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XVIII

The Kug must have assembled carefully under the last of the trees before the long open area where the camp lay. Just after midnight, with a bloodcurdling chorus, they broke from their cover and charged, on their fast little horses, across the short stretch of grasses before the stream where most of Sophie’s two hundred and fifty and their horses were taking a rest.

Before they could cross the stretch of moonlit grasses, the young people gathered, apparently, to party along the streambed had picked up their bows and slung pouches of arrows on their belts and begun firing, just a little above straight. They only had time to get off a couple of volleys that way, because the range was so short, but for the same reason their shots took a heavy toll. The Kug knew no fear. They reached the edge of the streambed and started to make their horses jump down into it.

The back group of Kug were crowding those in front to jump down faster. They were suddenly being pressed by a couple of dozen young men on horse, led by a big blonde. The front line of attackers were finding themselves at a disadvantage, but those behind them were barely able to turn before they were knocked off their horses by their opponents’ swords, spears, poles, pitchforks and random pieces of lumber. The unhorsed barbarians saw their horses scatter into the woods on either side. The Kug who had made it into the streambed found themselves incapable of doing damage to their foe, who were shooting up at point blank range or poking them off their horses with long tree limbs, some of them sharpened.

In a few minutes, no Kug was on a horse who wasn’t headed back northwards. Over a hundred were on the ground, like so many beetles on their backs. These succumbed or gave up. Less than twenty minutes after the battle had started, the Kug attackers had lost. Twelve defenders were dead, and eight more were significantly wounded. There were two hundred and fifty dead Kug, equal to the total number of the defenders, and Sophie, who had killed at least four warriors with her sword, found herself in charge of sixteen prisoners.

The last of the escaping horsemen were still disappearing into the trees when the defenders started to realize that they had won the battle, such as it was. The defenders mostly went straight over to party mode. A few, led by Slim and Ulf and the two girl commanders, got the prisoners tied up and guarded. Sophie stood by her horse on the high bank of the streambed, looking around. She literally didn’t know what to think. People rode up to congratulate her or ask questions, and she responded, three more young men tried to make time with her, and she only slugged the second one, young women started to gather around her to catch some of the radiance of her success or possibly the disappointed young men; all the while Sophie was trying to get her mind around what had just happened. Her second actual battle. It was definitely different from the first.

Ella rode up. “I got at least three,” she said. “I got my arrows back so I’m ready for three more!”

“Great,” said Sophie.

“Where is she?” came a familiar voice. Another familiar voice pointed her out. Horses came up out of the streambed: Dad and Emma and Marthen and Aedith and a couple of others. “Sophie,” Dad said, closing the distance. “You okay?”

“I’m fine, Dad.”

“Well, then, are you crazy? Why did you do this? What were you thinking? Do you know what could have happened? Sophie—!”

“Dad. Dad. It wasn’t a plan. It wasn’t a bleeping choice. Okay?”

“She’s right, Dad,” said Ella. “We were just on watch. They attacked us.”

“And her! Ella. Sophie, how could you?”

“How could I not?” asked Sophie. “Dad—!”

“Squire John,” said Marthen, “go easy on her. She’s just won her first battle. She doesn’t know how to understand that.”

Dad sighed. Then he and Sophie and Ella all, in identical gestures, turned and gazed across the northern reach of camp, where the victors were celebrating. There wasn’t a lot of wine in the camp, but they were managing. All three sort of shrugged, and the girls both looked at Dad. Sophie was already a little taller than her father; Ella was getting there.

“Listen,” he said. “I worry. You understand that.”

“Yeah,” said Sophie. “I do, actually.” She looked at Ella.

“What?” asked Ella.

“So how long do you think this buys us?” Sophie asked Dad.

Dad looked at Marthen, who said, “Couple hundred dead? I think they’ll rethink their strategy. Either they’ll give up on us and concentrate on taking down Killifar, or they’ll settle for a siege there and come after us. We should be able to make it to the coast before they do either one. We’ll be far enough ahead of them that we can think about how to ambush them, instead of just taking them by surprise simply because they don’t expect us to be prepared.”

“Those dopes,” said Sophie. “I don’t know if they know how to plan.”

“Oh, they do,” said Dad. “Trust me. They just didn’t think they had to. Now they know the type of military geniuses they’re up against.”

The adults laughed. Emma made a funny remark, Dad and Marthen responded, and Sophie realized she hadn’t heard them. “Sorry,” she said, “I have to sleep. I need some real sleep.”

“Me too,” said Ella.

