Part One: Sophie and her dad
Sophie was always a big girl, even a formidable girl, from the day she was born. There were all the usual explanations: the middle one of a large farm family, she had to fight for her food and wrestle calves on a daily basis, and it didn’t hurt to learn to ride a horse.
None of these were actually true. Her mother might have been a little leery of her, but her dad was proud of his big girl, and made sure she always got her fill at the table. Sophie didn’t have to do much to the calves to get them to obey, although she had been known to haul off and slug a recalcitrant one. And it did hurt, as a matter of fact, to learn to ride a horse, but she got over it.
So those who lived at the farm at the bend of the Muddy River twenty-two miles west of Tenna, both humans and animals, learned to live with the big blond kid. Like most residents of village and countryside, she came to accept her unique place as given. Her older brothers taught her to play football just as her older sisters were thinking about which sons of neighboring farms to bat their eyes at, and the cows and sheep learned to stay on her spacious good side, and the cats and dogs followed her around knowing that even in her rare foul moods she wouldn’t kick or cuss them. Through long summers she did her chores, walked the fences, wandered the deep dark green woods across the river; through long winters she hauled barrels, threw snowballs and spent hours gazing into the fire. Time lingered, lay back and took a snooze, it seemed to her when she looked back on her childhood. But that is the illusion that we who were happy children take with us. All the time, time was passing, and it was not only Sophie who was growing into something unforeseen.
When she was five, her eldest brother Jack brought home a bride, Eleanor, Aunty Nell to Sophie, and by the next year there was a new baby boy, and the next year another one.
When Sophie was seven, the barn burned down. Dad was most unhappy. But the neighbors turned out and it was soon rebuilt. The new barn was way too clean, and it was empty too for a while, and that winter they had only the meat the menfolk could hunt. Sophie got to go along, though she never did bag anything. The next year was a good one for the cattle and sheep, and soon the roast beef was back on the table every Sunday.
When Sophie was eight, the old King died, away down in Merrivan on the River Lesh, and there was a new King: John IX after John VIII. Her Dad showed her a coin with the old King on it. He was a little guy with a big head, staring bugeyed out from under a funny hat.
When Sophie was nine, her older sister Margery was married to Perkin Paton from Killifar. It was twenty-six miles away, and so Sophie only saw Margery once a year after that, when her Dad took her and her brother Mouse to visit in the midsummer.
That December, her grandmother died, her Dad’s mom. They buried her next to her husband, gone since before Sophie was born. Sophie cried and cried, and cried again when they divided up Grandma’s worldly goods, but to Sophie went a scarf that she always wore afterward in the winter. For years, any time she wanted to have a good cry she just had to think of Grandma telling her a story—the old woman knew so many stories, though she couldn’t read. Later, Sophie tried to write as many down as she could, and she cried some more for the stories lost.
When Sophie was eleven, the winter was very snowy. A blizzard came through Tenna country and stayed for three whole days. By the end of it, the farm house was nearly buried. Then the cold wind sliced through and their windows were clear again, if they ever dared open the shutters: Sophie peered through the cracks into the night and saw a million, million stars. The wind’s sharp fingers reached through to poke at her eyes. Late in the night, many nights, she could hear the wolves on the river. The cows heard them too and called to each other. But Dad set watches in the barn, and meanwhile most of the sheep, and most of the hay and grain, came into the big house itself. Most of the family had bad colds and Mouse came down with a troubling fever, but Sophie, strong as a horse, was untouched. She stayed warm for weeks sleeping piled high with cats, a ewe on either side. It didn’t smell especially bad once she was used to it.
But that winter was also when Sophie left a little of her childhood in the barn.
She was lying one morning in February petting her cats and listening to grownups talking. The smell of weak tea floated about, but not yet the smell of cooking, so she stayed snug. The sound of voices was soothing… until she figured out what they were saying.
“It’s not so bad, Dad,” said Jack. “I’ll be good for tonight.”
“You won’t, dear my darling,” said Nell quietly. “It’s deep. You need to be off it for a while.”
“I don’t,” he replied as if he weren’t arguing. “It was but careless. I can’t slack because of a little slip, you know.”
“Don’t throw my words back at me, boy,” said Dad. “Nell’s right—remember I said so, she has nine parts of ten of the sense between the two of you.”
“Dad, it’s not as bad as it looks.”
“I should hope not, boy. It don’t look good at all. It could be half as bad as it looks and still nigh to kill you.”
“It’s lucky that doggy didn’t pull your fool leg off, Jack,” said his younger brother Slim.
“It’s lucky it was me not you, Slim,” said Jack.
“I’ll agree to that,” said Dad, “but yet here it is. You’re not standing watch till it’s healed. Your mom will keep up the poultices and you will keep up the lying down. Why not try and hit some of them books she’s stacked up by your bed?”
“Don’t Dad me. If books was as soft a duty as you seem to think you’d have mastered them long ago. And anyway, it’s something you can do without your ankle. John my son,” and Dad never called him John unless he was concerned, “we’re not sure you’re keeping that fool foot of yours yet. It’s not the time to make plans of what you’ll do with it.”
“Darling my dear,” said Nell, “stay off it for me and we’ll dance again at the May Day.”
“And you’ll be out to here by Dog Days, my girl,” said Jack. “But Dad, who—?”
“You don’t worry about it,” said Dad.
“But Dad,” said Slim in a low voice, “there’s barely enough of us to—well, you, me, Dick ain’t much with that foot he’s got, Red can barely lift a pitchfork, and Mouse been sick this past month or more—!”
“Come, Slim,” said Dad, “I got an idea.” The others went on talking, but after a moment all the cats leapt up as Dad yelled “Sophie darlin’!” from about a foot away. Even Old Yellow Dog half-roused himself to half bark.
“What! What!” She jumped up.
“You get double rations today, girl, and an extra nap too,” he said with a congratulating smile. “You know why?”
“You’re in the barn with the boys and me tonight.”
That was the winter that Mouse, her brother a year older, died of a lingering fever; that Jack survived nearly having his leg torn off by a wolf in the barn; that her niece, his first daughter Sue, was born; that they lost eight cows, a bull and six sheep to the wolves; that was the winter that Sophie swung a sword. The whole winter froze down to those moments, and the last one, the most important one, fell in the middle of the coldest night of her life.
Dad and Slim and skinny Red and Dick with the lame foot—that was all there was for menfolk. So there was Sophie, eleven years old, no, eleven and a half. She was as tall as Red and broader of shoulder. The barn was so cold, so cold there was nothing she could compare it to. Everything was new as a nightmare, the trails of snow blown in through the cracks, the boards pegged up across where drifts had broken in, and two wolf skins hanging from rafters, some cows and goats and sheep huddled in the middle, the little fire fed stingily from the little pile of branches. The axes in everyone’s hands.
“You can have this one,” said Dad, handing Sophie an axe.
“Dad,” said Sophie, “what do I do if they come at me?”
“Swing the dang thing! You won’t need to be coached.”
They stood around silently for a while as the howling picked up. “They’re coming back tonight,” said Red.
“They got a taste o’ Jack,” said Slim, “and they come to see if Slim’s as good or better.”
“Don’t jest so,” said Red.
“How else shall we jest?” asked Dad. “Maybe it’s a bit o’ Red they’ll want.”
“Dad,” said Dick, “didn’t you fight in the Wars?”
“This ain’t like that,” said Dad.
“No, but—Dad,” Sophie said with little girl pleading, “don’t you have a sword?”
“I prefer to think of this as chopping furry wood,” said Dad.
“Well, if you’re not going to use your sword—!”
“Ah,” said Dad.
“They ain’t here yet, Dad,” said Slim. “You might as well show it to her. It’ll lighten the mood.”
“We could use that,” said Dad. “Fine. Don’t let the wolves start in without me.”
He went out and came back in a minute with the thing. It wasn’t shiny or anything—it was a little rusty, with rope wrapped around its hilt and hand guard. He swung it, then flipped it in the air and caught it by the blade in a gloved hand, the handle to Sophie.
The boys grinned. She smiled at them and took it. It was heavier than it looked, but Sophie was strong. She held it up.
“That’s the idea, Soph,” said Red. “Chopping wood,” said Slim.
There was a shuffling sound from outside the big door. They all looked that way, but nothing happened. They all looked back at Sophie, their eleven year old sister, holding that old rusty sword like it was a rake.
“Like this,” said Dad, reaching out.
A great weight pounded the barred doorway.
They looked at each other. Sophie gripped the sword, feeling like crying. Dad gave the doorway a long look, then turned to Sophie. “Here, girl,” he said, adjusting her grip. He sighed. “Relax, will you? It’s only about life and death, nothing to get all tight about.”
No one laughed. Sophie took the adjusted sword and swung it slowly as Dad stepped back, giving the doorway another look.
There was another crash, then another silence. There was more shuffling. Then there was a crash greater than the others, the sound of many paws and muzzles slamming into the barricade.
Drifts of snow poured in and swirled about the room. The fire nearly went out. Howling to curdle the blood broke out from within the barn. Sophie stood in a white darkness with just time to wonder what came next. A growl broke from salivating jaws at the beginning of a leap.
Sophie swung: high left to low right. She brushed something, which slipped, stumbled and growled again. She was almost knocked off her feet, but she stood. She swung back up and down, high right to low left. She connected the second time. The sword nearly flipped from her hand. She regained it, her heart aflutter. An hour went by while she raised the sword, every moment expecting teeth to take her middle. That growl again, ending in a whimper. The sword came down. It stopped in mid-swing. She was showered in warmth. She continued chopping, chopping.
The whimpering stopped. A groan at her right—a growling bark, and then she turned to face it again. The only thing was to face it and not be caught from behind. Something was still behind her, so she lunged forward. There it was, in a little light. It was huge, but it was haggard and hungry. It had Slim by the legging, and he was trying to flail at it with his broken axe.
Down came the sword again. The thing let go and barked remorsefully at her. She slew it and whirled around. One more wolf, the big one, was upon her.
It fell off as she tripped backwards over Slim and his assailant. There was a gash in its neck. Her father looked down on it.
Then he stooped and pulled the dead thing back, as Red pushed a bale of hay in front of the door.
The tale was told many times in Dad’s proud voice, but it didn’t blot out the flashes of memory. Still, there they were: five new wolf skins hanging in the barn. “I’ll never forget the look on her face,” Dad said. “And she fell right back over the second she killed, lucky I was there, huh girl? Not ready to be without your Dad yet, huh?” No, Dad, not yet. “But she done it, didn’t she?” he would go on, almost a tear in his voice. “No one thought she could but me. You showed them, didn’t you? You showed them I was right.”
Then Slim would grin sheepishly and say again, “I gotta admit, I didn’t think she could handle it, but hey, I don’t mind saying I owe her my leg if not my life.”
Sophie didn’t know what to do with all the appreciation. Everyone was so proud of her. For what, exactly? As she thought it over it seemed like she’d never had a choice. Not that she minded. And it wasn’t only her—Dad had killed two of the creatures, and Slim had broken his axe on the first one through, which Dick finished off. But what she remembered was this, these three things.
She hadn’t conquered her fear—she’d been afraid before, and during, and after.
The thought of something behind her pushed her forward.
And she had just, kept, swinging.
After that, the wolves avoided their house for the rest of the winter. But it was tough on the other farms around. Two houses were empty in April that had been full in November. Sophie did not think much about where they had gone, including a couple of girls she played with, but two families were gone, mom, dad and kids, grandmas, grandpas, cows, sheep, goats and dogs. Only the farm cats stayed on, along with their prey.
That June Sophie was twelve, and already almost six feet tall. They had a good year, and Dad took Sophie and Slim down to Tenna for the fair in September. The next winter saw more mud than snow, and the next summer they were swimming in milk. And Sophie had a new baby sister Sally. She counted up and found that she still had five brothers—Jack, Slim, Red and two younger—and four sisters not counting Margery, who had three girls of her own, and they also had three cousins with them, Dick and his twin sisters a year older than Sophie. There was plenty of work but also plenty of food, and plenty of pickled vegetables and plenty of salted meat and plenty of corn and wine and cheese, and cats to protect it.
