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XIX

Sophie and her cavalry felt that one mile was not far enough, so, though it was already quite dark under cloudy skies, they kept riding into the night. It took them about an hour to reach the streambed, and there, among the meager remains of last night’s camp, they bivouacked and ate whatever they had on them, mostly chunks of day-old fire-roasted meat, along with some late berries, some very old, very hard cheese and then, eventually, some fresh fire-roasted fish from the stream. Sophie set watches: actually she delegated the watches, and Cath, Alix and Ulf set double watches for each of their companies. They had few tents, and so, looking suspiciously at the cloud deck, most of the little host fell asleep on the ground.

The night did not bring rain. They woke under still-solid skies: October turning into November. Sophie was aching enough to have difficulty getting up from her warm bed on the ground with Ella and Inga. She emerged and found two dozen of her people up already. She sat down amongst the most familiar of them.

“Ugh,” she said to Alix. “Ugh, ugh.”

“Tea, my lady?”

“Sure.” Alix presented her with a mug. Sophie sipped, then scowled. “What is this stuff?”

“I dunno. Katie Atbridge made it. She’s over there trying to make flapjacks.”

“Flapjacks?”

“All we have is some meat and some flour and stream water. We’re saving the meat.”

“Ugh.” Sophie sipped. “I miss Irena. Oh, Irena, I miss you so much.” She smiled at the thought of Irena, perhaps insulting Katie Atbridge’s cooking in her modification of the language. Then she thought of flapjacks, pancakes, the ones her mom made, filling the house with smoke on a late winter morning. Tears came to her eyes.

“Yeah, it really is that bad,” said Cath. “Want to interview the pris?”

“What?”

“We have an interesting prisoner,” said Alix. “Uh, my lady.”

“Alix, why—oh, never mind. Okay. Prisoner.”

Sophie was still not used to the concept of prisoners, or, for that matter, the concept of being in charge. The six prisoners at present were four Frungans and two men of the Kug. The Kug were both injured and, of course, not well treated yet: in falls from their horses they had both sprained ankles or broken legs; one had a broken arm, and the other a nasty gash on the top of his head. The Frungans were mostly injured too, two of them with arrow wounds. Their young captors had at least known to wash the wounds. So now they were wet and cold as well as hungry and tied up.

The one unscathed captive Frungan cavalryman was interesting in other ways too. When the iron-studded leather cap was removed, for Sophie’s eyes, it turned out to be full of messy black hair. The face under that hair had no sign of beard. There was a scar on the left cheek and another across the right eyebrow, both fully healed, but the unbroken nose was fine and pointy.

“You’re a girl,” said Sophie.

The Frungan just glared. She was almost as tall as Sophie, though a little lighter of build. “Yep,” said the Merrivan-born girl next to the captive, “she’s a girl all right. She doesn’t talk.”

“Maybe she doesn’t speak our language.” Sophie spent a few seconds looking at the black-haired captive. Then she looked at the nearest Frungan on the ground, shivering with his somewhat bandaged arrow wound. “Did you know she was a girl?”

He shook his head. “Na,” he said. “Na, did not know.” He smiled, his teeth chattering.

“Does she talk?”

The man smiled and shook his head. “Na,” he said. “Does not talk.”

“Never say word,” said his friend.

Sophie watched the girl for a short time. Then she said, “Yetva?” The girl’s eyes jumped, and then she got control of them. “Vyotol?” said Sophie, and this time the girl’s eyes latched onto Sophie. After ten seconds of that intense stare, Sophie looked at the Merrivan girl standing next to her. “Can you untie her hands?”

“What? Really? Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” said Sophie.

The Merrivan girl, and the guy on the captive’s other side, untied the captive’s hands. Sophie stuck out her own right hand. The captive glared at it, then shook it. Then they stood looking at each other.

“What do we do now?” asked the guy guard.

“Keep an eye on her,” said Sophie. “She’s probably already escaped a few things. And, um, make sure each of them gets a flapjack.”

The day did not warm up much. The captives were put two each on three captured horses, tied up thoroughly. Then, after a poor breakfast, the cavalry got moving south. They made good time. At a noon stop, during which stolen roast mutton got eaten, Sophie went back to look at the prisoners. The Kug with the head wound was unresponsive.

“I’m sorry, Captain,” said the Merrivan girl. “I think he’s dead.”

