window. Sophie climbed into the window and dropped down inside. The other three stood looking at the window waiting for her to tell them something, and ten seconds later, a wooden partition, possibly a broken barn door, burst out and there she stood with an axe in her hands. She kept on chopping away what was left of the wall. Dad and Irena and Marthen ran in past her. “God damn wall,” said Sophie, still chopping. “Can’t keep the enemy out. Just gets in the way.” She chopped a few more chops, and then cries from the street nearby got her attention: the crowd was now a race, men and women running all out from right to left, and then several stumbling and being ridden down by men on horses, men with armor and lances.

“Uh, Soph,” said Dad. He was through the opening, leading Horseradish and Daisy; Marthen and Irena were behind him with new horses of their own.

“Go that way,” said Sophie, pointing back up the alley southward. “I’ll be there in a moment.”

Several horsemen had stopped at the alley mouth and were now starting toward her. She ran in through the busted wall of the stable, and in a few seconds was chasing a dozen remaining horses out into the alley, yelling, “Giddap! Giddap! Get going, you! Git! Go!” She managed to goad the horses into heading toward the horsemen, and that thirty feet got very crowded. Then she was running the other way, and trying to pull herself up onto Horseradish. He wasn’t enthusiastic.

“Damn you, you stupid horse,” she shouted, and he stopped fighting her. She was in the saddle before she said, “Sorry, fella, I didn’t mean it.”

“Can we go?” asked Marthen.

“Soph,” called Dad from a little ahead up the alley, “can I have the axe?”

“Oh yeah, sure,” said Sophie. She tossed him the axe, handle down, and he caught it. Brandishing it like a sword, he got Daisy to set off at a good careful run, and the others followed. Sophie pulled out her sword, and Marthen pulled out his own long knife, and they headed into the next street.

It was less crowded: the Frungans were already past here on this street. A dozen riders choked the way a block ahead. “That’s the way we want to go,” said Dad. “At least, I—!”

The riders were turning to look their way. Sophie let out a whoop and used her foot to goad Horseradish, who was already on edge, into charging. Her second whoop was much more professional than the first one, and she kept on whooping, swinging her sword around. Dad was behind her, then next to her, on Daisy, his axe swinging; he was whooping it up too, and Irena and Marthen were doing a pretty good job of it themselves. They rode down the Frungans, who dodged into side streets or fell off their horses. Sophie kept right on going until they came to the plaza before the Halls.

There was a battle going on, but it was completely confused. The Halls itself was on fire, as were most of the buildings on the north side of the plaza, and there were dead men all across the stones, and more who would soon be dead, of both sides. Sophie took a moment to consider that she had left this spot just two weeks ago with an army. Then she whooped some more and took off to the left, southward, away from the fighting. The others followed.

It was only when they came to the market just inside the south gate that they encountered enemies, and these were few, half a dozen who had hastened to hold the gate against the defenders. They were already fighting, against a small mob with various weapons, and the riders were not having a good time of it. The new entrants charged in and everyone separated. Sophie managed to get in a couple of whacks at a retreating Frungan with an uncooperative horse, and then her own horse carried her right out of the gate and into the night.

They kept riding for several minutes, and then they were clattering across a short wooden bridge. It crossed a stream of some sort. The riders gathered on the other side.

“Who the hell are you guys?” asked Sophie. There were not four riders now: there were ten or twelve. She picked out Dad, and Irena and Marthen, and there were several more men and at least two more women. One had a baby.

A young guy near her on a skinny horse said, “Guess I got caught up in the enthusi-whatchamacallit.”

“Enthusiasm,” said the woman with the baby.

“Yeah, that thing,” said the young man.

Sophie looked around them again. She counted up: three more women, five more men, a baby. Two of the men looked like they were with the city guard or whatever one wanted to call it; another was an old man with an old woman, not the couple from the tavern; the young man who was caught up in the enthusiasm looked like a farm boy; the woman with the baby just looked like she had been through a lot. The baby was not more than a couple of months old.