The next winter was cold and hard but they sailed through. The next summer Sophie was fourteen. When they went to the fair, Dad and Slim and Jack and his eldest boy Little John and Sophie, Slim pointed out to her what the Tenna boys were looking at as they leaned on the rails on the edge of town.
“You,” said Slim.
“Me. Why?” she asked, though it occurred to her that one or two of the boys looked all right to her too. Slim pointed her to a puddle. “What, mud?”
“No! Not the mud,” he replied. She looked. And looked. Somehow she had never noticed it but it had happened. Where Sophie should have been, there stood a tall strong young woman with a smirk, a young woman with strong shoulders, with strong legs bare to the knees where her work pants ended, with a strong torso seen where her shirt was unbuttoned and where it didn’t quite make it down to her belt. She was dressed as a boy because she was doing a boy’s work and more, but she was not a boy, that was clear.
She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know whether to rejoice or worry. But she thought about it all that week and beyond.
Tenna is the seat of a province of the same name, in the western hills of an inland realm then ruled by the King in Merrivan on the River Lesh. So it was when Sophie was born, in the time of John VIII, and so it still was under John IX when Sophie turned fifteen. But there were other kings and no one had ever agreed upon whose rule ended where, or even which Earl or Baron could call himself Prince or King. John IX was not a bad man, but he was not feared as his father had been, who could call upon some thousands of men at arms, vassals of his and of his vassals. The new King would have to be tested, and that summer he was.
The Lord of Tenna was called upon to send two hundred to Merrivan at the King’s command, for King Olk at Frunga in the north, across the forests and low stony mountains, felt that he should have a province or two that now saluted John. Tenna’s Lord Edgar still felt that John was the better bet, and called on Sir Giles, a knight of the hills west of Tenna, to come and bring thirty of those who owed him service, and Sir Giles did so, and among them were Jack and Slim and Red. Dad was left out, which made him grumble out loud, but he clearly worried more than grumbled. Still, he could not bring himself to ask to take one of their places, and the three young men seemed to think it all a great honor and a bit of a lark. Off they went, on their farm horses, on 28 June of the eighth year of King John, ninth of that name at Merrivan.
Nothing was heard nor was expected for over a month. They must have gone down to Merrivan, forty miles and more away, and then headed up the Lesh to see about this King Olk. It might take all summer and into the fall and still nothing happen. “I was on three campaigns,” Dad explained (many times, in fact), “and two of them nothing happened, and on the third we went and beat the daylights out of the men of King Dugan of Klary, and I never even got to raise that sword of Sophie’s in anger. I did get mean drunk after, though.”
But it did not take all summer and fall. On a hot afternoon of August, as Dad and Sophie and Dick and the twins were haying, up rode two shabby veterans on horseback. They were Jack and Slim.
“How’d you fare?” asked Dad, reaching them first.
“Not so good,” said Slim. “Red’s—!” He didn’t finish, but what he said was enough.
“Our Good King John,” said Jack, “he sent us forward and then he lost his nerve and pulled back. Sir Giles is dead too, Dad. We had a time of it.”
“I guess you did,” said Dad. He shook his head. Sophie looked at him from the side, and let herself know that Red was gone, and just as quickly she let her tears sink back into her eyes. “I guess you did,” her father repeated.
“I killed two men, Dad,” said Jack.
“I killed not a one,” said Slim, “but not for want of trying. We got out, Dad, we didn’t wait and see.”
“We saw plenty,” said Jack.
“I guess you did,” said Dad.
Sir Giles was gone, but for a while King John was still king, or so they assumed, and Lord Edgar was still Lord of Tenna. King Olk of Frunga could not follow up what had been at best a messy victory, not that year anyway. There were no rents collected in the district, but neither was there any sort of security. Dad and Jack and Slim and some others of the nearby farms and villages sometimes rode the trails and several times saw off unwholesome strangers. The harvest came in, though it came with news of thievery here and there and strange folk in the woods. The leaves turned orange and red and brown and fell in fragrant piles, the yellow days of autumn gave way to November’s cold rains and then the snows of an average winter. The wolves did not know one King from another and were no worse than usual.
In the spring, the planting went forward as usual, since no one had told the farmers any reason not to plant. Kings and wars came and went and still the kids had to eat. Old Yellow Dog got older but still gallumphed around with that dumb grin of his; the cats changed personnel but they were still the cats; calves grew up and were slaughtered or milked or put to work just as always.
In June, Sophie turned sixteen. She was over six feet tall, she was taller than her dad or Jack or even Slim and she was definitely taller than Ned, the Wright’s son, who came to woo her in his slovenly way—Ned hadn’t changed much from the dirty clumsy kid she used to laugh at. She still laughed at him, behind his back. Mom wouldn’t hear of her putting him off—“You don’t know he won’t be the only one, Sophie dear,” said Mom from over the dinner pot.
“If he is, then I’ll stay a spinster.”
“Don’t say that,” said Nell, “touch wood and throw salt, don’t tempt the Devil.”
“I don’t believe in the Devil,” said Sophie, and she laughed at Nell’s look and ran past her Dad, who was trying not to grin.
She ran out into the yard. It was the magic hour before dinner—it was her hour. She laughed as she ran to the barn, and old Horseradish looked up as she came in. The old horse practically smiled back at her. She threw a blanket over his back and climbed on, and they sauntered out together into the lane. In a few minutes they were in the fields, then along the woods, then down to the stream, then down it to ten yards from the Muddy River.
She jumped down by the giggling stream and took a big sweet breath of air. She was strong, she was free, she was sixteen and she ruled the world. But what was that, something in the brush? A shadow moved. Her hand strayed to her belt. There was no sword there—why had she thought there would be a sword there?
There was also nothing in the brush—why had she thought otherwise?
“It’s okay, baby,” she told Horseradish. “It’s a lovely night, isn’t it?” It was dark under the trees. She climbed back up and looked around.
Under the trees, the brush was low and sparse. There was nothing bigger than a squirrel anywhere within fifty yards. Still, she nudged the horse forward to the river’s edge, and there, in a little more light, he stood and she sat. The sun was ahead of her, across the river, descending toward the wooded hills. She could still see the open rock of a few cliff faces in the shadow. She had been just about that far west in her life.
All these years Sophie had thought the world was static. The rules were: there was a house and a farm, there was Mom and Dad and brothers and sisters and Dick and the twins, and if suddenly there were Nell and some nephews and nieces, there was also the promise that Sophie would grow to be, well, she always thought she’d grow to be Jack, not Nell, but whatever. There was Sir Giles, who was nice enough if a bit above them all, and there was Tenna and Merrivan and the King. There was the Fair.
Now there was—a King? Who? Not the one in Merrivan, of whom nothing had been heard around Tenna for most of a year. There was no Sir Giles, and no Lord Edgar, who had taken his family down to join whatever was left of the King’s court. There was death and doubt and shadow in the woods. There was none of the future she felt she had been promised. She thought about it for the first time really: the future. What would happen. She didn’t know.
She jumped down with a sigh and strode forward till her boots were in the shallows. She gazed out at the far hills. Nothing that way but mountains and a barren coastline somewhere. An ocean, whatever that meant, like a river with no far shore.
She looked down. In the water was a woman looking up at her. She was strong, she was tall, she was beautiful even with her doubtful smirk. The clouds raced by above her.
Then she heard, far off, her mother calling dinner, and she mounted back up and rode back to the barn.
The village was used to a few wanderers every year, and every so often a new family would arrive from somewhere worse and settle on a bit of empty land. Local customs were communicated to newcomers somehow. But this year already seemed a heavy one for travel and four little clans built four mud and timber hovels in four different patches of grassland. They got in fights and their kids tore things up but the new folk all looked unlikely to last the winter anyway. Other travelers just passed on, north to south mostly, without a word mostly. Sometimes a local would walk out in the morning and find something missing in his yard or his barn.
Once in June Sophie was reading to her nephew Will when the boy stiffened and concentrated his dark eyes on the open window. “What is it, Willy?” asked Sophie.
“There’s a man outside.”
The way he said it made her hair stand on end. She crept to the window and looked out. And there he was, standing near a tree in the dark yard, only the starlight on him. He wore a coat and a beat-up hat, and that was all that could be seen. She thought he was facing the house.
“Dad,” she said after a long moment, “there’s a man outside.”
“A what?” asked Dad from his chair across the room.
“What’s he doing?” asked Nell. “I’ll see to him,” said Jack, standing. Slim stood too, and the two of them moved to the front door. They looked at each other and opened it. They stepped out, and the light, and the family, crowded out into the yard. There was no man.
“Heard tell the Frungans are into the northern provinces,” said Lof the Smith on a hot July day as they sat and sipped Mom’s mild sweet wine in the shade of the big ash in front of the house.
“No one’s asked me to do anything about it,” said Dad. “I don’t know if I would even if they did ask.”
“King John’s got another army,” said Slim. “I heard Davy is off to Merrivan to sign up. What’s he thinking?”
“He’s not,” said Jack. “I wouldn’t fight for King John for all the money in Merrivan.”
“That’s not so much anymore,” said Nell. “Marie told me the Earl of Selish carried off half the Treasury.”
“I heard that too,” said Dick.
“He’s not the King John I marched under,” said Dad. “His father is cursing him up one side and down the other in the High Pavilion.”
“If he couldn’t stop them last year, how will he stop them this year?” asked Lof.
“Could be the end of Merrivan,” said Lof’s wife Matild. “Too bad.”
“Shopping was good in Merrivan,” said Nell.
“So,” said Sophie, sharpening arrows, “who’s going to be our King now? Olk?”
They all looked at her. The old men nodded, and Jack shrugged. “What’s it matter?” he asked. “It couldn’t be much worse than it was.”
“Bite your tongue,” said Dad. “You don’t know a thing, my little boy. Anyway, you know what I’ve been thinking, we never had it so good as now. No taxes, no interference—!”
“Yeah,” said Lof. “What is it kings and lords do for us anyway, for all the money?”
They thought about it and no one much wanted to reply. They sipped their wine, Sophie fletched her arrows as the golden evening came on, and then a dozen off the neighbor’s farm joined them in time to feast on a young boar. That night again, just like childhood, Sophie lay on her back in the yard and counted the stars. She could hear boys talking a hundred yards away, and then wandering off to look for trouble. She lay still, in a slight dell, sailing the voids of space while the wind whispered over her.
Several times in the month of August the farm and the nearby villages were troubled by strangers passing through. First several shabby families, a total of fifteen or so, came rolling through on carts pulled by oxen, sheep and fathers. They camped for a day and asked Dad for food, and how could he say no to the little girl? Then, a week later, four young men together camped on Muddy Cross and tried to get money from people passing. A fight ensued several days later, and the farmers around helped dislodge the four men. One of the four, and one of the younger farmers, were killed.
After that, the farmers were more vigilant about patrols and keeping in touch. So when two dozen men of strange dark features and blond hair passed by the farm, Dad sent Slim out to warn the farms around. The gang made straight for Tenna, where they occupied the inn until they too were dislodged with bloodshed, three of them and two of the locals dead.
In September Dad took some cattle and sheep to the fair, but this time he only took Sophie with him. Even though the last set of threatening strangers had come to Tenna, everyone assumed that the town was safer than the farms and villages, and the farm would need everyone it could muster for security. But then it became quiet again, as if the flow down from the hills were freezing up for winter.
So Sophie and Dad and Horseradish and Dad’s favorite mare Daisy and twelve obedient sheep and two pretty good goats and six hogs securely roped together headed for the Fair. Sophie and her mom got up before light, got everything ready and then spent an hour waiting around while Dad made sure Jack and Slim and Nell and everyone else knew what was expected of them. Dad was suddenly thinking of a lot of things that might be expected of them. Perhaps it was because the unexpected covered so much ground.
