Part Four: Elavon

Part Four: Elavon

XVI

“It’s too bad we can’t stick around and see what happens to these buttwipes,” said Sophie as the three rode their horses along the outside of the western wall of Killifar.

“Sophie, really,” said Dad.

“I’m afraid I must side with your father, Sophia,” said Marthen. “They’re infuriating in their desire to hang onto everything they’ve got, but they could easily lose it all, and at that point, if they don’t survive, that has an effect on our options too.”

“Okay,” said Sophie, “what effect would that be?”

“Well, what the hell do you think we’re going to do? Take our twelve and a half people and start a new city someplace? Or perhaps we take our two or three thousand people and start a new city someplace? Where? Where would we not be in range of these invasions? Or some other invasion we don’t know about? Our little kingdom, which no one much paid attention to, is in the process of collapsing like a sand castle. But the sand castle has riches, not many, but some, and it has position, and it has people who could be put to some use. And by that, I mean the sort of use that would occur to Gama Kug. The uses of King Olk of Frunga wouldn’t be any better.”

“Huh,” said Sophie.

“And anyway,” said Dad, “if we can’t make a go of it on our own terms, we’ll be stuck making a go of it on someone else’s terms.”

“Well, we don’t want that,” said Sophie, over the din of yet more of her childhood expectations crashing down around her. She had come this far on energy alone, on inertia, on the sense that Tenna or Mudwick or Merrivan or Killifar was the logical next step, but now it seemed like every one of them was doomed to be overrun by Kug or burned to the ground by Frungans or besieged or sacked or wiped off the map. But maps were paper. This was real, real people. And one of those people was Sophia the daughter of John the Farmer.

The question of what she should do with her life had never occupied a central place in her mind, but now she was glad she hadn’t made any long-term plans because surely everyone else’s long-term plans—Dad’s happy old age, Nell’s growing family, Emma’s “men in my life,” meaning her dad, her husband and her young son, even Margery’s as the prosperous merchant’s wife—were collapsing with the collapsing kingdom, burning to the ground just as surely as the capital city. Long term? “Not this week, but next week’s not looking too good” indeed.

But she was tall and young and strong and she rode free. She shot straight and knew her horse. The sun was on her hair, the wind in her ears, the feel of turf under her horse’s hooves. Kug warriors fled her or fell. The sword felt good in her hand when she swung it.

She had her father. She had her horse. But now she had more: she had friends, she had people who listened when she spoke. She had Emma, talking in the chill of the wee hours, she had Irena, with her horrible yet oddly parallel past, with her peculiarly profound common sense. She thought of little Marthen, who was always teaching her, always learning from her. She thought of the people watching her as she rode through the outer town, the refugee camp. She looked up at the light of sunset through the trees. “Okay,” she said.

“Okay to what?” her dad asked.

“Okay,” she said again. “We have to get people going. We know what we have to do.”

“Going where, though?” asked Marthen. “I really despair—!”

“Aw, Marthen,” said Sophie, “pull yourself together. You do what you have to do. And what we have to do is get Killifar between these people and the Kug. Right?”

“Right,” he and Dad both said. She smiled at them. She was getting the hang of this.

Soon the three of them came around the west side of town, where the swampy woods came right up to the wall, and slowed their steeds to a walk among the huts of the outskirts of the outer town. Sophie was tempted to gallop up the lanes between the tents and shanties shouting, “Everybody up! Let’s go!” She restrained herself, but as they nodded and smiled at old ladies holding babies, she felt like she was keeping a secret that would have to be let out.

In silence, they found their way back to Nell’s mansion of skins and tree limbs. Sophie pushed in first. Nell was sitting in the middle of the main chamber, the evening light dim through the skins and the narrow openings, her young daughters and her nine-year-old son Andy and Sophie’s siblings Ella and Jim sitting around her. Nell was in the middle of reading to them from a familiar old book.

Sophie stopped, opened her mouth, shut it, opened it again and said, “That’s our old story book!”

“Yes,” said Nell, “Mom made me take it.”

“Oh. Cool.” She paused, then said, “But look. We have to get going. We have to pack this all up and get the hell out of here. I’m sorry, but it’s true.”

Nell remained seated. The five children around her seemed only slightly perturbed. “Why?” she asked. “What’s up? Another invasion?”

“No, same two as before,” said Dad.

Nell got up. She smiled around at the children, who looked a little more perturbed. “All right, all right,” she said, “best get organized. Can we at least sleep here tonight?”

Sophie, Dad and Marthen all looked at each other. “All right,” said Dad, “let’s have an explanation, shall we then? We were all having a nice chat with the town fathers. And just as they’d finally told us, very politely, to push off, guess what comes in the door?”

“The same dude,” said Sophie, “that Irena and I saw on a horse yesterday evening. He’s a scout for the Killifar council.”

“That kid,” said Irena, looking up from cooking, “on skinny horse?”

“He was there,” said Dad, “to inform them that the Kug are in the woods an hour away, and the Frungans are within a day from here on the very trail we took.”

“How many Kug?” asked Nell. “And why would the Frungans follow you?”

“He didn’t say how many Kug, but they were hunting, not scouting, they have a force. We knew that already, in point of fact, but this puts them closer. The Frungans? I don’t flatter myself to think they would send five thousand to follow me. Or maybe Sophie the Bold?”

“Five thousand??”

“Possibly more.”

“Probably more,” said Sophie.

“Kug an hour away?” asked Andy.

“Sophie,” said Ella, “is this going to be okay? Are we going to have to hit the road again?”

“It’s going to be fine, El,” said Sophie. She looked from Dad to Marthen. “So what do you think? We have to get going, but now? It’s practically night.”

“I’m inclined to get moving,” said Dad. “Feeling a bit itchy with all these armies about.”

“Listen,” said Marthen. “We need to do something hard. We need to get everyone moving, not just Nell and the family, but the whole camp, the whole outer town if we can.”

“You mean,” said Nell, “that even with the enemy practically at the gates, those bastards aren’t letting us in?”

“That’s exactly what I mean,” said Marthen.

There was a moment of silence, and then Nell said, “Well, let me see what I can do.”

“Really?” asked Sophie. “You can—?”

“Just give me tonight,” said Nell. “Do you think you can do that?”

“Well, we’ll see,” said Dad. “Soph?”

“What?”

Nell and her kids, and Marthen, and Dad and, eventually, Slim, and old Joram’s sons, and several more recruits, soon were moving from shack to shanty to tent to hut getting the word out. Sophie found herself, with Ella and Irena and the city guardsmen and Ulf and Padric, trying to figure out a plan of defense. It was already getting dark: stars were springing out in the sky, and the moon was threatening to rise. The group of them all stood in a line, facing the forest, with Nell’s tent and old Joram’s behind them.

“Sure,” said Ulf, “we line up our archers along here, and—!”

“You’re joking,” said Sophie.

“Yeah, actually,” said Ulf.

“I think,” said old Otho, “our best shot is if the Kug choose not to attack till tomorrow, oh, noonish.”

“Sophie,” said Ella, “if I ask you again if everything’s going to be okay, are you going to say yes again?”

Sophie stared into the blackness for some seconds. Could she see anything? No, she could not see the anything that might have been there staring back at her. Not looking away, she said, “Ella, have you ever shot a bow? You have, right?”

“At targets,” said Ella.

“You’re getting tall,” said Sophie, still glaring at the forest. “You’re going to be as tall as me.” She heard Ella let out a little laugh. Sophie turned, put a hand on Ella’s shoulder, and said, “Well, there are going to be targets.”

They posted much more than double watches. Sophie wanted as little to do with the organizational job as possible, so she took first watch, and found herself in charge of a dozen young men and a few young women with bows. She also had Ella, who had a bow, and Aedith, who was not burdened with any weapon other than her longest knife.

They all spent many minutes in solitary contemplation, gazing on the black swath of forest, trying to figure out whether it harbored a horde of Kug about to come murdering, and why the forest would behave in such a way. What had they done to it? The question hung in the air like the chill mist. The forest stood silent, barely seen, and for minutes on end no murdering horde came screaming out of it.

Sophie looked around. Here were a dozen and a half people, each armed with some sort of weapon, all standing or sitting or lying on the ground irresolute, waiting for what the night and the trees might decide they deserved. There was a sigh next to her. She looked to her left and there was Ella, all of twelve, not the spitting image of Sophie at all—her face was round and happy and sympathetic—but big like Sophie, though not yet as big as Sophie. She couldn’t see Ella’s eyes, but she knew that posture.

“All right,” said Sophie, “back up a bit so we can see targets in the fire light, and let’s get you shooting something.”

“What?” asked the girl.

“Practice, practice, practice,” said Sophie. “Fake it till you make it. Whatever.” They backed up about five steps, and Ella got her bow up and roughly in position. Sophie turned and glared at her, but Ella didn’t turn to get the effect of the glare, she just stood there facing the darkness. So Sophie reached out and corrected Ella’s positioning, then looked back into the darkness. “See that stump?” she asked.

“Yeah,” said Ella, as if the stump might be a monster.

“Here’s what I want you to do. First, I want you to put an arrow into it. Can you do that from here?” Ella hesitated. “Like this,” said Sophie. She strung an arrow, raised her bow, drew back and fired. The arrow flew perhaps six yards and stuck deep in the rotten stump. “Now you.”

Ella raised her bow, then stopped and strung an arrow, which took a bit, then raised her bow again, thought a little, adjusted, calmed herself—and took a breath. She did another breath. She adjusted again. She steeled herself. Then finally she pulled waaaaay back, and let go.

Her arrow took zero seconds to make the journey and buried its head in the wood an inch below Sophie’s.

Sophie stared at it just to make sure it was real. Then she whistled and said, “Ella girl, if we just get you to do all that a little faster, you’re going to kill some barbarians.”

“Kill barbarians?”

