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XV

Sophie and Emma sat and talked in soft voices for some minutes, with Matty dozing well wrapped in blanket and mother’s arms. Once it was clear the dawn was coming fast and there was no way around it, they got up and roused Marthen from a standing daze and set about waking everyone else up. The fact that it was cold was much remarked on.

“It’s definitely above freezing,” Sophie pointed out several times, while handing out chunks of venison left over from last night.

A few minutes later, they were on horseback and riding back into the green shadow of the white pines. They managed to be quiet at first, so quiet that Matty’s little utterances of interest as she watched branches pass by above and around her were audible throughout the group. Most of them were still having their meaty breakfasts. Presently talk began to break out, and the twelve, plus baby, rode along chatting in low voices. The Sun was just gleaming flat and bright down the forest’s halls.

“Don’t know how you did it, Soph,” said Dad, “but you got them on their horses and off before dawn.”

“I don’t know how I did it either,” said Sophie. “How we did it. Emma.”

Emma, riding just behind the two of them, said, “How’s this going to work at Killifar? Are they going to let us camp there? Are they going to let us—dare I even ask it—stay there?”

“I don’t know,” said Dad. “Now we get near, I do wonder. But I guess I always wondered. You know, they must know there’s an invasion, no, two invasions. The Kug won’t have made it there yet, but Killifar isn’t in the dark about the Kug being in Tenna. They aren’t in the dark about King Olk of Frunga attacking. They may not know yet that Merrivan’s burned to the ground, but we’ll have to tell them.”

“So you think,” said Emma, “that because you have a daughter who lives in Killifar, and because we’re all hardened warriors, not refugees or whatever, and because they need us to man their walls against these two armies, that they will welcome us?”

They rode a little before Dad said, “No. No, I don’t think that. I think people are inclined to see things the way they want to see them, with a bias toward the way it’s always been. If a bunch of folk showed up in my yard looking for a place to stay and told me there was barbarians behind them destroying things, I wouldn’t be hospitable. Matter of fact, that did happen, and I wasn’t hospitable.”

“But we’re,” said Sophie, and she stopped and threw her hands in the air.

“Different,” said Dad. “That’s for sure.”

“Well,” said Sophie, “we can at least stop at Margery’s and then go try and talk sense into the, I don’t know, town council, the local earl or whatever. They have both those things, don’t they?”

“They have a town council,” said Dad, “and they have a Baron of Killifar, if he’s made it back in one piece from the wars. No idea who he is, of course.”

“Well,” said Emma, “I guess we’re going to find out.”

The sun shone down and burned away the mist and chill once they got going. The day grew sunny, breezy, warm for October, with a moist air coming from the south. “It smells of the sea,” said Otho, the older of the guardsmen, when they stopped around midday. They dismounted and ate whatever they had—some meat from last night, some of Emma’s little block of cheese, some berries.

“You’ve been to sea?” was the response of several of the others.

“I’ve been to see the sea,” he replied, somewhat defensive. He turned and saw Ulf riding along, his right arm in a sling to keep his shoulder from moving. “You okay, young feller?”

“Can’t feel my shoulder even a little bit,” said Ulf. “Guess that’s good.”

“Is good,” said Irena, coming over to check his shoulder. “Let shoulder be. Has big mess hole in it. Tomorrow, you can feel shoulder. Not feel great.”

“Does it look okay? Is his shoulder going to fall off?” asked Aedith.

“No, no, not fall off. Not sick shoulder, that’s whole thing. Wash, salve, bandage, not get sick. Wound like this, messy, needs not to hit heart or stomach to kill him. Kill him if wound get sick, you see?”

“Infected,” said Dad.

Irena looked at him. “Yes, yes,” she said, a little enthusiastic. “Wounds infect. Days later, you think you’re fine, you get fever and die. Can happen very fast.”

“You’ve seen this.”

“Yeah. I have seen this. I have seen in Kug. Big Gama Kug not happy his men hurt each other, then one die days later. I tell him why. I tell him, wash wounds, bind up, I tell him nothing can be done, have to wash wound. He slap me around. This is thanks I get.”

“We won’t do that,” said Dad. “I promise.”

“Naw,” said Ulf, “and I got a thing or two to say to this Gama Kug feller if I ever see him.”