Finally the two of them were off. It was still early, and the trip, according to Dad, “ought to take a whole long day and that only if we got off by dawn.” They did not get off by dawn, but they did not stop in the villages on the way. Sophie noticed especially the lives of the villages, each one different, each one the same as all the rest including her own. And underneath the eternal, bustling lives of the working villages, she could just sense the new, acidic taste of anxiety, just like in her own home town this past year or two.
They got to the Fair and soon found that things were tough all over. The great market and farm show was half its normal self, and the other half of the usual space in town was taken up by squatter families in lean-tos. Outside Tenna’s wooden stockade walls, a shanty town was beginning to spring up. Last year at the Fair Sophie had gotten used to the boys looking at her, but now it was the cows that were being ogled.
Dad sold his stock at record speed. One of his usual contacts in Tenna, a widow named Elsbeth Allett, paid good silver for the lot. “Maybe I should dicker,” she said, “but I haven’t time, I have to get these beasts to Merrivan to sell again.”
“Maybe I’m the one who should dicker,” said Dad, fingering his coin, “but this is more than I’d usually get even if I sold them one by one and bargained all the way. And with all the strangers in town I’m glad to hand the good beasts over to someone else to worry about.”
“Aye, the new folk look a hungry lot,” said Elsbeth Allett. “Pity they haven’t a penny.”
“Where are they coming from?” asked Sophie.
“Up north, out west, off east,” replied the merchant. “Some will settle, and some are welcome, but some look like no more than robbers and lowlife, and they won’t move on as long as the Fair gives them easy marks.”
“Trouble in the world,” said Dad. “I feel sorry for them.”
“I don’t but I do,” said Elsbeth Allett. “The way those men there watch everyone going by—if they don’t mean evil, then I’m a dormouse. And yet without a King—! How are things up where you all hail from? What’s it called?”
“Mudwick,” said Dad, and Sophie thought, my home town.
“Don’t know it,” said Elsbeth. “Well, how is it up at Mudwick?”
“I won’t lie,” said Dad. “Folk are scared of their own shadows. Like you say, without a King—well, a King worth the name, anyway. Who’s in charge in Tenna, anyway?”
“Ah,” said Elsbeth, “town council, bunch of screw-ups. Not sure what’s going to happen. Things are in a dizzy twist, that’s what I call it. No one talks of the King here these days.”
“No one does?” said Sophie.
The two elders rolled their eyes and shrugged their shoulders, and with nods and a few pleasantries they hurried on their way.
Normally Dad pitched a small tent in the fields outside the walls, but the situation as well as the money in his pocket talked him into putting down a shilling for a room at the inn. They had some stew and a couple of pints in the common room, where they listened to locals complaining about the weather, then to drunken locals singing.
The room had two little bunks, a bench, a couple of shelves and a copper basin. They went right up and lay on the bunks talking—quite the life of luxury. “We’ll stay the night, then shop a bit in the morning and be home by afternoon,” Dad told Sophie. “I’m going to have a bit of wine and hit the sack.”
“I think I’ll have some too,” said Sophie.
“That’s my girl!” He pulled the cork out of his bottle and took a long drink. Sophie took the bottle and took the same long drink. “Wine is good for you,” said Dad, “don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.”
They drank a third of the bottle and talked about the farm and the summer and the coming winter, and after twenty minutes Dad was nodding off. Sophie watched him with a smile, then corked the bottle and got up. A few minutes later she was out in the dirt street in front of the inn, swinging her sword through its practice moves while passers by gave her a wide berth.
The next day, after an early fog and a brief rain, the clouds settled in. The number of refugees in Tenna doubled. Nobody among the locals seemed to know where they were coming from or what they were fleeing, and no one had gotten up the gumption to ask.
In any case, the clouds opened up before the day was well underway and the rain and drizzle went on into the afternoon. Dad and Sophie looked out from the inn’s doorway at the uncertain weather, and all the other uncertainty, and decided to stay another night.
“Another shilling, then,” said the old man innkeeper, hardly looking at the coin as he watched the open door. “Have some stew and a pint or two,” he said, still staring past them.
“Thanks, inn-keep,” said Dad. “Come, girl, let’s go see how the wrestling goes.”
In the evening, as Sophie and her Dad were coming out of the arena where a local boy had pinned a boy from Merrivan for the wrestling title, they saw someone familiar.
“Hey,” said Sophie, “isn’t that Ned?”
“That’s his parents too,” said Dad, “the wright and the, uh, wright’s wife. Go talk to them, Soph, they must be up for the Fair.”
“Why do I have to talk to them? You’re the only one of us that likes any of them.”
“Now Soph. You go. I—I don’t like them that much either. But—well, I’d like to get some news of back home. You know, all these vagrants make me wonder what’s going on in the wide world.”
Sophie began weaving through the crowd. Suddenly she emerged from a knot of people and saw the wright’s family, all eight of them including a grandmother and a cousin. They were standing, sitting or lying on the ground in a tight group, with a pile of belongings around them. They had put up a canvas sheet as a tent, and arranged some bedding underneath, and now most of them were waiting while the wright’s wife made some kind of stew over a fire of sticks.
Sophie turned around and went back to her Dad. “What did they say?”
“Let’s talk about it back at the inn,” she replied.
“I couldn’t talk to them, Dad,” she said as they ate some stew in the common room. “I mean, a month ago Ned came a courting. Now—!”
“So you got scared to talk to them?”
“Well, Dad, I mean there was all their stuff. I mean, what was I going to say? ‘Hey, how’s it going, Ned, going on a pilgrimage or something?’ I mean—!”
“You’re embarrassed for them because they’re not here for the fair like we are,” said Dad. “They’re fleeing. They’ve lost their home. Well, Sophie, when we find out what’s going on, we might learn we’ve lost a few things too.”
“What do you mean?”
“Why do you think they’re here? They’re from our town, Sophie.”
She put it together and wondered what had taken her. She found she was fingering her grandmother’s scarf, which she had brought with her from home out of whim or superstition. “But that means—!”
“Sophie, we have to think. We don’t have news yet. I’d like to cut out and go home, but we have to wait till tomorrow morning anyway. Maybe your Mom will turn up tomorrow right here in Tenna, and we can move in next door to Ned.”
“I hope it was just panic,” said Sophie. “I hope the wright just heard a rumor.”
“I hope so too,” said Dad. “Lots of rumors. One day one of them’s going to be true.”
The next morning, between sun and showers, the father and daughter mounted up and headed for home. They’d gotten about an hour up the road when they met a sizeable column of new refugees. There wasn’t anyone from their village, as far as they could see—but there were the entire contents of two villages about five miles from where they now stood.
“No, not Frungans,” said a young man. “They’re from west over the hills, Kuhur warriors. They’re taking the land they want, and killing a lot of folk. Must’ve been a hundred came to our village, but that’s only a part of what came over the Muddy River.”
“Any news of the villages and farms along the Muddy?” asked Dad. “Town of Mudwick?”
“Mudwick, huh?” said several. “Never heard of it.”
“Some of those people came through our neighborhood day before yesterday, and yesterday,” said the young man. “I guess the Kug have been scouting all year, and now they’re here in force.”
“And they have magic,” said an older woman.
“Don’t know about that,” said an older man, “but they have these arrows what whistles as they flies.”
“Yeah,” said Dad glumly, “they do that so they’ll terrify you more. Works, too, don’t it?”
“It was enough when they set fire to my house and slew my two sons,” said an old woman.
Dad looked at Sophie. “We ought to go see,” he said.
“No, no, no,” said several refugees. “No, don’t go up that way. If your folk was peaceful, they might be all right if the raiders didn’t want their land. If they gave up their livestock, they’ll be fine. But if you two come up from back here, they’ll shoot you as soon as they see you.”
“And think what will happen to her,” said several, pointing to Sophie.
“Nothing’s gonna happen to me,” said Sophie.
“Needn’t fear any of that,” said an old man. “They’ll think you’re a young man and kill you right away.”
“We still have to go see,” said Sophie.
“Hope we see you again,” said several.
So Sophie and her Dad rode on a ways. They came without warning to a village they’d ridden through on the way to Tenna a few days ago. It was burned to the ground.
They stood there in a light drizzle staring. They could make out a dozen house outlines and some implements, a broken plow, a few tools. There were a few corpses, not looking at all like anything living.
All of a sudden the sun peeked through a crack in the clouds. Their eyes adjusted. There was a noise ahead of them, where some ruins flanked a little brush along a stream.
The sun pointed out the body of a young woman lying across the path. The noise came again. The sun vanished again. Some struggle was occurring in the brush on the other side of the village. Now they began to discern more bodies, under the trees, under the fallen thatch and timber. The whole place stank. Without a word, the two of them backed their horses out of the clearing that had been the village. Sophie heard or felt something behind her.
By that time she’d had enough of things glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, or heard but not seen. She slid off of Horseradish and yanked out her father’s sword. Before them, just out of the brush on either side of the trail, were four men in leather with metal studs, holding axes and clubs. They had dark skin and blond hair, their thin pale greasy beards peeking out from their leather helmets. They looked formidable, but they were all shorter than Sophie. They advanced, leering, on the armor-less blond-haired girl.
She whacked the nearest one with the flat of the sword, hitting him right on the metal cap to his helmet. He went down in a heap. The others gawked, so she whacked the next nearest on the ear—a solid hit. His prognosis included a long-term ringing in the ears, but for the short term he too went down. The other two backed off into fighting crouches.
“I’ve had it with you guys,” said Sophie, turning back to her horse. The two stood up and advanced. “Gosh darn it,” she said, turning back to them. “I’ve had it up to here!” She swung the blade level with her shoulders. The edge took one of them on the top of the head, right under the metal cap of his helmet, and when he went down a piece of his skull wasn’t attached. The fourth man also fell, having failed to notice Dad’s axe handle.
“Let’s go,” said Dad, shaking. Sophie was shaking too. She gave the man she had killed a brief appraisal, then got on her horse. They were out of the village before any more Kug warriors could confront them.
They turned their horses and headed back to Tenna. When they were almost in sight of the town, Sophie said, “Maybe everyone will be fine.”
“We can’t do anything for them now,” Dad replied.
That evening they sat in the common room with pints of ale. “Dad,” said Sophie, “what could have happened back there if—?”
“Sophie,” he said, “you killed a bad guy. You did it. That’s really something.”
“That was nothing,” she replied. “I didn’t even think.”
“You can’t think,” he said. “You did what you should have. You can’t, uh, think about whether he’s a good person or not.”
“I don’t care if he had five kids back home, wherever he came from. I don’t care about that. Maybe I would’ve felt different a year ago, but I saw how they looked at us, I saw that woman dead. Darn it, Dad, what’s going to happen? There are so many more of them, I know there are, there were plenty more just in that village that we didn’t see. We were lucky to get out at all. How are we ever going to—? I mean, what can we—?”
“Well,” Dad said with his customary bravado, “there’s still us.”
“They might be fine,” said Sophie. “I mean, Mom, Jack, Slim—!” She met his eyes, blue into blue. “They might be fine,” she said, and sipped her beer. “And if not, well, we still got us.”
Sophie and her father stayed in Tenna that night. By the next day the number of refugees had doubled again. None of the new arrivals looked familiar. It was too warm for September, sunny and hazy after a morning shower. Sophie and Dad walked around town and had a look at the wooden walls, finding them in poor repair even for wooden walls. Then they went back to the inn for dinner of stew and ale. There was hardly anyone around, just them and a couple of other guests who had nothing to say.
Sophie went to look for Ned that evening and found his little sister instead, a girl of ten named Margery, watching her family’s stuff while her grandfather slept and the rest of them went foraging. The girl didn’t know what had happened or whether anyone else had fled or even how long ago they had left home, but she did know one thing: it was shaggy men who came from the woods and started burning houses. There seemed to be a lot Margery didn’t know, and a lot she didn’t want to think about. Sophie listened and then left before any of the rest of the wright’s family came back to the few square feet of the market place they called home.
