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XIV

By the time the October sun was up, Sophie, Emma, Irena, Dad, the older guardsman Otho, and the old folks Kate and Arthur were all up having mint tea and leftover stew. Matty was asleep again after her predawn nursing.

Marthen, lying on the floor wrapped in a blanket, rolled a few times and tried to stay asleep. Finally he got up, smiled blearily at the others, and went outside to pee. He came back in and started kicking the young men.

“Wakey wakey,” he said, “wakey wakey, soldier boys, there’s horsemen on the road and I don’t think they’re our guys.”

“What??” said Sophie jumping up.

“Yeah,” he said, moving to prod Aedith with his boot. “They went past on the road, then came back up and I think they’re sort of searching the farms around. Maybe they’re foraging. If King Olk’s got ten thousand coming, yes, they’ll need to.”

“Bleep, Marthen,” said Emma, getting up, hoisting Matty onto her right shoulder. “We need to get the bleep out of here. Come on, up and at ‘em, you bleeping—!”

The old folks got up and started dishing as much of the stew as they could into the relatively portable bowls and mugs that had been left in the house. Dad, Marthen and Emma got the others up and moving, and by the time they were all packed, Sophie and Irena had the horses more or less ready. Perhaps twenty minutes after Marthen had gone out to relieve himself, the twelve horses had people on them.

“This track,” said Dad, “it doesn’t go anywhere, it peters out just over the hill west, that’s where Soph and I bagged those bunnies.”

“Well, we can’t very well go back to the main road,” said Emma.

Ulf, the quiet young man, had strayed on his thin mare back toward the south side of the little house, and stood looking over the hedge toward the road. Just as Sophie looked his way, he ducked and turned his horse to hustle back to the group.

“Let’s book it,” he said, not slowing as he caught up with the others. He hurried on up the lane, and they followed. Indeed, over the hill, the track disappeared into a meadow, and indeed, as Sophie looked back from the top of the hill, from near the back of the group, she saw horsemen coming around the sod-roofed house, filing through a gap in the hedge. She hurried to catch up, and just like Ulf, she rode through the rest and onward without slowing down.

“They’re at the house,” she said as loudly as she dared. “I didn’t see if they were following.”

The others did not ask why the men on horseback would even bother following. Sophie and Dad led them across the meadow and into the woods again, and Marthen and Otho and Ulf put in noticeable effort making sure everyone didn’t just scatter. They crashed through the forest’s opening tangle, and then they were in the corridors of a deep wood. It began deciduous, with colorful maples and golden birches and brown to red oaks and much undergrowth, and then it went over to tall green white pines. They rode, roughly two by two, for another hour, and presently found themselves following a stream west and northwest into rising hill country. They came to a place where a trail of sorts forded the stream.

“To the left,” said Dad. “I don’t know the trail or anything, but that’s definitely the way to Killifar.”

“How far are we?” asked Marthen.

“Us?” Dad looked around. “I’d say we can do it by tomorrow night, if we can make a straight line from here to there.”

“This forest stretches across the hills a ways,” said Ulf. “Used to go hunting up here, me and my paw and his paw. But I figure we’ll be camping under the trees tonight.”

“I don’t give a bleep,” said Emma, taking the chance to nurse Matty, “just so they’re not on fire.”

“So,” asked Marthen, looking left and right along the trail, “what’s the likelihood that someone will be coming along here? Like, say, an army?”

“On this trail?” Dad replied. “A, they’d move pretty slow, and B, we’d smell them a mile away.”

“I’m good with this,” said Emma. “You okay with this, Matty girl?”

“All righty,” said old Kate, “just so you promise we ain’t lost.”

“Not promising anything,” Dad replied. “But if we’re lost, we’re lost together.”

