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XXI

The next two days were spent doing what they could. Spears were sharpened, arrows were fletched, people were moved around and trained a little, plans were made. The lower regions of the monastery, which were mostly intact, were excavated of their debris. One room contained thousands of arrows; another had twenty suits of uselessly rusty armor and two dozen rusty but still usable swords. Two dozen books Gynd didn’t even know about were found mouldering in a corner. Most of the horses were moved to a new paddock out of the way up the valley west of the bridge, but as the Kug approached, two hundred horses and two hundred riders—the commands of Alix and Cath—were placed in the patches of dense pine woods flanking the pass.

Patrols kept the refugee army updated on where the Kug were. The Kug could be furtive, as they had been before the battle on the Vara River, but it wasn’t their normal procedure, and this was at least nine thousand of them moving along a road in rough country, following a quarry they thought themselves sure to overwhelm. So it was known when they were six hours away from the pass, and two hours, and an hour.

Refugee numbers had swollen again, now to over five thousand: six hundred people had come in this last day, and five hundred the day before, from various directions, mostly north and northeast but not along the road.  But they were no army. They were in desperate condition, much hungrier and more ragged than those who had come from Killifar with Sophie and company. Some had fled late from the villages around Killifar, but most had come from south of Merrivan, a previously prosperous region now raided by the Frungans. Most of the province had emptied out, and many had fled to the kingdoms in the south, but these had met an uncertain fate, and those from nearer to Merrivan had simply taken to the woods. Of these, only a fraction made it this far, and they straggled into camp in a wave and pretty much collapsed.

The effect on preparations was predictable. The effect on morale was more complicated. But somehow, preparations resumed, and safe enough places were found for the new arrivals out of the way. And then everyone more or less turned to look at Sophie and her warriors.

In the late afternoon, with the Sun off the pass but still lighting the red stone peaks on either side, Sophie sat on Horseradish, her sword in her hand, wearing a dead Kug’s helmet, really just a fur hat with a metal bowl on top. Next to her was Inga, and around her were several farm boys and farm girls, a total of a dozen big kids like her, teenagers with some experience with the sword and the bow, Sophie’s personal guard. Around them, in the wood on the northwest side of the pass, were the hundred mounted archers of Alix’s command.

At first they talked. Then they sat and stewed in their solitary thoughts. Presently, Sophie’s mind closed those familiar, deep, dark channels in which her thoughts had been coursing for weeks, and she slipped into the stillness of finite worry. Then they were hearing the birds and the leaves and the breeze. Then they were hearing the sound of hooves and men shouting.

The sound of approaching horsemen grew and grew and then they were riding by, not at a gallop but at a good long distance uphill speed. The girls and boys in the pine wood looked at each other but kept quiet. In a minute, horsemen were passing, twenty feet in front of them, four abreast: the little horses of the Kug, bearing Kug warriors, blond and dark-skinned, braided and tattooed, with those little bows and those funny arrows and those funny curved swords. They seemed happy and nervous at the same time, controlled and wild. They were also just the forward unit, a hundred and then a short gap and then another hundred, stopping in the pass till the next couple of hundred caught up.

The Kug horde went fast at times, then slow. Twice they came to a virtual halt due to some unseen traffic jam or command confusion. There were already as many Kug past them as Sophie’s total number, here and elsewhere around the pass, and they were just the foremost twentieth of the Kug army. Somehow, Sophie thought, looking at a dozen Kug just yards in front of her, the warriors from the north did not see her or her little army.

She thought of her dad saying that most folk were barely competent to wipe their own rear ends. These looked up to that task, but they certainly were not seeing anything they didn’t want to see.

Alix passed Sophie a piece of rag on which she had scrawled, in charcoal, CCCCC and then crossed it out and written: D. Five hundred. The last of the front group had made the summit, and now there was a larger gap. It was hard to tell what they were all doing, but whispered news among the teenagers said that three hundred were on their way down the far slope toward the pond and Elavon, reconnoitering, and the other two hundred were waiting in the pass.

Sophie moved forward to the edge of the trees. Horseradish tried a bite of pine needle and didn’t like it. Sophie watched the back of the Kug front move past her, looking around and back but still not seeing what they didn’t want to see. Now they were completely past. The next group of Kug were starting to approach: this would be a thousand or more, on horse, in a tight formation. Their plan would be to go wherever the front group had found opposition, and to smash the opposition. Behind them would be another thousand, and another and another and then more.