She went back to the inn and found her father sitting on his bed. She told him what she had been able to find out.
“I’m thinking of going back after all,” said Dad.
“But we tried yesterday and all we saw was burned houses and dead people. And, um, some guys I really don’t want to see any more of.”
“I know.” He pulled on a boot. “I gotta go back anyway. I don’t want you to come with. I gotta go back because of Ann. You understand.”
“Dad. I miss Mom too but—!” She looked at him. Suddenly her heart raced—it was as if a ghost had breathed on her. “Dad, you can’t go,” she said urgently.
“Okay,” he said. He took off his boot, staring at her.
“Dad, I don’t know but—!”
Dad smiled. “Well, you’re right, Sophie girl.” He actually laughed. “Here I am, I worked for fifty years to get where I was this summer. I had a farm, I had a big happy family, I had grandkids running around all over. Now look what I got.”
“Dad, they might be fine. They can’t all be gone. Maybe they made it okay.”
“I got you,” he finished. “And I got about twenty more shillings. And most of a bottle of wine. What shall we do with these things we still have?”
“I have a change of clothes, Dad,” said Sophie, “and your sword.”
“Your sword now,” he said.
“Thanks.” She added, “I may need it,” just as he said, “You’re good with it.” They sat and stood silent for a few moments.
“So the question is,” he said, “what do we do now?”
“Wait for things to settle down?”
“I’m waiting for King John to get an army together and take back my farm,” said Dad. “I have a feeling it may be a long wait. I understand Lord Edgar’s been replaced by the town council of Tenna. That’s not such a good sign.”
“It means they couldn’t find anyone to take responsibility for the place. And you know what? If Olk and the Frungans don’t show up soon, it’ll be these Kug, but someone’s going to come here because all the gold and silver in this whole province, such as it is, is right here in Tenna. Along with almost everything worth either raping or pillaging. Pardon me.”
“I can defend myself.”
“You may have to defend me too.”
Sophie sighed. The list of options in her life had changed dramatically. “So, we could sign up for defending the walls.”
“We could,” said Dad.
They drank some wine from the bottle and soon found themselves exhausted. Dad stretched out on his bunk in his clothes and just after Sophie noticed that his breathing had slowed to sleep, she felt slumber stretching its hands across her too.
She lay back on her cot, her feet reaching off the edge, her sack wadded up as a pillow just on the opposite edge. How had it happened, she wondered, that she was too big for a normal bed? How was it that she was no longer small enough to hide behind the adults? She felt as if she was running out of adults to hide behind anyway. With a small sigh, she let go and fell asleep.
In the middle of the night she woke. She thought her mother was beside her, as she used to be sometimes in the night when Sophie was a little girl, singing softly, but as Sophie became more conscious, the ghost did not linger. Mom was not a real ghost, not yet, not to Sophie anyway, just a ghost of the imagination, a memory. Sophie wondered where Mom was, what she was thinking, or if she was dead like those people in that village. She had always thought it likely that if she thought hard enough about someone and they thought about her, that she could feel them. She had thought a lot of things likely that might never happen now, and the things that had happened had never occurred to her as possible. The blackness of the night did not hide occult mysteries, only the biggest mystery of all, what would happen next.
Sophie was sure there was someone in the room, though—she could hear him breathing. She smiled at her father’s form in the dark, rolled away and fell back asleep.
The next morning they tried to sign up for watch duty, or volunteer to help rebuild the walls, but when they finally found a member of the town council, he was less than enthusiastic. “We have it all covered,” he said. “You go back to your camp and stay out of the way.”
“We’re not—!” Sophie started, but then she realized that the locals assumed they were refugees, and therefore a nuisance.
“You should let her fight,” said Dad, “she’s good. You should’ve seen her kill a Kug warrior. And I know a thing or two, I’ve been in the wars.”
“Then you can take yourselves outside and fight all you want,” said the councilor. “We haven’t time for talk. Excuse me.”
“Well, excuse me,” said Dad. They went back to the inn. No one was in the common room that late morning, so they sat down and helped themselves to slices of the day-old bread that was on the table along with slabs of the sharp hard cheese beside it. “Shall we have some beer too?” asked Dad.
“That guy was obnoxious,” said Sophie. “We wanted to help.”
“Sophie, darlin’,” said Dad, “here’s a true fact about the world. Most folk aren’t competent to wipe their own butts.” They ate for a while as Sophie digested that. Then Dad said, “You know, I do believe I’ll have a beer.”
“But the innkeeper—!”
Dad got up, looked around, looked in the back room. “Innkeeper’s gone,” he said. “I think they took off.”
“But—hey, what if they took our horses?” asked Sophie, jumping up.
“They better not have,” said Dad. They hurried out to the stable. Their horses were there, but there weren’t any others. “This place was full up yesterday,” said Dad.
“Goodness,” said Sophie. “Do they know something we don’t?”
“They know their town council, I guess.”
“Well, what do we do? Should we go too?” She wondered where they would go but there seemed no point in bringing that up just yet.
“I think we’re good for another night,” said Dad. “Good for some nights, probably. But we don’t want to wait long.” He said a few words to his mare, then he untied her and started to lead her to the stable door.
“Dad, are we leaving or what?”
“I still want that beer. I just want to have Daisy with me.”
“Oh.” Sophie once more found that the rules of the universe had changed. Wasn’t that twice within twenty-four hours? She untied Horseradish and they all went and made themselves at home in the common room. They each got a big mug of ale, and presently a few more travelers joined them and Dad poured beer for them too. They broke out what food they could find—a big wheel of cheese, a barrel of apples and a side of beef that went on a spit over the fire.
Soon two dozen people, mostly men, come to the fair from farms and villages all around Tenna, many of which had been obliterated since they had left, were feasting and singing. Everyone was having a great time. A couple of the men had too great a time, and tried their luck on Sophie; one got slapped so hard he went down and stayed down, snoring, and the other, taking a grab of her hind parts, had a couple of fingers broken. Disgust—just one more emotion to toss on the pile. She stepped outside into wan sunlight.
“Hey,” she said, her head clearing. “Ned!” Ned, the wright’s son, standing near his mother as she bartered or argued with a local woman, turned and saw her and immediately turned away. “Hey Ned!” Sophie tried again. Unwilling, he glanced back, then he left his mother’s side and hurried away. His mother looked over her shoulder and saw Sophie, but didn’t recognize her or pretended not to.
But why would they want to see her? Once, Ned had prospects to offer a nice girl who looked like she might be a good mother to his folks’ grandchildren. Once, Sophie might have brought a useful connection to a well-set farmer with a large family. Now, they were refugees, Sophie was a refugee—if she knew it yet, and now she thought of it, Sophie wasn’t sure she knew it yet. She turned back and rejoined the party. A big man saw her, half smiled and hollered, “Wench, more beer!”
“Get it yourself, lard butt,” she replied.
Sophie and her Dad stayed in the Inn that night again. Most of the afternoon they slept on their bunks in their little room, and most of the evening they spent in the common room and the adjoining kitchen, doing what they could with the odds and ends of the innkeepers’ larder. The next morning they rose and cooked most of what all was left into a big omelet for breakfast and served it to a dozen assorted farmers and a few farmers’ wives, along with a weak ale.
But Dad’s stint as an innkeeper would be brief. That forenoon, mild under a sunny sky, a most unpleasant man came to call. He was from the town, and he insisted on appropriating whatever food was left. There was none, besides ale, and Dad told him so, but he became very impatient and talked about coming back with guards to occupy the inn. Dad once more offered to help defend Tenna—“I’ve been in wars before,” he reminded the man—but his offer was rejected out of hand.
“We have plenty of guards,” he said. “And they’re rebuilding the stockade so we should be able to hold off some rabble of barbarians. Our only worry is siege and food through the winter, and a bunch of outland farmers occupying the public inn are more a waste of food than anything else.”
“You said a mouthful,” said Dad. “You definitely don’t need us around here.”
“Try to be out by sunset,” advised the man, a councilman with some sort of officer badge too.
After he left, Sophie asked, “What are we going to do?”
Dad visibly sagged. “Well, the food was gone anyway,” he said.
Sophie stood there in the hall of the inn and steamed. She cocked her head and said, “They didn’t want us on their walls. Well, I wouldn’t risk my neck defending them anyway. Where next? Merrivan?”
“I’d rather not,” said Dad, “but maybe we’ll have to. But Sophie.”
“Two things. First, you and me, we’re just out traveling, we’re not some couple of dislocated indigent refugees fleeing the loss of home and family.”
“Even though that’s true?”
“And the second thing is, we are never giving up on the possibility that your mother and Jack and Nell and the rest are still there, that our house is still there. Never.” He took a long breath. “And never is not this week or next week either. Well,” he said, turning away, “let’s go back and get our stuff, then go grab a last pint and get Horseradish and Daisy out of that bar.”
So they rounded up their few belongings, and made a quick tour of the inn’s pantries—ah, another chunk of cheese, some bread, two bottles of wine, all into their packs. They found two more barrels of beer, and rolled them up to the common room, where the local farmers were starting to look for something to drink. Then they led Horseradish and Daisy out into the light, and prepared to resume their journey to wherever.
They didn’t have all that much to carry, and the horses seemed happy to be out of the common room. So was Sophie—all those huge men were getting drunker and drunker and angrier and less coordinated and a lot less inhibited by the hour. She wouldn’t have minded watching what would happen through a nice barred window, but she didn’t want to be in the same room anymore.
But before they could get out of town, they had to wait some more at the gate on the south side of the wooden stockade that was supposed to protect them from whatever. There was quite a line of carts and horses and the local guards were apparently trying to keep the town’s residents from leaving. It was hot and everyone was angry. Dad turned to make some remark to Sophie, and she wasn’t there.
“Hi, Ned,” she said, taking the young man by the shoulder from behind.
“Oh, hi, Sophie,” he said, not turning around or resisting.
“What’s the big deal, Ned? Why don’t you want to talk to me and why are you watching us leave town?”
“Oh, I, uh—I wasn’t watching you.”
“You were watching us. What’s your problem?”
“I wanted to know if you were all right. Is that a problem?” asked Ned. “Sophie, it’s all, I mean—!”
“What’s all what?” He looked over his shoulder at her. “What’s all what?” she repeated. “What do you know about my family?”
“Nothing,” he said sincerely. “Nothing. We left before any Kug showed up—they almost caught up with us later but we didn’t see anything. But they were coming. They’d killed a few of the village men who’d taken arms to protect the west village. A lot of people picked up all their stuff and left. Let me go! For us, everything is gone.”
“You’ll rebuild it,” said Sophie.
“Sure,” he said. “Where are you going?”
“Merrivan. Where the heck else is there?” He looked around the square, the gate, the nearer houses of the town. Where, indeed. He infuriated her. If all the doors are locked but one, you go through that one, you don’t go around trying all the other doors again and again, and you sure don’t sit down on the floor and wish it were different. She fidgeted, about to turn away.
“Sophie,” said Ned as if it were an afterthought, “I did go look for you before we left home. They said you were at the Fair. I mean, your house was still there. Your mom talked to me. She was fine, they were all okay.”
“Thanks, Ned,” she said. “That means a lot.”
“It’s not much, but it’s all I know,” he replied. “So what are you going to do?”
“Something, Ned,” she said. “Something. I’ll, uh, think of something. Have a great life.” She turned away and pushed off through the crowd before she could add, “Without me,” or reassure him that he hadn’t had a chance with her before the Kug came either.
It took another hour or so before they got up to the gate. A family a little way in front of them were stopped from going out, and after arguing for many minutes, the mother pulled her brood out of line, a couple of adult sons, four younger children, a daughter or daughter-in-law. They turned and passed back into the town as a Tenna councilman chased them trying to get the sons to come to the walls. Dad and Sophie exchanged eye-rolls. “This place is going to be easy to defend, isn’t it,” said Dad.