“Yeah, because the thing to remember is, they’re trying to kill you. So you kill them first. That’s the idea. Now hold your fire, I’m going to get our arrows back.” Ella relaxed at last, and Sophie went and got the two arrows, which seemed none the worse for wear. The wood was fairly rotten and they pulled right out, spilling woody guts on the ground. “Turkeys aren’t going to be too safe around you either,” she said.

“So,” said Ella, starting to smile, “I did good.”

“You did really good. Now do it some more.”

Ella laughed, then fanned herself and took some breaths. “Excuse me a minute, Soph,” she said, “I just gotta sort of, you know, bask in the thrill of victory or whatever.”

“Okay, sure, bask a bit,” said Sophie. “Just don’t do it if a hundred Kug are coming at us.” She looked around and found a dozen young men and a few young women, and Aedith, watching the two of them. “Okay, the rest of you? If you have bows, I want you to shoot stumps. You never know with these stumps here, they might be a little ticked off.”

“Okay, folks,” said Padric, not especially goofy tonight, “let’s shoot some stumps.”

Questions were asked. Sophie ignored them. “Now,” she said to Ella, “three arrows.” She took her arrow bag off her belt and dropped it on the ground between them. Then she took three arrows from the bag, which she had gotten as equipment way back a month ago in the Halls in Merrivan. It had come with a dozen iron-tipped arrows. After a month in the wild, shooting animals, Kug and the occasional tree stump, she had a mere twenty. She put an arrow on the string and held the other two in her right hand as she drew it back. She glared at the rock, then decided to back up four more paces. Ella backed up with her. Sophie smiled at Ella. Then she loosed the arrow, strung another, drew it and shot it, strung the third, drew it and shot it. They all hit the stump within a couple of inches of one another. There was a murmur of approval from all around.

“Nice,” said Ella.

“Now you,” said Sophie. “Don’t worry about speed just yet. Just take three arrows and—hey, y’all, can we try really hard not to shoot each other?”

“Okay,” said Padric to a dozen or so guys and gals ranged on either side of them in the dark. “Let’s start watching what we’re doing, okay? Can we do that?”

“Okay,” said Sophie, “we’re gonna do it this way. Couple of minutes of free shoot. Then I’ll call time out, and everyone will try and find their arrows. Then I’ll call time in and—you got it?”

“Got it,” said several people.

“Okay,” said Sophie. Ella was already aiming an arrow, a look of determination on her face. “Fire away.”

Ella shot. It hit the stump as she strung the next arrow. She dropped the third arrow, and the second one arced over the stump into the night. She cursed mildly, picked up the third arrow, strung it and pulled back.

“You have two seconds,” said Sophie, “till he—!”

Ella shot. The last arrow hit that stump right between the eyes.

“Darn it,” said Ella. “Darn it, darn it, darn it. I can’t believe I dropped that arrow.”

“Ella. You killed the stump. It’s dead.”

“But I dropped. The arrow. I dropped the second arrow. There were three of them, you see? Three evil barbarian stumps. The second one got me.”

“Actually, you dropped the third arrow, and you let it distract you. But you still killed the stump. Two of the three stumps. Maybe the second stump got skewered by the first arrow too.”

“Have you ever done that?”

“What, in my long experience in the wars?” Sophie laughed, but Ella was looking at her as if it were true. “Look, sister,” Sophie said, “bear in mind that I didn’t shoot anyone in any wars until about three weeks ago. Maybe two weeks ago, I don’t know.” She pulled three more arrows out of her bag. “Anyway,” she said, calmly firing all three into the base of the poor stump, “it’s just a matter of practice. You know you can do it. It’s just a question of being ready, and then when the time comes? Do you want to die, that’s the question. You or that guy.” She looked at her work, then smirked at Ella. “Your turn.”

Sophie spent the next several hours walking up and down her line of archers, who were beginning to take a real toll on the line of stumps they faced: wood chips were everywhere, and Sophie’s and Ella’s stump was down to a nub. Casualties on the human side were light: a couple of flesh wounds and half a dozen scrapes and bruises. Around midnight, Sophie was relieved by Dad, but she didn’t feel like sleeping. She and her company stood around slugging wine from a jug and discussing the finer points of everything.

She was chatting with her rail-thin brother Jim and old Otho when she noticed Ella standing a little way away, sort of staggering in place. Sophie realized she too was bone tired. “I gotta lie down a bit, okay?” she told her brother and the guardsman.

“I’m not sleepy,” said Jim.

“I didn’t say you were.”

“I had quite a nap today,” said Otho. “I’ll look after this young man. You get some sleep.”

“I think I better. Good night, you guys.” She went over to Ella, who jumped at a touch on the shoulder. “Come on, sis, you can’t sleep that way, I’ve tried.”

“Okay,” said Ella. “Come with me?”

“Scared?”

“Yeah.” But Ella grinned. “I got a big layout in the tent. You can lie down next to me.”

“Love to,” said Sophie.

Sophie and her kid sister walked back to Nell’s tent mansion. Inside, it was warm with sleeping bodies, and the sounds and smells were soft and warm too. No one was awake. Ella found her spread of bedding in the dark. They took their boots off, and she and Sophie managed to lie down side by side in their clothes. They talked in whispers for a surprisingly short time before dozing off.

Sophie woke in the dark. Again, it did not seem an empty darkness. It seemed full of dark things. What they were, she had no idea: good or ill or neither or both, safe or dangerous or neither or both. Perhaps they were all there: Mom, the Shadow Man, half a dozen dead Kug warriors, that guy she shot in the window when they rescued Marthen. The Kug warrior whose head she had shortened with her sword in that village. That village, and so many other villages full of her dead countrymen. The city of Merrivan full of people soon to die. The wolf she killed in the barn. Grandma, whose scarf still lay about Sophie’s neck. Red, her brother, lost far away in a battle she only now sort of understood. Mouse, her brother, died of the flu.

She lay, as awake as she had ever felt, lay in a place without a single particle of light. Presently the shadowy cast dwindled to two: Mom and the Shadow Man stood, or sat, or crouched just out of reach, watching.

After a minute, Sophie became convinced that it was not just her they watched. With an effort of will, Sophie rolled onto her side and faced Ella.

You will not die here, she said, her lips moving soundlessly. You will grow up.

Sophie lay there not looking at those who watched in the blackness. Ella’s face was an inch from her eyes, so close she could sort of see it: the long curve and slope of her cheek and her chin, the place where her eye must be.

The journey ahead of this girl, the journey Sophie was at the end of. The journey from twelve to sixteen. Sophie thought of the last four years of her own life, and then of the last few months, the last few weeks, her and Dad floating down the river of event, paddling hard sometimes, waiting for the next rapids other times. She thought of all who had died in the past few months, the men in the battle, the old ladies and children in the villages, the many dead of Tenna and Merrivan.

How hard it had been, continuing her streak of days still breathing. How easy it had seemed when she was twelve, getting up in the morning and getting food and walking through the day and going to bed at night and waking in the morning again still alive.

“You’re going to still be alive,” she whispered, just above silence. “You are going to live to see your children grow up. You are.”

Sophie put out a hand to Ella’s head. Ella had been a minor nuisance in Sophie’s childhood; she supposed that at four, Sophie must have been a little miffed to have a kid sister to hog attention. It didn’t matter now. Sophie had lost so much, the barn, the dog, the sunsets. Her brother Mouse. Maybe even her mom. And here were Dad, and Slim, and Nell and her kids, and Jim. Here was Ella, her straw-blond hair under Sophie’s hand. It was so real, that straw-blond hair.

Sophie, not expecting to, let out a tiny sob. Ella mumbled, then turned toward her. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Sophie lied. After another moment, she said, “I need to pee, actually.”

“Oh, I do too,” said Ella. She sat up. So did Sophie. The darkness was empty.

“We should go together,” said Sophie. “Where do you guys usually pee?”

“In the woods,” said Ella with a half laugh.

Irena’s stage whisper came from a few feet away. “You guys go to piss?” she said, though it almost sounded like go to peace.

“Yeah,” said Sophie. “You too? Safety in numbers, you know.”

The three, woman and young woman and girl, walked up through the thin line of watchers and approached the edge of the woods. The moon was full and crisp and cast a parody of daylight on the field of stumps and brush and the approaching wall of leaf, now no color other than silver white.

“So, um,” Ella said, “are they right there in the woods or what?”

“Oh, I think we would know,” said Sophie, trying to sound reassuring.

“And would they attack at night? And do they want to capture the town or are they just here to steal stuff or do they want to kill everybody?”

“Well, I don’t know everything,” Sophie replied, trying not to be annoyed. “You got anything on that, Irena?”

“Attack at night? Yeah, they would attack at night. What they are here to do? Who knows? We find out pretty soon.”

“Reassured enough, sis?” asked Sophie.

“I guess,” said Ella, but a little buoyantly.

“Good. Let’s be as quiet as little mousies, then. Can we do that?”

“Yes, sis,” said Ella.

Sophie and Irena and Ella crept into the forest. Their footfalls were covered by the wind in the high branches, and the leaves still on the trees cut the moonlight into scattered silver dapples. Four trees in, they stopped, looked at each other and shrugged.

A minute later, Irena and Sophie were standing next to each other in a few fragments of moonlight. Ella was still crouching a little way away: perhaps she’d had a lot to drink. The wind in the branches was joined by a few nocturnal animal noises.

They began to pick up sounds of furtive movement some distance off. Sophie assumed it was a wolf or a mountain lion creeping up on them. Then the sounds stopped, and were replaced by a faint but familiar sound.

Ella stood up and began trying to button her pants. It wasn’t easy, for some reason, and she was inclined to make a joke about it, but Irena shushed her with a look.

From what seemed like three feet away, masculine laughter broke out. The three women practically jumped into the tree above them. The laughter, which was actually more like ten yards off through the woods, gave way to joking talk in a language Sophie already could identify as Kug. They laughed some more.