Sophie and Inga and several of the young men gave prods to every part of the warrior, and then someone thought to check the pulse in his neck and wrists: nothing. Then the girl guard said, “Breath check.” She got out her little knife and held it to the Kug’s mouth: nothing.

“We don’t have time to bury him,” said Sophie. “Lay him by the roadside. Um, no weapons. But put his hands on his chest. Like he’s sleeping.” She looked at the other Kug, who was half awake. “I hope that’s okay.” He made a vague gesture and his lips moved. “It has to be,” said Sophie. She looked at the body, then back at the live Kug. “But you guys didn’t bury the villagers you killed. You just left them to rot where they fell. Didn’t you?”

The Kug waved a hand and said something in his own language. He shook his head.

“He’s sorry,” said the Merrivan girl.

They rode all afternoon under very November skies. There were several spots of rain. There were also, as they went along, signs of the passage of a large group of people: the old road was widened with a trampling of bush and brush, here and there they saw items of trash, mostly articles of damaged clothing and shoes. There were at least two humped-up places where digging had occurred and had been filled in. In the evening, Sophie’s cavalry caught up with the moving mass of civilians just before they all made camp, in the valley around an upland pond.

Sophie found her dad and Nell and Emma and Irena and Marthen waiting for her when she arrived at the edge of the camp. She dismounted and hugs were exchanged.

“Alix,” she said to the red-haired girl, “can your guys be security tonight?”

“Sure,” said Alix.

“I’ll take the front if you want, just in case,” said Cath.

“That sounds great. Ulf, how about you guys set up hunting parties?”

“Sure,” said Ulf.

“Daughter,” said Dad.

“Dad. Those mounds of dirt we saw.”

“People die on journeys like this,” said Dad. “We bury our dead.”

“How many? We saw two. Dad, how are they holding up?”

“We lost, I think, six today. How are they holding up? I’ll tell you when we get to this mysterious place none of us has ever been before and find out if we’re all going to just be there when the next wave of—anyway. So what exactly happened? Back there?”

“We set fire to their mess tents and set free their horses and livestock,” said Sophie, “and then we beat the bleep out of the cavalry they sent after us.”

“Casualties?”

“They lost, oh, I’d put it around two hundred altogether. We lost exactly one.” She sighed.

“That’s not so bad,” he said. Marthen said, “One’s great.”

“Dad,” said Sophie.

“What? You did good.” He laughed. “Actually, this all makes me feel much better. You lost just the one guy. That’s good. That’s very good. I know it’s bad, but it’s good, do you understand?”

She held his eyes, then sighed. “Yeah. I guess.”

“And I heard you talking to that Alix girl. You know what you are?” Sophie sagged a little more and shook her head. Dad laughed at her and slapped her on the shoulder. “You’re a captain, you are. Ha! Heck, Nell, we have an officer in the family!”

They talked a little more, and eventually Irena and Old Kate and the hunters got a mixed stew ready, and everyone in the area had a mug before it was all gone.

“Short rations,” said Ulf.

“Could be shorter,” said Dad. “Hope the winter passes with rations this good.”

“This monastery,” said Sophie. “What do we actually know about it?”

“Is called Elavon,” said Irena. “Seems promising.”

“Irena,” said Sophie, “do you have plans for the evening?” Irena looked confused. “I mean,” said Sophie, “can you come with me and talk to someone?”

Irena did not have plans for the evening, and she did come with Sophie to talk to the dark-haired soldier girl.

“She is,” said Irena after a few sentences of talk with the captive. “She is from Vyotol.”

“Was she fighting for the Frungans? Translating? What?”

There was a bit more colloquy. The captive answered a question; Irena asked another and was answered at some length; then she turned to Sophie and said, “She was dressed as boy when King Olk soldiers come to Vyotol. Her mom dressed her as boy to keep out of trouble. Big laugh. They take her for soldier. Now she is soldier, hero of many battles. She kill three at Vara River.”

“Reeeeally.”

“Yeees,” said Irena. “But she not like Frungans, she say so. She say, first, we should not, um, ransom her back. I take care of her, Sophie, I will. Is fine?”

“Oh, is fine, fine,” said Sophie. “It’s totally fine.”

For the next two days, the mass of people moved south along the old road, south and steadily upward. Sophie wondered how they could be approaching the coast of the Great Sea if it was up there somewhere ahead: wouldn’t the water be cascading downhill? But in the afternoon of the second day, their fourth day traveling from Killifar, the front of the host, and then the rest, filled the region between two huge horns of red rock. They were crossing a barren, stony pass in a barren, stony ridge whose peaks reared up a thousand feet above them. To the left, eastward, the ridge slowly descended toward the distant valley of the River Lesh, and to the right, to the west, it rose yet further into a lofty range.

