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XXII

There they stood, in the grey morning, Sophie and her dad, and Inga and the other swords.

They had been hearing distant noises, but nothing had risen to the level of notice. Now the noises passed that threshold. Shouts to the left, then to the right, the crash and snap of fast movement in forest: in a minute, young people, not Kug warriors, were breaking from the trees across the stream on the left. They gathered in a group of a dozen, turned to look up the road, and then began high-tailing it toward the bridge. Another group, an orderly column on fifty or so, was just emerging onto the road from the right.

A dozen young men and women, from Cath’s unit, came running across the bridge. One of them, a blond girl Sophie knew as Masha, knelt before her.

“My lady,” she said, “they’re advancing in a line in the woods too. They’re coming down, there’s so many of them, they—!”

“Cath’s dead,” said a blond boy of maybe fifteen standing behind her.

“We lost ten or twenty,” said a black-haired girl. “We broke and ran, my lady.”

“Stop,” said Sophie, and she controlled herself, “stop calling me that. I’m not a lady.” She sighed. “Okay. Form up. Take a spot on that side of the bridge. Get ready to shoot. When you have targets, shoot. When they start shooting back, get across the bridge. Got it?” They stared at her. “Masha!” Sophie shouted. “Take charge of this!”

Masha jumped up. “Okay,” the blond girl shouted at the others. “Get over the bridge! You heard her!”

Sophie looked at Dad. “Cath’s dead,” she said. He shrugged and waved in the direction of the still unseen oncoming horde. “Dad. I know. Dad. Am I doing okay?”

“Sophie,” said Dad, “this is going to be a hard day.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Sophie. “It’s barely dawn and my first idea is already a fiasco.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” he replied. “There’s Alix, and her kids appear to be in good order still.” They looked, and there was the redhead, looking ten years older, very much in charge of what appeared to be all of her hundred. She and Masha were arranging what they had in lines curved around the far side of the bridge. “I’ll be right back,” said Sophie.

She ran across the bridge and up to Alix. “What happened up there?” she asked.

“We saw them coming down through the trees,” Alix replied. “I guess Cath got taken by surprise on her side of the road. My guys saw them coming. So we got two volleys off, uphill, but hey, it was basically point blank. Then we pulled back. Couple times, they almost came charging down on us, we just set and fired a couple more volleys, and then pulled back again.” She smiled. “So we’re good, right? My lady?”

Sophie rolled her eyes just a little, then smiled. “You’re great. Unfortunately Cath is dead. Forget that. Got the order? Shoot a couple, then pull back? Just what you were doing.”

It was ten minutes before the Kug lines on the road came into view at the top of the last short steep slope. They were moving very deliberately, and now they halted and drew back their bows. “Fire!” shouted Alix, and the shout went down the line. The defenders at the bottom had their bows already strung, and they were not so far below that they couldn’t get their longbows to hit that high, and their first volley hit targets before the Kug had fired. The defenders got a second volley off, but by then a hundred Kug and at least a dozen of the defenders were hit.

“Fall back!” Alix and Sophie both shouted, and again the shout became a chorus. Alix’s girls and boys mostly ran down into the stream and up the other bank, while Masha’s now sixty or so survivors of Cath’s hundred crowded across the bridge. They lost more in the process, but another dozen of Cath’s unit must have remained in the woods, because fire from a dense thicket around a rock outcrop there was taking down a half dozen Kug every ten seconds or so. Still, the Kug kept their minds on their business. They fired off two more volleys of whistling arrows and then charged.

Sophie and Dad and their unit of sword wielders put their shields up and caught a lot of those whistling arrows; others thudded into the ground around them, a very disturbing rain. Then the Kug front was on the bridge and pushing across, five abreast. Just as they began to spread out on the south side of the span, they were set upon by Sophie and company. Sophie felt the hot anger well up inside. She heard Dad beside her say, “Just swing through, just swing through,” and the effect was to remind her to think about what she was doing.

The Kug warrior before her was big, a few inches taller than Sophie. He looked a little goofy. She turned her sword as she swung it and whacked him on the helmet with the flat. He went right down, and the next guy, littler but meaner-looking with a nasty curved blade, leapt over him. There was blood on the blade. It might have been Cath’s.