Ella turned so white she nearly glowed in the moonlight. Irena turned to Sophie. Irena almost gasped and almost said something. Before she could decide whether to do either one, Sophie was moving. She was moving more quietly than the men nearby were talking. She wasn’t moving back toward Killifar. She had her bow in her hand.

In a few paces, she could see them. They had just finished peeing, and were starting to walk away, not too quietly, through the woods. There were three of them. Sophie kept with them, grimacing when she broke a stick, wondering at least twice what in the Virgin’s name she thought she was doing. It was the wrong question. She knew what she was doing.

At some point she was pretty sure she saw the camp ahead through the trees. One minute later she was sure. She stopped, stood straight up, pulled an arrow from the pouch at her belt and stretched back the string. Then she shot, and then she pulled and drew and shot again, and then she pulled and drew and shot again.

The third Kug warrior had time to notice what had happened to his two comrades. He started to say something, but her arrow struck him in the throat.

Behind her, Sophie heard Ella say “Wow.”

Sophie stood looking at the camp ahead. Then she went five paces forward and retrieved her arrows. She came back and walked past Ella and Irena, saying, “And that is how you do that.”

“Yes but,” said Irena.

“Yes but I think now would be a good time to get three or four thousand people on the move.”
XVII

The dawn was misty and bracingly cold. The leading elements were already on the south side of Killifar, hiking through farm country toward hills, along a road much older than any of them knew, much older than it looked. Ella was with Dad and Nell and Marthen near the vanguard, dozing in the saddle. The trailing elements were still picking up stakes, urged on by a tired and cranky trio: Sophie, Irena and Emma. Matty was cranky too; a dozen younger men and women, with Slim, Ulf and Padric at their core, trailed with them, putting up with their crankiness. In between moved, way too slowly as far as Sophie or her dad were concerned, a mass of people and animals and carts that included about nineteen parts in twenty of the former residents of the outer town of Killifar.

Presently it began to rain. The movement bogged down even further.

“I can’t take it,” said Sophie, as she and Emma and Irena sat on horses behind the last group of a hundred or so former villagers from the south side of Tenna. “I liked twelve. Twelve was a good number.”

“Give me a whip,” said Emma in a low voice. “I’ll get these bleeps moving.”

“Listen,” said Irena. “We not know what happens at Killifar right now. Dudes you kill in forest say much killing today, Gama Kug want everyone dead outside town, then get around to kill everyone inside town. Dudes say tomorrow, say this last night, means today, right?”

“No bleep,” said Sophie. “And there’s horsemen shadowing us, have you noticed?”

“Did you just swear?” said Emma. “You’re picking up bad habits, isn’t she, Matty?” Matty had no opinion.

“Irena,” said Sophie, “did you just call the Kug dudes?”

“Yes—is correct, or not?” Irena asked.

“It’s fine.”

“So,” Emma went on, “you want to send someone to patrol?”

“Hey Slim,” said Sophie.

Slim, Ulf and Padric, sitting on their horses a few paces in front of the women, turned. “Do I hear the dulcet tones of my sister’s voice?” asked Slim.

“We need someone on patrol,” said Emma. “You’re someone. So’s Padric.”

“You want a couple of us to bounce back and forth, kind of,” said Padric. “Know what I mean? Go back and sight the enemy and come back up again.”

“Yeah, in the long haul,” said Sophie. “Right now, that’s not what we need. We’re stopped, and so are they.” She cast a glance back at where the old road made a wide turn in the woods.

“Someone back there?” asked Ulf.

“Just around the corner.”

“What I think we need,” said Emma, “and I’d do it myself, I really would, except for this baby, is for someone to sneak all the way back and get some news of Killifar.”

The men looked at each other. “I’ll do that,” said Ulf.

“You?” said Sophie. “You’re an arrow magnet.”

“I’ll go,” said Slim. “You been hunting with me, sis. You know I can go quietly. And you knew a long time ago what a coward I am, so that’s perfect.”

“Okay,” said Sophie, “but I don’t have to agree with the last part. Can you take someone with you? Maybe pick one of these people as a trainee?”

“What do you want me to do?” asked Padric.

“You,” said Emma, “can grab a trainee from among the rabble and see if you can train him or her to ride along behind us and do that bounce thing you talked about. Once we get moving.”

“You got it,” said Padric with a grin.

“How far are we going today?” asked Slim. “I ask so we know how much further we have to go on our return journey.”

“I don’t know,” said Sophie. “I kind of know where we’re headed, we’re headed for this old monastery on the coast, but I have no idea how far it is.”

“Wouldn’t worry,” said Irena. “We go not so fast.”

It soon was apparent more organization was needed. There were a thousand questions and a hundred delays, and since no one was really in charge, and since Dad was way at the front, all the folk in back just assumed Sophie was in charge. She who had never been in charge of anything before. Still, she managed. With three long pauses, the mass moved forward till early afternoon, when the rain moved off and a breeze off the hills to the west grew, drying out the mob but also blowing the leaves off the trees into their faces. They were miserable, they were tired, they were out of sorts, and Sophie had to wonder how most of them were managing to put one foot in front of another.

A couple of hours after midday, Slim caught up with Sophie and Emma while Irena was cajoling an ox-cart out of a patch of mud. He and his trainee, a friend of his from Mudwick named Georgie, had just gotten back from Killifar.

“That was quick,” said Sophie.

“Killifar’s under attack,” said Slim.

“Great,” said Sophie. Then she met his eyes and said, “Oh, Slim. Do you want to—?”

“Go back? Yeah. I don’t know. Yeah. I want to go back and kill them all and get inside and—!”

“But that’s not how it works,” said Sophie.

“I know. How’d you get so smart, Sis?”

“How’d I get so smart? This bleeping month. That’s all it took.”

“Where’d you get that mouth?” he asked, finally smiling. Sophie grinned and gestured at Emma, who was nursing in the saddle.

“Sophie,” said Emma, “we have to get with your dad and Marthen and, um, Nell, and Irena, and decide what exactly we’re going to do. I mean, for now, these people are just going to walk and walk, but we need to feed them and we need to find a camping spot and we need to figure out where we’re headed and—!”

“Elavon,” said Sophie.

“Elavon. What’s Elavon?”

“Margery’s husband Perkin told us about it. It’s an old monastery on the coast. It might even be abandoned. He said it’s wicked defensible. I’m telling you, it’s the only obvious place. It’s the right direction, and if those bleep-heads follow us all the way there, maybe we can hold them off and show them what the bleep we are made of.”

“Whoa,” said Slim.

“You kiss babies with that mouth?” asked Emma.

“You are the boss,” said Slim. “You are.”

Sophie, surprised how worked up she’d gotten, calmed herself and said, “So, yeah, Slim, would you mind going and finding Dad? Have him, um, call a halt and we’ll all catch up and we can plan a bit better.”

It took at least half an hour, but as the sun finally started to show through the shredding clouds, the family and close friends had a chat and a bite in the saddle.

“Kug and Frungans,” said Slim. “Attacking Killifar. We have definite on both. They even seem to be working together. Kug are attacking one side while Frungan bows are picking off defenders on the walls and Frungan horse are burning farms.”

“Who’s behind us?” asked Dad.

“Kug,” said Padric. “I’d put it about five hundred on horse. They’re staying back a mile, maybe half a mile, half a mile to a mile.”

“So,” asked Emma, “is that five hundred, or half of five hundred, or a couple of five hundreds?”

“I’m pretty sure about the five hundred. Four hundred to six hundred.”

“Pad,” said Sophie, “you’re doing a fine job. Okay, they think we can’t take five hundred of them. I think they’re wrong.” She looked at Dad.

“If we get the right people and pick the right spot,” said Dad, “sure, we could take half a thousand of them. We also need to send some people ahead to find this Elavon place.”

“I know there are people from the outer town who’ve been that far,” said Nell.

“I’ll stay up front with Squire John,” said Marthen. “Sophie’s in back with Emma, and that leaves Miss Nell the task of organizing the masses.”

“They’re more organized than you think,” said Nell.

“Uh, John, sir,” said Padric, “want me and Ulf to see about getting together some volunteers with bows to see off those guys behind us?”

“I’ll put Sophie in charge of that expedition,” said Dad. “Just be careful, we don’t want to lose anyone if we don’t have to. I’ll tell you what, I am just sick and tired of folks dying.”

“Padric,” said Sophie, “you and Ulf go find as many as you can. Boys with bows and horses. Don’t ignore the girls with bows and horses. Have them let the rest of the folks go by and they can form up back here.”

“Okey dokey,” said Padric.

“But Soph,” said Dad as Padric rode away, “I’m serious about finding the right spot. I will tell you when I see it.”

“Okay. I’ll trust your tactical instinct. But that’s assuming we get to pick the spot.” Sophie looked at Nell. “Sister-in-law, would you take charge of keeping the non-fighting people happy and moving?”

“I’d love to.”

“Slim, um, George,” said Sophie, “would you guys care to organize some hunting parties? Just ride along outside the main group and see if you can shoot some things we scare up.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Slim. “How much meat do we need?”

“We have between three and four thousand mouths to feed right now,” said Nell. “Any amount you can bring in will help.”

“And if you find fruit, taters, herbs, whatever,” said Irena, “I cook. We got pots?”

“Yes actually,” said Nell, “loads of people couldn’t be parted from their cookware. You know. Farm wives.”

“Yeah,” said Irena. “I know farm wives.”

“Okay then,” said Sophie. She looked at Dad. “Are we good?”

“I think we’re as good as can be,” Dad replied. “You’re in charge in back, you and Emma, me and Marthen are in front, and Nell and Irena are in charge in the middle. Anything else?”

“Well,” said Sophie, “I want Ella with me. That should about do it.”