Sophie looked at her. Suddenly she looked at Dad and said, voice breaking, “People are going to die. Why don’t people just leave us alone? I don’t want to kill anyone anymore. I don’t. I don’t want Ella to kill anyone. I don’t—!”

“You don’t want anyone to kill Ella,” said Emma.

There was silence. After several seconds, Sophie said, “No.”

“Look,” said Dad, “we discussed how life is not fair. We—!”

“That’s fine, John,” said Emma, “but that’s not a reason. Sophie, you can do things. I’ve seen it. There are things I can do, and there are things your dad can do, and things Marthen can do, I wouldn’t ever have believed it but it’s true.”

“Hey now,” said Marthen.

“And there are things Ella can do. But you, there are things I have seen you do that only you can do. And I’m not talking about shooting people, or not just shooting people. And these folks all around us? They’re going to die if we don’t all do the things we can do. It’s that simple. It’s all so bleeping complicated, but it’s simple. You get it?”

“Yeah,” said Sophie. “I get it. Now bleeping let me lie down for a while.”

Emma smiled. She put the hand that wasn’t holding Matty on Sophie’s hand. “Yes. Go lie down. You need it.”

“And take your sister with you,” said Dad.

“Okay. Come on, Ella.” Ella smiled, barely awake. They started toward the middle of the camp, and three steps on, Sophie turned. The adults were talking in low voices. “And, um,” said Sophie. They turned. “Do we need to do something about Killifar? Like, is it going to fall?”

“That’s what is under discussion at present,” said Marthen.

Sophie gave a tired smile. “Well,” she said, “let me know what you decide.”

The next morning, Sophie and Ella woke before dawn, wandered off into the adjoining woods to pee (along with about a dozen other people) and then went back to bed in Nell’s tent without saying a word. An hour and a half later, Sophie woke again, left Ella sleeping, and went out, and found Nell and Dad and Marthen and Emma and Irena all sitting around a bit of fire. Emma was nursing Matty, and they were all nursing mugs of mint tea.

“Slim’s off to have a look at Killifar,” said Dad. “We should know what the situation is in an hour or two.”

“There’s no chance it’ll fall soon, is there?” asked Sophie.

“Shouldn’t be,” said Marthen, “but that King Olk, he’s wicked smart, you know. Those silos and barns burn, it could be a bad week in Killifar.”

“Great.” Irena gave Sophie a mug. Sophie sipped, then said, “Any breakfast?”

“No eggs,” said Irena. “Got bit of stew.”

“So anyway,” said Emma, “whatever you and your cavalry do today, I know what me and Irena are doing. And Matilda, right, dear? We’re going to get this whole bleep-wagon rolling south.”

“Me and my cavalry,” said Sophie. “Me and my cavalry. We might have to go somewhere and kill people again.” The others looked at her, not sure what to say. She looked around their faces. “Okey dokey,” she said with a smile. “Just so I know.”

The brain trust had a little stew for breakfast, then scattered to get the camp moving again. The front of the horde was in purposeful motion half an hour later, and another hour saw the back moving too; somewhere in the middle, sixteen captured Kug marched along tied securely by the ankles, their wrists secured behind their backs. By then, Sophie and her dad, along with Marthen and Ella and Cath and Alix and Ulf and a couple of other heroes of last night’s fray, had the cavalry in the saddle. They were just wondering what to do with it when Slim and Georgie returned. They had a third member, a pretty girl of about nineteen with long silky brown hair. She had a short bow over her shoulder and a long knife at her belt.

“Dad, Sis, Little Sis,” said Slim once they were all sitting on their horses close together, “this is Lisel.” Lisel smiled shyly. “Lisel, this is my dad, and these are my sisters, and this is, um, Master Marthen, he’s kind of like a quartermaster or something.”

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

“Slim,” said Dad, “you have news of some type.”

“It’s not good, Dad,” said Slim. “They got the barns and the silos burning just like you said. They did it last night. The walls are great but you can’t stick your head up without getting shot at. Kug had a try at the west gate this morning before sunrise, and they almost broke through, and Georgie and I don’t think they were really trying very hard. They had way over ten thousand outside, and all warriors, and inside it’s maybe three.”

“And they’re, uh, not all warriors,” said Lisel.

“Not unless you stretch the definition a lot,” said Georgie, a wiry little guy with curly dark hair.

“You got in?” asked Sophie.

“No, sis,” said Slim, “we guessed all this from outside. And Lisel just jumped over the attacking armies.”

“Ooh. Sarcasm.”

“So what are we gonna do?”

“Let’s try sarcasm on the enemy,” said Sophie. “Why don’t you and Georgie go back and fire insults at them.”

