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from His Daughter Sophie


 

Sophie and her father stayed in Tenna that night. By the next day the number of refugees had doubled again. None of the new arrivals looked familiar. It was too warm for September, sunny and hazy after a morning shower. Sophie and Dad walked around town and had a look at the wooden walls, finding them in poor repair even for wooden walls. Then they went back to the inn for dinner of stew and ale. There was hardly anyone around, just them and a couple of other guests who had nothing to say.

Sophie went to look for Ned that evening and found his little sister instead, a girl of ten named Margery, watching her family’s stuff while her grandfather slept and the rest of them went foraging. The girl didn’t know what had happened or whether anyone else had fled or even how long ago they had left home, but she did know one thing: it was shaggy men who came from the woods and started burning houses. There seemed to be a lot Margery didn’t know, and a lot she didn’t want to think about. Sophie listened and then left before any of the rest of the wright’s family came back to the few square feet of the market place they called home.

She went back to the inn and found her father sitting on his bed. She told him what she had been able to find out.

“I’m thinking of going back after all,” said Dad.

“But we tried yesterday and all we saw was burned houses and dead people. And, um, some guys I really don’t want to see any more of.”

“I know.” He pulled on a boot. “I gotta go back anyway. I don’t want you to come with. I gotta go back because of Ann. You understand.”

“Dad. I miss Mom too but—!” She looked at him. Suddenly her heart raced—it was as if a ghost had breathed on her. “Dad, you can’t go,” she said urgently.

“Okay,” he said. He took off his boot, staring at her.

“Dad, I don’t know but—!”

Dad smiled. “Well, you’re right, Sophie girl.” He actually laughed. “Here I am, I worked for fifty years to get where I was this summer. I had a farm, I had a big happy family, I had grandkids running around all over. Now look what I got.”

“Dad, they might be fine. They can’t all be gone. Maybe they made it okay.”

“I got you,” he finished. “And I got about twenty more shillings. And most of a bottle of wine. What shall we do with these things we still have?”

“I have a change of clothes, Dad,” said Sophie, “and your sword.”

“Your sword now,” he said.

“Thanks.” She added, “I may need it,” just as he said, “You’re good with it.” They sat and stood silent for a few moments.

“So the question is,” he said, “what do we do now?”

“Wait for things to settle down?”

“I’m waiting for King John to get an army together and take back my farm,” said Dad. “I have a feeling it may be a long wait. I understand Lord Edgar’s been replaced by the town council of Tenna. That’s not such a good sign.”

“Why not?”

“It means they couldn’t find anyone to take responsibility for the place. And you know what? If Olk and the Frungans don’t show up soon, it’ll be these Kug, but someone’s going to come here because all the gold and silver in this whole province, such as it is, is right here in Tenna. Along with almost everything worth either raping or pillaging. Pardon me.”

“I can defend myself.”

“You may have to defend me too.”

Sophie sighed. The list of options in her life had changed dramatically. “So, we could sign up for defending the walls.”

“We could,” said Dad.

They drank some wine from the bottle and soon found themselves exhausted. Dad stretched out on his bunk in his clothes and just after Sophie noticed that his breathing had slowed to sleep, she felt slumber stretching its hands across her too.

She lay back on her cot, her feet reaching off the edge, her sack wadded up as a pillow just on the opposite edge. How had it happened, she wondered, that she was too big for a normal bed? How was it that she was no longer small enough to hide behind the adults? She felt as if she was running out of adults to hide behind anyway. With a small sigh, she let go and fell asleep.

 

In the middle of the night she woke. She thought her mother was beside her, as she used to be sometimes in the night when Sophie was a little girl, singing softly, but as Sophie became more conscious, the ghost did not linger. Mom was not a real ghost, not yet, not to Sophie anyway, just a ghost of the imagination, a memory. Sophie wondered where Mom was, what she was thinking, or if she was dead like those people in that village. She had always thought it likely that if she thought hard enough about someone and they thought about her, that she could feel them. She had thought a lot of things likely that might never happen now, and the things that had happened had never occurred to her as possible. The blackness of the night did not hide occult mysteries, only the biggest mystery of all, what would happen next.