The horde, or crowd, or mass, or peasant pilgrimage, wound on southward with only brief interruptions for another two hours. By the time they found a place to arrange a camp, they had moved perhaps ten miles from Killifar. The mass of people had opened out in an area where the old road left the woods and came down along a wide old streambed with a tired little stream in it, flowing down from the hills ahead of them. The rearguard, which was now up to thirty self-appointed cavalry, kept the hindmost families moving, mostly by helping them move. Sophie and Slim and Ella rode side by side for a while, each with a couple of young children sharing the saddle. Finally they gave in and helped people set up camp.

Sophie found the campsite of the family whose two little boys had ridden with her. They were from outside Tenna, but now their abode was on the bank above the lazy streambed, and the grandma of the family was busy coordinating with other grandmas to make sure no one muddied or peed in the stream. Sophie ran into Slim and Georgie while chatting with the family. Slim and his buddy, having got the hunters out, bagged a couple of pheasants themselves, and then, having eaten, were ready to ride back toward Killifar to have a look. Sophie found a couple of young women with bows to ride back to have a look at the pursuing force.

Then, finally, Sophie and Ella had stew with an extended family of Killifar farm folk. These had lived in the area for at least four generations, but had never, to the inner town, merited the protection of the inner town, and now they were on the run from the only place they had ever lived. They seemed in good enough spirits, though, and Sophie exchanged friendly goodbyes before going in search of her dad.

It was completely dark, with a solid ceiling of cloud, as Sophie and Ella wandered into the middle of the camp. People were cooking all over the place, all sorts of things, and mostly it was the smell of this activity, and not others, that hung in the air. Hunters were bringing in game at a steady pace, but mostly people were eating things they had brought with them, stone soup indeed.

Sophie was beginning to think the entire thing was descending into chaos when she spotted Nell and Irena organizing a large-scale stew operation by a pond near the stream. Nearby, Dad and Emma and Marthen were passing a bottle and talking; next to Emma, Aedith was holding Matty and smiling at everyone who came over to gawk at the baby. And lo and behold, there were the two scout girls Sophie had sent out, bending Dad’s ear. Sophie and Ella hurried over and jumped off their horses, and before they could start complaining about the confusion, Dad started in on the situation.

“So everyone’s getting fed,” he said, “and according to your scouts here, it looks like the pursuit isn’t going to whack us just yet, but we’ll need your new little army to camp at the back and keep an eye on them. Up ahead the road goes up and up and apparently it goes through a pass or something. Don’t know what’s beyond, but I think we’ve gone no more than a quarter of the way to this Elavon. Maybe we’ll go faster tomorrow but I doubt it.”

“I don’t think anyone actually dropped dead along the way today,” said Emma. “That’s good.”

“Dad,” said Sophie, “what’s the chance my little mini cavalry will be able to do anything? They outnumber us ten to one, according to what we actually know about anything, and they’re, you know, actually trained?”

“Well, girl,” he said, “you’re probably better off with a smaller, more nimble force, right? And as for training, that’s a thing to do then.”

“Train them? Now?” She looked at the scout girls, who shrugged.

“As good a time as any,” said Dad.

“Okay, okay,” Sophie yelled out, as she circled around the west end of a loose collection of young folks on horseback. Before them, the old road came out of the woods to the north; behind them, a bend westward of the road followed the bank of the stream, which widened in the turn. “Okay, let’s all huddle up, no, stay on your horses, come on, folks, let’s go, okay, you two, huddle up, back toward the middle.” She kept this up for twenty minutes, circling all the way around the loose collection twice, with Ella and the two girl scouts following her and doing likewise. The loose collection slowly glommed together into what almost looked like a cavalry. Sophie alternately fantasized them putting the Frungans to rout, and watching them melt away into the woods and fight amongst themselves. Finally she found herself on the north side of the not so loose collection, sitting on Horseradish in the middle of the old road. Ella was beside her, and four other girls around Sophie’s age, and two boys, were behind her. She looked at her scout girls.

“The Kug are half a mile back,” said the redhead. “They seem to be camping, four to five hundred of them.”

“Okay,” said Sophie. “Okay,” she said again, louder, to the crowd.

There were a lot of them. They were all looking at her.

“Okay,” she shouted. “Group into tens. You can count to ten, can’t you? Come on, group up.”

“Group up, you idiots,” shouted Ella. Sophie and the other girls looked at her.

“Okay, group up in tens,” shouted Ulf, near the front, where Sophie hadn’t noticed him. He turned his horse toward the crowd and went on, “Ten. It’s how many fingers you have.”

“Counting the thumb,” yelled Padric from nearby.

“Okay, let’s go,” several more young men and women yelled.

“We got ten,” shouted a girl from the left. “Ten here!” came from here and there.

“Okay,” Sophie said to Ella, “how many tens?”

“I’ll check,” said one of the scout girls, a redhead almost as tall as Sophie but skinny. She had no sword and nothing like armor but her bow was long, like the longbows that came from down South.

“Hey, what’s your name?”

“Alix,” said the redhead. She gave a quick smile, then did a sort of in-saddle curtsey. “My lady.”

“What was that?” asked Sophie as Alix rode off, leaving her smile behind her.

“She’s always like that,” said the other scout girl, of normal height and long brown hair. “I’m Cath. Want me to count the other side?”

“Group them in hundreds,” said Sophie. “Hundreds!” she shouted back at Alix. “That’s tens of tens!”

“Yes, my lady!” Alix shouted back. She was moving to the left pointing: “Ten one, ten two, ten three, ten four, ten five, that’s fifty. Ten six, ten seven—!”

“Seven!” shouted the young man at the head of the seventh ten.

“Ten eight,” called Alix. “Eight!” replied the young man at the head of Ten Eight. “Ten nine, ten ten, a hundred!” called Alix.

“Ten nine!” shouted the girl right behind the boy who seemed to be sort of in charge of Ten Nine. “Ten ten!” shouted all the girls of the all-girl Ten Ten.

“That’s a hundred,” Alix yelled at Sophie.

“I got a hundred over here, Sophie,” called Cath.

“Hmm,” said Sophie. In between the now very organized left and right wings huddled four groups of ten and about two dozen loose ends. “Okay,” she went on, using full voice. “You in the middle. Form another ten, and everyone who’s not in a ten, go back to camp.” Voices rose, mostly in talk amongst themselves. She managed to raise her voice even further. “If you want to do something, go report to my dad or to Nell or Emma or Marthen and see what they want you to do. Or Slim, my brother. Okay? Go!” Not a lot happened. “Okay, you,” she called to Ulf, on a horse in the middle, “Ulf, you take charge of those extra folks, get it organized. Okay?”

He shrugged, smiled, waved and started organizing.

“Okay, Alix,” Sophie yelled, “have half your guys practice shooting at trees, make sure they don’t shoot each other, and have the other half practice some riding. Can you do that?” Alix waved, her hand white as a beacon in the moonlight. “How about you?” Sophie called to Cath.

“I can do that,” said Cath.

“Okay,” said Sophie. She turned to the two young men and two young women behind her. They were all older than Sophie and they seemed a little more reserved than the others. “Can you guys handle watching the road?”

“Sure,” said one of the men. “My name’s Oldric, I was in the King’s Army.”

“Were you at the Vara River?”

“Yeah, so were you,” he replied. He grinned.

“Come on, Oldric, stop flirting with your commanding officer,” said the woman next to him, who was in fact his wife, “and start being on guard duty.”

“Yeah,” said the other young man, “beats the poop out of mess hall duty.”

“Okay, fine,” he said. He grinned at Sophie, a big handsome grin in a blond face that had a little hair but didn’t need to be shaven as yet. “Peg,” he said. “I do what she says.”

“You both better do what I say,” she replied.

“Obviously,” said Peg.

Sophie watched them go, then turned and watched her new commanders ordering their two hundreds and a fifty around. She smiled at Ella, who was the only one still next to her, her adjutant or something. Marthen to her Sir Bodon. “This is fun,” she said.

The camp cavalry practiced for an hour or so, then broke for stew in shifts. Sophie stayed in the saddle, chatting strategic points and squinting up the road. At some point, Emma came by on her own horse, with a mug of someone’s stew and a hunk of someone’s hard white cheese. She and Ulf and Alix and a couple of other teenagers sat on their horses eating and talking with Emma and Matty. Two different teenage boys tried to flirt with Sophie, but she didn’t even bother to slug them.

With the full moon riding high, Sophie noticed Ella next to her, dozing in the saddle. Sophie realized how tired she was. They found a spot out of the way beside the road north, and lay down on the beaten-down grass, their coats around them. The next minute, it was an hour or more later by the moon, and a dark male figure was bending over them.

“Uppy up,” said Padric. “Lookouts say there’s horse trying to get sneaky.”

“What? Uppy? Sneaky?”

“In the woods,” said Oldric. “Kug are trying to sneak up through the woods.”

“Oh bleepin’ bleep,” said Sophie. “Let’s get busy.”
XVIII

The Kug must have assembled carefully under the last of the trees before the long open area where the camp lay. Just after midnight, with a bloodcurdling chorus, they broke from their cover and charged, on their fast little horses, across the short stretch of grasses before the stream where most of Sophie’s two hundred and fifty and their horses were taking a rest.

Before they could cross the stretch of moonlit grasses, the young people gathered, apparently, to party along the streambed had picked up their bows and slung pouches of arrows on their belts and begun firing, just a little above straight. They only had time to get off a couple of volleys that way, because the range was so short, but for the same reason their shots took a heavy toll. The Kug knew no fear. They reached the edge of the streambed and started to make their horses jump down into it.