They were watching Merrivan burn. The fine stone south gate was now surrounded by structures on fire, and the buildings in the center of town were going up in a spectacular way. The noise was like demons stage-whispering to each other and pelting each other with bricks. Above, the starry firmament was breaking out from a thin cloud cover: the wee hours of a lovely night. They could hear shouts and cries and the sounds of animals wailing. People were coming out of the city, but they didn’t seem to be getting this far: there was commotion over there, and Sophie supposed that the men on horses were using their swords and spears and lances on the poor would-be refugees.

“Soph,” said Dad, “this is quite the spectacle, I mean, it’s definitely not something you see every day, but maybe we should cut this short and move along a bit?”

“Yes, exactly,” said Marthen. “Where do you suppose lodging is for the rest of the night?”

“There’s not that much left of it,” said Dad. “The night, I mean. Tell you what, though. Let’s get down the road to Killifar a bit and make camp when it’s light, rest a bit, see what we want to do then. You all up for a bit of a ride?” Everyone nodded or said something like yes. His eyes landed last on Irena, next to him, watching the city burn with a far away look. She turned her glance to him and nodded.

“You gonna be okay?” Sophie asked the woman with the baby.

“Yeah,” she replied in an accent that was pure Merrivan. “We’re fine.”

Behind them, the folk of Merrivan were steadily emerging into the fields south of town. They didn’t seem to have any further idea of the future but to get out of the way of the flames and the men with swords. The Frungan cavalry began to encircle the city within the next hour, and it was around dawn when King John and his southern supporters emerged in a group, and only then was there any sort of battle. Sophie and her companions didn’t see it.

The twelve riders turned from the smoke and flames and disaster and followed the road south. It was a real road here, wide enough for the largest cart, wide enough in places for two large carts to pass each other. Slowly the light rose in the sky. There were farms around here, but every house and barn had been torched. After riding for three hours, an hour into the day, they saw a track to the right and the sod roof of an intact house.

It was empty, recently abandoned. There were clay bowls and a few wooden spoons and one big heavy iron cooking pot on an iron rack by the fireplace, there were five identifiable beds, there was a table and a couple of benches. Three of the four windows had working shutters and both doorways had useable doors, though the back door was completely off its hinges. The twelve riders filed around back, following Dad’s lead, and there dismounted and tied their horses to a bit of railing. Sophie left Horseradish on his own recognizance. They all went inside.

“Nice place,” said Marthen. “Wonder where the residents are.”

“They’re in the bleeping city,” said the woman with the baby. She was standing by the fireplace, nursing her child. “Everyone went there to be bleeping safe. They’re safe all right. Safe in the bleeping grave. Someone get a fire started?”

“Yeah, yes, sure,” said the enthusiastic young man.

“I’ll help,” said both the guardsmen.

The rest of the discussion went on lazily. Marthen wandered to the front door, and Sophie and Dad followed him. He had it open a little and was looking toward the road.

They heard noise from there, noise of the passage of many horses, and some cries of men. After a minute, the noise diminished toward the south. Marthen turned away after a moment, walked into the middle of the room and cleared his throat.

“The King has departed from Merrivan,” he said. “I believe he is taking a bit of a sabbatical in the South.”

This news was greeted with little enthusiasm. Most of the people at the house were inclined to have a good lie down. The nursing mom had some suggestions, which she instinctively put to Sophie, with Dad paying close attention. The enthusiastic young man stood near with a goofy grin.

“My name is Emma,” said the woman, who seemed to be about twenty. She had straight dark hair and sharp blue eyes. She was thin, as they all were, but wiry. She was tall for a woman, but not to compare with Sophie. “This is Matty. Matilda.”

“Hi Matty,” said Sophie. Matty paid no attention, being nine tenths asleep in view of Emma’s mostly-covered breast.

“Listen,” said Emma. “Here’s what we need. We’re all hungry, okay? No one thought to bring food, I bet. I have a little wine, that’s it, and a bit of cheese, but we need something more. If you can hunt, I can make a stew that’ll knock your socks off. Seriously.”

