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XVI

The rules in the Inner Town may have been strict, but in the New Outer Town there were none. For Sophie’s little army, this was mostly a good thing, as was the fact that Nell and Slim had staked their claim on the outer edge. By early afternoon, all the horses were gathered outside Nell’s lodging, and more tents had been added to what was now a tent mansion, and Sophie’s kinfolk and her new friends were having a sort of tea party in the cool sunlight. Otho and Arthur and Kate were making friends with the full-bearded Old Joram next door. Emma, Nell, Dad, Sophie, Slim and Marthen were discussing business while Irena and Sophie’s sister Ella googled at baby Matilda.

“You sure you don’t need me,” said Slim.

“Actually,” said Sophie, “if you were thinking of doing any sort of business in town, you could sort of guide us and then we could go chat with your lovely older sister while you do whatever you do. That sound okay, Dad?”

“Sounds fine to me,” said Dad.

“And you want me with you,” said Marthen. “I know how to talk to people like these.”

“You don’t want me,” said Emma. “I don’t.”

“What would you tell them,” asked Marthen, “if you were there instead of me? I ask so I can rephrase it in my own terms.”

“Well,” said Emma, “leaving out most of the swearwords, Killifar has two choices. No, maybe three. They can let us in and we can help defend the place, and maybe hold off the Kug and make a go of it together, all of us, or they can try and defend the place themselves and probably get the bleep kicked out of them, or they can leave with us and hope the Kug and the Frungans settle for taking whatever we leave here.”

“And hope they fight over it,” said Dad.

“They won’t leave, I’ll tell you that much,” said Nell.

“Not from what I’ve heard from, from my girl in town,” said Slim.

“Now it’s out of the bag,” said Dad with a grin.

“Okay, then two choices,” said Emma. “Stay and withstand a siege, or maybe let themselves get talked into letting more people in.”

“I know one thing,” said Dad. “Appealing to their better natures is probably not going to cut it.”

“Nope. Saying, look, all these poor people out here are going to bleeping get killed—!”

“I agree with you on that,” said Marthen. “Until the Kug show up, they won’t concede that there’s a problem. Once the Kug show up, or once the Frungans show up, they’ll want to concentrate on defending the walls, and to them, all these folks out here are just a distraction.”

“At least they have better walls than Tenna did,” said Sophie. “Or Merrivan. What was up with that?”

“As in, who makes walls out of wood? Evidently, once upon a time, that was sufficient. Merrivan grew, you know. As Killifar has grown. Merrivan built flimsy walls around everything. Killifar simply sticks to its original walls and declares everything to the outside Not Killifar.”

“So if we know what they’re going to say, is now the time when we go and let them say it?”

“Sure,” said Dad. “You, me, Slim and Marthen. You girls going to be good?”

“Of course,” said Nell, just as Emma said, “Dare you even ask?”

An hour later, Sophie, her dad and her brother Slim escorted Edgar Marthen, King’s Envoy, on horseback to the gate on the southwest side of town. The major river of Killifar, the Gella, passed the walls just next to the gate, which let out onto an extremely rudimentary farm road. The only bridges over the Gella within ten miles of Killifar were the three inside Killifar, not that the stream couldn’t be crossed most places during most seasons by a horse or by a human willing to get wet up to the armpits.

The gate itself was open when they reached it, just past the midpoint of the afternoon. It looked like it could shut securely enough, but the little river necessitated a gap in the wall right next to the gate’s puny stone tower and that significantly complicated the defense in that quarter.

“Why don’t you just wade in along the river’s edge, Slim?” asked Sophie. “I mean, why go over the walls instead of around them?”

“I don’t like to get my pants wet.”

“Let’s hope,” said Marthen, “that if the Kug attack, they’re particular about their clothing. Excuse me, sergeant,” he went on, addressing a man who was standing in the gate, wearing a leather long coat and a metal-studded leather cap. The man harkened to him and said nothing. “But you see,” said Marthen, closing the gap, “I come from Merrivan. I have news for the Council.” He pulled from an inner pocket a signet ring, let the guard feel like he’d gotten a look at it, and put it back.

“News from Merrivan,” said the guard. “Are they calling up?”

“What?”

“Are they calling up our militia?” the man asked, in a thick local accent. “We could send them that lot around th’other side o’ town, I s’pose.”

“No, no, it’s nothing like that,” said Marthen. Somewhat theatrically, he added, “It’s—well, I shall have to report to your Council, shan’t I?”