The back group of Kug were crowding those in front to jump down faster. They were suddenly being pressed by a couple of dozen young men on horse, led by a big blonde. The front line of attackers were finding themselves at a disadvantage, but those behind them were barely able to turn before they were knocked off their horses by their opponents’ swords, spears, poles, pitchforks and random pieces of lumber. The unhorsed barbarians saw their horses scatter into the woods on either side. The Kug who had made it into the streambed found themselves incapable of doing damage to their foe, who were shooting up at point blank range or poking them off their horses with long tree limbs, some of them sharpened.

In a few minutes, no Kug was on a horse who wasn’t headed back northwards. Over a hundred were on the ground, like so many beetles on their backs. These succumbed or gave up. Less than twenty minutes after the battle had started, the Kug attackers had lost. Twelve defenders were dead, and eight more were significantly wounded. There were two hundred and fifty dead Kug, equal to the total number of the defenders, and Sophie, who had killed at least four warriors with her sword, found herself in charge of sixteen prisoners.

The last of the escaping horsemen were still disappearing into the trees when the defenders started to realize that they had won the battle, such as it was. The defenders mostly went straight over to party mode. A few, led by Slim and Ulf and the two girl commanders, got the prisoners tied up and guarded. Sophie stood by her horse on the high bank of the streambed, looking around. She literally didn’t know what to think. People rode up to congratulate her or ask questions, and she responded, three more young men tried to make time with her, and she only slugged the second one, young women started to gather around her to catch some of the radiance of her success or possibly the disappointed young men; all the while Sophie was trying to get her mind around what had just happened. Her second actual battle. It was definitely different from the first.

Ella rode up. “I got at least three,” she said. “I got my arrows back so I’m ready for three more!”

“Great,” said Sophie.

“Where is she?” came a familiar voice. Another familiar voice pointed her out. Horses came up out of the streambed: Dad and Emma and Marthen and Aedith and a couple of others. “Sophie,” Dad said, closing the distance. “You okay?”

“I’m fine, Dad.”

“Well, then, are you crazy? Why did you do this? What were you thinking? Do you know what could have happened? Sophie—!”

“Dad. Dad. It wasn’t a plan. It wasn’t a bleeping choice. Okay?”

“She’s right, Dad,” said Ella. “We were just on watch. They attacked us.”

“And her! Ella. Sophie, how could you?”

“How could I not?” asked Sophie. “Dad—!”

“Squire John,” said Marthen, “go easy on her. She’s just won her first battle. She doesn’t know how to understand that.”

Dad sighed. Then he and Sophie and Ella all, in identical gestures, turned and gazed across the northern reach of camp, where the victors were celebrating. There wasn’t a lot of wine in the camp, but they were managing. All three sort of shrugged, and the girls both looked at Dad. Sophie was already a little taller than her father; Ella was getting there.

“Listen,” he said. “I worry. You understand that.”

“Yeah,” said Sophie. “I do, actually.” She looked at Ella.

“What?” asked Ella.

“So how long do you think this buys us?” Sophie asked Dad.

Dad looked at Marthen, who said, “Couple hundred dead? I think they’ll rethink their strategy. Either they’ll give up on us and concentrate on taking down Killifar, or they’ll settle for a siege there and come after us. We should be able to make it to the coast before they do either one. We’ll be far enough ahead of them that we can think about how to ambush them, instead of just taking them by surprise simply because they don’t expect us to be prepared.”

“Those dopes,” said Sophie. “I don’t know if they know how to plan.”

“Oh, they do,” said Dad. “Trust me. They just didn’t think they had to. Now they know the type of military geniuses they’re up against.”

The adults laughed. Emma made a funny remark, Dad and Marthen responded, and Sophie realized she hadn’t heard them. “Sorry,” she said, “I have to sleep. I need some real sleep.”

“Me too,” said Ella.

Sophie looked at her. Suddenly she looked at Dad and said, voice breaking, “People are going to die. Why don’t people just leave us alone? I don’t want to kill anyone anymore. I don’t. I don’t want Ella to kill anyone. I don’t—!”

“You don’t want anyone to kill Ella,” said Emma.

There was silence. After several seconds, Sophie said, “No.”

“Look,” said Dad, “we discussed how life is not fair. We—!”

“That’s fine, John,” said Emma, “but that’s not a reason. Sophie, you can do things. I’ve seen it. There are things I can do, and there are things your dad can do, and things Marthen can do, I wouldn’t ever have believed it but it’s true.”

“Hey now,” said Marthen.

“And there are things Ella can do. But you, there are things I have seen you do that only you can do. And I’m not talking about shooting people, or not just shooting people. And these folks all around us? They’re going to die if we don’t all do the things we can do. It’s that simple. It’s all so bleeping complicated, but it’s simple. You get it?”

“Yeah,” said Sophie. “I get it. Now bleeping let me lie down for a while.”

Emma smiled. She put the hand that wasn’t holding Matty on Sophie’s hand. “Yes. Go lie down. You need it.”

“And take your sister with you,” said Dad.

“Okay. Come on, Ella.” Ella smiled, barely awake. They started toward the middle of the camp, and three steps on, Sophie turned. The adults were talking in low voices. “And, um,” said Sophie. They turned. “Do we need to do something about Killifar? Like, is it going to fall?”

“That’s what is under discussion at present,” said Marthen.

Sophie gave a tired smile. “Well,” she said, “let me know what you decide.”

The next morning, Sophie and Ella woke before dawn, wandered off into the adjoining woods to pee (along with about a dozen other people) and then went back to bed in Nell’s tent without saying a word. An hour and a half later, Sophie woke again, left Ella sleeping, and went out, and found Nell and Dad and Marthen and Emma and Irena all sitting around a bit of fire. Emma was nursing Matty, and they were all nursing mugs of mint tea.

“Slim’s off to have a look at Killifar,” said Dad. “We should know what the situation is in an hour or two.”

“There’s no chance it’ll fall soon, is there?” asked Sophie.

“Shouldn’t be,” said Marthen, “but that King Olk, he’s wicked smart, you know. Those silos and barns burn, it could be a bad week in Killifar.”

“Great.” Irena gave Sophie a mug. Sophie sipped, then said, “Any breakfast?”

“No eggs,” said Irena. “Got bit of stew.”

“So anyway,” said Emma, “whatever you and your cavalry do today, I know what me and Irena are doing. And Matilda, right, dear? We’re going to get this whole bleep-wagon rolling south.”

“Me and my cavalry,” said Sophie. “Me and my cavalry. We might have to go somewhere and kill people again.” The others looked at her, not sure what to say. She looked around their faces. “Okey dokey,” she said with a smile. “Just so I know.”

The brain trust had a little stew for breakfast, then scattered to get the camp moving again. The front of the horde was in purposeful motion half an hour later, and another hour saw the back moving too; somewhere in the middle, sixteen captured Kug marched along tied securely by the ankles, their wrists secured behind their backs. By then, Sophie and her dad, along with Marthen and Ella and Cath and Alix and Ulf and a couple of other heroes of last night’s fray, had the cavalry in the saddle. They were just wondering what to do with it when Slim and Georgie returned. They had a third member, a pretty girl of about nineteen with long silky brown hair. She had a short bow over her shoulder and a long knife at her belt.

“Dad, Sis, Little Sis,” said Slim once they were all sitting on their horses close together, “this is Lisel.” Lisel smiled shyly. “Lisel, this is my dad, and these are my sisters, and this is, um, Master Marthen, he’s kind of like a quartermaster or something.”

“That’s actually exactly what I am,” said Marthen.

“Slim,” said Dad, “you have news of some type.”

“It’s not good, Dad,” said Slim. “They got the barns and the silos burning just like you said. They did it last night. The walls are great but you can’t stick your head up without getting shot at. Kug had a try at the west gate this morning before sunrise, and they almost broke through, and Georgie and I don’t think they were really trying very hard. They had way over ten thousand outside, and all warriors, and inside it’s maybe three.”

“And they’re, uh, not all warriors,” said Lisel.

“Not unless you stretch the definition a lot,” said Georgie, a wiry little guy with curly dark hair.

“You got in?” asked Sophie.

“No, sis,” said Slim, “we guessed all this from outside. And Lisel just jumped over the attacking armies.”

“Ooh. Sarcasm.”

“So what are we gonna do?”

“Let’s try sarcasm on the enemy,” said Sophie. “Why don’t you and Georgie go back and fire insults at them.”

“Daughter,” said Dad, but he was smiling.

“Seriously, Sophie,” said Slim. “We need to do something to stop them taking that place.”

“I concur,” said Marthen. “No, really, just strategically, we figured that either they would give up trying to take Killifar and come destroy us, or concentrate on taking Killifar and then come destroy us. Either way, they destroy us. If Killifar falls, how do we hold out in some old monastery on the coast?”

“Why on Earth do they want Killifar anyway?” asked Alix. “If I may put in my penny’s worth.”

“Two pennies at the very least,” said Dad. “You’re one of her company commanders?” Alix grinned. “Well,” Dad went on, “what you say is what I thought too. I thought King Olk of Frunga was only coming down to Merrivan to knock ol’ John off his daddy’s throne. Well, this proves that his ambitions have grown. If he came all this way with most of his army, and saw fit to treat with the Kug and even to make a league with them, and they’ve put in the effort needed to actually work together on this lovely enterprise, well, King Olk’s got more in mind than just interfering in the dynastic succession. He wants us to be part of his kingdom. He wants Frunga to be bigger. And he’s not going to stop until he’s eliminated all the other little armies running around down here, and after Killifar, that means us.”

“And he’s got some deal with Mister Gama Kug,” said Marthen. “I wonder what that entails. I wonder how far back it goes, too. Last year? They must have been colluding by this past summer.”

“Yeah,” said Dad, “and they were feeling good enough about things to send a couple hundred Kug warriors to chase the refugees, even when they thought they were just pathetic refugees.”

“Bet they’re sorry they did that,” said Cath.

“So what do we do now?” asked Alix. “If I may.”

“Well,” said Dad, but he grimaced and shook his head. Marthen looked around the others and blew air out his lips.