In a moment, there was plenty of blood on Sophie’s blade. She swung her sword up from the mean dead guy to the next, and she took in nothing about this foe’s face before she slashed it across with her sword.

The men on the bridge were paying a terrible price now, as the archers who had retreated through Sophie’s line formed up behind her and resumed shooting. But more arrows were whistling overhead, and Sophie could hear people behind her crying out in pain.

“Got to pull back,” Dad was muttering to Sophie even as he swung that axe.

Sophie took three swings to knock the scimitar out of the hand of the sneering barbarian before her and then chop into his head. As he fell, she shouted, “Pull back! Back up the first steps!”

“In order!” shouted Dad. “Sophie, you get—!”

“No, you get,” shouted Sophie. “Inga, Fredrik, You with the Beard, with me! Masha! Keep shooting!”

“Okay, let’s go,” shouted Dad. “Come on, Alix, get your gals up the stairs!”

It was surprising how they managed to make order of the chaos, but the Kug had to do the same on their own side, jammed on the bridge, slowed crossing the stream, treading on their own dead, pushing their own dead off the bridge. Somehow fifteen minutes later Sophie and her dad were side by side at the top of the wide shallow steps, trampling the big old abandoned garden.

The Kug managed to pour across the stream, by the bridge or not, and more poured across further up or further down. But it had occurred to them that their foes might possess bows and arrows. So they used more than just their cute hats and their little round shields: they used pieces of wood, they used boughs full of pine needle cover, they made sail-like constructions with skins and cloth and tree limb to block their enemies’ darts and their eyesight. Their own arrows whistled up into the second floor windows and lower gardens, and Sophie and her company retreated toward the upper levels. Each time they did, they left a few of their people behind with arrows in them.

“I can’t take this kind of loss,” she said as she and Inga fell back up the fourth outside stair around mid-morning. They both were bleeding from minor wounds which, a few inches over, would have been major.

“We’re giving way better than we’re getting,” said Inga. “They’re dying like flies.”

“There are ten times as many of them as us,” said Sophie. “We can kill a hundred and if we lose ten, it’s too many.”

“Not if you count the old ladies,” said an old lady next to Sophie. She was one of the granny farmers from south of Killifar, a relative of Inga perhaps. She raised her bow and took careful aim. Then she cackled and let loose. An arrow coming the other way whistled past her face. “Whoa,” said the crone. “That was a close one.”

“Don’t talk, just keep firing,” said Sophie. She looked around and saw a girl of eight running toward them with two bags of arrows, most of them Kug. “Dump those here,” said Sophie, “and go get more.” The girl did so, and then ran off singing, which blended in with all the screams and eerie whistles. She ran away, bending every so often to grab an arrow off the ground. Emma passed her, with Matilda dozing over her shoulder. “Do we need to evacuate further up?” Sophie asked.

“Your dad thinks so,” said Emma. Another arrow whistled past and Matty gave a cry. “Damn it!” said Emma. “It’s okay, Matty dear.”

“Okay,” shouted Sophie to the two dozen, from crone to eight-year-old, who shared the current parapet-edged court with her, “keep firing, but get ready to pull back again.”

Over the next few hours, though, the fighting, which had seemed soon to envelop the world, died down toward a siesta. The Kug, having taken the grounds in front of the monastery and climbed three levels up the steps and gardens along the east side, pulled back and settled for shooting at anyone who showed themselves too close. Sophie’s side licked their many wounds, and no doubt the Kug were doing the same. Irena set up an infirmary in the roof garden: if Irena had been treated better, months ago, by the Kug, she would be doing the same for the Kug, saving lives and easing pain and cooking herbal teas and worrying. The Yetva girl, whose name turned out to be Nadya or something like that, was here in her armor, with her sword, making poultices and brewing various kinds of tea and helping arrange the wounded. Like furry and feckless angels, half a dozen cats sat on the parapet away from the battle, watching.