“It’s not going to be a happy siege,” she replied, “but at least it won’t drag on.”
“Not with the walls like this.”
“What was that?” asked the chief guard, the head of a dozen at the gate. It was a big thing of stone, the only stonework in the whole defense of Tenna. Ironically, it faced Merrivan, not the outlands where the Kug were pillaging ever nearer.
“Nothing,” said Dad.
“You’re from Tenna?”
“No, we’re from out by the Muddy River. We’ve been told to be out of town by sunset.”
“We can’t let them leave,” said another guard. “They could be needed on the walls.”
“Turn yourselves around and go back,” said the chief.
“But we have no place to stay,” said Dad. “We were told—!”
“Hey you,” Sophie yelled at another councilman, passing by on the street inside the wall. It was the most unpleasant man from the inn this morning. “Hey, you, council guy, remember us? Hey Stupid!”
“Your pardon, Squire Pafrik,” the chief called to the councilman. “These people need accommodations—um, your pardon, Squire!” The councilman heard him and turned his horse toward the gate.
“What?” he said. “What’s the question?”
“You remember us,” said Sophie. “We’re vagrants and have to leave by sunset.”
“From the inn,” said Dad. “Had our horses in the common room.”
The councilman looked them up and down. He recalculated their value to the defense. News had been coming in of bands pillaging the town fields. But he did remember them and he still didn’t like their look. And he was a councilman, he couldn’t be wrong, not at a time like this. A long moment passed. He waved them off, saying, “Get them out. They’re just mouths to feed.”
“Get them out,” he said again without conviction. He turned away.
“Get out,” said the chief. “That’s all, close the gate,” he said after they were past the big wooden doors. A minute later Sophie and Dad were out on the road—it could be called that now—that ran southeast toward Merrivan.
In silence they rode out across the river fields, and then up the valley side and on among scattered plantations.
“Tenna,” said Dad at last. “Nothing good is going to happen there. It’s too bad, there’s some good folk in there, but I don’t see anything good in their future. Nope. We’re well out of that hole.”
“And into what,” Sophie said as they rode away from the last glimpse of Tenna, feeling a curious mixture of heaviness and relief, and behind that, a sense of her mother, or the ghost of her mother, watching from a distant hill, growing more and more distant as their horses carried them away over the low hills.
The oppressive heat of the day lifted as Sophie and her father rode up out of the river valley of Tenna and onto the forested plateau to the south. This land had never been well-inhabited and they saw no one all evening and night. They camped on the ground under low trees just within sight of the road. They sat on logs and ate cold meat and bread from the inn and drank wine from the bottle. Of course they had no idea where they were going.
“But it feels good to be going,” said Dad. They both thought of their home, far off now in a fog of uncertainty to the west and north.
“Is there any choice but Merrivan?” asked Sophie.
“We could stay south,” said Dad. “Killifar, maybe Margery and Mister Perkin Paton can take us in.” He laughed ruefully and neither of them bothered to express the fact that going to visit Sophie’s older sister in Killifar, and at some point asking if they could stay on indefinitely, would constitute admitting that they were refugees. Which they were. Instead Dad said, “Of course they might be having problems too, they’re no better situated than Tenna, just on a different river.”
“Okay. What else.”
“Eventually there’s the Inner Sea and the big cities.”
“Big cities? Have you ever been there?”
“Faravon,” he said, as if the name were magic. “Helark. Antarioon. What’s it called, Rojof, something like that. Ronjof. I think that’s it. Ronjof. They don’t pronounce the n more than halfway. Ronjof. Rawhnhjawfff.”
“Dad, do you know anything about these famous cities?”
“The names are enough, don’t you think?” he replied. “Faravon is supposed to have a famous library. That’s good, isn’t it? Helark, I know they talk like us, or sort of. Me, I’ve never been past Merrivan. I have this idea in my head that we ought to head for Merrivan, but my heart’s not in it.” He poked their little fire. “My heart wants to go back to the farm just to see,” he added. He looked up at her, his eyes glinting. “Never listen to your heart, Sophie, not if your brain says different. Ah! Write that one down. That is a bon mot, as they say in Merrivan.”
“Don’t trust your heart?”
“Or your gut. They’ll lie to you, they will.”
They stood up. They had camped at the top of a rising section of the road as it clambered up onto the plateau. North and west they looked out, in the starlight, toward their home. The Earth below them was as dark as the starry field was bright, shining on its blue background.
“What are they?” asked Sophie. Dad looked at her, then caught on and looked up at the sky. “They look like shiny beads, but they’re more than beads, that’s for sure. Do they mean something, or—?”
“Or are they like everything else,” said Dad. But still he looked up. “Maybe they’re far off camp fires. I heard that one in the Army. Or maybe they’re shining fish in the starry sea, and that’s the Fisherman’s long net to catch stars.”
“Where’d you hear that one?”
“My dad told me. Out between the house and the old barn, the one that burned down when you were little.”
“Dad, what were you like when you were little?” Before he could figure out how to answer, she added, “What were you scared of?”
“What was I scared of? Well. Well, I thought there was this guy, the Shadow Man. He could hide in your shadow, he might be right next to you about to grab you. I don’t know what he would have done, but I guess I thought he was the one who took away people who died. I thought that at night he was free to go anywhere. I was deathly scared to be in my own bed when the Shadow Man was about—I always slept with my brother Mick.”
“Do you still believe in the Shadow Man?”
“No, of course not,” said Dad, gazing at the stars. “Yes, yes I do, actually,” he said.
“Dad,” said Sophie, suddenly serious. “Remember that guy who was standing in the yard in the dark? Back home? Watching the house?”
“Yeah. I do.” They stood a minute looking up. “Couldn’t have been Him, though.”
“Didn’t get us,” he said. “There was too many of us. We had the house and all.” He laughed a laugh like the dry leaves they were standing on.
“Well,” said Sophie, “we can lie back to back when we sleep. And we have the starlight to guard us.”
“We sure do,” said Dad.
The next morning they woke to find that the Shadow Man had not come for them. The day was misty, but the sun was coming up over the unseen horizon as they stirred. Sophie made some tea with water from a little rill running downhill by the road, and Dad got some more water and cooked some oatmeal. The horses ate grass.
“I had a weird dream,” said Sophie, cleaning out the oatmeal from her cup with a finger. “I was back at the farm, but the house was a lot bigger. These guys were chasing me around inside, and in, like, a basement and stuff, and then I remember I was in this big room with a fireplace. And we were cooking some kind of meat over the fire, but the river was flooding and outside all the cows were up to their knees in mud, but they didn’t seem to—Dad,” she said at last, giving him a level look. “You had dreams too?”
“Oh, yes. I always dream.”
“Let’s not talk about it.”
They got on their horses and rode on. They made good time, camping once more under the stars in a high field amongst forgotten hay bales. Sophie and Dad woke the next morning sore and wet with dew, but they made it across the plateau and down into the valley of the Lesh River by that afternoon, and up to the gates of Merrivan by nightfall. They entered as the first stars were springing to life in a clear sky, as the thin moon hung above the western horizon, as two bright planets ruled the high heavens.
Dad had been to Merrivan several times before. Sophie, as soon as they left Tenna in the opposite direction from their way home, was, with every step, one step further than she had ever gone from the place of her birth. Merrivan was easily the largest city she had ever visited, several times the size of Tenna. It seemed peaceful and prosperous.
“You only think that because there isn’t a camp full of refugees in the square,” said Dad as they rode up the main street, up onto the high ground above the River Lesh. “If you look around you’ll see the poor folk. They’re just better established here. And they’re not allowed to panhandle.”
“A lot of things are not allowed in Merrivan,” said Dad. “That’s not all bad. But it’s not like home, where if something made sense people would gradually do it, and if something didn’t make sense people would move away from it. Here there’s a Law and you can’t change it, only one person can change it,” he finished in a low voice.
“Oh, the King,” said Sophie.
“Yes, now don’t let’s talk about that anymore. We need a place to stay.” His left hand was in his spacious pocket, fingering his bag of silver. “And we’ll need to find work, I expect.”
“So, what are we here to do?”
“Well,” he said as they turned aside into a plaza on the hilltop overlooking the river, “I’d like to see if the King is gathering an army to fight someone or other. If it’s the Kug, I’d like to be in on that fight.”
“Doesn’t he have to fight them? They invaded his kingdom.”
“He may not have much to fight with,” said Dad. “We’ll see.”
“Dad,” said Sophie, “what if the same thing happens that happened last year? When Red died?”
“You can’t help that,” he said. “A man’s gotta do. The same thing could happen again, or not. But I have to fight for my home and family, gosh darn it. You can’t help that.”
“Sure I can. I can go with you.”
He gave her a look of dread, then smiled wearily. But they said no more until they sat on their horses before a handsome if modest inn in the School Street halfway down the hill toward the river. “This looks good enough for now,” said Dad, and Sophie couldn’t argue. In a few minutes they were in the common room drinking beer and eating meat and bread, and in another hour and a half they were snoring on small but cozy beds.
Sophie awoke from tumultuous dreams and lay in darkness. For a long while there was silence. Then a grunting noise came from near at hand, followed by a long sigh. Her Dad took a moment to think about it, then let out a long snore. She rolled over and fell asleep again, wondering if the same demons would chase her in dream, or new ones.
She woke up in the grey of a rainy morning. Dad still snored away, so Sophie pulled on her shirt and pants and went out and used the outhouse behind the inn. She came back with warm water, and, stripping as little as possible in the cold morning air, she washed herself: face, then arms, then upper body, then lower body, drying as she went. She headed toward the door when she was done, saying to her Dad’s sleeping form, “Water’s all yours.”
He sat straight up. A couple of looks crossed his face quickly, and then he got his resolute smile. “Okay,” he said, standing up. “Ready to go.”
“See you in the common room,” said Sophie.
A few minutes later, he found her sitting at the board, only the innkeeper’s wife keeping her company in her oatmeal and tea. “They say nothing can be done till Spring,” said the old woman. “Prince Sylvester up from Helark, he’s taken charge of our King John.”
“Is that all right?” asked Sophie.
“It’s all to the good, I say,” said the old woman. “My grandson’s with the wall guard. He’d probably be taken off to fight wherever. You say you folk are down from Tenna?”
“That’s right,” said Sophie. “West of there, actually. Kug have come through, lots of folk have fled to Tenna, but it’s in danger. I don’t think Kug are the sort to wait for Spring. If they don’t burn Tenna first, there’s King Olk of Frunga coming too.”
“It won’t make a difference,” said the old lady. “King John’s got the feeling he was burned before, when he went forth all full o’ hope and instead he lost his army. He won’t want to do it again, and seems like Prince Sylvester’s of the same mind.”
“But my mother—our farm,” tried Sophie. “There’s thousands out of their homes, and many dead.”
“I’m sorry for you, hon,” said the old woman. “I used to live in the country. I know how you feel about your land and your family. I’m just saying, and there’s many here in the city that lost sons last year and don’t want to lose more sons. Good morning, young man,” she said to Dad as he came over. “You want some tea and oats too?”
“Sure,” said Dad. “You lose sons?”
“Yeah, to the flu. I still got three daughters and some grandsons. By the Lady, Gregory will be old enough to go fighting in wars soon.”
“There’s worse things than fighting,” said Sophie.
“Not much worse,” said Dad. “But I think if the King goes not to war soon, war will come to him. The Kug were not hot on our trail, but Tenna won’t delay them long, and there’s—!”
“King Olk of Frunga,” said the innkeeper. “The name is on everyone’s lips, in a hush as if he were the Wolf or the plague. Anyway,” she said, looking back as half a dozen more guests ambled into the room and took seats on the bench at the next long table, “I got another pot of tea heating, and the second pot of oats should be done, and we can all speak of something else.”
“Sophie,” said Dad after breakfast, “we need to speak of something else.”