“Well, if we don’t want that to happen way too soon,” said Sophie, “we’d best get on the road again, boys and girls.”

But there had been no sign of pursuit, and there still was no sign of pursuit. All through the day, the twelve (plus baby) wandered in a generally southwesterly direction. A couple of hours before dusk, they began to see open meadow again. They also began to see pheasant, which they began to shoot at, and while their percentage wasn’t very good, it still resulted in four birds to roast when they camped. Dad and Irena chose a spot on the edge of what seemed an abandoned pasture, screened by a line of evergreen bushes, and there they got up a nice fire.

“While we cook,” said Dad to Sophie, “why don’t you and Irena go scout around behind us a bit? On horseback.”

“Anyone scouting ahead?” asked Sophie.

“Tomorrow, honey,” said Dad. “Irena, you good on this?”

“Oh sure,” said Irena. She smiled at Sophie. “You good on this?”

A few minutes later, after Irena had fussed over Ulf a little more and then fussed over her ride, she and Sophie got out of camp and started across the meadow. They were nearly to the other side when they saw someone, but it wasn’t any Kug barbarian.

They were approaching the wall-like edge of the woods, where the outer shield of colorful leaves hid the dark corridors beyond. They were chatting about how nice the weather had been and how it would surely storm tonight: tall clouds with tall ravines of blue between them were moving purposefully above. Sophie, then Irena, turned to the right: forty yards away, something was breaking through a patch of big bushes covering a swampy area. It was a guy on a horse, and while he looked like he could have been one of their boys, he wasn’t. He was dressed in farmer clothes, a sturdy tunic and pants and boots, and he looked about twenty. He carried a bow.

They stood looking at each other from across forty yards: the two women and the young man. Sophie and the guy both had bows but no one went for a weapon. After five seconds, the man turned his horse around and crashed back into the bushes.

“Well, that’s interesting,” said Sophie after a moment. “What do you think of that?”

“You wanted scouting Killifar,” said Irena. “Killifar, I think it scouts you.”

The rest of their scout didn’t amount to much. They rode perhaps three miles back up the trail which had faithfully led them here, and saw nothing but deer and birds and squirrels. They stopped for a few minutes, talked in the green closets of the pine forest, then turned and came back. They returned to the meadow and found the camp all set up, quietly preparing dinner. Emma had done something with spices and herbs and a few edible wild greens and tubers and even some berries, and it smelled wonderful. As soon as the two women appeared, Dad and Emma and Marthen and everyone else wanted to know what they had seen. So they told them.

“Okay,” said Dad. “Contact. I mean, what are they going to do, tell us we can’t camp here?”

“It’s kind of a good sign, isn’t it?” said Marthen. “At least they’re keeping an eye out.”

“But if that guy thought we might be friends,” said Emma, “he certainly had an odd way of showing it. Why did he bleeping turn tail at the sight of two women?”

“Such language,” said Kate, cuddling Matty.

“She’s used to it, Kate. So? Don’t you think it’s odd? What does it say to you?”

“It says they’re worried about invaders,” said Marthen.

“It says they’re worried about refugees,” said Emma.

“It says,” said Dad, “well, I don’t know what it says but we’ll find out tomorrow. Eh, Soph?”

Dad ordered double watches again: him and Padric, Sophie and Otho, Edmar and Irena. Again, nothing came at them in the night: no Shadow Man, no Kug horde, no enigmatic guy on a horse. There was not even a moose or large spider. Even the storm petered out into a few periods of drizzle. The Sun greeted them the next morning.

Irena got Sophie up with little difficulty. There were leftovers from last night’s dinner: paltry but tasty. Kate found mint and water and made tea. The twelve and a half riders had a pleasant little breakfast. They discussed what to do, at leisurely length, but the result was Dad, Sophie and Marthen scouting ahead while Otho and Padric took a short scout behind into the woods they had left and Emma and Irena managed the packing up of camp.

“Bear in mind,” said Dad, as the three rode up a densely wooded continuation of the trail, “I’m not very sure how far we have to go yet, I’ve been down here a couple of times in my life but I’ve never come this way.”

“Did you ever come this way, Sophie?” asked Marthen.

“No,” said Sophie, “I wanted to and he said he would take me but he never got around to keeping that promise, did he?”

“Until we went to the fair in Tenna,” said Dad, “and then the second time we did that, remember what happened?”