“Yes, yes,” said the guard. Just as he seemed about to let them into town, another guard, at least ten years younger and possibly too young to date Sophie, showed up.

“Who’re these?” he asked.

“King’s messenger,” said the guard who actually was an adult. “I believe they’re his retinue.”

“That’s right, yeah,” said Marthen.

“And the girl?” asked the older guard, eying Sophie, mostly with suspicion.

“She’s my niece,” said Marthen with just the right hint of annoyance.

“All right, all right,” said the guard. “Know where the council hall is? Just keep down the street here, it’s very nice, right on Market Square.”

“Thank you, squire,” said Marthen. They all nodded at the guards as they led their horses in, except for Sophie, who attempted a haughty reserve. They climbed back on their horses and proceeded up what seemed to be the main street. It was very clean, with only a few people out, none on horseback. After half a block, Marthen said, “Let’s hope the Kug don’t try that either.”

“Oh, this horde?” Sophie intoned. “They’re my niece. Why do you ask?”

“We could warn the Council about it,” said Dad. “Left on the chandlers’ lane up ahead. See, just where the tinker’s shop is. That place hasn’t made a profit in decades: the Council has to prop him up just to keep Killifar in the tin business. Why it matters I haven’t a clue.”

“Well, they’re not going to be shopping for tin in Merrivan anymore,” said Marthen. “Here? Nice street.” They turned left onto a narrow street whose stones were half-buried in sand and organic matter.

“It is,” said Dad. “Hope it stays that way.”

Slim took his leave in front of the tinker. The others headed for the house of Master Perkin Paton. Down the Chandlers’ Lane, right onto a small wide street, and they found themselves in a small square surrounded by three-story houses punctuated by clean little alleys. Dad led them straight across the square to the middle of three houses, where they dismounted. He knocked at the door, three times, firmly. After ten seconds he knocked again the same way. Three seconds later the door was opened by a serving girl. Dad overwhelmed the girl, the other two travelers in his wake.

“Margery,” he called in a loud but apparently pleasant voice, “Margery, your kinfolk are here to pay you a nice visit!”

There was a palpable bustling in the back rooms and upper floors. The front room was small and neat, a merchant’s greeting room, with a nicely trimmed fire in the neat fireplace, with a big book sitting open on a table for visitors to make their marks in, with several chairs and a small table, not a bench in sight. A big old dog who didn’t look like he got up much lay on the floor. Along the left side of the room rose a steep staircase, and down this, after half a minute, Sophie’s sister Margery almost fell.

“Father,” she said, standing at the foot of the stairs, wiping her hands on her long plain dress.

“Surprise.”

“Sophie,” Margery said, pushing back her plain light brown hair.

“Big Sis,” said Sophie, cocking her hips: it was a gesture she had developed, not on purpose, but she was happy with it. It showed off her sword, and yet it was the sort of thing a man would never be able to manage.

“Lady,” said the serving woman, trailing Margery down the stairs. She hadn’t gone up them: Sophie figured there must be another staircase in back. Such luxury.

“It’s fine,” said Margery. “Could you get their horses taken care of?” She looked at Dad, still wiping her hands. “Are you staying somewhere in town, Father?”

“We are staying,” said Sophie, “with Nell. You recall Nell, don’t you? Married to your brother John, also known as Jack? Well, it seems that Jack is deceased—terrible, isn’t it?”

“Yes, yes, it is, terrible.”

“You knew,” said Dad.

“Yes,” she said faintly, “we had heard.”

“And Slim,” said Sophie, “you remember, Martin your brother? He’s here too. So are Ella and Jim. Well, not here. Out in the, what would you call it? Camp? Out on the edge of town.”

“Slim’s all right?” asked Margery, clearly distracted.

“He’s fine,” said Dad, “but he says he hasn’t been able to get in to see you. Nell told me she hasn’t managed to talk to you. Is that so?”

“Well, the, um, guards do stop folk at the gate,” said Margery.

“Are you saying, Sis,” Sophie put in, “that you had no idea Nell and Slim were here?”

“Um, no, no, I really had no idea. Not really. Um—!”

“Tea would be great,” said Dad to another serving woman, who hurried back to the back rooms without waiting for a nod from Margery. “Now does your lack of idea extend to the Kug horde that is barreling down on Killifar from the north? Or what might you not know yet about the fact that Merrivan was burned to the ground three days ago? Margery, it’s all right, just tell me.”