“Okay,” said Sophie, “so we also need wood for the fireplace.”

“That was my second item,” said Emma. “We need wood. Now I can’t be a lot of help, I wish I could, but at least I can cook.”

“It’s fine,” said Dad. “You need anything like spices, vegetables? Might find something this time of year.”

“They got taters here in the garden,” said the older woman. “The former folks here never got a chance to dig them up, but we can do that.”

“Well,” said Dad, “sounds like we got ourselves a stone soup.”

“Yes, very nice,” said Emma. “A lot of work goes into one of those stone soups.” She looked around: most of the others were lying on the floor napping. “And these are going to need feeding, and they better show some energy or they bleeping get left here. So, do we make stone soup every day for the rest of the winter and spring? How’s that work?”

Irena cut in and said, “I dig up garden, I help cook, we make good soup, Emma, no stone.”

Emma gave her a look, then said, “Okay, good, that’s the kind of response we need.”

“Why don’t you ladies do the cooking,” said the goofy young man, “and this Sophie and me, we go hunt up something?”

Sophie gave Emma and Irena a long look, then turned fast and grabbed the young man by the shirt. She practically carried him out the back door. “Take care of the horses, you,” she said to him, throwing him into the back yard. She came back in and prodded one of the guardsmen, who seemed inclined to watch her, with her boot. “You two can gather some firewood. Are ya up to that much work?”

“Yeah, oh yeah,” they said, getting up and backing away from her.

Sophie grinned at Emma and Irena. She said to Dad, “Do you want to hunt?”

“Since you ask so nicely,” he replied.

So they hunted. It wasn’t hard. In an hour of cloudy chill daylight they brought down three big rabbits and two pheasants. They could have had peasant as well: over the course of the morning, hundreds of refugees wandered down the road away from Merrivan. Many of them saw the house, saw Dad and Sophie, saw people in the house waving at them, and just put their heads down and kept trudging.

“Ah, we don’t want them anyway,” said Dad. “We got enough mouths to feed. And enough work making sure they work. That Emma’s a kick, though, ain’t she?”

“Her kid’s gonna know some interesting vocabulary,” said Sophie. She held up the pheasants, which they had just shot out of the air side by side. “Is this all enough, this and the bunny rabbits?”

“Oh, for today,” said Dad. “Then what, is what I’d want to know.”

“Well,” said Sophie, “we’re going to Killifar, I guess.”

“I guess,” said Dad. “If only we had a really decent option. But we haven’t had a huge number of decent options ever since King John lost that battle, and I mean the one last year.”

“Okay,” said Sophie. “I guess we get that stew started. And then we have some stuff to talk about.”

They made a stew. Irena and Emma were already at work on the broth, with water they found in a cistern, tubers the old couple dug up in the garden and herbs they found here and there. Dad and Sophie cleaned and cut up the meat and roasted it a little before throwing it into the broth with the bigger bones. They let the whole thing boil, and they looked at each other: father and daughter, mother and child, husband and wife, widowed refugee and former quartermaster. Then they looked at the other five people in the house: two guardsmen, two younger men, middle-aged woman, all lying on the floor taking it easy. The woman and the guardsmen had their eyes open, staring at the ceiling.

“What I want to know,” said Emma, “is what you all want. What do you want?” The middle-aged woman and the guardsmen looked at her without moving. “You,” said Emma, pointing at the older of the two guardsmen. “What do you want?”

“Me?” He laughed a little. “Nothing.” She kept staring at him, and he rolled away, but then he rolled onto his knees and got up with a groan. Sophie was about to say something, but Emma held up her hand. The man stood there sheepish, and then he said, “I guess I want to find someplace safe to start over, you know?”

“Yeah, I know,” said Emma.

“That’s what I want too,” said the middle-aged woman. “Lost my husband in the war, lost my son, my daughter died of fever last winter.”

“Wow,” said Sophie. “What have you been doing?”

“Cleaning the King’s Guard’s latrines,” she said. “I don’t miss it.”