The group, or miniature army, or whatever they were, had a very nice ride the rest of a warm mid-fall afternoon in sun-dappled woods. The track, whatever it was, persisted, wandering mostly southwest, fording several medium-size watercourses. There was not a settlement to be seen, though they saw two old campsites with old campfire sites. They did not adopt a consistent order, but they mostly rode two by two, and mostly with Sophie and Dad in front, Emma and Ulf right behind them, and mostly with Padric and Edmar in back. Ulf seemed to know the area somewhat; Emma seemed to think her executive involvement was important; and Padric and Edmar seemed to be effective at keeping a watch behind them.

With the Sun halfway down the sky, they came to a third old campsite, a clearing large enough to suggest a former house site. Nothing else about it suggested a dwelling: there was no sign of foundation, no rotted piling or chimney base or kitchen midden. There was a ring of low stones surrounding a nice place for a campfire, obviously used but obviously not used recently.

“Couple hours of daylight left,” said Dad. “Let’s have a couple of twos go out hunting, and the rest of you get to put together a nice little homestead for our sleeping pleasure.”

“Okey doke,” said Sophie. “You and me?”

“Seems the obvious thing. Who else?” He looked at Ulf. “You want to hunt?”

“Sure,” said Ulf. He looked around at the others. “You hunt?” he asked Edmar.

“It’s been a while,” said the young guardsman.

“Just walk quiet,” said Dad, “and if you see something edible, shoot it. You got a bow?”

“Crap, yeah,” said Otho. “He can take mine.”

When Ulf and Edmar returned to camp, Edmar had a cut on his forehead and a bad scrape on his knee, but he and Ulf were dragging a young buck. The women made fun of Edmar, the city boy, but Otho slapped him on the back and Irena set about salving his wounds. Emma and Aedith and Kate, and also Ulf, set about cleaning the beast and setting him up to roast.

Sophie and her dad were well into the woods, on foot in the piny corridors, before they said anything. “So, new army, huh?” said Sophie.

“What? Oh,” said Dad. “You mean all our new best friends. Gonna be hard getting used to. And I do wonder what Master Perkin Paton is going to think of his father-in-law and sister-in-law and a bunch of folk from away showing up in his front yard. He’s a man of some class, you know, your sister married possibly a bit above herself.”

“No way,” said Sophie. “He just thinks she married above herself. And by now, I’m guessing Marge has let him know full well what the facts are.” They walked some distance and she said, “You think you can find your way around in these woods? They’re not like back home. This all looks so different that it all looks the same to me, know what I mean?”

“I know what you mean, but,” said Dad, “I am not going to have difficulty finding our way back, because I am an excellent tracker. As I said before, daughter, I have not taught you all my tricks or you wouldn’t need me anymore.”

“Oh, I’ll need you.” They walked some distance and it still all looked the same to her: rocks buried in moss, fallen trees now soft with moss, the feel of moss under their feet, the feel of pine needles a foot deep under their feet, spider webs across the way which Dad cleared with a wave of his little bow. The spiders seemed to be the largest animals awake at this time of day: the woods were almost echoing with silence. Sophie said, “I do wonder what Margery will think of all this.”

Dad had gotten a little way ahead. He stopped on what seemed to be a slight rise in the forest floor. He waited, holding a hand up. Sophie joined him, quiet as a cat. Several hundred feet ahead, four deer moved and grazed and moved again.

“Too far,” he whispered.

They watched for a minute. “Well?” whispered Sophie. “Do we get closer?”

“Sure,” he whispered back, “let’s—!” But just then there was a faint whistle from beyond the deer, and one of them went down. The other three took off, but one more fell a second later. A second after that, Sophie and Dad were backing off the rise and very quietly taking to their heels.

Dad and Sophie got back to camp and found the roast just getting started. Irena and Emma were clearly in charge; everyone was getting stuff done and having a good time doing it. Aedith was cooking; old Kate was walking around chatting with Matty, who was gawking at all and sundry; Otho and Arthur were involved in an old guy conversation of some sort; Ulf and Padric were talking as they cooked, and sharing something from Padric’s flask. Sophie and her dad stood on the edge of the clearing, both wondering if they should just pretend they hadn’t seen what they had seen.

“Nothing, hunters?” said Aedith, noticing them as she made up a sauce of some sort from wine and herbs. “Fortunately the young fellas got enough for everyone.”

