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XX

Sophie and her dad, Emma and Matty and Irena, Marthen and old Arthur and Kate, and a few others, got in the saddle early and headed down slope, while the rest of the camp got up and stretched and looked for something to eat. Sophie, with her dozen riders, was soon out of sight and out of smell over the edge of the ridge. Then for twenty minutes they might have been riding alone in the wilds, descending through steep woods still in nearly full leaf.

The road was clear here but clearly disused. At the bottom, it crossed a stream on a solid stone bridge wide enough for two large carts to pass easily. Across the bridge, there was a narrow flat valley that had evidently, at one time, been farmland: side tracks ran up and down along the stream, and back into the thickets which had once been fields and pastures. Beyond the bottom land, the old road, now bordered by low walls of stone, climbed a hundred feet in a quarter of a mile, and then emptied into a little plaza. From the other side of this plaza rose a damaged and overgrown stair of shallow steps.

The dozen riders dismounted and led their horses up the steps. Soon they were passing walls, some intact and some fallen, some with dark empty windows high above them, a door on the left into a roofless court, a door on the right into a rock chamber crowded with discarded objects of wood and stone, covered by sandy dust. The stair did not ascend too steeply for the horses, but bent left and right and paused on landings. Then on the left they began to pass terraced gardens, still overgrown and debris-choked.

Sophie and Dad were climbing the steepest of the steps, their horses getting a little nervous but still willing to play along. Sophie was watching the upper parts of a big old apple tree grow downward until they were at the top of the steps. Behind the tree, a garden opened in the lee of the stone building behind them. The garden was neatly kept, and its keeper was just getting up from her knees with a laugh and a slight groan. A grey tabby cat was following her; several more cats lounged about, and one, solid grey, sat in an open window.

The woman looked up at them, then down again at her feet as she came their way. She was a shrunken old woman indeed, but the life force still charged her muscles and lit her eyes from deep within her wrinkled face. She wore black from neck to ankle, but her feet and her white hair were bare. She waddled over to them smiling as if she had been expecting them.

“Hallo, hallo,” she said, “well met, well come, come up, come up. How many do we have? Not too many for tea? Or is it wine you’d all like?” She smiled up at them and Sophie and Dad pretty much just stared at her. The others came to the top of the steps and spread out around them. “Do you all speak the language?” she said with another laugh. “You’re not Frungans, are ya?”

“No, no, we’re not Frungans,” said Dad, bending to pet the grey cat, who was rubbing against his boots. “We’re from up near Tenna.”

“I’m not,” said Emma, “I’m from Merrivan.”

“Oh, Merrivan, is it?” said the old woman. “Well, we won’t hold it against you. My name is Belegynd, you may call me Gynd, and I bid you welcome to Elavon. I am sorry it’s not what it used to be, but—!” She stopped and laughed, waving around her. “So little is these days.”

“How true,” said Dad.

“So how many are you? Ten, twelve, I count thirteen: it’s not an unlucky number, though, because it brought you up here. Or maybe we count me too and that’s fourteen? Anyway, what do you say? Wine is it?”

“Well,” said Sophie.

“Yes,” said Marthen, “yes, ma’am, wine would be excellent. May we help you get it?”

“Oh, I will accept any and all help,” said Gynd. “So you are pilgrims perhaps? You heard tell of our fine wines and our sea vistas and you came calling.”

“Mother Gynd,” said Sophie, “you should know up front that we’re just the advance guard. We have about, what, four thousand people with us? We’re, ah, we’re kind of escaping from, you know, war and death and stuff.”

“Four thousand?” repeated the old woman, as if just to get the number right.

“In that neighborhood,” said Emma. “I think with what we picked up yesterday, we passed the four thousand two hundred mark.”

“Oh, I see,” said Gynd. “Well, I shall certainly have an interesting time finding mugs for all. What brings four thousand all the way here from Tenna and Merrivan and so on?”