Sophie and her dad and Emma and Irena and Nell and Marthen and Slim and all the other not quite ordinary people who had become the leaders of this migration spent all day and half the night wandering up and down the moving group, and scouting ahead and behind. And somehow Sophie found herself the one person everyone else asked what to do. The boys had put a moratorium on hitting on her, and the girls were past idolizing her to simply doing what she told them, and her own relatives and friends had taken up the habit of looking at her during their hourly debates. It was odd.

The mob, the town in motion, lost as many as a dozen to sickness or old age each day, and these were buried with a little bit of ceremony along the side of the road. When they could, the burial parties found quiet spots in valleys and groves. The host was, however, on balance, increasing. Each day a few babies were born, and more of these survived than were lost.

But there was another source of increase. Several times each day, Sophie and a few dozen riders, from one or another of the hundreds, rode back down the old road on recon. Each time they went north, they met people coming to meet them: peasants dislodged by the wars, refugees from Merrivan and Tenna and other towns of the kingdom, escapees from Killifar. These last told them that the attacks on the town had dropped off and the attackers had apparently decided on a loose siege.

“They’re up to somewhat,” said a wiry old man with a few teeth. “They’re brewing trouble.”

“But who are they brewing trouble for?” asked Sophie.

“Trouble’s trouble for everyone, eventually,” he replied.

After they crossed the pass, perhaps two thousand feet above the height of Killifar’s market square, it got easier, although cart management got more complicated. That night, the fourth night since leaving Killifar, the mobile province planted itself around a pond in a lushly wooded saddle, and Nell and Irena and Aedith and the other managers of camp had their hands full keeping people from cutting down all the trees. Food was still scarce, but people were still of a mood to share, so everyone had empty stomachs and no one starved.

That afternoon, Sophie and Ella and the riders of Alix’s hundred climbed back to the pass. There they rested their horses and took in the views, as the clouds that had followed them most of the journey broke and left a pure blue sky, with only a few hunks of cottony mist caught on the peaks to the left and right. They saw four riders coming up the slope from the north. These turned out to be Oldric and his wife and two girls Sophie hadn’t met before.

“Okay,” said Oldric, when they were all standing together at the peak of the old road. “These two are Ellane and Angele, they’re from inside Killifar, they’re sisters. Their folks wanted us to take them, how could we say no?”

“I don’t know why you’d even think of saying no,” said Sophie. “How old are you guys?”

“I’m fourteen,” said Angele, “and Ellane is thirteen. We can ride and shoot, my lady, we can contribute.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt that. Okay, so this is good news. What’s the bad news?”

“Well,” said Oldric, and he looked at Peg, his wife.

“So remember when we heard they weren’t attacking Killifar anymore, just besieging it?” said Peg. “Well, we know why.”

“Because they were getting ready to really smack the place,” said Sophie.

“Nope,” said Peg. “Because they’re sending the whole Kug force south to really smack us.”

“They’re what??” asked Dad. “That makes no sense.” He and Sophie were sitting around a fire with the brain trust: Nell, Emma, Irena, Marthen, Slim, his girl Lisel, Otho, old Arthur and Kate, Aedith, Sophie’s “commanders” Alix and Cath and Ulf, and Oldric and Peg, among others. Ella was sitting leaning against Sophie.

“They’re Kug,” said Sophie. “They have their own kind of sense. They don’t have to make our kind of sense.”

“It makes total sense,” said Marthen. “Albeit a Kug sense, surely. They have two threats and they need to destroy them one at a time. They had thought to destroy Killifar, but you went and made a pest of yourself, Sophia dear, and now they have determined that it makes more sense to destroy you. Us.”

“Well, I’m really sorry,” said Sophie. “I didn’t want—!”

“Sophie, it’s okay,” said Dad. “What the hell else could we do but what we did?”

“Yeah,” said Sophie. “What could we do but what we did? Story of my frickin’ life.”

“I don’t see the problem,” said Alix. “We had an uphill fight anyway. They outnumber us like crazy. But we’d have to fight them, one way or the other. We surely would. Let’s fight them now. On, you know,” and she looked at Dad, “ground of our choosing.”