Sophie came just out of the trees. She looked up at the eastern horn. She raised her sword high in the air.

A light flashed up there: the reflection on metal of the late sun. Then it flashed away, down the slope. Sophie retreated into the trees.

“Well?” whispered Alix.

“Right now,” Sophie replied, while Inga and several others leaned in to hear, “the front hundred is taking fire from behind them. It might not be easy to figure out what to do about it, but that’s what they’re getting.” She pulled her bow off her shoulder.

“What will they do?” asked a big dark-haired girl of fifteen.

“We shall see,” said Alix, grinning at Sophie.

In a few minutes, they could hear horns from beyond the pass. They stopped, and then there were more, blowing the same three-note call: low-high-low, low-high-low. It wasn’t a call anyone from Merrivan or Tenna knew, but that was because none of them had heard Kug troops in need of reinforcement. The two hundred in the pass began to return the call, and then sounded the Kug charge: low-low-high, low-low-low-high. They disappeared over the top and down the other side, and from behind, to the north of the pass still, more horns sounded.

The Kug commanders might have wished to know more about what was going on, but they hadn’t the chance. It was not quite dark, and their forward units were already into the melee, or something. It was more like a meat grinder, over on the south side of the horns, but there was no way to know or expect that. So a thousand riders in close formation barreled up the pass and over, and behind them came another thousand.

Oldric and Peg appeared by Sophie. “Yeah?” she said, as low as she could: Kug cavalry were charging by thirty feet away, noisy but way too close.

“We had some scouts try and come through the woods over here a minute ago,” said Peg. “They’ve been taken care of.”

“Probably the same on the other side,” said Alix. “So—?”

“Wait,” said Sophie.

The next thousand were passing. Several boys and girls were counting under their breaths and every so often holding up a hand with fingers numbering: a hundred, two, three, four, five. Six, seven, eight, nine, that’s three thou.

“Three thousand,” said Alix.

“There’s a gap,” said Oldric.

“It’s not enough,” said Sophie. “Wait till we have the fourth thousand halfway through.”

It didn’t take much longer for that to happen. The noise from the other side of the pass was still a dull mix of horns and cries. No retreat horns had been heard, though no one here knew, yet, what a Kug call for retreat might sound like. Sophie’s hands were sweating, her muscles ached with the waiting, but it seemed like five more seconds had passed when the girls around her all held up five fingers.

“Okay, volley at will on my signal,” whispered Sophie, and the word whispered out around her. The Kug were still passing, so close. She could see their faces: laughing but anxious, grinning but scared, proud but uncertain, at home in their company but strangers in a far country. All these men, sons of mothers, husbands of wives, brothers of brothers and sisters, fathers of daughters and sons.

All here, she reminded herself, to kill her and the people she loved.

Another hundred and another had passed. Sophie raised her right hand with an arrow in it, waited. She dropped her hand and shouted, “Now!”

The arrow was on her bow. The riders around her had the jump on her though, and her first arrow flew with the second volley. Then, blurred a little but in an organic rhythm, five volleys came from the hundred and some riders under the eaves of the pine wood, and one hundred, two hundred, and then more of the Kug before them went down.

The Kug took precious seconds to work out the new situation, and precious more seconds to organize a response, and in that time their structure was decimated and decimated again and decimated yet again. Now they turned to fire upon their attackers, but the attackers had stopped and pulled back five horse steps into the pine woods. From behind the Kug came more shouts, and more volleys, and then the call to charge. The invading army, still far outnumbering its ambushers, broke in three parts: half turning toward the pass to escape their attackers, a third turning to fight hand to hand and the remainder, the remainder of the remainder, turning to ride back up the road toward the second half of the Kug host, the half that remained unfought.

Cath and Ulf and their riders clambered up out of their side of the woods, a little ahead of Sophie’s and Alix’s group so as to avoid getting stray arrows, and began wailing on an equal number of Kug warriors. Taken from behind and unawares, and with many wounded already, these could not maintain their cohesion and split again, and many of them were slain or fell to arrows as they fled. The remainder of the remainder, having made its way back down the road a quarter of a mile, found itself under fire again: Sophie and Alix and their friends had kept with them, somehow, and now the remainder, under a withering and almost sarcastic fire, lost what remained of their cohesion as well. Their attackers vanished back into the woods as the Kug fell or fled or threw themselves on the ground in despair. The back half of the Kug army found them there, and what it did with them is unrecorded.