“It’s still happening.”

They came through a wall of browning greenery and found themselves at the top of a sloping meadow. A small river flowed at the bottom of the slope, and across that was a wide section of farmed field, and on the other side of that, perhaps a mile from where they now sat on their horses, stood the town of Killifar behind low stone and earth walls.

Before it stood, seemingly, a second town, a ghost Killifar of small houses, shanties, and tents. The one inside the walls showed tile roofs and good timber and plaster houses with well-fit shutters; the one outside was all tree limb and sod and scrap wood and rough cloth and animal skin. After their days camping in the woods, where everyone was polite enough to choose a different tree to pee behind and to make sure the tree was at least a stone’s throw away, the smell of the outer town came to them with a wallop. They looked at each other.

“Well, here we are,” said Marthen.

“It’s not exactly as I remember,” said Dad.

“Are we sure it’s Killifar?” asked Sophie.

“Oh yes. Yes, it’s Killifar. Well, shall we?”

The three rode down into the outer town. It wasn’t exactly a shanty town or a refugee camp, but it was at least fifty percent refugees. They watched Sophie, Dad and Marthen with some interest, but no one interfered with them before they reached the very serviceable, but far from impressive, stone gate of the inner town. It was shut: very sturdy double doors were closed quite snugly and no doubt barred on the inside.

“Halloo,” called Dad up at the top of the gate, perhaps six feet above his head.

“We have news from Merrivan,” Marthen added.

Two men looked down from the parapet atop the gate. One had a helm on, but the other looked like he was just fixing the wall. They spent perhaps three seconds looking down, then vanished. The three at the gate waited a lot longer than it would have taken men inside to have a full discussion of whether to open the gate. Still on their horses, they turned and looked back, to the north, at the outer town.

Here before the gate was an open area, and a market was going on there, though it looked pretty shabby. At the edges of the market, encroaching on its space, people had tents up and were cooking and minding their children. People stood around looking at the three horsemen. A knot of gawkers developed. Sophie looked back at the walls, and not an eye seemed to be on them from that direction.

And then from the market crowd burst a young man with a happy cry. He was halfway to them when Dad cried out in joy as well, slid off his horse and ran to meet the young man. By the time they were hugging, Sophie was running to join them.

“Slim! Slim, for Virgin’s sake!” Dad was saying. They laughed and grinned and just took each other in, unready to move on to the situation, here or back home.

“Slim, I can’t believe it!” cried Sophie.

“Gosh almighty!” cried Slim. “Sophie girl, let me take a look!” He grabbed her and held her by the shoulders at arm’s length. “When did you get taller than me?”

“Do not tell me I’ve grown, Slimbo,” said Sophie. “Come on! Are you here by yourself? Are you staying with Margery? What?”

Slim, still holding Sophie at arm’s length, got a serious look. “Come on yourself,” he said. “I need to take you someplace. You and Dad both. Hi,” he said to Marthen, who was still in the saddle, “I’m Martin, everyone calls me Slim. This is my father, and this,” and he slugged Sophie on the shoulder, “is my sister. I don’t think we’ve been introduced.”

“My name is Edgar Marthen,” said Marthen, sliding off his own horse. “And no one calls me Edgar, so, Marthen meets Martin. I do believe we will refer to you as Slim in our future dealings.” They shook hands vigorously, then both looked instinctively at Dad.

“Well, here it is,” said Dad. “Marthen, you ought to go back and get the others, move them to here, and Soph and I will confer with my son here and we shall see what our next course of action might be. Slim, you know that Merrivan has burned? It’s in the hands of the King of Frunga.”

“I did not know that,” said Slim. “But come, Dad, I know things you don’t know and I don’t know how to tell you any of them but to show you. Okay?”

Slim led Dad and Sophie through the dirt lanes of what might be termed the Old Outer Town, where the poorest residents of Killifar had resided for over a century, to the New Outer Town, whose residents had taken up residency in the past few years, or months, or in many cases weeks. The hovels lost even the seasoning of tradition, and many were frankly tents. The newest neighborhood was all tents, skins stretched out between rough-cut poles to afford a little shelter from precipitation and none from the wind. He brought  them, with doubts growing in the fertile ground of their hearts, to a section where four particularly grand examples of this architectural form stood. These had skins stretched down to cover the sides as well, and were taller, and appeared to be divided into rooms. Each of the four had a couple of goats as well, and several had a few horses, and each had a boy or girl or two on watch; the grandest was watched over by an aged man with a huge beard and a cudgel.