“So,” said Emma, hoisting Matty up onto her shoulder still asleep, “would it be safe to say we all want to get away to somewhere nice and safe where we can start fresh and have plenty to eat and be safe and so on?”

By now all the people in the room were standing up. The goofy young man was sniffing the stew at a distance, and smiling about it.

“Look,” said Sophie, “we really need to know where we’re going after this. I don’t think staying here is an option. Okay? We need to decide what we want to do. And if you don’t want to do what I want to do, that’s fine, we just need to know so we can have a nice farewell party or something. So what do you all want to do? Where are you from, and where do you think you’re going?”

“Well,” said the elder guardsman, “where are you all going?”

“Me?” Dad replied.

“You and your kid and her,” he said, indicating Emma, “and Master Marthen and all.”

“I don’t actually know,” said Marthen, “but I gather I was invited to accompany Master John here and his daughter Sophie to Killifar, where they have family. I don’t think I have the authority to extend the invitation to all and sundry.”

“No,” said Dad, “but I think we ought to think about the possibility that we all head that way, together. I mean, I want to know more about you people, but I don’t see anyone here I think would not deserve a, what did you say? Safe place to start fresh? I don’t know if it’s Killifar—!”

“Look,” said the latrine-cleaning woman, “I don’t care where it is. This one,” she said, waving a hand at Sophie, “wherever she’s a-going, I’m a-going. I feel kinda safe around her, know what I mean?”

“I know exactly what you mean,” said Marthen.

“Me too,” said the two guardsmen, echoed a second late by the goofy young man.

“What the heck?” asked Sophie.

“Face it, Sophia,” said Marthen. “I can honestly say that I feel safer around you and your old man. You can be very persuasive for a what, eighteen-year-old?”

“Sixteen,” said Sophie. “I still don’t know what you mean.”

“Okay, look,” said Emma, putting Matty up on her shoulder and thumping her back lightly. Just as Emma was about to say something, Matty burped. “Anyway,” said Emma. “Here I am. No husband, no home, no mom and dad, no city. We had a little farm, part of my folks’ farm, on the north side of Merrivan. It got raided a few days ago, and let’s just say that Matty and I are the only ones who got out alive.”

“Oh, Emma,” said Sophie.

“You’re sure?” asked the old lady. “Maybe—!”

“I’m sure.” Emma stopped, very serious, then looked up half smiling, her eyes glistening. “And now even Merrivan’s been sacked. I bet they burned that bleeper to the ground. Ah, bleep.” She composed herself; the swearing seemed to help. “So here we are,” she said, “me and my daughter, and—well,” and then she shook her head. “Augh. It’s bad.” She shook her head again, and looked up, and not a tear had fallen. She smiled. “And I know I am not going to settle down in some other place with some guy and make him my new husband and have a lovely new family. Not, you know, without a lot of other stuff happening. You understand? You all understand?”

“I do,” said the old man. “Me and my Kate, we just settled in after we got chased off our farm by Tenna. Priest of the Virgin let us settle in at her place, now she’s probably gone and we’re out here on the road again. We can’t just live out on the road, not us, but we can work good and hard.”

“Yeah,” said Emma, “that’s the whole thing. I can work. I will work. I want to know what I’m working to build. Because this stew is nice, but it’ll be gone in a day or two tops, and then what? We can’t stay here, Frungans and Kug and—you’re not Frungan, are you, Ir—?”

“Irena,” said Irena. “Not Frungan, thanks much for to ask. Am Yetva. Am run away from Frungan and also Kug.”

“Anyone got a problem with Irena?” asked Dad. “Because I can tell you she’s been damn useful to us, and I trust her with my life. Right, Soph?”

“Yeah,” said Sophie. “I trust her, I trust you. You remember you said there was no one in the world I could trust, except that I could trust you? Well, I guess that’s expanded a little. Irena saved my life with that rock—!”

“Only as you save my life with arrow,” said Irena. “Two, three time? More maybe.”