“Daughter,” said Dad, but he was smiling.

“Seriously, Sophie,” said Slim. “We need to do something to stop them taking that place.”

“I concur,” said Marthen. “No, really, just strategically, we figured that either they would give up trying to take Killifar and come destroy us, or concentrate on taking Killifar and then come destroy us. Either way, they destroy us. If Killifar falls, how do we hold out in some old monastery on the coast?”

“Why on Earth do they want Killifar anyway?” asked Alix. “If I may put in my penny’s worth.”

“Two pennies at the very least,” said Dad. “You’re one of her company commanders?” Alix grinned. “Well,” Dad went on, “what you say is what I thought too. I thought King Olk of Frunga was only coming down to Merrivan to knock ol’ John off his daddy’s throne. Well, this proves that his ambitions have grown. If he came all this way with most of his army, and saw fit to treat with the Kug and even to make a league with them, and they’ve put in the effort needed to actually work together on this lovely enterprise, well, King Olk’s got more in mind than just interfering in the dynastic succession. He wants us to be part of his kingdom. He wants Frunga to be bigger. And he’s not going to stop until he’s eliminated all the other little armies running around down here, and after Killifar, that means us.”

“And he’s got some deal with Mister Gama Kug,” said Marthen. “I wonder what that entails. I wonder how far back it goes, too. Last year? They must have been colluding by this past summer.”

“Yeah,” said Dad, “and they were feeling good enough about things to send a couple hundred Kug warriors to chase the refugees, even when they thought they were just pathetic refugees.”

“Bet they’re sorry they did that,” said Cath.

“So what do we do now?” asked Alix. “If I may.”

“Well,” said Dad, but he grimaced and shook his head. Marthen looked around the others and blew air out his lips.

“Well,” said Sophie, “much as I don’t want to say it, but maybe that’s what you meant about what me and my cavalry are going to do today.”

“Okey doke,” said Dad. “Can you young ladies and gents come up with something that won’t cause us to have to bury a lot of you young ladies and gents?”

Sophie, Alix and Cath grinned at each other, then looked at Ulf, who shook his head and blew air out his lips in imitation of Marthen. “Actually,” said Alix, pulling her red hair out straight, “I think we can.”

Perhaps to simply avoid having to hear the details, Dad went back to getting the mob moving again. They made better time this second day, as the sun came out and warmed the tired masses. Sophie and her riders hung back and watched the back of the refugee troop separate from them and head south and up slope, as the old road climbed into hill country.

“We still don’t actually have a plan,” Sophie pointed out, “and we’re only outnumbered like five million to one.”

“Don’t exaggerate,” said Cath. “They have what? Ten thousand? We have two fifty. That’s only, what, forty to one? Yeah.”

“Yeah,” said Oldric, “forty.”

“Isn’t it four hundred?” asked Padric. “Oh. No. Wait. Twenty?”

“Forty,” said Alix. “Trust us. Okay, so that just means one thing. That means we’re not going to charge headlong into them. It means we have to figure something else out.”

“Got anything, Brains?” asked Sophie.

“Actually,” said Alix, “my plan is to get there and see what’s going on.”

“So, no, then,” said Cath.

“You got anything, Cath?”

“Okay,” said Sophie, “I have one idea. Want to hear it?”

“Sure,” said Cath and Alix.

“My idea,” said Sophie, “is that one of us will think of something clever.”

They talked a little more, and they all agreed that someone ought to come up with something. Cath and Alix and Ulf found their commands, and Slim and his girlfriend Lisel and Oldric and his wife went on ahead, and Sophie and Ella and a few others got together and started up the road behind them. Alix’s group was next, and Sophie couldn’t see more than that.

She spent the next two hours not thinking about what she was doing or how she had come to be here. She was finding those moments of reverie less and less useful the more that was asked of her. It worried her. But she enjoyed the scenery and the weather and the casual conversation of Ella and a big teenage girl named Inga, who had her own sword. Two boys rode behind them, perhaps as self-appointed guards, perhaps to be near the action, perhaps to impress Sophie. She didn’t know their names. She did know she didn’t want them to be dead by tonight. The thought of people being dead by tonight seeped through her mental walls and slowly soured her lovely ride in the country.

“And after he dumped her,” Inga was saying, “she got even with him by kissing Ralphie right in front of him. You should have seen his face.”

“What colors did it turn?” asked Ella. “Like these leaves?”

“Exactly like these leaves, even though it was sheep shearing time. But he couldn’t do a thing about it. That taught him and his stupid brother to mess around behind a girl’s back.”

“Wait, what?” asked Sophie.