Sophie was sure there was someone in the room, though—she could hear him breathing. She smiled at her father’s form in the dark, rolled away and fell back asleep.

 

The next morning they tried to sign up for watch duty, or volunteer to help rebuild the walls, but when they finally found a member of the town council, he was less than enthusiastic. “We have it all covered,” he said. “You go back to your camp and stay out of the way.”

“We’re not—!” Sophie started, but then she realized that the locals assumed they were refugees, and therefore a nuisance.

“You should let her fight,” said Dad, “she’s good. You should’ve seen her kill a Kug warrior. And I know a thing or two, I’ve been in the wars.”

“Then you can take yourselves outside and fight all you want,” said the councilor. “We haven’t time for talk. Excuse me.”

“Well, excuse me,” said Dad. They went back to the inn. No one was in the common room that late morning, so they sat down and helped themselves to slices of the day-old bread that was on the table along with slabs of the sharp hard cheese beside it. “Shall we have some beer too?” asked Dad.

“That guy was obnoxious,” said Sophie. “We wanted to help.”

“Sophie, darlin’,” said Dad, “here’s a true fact about the world. Most folk aren’t competent to wipe their own butts.” They ate for a while as Sophie digested that. Then Dad said, “You know, I do believe I’ll have a beer.”

“But the innkeeper—!”

Dad got up, looked around, looked in the back room. “Innkeeper’s gone,” he said. “I think they took off.”

“But—hey, what if they took our horses?” asked Sophie, jumping up.

“They better not have,” said Dad. They hurried out to the stable. Their horses were there, but there weren’t any others. “This place was full up yesterday,” said Dad.

“Goodness,” said Sophie. “Do they know something we don’t?”

“They know their town council, I guess.”

“Well, what do we do? Should we go too?” She wondered where they would go but there seemed no point in bringing that up just yet.

“I think we’re good for another night,” said Dad. “Good for some nights, probably. But we don’t want to wait long.” He said a few words to his mare, then he untied her and started to lead her to the stable door.

“Dad, are we leaving or what?”

“I still want that beer. I just want to have Daisy with me.”

“Oh.” Sophie once more found that the rules of the universe had changed. Wasn’t that twice within twenty-four hours? She untied Horseradish and they all went and made themselves at home in the common room. They each got a big mug of ale, and presently a few more travelers joined them and Dad poured beer for them too. They broke out what food they could find—a big wheel of cheese, a barrel of apples and a side of beef that went on a spit over the fire.

Soon two dozen people, mostly men, come to the fair from farms and villages all around Tenna, many of which had been obliterated since they had left, were feasting and singing. Everyone was having a great time. A couple of the men had too great a time, and tried their luck on Sophie; one got slapped so hard he went down and stayed down, snoring, and the other, taking a grab of her hind parts, had a couple of fingers broken. Disgust—just one more emotion to toss on the pile. She stepped outside into wan sunlight.

“Hey,” she said, her head clearing. “Ned!” Ned, the wright’s son, standing near his mother as she bartered or argued with a local woman, turned and saw her and immediately turned away. “Hey Ned!” Sophie tried again. Unwilling, he glanced back, then he left his mother’s side and hurried away. His mother looked over her shoulder and saw Sophie, but didn’t recognize her or pretended not to.

But why would they want to see her? Once, Ned had prospects to offer a nice girl who looked like she might be a good mother to his folks’ grandchildren. Once, Sophie might have brought a useful connection to a well-set farmer with a large family. Now, they were refugees, Sophie was a refugee—if she knew it yet, and now she thought of it, Sophie wasn’t sure she knew it yet. She turned back and rejoined the party. A big man saw her, half smiled and hollered, “Wench, more beer!”