The wounded were still coming in, a steady stream, on their feet or carried. There were no litters, but most of the wounds, even the awful ones, were from arrows, not the disfiguring slashes of swords and scimitars. Even the bad cases were mostly walk-ins, or stagger-ins. Meanwhile, one by one, people in and on top of the monastery were dying, dying swiftly with barely time to know it, or dying slowly of wounds they were fighting to survive. So were the Kug warriors attacking them, but Sophie couldn’t see those up close now. She only saw her own dead: a young man here, an old woman there, a child, a girl archer, a horse or two, adding up in an awful arithmetic.

In the middle of the afternoon, Sophie fell asleep sitting on a bench against a wall on one of the balconies, and woke some minutes later feeling disoriented. She jumped up and found Dad and Marthen standing there. They jumped too.

“What? What? What’s happening?” she asked.

“Nothing!” said Marthen. “Goddess, you startled me. I’d somehow forgotten you were there.”

“What’s going on? Are they attacking again?”

“No, daughter,” said Dad. “You chose a good moment to nap.”

Sophie shook herself, and then ventured a look over the parapet. The balcony was a good fifty feet above the Kug, and directly below, they had erected one of their sails to cover their activity. “What do you think they’re doing?” she asked.

“You got me. Whatever they want to do? What do you want to do about it?”

“Dad. Can I ask a question?”

“Sure.”

“How the bleep did I get to be the captain of this army? How did that happen? How is it even you ask me what I want to do? Up until about two months ago, folks didn’t even ask me what I wanted for dinner.”

He laughed. “You don’t know yourself, do you?”

“What the hell does that mean?”

Dad and Marthen laughed some more. It was annoying. Emma came in on the middle of it, gave them both a look, then had a look over the parapet. “Well,” she said, “that’s bleeped.”

“It’s clear where you picked up your new vocab,” said Marthen. “So Emma, dear, we are still trying to work out if we can or should do anything about the below.”

“Bleepin’ drop a burning pine branch on it.”

Dad and Marthen stared at each other. “By golly,” said Dad, “sort of like an olive branch but not really.”

“Order it,” said Sophie, and she went back inside, to a room full of old broken furnishings. She searched around and eventually found a set of spiral stone stairs that seemed to run up and down indefinitely. Following them upward, kicking random debris out of the way, she came to a hard ceiling, pushed it up and found herself climbing up into the roof garden.

“My lady!” said Alix. She was lying on a blanket on the ground.

“Having a nap?”

“Oh yeah, totally,” said Alix. Sophie noticed that the girl had a bloody bandage on her thigh.

“Oh, Alix,” said Sophie, kneeling by her. “Oh, Alix, I’m so sorry!”

“I’m going to be fine, my lady, just let’s make sure we win or I’ll have to get up so I can go down swinging.”

“Oh, Alix.”

“Sophie. I’m going to be fine. Irena’s got me taken care of.” She managed to sit up, and had a sip of brownish liquid from a cup near her. “Good stuff,” she said, and then she poured some on the bandage. She grimaced, then smiled and said, “See? I’m good.”

“That’s not tea, is it?”

“Ha. Brandy, actually. It works.”

Sophie bent and kissed Alix on the forehead. “Don’t worry,” she said. She laughed at last. “Let me do that.”

“Win the battle, my lady,” said Alix.

Sophie smiled at her, jumped up and started around, trying not to get drawn into caring for any one person again before she could take it all in. There were probably a hundred people wounded, most of them from her five hundred or so warriors, but some from the older folks. It didn’t seem so bad, except that it was bad. And except that the dead were the ones she wasn’t seeing up here.

Inga found her minutes later standing by the parapet of the roof garden, looking down hundreds of feet toward the now smoke-obscured ground.

“Did we get the cloth things set on fire?” Sophie asked.

“Yes we did,” said Inga, “but they responded by setting more stuff on fire, and now we can’t see a stinkin’ thing down there because of the smoke.”

They looked down for some time. There was a lot of smoke.

Sophie stepped back. She started toward the side steps. The slightly lower garden there, the one above where they had first met Gynd, was filling up with people, mostly mothers and children and old peasants, the half the camp who had not been conscripted into fighting.

“What’s going on?” asked Sophie.

“Lower floors,” said an old guy with a bad limp, “they’re all fulla smoke.”

“Sophie, Sophie,” said a little girl, “where’s my mommy? Sophie!”

“I don’t know. Inga?”