“Weren’t you listening?” asked Ella.

“You were probably coming up with grand strategy or something,” said Inga. “We’re not going to try and sneak into town, are we? Are we going to wait for night?”

“Inga,” said Sophie, “are you from Killifar?”

“South of.”

“So, keeping in mind the general strategy here, say you have like ten, twelve, fifteen thousand guys, and thousands of horses, and they’re all outside this town, which has maybe three thousand. And they’re trying to attack it, but they’re also besieging it, which basically means their fall-back plan is to wait till the people inside run out of food. And even with the barns and silos burned down, that’s a matter of doing what?”

“Waiting,” said Inga after a beat.

“Yeah.” Another beat. “So, while they’re waiting, where do they put their horses?”

“And their food?” asked Ella. “They have to have a ton of supplies.”

“They’re eating all our farm stuff right now,” said Inga.

“Didn’t a lot of that go into the town?” asked Sophie. “It’s after harvest.”

“Yeah,” said Inga. “Add up all the farms, no, you couldn’t feed fifteen thousand for a frickin’ night on what they’d have. It’s hard enough us feeding our three or four thou or whatever we have. And we’re on the move. We can hunt different areas. They’re stuck here.”

“Hey, yeah,” said one of the guys behind. He hustled his horse and caught up. He was tall and good looking but far from a physical specimen: he looked like the kid next door who was smart but a little too slick. “Last night, in camp, lots of folks had food they’d brought with them. So that wasn’t there for these guys to steal.”

“So the thing is,” said Sophie, “we don’t have to charge in on the attack. We can sneak in, just a few of us, and do more mischief and lose less people.”

“Attack the kitchen?” said another guy behind them, a big hefty farm boy.

“Or set free the horses,” said Inga.

“Or burn the stores,” said Ella.

“Or all of them at once,” said the handsome boy. “What do you think?”

“I think,” said Sophie, “we scope it out first. Is that too boring?”

“As opposed to going at it with some Kug three times as big as me,” said the handsome boy, “and then like ten more, one by one, and hoping I make it through okay, no, it’s not boring.”

“Excellent,” said Sophie. They rode for a minute and she laughed, and then laughed again.

“What?” asked Inga.

“Dad and I scouted for the Merrivan army in the battle on the Vara River a month ago,” she said. “Those guys basically had this plan: the enemy’s north of us, so march north till we’re fighting them. And everyone, on both sides maybe, had to get really drunk to even get to fighting.” She looked at Ella. “This is a little different, right?”

“Sophie,” said Ella, “I don’t want it to be like a normal battle. I like different.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

When the forward riders came to a triple oak that marked the mile point south of Killifar, they waited for Sophie to catch up and confer. Most of the riders stayed there, and twenty or so, led by Sophie, took a less conspicuous woodland trail north to the edge of the farm country on the south side of town. This was Inga’s home territory, and they had little trouble getting themselves to a fine spot just behind a hedge from the open area the attackers had beaten down a quarter of a mile around town.

Evening was falling on the siege of Killifar. The day had passed lazily, with the fires inside the walled town dying out, and the besiegers resting for another night of mayhem. The two armies attacking may have been working together, but they were still two armies, the Kug on the west side and the Frungans on the east. Thus there were two of everything: two sets of horse pens, two mess tents, two headquarters, two supply yards, two gangs of working warriors digging pits, flattening and widening trails, building a couple of trebuchets, gathering rocks for the trebuchets to throw, setting up battering rams and tortoises.

“What do you think?” Sophie asked as she and her sister and her new closest friends, including Alix and Cath and Ulf and a few leaders of tens, peered over the hedge.

“Horse pen over here,” said Alix. “Supplies. Note not a lot of guards on the supplies. Note cattle on the hoof. Okay. So much for the Kug. Now the Frungans—!”

“Note mess tent,” said the handsome boy. “Note no one whatever watching the back of the mess tent. Note more goats and sheep and cattle.”

“I’m having an idea,” said Sophie.

“Set free the goats? Burn the mess tents?”

“That, for a start, yeah. Alix, Cath, Ulf, you guys need to head back to your guys.”

“Aw, but my lady,” said Alix, “I wanna do something!”

“Don’t worry your little red head about it,” said Sophie. “I’ll bring you something to do.”

Sophie gave her commanders five minutes head start. Then she and Ella and Inga and Oldric and Peg and the handsome boy and the big farm boy and a few others took their horses through the hedge. They stopped again and had a look at things. They were underwhelmed by the Kug security arrangements.

“They’re getting ready to attack the west gate by the river,” said Oldric. Indeed, there was a commotion on the west side of the town, and a distant sound of shouting.