“Well,” said Sophie, “much as I don’t want to say it, but maybe that’s what you meant about what me and my cavalry are going to do today.”

“Okey doke,” said Dad. “Can you young ladies and gents come up with something that won’t cause us to have to bury a lot of you young ladies and gents?”

Sophie, Alix and Cath grinned at each other, then looked at Ulf, who shook his head and blew air out his lips in imitation of Marthen. “Actually,” said Alix, pulling her red hair out straight, “I think we can.”

Perhaps to simply avoid having to hear the details, Dad went back to getting the mob moving again. They made better time this second day, as the sun came out and warmed the tired masses. Sophie and her riders hung back and watched the back of the refugee troop separate from them and head south and up slope, as the old road climbed into hill country.

“We still don’t actually have a plan,” Sophie pointed out, “and we’re only outnumbered like five million to one.”

“Don’t exaggerate,” said Cath. “They have what? Ten thousand? We have two fifty. That’s only, what, forty to one? Yeah.”

“Yeah,” said Oldric, “forty.”

“Isn’t it four hundred?” asked Padric. “Oh. No. Wait. Twenty?”

“Forty,” said Alix. “Trust us. Okay, so that just means one thing. That means we’re not going to charge headlong into them. It means we have to figure something else out.”

“Got anything, Brains?” asked Sophie.

“Actually,” said Alix, “my plan is to get there and see what’s going on.”

“So, no, then,” said Cath.

“You got anything, Cath?”

“Okay,” said Sophie, “I have one idea. Want to hear it?”

“Sure,” said Cath and Alix.

“My idea,” said Sophie, “is that one of us will think of something clever.”

They talked a little more, and they all agreed that someone ought to come up with something. Cath and Alix and Ulf found their commands, and Slim and his girlfriend Lisel and Oldric and his wife went on ahead, and Sophie and Ella and a few others got together and started up the road behind them. Alix’s group was next, and Sophie couldn’t see more than that.

She spent the next two hours not thinking about what she was doing or how she had come to be here. She was finding those moments of reverie less and less useful the more that was asked of her. It worried her. But she enjoyed the scenery and the weather and the casual conversation of Ella and a big teenage girl named Inga, who had her own sword. Two boys rode behind them, perhaps as self-appointed guards, perhaps to be near the action, perhaps to impress Sophie. She didn’t know their names. She did know she didn’t want them to be dead by tonight. The thought of people being dead by tonight seeped through her mental walls and slowly soured her lovely ride in the country.

“And after he dumped her,” Inga was saying, “she got even with him by kissing Ralphie right in front of him. You should have seen his face.”

“What colors did it turn?” asked Ella. “Like these leaves?”

“Exactly like these leaves, even though it was sheep shearing time. But he couldn’t do a thing about it. That taught him and his stupid brother to mess around behind a girl’s back.”

“Wait, what?” asked Sophie.

“Weren’t you listening?” asked Ella.

“You were probably coming up with grand strategy or something,” said Inga. “We’re not going to try and sneak into town, are we? Are we going to wait for night?”

“Inga,” said Sophie, “are you from Killifar?”

“South of.”

“So, keeping in mind the general strategy here, say you have like ten, twelve, fifteen thousand guys, and thousands of horses, and they’re all outside this town, which has maybe three thousand. And they’re trying to attack it, but they’re also besieging it, which basically means their fall-back plan is to wait till the people inside run out of food. And even with the barns and silos burned down, that’s a matter of doing what?”

“Waiting,” said Inga after a beat.

“Yeah.” Another beat. “So, while they’re waiting, where do they put their horses?”

“And their food?” asked Ella. “They have to have a ton of supplies.”

“They’re eating all our farm stuff right now,” said Inga.

“Didn’t a lot of that go into the town?” asked Sophie. “It’s after harvest.”

“Yeah,” said Inga. “Add up all the farms, no, you couldn’t feed fifteen thousand for a frickin’ night on what they’d have. It’s hard enough us feeding our three or four thou or whatever we have. And we’re on the move. We can hunt different areas. They’re stuck here.”

“Hey, yeah,” said one of the guys behind. He hustled his horse and caught up. He was tall and good looking but far from a physical specimen: he looked like the kid next door who was smart but a little too slick. “Last night, in camp, lots of folks had food they’d brought with them. So that wasn’t there for these guys to steal.”

“So the thing is,” said Sophie, “we don’t have to charge in on the attack. We can sneak in, just a few of us, and do more mischief and lose less people.”

“Attack the kitchen?” said another guy behind them, a big hefty farm boy.

“Or set free the horses,” said Inga.

“Or burn the stores,” said Ella.

“Or all of them at once,” said the handsome boy. “What do you think?”

“I think,” said Sophie, “we scope it out first. Is that too boring?”

“As opposed to going at it with some Kug three times as big as me,” said the handsome boy, “and then like ten more, one by one, and hoping I make it through okay, no, it’s not boring.”

“Excellent,” said Sophie. They rode for a minute and she laughed, and then laughed again.

“What?” asked Inga.

“Dad and I scouted for the Merrivan army in the battle on the Vara River a month ago,” she said. “Those guys basically had this plan: the enemy’s north of us, so march north till we’re fighting them. And everyone, on both sides maybe, had to get really drunk to even get to fighting.” She looked at Ella. “This is a little different, right?”

“Sophie,” said Ella, “I don’t want it to be like a normal battle. I like different.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

When the forward riders came to a triple oak that marked the mile point south of Killifar, they waited for Sophie to catch up and confer. Most of the riders stayed there, and twenty or so, led by Sophie, took a less conspicuous woodland trail north to the edge of the farm country on the south side of town. This was Inga’s home territory, and they had little trouble getting themselves to a fine spot just behind a hedge from the open area the attackers had beaten down a quarter of a mile around town.

Evening was falling on the siege of Killifar. The day had passed lazily, with the fires inside the walled town dying out, and the besiegers resting for another night of mayhem. The two armies attacking may have been working together, but they were still two armies, the Kug on the west side and the Frungans on the east. Thus there were two of everything: two sets of horse pens, two mess tents, two headquarters, two supply yards, two gangs of working warriors digging pits, flattening and widening trails, building a couple of trebuchets, gathering rocks for the trebuchets to throw, setting up battering rams and tortoises.

“What do you think?” Sophie asked as she and her sister and her new closest friends, including Alix and Cath and Ulf and a few leaders of tens, peered over the hedge.

“Horse pen over here,” said Alix. “Supplies. Note not a lot of guards on the supplies. Note cattle on the hoof. Okay. So much for the Kug. Now the Frungans—!”

“Note mess tent,” said the handsome boy. “Note no one whatever watching the back of the mess tent. Note more goats and sheep and cattle.”

“I’m having an idea,” said Sophie.

“Set free the goats? Burn the mess tents?”

“That, for a start, yeah. Alix, Cath, Ulf, you guys need to head back to your guys.”

“Aw, but my lady,” said Alix, “I wanna do something!”

“Don’t worry your little red head about it,” said Sophie. “I’ll bring you something to do.”

Sophie gave her commanders five minutes head start. Then she and Ella and Inga and Oldric and Peg and the handsome boy and the big farm boy and a few others took their horses through the hedge. They stopped again and had a look at things. They were underwhelmed by the Kug security arrangements.

“They’re getting ready to attack the west gate by the river,” said Oldric. Indeed, there was a commotion on the west side of the town, and a distant sound of shouting.

“Are they chanting?” asked Sophie.

“They seem to like to do that,” said Oldric. “They’re not, like, into attacking walls and doing sieges and stuff. So I guess they need to do these chants to work themselves up.”

“Well, whatever. So let’s take it at a walk, go take down a bit of that pen fence, then, see that bonfire? They have those fires here and there to light stuff off of they’re going to use to burn the town and stuff, but they really should be watching that. Especially with all the burnable material around.”

“Tsk tsk,” said the handsome boy.

“I don’t know about you,” said Inga, “but I’m learning a ton.”

The riders, of whom there were now a dozen, sauntered up to the pens of the horses, of which there were thousands. Sophie, Inga, the farm boy and another farm boy dismounted and set about dismantling four consecutive sections of the rail fence. That was all that was needed to make the horse pen optional. None of the humans seemed to react: Sophie and her pals looked like they were doing repair work. They moved on and started to do the same to the Kug cattle and sheep pen, which held a few hundred of each.

This time, the butchers, working to provide dinner or breakfast for their army, took exception. Before the saboteurs were finished, a hue and cry was coming from the far end of the enclosure. Kug warriors were coming to see what it was about. Weapons were grabbed up. Men ran to get on their horses.

“Should we get out?” asked Inga. “Or grab some fire?” asked the handsome boy.

“Get on your horses and let’s get in among these cattle,” said Sophie. She got back on Horseradish, and in a minute she and the others were riding around the inner perimeter of the livestock pen, yelling and shooting at any men they saw on foot. Three butchers got butchered. The livestock reacted by trying to get as far away as possible. Sophie and her pals chased them out of the pen. Then Handsome Boy and Farm Boy and Inga turned hard left, dismounted and went for pieces from the bonfire, while Sophie took the rest and headed off for the Frungan side of the siege.

The Frungans on that side were already wary. Guards walked along the outside of their horse pen. Men on horseback were looking their way. Sophie got her people close enough and stopped. They strung arrows and fired on the nearest guards: two went down, and the rest, good sensible Frungans from far away to the north, took off running. “Okay, let’s go,” said Sophie.

They rode in and tied ropes to four of the fence posts in a row, and then they shot some more arrows at the guards, and then at a Hyah! from Sophie, they took off. The ropes, attached to their saddles, pulled the posts down. Sophie’s riders stopped to get rid of their ropes, and then they rode around south of the camp whooping. They shot at anyone who came near.