“Sophie, I don’t know either, you want me to go find her or something?”

“Just relax, little girl,” said Sophie. “Dang it! Inga, I know someone you can go find. Go find my command. Go find, um, Dad and Emma and Marthen and Nell and, you know, all those people.”

“Alix is up here wounded, you know,” said Inga.

“Yes! Yes, I know. Inga, I’m sorry, I just—Dad and Marthen and Emma were down on that balcony, sixth floor, I think. I don’t know about the others.”

“I’ll find them,” said Inga. “We’ll be fine.” She gave Sophie a hug and ran off.

“All we gotta do,” Sophie said to herself, the little motherless girl hanging onto her hand, “is deal with whatever bleeping thing they think to throw at us next.” But she didn’t actually say bleeping.

Half an hour later, on a balcony off the very room where Gynd had first met them, Sophie and twenty of her best and wisest acquaintances were conferring. Gynd was in a chair in the corner, knitting, a cat in her lap ignoring the yarn and the meeting. Somewhere on the roof, the girl who had lost her mother was being comforted by her mother.

“The lower floors are full of smoke,” said Marthen. “They must have set fire to whatever was in there, and/or brought in wood from the forest.”

“Is it going to bring down the monastery?” asked Masha.

“No, no, it’s too strong for that,” said Gynd. “Giants with chisels couldn’t do that. Not in a hundred years.”

“Then what is the danger?” asked Sophie.

“Oh, let me make a list,” said Marthen. “They keep us from aiming at them well. We have to waste arrows firing into the smoke, and maybe we hit one every ten shots. They smoke us out of the lower floors, and they can come up floor by floor till we’re all crowded up here. Maybe they smoke us right out into the open and shoot us down as we come out. The further away we are from the bottom, the more of them they can bring across the bridge. And they might be able to use the burning stuff as weapons, too. And who knows, I might not have thought of all the wonderful things that Mr Gama Kug can think of.”

“He’s here?”

“He is here,” said Irena. “I see him here. Of course, obvious, he is here. How you say it? Would not miss for world.”

“He’s here,” said Sophie. “Stupid King Olk is just a nuisance, just some opportunist. Gama Kug, he’s the guy who’s responsible for all this.” She looked at Dad and Nell standing side by side. “He’s the one who kicked us out of our house and home. He destroyed our lives. And now here he is. Yup, yup. Of course he’s here.”

“Sophie,” said Dad.

“So what are we going to do?” asked Inga.

“Where is he?” asked Sophie.

“What?”

“Where. Is he. You know?” She looked at Dad, then at Inga.

“I show you,” said Irena. She elbowed the others apart, put an arm around Sophie and pointed. “There. This side of bridge. Tent of colors. He is there.”

“That’s his tent?” Irena nodded. “Nice tent,” said Sophie. She looked at it for another minute, then up at the descending sun. “I’ll tell you what,” she said. “I am sick of him deciding what is going to happen. I am sick of them dictating the way the battle goes. Yesterday we decided where to fight and how. And it was good. Today, he’s deciding.” She turned and looked at Dad.

“What evil idea is forming in your pretty head?” he asked.

“Dad. Get the old timers together. And get some of Alix’s girls. Start a little, um, offensive on the outside stairs. Be careful, but put some pressure on. Shoot a bunch, then attack. Push them a little. Can you do that?”

“Yeah. There’s more, right?”

“Bleepin’ right, there’s more. You just go do that, and don’t get yourself killed.”

“Is that an order? My lady?”

“Yes, Dad. That is an order.” He saluted, then started away out the door to the garden, calling the old timers out by name. Sophie turned to Inga. “How many of our big folks from this morning can you find?”

“How many do we need?”

“I dunno. Let’s find out.”

They went out behind Dad, grabbing anyone big and young and stupid enough to be brave but not so stupid as to be badly wounded or dead, and by the time they had crossed the roof to the top of the spiral stair, they had twenty-three. Nadya, the former captive Yetva, made clear she was one of them. Alix tried to join, but Sophie made her lie down.

“Stay here and we’ll come get you,” said Sophie.

“Bring me the head of Gama Kug, my lady,” said Alix.

“Yes, your majesty,” said Sophie. She kissed Alix on both cheeks, then got up. “This thing is hard on commanders, you know that?”