By now night had fallen. The forward thousands of Kug, trapped on the downslope, found themselves stalled. Many archers were on the horns of the pass, ranging from Ella and Jim up to men of sixty or seventy, and they were too high up for the whistling arrows of the barbarians to reach them and do anything more than bounce off harmlessly. Some of these were shot back down with the added deadliness of gravity. The pretty dell on the south shoulder of the pass, where the refugees had camped less than a week before, was becoming a place of horror; for years to come, bones and broken armor would be found in the pond.

The front of the Kug could not make headway: they had gained the bridge all too easily, and now were being shot at from every window and parapet in the half-hidden ruin of Elavon. Dad and Otho and hundreds of other men and women of a certain age, stolid farmers and long-time hunters of Tenna and Killifar and Merrivan provinces, pinned them on the deadly open space of the bridge, while Irena and Marthen and Nell and many others kept the arrows coming. Every so often one of the Kug would get across the stream above the bridge, and one after another these fell with a dagger in the neck, the mark of Emma, whose baby now huddled far above in the lap of old Mother Gynd.

Sophie and her riders came over the top of the pass and saw the horrible scene before them. She shouted and shouted again, and then heard a Kug horn right next to her: Inga had picked it up and now blew it untutored. It was loud enough. Everything at this end of the battle stopped.

“Surrender,” Sophie shouted from her horse at the top of the pass. “Understand? Give up! Give. The bleep. Up.”

Whether they understood or not, the Kug before her all began throwing down their weapons. The first day of the battle was over.

Sophie and Dad and Marthen and Emma and Irena and Nell and about fifty other people had a tense dinner that night about midnight, around a fire in a courtyard they cleared out about halfway up the castle. There was so much to do and there was so little they knew. The prisoners, who came to about four hundred, were herded into a vast chamber under the monastery and locked in. The Kug dead, who numbered in the area around three thousand, were dragged into a big pile in the woods to be dealt with later, somehow, if there was a later. The defenders had lost twenty-six, and three dozen more were seriously wounded, including Farm Boy, who Sophie learned was named Hank. He had sustained a concussion and a head wound, and broken his ankle. Sophie visited him, saw he was awake and relatively comfortable, and gave him a kiss on the forehead.

At least three hundred Kug had been captured, captives of a force whose actual number of soldiers was little more than their number. These were herded, with no weapons and only the food they carried, into Elavon’s windowless and mucky basement, and there they remained for the next twenty-four hours, after which it might be said that their lives improved substantially.

Much debate was had about what the rest of the Kug army would do. It was decided, more or less by consensus, that Oldric and Peg would pick a dozen watchers and they would watch the Kug camp, which was a mile north of the pass, right on the old road. It was thought that they still had a bit over half their original force, and they might well salvage more from the scattered remnant of the forward units. They still wildly outnumbered the defenders’ troops; they even outnumbered the total number of refugees, including old folks and babies.

The consensus was that in the morning the Kug would either retreat to Killifar or take another shot at Elavon’s pitiful refugees. The debate seemed unclear, especially since no one knew what they were talking about. Dad was almost as tired as Sophie, and did not lend much of his usual acerbic common sense to the discussion. Emma was already off sleeping with her baby; Irena had exhausted herself already as well; the argument was thus primarily among old men. Sophie fell asleep in the middle of it, up against Dad, two grey tabby cats cuddled against her legs.

“I think they’ll have had enough,” she heard Marthen saying as she drifted into slumber. “They’ll go back and have another crack at Killifar.”

Moments later, it seemed, it was the gloom of the hour before dawn, and Inga was waking her. “Sophie,” she was saying, “there’s Kug coming over the pass again. Come on, we have to go!”

“There’s a what?” Sophie replied, desperately wishing Inga was a dream. Then she sat up and grabbed Inga by the collar of her tunic. “What??”

“Kug,” said Inga. “Scouts say they broke camp and came this way. You ready?”

“Damn right I’m ready,” said Sophie, jumping up. She had been lying on the ground next to Dad, more or less where they had been holding their council last night. The fire, the Council Fire forsooth, had burned down to ashes. She looked around for her sword and found it, and then her bow and her arrows, and then her Kug hat. Dad was just stirring. Sophie bent and kissed him on the forehead, which seemed to be her new thing. “Be safe, Dad,” she said.