“Uh, listen,” said Dad, “we weren’t the only ones out hunting deer tonight.”

Everyone stopped: Kate in mid stir, Ulf and Otho in the middle of turning a side of venison, Irena in the middle of applying more salve to Edmar’s forehead.

“Kug,” said Sophie. She looked at Dad. “We were what, maybe a mile from here?”

“If that.”

“Well,” said Marthen, who had been discussing management issues of some sort with Emma in the middle of the camp, “they’re foraging too, right? Not scouting? Did they see you?”

“The question is,” said Emma, “do we need to move on or can we stay the night?”

Dad and Sophie looked at each other. “I dunno,” said Dad. He took a breath. “I think we can stay the night, just so we get off early tomorrow. Can we get off early tomorrow?”

“Did they see you?” asked Emma.

“No,” said Sophie. “They definitely did not see us.”

“Is this a good idea?” Emma asked.

They all looked at each other. “I think it’ll be fine,” said Marthen. “Let’s make sure the fire don’t smoke much,” said Otho. “Matty don’t cry a lot, that’s good,” said Kate.

“We’ll have to keep double watch,” said Sophie, “and also scout a bit. Dad? You want to scout, or me, or both of us?”

“You scout,” said Dad. “Take Irena. Maybe she can understand what they’re saying.”

“Okay,” said Irena. “Maybe take one of young guy too, can shoot if need.”

“Okay,” said Sophie, “good point. Ulf. You busy?”

“Naw,” said the young man, “Pad can handle this all.”

The rest of the camp noticeably quieted as Sophie, Irena and Ulf made off on foot into the woods. They turned around once they were just a short distance into the forest, and the camp was already hard to see and harder to hear. Sophie smiled at her two companions, and then put a finger on her lips and turned to lead them onward.

She had only the vaguest sense of landmarks, but presently they came down into a dry streambed that looked familiar only once they were standing in it. Sophie made a guess and took them left, and they followed it, grimacing every time they stepped on sticks. They walked what must have been several miles, and as the dark deepened, they stopped, had some water and turned around without a word. Sophie had not gone so long without saying a word (while awake) in months.

They were almost back to where they had come to the streambed. Ahead of them they could all see something, and then Irena put her hand on Sophie’s arm. What Sophie could see resolved into parts of several horses, glimpsed in twilight through branches.

There were at least three horses, drinking, and two men on them, and a third standing by the stream, looking at the ground.

Sophie heard a noise next to her. Ulf was putting an arrow on the string.

She put her hand up, palm out toward him. Then she drew her own bow and strung an arrow. The men on horseback were still chatting, and the one on the ground was still looking around.

An arrow flew from next to her. She saw it arc over the man on the ground and just miss one of the horses. Ulf cursed mildly.

The three men all went to alert. The man on the ground got back toward his horse, and the other two got arrows loose. Both missed. Sophie’s arrow passed them and took one of the horsemen in the chest. He fell slowly back from his horse, which bolted.

Two more arrows flew their way. One missed, and one made a whistle-thunk, and just as Ulf was suppressing a grunt of pain, his own second arrow hit the man on the ground, who was trying to get onto his horse. The third man turned and started his horse away down the streambed.

Sophie turned to look at Ulf, who was struggling with an arrow embedded in his right shoulder. Irena stopped him struggling and set about extracting it with her knife. It was impressive how quietly the two of them, medicine woman and wounded man, sat him down and set to work.

Sophie did not stay to watch. She sprang out into the open, ran ten paces up the streambed and planted herself on a flat rock. The remaining horseman was climbing up onto the far bank, forty yards away. Her second arrow flew on a type of arc that would, in some number of centuries, be thoughtfully considered by analytic geometers.

She came back to the other two five minutes later with her arrows and Ulf’s. “He okay?”

“They were scouts,” said Sophie to the others as they sat around the fire (low and smokeless) and ate hunks of venison. “Kug scouts. Yes, we made sure they weren’t going to report back.”