“You’re the commander,” said a very big young fellow, a blacksmith’s apprentice from Tenna.

“I know, right? Okay, one more thing. Everyone grab a rag for your faces. To screen out the smoke.”

“Wet them! Wet them,” cried Irena, coming over.

“What?”

“Wet the rags. Won’t do no good otherwise. Wet with tea, take my word, is good.”

“That’s tea, not brandy?”

“Of course. Brandy catch fire.”

“Okay, okay, let’s do it.” Irena took a scarf of old cloth, dunked it into a pot of warm tea and gave it to Sophie, and then did another for Inga, and another for the blacksmith, and so on. Sophie looked back at her troop: they were ready. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s go.”

They all let out a whoop, and then Inga gave a shut-up swipe across her mouth with her hand, and then Sophie pulled her sword out and led them down the stairs. A few floors on, she stopped them, stuck her sword under her arm, tied her scarf around her head over her mouth, gave a thumbs up and headed onward to the bottom.

The smoke got thicker and thicker. The rags didn’t do a thing for their eyes, or for the heat, but they did keep the soot out of their mouths, and the heat and stinging kept them moving. The stairs bottomed out at last in the hottest and smokiest floor—the floor of the monastery, a long, narrow line of store rooms now entirely filled with burning wood. Sophie could only imagine what it was like for the hundreds of Kug prisoners from last night, locked in the mucky cellar underneath unknown by their own countrymen.

Men were still throwing new fuel in through doors and windows. All of a sudden, people were charging out of the fire, cloths across their faces, swords in one hand and burning limbs in the other. The men feeding the fire went down under the onslaught. Sophie and her company paused only to get their bearings, and then, ignoring all else but making sure their steel hats were on straight, they turned to the right and commenced to cut through anything in their way.

A knot of men formed up to fight them, mostly just because they had figured out that Sophie’s force wasn’t Kug and was coming at them, but Sophie and Inga and the others came on hard and bore these down quickly, killing some and scattering some and knocking some down hard enough to stay down. Sophie let her sword swing high left to low right, high right to low left, laying two men down and forgetting about them; beside her, Inga bore down a big warrior and stooped to make sure he was dead; Nadya, expressionless, swung level left and right, advancing through three wiry little guys who were no match for her. The knot of men evaporated. A lot of them were on the ground, dead or dying. Sophie stopped and looked at her troop.

“We’re fine,” said Inga, “we just gotta keep moving or they’ll glom around us.”

“Let’s go,” said Sophie. “Tent’s in sight.” There it was, in all its colorful gaiety. To the right, they could see more Kug forces organizing and starting up the outside stairs. “Well?”

“Let’s go,” yelled Inga. The others whooped and they took off at a run.

Out of the tent poured dozens of warriors. More took a look back from the bottom of the steps, and turned to come back to this fight. Sophie met three together, young Kug toughs with curved blades. Arrows whistled past her in the smoke, but no one was finding targets now, not that way. She made a lunge at the left one, then ducked, guessed her footing wrong and wound up somersaulting. She came up whacking the middle one with her burning brand, and it broke on the back of his head: he went down and did not participate further. She whirled and sliced into the one on the right, and he fell into the blade thrust of the one on the left, whose blade stuck right through him. Before its owner could get it out, Sophie killed him with a chop down on the side of his neck.

She was back in the barn with the wolves. There were wolves behind her. She went forward: that was the direction she could see. She just kept swinging.

A warrior tried to take her on, but she didn’t want to stand and fight. She took his left, then whirled and got around his swipe and grabbed him by the shoulders. She threw him back at her pursuers, whoever they were, and killed the next two men while they were still off balance.

She could hear the blacksmith boy laughing as he swung two swords, his own and a Kug scimitar a yard long. He and Nadya were pushing their side into the stream.

But the other side had been stabilized. Half a dozen of Sophie’s raiders were down, and now Inga was overmatched and alone. She slipped and hit the ground hard, and Kug warriors jumped over her to take on the rest of those with her. She looked up and saw four Kug coming toward her smiling. Three were particularly large and well-armed. The fourth was huge and flabby. He wore armor, but he also wore copious jewelry and a curious sort of billowy hat. He laughed, and they laughed. He said something, and they laughed. Inga tried to get up, but she had hurt her leg. Of course.