“Who’s counting?” And she commenced to count anyway. “I trust you. I trust Dad. I trust Marthen. I think I trust Emma. I’m pretty close to trusting Kate and, um—?”

“Arthur,” said the old man from up near Tenna.

“So what are we going to do?” asked Emma. “You said Killifar. Any hope there?”

“Do you think the Kug will stop with Tenna?” asked the goofy young man, not looking at all goofy all of a sudden. “Do you think King Olk will stop with Merrivan?”

“Who knows about Olk,” said Marthen. “But if I may, I don’t see any reason the Kug would settle for Tenna. It wasn’t much for them, just an appetizer or something. And Merrivan won’t be much now that Olk got there first. Killifar’s the biggest town left in the west of the kingdom, they’ll want to go grab it before its wealth all runs away. Don’t you think so, Irena?”

“Yes,” said Irena. “Gama Kug, he will get under hand all gangs in Tenna, he will stretch arm out to next good fruit.”

“Is that our only choice then?” asked the middle-aged woman. “Can’t we head south like the King?”

“Olk’s aimed that way,” said Marthen. “And Helark’s not going to hand out land to you all to farm on, they’d let you starve if they didn’t think you were okay with cleaning their latrines.”

“Not going to Helark,” said Dad. “Going to Helark means we’re no longer even in our own country. Tell me, Irena. How do you like not being in your own country?”

“Is better now,” said Irena, “but mostly? It sucks.”

“What it comes down to,” said Sophie, “is that we need to find a place we can make a stand, start over like you guys said, but also defend ourselves. And maybe Killifar could be that place, or maybe somewhere up in the hills.”

“Well, I’m in,” said the goofy young man. “My name’s Padric, I’m from Merrivan myself.”

“Yeah, I’m Otho,” said the older of the two town guards, “and this is Edmar Crane, and we don’t got no tie to nowhere now as our, um, employer is kind of, how you say it, defunct.”

“That’s a fact,” said the younger guard, Edmar.

“I’m in,” said the middle-aged lady. “If you all could use the royal under latrine cleaner, you can count on Aedith, she’s a hard worker, I’m a hard worker. Lost my husband and son and daughter last year and this, and my dogs too, guess that makes me starting over.”

“Like a lot of us,” said Otho.

“Like me,” said the other young man, who had stood silent in the back all the time. They all looked at him and he stooped as if to hide in his own shadow. But he pulled himself up after a moment and said, “My name’s Ulf. I was in that battle up the Vara couple weeks ago. I’m here. I’m in.”

“Okay, so,” said Sophie, “I’m used to traveling with just Dad. We make a good team. We added Irena, and we’re still a good team, I always seem to know what they’re thinking and they know what I’m thinking. Marthen, we saved from some guys, he’s part of the team. Can we do that with what, twelve people? Thirteen, if you count Matty?” She was caught by Matty’s unfocused gaze. “You count as a half, don’t you, cutie?”

“Sure, we can do that,” said Otho, the older guard. “We’ll find out,” said his colleague Edmar.

“Let me see,” said Emma, hoisting Matty high onto her shoulder, holding her with her right hand and taking her left hand away. She looked at Sophie. She had a long knife in her left hand. It was basic and black, and it looked sharp. Everyone was watching her. She raised her left hand and pulled it down, letting the knife go. It flew briefly and stuck well into a wall support eight feet from her, right next to the not so goofy Padric.

After a moment of respectful silence, Padric said, “I want you on my side.”

“My husband and my three-year-old son,” she said, “they were burned up in the house. The Frungans shot my dad dead in the front yard. My mom, three others, maybe four, all neighbors or related, they slew with their swords. I used to throw the knife just for fun. My dad thought it was funny. Priest in the village was worried I was a devil child because I was a lefty. She would’ve pooped if she’d seen me throw a knife. Well, if we’re just going somewhere quiet, I’m not sure I’m in. If we’re fighting for that quiet life, yeah. I’m all the way in.” Matty started to fuss, and Emma turned her attention to whispering to the child.