In a few minutes, two riders came from the Kug camp: Inga and Farm Boy. There was smoke rising behind them, and there was also the heartwarming sight of livestock and hundreds of little Kug horses wandering into the woods.

“Where’s Handsome?” asked Sophie at a distance of fifty feet.

“Rollo?” asked Inga, coming up beside Sophie. “Sophie, I’m afraid he took an arrow, I think he’s dead.”

“You think?”

“He’s dead,” said one of the other girls. “I’m sure,” said Inga.

Farm Boy laughed. “Rollo went happy,” he said. “He was in the mess tent personally setting things on fire.”

Sophie rolled her eyes and held back a brief wave of nausea. “Okay, gang,” she said, “he did it for us or something. Come on, we’re still pretty safe, let’s shoot at the Frungans some more. Ella!”

“Sophie?”

“You watch the Kug. If they start looking organized, yell out.”

But organization was not so speedy. Sophie got a little worried that they hadn’t been noticed enough: caught up in the thrill of it all, she let Inga drag her and the others on a quick ride through the Frungan mess hall, where they set more fires and shot a dozen more startled-looking men with weapons and grabbed bags of flour and oats and joints of meat. It was ten more minutes before the young troublemakers felt it was too dangerous to stay. Horns began to sound; when three blew at once, not far off in the smoke, Sophie raised her voice to call the retreat the old-fashioned way, by shouting “Retreat!” With a hundred Frungan riders and fifty Kug after them, they took to the old road south.

A mile later, in deepening twilight, they passed the triple oak. When the pursuers, mostly Frungans, got there, they met clouds of arrows coming from the right. They stopped to fight and found Sophie and Inga and Farm Boy and dozens more from the trees coming at their left flank with swords, spears, pitchforks and other long hard objects. Many went down, and many more took fright and fled. In another ten minutes, they were counting the dead of the other side, along with six assorted wounded prisoners. Sophie was counting her own dead.

“One,” she said. “We lost one.”

“Who’d we lose?” asked Alix.

“Handsome. Uh, Rollo.”

“Rollo!” said several others. “Not Rollo!”

“Yeah. Rollo.” Sophie laughed, a little disgusted. “I’m glad it wasn’t more, but I keep wondering what it’ll be like when there’s a real battle.”
XIX

Sophie and her cavalry felt that one mile was not far enough, so, though it was already quite dark under cloudy skies, they kept riding into the night. It took them about an hour to reach the streambed, and there, among the meager remains of last night’s camp, they bivouacked and ate whatever they had on them, mostly chunks of day-old fire-roasted meat, along with some late berries, some very old, very hard cheese and then, eventually, some fresh fire-roasted fish from the stream. Sophie set watches: actually she delegated the watches, and Cath, Alix and Ulf set double watches for each of their companies. They had few tents, and so, looking suspiciously at the cloud deck, most of the little host fell asleep on the ground.

The night did not bring rain. They woke under still-solid skies: October turning into November. Sophie was aching enough to have difficulty getting up from her warm bed on the ground with Ella and Inga. She emerged and found two dozen of her people up already. She sat down amongst the most familiar of them.

“Ugh,” she said to Alix. “Ugh, ugh.”

“Tea, my lady?”

“Sure.” Alix presented her with a mug. Sophie sipped, then scowled. “What is this stuff?”

“I dunno. Katie Atbridge made it. She’s over there trying to make flapjacks.”

“Flapjacks?”

“All we have is some meat and some flour and stream water. We’re saving the meat.”

“Ugh.” Sophie sipped. “I miss Irena. Oh, Irena, I miss you so much.” She smiled at the thought of Irena, perhaps insulting Katie Atbridge’s cooking in her modification of the language. Then she thought of flapjacks, pancakes, the ones her mom made, filling the house with smoke on a late winter morning. Tears came to her eyes.

“Yeah, it really is that bad,” said Cath. “Want to interview the pris?”

“What?”

“We have an interesting prisoner,” said Alix. “Uh, my lady.”

“Alix, why—oh, never mind. Okay. Prisoner.”

Sophie was still not used to the concept of prisoners, or, for that matter, the concept of being in charge. The six prisoners at present were four Frungans and two men of the Kug. The Kug were both injured and, of course, not well treated yet: in falls from their horses they had both sprained ankles or broken legs; one had a broken arm, and the other a nasty gash on the top of his head. The Frungans were mostly injured too, two of them with arrow wounds. Their young captors had at least known to wash the wounds. So now they were wet and cold as well as hungry and tied up.

The one unscathed captive Frungan cavalryman was interesting in other ways too. When the iron-studded leather cap was removed, for Sophie’s eyes, it turned out to be full of messy black hair. The face under that hair had no sign of beard. There was a scar on the left cheek and another across the right eyebrow, both fully healed, but the unbroken nose was fine and pointy.

“You’re a girl,” said Sophie.

The Frungan just glared. She was almost as tall as Sophie, though a little lighter of build. “Yep,” said the Merrivan-born girl next to the captive, “she’s a girl all right. She doesn’t talk.”

“Maybe she doesn’t speak our language.” Sophie spent a few seconds looking at the black-haired captive. Then she looked at the nearest Frungan on the ground, shivering with his somewhat bandaged arrow wound. “Did you know she was a girl?”

He shook his head. “Na,” he said. “Na, did not know.” He smiled, his teeth chattering.

“Does she talk?”

The man smiled and shook his head. “Na,” he said. “Does not talk.”

“Never say word,” said his friend.

Sophie watched the girl for a short time. Then she said, “Yetva?” The girl’s eyes jumped, and then she got control of them. “Vyotol?” said Sophie, and this time the girl’s eyes latched onto Sophie. After ten seconds of that intense stare, Sophie looked at the Merrivan girl standing next to her. “Can you untie her hands?”

“What? Really? Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” said Sophie.

The Merrivan girl, and the guy on the captive’s other side, untied the captive’s hands. Sophie stuck out her own right hand. The captive glared at it, then shook it. Then they stood looking at each other.

“What do we do now?” asked the guy guard.

“Keep an eye on her,” said Sophie. “She’s probably already escaped a few things. And, um, make sure each of them gets a flapjack.”

The day did not warm up much. The captives were put two each on three captured horses, tied up thoroughly. Then, after a poor breakfast, the cavalry got moving south. They made good time. At a noon stop, during which stolen roast mutton got eaten, Sophie went back to look at the prisoners. The Kug with the head wound was unresponsive.

“I’m sorry, Captain,” said the Merrivan girl. “I think he’s dead.”

Sophie and Inga and several of the young men gave prods to every part of the warrior, and then someone thought to check the pulse in his neck and wrists: nothing. Then the girl guard said, “Breath check.” She got out her little knife and held it to the Kug’s mouth: nothing.

“We don’t have time to bury him,” said Sophie. “Lay him by the roadside. Um, no weapons. But put his hands on his chest. Like he’s sleeping.” She looked at the other Kug, who was half awake. “I hope that’s okay.” He made a vague gesture and his lips moved. “It has to be,” said Sophie. She looked at the body, then back at the live Kug. “But you guys didn’t bury the villagers you killed. You just left them to rot where they fell. Didn’t you?”

The Kug waved a hand and said something in his own language. He shook his head.

“He’s sorry,” said the Merrivan girl.

They rode all afternoon under very November skies. There were several spots of rain. There were also, as they went along, signs of the passage of a large group of people: the old road was widened with a trampling of bush and brush, here and there they saw items of trash, mostly articles of damaged clothing and shoes. There were at least two humped-up places where digging had occurred and had been filled in. In the evening, Sophie’s cavalry caught up with the moving mass of civilians just before they all made camp, in the valley around an upland pond.

Sophie found her dad and Nell and Emma and Irena and Marthen waiting for her when she arrived at the edge of the camp. She dismounted and hugs were exchanged.

“Alix,” she said to the red-haired girl, “can your guys be security tonight?”

“Sure,” said Alix.

“I’ll take the front if you want, just in case,” said Cath.

“That sounds great. Ulf, how about you guys set up hunting parties?”

“Sure,” said Ulf.

“Daughter,” said Dad.

“Dad. Those mounds of dirt we saw.”

“People die on journeys like this,” said Dad. “We bury our dead.”

“How many? We saw two. Dad, how are they holding up?”

“We lost, I think, six today. How are they holding up? I’ll tell you when we get to this mysterious place none of us has ever been before and find out if we’re all going to just be there when the next wave of—anyway. So what exactly happened? Back there?”

“We set fire to their mess tents and set free their horses and livestock,” said Sophie, “and then we beat the bleep out of the cavalry they sent after us.”

“Casualties?”

“They lost, oh, I’d put it around two hundred altogether. We lost exactly one.” She sighed.

“That’s not so bad,” he said. Marthen said, “One’s great.”

“Dad,” said Sophie.

“What? You did good.” He laughed. “Actually, this all makes me feel much better. You lost just the one guy. That’s good. That’s very good. I know it’s bad, but it’s good, do you understand?”

She held his eyes, then sighed. “Yeah. I guess.”

“And I heard you talking to that Alix girl. You know what you are?” Sophie sagged a little more and shook her head. Dad laughed at her and slapped her on the shoulder. “You’re a captain, you are. Ha! Heck, Nell, we have an officer in the family!”

They talked a little more, and eventually Irena and Old Kate and the hunters got a mixed stew ready, and everyone in the area had a mug before it was all gone.

“Short rations,” said Ulf.

“Could be shorter,” said Dad. “Hope the winter passes with rations this good.”

“This monastery,” said Sophie. “What do we actually know about it?”

“Is called Elavon,” said Irena. “Seems promising.”

“Irena,” said Sophie, “do you have plans for the evening?” Irena looked confused. “I mean,” said Sophie, “can you come with me and talk to someone?”

Irena did not have plans for the evening, and she did come with Sophie to talk to the dark-haired soldier girl.