Margery took a second to compose herself. Before Sophie’s eyes she seemed to transform from the wife of a merchant to the daughter of a well-off farmer. “Dad,” she said, “I knew things were bad back home. We had heard. But the word was that if we could maintain enough supplies in the town we could hold off the barbarians, they wouldn’t hold a siege for a winter. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. Obviously I didn’t mean to keep my own brother and sister-in-law and my dad and my sister and—Dad, where’s Mom?”

Dad glared for a moment and then said, flat, “She’s back on the farm. She and John John and Dick and the twins and a few others. Or they were, when they made Nell and Slim and Nell’s kids and, well, Ella, Jim, made them leave to seek your, well, help actually.”

“Dad.” They spent another few seconds glaring at each other. “Dad, did you say Merrivan’s fallen to the Kug?”

“No, no, the Frungans, actually. Not that that’s better.”

They stared at each other for more seconds, softening. Margery looked at Sophie, who didn’t look at all softened. Margery got her courage up and closed the distance, and Sophie took her older, foot shorter sister in a polite hug.

The front door opened as grandly as it could, to admit Master Perkin Paton.

There was an attempt at civility, and then a brief attempt at rational discussion. Perkin Paton, a man of forty with the waist of a successful merchant and the eyes of a worried one, declined on principle to debate policy without the rest of the town council present. He would see his way clear only to not have his father-in-law and sister-in-law, and the officer from Merrivan, thrown out of the town, which he referred to as the City of Killifar. Sophie managed to only roll her eyes. She was tall enough to get a great view of Perkin Paton’s bald spot, and it gave her a little sympathy for him.

An uncomfortable hour later, Sophie, Marthen and Dad had gone with Master Paton to the council hall on the main square. In a large room with small high windows and plenty of places to rest one’s mug of wine, they found themselves faced with four more men much like Master Paton, mostly older than him, and one much older man, the Baron of Killifar. He was luxuriously dressed, in the sense that the folds of cloth he was lost in looked very expensive. He seemed to be mostly asleep, though the occasional belch or glint of an eye checking on things betrayed the fact that he was actually still alive.

There was a certain amount of hand-shaking, and presently the group got down to asking what exactly it was that Marthen and his friends had to say, and what exactly they wanted.

“You say Merrivan’s caught fire or something,” said the oldest of the councilmen.

“Yes,” said Marthen. “We had returned from battle and from certain, ah, adventures in the northwest of the kingdom, and I had planned on going to the palace for further orders. But the Frungan army was already arriving, and during the night, somehow the city was set on fire. The Frungans took advantage of course, and now the town is theirs, what’s left of it, anyway, and the King is gone to the south.”

“But you did not actually witness the Frungans taking control of Merrivan, did you?” asked another councilman. “Or if there was a general fire,” another pointed out, “or just a fire in one or two places, you know.”

“Oh, there was a fire,” said Marthen. “And Frungan troops inside the city. We witnessed it as well as it could be witnessed by anyone who didn’t want to be captured or burnt alive.”

“And how can you be sure the King is fled south?” asked the eldest councilman. “We didn’t hear anything about any of this; it all sounds doubtful to me.”

“It happened three days ago,” said Marthen patiently. “This is you hearing about this. We are the first to bring you the news.”

“Ah, we thank you,” said Perkin Paton. “We trust you will stay for dinner before going on about your duties.”

“Our duties?” Sophie repeated.

“Who is she?” asked several of the council, but Dad gestured to Sophie that now would be a good time for her to hold her tongue for once.

“Our news is not complete,” said Marthen. “On our way here, we encountered scouts of the Kug horde which is currently in control of Tenna. In fact, we encountered both scouts and hunters. Their forces are on the move, and they’re coming this way. And only the forest lies between Killifar and the Frungans.”

Into the brief silence one of the councilmen said, “And?”

“And one wonders,” said Marthen, “if Killifar has a better plan for this eventuality than Tenna did. One has seen what happened to Tenna and one would not want it to happen here.”

“Even if we believe the news about Merrivan or the news about these supposed barbarians from Tenna,” said the oldest councilman, “the Frungans are doubtless happy with what they have, and the Kug are doubtless fully embroiled with Tenna. Killifar will be fine. We don’t need any interference.”

“If they actually were to come,” said Paton, “surely they would wind up fighting one another.”