Dad stopped, aghast. Sophie stopped too, wondering, then ran forward with a cry. “Andy!” she shouted. “Andy Andy Ba-Bandy!” A stick-like boy of nine let her grab him. “Gosh darn it! How big are you!”

“I’m not any bigger than I was last month, Auntie,” said Andy.

“But you’re bigger, you are,” said Sophie’s sister-in-law Nell, from the doorway of the skin-covered mansion.

“Well,” said Dad, standing with Slim just behind Sophie, holding the reins of both horses, “I can see we have some things to learn.”

They were escorted inside and tea was distributed, in earthenware cups Sophie knew well from home. Along with Andy, who was Nell’s second son, there were Sally and Sue, her younger children, four and five years old, and Sophie’s next younger siblings, Ella, who was now twelve, and Jim, who was ten. Andy was left outside to watch the three goats along with Nell’s and Jim’s horses and Dad’s and Sophie’s. Nell, who seemed to have aged twenty years in a month, waited till everything was settled and everyone was sitting, on slices of log, before explaining. Dad and Sophie restrained themselves and let her take her time.

“All right, first of all,” she said, pushing back her black hair, which had somehow developed strands of grey, “Jack is dead.”

“What??” asked Dad.

“But Mom is still alive, still on the farm,” Nell went on, “she and Little John and the cousins, Dick and the twins, you know, and the younger children are still there, or they were when we left. The Kug came through, it must have been two days after you left for the Fair, but they didn’t do much at first, they sort of combed through the farms and took half the animals. They came back and combed again, and Jack got into it with them, and that, ah, didn’t go well.”

“He fought them,” said Dad.

“He just sort of stood up to them. You know how stubborn he was. We weren’t doing well, or so we felt, the kids were hungry and upset, we had nothing stored away for the winter but some cheese and some of your old wine, and he just thought, I guess, he ought to stand up and do something. You know how he was.” She put her head down, then shook it, then went on. “They had words. They’re not so good with words, these Kug.”

“So they killed him.”

“I didn’t see it happen, Dad. I mean, I was in the doorway to the kitchen, and they were over by the door of the barn, and I saw them around him, and they were scuffling and then they were laughing and they took away the rest of the cows. Three cows. And there he was.”

There was silence. Then Dad said, “And Ann kept you from getting in trouble.”

“And Ann,” said Nell, “Mom, she made me and Slim take my kids and Jim and Ella and get out. Head for Killifar, she said. Everything will be fine, but you better go. And she made us take the last two horses. Well, what could I say? She was absolutely adamant.”

Dad laughed, kind of. “I know how she is,” he said. Then he stood up and reached out. “Come here, Nell. Come on.” Nell got up and got the hug she had coming, and then got one from Sophie. “So,” he said, “how are you providing?”

“Hey,” said Slim, “I can hunt. How are you providing?”

“Ah,” said Dad, finally actually smiling. He looked sidelong at Sophie. “Killer here—!”

“Dad,” said Sophie.

“No, no, no modesty. She has now slain double digits of Kug. Am I right?”

Sophie nodded. “Yeah, okay,” she said. “We have a story too. Want to hear it, or shall we have some more bad news?”

So Dad and Sophie told the tale of their month wandering, backtracking to explain who Irena was, how they had originally met Marthen, what had made them leave Tenna. Slim asked a lot of questions; Ella, and Nell’s girls, looked on Sophie with glowing eyes; Jim sat politely with a sad look on his face. Nell kept saying “Wow” and “Really?” and “Really? Wow.”

“So we feel bad,” said Dad, “but we really tried to go back. Now we come to find out, Ann’s probably there waiting for us and all.”

Nell and Slim looked at each other, and Nell said, “Dad. It was dangerous. You know that.”

“So what are you saying? We’re cowards, or she’s—!”

“You’re not cowards. You’re just not. All right? But Mom, she might be alive and not there anymore, but if she’s there and alive, she’s either bad off, and not going to stay there longer than she has to—or maybe she’s left since we did. I mean, we were out of there, I guess, before you were even to Merrivan the first time. And more Kug were coming over the mountains. It’s a whole invasion, it is. Why we live in such times—!”