“Let me tell you,” said Sophie. “I killed what, seven guys with arrows? One with a sword. Every one of them were going to kill me if they could. This is not a nice world. This is a world where we have to fight for a place to, for a place for that baby of yours to grow up safe and happy. It’s not what we wanted, but it’s what we got.”

Emma put out her left hand, then switched baby arms and put her right hand out. Sophie took it and they shook. The young men let out a cheer, and it turned into general applause. Emma shook Dad’s hand, Sophie hugged Irena, and they all had a good round of greetings. They exchanged a little banter.

“Food’s ready,” said old Kate, peering into the stew. She had a spoon in her hand.

The crowd in the house found they had among them four bottles of wine, mostly full, and a couple of wine skins and three various-sized flasks of various kinds of brandy. The stew was very tasty, and the second bowls were better than the first. The tired respite in the abandoned house, having turned into a tense meeting, became a fairly polite party. Padric and Edmar both tried, a little, to hit on Sophie, but she didn’t even have to slug them. Places to sleep were eventually found. Dad and old Arthur, Kate’s husband, went around the house finding ways to shutter the windows, while Kate and Aedith and Otho worked out bedding. There were just about enough blankets to go around.

Sophie was sitting out front around midnight watching the nearly full moon and the stars when Emma came out with a fussy Matty. She nursed her a little, then changed the rag that was serving her for underwear, and then nursed her some more.

“Lovely night,” said Emma. “Not a cloud.”

“Big Bear, Queen of Heaven, Huntress and Hound, Bull,” said Sophie. “Venus, no, that has to be Jupiter, the Wandering King, you know.”

“Pretty.”

“Emma, have you ever heard of the Shadow Man?”

Emma smiled at the stars. She didn’t say anything for a minute. Then she said, “I heard that story. He can’t move in the light, he hides in the shadow, and if you see him, he takes you. No. I never believed in that. I believed in the Virgin and her son.” She looked at Sophie, her eyes glittering in the moonlight. “Now I’m not so sure I didn’t have it backwards.”

Sophie smiled at her, then at Matty, nursing. She leaned close and sniffed Matty’s head. “Love me some baby smell,” said Sophie.

“Going to be ready to head out tomorrow early?” asked Emma.

“Don’t know about early,” said Sophie. “But we shouldn’t stay here. I just feel like we’re in danger still. Maybe it’s just habit.”

“No, it’s not,” said Emma. “Maybe King Olk just came down here to squash King John. Check that off the list. But he’s not going to turn around instantly and go home. He’s in control of the Merrivan valley, and he might as well stay here till winter comes at least, he can get home okay even if there’s some snow and cold, but if he goes away too soon, he must figure King John will come right back with his Southerners.”

“Why don’t they come back anyway and put him on the throne again, if they like him so much?”

“They tried to prop him up,” said Emma. “Didn’t work so well, did it? There, baby, let’s work on the other side.” She laughed as she switched Matty over. “Listen to us. The women folk. Talkin’ strategy!” She reached out her free right hand and took Sophie’s left hand.

“I hate to say it,” said Sophie, “but I think we’re running the show. You and me.”

“And your dad.”

“And Irena, but they’re both tired, Dad’s tired. He hasn’t really accepted that Mom is gone, not yet. Not sure I have, but, but he definitely hasn’t.”

“You don’t know if she’s dead.”

“We don’t. We tried to go up to Mudwick, village where I was born, don’t laugh! It’s called that because it’s on the Muddy River. We tried to go there and Kug were all over. I had to, um, shoot four of them. Six of them. Seven—geez, one does lose count.”

“So you’re a soldier.”

“Yeah, but in what army?”

“So we have an army here,” said Emma. “It’s not a big army, and it’s got moms and old men and even a baby, but we have an army.”

“I don’t like armies,” said Sophie. “I hate frickin’ armies.”

“So do I,” said Emma, looking down at Matty happily nursing, her tiny hand stretched out into Emma’s dark hanging hair. “But this army’s kind of different.”

Advertisements