“Mother Gynd,” said Marthen, “we are escaping from invasion. Tenna and Merrivan have fallen to the Kug and the King of Frunga, and Killifar is besieged. This is the end of the road for us, if you will. We can help ourselves, but we need help doing so, that’s absolutely certain. Uh, are you the Mother Superior or something like that?”

Gynd laughed. “I guess you’d say that,” she replied. “I’m the only one left.”

There was not much to say about the settlement of four thousand refugees in the bottom land around the bridge. There was a lot of work to be done, of course, making sure they got settled in, making sure they didn’t wreck the place too much. Of the riders who had ascended to the garden, only Sophie and Dad and Marthen and Emma stayed to speak with its keeper; the rest went back down to help with the settling and feeding of the masses.

Still, there was plenty to say when Gynd sat down with them in the room just inside the one functioning door they had seen so far. The cat in the window stayed there, and three more, a black one and a long-haired grey and the grey tabby, came in and lay about looking a bit inconvenienced by the fuss. The room was furnished to the extent of having a fireplace on an inside wall, with cooking apparatus piled about, and three long benches along the other three walls. The room had one window, facing out over the valley northward, its shutters open and in good repair. There was a single decoration: a primitive image painted on wood of a woman, a star and a halo over her head, an over-large baby in her arms.

Marthen and Dad helped old Gynd find the jug of wine and five mugs. She sat down and the tabby took her lap, and then, while sipping the wine, a strong old red, they tried to impress upon her the seriousness of the situation. It was hard to tell if the Kug invasion, or the fall of Merrivan, or the siege of Killifar, or the escape of four thousand desperate citizens, or their pursuit by double that number of barbarians, meant much to her. She acted concerned at each new piece of information, saying “Oh my” or “Goodness” or “Oh my goodness.”

Presently Sophie and Dad could not think of any further ways to surprise old Gynd. The lady got up, dumping the cat, waddled over to the cooking pot, checked it and tossed in a handful of dry leaves from a basket. She turned and smiled at them.

“Mother Gynd,” said Sophie, “what happened to all the other people who lived here?”

“Well, of course, what happens to all of us,” said Gynd.

“But how many were there? When you were young, you know?”

Gynd laughed again, then coughed for some time, smiling through to hold their attention. Then she said, “Twenty, thirty years ago, there were still over a dozen. Five years ago, I was left all alone when Theresa died. But when I was young?” She laughed again. “Tales of long, long ago, is that what you want to hear?” She laughed again, coughed some more, then went on. “I joined the Order of the Virgin as a novice,” she said, “when I was but eleven years old. I was the youngest of seven, and my mother said we ought to give our seventh to the Virgin. You pray to the Virgin, do you?”

The others muttered that they did, with varying degrees of truth, but Sophie held Gynd’s watery blue eyes and shook her head. “No,” she said, “I have to admit that I do not.”

“Most don’t,” said Gynd seriously. “Not really. It was even so when I was a child.”

“Where did you grow up?” asked Dad. “Killifar?”

“No,” said Gynd, “it was west of here a bit, in from the coast a bit. I came from Wellaharnie.”

“Wellaharnie,” said Dad. “Heard of it. It’s not there anymore, is it?”

“No, no,” said Gynd, taking a long sip. “It’s gone these fifty years. Funny. It seemed very alive when I left it, I imagined it would go on that way forever, but trouble came, there was a King in Jajar who had designs, and, well, as you can see, the more things change.”

“What?” asked Sophie.

“The more they stay the same,” said Dad. “Jajar. They haven’t been heard from in a while.”

“No,” said Marthen. “John VII dealt them rather a blow. Wellaharnie. It’s a familiar name, but I wouldn’t have known exactly where it is.”

“I could lead you right there,” said Gynd. “I could take you right up the road along the river. We’d come right up the main street. I can see the sun on the gate, oh yes, the shrine to the Virgin, I can see the market, we could get a nice narn full of mutton and onion and farmer cheese, oh, those were so good. I could—!” She brought her eyes down from the distance to look at Marthen, then at Dad, then Sophie, then baby Matilda in Emma’s arms. “I can see it so clear in my mind. Do you know what it’s like?”