“Well, the silver should hold us another week or two, and then we’ll need more. I was thinking of seeing who might hire your old papa for some laboring. I thought maybe you might contribute your arms and your back to the cause.”
“Contribute what? Oh,” she said. She wondered what strange things some city slicker might want to pay silver for. Sophie was not uneducated in the matter of how men treat women—her mother had been sure to warn her about what might happen in the big city of Tenna. But clearly Dad had physical labor in mind, and she figured that anything he could lift, she could also lift.
They spent the next two days walking around Merrivan, and the evening between, as the stars popped out in a turquoise sky, they tried their luck at the King’s Citadel. But there all they could manage were a few lewd comments directed at Sophie by the King’s Guard, and her father, outnumbered, dragged her with him in retreat.
“I could’ve taken any three of them,” said Sophie.
“Me too,” said Dad, “but I counted eight. If His Highness defended his villages as well as he defends his citadel, we wouldn’t be here right now.”
So that night they went back to the common room of their inn and drank their fill and listened to some locals playing viol and flute and harp. By the next night, they had proven to themselves that all commerce was on hold in Merrivan. Dad came out of the biggest warehouse in the city with a definite no and a sense that there were no wares there right now, just echoing chambers; he flagged down Sophie, who was putting Horseradish through maneuvers that might have won a prize at the Fair. Minutes later Horseradish was munching in the stable while Sophie and her dad were looking for a place at the table in the inn. They planned to retire to their chambers after a quiet dinner.
“If you’ll pardon me,” said a middle-aged man to them as they quaffed stew.
“Please,” said Dad around a hunk of bread. “Join us.”
“I’ll pour myself a glass of your ale,” he said, putting a double shilling on the table by their pitcher (which had cost them four pence). They went on eating. “I wonder if you can help me.”
“Help?” repeated Sophie, trying to swallow her stew.
“Well, I saw you riding this evening, and I also saw your father asking around for work, and I do have work if you can ride like that over distance.”
“How far a distance?” asked Dad.
“Twenty miles a day would be plenty, and only for a few weeks. It would be mostly wild country, up the Lesh and into the province of Enzun. I would pay well. We need a fast and reliable scout. I can tell your—daughter?”
“Yes,” said Dad with a note of restless aggression.
“I can tell your daughter is fast. The pay is one gold crown and then four shillings each month she is in our pay.”
“Two gold crowns,” said Dad.
“Ah,” said the man, “let me introduce myself. I am Sir Bodon Watt. I—!”
“Work for the King,” said Dad. “You want a scout? I could do that. Sophie’s no scout. Of course if a messenger is all you want—!”
“Oh,” said Sir Bodon Watt, “we might be able to use you too.”
“So the King is marching forth, eh?”
Sir Bodon gave Dad a long appraising look. He sat down at last. The innkeeper’s daughter put a glass beside him and he filled it from the pitcher; in a minute there was a new pitcher. “Yes,” he said, “we finally talked him into it.”
“So you’re from—?”
“Tali,” explained Sir Bodon. “In answer to the next question, it’s northwest of Helark, along the River Ta. But I’ve family connections up here through my mother.”
“So who is it,” asked Sophie, “the Kug or King Olk?”
“Oh, definitely King Olk. He’s the greater threat by far.”
“I think not,” said Dad. “We’ve seen the villages destroyed, and Tenna is in their line of march and those Tenna folks, they can’t defend themselves.”
“I agree the situation is dire,” said Sir Bodon. “Things are bad everywhere in these hills. But the Kug number only a few thousand, while the King of Frunga comes into your land with at least ten thousand.”
“Still,” said Dad, and Sir Bodon just nodded.
“So you’re hiring Dad too,” said Sophie. “Three gold and eight shillings a month for the two of us.”
“Three gold crowns, is it? And I get the two of you?” Father and daughter looked at each other, then returned similar half-smiling glares to Sir Bodon. “The gold up front, of course,” said the knight, after a long drink. “Not that I would offer that to others. I wouldn’t. So don’t mention it to anyone, all right?” He looked around. The common room was populated by alcoholic merchants from the south. “In fact,” he added, “it would be best if you stayed away from the other scouts and messengers. They’re not—oh, well. I think you’re the type we need, at any rate, both of you. Three gold. What else are we going to spend the money on? Re-gilding the King’s helmet?”
“I accept your offer of a job,” said Dad. “I suppose you’ll want to know, so my name is John the Farmer, and this is my daughter Sophie. Sophie the, uh, the Bold. Well, daughter, I think this came out remarkably well after all. You don’t?”
“Well,” said Sophie, “I just wonder how many scouts there are besides us.”
Sir Bodon looked pained. “Ah, there are many,” he said, “but I daresay you will be the most useful. If there’s a battle, we will need you as messengers too, but you will get hazard pay in that eventuality.”
“Messenger isn’t all fun and games,” said Dad. “But the gold is good, and I did swear I would never again get down in the pits of a battle. Almost went back on that, maybe now I don’t have to.”
“Between us, I entirely agree,” said Sir Bodon. “About battles. Though someone has to do it. Poor blighters—that is almost the definition of a blighter, actually.” He stood, then drained his glass. “I do thank you, Master John and Miss Sophie, who I hope is more fast than bold. Please come and pick up your gold crowns tomorrow—do you know the Halls?”
“Isn’t that the old indoor market?” asked Dad. “My dad took me to look at stock there.”
“It’s been, uh, rebuilt. It’s where we’re planning the Offensive.”
“Do you want us to come there early?”
Sir Bodon smiled. “Do you want your money early? Ah, farmers, I should know: for me, early is the second hour after dawn. Will that do?”
“I’ll have to putter around for a few hours after breakfast, but we’ll make it.”
That night Dad and Sophie got rather drunk on ale downstairs. On her way back from relieving herself, Sophie had to slug a middle-aged man who tried to slur sweet words to her while copping a feel in the courtyard. Scowling at the ugly loser as he lay at her feet, Sophie was momentarily sobered, but as she walked back into the inn, she felt like she was walking on air. Dad smirked at her. He didn’t have to ask what happened. Instead they sat and listened to a few musicians and watch a few tradesfolk dancing.
The next morning they were up just a little after dawn, pouring tea and porridge into their bellies before stumbling out into the crisp air. A light frost was still steaming off the grasses. They looked at each other: Dad had tears in his eyes. Sophie didn’t have to ask to know what he was thinking: the growing season was over, but he didn’t have a field to his name. Dad had always, even as a child, known security only from what he could put away for winter. Now what did he have set aside, with the snows on the way?
So she smiled and slapped him on the shoulder. She was his security, his stash of hope and strength for the long winter. They turned to the stable, took their horses and walked them over to the Halls.
The Halls was a huge building, a former minor palace whose interior had been burned out, which had then become the city’s main indoor market, and which had then been expropriated for use by the King, who had had new floors and interior walls put in so that now it functioned as his defense establishment. It was a dizzy chaos this morning. Sophie and Dad stood outside and waited, and finally, as the sun rode high, Dad ventured inside.
“Hey, little lady,” said a brash fellow from down south, sauntering up to Sophie, “are you waiting for a soldier boy?”
“I’m a soldier myself,” she said carefully. “I’m going to be a rider.”
“Are you?” he replied, smiling back at his mates a little way off. “Well, I’m a stallion, little lady, and you can ride—!” She slugged him. She really put her shoulder into it, and he went down in a pile. She looked down at him.
“You need some breaking, if you ask me,” she said.
“Anything happen while I was gone?” asked Dad, coming back and noticing the man on the ground starting to come around.
“No,” she said. “What’s up inside?”
“You two are Sir Bodon’s scouts?” asked the little clean officer behind Dad. “Come this way, if you please.”
They followed the clean little officer into the stable, a huge shed leaning against the hulk of the Halls. He showed them where to tie up their horses, as part of a gaggle of working class steeds attached to various posts and not to be confused with the stabled chargers belonging to knights from Merrivan and its surroundings and from the South. Then he took them into the building, where they climbed a short, very steep wooden stair to a wooden box, about six feet long, wide and tall, with a locked door. It was his office.
“Here’s where you get your pay,” he said, unlocking the door. Inside, they found that he had made a nice little home for himself: a table, a small bench, some books, some bedding, a bag of clothes, a few knives and other tools and several bags of gold and silver hanging from hooks.
“Don’t try anything,” he said, holding his left hand up to show the knife peeking from his sleeve. “Not that I think you would.”
“You don’t have to trust us,” said Dad.
“No, you just have to pay us,” said Sophie.
“My name is Marthen,” the little clean man told them. “I say so because I need to ask you your names for my book.”
“My name is John Farmer,” said Dad, “but I can write it myself if you don’t mind.”
“Your handwriting isn’t—?”
“It’s fine,” said Dad. He took the quill from the ink dish on the table and wrote, in the space indicated, John Farmer, and then, after some thought, added an extra e on the end: John Farmere. Marthen looked it over and nodded.
“I suppose you can write too,” he said to Sophie.
“Dad taught me,” said Sophie. She took the quill and wrote Sophi, and then added an a to the end: she had been told at least once that Sophia was her actual given name.
“Sophia—well, Sophia Farmer,” she replied.
“Sophie the Bold, she calls herself,” Dad put in.
“That wouldn’t put her apart from the others,” said Marthen. “Well, here’s your gold,” he said, fishing out two gold coins from Helark.
“Supposed to be three,” said Sophie.
Marthen grabbed up his glasses, shuffled through some notes and said, “Well, you got me there.” He tossed her a third coin: nice, big, very heavy, picture of a King on it. “I suppose you two know something of the countryside.”
“I guess we do,” said Dad. “That’s my job, apparently; Sophie’s the messenger.”
“Well, let’s not shoot her,” said Marthen with a tiny laugh. “You can go now, but be back at dawn three days from now. We are to get this thing going before snow, so—!” He stopped and looked each of them in the eye for a moment before saying, “I want to keep track of you two. I don’t want anything to happen to you two. Sir Bodon’s the only one in the place who can spot a good rider. So if you have any trouble, ask for Marthen. I’ll be right over.” He grinned at Sophie. “A bag of gold’s as good as a right hook,” he said, “sometimes better.”
“I don’t have a bag of money,” said Sophie, “so I have my right hook. I’m working on my left as well.”
“I don’t blame you,” he said, letting his watery brown eyes take a quick journey down and up Sophie, who was ten inches taller than him and an inch or two taller than Dad. “I don’t blame you a bit. But you work with what you got, and what I got is—well, as long as I keep my key in my pocket and half an eye on all those criminals out there, what I got is bags of gold and silver.”
“Criminals,” Sophie repeated.
“He means the army,” said Dad. “Well, thanks, Squire Marthen, well met, and take care of yourself.”
“You too, you too,” said Marthen. Sophie smiled at him as they left and he sat down at his desk.
They found their way back to the stable, where they saw off several men who had been inspecting the two horses. They walked the horses back to their inn, stabled them and went into the common room for something to eat.
“Eat, drink,” said Sophie. “Is this it, for the next three days?”
“It’s not like farming,” said Dad.
For two more days, Sophie and her Dad existed in a bubble, just the two of them, a portable two-person village in a city of twenty thousand or more. The only people they knew were Sir Bodon Watt, who probably spent all his time at palaces, and little Marthen, who probably spent all his time guarding his bags of money and checking his books, and a few traveling merchants who were staying at the inn. One, a genial fellow who must have been handsome just a few years ago, taught Sophie how to play chess, after determining that she wasn’t receptive to his cautious advances.
Meanwhile the rain came in and stayed. On the second evening, the sun suddenly escaped and lit on fire the trees on the hill over the River Lesh, and they remembered that it was the last day of September.
Sophie and her Dad were getting to know each other even better than they already did, and it was mostly okay. They saw each other naked, and quickly covered up. They learned each other’s snores and night murmurs. Dad had little frights in the night, from which he would sometimes wake and sigh and lie quietly. Sophie already knew that he slurped his soup and didn’t have a problem about belching or farting out loud, but she noticed that he was actually somewhat dainty about eating. He cleaned his plate, and also cleaned every corner of his lips with the table cloth (as was the custom also among the well-born of Merrivan). She wondered: if she one day mixed some leaves or rocks or clumps of dirt into his stew, would he eat them just out of habit?