“Well, to answer that,” said Dad, “they have some success, so more come to join them. King John’s knocked off his throne, that leaves a, what you call, a vacuum.”

“Anyway, we made it here, you made it here, we’re all together,” said Slim. “That’s good, ain’t it?”

“Nell,” said Sophie, “have you been in to see Margery?” Nell and Slim looked at each other again. Sophie asked, “Isn’t that why you came this way? Isn’t that why we came this way?” Again, looks were exchanged. Sophie’s heart sped up and she said, “Where else is there we can all go? And all these people? All these people who just got here?”

“They’re all from Tenna province,” said Slim. “They basically all came together. We were trailing, us and a couple other big families, Old Joram, his clan, you must’ve seen him.”

“Guy with a beard?” asked Dad.

“Big beard. Yeah.”

“But Margery,” Sophie stuck in.

“Margery won’t talk to us,” said Jim.

“Whaaat?”

“Well,” said Nell, “we can’t get in to see her. The Baron of Killifar, and the town council, they’re closing the gate to anyone who isn’t in the inner town and doesn’t have farm deliveries. Folk from the outer town can get in, but not folk from somewhere else. I tried dropping Perkin Paton’s name, I know him some from when he came courting Margery. He’s on the town council. I don’t think the other folk on the town council want us to get to see him, he might let us in and they’d look bad.”

“It’s just like Tenna all over again,” said Dad.

“But with better walls,” said Sophie. “Or maybe Master Perkin Paton doesn’t want to be bothered and his fine colleagues on the town council help him keep his dignity without having to say no to his pesky in-laws.”

“Well, one way to find out. Know what I mean?”

“Dad,” said Nell.

“Nell,” said Dad. “How was your family?”

She shook her head. Her eyes glistened, but she retained her calm voice. “My folks wouldn’t leave. My brother stayed with them. I tried to get them to come with. They told me to go. They said they’d be fine. Dad.”

“Nell, darlin’,” said Dad, “everyone ends up somewhere. You make a decision and you go. Or stay. Heck, I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and it never seemed like we actually decided anything, except to leave Tenna, and that was sort of the obvious thing to do. I mean, Merrivan burned down around us. And then we found ourselves with a bunch of other like-minded individuals. Oh, I can’t wait for you to meet our Irena. And our Emma, she’s a bolt of lightning, baby and all. Marthen’s bringing them in, supposedly, I ought to go check on their accommodations. Then I ought to go see Master Perkin Paton. And my eldest daughter. They can’t keep us from seeing my daughter, can they? I mean, I ask you.”

“Dad.”

“They just might,” said Slim. “They’re kind of jerks, that’s what I noticed, these folks here in Killifar. The richer they are, the jerkier they are.”

“That’s true everywhere,” said Dad.

“Dad,” said Sophie, “they can’t kick us out if we sneak in, can they?”

“Interesting idea, that,” said Dad. “What about it? Slim?”

“You don’t have to go in through the sewer or anything,” said Slim. “The south gates are usually less watched. The big dairy farms are just outside the walls there. If in doubt, I always just climb the wall. It’s not watched down on that side, I’m telling you.”

“Really. And since you say you haven’t seen Margery, one does wonder: why would you be climbing walls, Slim? If I dare ask.” Slim just grinned.

“Okey doke,” said Sophie. “Dad knows the way. Maybe we take Marthen again? He’s like the King’s Representative or something, he actually was in the pay of the King.”

“So were we, girl, just we don’t look the part like he does. Well, all right. Nell, Slim, all of you, I can’t tell you what a relief it is to see you all. Hang on a moment.” He looked about and saw four-year-old Sally, hiding behind her frizzy blond hair. With a pounce, he grabbed her and hoisted her up. “There you are, my granddaughter. You too, Suzy. You guys been good?”

“Yes,” said Sally smiling.

“You gonna be good while we’re off in town visiting?”

“Yes!” said Sue and Sally.

“That’s good enough for me.”

“Wait,” said Nell. She stood up and held out her hands to Sophie, who had not bothered sitting. “Sophia,” she said. “I just want you to know.”

“What?” asked Sophie, taking her hands, expecting Nell to relay some word of wisdom from Mom.

“You really have grown in the past month,” said Nell.

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