“Sadly, yes,” said Sophie. “It’s really fresh. But of course we really did just leave Mudwick.”

“Mudwick,” said Gynd appreciatively. Then she laughed. “Is that really the name of your town?”

“I guess there’s somewhere you haven’t heard of,” said Dad.

“Mother,” said Emma, “who founded this monastery? Elavon?”

“Elavon,” said Gynd. “Yes, it’s a nice name, isn’t it? Well, you know, it dates back to the Empire, it does. Hundreds of years back.”

“But you don’t remember the Empire, surely,” said Sophie.

“No, no, no. The last Emperor was but a child when they put him away, I’m sure they killed him in some cellar, or maybe they sold him into slavery, that’s a story you hear sometimes. And that was three, whole, long, centuries ago,” she finished, emphasizing each word. She looked around: none of them said anything. Even Matty seemed transfixed. “Three hundred and ten years, this year, it must be. I am ninety years old. My mother kept telling me, I was born twenty and two hundred years since the boy Emperor was put off the throne.”

“What was the Empire like?” asked Sophie.

“For nine hundred years,” said Gynd, not a hint of a smile on her face, “for nine long centuries, the Empire ruled from the Great Isles all along this Coast and inland where Merrivan was a shire town and Tenna was but a camp for the armies. It was peaceful, until, of course, it was not. They fought all the time, really, if the histories are true. I read a lot,” she finished, with a smile at last.

“Will it ever come again?” asked Sophie.

“Why do you ask?”

“I don’t know,” said Sophie, abashed. She kept expecting Gynd to be her grandma, but not too far under the surface was something steely and strange. “I don’t know why I ask.”

“Well, as far as that goes,” said Gynd, “I suppose the safety of it seems alluring. Of course it came at a cost, there was such poverty and such debauchery and such cruelty and such poisonous hatred, so they say. And I suppose they say true. Anything that may happen in Merrivan or in Helark or Frunga, may happen worse in an Empire ten or a hundred times their size. Still, it did keep the peace. When, as I say, there was peace.”

“That’s the problem,” said Dad. “There were the times when there wasn’t peace. There were the times when three, four, five emperors fought against each other, laid waste to provinces, fought battles with a hundred thousand dead. Burned cities. Crucified rows of captives, just like they say happened to the Virgin’s Son. Yep. My pa made me study the Empire, I went and forgot most of it but there it is. You have books, I suppose.”

“We do,” said Gynd. “And surely you and your friends are going to stay for the winter.”

They looked at each other. Emma said, “We didn’t know how to ask. But there’s nowhere further to go.”

“I know. I know that. And so of course, you are welcome here.”

“And our four thousand friends?”

“Them too,” said Gynd. “Though I can’t offer them all wine.”

“You know there’s a battle coming,” said Sophie. Gynd gave her a quizzical smile. Sophie said, “Eight to ten thousand Kug barbarians. We’re not even sure we can deal with them, but we’re gonna have to try. Does that bother you?”

“Why would that bother me, dear? Just don’t try to make me wield a sword, I won’t do it.” They all laughed, and Gynd coughed some more. Then she said, “I’m sure you’ll think of something.” She looked at Dad. “My library. Our library. You’ll want time to read all across it, we have over two hundred books.”

“Two hundred!” said Emma, Marthen and Dad, all astounded.

“So you see,” said Gynd, “you’ll just have to win that battle.”

Gynd showed them around the old monastery a little. Several cats followed them on the tour, and they encountered several other cats sleeping or wandering on their own patrols. Gynd kept five or six rooms fairly uncluttered: the front room, a store room, the library, a little room she slept in, and a small chapel; then there was a sort of latrine, a little room with three stone seats with holes in them, letting into a deep shaft that ultimately deposited one’s excreta into a cleft in the cliff. The bedroom had a high window and a narrow stair to a narrow little door. Gynd struggled up the stair and then struggled with the door, and then she led Sophie and her dad and Emma and Marthen out into another garden, this one on top of the ridge. A single aged cow stood in the middle of the garden, on the very top of the hill Elavon was built into. The garden had low walls all around, and on the seaward side there was an opening to a walled stair down to another parapet. This overlooked the great bay below.