But they also smiled at each other in the morning. Dad always had a good word for Sophie, and she, of a slightly grumpier disposition, usually had a kind word for him. She washed her face and hands several times a day, and he began to adopt the habit too. She got him to wash his spare clothes—they each had a spare of everything, and that was all—and she used a little of her one gold piece to buy each of them a hat.
She had night frights too, but they weren’t exactly dreams. It happened again and again: she was running through the tall grasses, carrying a branch of an apple tree, singing a children’s song, and then she jumped off a cliff and landed in a pool of cool water, and as she swam to shore the old preacher from the village helped her out of the pond while asking her whether she’d seen the meteor shower. Then she woke up, in the dark, with the feeling of someone standing very near. She would gather her strength and fight off her fear and sit up suddenly. The darkness was empty and sullen.
On the third morning since their enlistment, Sophie and her Dad got up, had a little breakfast downstairs, gathered their horses and headed for the Halls. There in the great square of Merrivan, the army was gathering to move. It seemed like the biggest army that had ever been assembled—indeed it numbered over ten thousand, as much aid had come from the cities of the coast, who felt a threat to their own peoples. But no one seemed to be in charge. Sophie and Dad found the entrances to the Halls closed to them, and waited all morning before they caught sight of Sir Bodon and Marthen walking together.
“Thank goodness you made it,” said Sir Bodon running up to them. “Oh, we’re saved. I was so worried. Marthen, can you make sure they get provisions? Thank the Goddess,” he said to himself, repeating it as he hurried off.
“You’d think we’d saved the whole army,” said Sophie.
“Sir Bodon thinks highly of you,” Marthen explained. “And not so much of the other scouts. He instructed me to keep an eye on you during the campaign. Maybe he thinks you’ll protect me, maybe he thinks I’ll keep you from being contaminated.”
“As I said, he thinks not highly of the other scouts.”
“What do you think, Squire Marthen?” asked Dad.
“I would tend to agree with him,” said Marthen. “I haven’t seen you in action, but you clearly have your feet on the ground, Squire John. I’d be very surprised if you weren’t a good scout. You were a soldier in your youth?”
“I was, at Faratak with King Lothar against the Enkan, and I don’t have too many fond memories.”
“No,” said Marthen. “You wouldn’t. You were a soldier all right.”
The army moved forward on a blustery fall day, with the fields and woods drying out after a drenching rain in the night. The scouts went forward ahead of the army, of course, and many of them wandered off and found their way back to Merrivan and the arms of their girlfriends. Others simply vanished. Sophie and her dad, of course, did not have girlfriends and did not vanish. It was a ride in the country for them. They went up the Lesh until it branched, then bent northeast and went straight up the right bank of the Vara River, the course that the army itself pursued behind them. In the evening, Sophie shot a pheasant—indeed it would have been hard to shoot and not hit a pheasant—and her dad cooked it up over a small and smokeless fire.
Marthen rode up noisily while they were eating. “Doing well, I see,” he observed.
“Don’t let him tell you he’s an old woodsman,” said Sophie. “He’s a farmer all his life. I did the hunting, he did the cooking.”
“I don’t doubt it,” said Marthen. He stood looking at Sophie’s dad, at Sophie, at their horses, at the fire’s smokeless embers, at the remains of the pheasant. “Nothing to report?” he asked at last.
“Just pheasant,” said Dad. “If they were armed, you’d be in trouble, but as you can see they are not.”
“Then I’ll be back tomorrow,” he said. “Funny. I thought there were two dozen out, and you’re the only two I’ve found since noon.”
“Funny, isn’t it,” said Dad. “But don’t you worry. The rest can scout where they want, if there’s enemy near you’ll hear it from us.”
“That’s what I expect will happen,” said Marthen. “You know the course?”
“On up the river, headed for Enzun,” said Dad.
“Let you know if we see any Kug or Mad King Olk of Frunga,” said Sophie. “What if we see them both together?”
“Well, if they’re going at it, please don’t stop them,” said Marthen. “I love you guys. See you tomorrow night.”
They slept the night huddled in blankets under the stars and Sophie woke with a smile on her face just as light was coming into the sky. She got up, got the big pan and went to pee, and came back with water from a nearby stream for tea. By then her Dad was up, poking life into the fire and grunting under his breath about his aches and pains. He smiled at her, then he went off to the stream, and when he came back he was cleaner and somewhat shaven.
They rode on by the time the sun was well up, along the lightly wooded east slope of the Vara’s gentle valley. There had been villages once in Enzun, but the decline of order imposed from the south had already dropped the farms in the province below the survival line over the past few decades. They came down at noon to what had once obviously been a road; now it was still a discernable two-track trail, though trees had grown up in between the tracks. They looked both ways warily, as if great war carriages might roll down on them. If any war carriages were to come rolling along this road, they would need awfully high ground clearance. The way was quiet and had been these twenty years or more.
For a couple of hours after noon they rode north along this track, sometimes diving into forest of pine and birch and maple, other times slicing across fields full of big boulders or meadows of flowers above their heads. Twice the road came close enough to the river that its swampy environs had been filled with rubble; there the sand of the road had long since washed away, but the big chunks of broken rock were still there. The horses preferred to walk in the water.
By mid afternoon the day was cooling as a wind from the northwest brought up ominous clouds. They stopped for a bit of leftover pheasant.
“So how is Marthen ever going to catch up to us?” asked Sophie.
“We’ll go on up to that high point,” said Dad, pointing to a jagged, conical hill ahead of them to the right, northeast. It was covered up to its top with pines, but a cap of open rock was just visible, as was a long cliff red in the westering sun. The peak was possibly five hundred feet above them. “That should afford us a fine view. Then we’ll ride back down the road till sunset, the way we came.”
“We’ll go up to the high point?”
“Well, one of us has to stay here, obviously, the horses aren’t going to climb that. Listen, daughter, you know with my bad back—!”
“I know,” said Sophie. “I don’t need you slowing me down.”
“I will never do that,” said Dad. “Now be careful, I don’t want to have to come get you in case of broken leg.”
Sophie plunged into the pines, and soon she was going up steeply in a dense wood with little undergrowth. She climbed into a band of big rocks, and here she had to slog upwards through some thickets where the soil was too thin for tall pines. A net of short evergreens, somewhere between dwarf fir and giant juniper, blocked her completely at a steep spot. She gathered her breath, hurled herself at the greenery, and burst through, finding herself now at the bottom of a steep rock face. This she scrambled up, and a few more like it, and she stood on the small skull cap of open rock atop the hill.
She found a boulder and climbed up it to look around. She thought there might be, in some quarter of the view, a big old camp full of big old Frungans, about a hundred thousand of them. But no, there was only a breathtaking blue and white expanse, with a fleet of tall clouds bringing storm to come, and below it a shade-speckled green expanse, and in the boundary, a jagged range of mountains over the half circle from west to north to east, and to the south a misty distance of the flat lands back beyond Merrivan. To the north and northwest stood nearby mountains, old and worn but much taller than this hill, rocky at the top and in long ravines down their sides. Everywhere there were trees. Sophie didn’t think she had seen so many trees in her life. They reached for the sun and swayed with the wind, row upon row, up ridge upon ridge.
She looked back toward where her father waited with the horses, back south down the valley, and she could see no sign of Dad or of the King’s Army. Chastened, she turned to study the north again: up this stream bed, over that ledge, down that gully, back over that patch of evergreen. There! Wait, no—wait, yes, smoke there! She studied the scene and under her blue eyes it came clear: a few sources of smoke, a rider passing a gap among tree and boulder, things moving behind a screen of trees by a pond, more smoke there and there. She couldn’t make out where they were exactly, nor did she have any idea who they were, but as she became sure that they really were, the hair stood up on her neck. The more she looked, the more she saw; that patch of woods was crawling with them. She backed off the summit, lowered herself quietly down the rock faces and stood at the top of the dense thicket of evergreen.
Sophie’s ears were full of the wind, of the high birds crying, of the trees rustling and nudging, and now she heard another sound, quite nearby. She looked down and there was an a feather on the end of a stick that stuck up out of the shrubbery. She bent to pick it up, and found it was an arrow. She heard the whistling noise again, and without another thought she pitched herself into the brush below. She landed in rotten logs below and rolled, bouncing off boles until she caught herself by slamming into a boulder.
She got up, winced a little, then looked back up in silence. Nothing. She turned and hurried on down the hill as carefully and quietly as she could. When she got to the stream at the bottom of the slope, she found she was still holding the arrow. It was sleek and narrow, and its wood looked oiled. Its head was of bone, carven into a twisted point with spiraled flutings.
She jumped the stream and ran through the patch of maples on the other side and out into the meadow by the old road. Dad was chewing grass and conferring in whispers with the horses, who were also chewing grass.
“Dad,” she said, “what do you think of this?”
“Oh, great,” he said, “it’s the Kug. They carve their arrowheads out of bone, and they carve them so they’ll whistle slightly as they fly. Well, it’s an old trick among all those tribes. Supposedly it sounds like a ghost crying out or something.”
“I don’t recall that it did,” she said. “It was more like when you blow through a grass blade.”
“Uh, Sophie dear, where did you find this?”
“Someone shot it at me. I was coming down. There’s a big camp away north, just to the right of that mountain. I saw tons of little smokes, and some horses and people.”
“Not moose and bears?”
“Sorry, girl. Which way did you say?”
“There,” she pointed, “straight over this hill and down the other side. They’re camped under trees but they’re not so careful about smoke.”
“Hmm,” said Dad. “Kug are careful about smoke. Frungans aren’t so careful. Well, we might just have two armies here. Let’s hope the King and his fancy folk are smart enough to figure out how to get them to fight each other. Any sign of our employers?”
“Not so much,” said Sophie.
“Well, that’s good. That means King Olk might just go up against the Kug first.” He climbed up on his horse and looked back down at her. “Well, you coming? We have to report to Marthen. Don’t you know there’s Kug archers on this mountain?”
So they retraced their path from the lookout hill. It was already well into October’s short late afternoon when they turned south, and they managed to get in a couple of hours’ ride before night fell so completely that they could barely see their hands in front of their faces. The wind had picked up, and there were no stars.
“We should have stopped earlier,” said Dad as soon as he hopped down. “Let’s get the tent up fast.”
They picked a spot twenty yards off the track, under a low-bent old willow, its unkempt and browning leaves still offering some concealment, and hurried to put up the little tent that Marthen had given them. The rain was falling before they were done, confusing their labors as they tried to hurry too much, but presently they sat, in utter blackness, not too wet and mostly sheltered. Their horses stood outside, sheltered only by the tree.
“Well, here we are,” he said, just as she said, “I hope the Kug haven’t followed us all that way.” He said, “I hope the Kug get their gosh darn heads soaked,” just as she said, “We expect to sleep in this?”
They laughed. “I guess so,” said Dad.
“You’re a peach, Dad, you know that.”
“You too, my dear.”
Dad lay out, as best he could, his head just at the opening of the tent. Sophie lay down too, the opposite way, her feet curled next to his face. “I can sleep like this if you can,” she said, her face up against the canvas.
“Meant to offer you some wine,” he said. “Help you sleep.”
“Too much trouble,” she replied. Instead, they lay, trying not to say any more, as the rain pelted down outside. Soon the canvas had saturated to the point that moisture started rolling down the inside of the slanted sides. The tent’s dirt floor became muddy. There were steady drips here and there. The wind in the trees sounded enough to blow the whole thing off into the Vara River. She knew she would never sleep. Of course the next thing she knew, she was waking from dreams of running to the bright shock of a nearby lightning strike. They looked at each other, from opposite ends of a soaked tent, but said nothing. Of course, after that, she could never sleep the rest of the night. The next thing after that, the sun was peeking in the tent flap.
