Sophie and her dad, and Slim and Ella and Jim and Nell and a dozen other riders, took their leave of Master Perkin Paton of Killifar and set out along the north trail through the wet and muddy March woods. They had spent a pleasant week in the walled town: it was supposed to have been a two-night stay, but a late blizzard and then a cold spell extended their visit with Margery and Master Perkin Paton. Now the sun was bright and the snows melting and the birds singing in the trees.
They rode at a leisurely pace, even a careful pace given that they were now entering hostile territory, and spent two nights in the forest, hunting and stopping where they found dry ground and burnable wood. They ate looking up through the tree branches at the stars. Sophie slept with her newest best friend Inga, and Dad slept in his own tent, and elsewhere in camp slept Hank the farm boy and Homer the blacksmith’s apprentice and a couple of other girl archers, as well as Irena, along for her linguistic, medical and culinary skills.
They saw no one but each other from their friendly, even enthusiastic departure from Killifar through three whole days in the forest. And then, late in the afternoon, they came out onto a farm lane and saw a muddy field, a paddock holding a dozen little horses and two dozen sheep and a few goats. On the other side of the field, where an old wood house had by now completely vanished, a months-old sod hut stood.
Smoke spiraled out of its chimney. On a bench by the back door sat a couple, a young woman holding a baby and a young man holding a piece of wood which he was whittling. They were dark of skin with dirty-looking blond hair. They were conversing in low voices, sometimes talking to the baby, and occasionally looking up at their livestock. A girl toddler toddled nearby, playing with some sort of toy in the dirty snow. Two cats sat on hay bales, and a skinny dog lay on a rug. They saw Sophie and Dad and Inga and Irena come out of the woods and stand in the farm lane on the other side of the pasture.
The young couple stared at them. Then the young man stood up, smiled with bright teeth and waved. He called to them, and Irena answered in his language. “They invite us in,” she said.
“We should trust them?” asked Sophie.
“Their culture,” said Irena, “being host is what, holy thing, you know? Sacred. They will not poison you or knife you in sleep.”
“Torture you, rape you, kill your kids, sure,” said Dad.
“Don’t joke. They not do this if you are visitor. They do this,” and she laughed, sort of, “if you are capture. Then they do this.”
“Okey dokey,” said Sophie. She looked at Inga. “Good enough for you?” The big girl grinned and shrugged.
In a few minutes, they were all seated on the floor inside the very neat and very warm and now very crowded hut. Dad and Sophie presented to their hosts a bottle of Killifar’s red wine, and this was talked about at length with Irena translating, the toddler in her lap. They ate something spicy and meaty, they tried the wine, they tried the local brew, which was a sort of alcoholic yogurt, and they discussed the local situation as best they could. Then, without a single reasonable fear in any of their hearts, they lay down and slept the sleep of the just, on a floor much more comfortable than the floor of the forest had been.
In the day following the victory at the monastery, much had been done and more had been decided to be done. Much of the supplies that the Kug had brought all the way to Elavon got left there, and the monastery itself had old storerooms full of certain things like wine and flour, stored in well-sealed barrels. Still, supplies were short, and the new residents of what was becoming the town of Elavon had to organize hunting and gathering and winter gardening in order to have a decent shot at surviving the cold months.
The Kug had been defeated and their forces had pulled back in disarray. The leader who had brought them this far was dead, literally butchered by a mere girl in view of dozens if not hundreds of his followers, and possibly dozens of his sons. The leadership vacuum and the humiliation would both linger long, through the winter into the new year. But not all of Gama Kug’s surviving followers left. Hundreds, captured before the final battle or taken wounded before Elavon, begged not to be made to go home such a long way to such an uncertain fate. Sophie and Dad and Marthen and Emma and even Irena tended to feel they should be given a chance to show their value, and most of the Kug who stayed managed to do so through hard work and good humor and an ability to cook almost anything, given some sort of oil and a hot enough pan.
The Frungans did not stay to fight the new army that seemed to have formed out of nothing in the South. When Marthen and Dad and Irena came north in late November, with Alix and two hundred cavalry, they found themselves negotiating the Frungans’ withdrawal. There had already been one half-foot blizzard, which had melted; the King of Frunga had concluded that a long siege was not well-omened. They took most of their supplies with them, but the town had survived largely intact.