“And the King,” said another, “if it’s true he’s gone south, then he will be back north with a new army soon enough. And he would come through Killifar if he couldn’t get directly at Merrivan; that would make the most sense.”

A cough that sounded something like “indeed” came from the Baron’s beard.

“If we are engaged in wishful thinking,” said Dad, “then we ought to plan on what to do with all the gold we’re going to mine from under the hay bales around here.”

“What?” asked a councilman.

“Look,” said Dad, “maybe you’re right about all that, and maybe you’re not. If you’re not, then you are in for trouble. King Olk has ten thousand. The Kug may have thousands, or maybe they have more than Olk. King John may never be back—he certainly didn’t look like he was thinking of coming back. So what’s your plan in case you don’t get help and two armies show up, cooperating? You do realize that all the wealth left in the kingdom is right here in your coffers.”

The assembled worthies exchanged looks of concealed concern, and then returned to their mutual task. “Preparation for a battle that may never happen is waste,” said one. Another said, “You can tell his Royal Highness for us that we stand ready to protect his flank when he returns with this army we hear he’s raising down in Helark.” This remark seemed to them to strike the perfect balance: hear hears were exchanged. The Baron might have coughed again.

“In any case,” said the eldest councilman, “as you say, we are the wealthiest town in the kingdom, and we—!”

“I didn’t mean that you’re the wealthiest town in the kingdom,” said Dad. “More like you’re the only town in the kingdom. You’re the only one left of significant size. I guess that makes you the wealthiest and the poorest at once.”

“And the poorest town in the kingdom,” said Sophie, “is the one you’re keeping outside your gates.”

“And that, young wench,” said a councilman, “is where they’re staying. We can’t have rabble from all over the countryside move into our clean little city here. We didn’t become prosperous from letting the wretches from all over Tenna and such come in here and muck things up.”

“You’re a right bastard, aren’t you,” said Sophie. The councilman, who was about four times her age and not her height, stood up and advanced on Sophie, ready to give her a piece of his mind. She shoved him back and Dad got in between.

“Now daughter,” he said, not sure whether to laugh.

“My good councilmen,” said Marthen. “Let me attempt one more time to set a few things straight. First, it is mere pretense to imagine that Merrivan did not fall or did not burn or that the King did not flee. It is pretense to imagine that the Kug and the King of Frunga are not on our soil, or what was until recently our soil. It is pretense to imagine that the King is coming back any time soon, certainly any time before spring. Discard those pretenses, all right? Live in the real world, gentlemen.” He looked around. Several of the council threw up their hands in surrender to that much of the real world. “All right,” he went on. “Now you have, as one of my own wise advisors put it, three options. The first is that you can let those people outside your town in, and let them help defend the place. We will help as we may: I have people with me who served in the King’s last army, and who know something of military tactics. No doubt you have some who do as well. Together, we can defend this town and quite possibly counterattack against the barbarians.”

“That sounds all right,” said one, “except for the letting folk in the town.”

“It’s non-negotiable,” said Perkin Paton. “The townsfolk wouldn’t hear of it.”

“You mean the inner town’s folk,” said Sophie. He just raised his eyebrows.

“All right,” said Marthen, “or you can hold out until an army or two shows up here, and then clear out with the rest of us, and try and rebuild a little further away from the front, with everything you can possibly move, and hope that they will slow down when they enter an abandoned and already looted Killifar.”

“That’s definitely not going to happen,” said the elder. “Go on to option three.”

“It’s what I figured you would choose,” said Marthen. “You stay here and we take everyone camped around town further south. You try and hold out all winter and hope that neither of the two armies come this way, or that if they both do, they somehow cancel out without laying waste to your whole territory. How many people do you suppose you have in town?”

“Three thousand,” said one councilman. Another said, “Five, definitely five.”

“That’s ours to know and not yours,” said the elder.

“And outside?” asked Marthen. “I would guess at least as many, probably more given new arrivals this past month. But take them out of the figuring: the number that matters is how many Kug and Frungans show up here. So how do you like your chances of holding the town with three thousand men, women and children, old folks and babies, against ten or fifteen or twenty thousand warriors? You like those odds?”

“We have excellent walls,” said the elder. “You must have seen them.”

“They’re not made of wood, anyway,” said Dad. “Give them that. Wood burns, you know: we saw what that was like at Merrivan, don’t doubt we did. The Frungans saw what it was like too, and even if they didn’t start the fire there, though I guess they did, they’d have seen for sure how nice a tool fire is. So. No walls of wood, and not too many of your houses are wood, not the nice ones anyway. But where’s your grain? Where are your stores?”

