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Part Four: Elavon

XVI

“It’s too bad we can’t stick around and see what happens to these buttwipes,” said Sophie as the three rode their horses along the outside of the western wall of Killifar.

“Sophie, really,” said Dad.

“I’m afraid I must side with your father, Sophia,” said Marthen. “They’re infuriating in their desire to hang onto everything they’ve got, but they could easily lose it all, and at that point, if they don’t survive, that has an effect on our options too.”

“Okay,” said Sophie, “what effect would that be?”

“Well, what the hell do you think we’re going to do? Take our twelve and a half people and start a new city someplace? Or perhaps we take our two or three thousand people and start a new city someplace? Where? Where would we not be in range of these invasions? Or some other invasion we don’t know about? Our little kingdom, which no one much paid attention to, is in the process of collapsing like a sand castle. But the sand castle has riches, not many, but some, and it has position, and it has people who could be put to some use. And by that, I mean the sort of use that would occur to Gama Kug. The uses of King Olk of Frunga wouldn’t be any better.”

“Huh,” said Sophie.

“And anyway,” said Dad, “if we can’t make a go of it on our own terms, we’ll be stuck making a go of it on someone else’s terms.”

“Well, we don’t want that,” said Sophie, over the din of yet more of her childhood expectations crashing down around her. She had come this far on energy alone, on inertia, on the sense that Tenna or Mudwick or Merrivan or Killifar was the logical next step, but now it seemed like every one of them was doomed to be overrun by Kug or burned to the ground by Frungans or besieged or sacked or wiped off the map. But maps were paper. This was real, real people. And one of those people was Sophia the daughter of John the Farmer.

The question of what she should do with her life had never occupied a central place in her mind, but now she was glad she hadn’t made any long-term plans because surely everyone else’s long-term plans—Dad’s happy old age, Nell’s growing family, Emma’s “men in my life,” meaning her dad, her husband and her young son, even Margery’s as the prosperous merchant’s wife—were collapsing with the collapsing kingdom, burning to the ground just as surely as the capital city. Long term? “Not this week, but next week’s not looking too good” indeed.

But she was tall and young and strong and she rode free. She shot straight and knew her horse. The sun was on her hair, the wind in her ears, the feel of turf under her horse’s hooves. Kug warriors fled her or fell. The sword felt good in her hand when she swung it.

She had her father. She had her horse. But now she had more: she had friends, she had people who listened when she spoke. She had Emma, talking in the chill of the wee hours, she had Irena, with her horrible yet oddly parallel past, with her peculiarly profound common sense. She thought of little Marthen, who was always teaching her, always learning from her. She thought of the people watching her as she rode through the outer town, the refugee camp. She looked up at the light of sunset through the trees. “Okay,” she said.

“Okay to what?” her dad asked.

“Okay,” she said again. “We have to get people going. We know what we have to do.”

“Going where, though?” asked Marthen. “I really despair—!”

“Aw, Marthen,” said Sophie, “pull yourself together. You do what you have to do. And what we have to do is get Killifar between these people and the Kug. Right?”

“Right,” he and Dad both said. She smiled at them. She was getting the hang of this.

Soon the three of them came around the west side of town, where the swampy woods came right up to the wall, and slowed their steeds to a walk among the huts of the outskirts of the outer town. Sophie was tempted to gallop up the lanes between the tents and shanties shouting, “Everybody up! Let’s go!” She restrained herself, but as they nodded and smiled at old ladies holding babies, she felt like she was keeping a secret that would have to be let out.

In silence, they found their way back to Nell’s mansion of skins and tree limbs. Sophie pushed in first. Nell was sitting in the middle of the main chamber, the evening light dim through the skins and the narrow openings, her young daughters and her nine-year-old son Andy and Sophie’s siblings Ella and Jim sitting around her. Nell was in the middle of reading to them from a familiar old book.

Sophie stopped, opened her mouth, shut it, opened it again and said, “That’s our old story book!”

“Yes,” said Nell, “Mom made me take it.”

“Oh. Cool.” She paused, then said, “But look. We have to get going. We have to pack this all up and get the hell out of here. I’m sorry, but it’s true.”

Nell remained seated. The five children around her seemed only slightly perturbed. “Why?” she asked. “What’s up? Another invasion?”