“Are they chanting?” asked Sophie.

“They seem to like to do that,” said Oldric. “They’re not, like, into attacking walls and doing sieges and stuff. So I guess they need to do these chants to work themselves up.”

“Well, whatever. So let’s take it at a walk, go take down a bit of that pen fence, then, see that bonfire? They have those fires here and there to light stuff off of they’re going to use to burn the town and stuff, but they really should be watching that. Especially with all the burnable material around.”

“Tsk tsk,” said the handsome boy.

“I don’t know about you,” said Inga, “but I’m learning a ton.”

The riders, of whom there were now a dozen, sauntered up to the pens of the horses, of which there were thousands. Sophie, Inga, the farm boy and another farm boy dismounted and set about dismantling four consecutive sections of the rail fence. That was all that was needed to make the horse pen optional. None of the humans seemed to react: Sophie and her pals looked like they were doing repair work. They moved on and started to do the same to the Kug cattle and sheep pen, which held a few hundred of each.

This time, the butchers, working to provide dinner or breakfast for their army, took exception. Before the saboteurs were finished, a hue and cry was coming from the far end of the enclosure. Kug warriors were coming to see what it was about. Weapons were grabbed up. Men ran to get on their horses.

“Should we get out?” asked Inga. “Or grab some fire?” asked the handsome boy.

“Get on your horses and let’s get in among these cattle,” said Sophie. She got back on Horseradish, and in a minute she and the others were riding around the inner perimeter of the livestock pen, yelling and shooting at any men they saw on foot. Three butchers got butchered. The livestock reacted by trying to get as far away as possible. Sophie and her pals chased them out of the pen. Then Handsome Boy and Farm Boy and Inga turned hard left, dismounted and went for pieces from the bonfire, while Sophie took the rest and headed off for the Frungan side of the siege.

The Frungans on that side were already wary. Guards walked along the outside of their horse pen. Men on horseback were looking their way. Sophie got her people close enough and stopped. They strung arrows and fired on the nearest guards: two went down, and the rest, good sensible Frungans from far away to the north, took off running. “Okay, let’s go,” said Sophie.

They rode in and tied ropes to four of the fence posts in a row, and then they shot some more arrows at the guards, and then at a Hyah! from Sophie, they took off. The ropes, attached to their saddles, pulled the posts down. Sophie’s riders stopped to get rid of their ropes, and then they rode around south of the camp whooping. They shot at anyone who came near.

In a few minutes, two riders came from the Kug camp: Inga and Farm Boy. There was smoke rising behind them, and there was also the heartwarming sight of livestock and hundreds of little Kug horses wandering into the woods.

“Where’s Handsome?” asked Sophie at a distance of fifty feet.

“Rollo?” asked Inga. “Sophie, I’m afraid he took an arrow, he’s dead.”

Farm Boy laughed. “Rollo went happy,” he said. “He was in the mess tent personally setting things on fire.”

Sophie rolled her eyes and held back a brief wave of nausea. “Okay, gang,” she said, “he did it for us or something. Come on, we’re still pretty safe, let’s shoot at the Frungans some more. Ella!”

“Sophie?”

“You watch the Kug. If they start looking organized, yell out.”

But organization was not so speedy. Sophie got a little worried that they hadn’t been noticed enough: caught up in the thrill of it all, she let Inga drag her and the others on a quick ride through the Frungan mess hall, where they set more fires and shot a dozen more startled-looking men with weapons and grabbed bags of flour and oats and joints of meat. It was ten more minutes before the young troublemakers felt it was too dangerous to stay. Horns began to sound; when three blew at once, not far off in the smoke, Sophie raised her voice to call the retreat the old-fashioned way, by shouting “Retreat!” With a hundred Frungan riders and fifty Kug after them, they took to the old road south.

A mile later, in deepening twilight, they passed the triple oak. When the pursuers, mostly Frungans, got there, they met clouds of arrows coming from the right. They stopped to fight and found Sophie and Inga and Farm Boy and dozens more from the trees coming at their left flank with swords, spears, pitchforks and other long hard objects. Many went down, and many more took fright and fled. In another ten minutes, they were counting the dead of the other side, along with six assorted wounded prisoners. Sophie was counting her own dead.

“One,” she said. “We lost one.”

“Who’d we lose?” asked Alix.

“Handsome. Uh, Rollo.”

“Rollo!” said several others. “Not Rollo!”

“Yeah. Rollo.” Sophie laughed, a little disgusted. “I’m glad it wasn’t more, but I keep wondering what it’ll be like when there’s a real battle.”

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