“We have plenty of grain and cattle and chickens in our silos and barns,” said one of the councilmen, “and that is all you need to know about that.”

“Oh, I do know,” said Dad. “I saw them. I noticed two things about them: you know what they are? One, they’re just inside the walls, and two, the silos and barns are made of wood.”

Several of the councilmen blanched. Others brushed the idea off like ash from Merrivan. “We’ll be safe behind our walls, young man,” said the elder councilman. “Look to yourself.”

“Oh, I will,” said Dad. “I’ll look to all those poor wretches outside your gate too. I trust them more than I trust you.”

“What do you mean you’ll look to them?” asked the elder, while the others just got indignant.

“I mean,” said Dad, “we’ll be off, and we’ll be seeing who wants to come with us. You don’t seem to want them.”

“We can’t let those people go off,” said one councilman to Perkin Paton. “He can go where he likes but those people in the outer town, they need to stick right here in case we need them to man the walls.”

“And the farms,” said another.

“Gentlemen,” said Marthen, “you seem to have decided you didn’t want them. I’m afraid you can’t have it both ways. You can negotiate with us, and you can negotiate with the poor people outside your walls, and possibly you will be able to negotiate with the Frungans or the Kug, but you can’t negotiate with reality: reality doesn’t make bargains.” He looked around: the councilmen seemed confused, cowed, concerned, but the one thing they were was quiet. “Come, my friends, we’ve made our pitch, and got our answer. Let’s go talk to the high command about what we do next.”

“Wait, what’s this high command?” asked one of the younger councilmen.

“Just some wretches,” said Dad. “Shall we?” He turned to Sophie, who had subsided a little. They looked at Marthen, who smiled pleasantly at the council and turned to go. Just then, a young man appeared in the door, in riding clothes.

“It’s you,” said Sophie. “It’s him.”

“Who?” asked Dad with fatherly suspicion.

“The dude Irena and I saw on a horse out by camp.”

“Scuse me, sir,” said the young man. “Scuse me.”

“You a scout?” asked Dad.

“Yessir, I’m scout for the Baron and all.”

“Well,” said Marthen, blocking him from the council, “I’m the King’s Man. What have you seen?”

The scout looked at Marthen, then advanced to a point between him and the council. Looking around at everyone, he said, “Kug’s in the woods north o’ town. Hour away, tops. Huntin’. Don’t know when they’re gonna move up. But there’s Frungan on the trail to Merrivan, there is, I account over a thousand, maybe as many as five. Maybe more behind, can’t tell. A day away, tops, maybe less.”

There was a silence, then a burst of questions. Marthen took Dad and Sophie by the elbows and led them to the door. Perkin Paton got up among them just as they emerged into the council hall’s anteroom.

“Listen,” he said, “I really don’t want you to think—!”

“Do you suddenly have qualms about losing that cushion of human beings out there,” asked Dad, “or do you want to come with us?”

“Or maybe,” said Sophie, “he just wants to make sure we think well of him. But I’m not planning on thinking of him much at all, once we’ve left this place behind.”

“Listen, look,” tried Paton, “what I really need to say is—!”

“Do either of you have any particular idea of where to go now?” asked Marthen. “Because we ought to go there posthaste, wherever it is.”

“Look, all right,” said Paton. They looked at him. He sighed. The commotion in the council hall was still loud, considering it was almost all made by five older men.

“Listen, Perkin,” said Dad, putting a hand on his shoulder, “you come on south with us, you and the family. Don’t wait, or you’ll just have a harder time of it. But even if you do wait and straggle in late, don’t worry, all will be forgiven.”

“Listen,” said Paton. They listened. “There is an old monastery south of here, it overlooks the coast. It’s called Elavon. I think maybe a few nuns still live there, maybe they have gardens. I’ve been there, it’s a lovely country. It was ravaged by invasions centuries ago, in the years after the Empire, but it’s mostly grown back, and now no one much lives there. I expect you could defend yourselves a little bit in a place like that. Anyway.” He sighed. “Good luck.”

“Same to you,” said Sophie. On a whim, she hugged him. “That’s for Marge,” she said, letting him go, his dignity only a little ruffled. Then she and Dad and Marthen turned and went out into the evening.

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