“No, same two as before,” said Dad.

Nell got up. She smiled around at the children, who looked a little more perturbed. “All right, all right,” she said, “best get organized. Can we at least sleep here tonight?”

Sophie, Dad and Marthen all looked at each other. “All right,” said Dad, “let’s have an explanation, shall we then? We were all having a nice chat with the town fathers. And just as they’d finally told us, very politely, to push off, guess what comes in the door?”

“The same dude,” said Sophie, “that Irena and I saw on a horse yesterday evening. He’s a scout for the Killifar council.”

“That kid,” said Irena, looking up from cooking, “on skinny horse?”

“He was there,” said Dad, “to inform them that the Kug are in the woods an hour away, and the Frungans are within a day from here on the very trail we took.”

“How many Kug?” asked Nell. “And why would the Frungans follow you?”

“He didn’t say how many Kug, but they were hunting, not scouting, they have a force. We knew that already, in point of fact, but this puts them closer. The Frungans? I don’t flatter myself to think they would send five thousand to follow me. Or maybe Sophie the Bold?”

“Five thousand??”

“Possibly more.”

“Probably more,” said Sophie.

“Kug an hour away?” asked Andy.

“Sophie,” said Ella, “is this going to be okay? Are we going to have to hit the road again?”

“It’s going to be fine, El,” said Sophie. She looked from Dad to Marthen. “So what do you think? We have to get going, but now? It’s practically night.”

“I’m inclined to get moving,” said Dad. “Feeling a bit itchy with all these armies about.”

“Listen,” said Marthen. “We need to do something hard. We need to get everyone moving, not just Nell and the family, but the whole camp, the whole outer town if we can.”

“You mean,” said Nell, “that even with the enemy practically at the gates, those bastards aren’t letting us in?”

“That’s exactly what I mean,” said Marthen.

There was a moment of silence, and then Nell said, “Well, let me see what I can do.”

“Really?” asked Sophie. “You can—?”

“Just give me tonight,” said Nell. “Do you think you can do that?”

“Well, we’ll see,” said Dad. “Soph?”

“What?”

Nell and her kids, and Marthen, and Dad and, eventually, Slim, and old Joram’s sons, and several more recruits, soon were moving from shack to shanty to tent to hut getting the word out. Sophie found herself, with Ella and Irena and the city guardsmen and Ulf and Padric, trying to figure out a plan of defense. It was already getting dark: stars were springing out in the sky, and the moon was threatening to rise. The group of them all stood in a line, facing the forest, with Nell’s tent and old Joram’s behind them.

“Sure,” said Ulf, “we line up our archers along here, and—!”

“You’re joking,” said Sophie.

“Yeah, actually,” said Ulf.

“I think,” said old Otho, “our best shot is if the Kug choose not to attack till tomorrow, oh, noonish.”

“Sophie,” said Ella, “if I ask you again if everything’s going to be okay, are you going to say yes again?”

Sophie stared into the blackness for some seconds. Could she see anything? No, she could not see the anything that might have been there staring back at her. Not looking away, she said, “Ella, have you ever shot a bow? You have, right?”

“At targets,” said Ella.

“You’re getting tall,” said Sophie, still glaring at the forest. “You’re going to be as tall as me.” She heard Ella let out a little laugh. Sophie turned, put a hand on Ella’s shoulder, and said, “Well, there are going to be targets.”

They posted much more than double watches. Sophie wanted as little to do with the organizational job as possible, so she took first watch, and found herself in charge of a dozen young men and a few young women with bows. She also had Ella, who had a bow, and Aedith, who was not burdened with any weapon other than her longest knife.

They all spent many minutes in solitary contemplation, gazing on the black swath of forest, trying to figure out whether it harbored a horde of Kug about to come murdering, and why the forest would behave in such a way. What had they done to it? The question hung in the air like the chill mist. The forest stood silent, barely seen, and for minutes on end no murdering horde came screaming out of it.

Sophie looked around. Here were a dozen and a half people, each armed with some sort of weapon, all standing or sitting or lying on the ground irresolute, waiting for what the night and the trees might decide they deserved. There was a sigh next to her. She looked to her left and there was Ella, all of twelve, not the spitting image of Sophie at all—her face was round and happy and sympathetic—but big like Sophie, though not yet as big as Sophie. She couldn’t see Ella’s eyes, but she knew that posture.