Sophie and the others gasped. Even Marthen could not conceal his awe. Before them, opening south, a V-shaped gulf stretched away, lined by cliffs. On the west side, punctured by a nearby river mouth and then a further one, a line of prodigious mountains rose. In the gold of midday, the waves on the gulf shone in their millions, and the peaks gleamed with ivory-white snow fields and silvery stone faces. Their flanks were clad in mantles made of millions of enormous old trees, and the gulfs of air between were cruised by hundreds or thousands of birds, and beyond it all lay layer upon layer of complex clouds rent by chasms of sunlight, and beyond all of that lay that line where the distant sea met the distant sky in an eternal kiss. They did not all think the same words. Perhaps none of them thought exactly these words. But all of their minds were throwing words at what they saw as fast as they could, and then giving up. The sea and the mountains and the sky.

Later, Gynd took them through the small chapel to the much larger one which the monks had once used every day, every night, sunrise and sunset and midday and midnight. Its ceiling had collapsed decades ago and now lay scattered on its floor. The sun gleamed on the ruins, inside made outside. Beyond, and in the lower floors, some of the rooms were cluttered with debris, some were ruins with walls or ceilings caved in, some were full of crates or broken furnishings, and some were simply boarded shut.

Matty took all this in with interest, and the two times when she actually gave vent to a complaint, Gynd went to her as if drawn by a magnet, and between Emma’s motherly attentions and Gynd’s grandmotherly instincts, Matty was satisfied that both nutrition and love were secure. “What a beautiful baby,” Gynd said at least six times. “And such a sharp eye!” she added at least four times.

Gynd tired, of course, and after an hour or so the visitors took their leave from her and her cats, and led their horses back down the broad steps. “Nice stonework here,” said Marthen. “Best I’ve seen so far.”

“You know what I really like?” asked Emma. “I like the parapets over the steps.” She waved her free hand up on their left.

“Nice,” said Sophie. “I hadn’t noticed that.”

“Oh,” said Emma, “but if they get so far, the Kug will bleeping notice, because we will draw their bleeping attention to them.”

Slim and Georgie and Lisel came back that night after dark. The hunters had bagged a couple of deer and a variety of smaller game, which Irena and Arthur and Kate had made into a stew, in pots rummaged from Elavon Monastery’s unused store rooms, augmented with tubers from the abandoned lower gardens and thinned out enough to feed four thousand people. Sophie and Dad were standing just on the north side of the stone bridge, sipping broth from mugs when the three horses came down the steep road and managed to stop at the bottom.

“Hail, sis,” said Slim, jumping down. The other two dismounted as well. “Dad.”

“How’s it look?” asked Dad. Sophie asked, “How many days do we have?”

“Well,” said Slim, looking around at the still-settling camp, “I think we have at least three days before they get here. They’re being kinda careful.”

“Peg and Oldric are shadowing them,” said Lisel. She had her dark hair back in a ponytail, and a longbow slung over her shoulder, and a thin pouch of long arrows on her belt; she looked ready to head back out and shoot something.

“You kill any rabbits with that thing?” asked Dad.

“Only two,” said Lisel. “And a couple Kug.”

“I didn’t kill a one,” said Slim. “See? I know how to pick ‘em.”

“How are you doing, Georgie?” asked Sophie.

“I killed me a couple rabbit too,” said Georgie. “Cooked ‘em up too, for breakfast. Didn’t kill any Kug, don’t think they cook so good.”

“He’s good with coney,” said Slim. “Roast some slices on sticks over the fire, stewed the rest, that was lunch. What’ve you got there?”

“Stew,” said Sophie. “My dinner. You can’t have it.”

“There’s more in camp,” said Dad, “but first, you have to give us more info. As in, how many, where, what’s up and all that?”