“Get it yourself, lard butt,” she replied.

 

Sophie and her Dad stayed in the Inn that night again. Most of the afternoon they slept on their bunks in their little room, and most of the evening they spent in the common room and the adjoining kitchen, doing what they could with the odds and ends of the innkeepers’ larder. The next morning they rose and cooked most of what all was left into a big omelet for breakfast and served it to a dozen assorted farmers and a few farmers’ wives, along with a weak ale.

But Dad’s stint as an innkeeper would be brief. That forenoon, mild under a sunny sky, a most unpleasant man came to call. He was from the town, and he insisted on appropriating whatever food was left. There was none, besides ale, and Dad told him so, but he became very impatient and talked about coming back with guards to occupy the inn. Dad once more offered to help defend Tenna—“I’ve been in wars before,” he reminded the man—but his offer was rejected out of hand.

“We have plenty of guards,” he said. “And they’re rebuilding the stockade so we should be able to hold off some rabble of barbarians. Our only worry is siege and food through the winter, and a bunch of outland farmers occupying the public inn are more a waste of food than anything else.”

“You said a mouthful,” said Dad. “You definitely don’t need us around here.”

“Try to be out by sunset,” advised the man, a councilman with some sort of officer badge too.

After he left, Sophie asked, “What are we going to do?”

Dad visibly sagged. “Well, the food was gone anyway,” he said.

Sophie stood there in the hall of the inn and steamed. She cocked her head and said, “They didn’t want us on their walls. Well, I wouldn’t risk my neck defending them anyway. Where next? Merrivan?”

“I’d rather not,” said Dad, “but maybe we’ll have to. But Sophie.”

“What?”

“Two things. First, you and me, we’re just out traveling, we’re not some couple of dislocated indigent refugees fleeing the loss of home and family.”

“Even though that’s true?”

“And the second thing is, we are never giving up on the possibility that your mother and Jack and Nell and the rest are still there, that our house is still there. Never.” He took a long breath. “And never is not this week or next week either. Well,” he said, turning away, “let’s go back and get our stuff, then go grab a last pint and get Horseradish and Daisy out of that bar.”

 

So they rounded up their few belongings, and made a quick tour of the inn’s pantries—ah, another chunk of cheese, some bread, two bottles of wine, all into their packs. They found two more barrels of beer, and rolled them up to the common room, where the local farmers were starting to look for something to drink. Then they led Horseradish and Daisy out into the light, and prepared to resume their journey to wherever.

They didn’t have all that much to carry, and the horses seemed happy to be out of the common room. So was Sophie—all those huge men were getting drunker and drunker and angrier and less coordinated and a lot less inhibited by the hour. She wouldn’t have minded watching what would happen through a nice barred window, but she didn’t want to be in the same room anymore.

But before they could get out of town, they had to wait some more at the gate on the south side of the wooden stockade that was supposed to protect them from whatever. There was quite a line of carts and horses and the local guards were apparently trying to keep the town’s residents from leaving. It was hot and everyone was angry. Dad turned to make some remark to Sophie, and she wasn’t there.

“Hi, Ned,” she said, taking the young man by the shoulder from behind.

“Oh, hi, Sophie,” he said, not turning around or resisting.

“What’s the big deal, Ned? Why don’t you want to talk to me and why are you watching us leave town?”

“Oh, I, uh—I wasn’t watching you.”

“You were watching us. What’s your problem?”

“I wanted to know if you were all right. Is that a problem?” asked Ned. “Sophie, it’s all, I mean—!”

“What’s all what?” He looked over his shoulder at her. “What’s all what?” she repeated. “What do you know about my family?”

“Nothing,” he said sincerely. “Nothing. We left before any Kug showed up—they almost caught up with us later but we didn’t see anything. But they were coming. They’d killed a few of the village men who’d taken arms to protect the west village. A lot of people picked up all their stuff and left. Let me go! For us, everything is gone.”

“You’ll rebuild it,” said Sophie.