“She made sure,” said Ulf. “Sophie made sure. That girl’s a good shot.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” said Dad.

“And this lady’s good with that sauce of hers.”

“Is not sauce,” said Irena. “Sauce is if we eat you. You are not meat yet.” She laughed and slapped him on his unwounded shoulder. He smiled painfully.

“So I ask again,” said Emma, “can we stay here tonight?”

“Yes,” said Sophie. “Yes. Yes. I bought us that much.”

Emma sighed and rolled her eyes and Matty fussed. “I think Emma raises a valid point,” said Marthen. “Are we sure we’re okay?”

“No fire tonight,” said Dad. “No noise. We get going before light if possible. And we set double watches during the night. First watch, me and Edmar Crane. Till the moon is straight overhead. Then Otho and Aedith. You okay with that, latrine lady?”

“I’m okay with you not calling me that, too,” said Aedith.

“Okey doke. Till the moon is halfway down. Then Sophie and Marthen. Emma, you make triple watch whenever you’re up with that kid of yours. Obviously, try to keep her quiet.”

“If she makes a noise,” said Emma, “I will stuff a tit in her mouth.”

“Okay,” said Dad. “I think we’re good.” They all looked around.

In the dim firelight, they were all just shadows, Shadow Men and Shadow Women. Sophie thought of the men she had killed in just the past week of her life. Shadow Woman indeed. “Where do they all come from,” she said to herself.

“Who?” asked Dad.

“All those Kug I just killed. I’m like the Kug Angel of Death.”

“Don’t you worry,” said Irena. “They make plenty more.”

They ate and drank for a while, and then they all laid out whatever they had for blankets or bed rolls and tried to sleep. Sophie was sure she wouldn’t be able to, lying on a blanket laid over some moss and leaves, with rocks poking through as she rolled around. But presently she was awakened by Aedith, over whose head was a narrow round realm of stars hemmed in by black treetops. “Wake up, Sophie girl,” said Aedith. “It’s your turn.”

Sophie rolled over and got to her feet. She took a breath and let it out: she could just barely see the mist of it in the starlight and a slant of nearly full moon from the west through the trunks. She looked at Aedith, a stout dark figure in the gloom. “Anything interesting happen?” she rasped.

“Moose wandered up,” said Aedith. “Had a look, took off. Otho thought about taking a shot at it, but I told him we’d just have to lug it.”

“Wise,” said Sophie. She took another breath, steadily waking. “Get some rest, Aedith,” she said.

“Oh, I could sleep in a tree, dearie. Maybe I should, with these Kug about. Night night.”

Sophie began to walk around the clearing, shaking out her arms and legs. She found a man standing, his legs apart: Marthen, peeing. She turned and went the other way. She was standing a little way off when he came up and stood next to her. “Nice starry night,” he said. “Cold as a witch’s whatnot. You need to relieve yourself?”

“Come to think of it,” said Sophie, and she made off into the darkness. To her mind, she was crashing through the undergrowth like a dozen drunken bears, finding her way through black tree branches and black bushes in the blackness. But then she got to spend a minute or two enjoying one of Nature’s great opportunities for meditation. Even once she was done, her pants pulled back up and re-buttoned, she stood in the nighted wood, listening to the little sounds that would have been covered by even the slightest conversation. After a few minutes, she came back to camp. “Nothing out there but mice,” she said.

“You say,” said Marthen, “but a spider as big as my hand ran right over my boot in the moonlight just now. I was absolutely frozen with fear. I must have twitched, because the poor thing took fright as well and, um, rather booked it, as the young fellows would say. I suppose it was rather repulsed by the thought of me.”

“It’s just trying to live a life, and not get trampled,” said Sophie. “Not so different from us.”

They chatted for some minutes, and then by some sort of mutual agreement, they wandered a quarter turn in opposite directions and took up positions at opposite ends of camp. Sophie sat on the ground until it was too cold or crampy to stay there, then she stood up and stretched and walked a bit, and then sat down again, and so on for the next several hours. She listened. She gazed into the woods. She saw things there that were not there, just shapes made inside her mind, and after an hour she had learned to factor them out.