“Well,” said Slim, a word that he liked to relax in, “yeah, we kind of agreed on nine thousand. They’re on horse, but they’re being, like I say, careful.”

“The Frungans are holding down Killifar,” said Lisel. “They’ve left off the attack. They’re going to be waiting for the Kug to finish us off and then they’ll start poking Killifar with sticks till it breaks.”

“But if,” said Sophie, and she swallowed some soup and went on. “But when we beat these bleepholes, and come back at Killifar unencumbered with all the poor folk who will be setting up to live here at Elavon somehow, then the Frungans will be falling all over themselves asking how they can bleeping get back to Merrivan without our kicking their asses like they deserve.”

Dad and Slim and George looked at each other and laughed, a little defensively. Lisel slapped Sophie on the shoulder. “Never change, Soph,” she said.

“You’re kidding, right?” said Dad. “She’s done nothing but change this past month or two.”

“No, I haven’t,” said Sophie. “I’ve just picked up on a few things.”

Over the next three days, the new residents of the camp below Elavon Monastery settled in, and slowly it turned into Elavon Village. People were hungry and tired from their long walk and a little bit hopeless with winter coming and a barbarian horde not far away, but they had plenty to keep themselves busy. They cleared old fields and gardens, cleaned up and explored the lower floors of the monastery, familiarized themselves with the surrounding terrain, hunted, dug, built more permanent houses, and did their best to both honor Gynd and leave her in peace. Dad, Irena and Marthen all spent long periods of time with the old lady, particularly in her library. Sophie and her commanders Alix, Cath and Ulf, along with dozens of their riders, stalked the countryside around and looked at the approach to Elavon from every angle.

“How many archers can we hide up there?” Sophie asked the second full day at Elavon, standing in the pass above the monastery and the new village, glaring up at the horns of rock that overlooked the road.

“I dunno,” said Ulf. “How many can you spare from everything else?”

“We need a bunch on horseback too,” said Cath. “We can put a hundred, two hundred, down on either side here.” They looked down into the dark forests that flanked the road, just north of the pass, glens wooded with pine trees. “Are we stopping them here, before they can get down there and do damage to the folks?”

“No,” said Sophie. “No, the folks will have to get back into the monastery.”

“Can we do that?” asked Ulf. “Can we actually fit them all?”

“I don’t know,” said Sophie. “We’ll have to. Because it’s what we’re going to do.” She smiled around at the others, her three commanders, four or five others like Inga who were more or less command rank already, and four or five others who were just there to absorb. “So. Think we can do it? Beat ten thousand?”

“How many do we have?” asked Inga.

“Who can fight?” Sophie looked at Alix.

“Three fifty,” said Alix.

“I think we’re up to five fifty,” said Ulf. “Only four hundred on horses. I got a full hundred now, and Otho’s got the Old Timers, I think they may have close to a hundred.”

“Okay,” said Sophie. “Then yes. Yes. We can do it.”

They looked at her: Cath and Alix and Ulf and Inga and the rest. Alix said, “Yes, my lady, of course we can, my lady.”

“Can you just tell me,” said Cath, “what makes you think so? How we’re going to beat nine thou with five hundred? I mean, eighteen to one odds are better than what, forty to one? But they’re still eighteen to one.”

“I don’t know,” said Sophie. “We still have some details to work out.”

“We can get more people,” said Alix.

“Old folks with sharp sticks,” said Ulf.

“You know,” said Cath, “I bet the monastery has a weapon store. They may be old and rusty but I bet they’d still work.”

“And people can spend the next couple days making arrows,” said Ulf.

“It’s like stone soup,” said Alix, “but with killing guys.”

“Of course,” said Cath, “even if we do arm absolutely everyone, including Baby Matilda, we’re still outnumbered better than two to one.”

Sophie walked away from the others, to the very height of land between the two red rock horns. She looked up at one, then the other, and then down toward where the monastery and the new village lay. The others drifted toward her, gazing around.

“We don’t have any choice,” said Sophie. “This is it. This is all we got.”

“So,” said Alix, “somehow, we have to win this booger.”

“Yup.”

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