The Frungan general, one Lord Skatok, had perhaps never gotten clear whom he was negotiating with. But another thing that had been decided by the day after the battle was that the new town needed a monarch, for the same reason that other communities in that age felt they needed monarchs, and that the obvious choice was Sophie.
It was not obvious to her. It was not her idea of a good idea. But they would insist: Inga, Alix, Ulf, Padric, Masha, Emma, and emphatically and persistently Marthen, little Marthen who knew what it was like to work for a monarch. “You are so much better suited for the job than Little John is, or was,” he said to her, and he kept saying it to her, in fact, for years. He added, “But don’t worry. We won’t let you get a big head about it. My Queen.”
“This doesn’t bother you, does it?” Emma asked Dad. He just smiled and shrugged.
So Sophie became Queen Sophie, or Queen Sophia. She didn’t feel different from the way she had felt the day before. She did feel different from the way she had felt three months before.
Sophie found herself in need of ministers, so she chose Marthen as treasurer, Irena as foreign minister, Dad as minister of defense and Emma as steward. Mother Gynd, who had managed to putter through the whole battle upstairs, was named Royal Librarian, and six people were assigned to help her copy books. Meanwhile, Alix was up and about already, and Sophie made sure she and Ulf and Masha kept up their units of a hundred; two more were added, run by Otho and a Killifarian farmer named Erik. Inga was named the Queen’s Bodyguard. After the exhausting work of setting up that much government, Sophie decreed that she didn’t want to create any more department heads or whatever.
With the Kug, and with a further influx of refugees from the province south of Merrivan, Elavon swelled to over six thousand. A thousand Killifar farmers returned north and yet more refugees replaced them. Food was in reasonable supply, and the new farmers of Elavon were already scouting locations for farms: this area had once, under the Empire, been wine and fruit and pasture country, and it would be again. It would be more than that: these refugees from the north were finding sugar maples in the woods and choosing which ones to start tapping come February.
By the time maple tapping had begun, the situation with regard to Killifar had been more or less settled. The old Baron had died of a fever in January, and the succession was in dispute. Sophie, or Queen Sophia, came all the way north to Killifar and met with the Council, and in return for giving them the right not to have a Baron, she got them to accept a feudal deal with her: they would pay a tithe to her in farm produce, and provide a set military contribution the next time she found her little realm under attack. The deal was a Marthen and Irena masterpiece. Sophie refused to admit that she liked it, but she liked the food security it offered, and she also had to admit she liked being called “my lady” by Master Perkin Paton and the rest of the old bleep-holes on the Town Council.
Sophie did not dress any differently from before. She did not speak any differently from before, nor did she make any effort to unlearn the vocabulary she had picked up from Emma et al. She was different. She could not have failed to be different.
So on a sunny, warm, muddy morning in late March, about six months after she and her dad had left home headed for the Fair, Sophie and company rode back through Mudwick, escorted by half a dozen Kug villagers. One, a middle-aged woman, rode in front with Irena. The two talked non-stop and Irena sometimes translated. Here was old mill—we could help you rebuild it, no? asked Irena. Could be better than before. There, old grange house where townsfolk used to meet—see, it’s out in open now. Good for market. There, look, chapel, still intact, but now has shrine outside under sky, Kug worship sky gods. Weird.
But when they came to a side track cutting through a small band of trees, Dad called a halt. They all stopped, visitors and guides alike and looked at Dad. “Just a minute,” he said.
“We’re near, we’re near,” said Sophie.
“Let’s let Dad have a minute,” said Nell.
Dad took Daisy out of the group and started up the track. Through the trees, and then there was the front field: the fences were down, the animals all gone, the place silent under a late blanket of wet snow. The barn had seen better days. The house was still there, a little worse for wear, in need of a lot of new shingles, the shutters on the front windows loose or crooked. There was a lot of work to do.
Then he swung down off Daisy and left the horse there to wonder. He started up the walk and then stopped. The door was open, and now there she was, Ann was standing in the door looking out, now she saw him, now she called his name and he called hers. He could have run, he could have flown or floated, but there was no hurry. He walked up the walk to the house, looked down at the rotting wooden steps and then up again, tears filling his eyes, into the face of his wife, the love of his life.
“Ann,” he said.
Sophie and Nell, Ella and Slim and Jim and Andy, and then the others, came out in front of the field. The barn, on their left, had nearly collapsed. The house was only a little better.