“What?” he asked, not opening his eyes.

“Be safe, gotta go bang heads,” she said. She smiled at Inga. “Once and for all.”

The two of them, followed by several other girls and a couple of young men, came down the steps to the next garden, where they picked up more young warriors and archers, and then down more steps to a larger garden and found Alix and Cath talking with Emma in the growing light while Irena and Aedith cooed at Matty.

“You guys ready?” asked Alix. “What’s the plan?” asked Cath.

“How quick can you guys get your hundreds ready?” asked Sophie.

“No time at all,” said Alix. “They’re already up.”

“Okay. So.” Sophie wrinkled her brow. “No horses this time, leave your horses here, just take your guys on foot through the woods on either side of the road. When you see them coming over the pass, wait in the woods and pick your shots. Don’t fire till you hear fighting down here. I’m gonna take the biggest guys we got and pretend to meet them at the bridge, and then we’re gonna fall back to the monastery and they’ll come charging after. And if you’re pouring fire into them from the sides, that’ll just make them run faster. We should have them all bottled up down here and be able to do it to them again just like yesterday.” She looked around at the now dozens of people hanging on her words. “Does that make any sense?”

“It makes as much sense as it did yesterday,” said Cath.

“It made plenty of sense yesterday,” said Inga.

“Okay!” shouted Alix. “Okay, let’s do it!”

“Hey,” said Sophie, suddenly, unaccountably nervous as the people around her, girls and boys really, jumped to execute this new version of the old plan. “Uh, be careful, okay, you guys? I mean, make sure you know where those guys are. Don’t take any—just be careful.”

“Of course, my lady,” said Alix.

Sophie, exasperated, grabbed the redhead and shook her. “Come on,” she said, “take this seriously.”

“I am! I swear I am.”

“Sophie,” said Cath. They looked at each other. Cath grabbed Sophie in a hug and said, over her shoulder, “You be careful too.”

Alix and Cath and their officers or whatever set off down the steps into the brightening twilight, now tinged increasingly with fog from the stream, while Sophie and Inga started grabbing everyone they saw who looked big. Emma and Irena began getting everyone else up into the ruined monastery—thousands of people had slept outside just this side of the bridge last night, despite the fact that there had been a battle there yesterday evening and it looked like today would see another one.

In a few minutes, Sophie was arranging her crew, who numbered about twenty, behind rocks and bushes and sections of fallen masonry on the south side of the bridge. Inga had taken it on herself to find cast-off Kug hats and shields and distribute them. The Yetva girl, the former Frungan warrior, was there, with her own sword and armor and steely look: Sophie hoped she could figure out what to do, since they didn’t have a common language. Sophie was just replacing one more sharpened tree limb in the hands of a farm boy with a rusty sword from the Elavon store rooms when four old men and a substantial-looking older woman came down the stairs.

“What exactly,” said Dad, in front, “do you think you’re doing?”

“Dad,” said Sophie, “you don’t have a sword. You gave yours to me.”

“I have the axe, and that should do fine. Just like fleshy wood, right? Anyway, you didn’t answer my question.”

“We are getting ready to bear the brunt of the assault, Dad. Maybe you should go back up and get the archers set up. They’re kind of an integral part of the plan.”

“Girl,” said Dad, and he waved his hands. They turned, and down the steps came Emma and Marthen and Irena, followed by Ella and several other youngsters with longbows. Irena found the Yetva girl, asked her something and got an answer and a smile. “Where’s the baby?” Dad asked Emma.

“She’s with Mother Gynd,” said Emma. “What the bleep—?”

“Emma,” said Sophie, “get your butt back up there and start arranging archers.”

“Okay,” she said. “Can do that.”

“I’ll help,” said Marthen. “I’m getting better at the shooting part as well.” Irena just shrugged and smiled nervously, nodded to the Yetva brunette and then to Sophie. Then the three turned and went back up the stairs. Emma was already yelling her own orders.

Sophie was left facing Dad. “Okay,” she said, “you can play with us, but no getting badly wounded or killed or stuff.”

“You too,” he replied. “Got a plan?”

Sophie looked out across the bridge and up the road toward the pass. “Sure I do,” she said.

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