“All right,” said Sophie, “back up a bit so we can see targets in the fire light, and let’s get you shooting something.”

“What?” asked the girl.

“Practice, practice, practice,” said Sophie. “Fake it till you make it. Whatever.” They backed up about five steps, and Ella got her bow up and roughly in position. Sophie turned and glared at her, but Ella didn’t turn to get the effect of the glare, she just stood there facing the darkness. So Sophie reached out and corrected Ella’s positioning, then looked back into the darkness. “See that stump?” she asked.

“Yeah,” said Ella, as if the stump might be a monster.

“Here’s what I want you to do. First, I want you to put an arrow into it. Can you do that from here?” Ella hesitated. “Like this,” said Sophie. She strung an arrow, raised her bow, drew back and fired. The arrow flew perhaps six yards and stuck deep in the rotten stump. “Now you.”

Ella raised her bow, then stopped and strung an arrow, which took a bit, then raised her bow again, thought a little, adjusted, calmed herself—and took a breath. She did another breath. She adjusted again. She steeled herself. Then finally she pulled waaaaay back, and let go.

Her arrow took zero seconds to make the journey and buried its head in the wood an inch below Sophie’s.

Sophie stared at it just to make sure it was real. Then she whistled and said, “Ella girl, if we just get you to do all that a little faster, you’re going to kill some barbarians.”

“Kill barbarians?”

“Yeah, because the thing to remember is, they’re trying to kill you. So you kill them first. That’s the idea. Now hold your fire, I’m going to get our arrows back.” Ella relaxed at last, and Sophie went and got the two arrows, which seemed none the worse for wear. The wood was fairly rotten and they pulled right out, spilling woody guts on the ground. “Turkeys aren’t going to be too safe around you either,” she said.

“So,” said Ella, starting to smile, “I did good.”

“You did really good. Now do it some more.”

Ella laughed, then fanned herself and took some breaths. “Excuse me a minute, Soph,” she said, “I just gotta sort of, you know, bask in the thrill of victory or whatever.”

“Okay, sure, bask a bit,” said Sophie. “Just don’t do it if a hundred Kug are coming at us.” She looked around and found a dozen young men and a few young women, and Aedith, watching the two of them. “Okay, the rest of you? If you have bows, I want you to shoot stumps. You never know with these stumps here, they might be a little ticked off.”

“Okay, folks,” said Padric, not especially goofy tonight, “let’s shoot some stumps.”

Questions were asked. Sophie ignored them. “Now,” she said to Ella, “three arrows.” She took her arrow bag off her belt and dropped it on the ground between them. Then she took three arrows from the bag, which she had gotten as equipment way back a month ago in the Halls in Merrivan. It had come with a dozen iron-tipped arrows. After a month in the wild, shooting animals, Kug and the occasional tree stump, she had a mere twenty. She put an arrow on the string and held the other two in her right hand as she drew it back. She glared at the rock, then decided to back up four more paces. Ella backed up with her. Sophie smiled at Ella. Then she loosed the arrow, strung another, drew it and shot it, strung the third, drew it and shot it. They all hit the stump within a couple of inches of one another. There was a murmur of approval from all around.

“Nice,” said Ella.

“Now you,” said Sophie. “Don’t worry about speed just yet. Just take three arrows and—hey, y’all, can we try really hard not to shoot each other?”

“Okay,” said Padric to a dozen or so guys and gals ranged on either side of them in the dark. “Let’s start watching what we’re doing, okay? Can we do that?”

“Okay,” said Sophie, “we’re gonna do it this way. Couple of minutes of free shoot. Then I’ll call time out, and everyone will try and find their arrows. Then I’ll call time in and—you got it?”

“Got it,” said several people.

“Okay,” said Sophie. Ella was already aiming an arrow, a look of determination on her face. “Fire away.”

Ella shot. It hit the stump as she strung the next arrow. She dropped the third arrow, and the second one arced over the stump into the night. She cursed mildly, picked up the third arrow, strung it and pulled back.

“You have two seconds,” said Sophie, “till he—!”

Ella shot. The last arrow hit that stump right between the eyes.

“Darn it,” said Ella. “Darn it, darn it, darn it. I can’t believe I dropped that arrow.”