“Someone was listening to me, anyway,” said Dad.

“I have to agree,” said Emma. “And look. The Pass.”

They all looked at Sophie. “Well, okay,” she said, “the Pass. I could work with that.” She grinned at Alix and Cath. “Can’t we?”

“Oh, I’m sure we can,” said Cath.

“But,” said Emma, “tomorrow we should make the coast, and then we’ll see what else we have to work with.”

“Like,” said Sophie, “if this Elavon is occupied by like evil warrior monks or something.”

“Yeah, something like that,” said Dad. He took a swig from the wine skin they had saved for tonight, then passed it to Sophie. “Well, daughter, I’ll just add that I had no idea we were going to be coming this way when we left home for the fair oh, five weeks ago.”

“No one had any idea,” said Nell.

“Sis,” said Sophie, “how are people holding out?”

“Sure hope we have some food ahead,” said Nell. She smiled. “But other than that, people are good, actually. I heard singing today as we walked. Even the guys who were holding back the carts on the steep slopes were singing and joking and laughing.”

“Right now,” said Dad, “they have something they can do. Keep moving. That keeps them from thinking about what they left behind, and what they don’t know about what’s ahead.”

“Well,” said Slim, “what they have now is way better than what they would have had if they’d stayed at Tenna or Merrivan.”

“We just have to make sure,” said Nell, “that what’s ahead is going to be okay. That where we end up for the winter, we can feed people. That we can protect them.” She gave Sophie a very grown-up look. “Can we do that?”

“We can do that,” said Sophie.

It was decided that Slim and Georgie and Lisel would get some rest, then go for a ride in the late moonlight to make sure that the enemy wasn’t within reach of the pass. The rest of the brain trust, Sophie and her family and her friends, people like Marthen and Irena whom she had taken for elders, people like Alix and Ulf whom she had once imagined were her peers, talked for hours and dropped out one or two at a time. No one hit on Sophie. Eventually Sophie and Ella went off to share a bedroll in Nell’s tent, and left Dad, Emma, Matty, Marthen and Irena talking.

Sophie was awakened by her kid brother Jim and her nephew Andy. “Come out, come out!” they cried. “Come see!”

“What? What?” It was light in the tent and warm—the rising sun was hitting it full force. Ella had rolled away but was still asleep, oblivious to it all.

“Come see!” squealed Andy, who was shorter than Jim and a bit heftier. “It’s beautiful!”

Sophie pulled herself out from the sheets. She was wearing just her long shirt and some socks, so she had to pull on her pants: her brother and nephew left her to do this in private. Pants on, boots on, jacket on, she emerged into the light: the sun rose in a dazzling blue sky just to the right of the toothy ridge of the coastal mountains.

They led her to the far edge of the bowl-like valley around the pond. Then they all climbed to the top of a pier of pale grey rock in the sunlight. They went to the edge and gazed down, in the nagging breeze.

The old road went up over the edge of the valley somewhere to their left, and they could make out its line descending southward. Far away, the horizon was flat and fringed with fluffs of low cloud: the Sea.

Below them, against the thin blue streak of sea, stood another ridge, much lower than this one. Almost directly to the south, they could see a high point in this ridge, and they spotted the old road rising toward it through a narrow, wooded valley dark with night still. At the top of the valley, climbing the side of the ridge and just emerging on top of it, was a fortress, or a curious house, or a shambling ruin, as if a perfectly good castle had been left out in the rain at the top of the line of hills and had washed halfway off down a cliff.

Sophie’s eyes adjusted. It was a building, for certain. It was made of native stone and of brick, and if there had been wood, it had rotted and left gaps: that made sense. Around and below it were a dozen or more terraced gardens, overgrown or swamped with water. Black windows and black open doorways glared back at her. Birds flew and dove in the intervening cubic miles of air; apes ran in the trees. She saw no livestock and no sign of people. Her brother and her nephew looked out as well, smiling and uttering little wows.

Then she pointed. “There.”

“What?”

“Look,” she said. She pointed, and they looked. There was one door still closed, one garden still maintained, on the left side near the top. And just as they looked, the door opened and a person emerged, a tiny blur in the distance. Sophie was sure it was female, an old, old lady, moving into the garden and puttering about. “There’s someone living there.”

“Think they’re nice?” asked Andy.

“I think she will be if we’re nice to her,” Sophie replied. She kept watching but she couldn’t tell any more. “Anyway, she’s certainly in for a surprise.”

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