And there was Dad, standing before it, looking up at the door. He looked to the left, and then to the right, and saw something there. He put his face in his hands, and when that was not good enough, he bent double. They could hear him weeping all the way across the field.
Sophie, and then Nell and Slim, and then the others, rode up the lane and dismounted. Sophie and Nell stepped up to either side of Dad, and looked down. There were two stones, and on them were a few fresh spring wild flowers. Three letters were carved clearly but roughly on the nearer stone: ANN.
“I’m sorry,” said a male voice from the doorway. “I’m so sorry.”
“Dick,” said Sophie. “It’s Dick! Dick, you’re okay.”
Dick came out, gingerly stepping down the old steps. He was little older than Sophie, but he looked thin and gaunt, with the wrinkles of at least ten more years than he had. “Me and my sisters,” he said. “I don’t know about ‘okay.’ They left us alone.”
“Little John?” asked Nell.
“I’m sorry,” said Dick. He stared into Nell’s eyes, as they welled up and she too bent over weeping. Dick looked around and settled on Sophie to tell his tale to. “They killed John, after Nell left. He fought back, it was, it was foolish. I can tell you the whole story, but—!”
“Gama Kug,” said Sophie.
“Yeah. Yeah. I heard you—I heard you killed him.”
“Yep.” She looked at the second stone: it bore the carved letters JOHN. “Doesn’t make this better.”
“Nope.” Dick raised his face and met Dad’s eyes.
“How—?” asked Dad.
“After John died,” said Dick. “She wouldn’t eat a thing. She pined, I swear, she just wasted away. She was done.”
“When?” asked Dad, desperate.
“Dad,” said Sophie.
“Week after we made Nell leave,” said Dick. “Must’ve been a week and a half, no, two weeks after the Fair and all. Jack got killed fighting back with them over the livestock, John-John got killed because he was already itching for trouble because of Jack, he’d lost his dad. Ann just lost it, she tried to ride off and find, I don’t know, help? You and Sophie? Nell? Who knows. Got soaked in the rain, they brought her back here, Kug weren’t actually cruel about it or anything, but she got sick, she never recovered. And that’s how it was.”
Dad turned to Sophie. “She was dead already,” he said.
“When we came here. She was gone. When we came here with Irena.” He looked almost like he was ready to hop on and ride away, and then he doubled over in tears again. Sophie took him in a hug. Nell was already getting her own cry on Irena’s shoulder. Sophie looked up at Dick.
“Well,” said Dick, “it’s not much, but I’d like it if you’d all come on in. We can boil up some tea. I got a couple goats now, round back, got some cheese laid in, we got some bread, Gracie made some bread. Food’s a good thing, time like this.”
“Yes it is,” said Sophie.
The next morning they were on their way back the way they had come. Not a lot was said after they wished Dick and his sisters, Gracie and Gertie, farewell in the dawn light. They came back by the south farm roads around Tenna, and found their way to the trail in the woods. By noon, they were far out of sight, sound or smell of human civilization again. Sophie and Dad rode side by side, Irena and Nell behind them, Slim and Ella and Inga taking up the rear.
“I can’t say I knew it,” said Dad all of a sudden, “but I kind of knew it.”
“Me too,” said Sophie.
He looked sharply at her. “Did you really?”
“As much as you did,” she said, grinning. They rode a little and she said, “Dad, about the Shadow Man. Is that a real thing, do you think?”
“You still don’t know? You, the Queen?”
She thought about that, under her smirk. Then she said, “You can’t see him. You can’t see him till he comes to take you. You can’t do a thing about it.”
“So? How do you believe in something like that? Just tell me that.”
“Well,” said Sophie, “I’m not sure I do.” They rode a little further. “But the thing is,” she said, very softly, “I do believe in things I can’t see or tell about.”
“Name one,” said Dad.
Sophie rode along smiling. She looked at him. “Is Mom gone?” she asked.
“You still love her.”
“Yeah. Of course she’s gone. She’s gone. Don’t mean I don’t love her. Don’t mean she isn’t here.”
“She’s gone, but she’s here,” said Sophie. “All that killing, all that blood, all that cruelty, all that hate. But it’s love that survives. You can’t see it, but it’s there. It’s definitely there.” She smiled away, then at him again. “See? That’s all I’m saying. Is that good enough?”
“It’ll have to be,” he said. “Now let’s go home.”