“Ella. You killed the stump. It’s dead.”

“But I dropped. The arrow. I dropped the second arrow. There were three of them, you see? Three evil barbarian stumps. The second one got me.”

“Actually, you dropped the third arrow, and you let it distract you. But you still killed the stump. Two of the three stumps. Maybe the second stump got skewered by the first arrow too.”

“Have you ever done that?”

“What, in my long experience in the wars?” Sophie laughed, but Ella was looking at her as if it were true. “Look, sister,” Sophie said, “bear in mind that I didn’t shoot anyone in any wars until about three weeks ago. Maybe two weeks ago, I don’t know.” She pulled three more arrows out of her bag. “Anyway,” she said, calmly firing all three into the base of the poor stump, “it’s just a matter of practice. You know you can do it. It’s just a question of being ready, and then when the time comes? Do you want to die, that’s the question. You or that guy.” She looked at her work, then smirked at Ella. “Your turn.”

Sophie spent the next several hours walking up and down her line of archers, who were beginning to take a real toll on the line of stumps they faced: wood chips were everywhere, and Sophie’s and Ella’s stump was down to a nub. Casualties on the human side were light: a couple of flesh wounds and half a dozen scrapes and bruises. Around midnight, Sophie was relieved by Dad, but she didn’t feel like sleeping. She and her company stood around slugging wine from a jug and discussing the finer points of everything.

She was chatting with her rail-thin brother Jim and old Otho when she noticed Ella standing a little way away, sort of staggering in place. Sophie realized she too was bone tired. “I gotta lie down a bit, okay?” she told her brother and the guardsman.

“I’m not sleepy,” said Jim.

“I didn’t say you were.”

“I had quite a nap today,” said Otho. “I’ll look after this young man. You get some sleep.”

“I think I better. Good night, you guys.” She went over to Ella, who jumped at a touch on the shoulder. “Come on, sis, you can’t sleep that way, I’ve tried.”

“Okay,” said Ella. “Come with me?”

“Scared?”

“Yeah.” But Ella grinned. “I got a big layout in the tent. You can lie down next to me.”

“Love to,” said Sophie.

Sophie and her kid sister walked back to Nell’s tent mansion. Inside, it was warm with sleeping bodies, and the sounds and smells were soft and warm too. No one was awake. Ella found her spread of bedding in the dark. They took their boots off, and she and Sophie managed to lie down side by side in their clothes. They talked in whispers for a surprisingly short time before dozing off.

Sophie woke in the dark. Again, it did not seem an empty darkness. It seemed full of dark things. What they were, she had no idea: good or ill or neither or both, safe or dangerous or neither or both. Perhaps they were all there: Mom, the Shadow Man, half a dozen dead Kug warriors, that guy she shot in the window when they rescued Marthen. The Kug warrior whose head she had shortened with her sword in that village. That village, and so many other villages full of her dead countrymen. The city of Merrivan full of people soon to die. The wolf she killed in the barn. Grandma, whose scarf still lay about Sophie’s neck. Red, her brother, lost far away in a battle she only now sort of understood. Mouse, her brother, died of the flu.

She lay, as awake as she had ever felt, lay in a place without a single particle of light. Presently the shadowy cast dwindled to two: Mom and the Shadow Man stood, or sat, or crouched just out of reach, watching.

After a minute, Sophie became convinced that it was not just her they watched. With an effort of will, Sophie rolled onto her side and faced Ella.

You will not die here, she said, her lips moving soundlessly. You will grow up.

Sophie lay there not looking at those who watched in the blackness. Ella’s face was an inch from her eyes, so close she could sort of see it: the long curve and slope of her cheek and her chin, the place where her eye must be.

The journey ahead of this girl, the journey Sophie was at the end of. The journey from twelve to sixteen. Sophie thought of the last four years of her own life, and then of the last few months, the last few weeks, her and Dad floating down the river of event, paddling hard sometimes, waiting for the next rapids other times. She thought of all who had died in the past few months, the men in the battle, the old ladies and children in the villages, the many dead of Tenna and Merrivan.

How hard it had been, continuing her streak of days still breathing. How easy it had seemed when she was twelve, getting up in the morning and getting food and walking through the day and going to bed at night and waking in the morning again still alive.