She thought that what was left would be the Shadow Man. There he would be, once she learned to eliminate all the rest of the noise, standing in the forest facing her, dark except, perhaps, for his eyes, which would burn through the gloom and into her soul. But that would only be if he was here for her. Perhaps he was not here for any of them yet, not even for Ulf, bandaged and salved and resting well enough. Perhaps he was only following them, waiting for tomorrow, waiting for tomorrow night, waiting for the next moment of truth, waiting for the fell winter.

But then she began to think it was her mother, there in the forest just a few yards from her, not waiting, not pleading, not hoping or cursing, just watching her, as she used to watch Sophie playing in the yard or riding the fence line or reading or practicing her letters. She sighed.

Sophie heard a noise behind her. It was Emma, and Matty, and the baby was making small unhappy noises, the preface to a real wail. Emma was a good mom, though. This time, at least, Matty would not get to wail. Emma was changing her underwear again: she had cleaned her three extras, last night or this morning, in the house, and let them dry while riding. Sophie watched the process, wondering, not for the first or last time, if she would ever want a baby of her own.

Emma finished, then brought the baby over to where Sophie stood. Emma could read minds, evidently, because she said, “They’re a lot of trouble. They’re totally worth it, but they are a lot of trouble. So don’t go wishing for a baby without realizing there are downsides.”

“Oh, I know,” said Sophie. “Sit down?”

“Yeah, I have to nurse,” said Emma. She sat down, and Sophie went and got her blanket and sat down against her, wrapping it around both of them.

“You lost a son, didn’t you?”

Emma looked high above her at the little circular universe of stars. Matilda was nursing happily, but reached a hand up to Emma’s cheek, and Emma looked down to make baby talk to her. Then she looked at Sophie and said, “My son. John. Just like your dad. My dad was named John too. My husband was Rob. The men in my life, I used to say.” She laughed. “I loved Johnny Jack, that’s what I called him. We would dance. We’d sing together.”

“My oldest brother was named Jack,” said Sophie. “Is. Maybe.”

“But I miss my mom the most, I think of her the most,” said Emma.

“Me too. I was just—I was just thinking.”

Emma looked at her with a sort of smile. They could see each other’s faces now: dawn was more than an hour away, but a little light was starting to show. “What was your mom like?”

“She was quiet, she was the quiet one. I bet that doesn’t surprise you, given that me and Dad both hold our own in conversation. She could cook anything. She could roast a side of beef, or she could make three random ingredients into something amazing. She was amazing with eggs: give her some eggs and a little flour and a little cream, or buttermilk? Cakes for breakfast. Toss in some berries, oh yeah.”

“She wasn’t comforting when you were sad, or anything, was she?” asked Emma.

“She was the one I went to,” said Sophie. “I fell asleep in her arms oh, a hundred times I bet. Then I’d wake up in my bed, and I’d get up and she’d be cooking and she’d smile at me.”

“My mom was just like that,” said Emma. “Not much of a cook, but I did a lot of that, I’m the eldest. But she rocked me, Papa made a rocking chair for her, he called it her throne. Must’ve been a hundred times I fell asleep in her arms in that rocker.”

They sat for some time. Marthen walked past and exchanged good mornings. Sophie said, “I miss my mom so. But I’m so glad I’ve got Dad. You lost everything.”

“Not everything,” said Emma, looking down at Matty, who was drifting off to sleep again. The two young women sat there looking at the baby. Emma looked up at Sophie and said, “We’re the moms now. I’m the mom. I have to be the mom.” She paused, then said, “It’s scary, but there isn’t any choice.”

Sophie put her hand on Emma’s hand, on Sophie’s knee. “We’re going to make it,” said Sophie.

“Really? Where?”

“I don’t know. But we’re going to make it.”

“And how do you know this?” Emma asked with a smile.

“Because we’ve come this far,” said Sophie. “We have to make it.”

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