“Sure,” he said. “Where are you going?”

“Merrivan. Where the heck else is there?” He looked around the square, the gate, the nearer houses of the town. Where, indeed. He infuriated her. If all the doors are locked but one, you go through that one, you don’t go around trying all the other doors again and again, and you sure don’t sit down on the floor and wish it were different. She fidgeted, about to turn away.

“Sophie,” said Ned as if it were an afterthought, “I did go look for you before we left home. They said you were at the Fair. I mean, your house was still there. Your mom talked to me. She was fine, they were all okay.”

“Thanks, Ned,” she said. “That means a lot.”

“It’s not much, but it’s all I know,” he replied. “So what are you going to do?”

“Something, Ned,” she said. “Something. I’ll, uh, think of something. Have a great life.” She turned away and pushed off through the crowd before she could add, “Without me,” or reassure him that he hadn’t had a chance with her before the Kug came either.

 

It took another hour or so before they got up to the gate. A family a little way in front of them were stopped from going out, and after arguing for many minutes, the mother pulled her brood out of line, a couple of adult sons, four younger children, a daughter or daughter-in-law. They turned and passed back into the town as a Tenna councilman chased them trying to get the sons to come to the walls. Dad and Sophie exchanged eye-rolls. “This place is going to be easy to defend, isn’t it,” said Dad.

“It’s not going to be a happy siege,” she replied, “but at least it won’t drag on.”

“Not with the walls like this.”

“What was that?” asked the chief guard, the head of a dozen at the gate. It was a big thing of stone, the only stonework in the whole defense of Tenna. Ironically, it faced Merrivan, not the outlands where the Kug were pillaging ever nearer.

“Nothing,” said Dad.

“You’re from Tenna?”

“No, we’re from out by the Muddy River. We’ve been told to be out of town by sunset.”

“We can’t let them leave,” said another guard. “They could be needed on the walls.”

“Turn yourselves around and go back,” said the chief.

“But we have no place to stay,” said Dad. “We were told—!”

“Hey you,” Sophie yelled at another councilman, passing by on the street inside the wall. It was the most unpleasant man from the inn this morning. “Hey, you, council guy, remember us? Hey Stupid!

“Your pardon, Squire Pafrik,” the chief called to the councilman. “These people need accommodations—um, your pardon, Squire!” The councilman heard him and turned his horse toward the gate.

“What?” he said. “What’s the question?”

“You remember us,” said Sophie. “We’re outland farmers and have to leave by sunset.”

“From the inn,” said Dad. “Had our horses in the common room.”

The councilman looked them up and down. He recalculated their value to the defense. News had been coming in of bands pillaging the town fields. But he did remember them and he still didn’t like their look. And he was a councilman, he couldn’t be wrong, not at a time like this. A long moment passed. He waved them off, saying, “Get them out. They’re just mouths to feed.”

“But Squire—!”

“Get them out,” he said again without conviction. He turned away.

“Get out,” said the chief. “That’s all, close the gate,” he said after they were past the big wooden doors. A minute later Sophie and Dad were out on the road—it could be called that now—that ran southeast toward Merrivan.

In silence they rode out across the river fields, and then up the valley side and on among scattered plantations.

“Tenna,” said Dad at last. “Nothing good is going to happen there. It’s too bad, there’s some good folk in there, but I don’t see anything good in their future. Nope. We’re well out of that hole.”

“And into what,” Sophie said as they rode away from the last glimpse of Tenna, feeling a curious mixture of heaviness and relief, and behind that, a sense of her mother, or the ghost of her mother, watching from a distant hill, growing more and more distant as their horses carried them away over the low hills.


That was Chapter Two of my realistic medieval fantasy, His Daughter Sophie. No dragons. No spells. No magic items. Just a big tough girl and her dad trying to find security in the Dark Ages. We’re going to get it up on Amazon at some point, but if you want to read it now, for free, drop me a line at:

paulgies@maine.edu

 

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