One of the big men cried out. He felt his leg. He fell to that side, like a tree that had been chopped, dropped to the ground and bled to death from the gash in his thigh. Before he hit the ground, the man next to him whirled around and took Sophie’s second swipe across the stomach. He backed up and fell over Inga, and at this, Gama Kug and his remaining guard turned to see Sophie in third position ready to fight.

Gama Kug, for it was he, backed up and shouted some orders. More Kug warriors came to help out. Sophie sagged a little, and they came at her laughing. Then she spun and sliced the left-most one across the neck, chopped down at the next one, and spun again as they turned to face her. She laughed at them. They were not in a humorous mood anymore. Nadya and Blacksmith Boy flanked her, but that was all they could do: Sophie was alone on the stage now, alone with her enemies.

She feinted toward the one on the right. They all shifted that way. She spun and drove her sword hard into the neck of the one on the left. It didn’t stick, but tore out the veins and came loose as he fell dead. She feinted again, and now half a dozen more Kug feinted with her. She spun. She ducked under a swipe from a big Kug, a very big one, and when he tried to trip her, she chopped at his foot. And then her sword was knocking his sword out of the way, and then her left hand came up and drove her hunting knife up under his loose but expensive armor, tore through his loose but very pricey robes, and when it came out, the life blood of Gama Kug came out after it.

Sophie whipped around. Half a dozen Kug were staring at her. One, on the left, an irate look on his face, cried out and lunged at her.

He fell sideways, a whistling arrow in his ear.

The others scattered. Sophie looked to her left. There was Inga, on her knees, holding a Kug short bow. “Help me up,” she said. “My lady.”

“Oh kay,” said Sophie. They looked around: their only living company was most of the people who had come down the stairs with them. At their feet was, forsooth, Mister Gama Kug.

“Help me with his head,” said Sophie. “I promised Alix.”

The attack melted away by the time Sophie and her gang had gotten back up the stairs to the roof of the Elavon monastery. They began to hear the Kug horns sound the retreat, high-middle-low-low, high-middle-low, a call they would always remember. The news of Gama Kug’s death—and the removal of his head—spread across his host, which was already no more than a third of what he had brought south from Killifar. Pursued by such as Ella and Emma and assorted crones and old timers, the Kug fled into the night.

Sophie and her company, pretty much carrying Inga, got to the roof just about when Dad and the old timers did. “We did it, girl,” Dad cried, coming toward her at a near run. He went to hug her, and she laughed and held out the head. He stopped and held his hands up. “Whoa.”

“It’s a present for a friend of mine,” said Sophie. “What are they doing?”

“They’re bugging out,” said Marthen, coming up. “Is that—?”

“Yes, yes, it is,” said Sophie. “You mean they’re retreating?”

“Yes, yes, I mean they’re retreating. Sophia, you have won the battle for us. Sophie! The battle is won. You get that, right?”

“I do.” She held up the head for all to see. It was ghastly enough, but there was a chorus of laughter, of all things. She waited it out, then shouted, “Hey. Ulf! Ulf? Padric? You around somewhere?”

“I was with you, um, Sophie,” said Ulf. Padric, next to him, said, “We both were.”

“Oh. Sorry. Strange day. Listen, Ulf, Padric, get fifty riders together—can you do that? And follow them, just make sure—!”

“They’re leaving. Make sure they’re leaving.”

“Yeah. But—no casualties, okay, Ulf? Not even a shoulder wound.”

He grinned. “Yes, my captain!”

“Now where’s Alix?”

“Here, my lady,” said Alix. She was up, with a crutch, and with Irena helping. “Ooh, a present! Is it really—?”

“Sophia,” said Irena. “Is him!” She looked about to swoon with joy. “Is actually him!” Irena looked at Sophie and said, “My lady!”

“Call her your Queen,” said Alix.

“Hey everyone,” shouted Inga. She whooped long and loud and then, in the silence, shouted, “Queen Sophia! Queen Sophia!”

“What? No, no way,” said Sophie, but it was no use. Everyone was saying it now.

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