“You’re going to still be alive,” she whispered, just above silence. “You are going to live to see your children grow up. You are.”

Sophie put out a hand to Ella’s head. Ella had been a minor nuisance in Sophie’s childhood; she supposed that at four, Sophie must have been a little miffed to have a kid sister to hog attention. It didn’t matter now. Sophie had lost so much, the barn, the dog, the sunsets. Her brother Mouse. Maybe even her mom. And here were Dad, and Slim, and Nell and her kids, and Jim. Here was Ella, her straw-blond hair under Sophie’s hand. It was so real, that straw-blond hair.

Sophie, not expecting to, let out a tiny sob. Ella mumbled, then turned toward her. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Sophie lied. After another moment, she said, “I need to pee, actually.”

“Oh, I do too,” said Ella. She sat up. So did Sophie. The darkness was empty.

“We should go together,” said Sophie. “Where do you guys usually pee?”

“In the woods,” said Ella with a half laugh.

Irena’s stage whisper came from a few feet away. “You guys go to piss?” she said, though it almost sounded like go to peace.

“Yeah,” said Sophie. “You too? Safety in numbers, you know.”

The three, woman and young woman and girl, walked up through the thin line of watchers and approached the edge of the woods. The moon was full and crisp and cast a parody of daylight on the field of stumps and brush and the approaching wall of leaf, now no color other than silver white.

“So, um,” Ella said, “are they right there in the woods or what?”

“Oh, I think we would know,” said Sophie, trying to sound reassuring.

“And would they attack at night? And do they want to capture the town or are they just here to steal stuff or do they want to kill everybody?”

“Well, I don’t know everything,” Sophie replied, trying not to be annoyed. “You got anything on that, Irena?”

“Attack at night? Yeah, they would attack at night. What they are here to do? Who knows? We find out pretty soon.”

“Reassured enough, sis?” asked Sophie.

“I guess,” said Ella, but a little buoyantly.

“Good. Let’s be as quiet as little mousies, then. Can we do that?”

“Yes, sis,” said Ella.

Sophie and Irena and Ella crept into the forest. Their footfalls were covered by the wind in the high branches, and the leaves still on the trees cut the moonlight into scattered silver dapples. Four trees in, they stopped, looked at each other and shrugged.

A minute later, Irena and Sophie were standing next to each other in a few fragments of moonlight. Ella was still crouching a little way away: perhaps she’d had a lot to drink. The wind in the branches was joined by a few nocturnal animal noises.

They began to pick up sounds of furtive movement some distance off. Sophie assumed it was a wolf or a mountain lion creeping up on them. Then the sounds stopped, and were replaced by a faint but familiar sound.

Ella stood up and began trying to button her pants. It wasn’t easy, for some reason, and she was inclined to make a joke about it, but Irena shushed her with a look.

From what seemed like three feet away, masculine laughter broke out. The three women practically jumped into the tree above them. The laughter, which was actually more like ten yards off through the woods, gave way to joking talk in a language Sophie already could identify as Kug. They laughed some more.

Ella turned so white she nearly glowed in the moonlight. Irena turned to Sophie. Irena almost gasped and almost said something. Before she could decide whether to do either one, Sophie was moving. She was moving more quietly than the men nearby were talking. She wasn’t moving back toward Killifar. She had her bow in her hand.

In a few paces, she could see them. They had just finished peeing, and were starting to walk away, not too quietly, through the woods. There were three of them. Sophie kept with them, grimacing when she broke a stick, wondering at least twice what in the Virgin’s name she thought she was doing. It was the wrong question. She knew what she was doing.

At some point she was pretty sure she saw the camp ahead through the trees. One minute later she was sure. She stopped, stood straight up, pulled an arrow from the pouch at her belt and stretched back the string. Then she shot, and then she pulled and drew and shot again, and then she pulled and drew and shot again.

The third Kug warrior had time to notice what had happened to his two comrades. He started to say something, but her arrow struck him in the throat.

Behind her, Sophie heard Ella say “Wow.”

Sophie stood looking at the camp ahead. Then she went five paces forward and retrieved her arrows. She came back and walked past Ella and Irena, saying, “And that is how you do that.”

“Yes but,” said Irena.

“Yes but I think now would be a good time to get three or four thousand people on the move.”

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