“She is,” said Irena after a few sentences of talk with the captive. “She is from Vyotol.”

“Was she fighting for the Frungans? Translating? What?”

There was a bit more colloquy. The captive answered a question; Irena asked another and was answered at some length; then she turned to Sophie and said, “She was dressed as boy when King Olk soldiers come to Vyotol. Her mom dressed her as boy to keep out of trouble. Big laugh. They take her for soldier. Now she is soldier, hero of many battles. She kill three at Vara River.”

“Reeeeally.”

“Yeees,” said Irena. “But she not like Frungans, she say so. She say, first, we should not, um, ransom her back. I take care of her, Sophie, I will. Is fine?”

“Oh, is fine, fine,” said Sophie. “It’s totally fine.”

For the next two days, the mass of people moved south along the old road, south and steadily upward. Sophie wondered how they could be approaching the coast of the Great Sea if it was up there somewhere ahead: wouldn’t the water be cascading downhill? But in the afternoon of the second day, their fourth day traveling from Killifar, the front of the host, and then the rest, filled the region between two huge horns of red rock. They were crossing a barren, stony pass in a barren, stony ridge whose peaks reared up a thousand feet above them. To the left, eastward, the ridge slowly descended toward the distant valley of the River Lesh, and to the right, to the west, it rose yet further into a lofty range.

Sophie and her dad and Emma and Irena and Nell and Marthen and Slim and all the other not quite ordinary people who had become the leaders of this migration spent all day and half the night wandering up and down the moving group, and scouting ahead and behind. And somehow Sophie found herself the one person everyone else asked what to do. The boys had put a moratorium on hitting on her, and the girls were past idolizing her to simply doing what she told them, and her own relatives and friends had taken up the habit of looking at her during their hourly debates. It was odd.

The mob, the town in motion, lost as many as a dozen to sickness or old age each day, and these were buried with a little bit of ceremony along the side of the road. When they could, the burial parties found quiet spots in valleys and groves. The host was, however, on balance, increasing. Each day a few babies were born, and more of these survived than were lost.

But there was another source of increase. Several times each day, Sophie and a few dozen riders, from one or another of the hundreds, rode back down the old road on recon. Each time they went north, they met people coming to meet them: peasants dislodged by the wars, refugees from Merrivan and Tenna and other towns of the kingdom, escapees from Killifar. These last told them that the attacks on the town had dropped off and the attackers had apparently decided on a loose siege.

“They’re up to somewhat,” said a wiry old man with a few teeth. “They’re brewing trouble.”

“But who are they brewing trouble for?” asked Sophie.

“Trouble’s trouble for everyone, eventually,” he replied.

After they crossed the pass, perhaps two thousand feet above the height of Killifar’s market square, it got easier, although cart management got more complicated. That night, the fourth night since leaving Killifar, the mobile province planted itself around a pond in a lushly wooded saddle, and Nell and Irena and Aedith and the other managers of camp had their hands full keeping people from cutting down all the trees. Food was still scarce, but people were still of a mood to share, so everyone had empty stomachs and no one starved.

That afternoon, Sophie and Ella and the riders of Alix’s hundred climbed back to the pass. There they rested their horses and took in the views, as the clouds that had followed them most of the journey broke and left a pure blue sky, with only a few hunks of cottony mist caught on the peaks to the left and right. They saw four riders coming up the slope from the north. These turned out to be Oldric and his wife and two girls Sophie hadn’t met before.

“Okay,” said Oldric, when they were all standing together at the peak of the old road. “These two are Ellane and Angele, they’re from inside Killifar, they’re sisters. Their folks wanted us to take them, how could we say no?”

“I don’t know why you’d even think of saying no,” said Sophie. “How old are you guys?”

“I’m fourteen,” said Angele, “and Ellane is thirteen. We can ride and shoot, my lady, we can contribute.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt that. Okay, so this is good news. What’s the bad news?”

“Well,” said Oldric, and he looked at Peg, his wife.

“So remember when we heard they weren’t attacking Killifar anymore, just besieging it?” said Peg. “Well, we know why.”

“Because they were getting ready to really smack the place,” said Sophie.

“Nope,” said Peg. “Because they’re sending the whole Kug force south to really smack us.”

“They’re what??” asked Dad. “That makes no sense.” He and Sophie were sitting around a fire with the brain trust: Nell, Emma, Irena, Marthen, Slim, his girl Lisel, Otho, old Arthur and Kate, Aedith, Sophie’s “commanders” Alix and Cath and Ulf, and Oldric and Peg, among others. Ella was sitting leaning against Sophie.

“They’re Kug,” said Sophie. “They have their own kind of sense. They don’t have to make our kind of sense.”

“It makes total sense,” said Marthen. “Albeit a Kug sense, surely. They have two threats and they need to destroy them one at a time. They had thought to destroy Killifar, but you went and made a pest of yourself, Sophia dear, and now they have determined that it makes more sense to destroy you. Us.”

“Well, I’m really sorry,” said Sophie. “I didn’t want—!”

“Sophie, it’s okay,” said Dad. “What the hell else could we do but what we did?”

“Yeah,” said Sophie. “What could we do but what we did? Story of my frickin’ life.”

“I don’t see the problem,” said Alix. “We had an uphill fight anyway. They outnumber us like crazy. But we’d have to fight them, one way or the other. We surely would. Let’s fight them now. On, you know,” and she looked at Dad, “ground of our choosing.”

“Someone was listening to me, anyway,” said Dad.

“I have to agree,” said Emma. “And look. The Pass.”

They all looked at Sophie. “Well, okay,” she said, “the Pass. I could work with that.” She grinned at Alix and Cath. “Can’t we?”

“Oh, I’m sure we can,” said Cath.

“But,” said Emma, “tomorrow we should make the coast, and then we’ll see what else we have to work with.”

“Like,” said Sophie, “if this Elavon is occupied by like evil warrior monks or something.”

“Yeah, something like that,” said Dad. He took a swig from the wine skin they had saved for tonight, then passed it to Sophie. “Well, daughter, I’ll just add that I had no idea we were going to be coming this way when we left home for the fair oh, five weeks ago.”

“No one had any idea,” said Nell.

“Sis,” said Sophie, “how are people holding out?”

“Sure hope we have some food ahead,” said Nell. She smiled. “But other than that, people are good, actually. I heard singing today as we walked. Even the guys who were holding back the carts on the steep slopes were singing and joking and laughing.”

“Right now,” said Dad, “they have something they can do. Keep moving. That keeps them from thinking about what they left behind, and what they don’t know about what’s ahead.”

“Well,” said Slim, “what they have now is way better than what they would have had if they’d stayed at Tenna or Merrivan.”

“We just have to make sure,” said Nell, “that what’s ahead is going to be okay. That where we end up for the winter, we can feed people. That we can protect them.” She gave Sophie a very grown-up look. “Can we do that?”

“We can do that,” said Sophie.

It was decided that Slim and Georgie and Lisel would get some rest, then go for a ride in the late moonlight to make sure that the enemy wasn’t within reach of the pass. The rest of the brain trust, Sophie and her family and her friends, people like Marthen and Irena whom she had taken for elders, people like Alix and Ulf whom she had once imagined were her peers, talked for hours and dropped out one or two at a time. No one hit on Sophie. Eventually Sophie and Ella went off to share a bedroll in Nell’s tent, and left Dad, Emma, Matty, Marthen and Irena talking.

Sophie was awakened by her kid brother Jim and her nephew Andy. “Come out, come out!” they cried. “Come see!”

“What? What?” It was light in the tent and warm—the rising sun was hitting it full force. Ella had rolled away but was still asleep, oblivious to it all.

“Come see!” squealed Andy, who was shorter than Jim and a bit heftier. “It’s beautiful!”

Sophie pulled herself out from the sheets. She was wearing just her long shirt and some socks, so she had to pull on her pants: her brother and nephew left her to do this in private. Pants on, boots on, jacket on, she emerged into the light: the sun rose in a dazzling blue sky just to the right of the toothy ridge of the coastal mountains.

They led her to the far edge of the bowl-like valley around the pond. Then they all climbed to the top of a pier of pale grey rock in the sunlight. They went to the edge and gazed down, in the nagging breeze.

The old road went up over the edge of the valley somewhere to their left, and they could make out its line descending southward. Far away, the horizon was flat and fringed with fluffs of low cloud: the Sea.

Below them, against the thin blue streak of sea, stood another ridge, much lower than this one. Almost directly to the south, they could see a high point in this ridge, and they spotted the old road rising toward it through a narrow, wooded valley dark with night still. At the top of the valley, climbing the side of the ridge and just emerging on top of it, was a fortress, or a curious house, or a shambling ruin, as if a perfectly good castle had been left out in the rain at the top of the line of hills and had washed halfway off down a cliff.

Sophie’s eyes adjusted. It was a building, for certain. It was made of native stone and of brick, and if there had been wood, it had rotted and left gaps: that made sense. Around and below it were a dozen or more terraced gardens, overgrown or swamped with water. Black windows and black open doorways glared back at her. Birds flew and dove in the intervening cubic miles of air; apes ran in the trees. She saw no livestock and no sign of people. Her brother and her nephew looked out as well, smiling and uttering little wows.

Then she pointed. “There.”

“What?”

“Look,” she said. She pointed, and they looked. There was one door still closed, one garden still maintained, on the left side near the top. And just as they looked, the door opened and a person emerged, a tiny blur in the distance. Sophie was sure it was female, an old, old lady, moving into the garden and puttering about. “There’s someone living there.”

“Think they’re nice?” asked Andy.

“I think she will be if we’re nice to her,” Sophie replied. She kept watching but she couldn’t tell any more. “Anyway, she’s certainly in for a surprise.”
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.”
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.

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.
Epilogue

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.

“What?”

“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.

“What?”

“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.”

The End

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