They struggled out and stood blinking and stretching. It was late already, or so it seemed to them. “It must be, it must be, oh, half an hour past dawn,” said Dad.
“I’m not as soaked as I thought I’d be,” said Sophie. “I’m wicked sore though.”
“Get back to me on that when you’re fifty,” said Dad. “I’m gonna go get water. And get rid of some,” he added, picking up his canteen and heading out from under the willow.
She looked at the tent. It was drenched. But inside, it really was drier: the slanted sides had channeled most of the water off. She slapped Horseradish, saying, “Hey old boy. Hey Daisy,” she said, patting her dad’s horse. They gave her patient looks. She found her pack, lying under her saddle on the ground, and it was dry. When Dad got back, she had peed and she was in her dry clothes.
“Good idea that,” he said. He found that his other clothes were a little damp, but still an improvement, and he excused himself to change on the other side of Daisy.
“Fire?” she asked. “Tea?”
“Let’s not chance it,” he said. “Come on. We got some jerky and a couple apples. Let’s put some more miles behind us.”
They followed the track back south for an hour, then where it sank into mire they climbed back up onto the ridge that overlooked the river, and in a couple more hours they spotted what could only be an army on the move, down in the valley beside them.
“Friendly?” asked Sophie.
“If not,” said Dad, “then the King has more problems than we ever thought.”
But it was indeed King John’s army, and when the leading company of knights was still a mile or more ahead, Marthen and Sir Bodon met them riding.
“You have news,” said Marthen.
“We do,” said Dad. “We sighted at least one, maybe both your enemies.”
“Explain, Squire John.”
Dad turned to Sophie. She offered Sir Bodon the arrow. “There’s a big hill, or a little mountain, what, three hours north from here? Mostly up this track that follows the river. I climbed it to get a look around, yesterday afternoon, and I saw men and horses moving, and signs of fire. Then someone shot this at me, and I heard another fly by, up on the mountain top.”
“That’s a Kug arrow,” said Dad. “Look at the arrowhead.”
“Do I know how to pick them?” asked Sir Bodon. “I know how to pick scouts, I really do. I’ve never seen an arrow like this, but I’ve heard the stories.”
“I’ve seen them,” said Dad.
“Well, it’s not a Frungan arrow, that’s for sure, they make them a lot like ours. So there are Kug up the valley: that’s news, and not good news either. But—?”
“The camp,” said Dad, “we don’t, I mean, I don’t think the camp Sophie described to me would be a Kug camp. For one thing, she said she saw smoke and campfires. Kug are wary about that type of thing.”
“You know this from your army service?” asked Sir Bodon.
“Sure, and scouting—oh, twenty years ago or so, maybe it was fifteen, Lord Edgar’s dad got concerned about Kug raiding across the Muddy, so we went and played cat and mouse with about a hundred of them for a month. A thousand of us, we were the cat. Never caught the mouse.”
“But those others,” said Sophie, “there were just tons of them. They were under trees but I could tell there were a lot.”
“Anything from the other scouts?” asked Dad with a wry look.
“Oddly, no,” said Marthen. “And we haven’t lost them all, just some. The others all go out and come back and it’s all clear sailing.”
“We’re not making this up,” said Sophie. “I really did—!”
“Oh, I know,” said Sir Bodon. “You don’t need to convince us. I may have a time convincing Prince Sylvester and the King’s generals, they like to believe what they like to believe.”
“What do you need us to do?” asked Dad.
“Sorry to say this,” said Sir Bodon, “but we mostly need you to go back out in front of us and keep an eye out. Just stay an hour ahead of the army.”
“Are you headed on up Vara?” asked Dad.
“Seems like it,” said Sir Bodon. “Tell you what the King will definitely like about your report. You tell us King Olk is up the river a ways. King’s men want him to be there. They just don’t want the Kug too.” He looked at the arrow. “This can’t hurt, of course.”
“But others like it could,” said Marthen, “so be careful.”
“Thanks,” said Sophie.
“Well, I think the world of you guys,” said Sir Bodon. “Let’s just hope the King’s Men don’t need an ambush to come to the same view.”
By then the forward companies were catching up, and the knights of the vanguard instinctively gathered around Sir Bodon. Sophie and her dad made a short farewell and headed back up the river, just as an impromptu council of war was developing. “I want to be miles away from that,” said Dad, once they were out of earshot. “Lots of fools asking fool questions and not listening to the answers.”
“Yes, back there.” They rode on along the east bank of the Vara, then took to a deer track toward the east side of the valley.
“Dad, does the King have any sense whatsoever?” asked Sophie when they were under the trees.
“Sophie, what did I say? Most folk don’t have the wit to wipe their butts. I liked Old King John as well as anyone, but let’s face it, I don’t see that kings’ sons are any smarter than anyone else you’d meet. Maybe the opposite.”
“Trouble is,” said Sophie, “there’s lots of folk that will—!”
“Lots of folk going to get killed, lose their farms, lose their families. Yep. Let’s get a move on, shall we? I want to be well away by nightfall.”
They rode north and northeast again, keeping under the trees in the river valley, and by the time darkness settled in they were camped just up the ridge side in a grove of overgrown holly. Sophie went about and cut what seeding grasses she could find in the valley without stepping out in the open too much, trying to find something nourishing for the horses. When she got back, under the starlight and the light of the lingering early crescent moon, her dad handed her dinner: a hunk of cheese and some jerky. Below them, the King of Merrivan’s camp on the east side of the Vara River was only noticeable from a few fires and a low din. Sophie and her dad lit no fire, and with a starry night overhead, they didn’t worry about the tent: they fell asleep in their clothes, huddled together under a blanket, while their horses stood around them in the midst of the thicket.
When they woke up and looked out on the cold, frosted and misty valley, there were not one but two armies in sight.
“I can’t tell who’s who,” said Sophie as she and her dad looked down from a bush-shrouded lookout on the ridge top. “They look the same to me.”
“That would be the Frungans up there,” said Dad, pointing to the right, up the valley, “and this is King John here. They do look pretty much the same. I see some horses over there, I see some over here—but still, both sides will be mostly on foot.”
“And where are the Kug and their funny arrows?”
“Maybe the Kug were just scouts.”
“So why would they shoot at me?” she asked. “That risked being noticed. They were noticed, now I think of it. Scouts wouldn’t want that, would they?”
“So why would they shoot at you. Yep. You got a point there. Well, I dare say they’ll show up sometime, when we least want them to.” They gazed out upon the armies. Dad did a little calculation that involved measuring the air with lengths from thumb to pinkie. “Let’s see, say we’re four hundred feet above them. That seem right?”
Sophie thought a moment, then nodded. “Sure.”
“And the river down there by our camp, our guys’ camp I should say, that’s got to be eight miles. Eight?”
“I don’t know how you pick eight over five or ten,” she said, wrinkling her brow.
“Compromise. Now these—!” They gazed down upon the strangers’ camp. There were only a few fires, which was different from the smoky airs of the Merrivan camp. Still there was no denying there were a lot of men down there, and a fair number of horses. They seemed to be gathering into units now, and in spite of their efforts to remain concealed, they were trampling clearings in their forest cover. “Say six miles from here. Now the angle between—?”
“I make it between a right angle and a straight line,” said Sophie.
“You remember your lessons, girl, that’s good. All right. Say a hundred and fifty degrees. That means close to the two added together, eight miles and six miles, which would be fourteen, so call it twelve. They’re twelve miles apart. I think it’s close enough for a fight yet today, but it won’t be going by noon.” He grinned down at the presumptive Frungans. She gazed at him with a slight smile, wondering what he was thinking. He was muttering a little. He said, “I make it ten thousand, all right. Maybe more.”
“I don’t know whether you’re actually doing something or just bluffing,” said Sophie. “Do you know if you’re wild guessing or good guessing or—just bluffing?”
“No, I tried to count them,” Dad said defensively. “Don’t you go doubting me now, daughter. Of course the twelve miles could be six for all I know.” He gave it one more serious look. “It’s not less than six, that’s sure, and no way is it more than fifteen.” He frowned at the land below one more moment. “One of us has to go down and report,” he said.
“Can we both go?”
He shook his head. “One has to stay up here and watch. I won’t be long. I’ll be back before it’s started.”
He smiled. “I’ll be fine,” he said. “You stay under cover.” He mounted up. “Under cover,” he added, “but where you can see everything.”
Sophie fretted all morning about him, but she needn’t have. Just before noon, she was sitting on the limb of a maple, ten feet off the ground, when she saw him lead his horse up the deer path. By then, the two armies were approaching, but so slowly that it no longer seemed possible that they would fight today.
“Sophie!” he called in a stage whisper.
She dropped down behind him, with a crash that spoiled the surprise and nearly sprained her ankle. “Hey,” she said.
“Hey, you trying to sneak up on me?”
Dad rolled his eyes and shook his head. “It’s been decided to gather more information. We’re to watch and report every six hours. They’re sending patrols out to make early contact and then the commanders will know where to concentrate their forces for maximum, blah, blah, blah. All that military talk. So what are the Frungans doing?”
“They’re—well, Dad, I expect you can see for yourself.”
He took a look. “My eyes aren’t as good as yours anymore,” he said, “but sure enough they look like they’re easing up nice and slow. Kind of as if they wanted to take us by surprise.”
“How can they do that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they don’t know we’re up here. You know what that means.”
“No fire,” he said, pulling out a hunk of jerky and tossing it to her. “There’s lunch. Dinner’s still in my coat pocket.”
That evening, Dad went down again to report, while Sophie sat in her tree and watched the sun set over the valley. It got quite cold, and this time neither army lit fires. They were just too close to each other. Sophie could see bits of each army scattered among the trees, and she couldn’t imagine how they avoided noticing one another.
When Dad returned, she climbed down and they sat on a rock overlooking the river valley. There they munched on jerky and fruit and had a fair amount of wine, huddling together in the chill as they muttered their thoughts. “Gonna be a fight tomorrow,” said Dad.
“That’s obvious,” said Sophie. “I don’t see how they’re not fighting now.”
“Sophie, men usually have to be told to fight a battle. It isn’t a natural thing to do. Men don’t naturally fight. They—!”
“I think they naturally fight,” said Sophie. “Isn’t it when you get drunk that you act natural? I’ve seen drunk men. They fight.”
Dad digested that with a smile, and eventually said, “Of course, bring in the Kug and it’s all out the window. They’re a different breed.”
“I guess they must be on the far side of the valley. The Kug. Up in those rough hills.”
“I suppose you’re right. But Sir Bodon says that the generals have some scouts from down South, scouting all around over there in those hills, and they haven’t found any sign of anything like that.” He huffed.
“They’re from down south though,” said Sophie. “They don’t know what to look for.”
“They know what they want to see,” said Dad. “They don’t want to see Kug. And Kug don’t want to them to see Kug. So they don’t.” They gazed into the dark. “Wonder what they’re up to, up here, these Kug. Seemed they had plenty to do pillaging our province. They already finished with Tenna?”
“Maybe Tenna didn’t take long. It’s a matter of whether they burned first then pillaged, or the other way around.”
“Tenna’s not getting anything Tenna doesn’t deserve,” she said, thinking of the councilmen and the drunken louts.
“Sophie. I must really draw the line. It’s not—!”
“I know. I know.” They stared into the black sky. “I’m sorry, Tenna. Yeah, there were some good folk there. The lady who bought our livestock. Some of them farmers.”
“Think of the refugees, Soph. They fled their villages, and only to be sacked and probably massacred ten or twenty miles down the road. Well, anyway. We’ve thought of it, now we can stop and think of something else.”
They sat in silence for a little. “Well,” said Sophie, “nice weather lately.”
Sophie and her dad curled up, in their clothes, under a bush, blankets all around them and leaves piled over most of the blankets. Neither one could sleep for a long time. Then they slept, and Sophie’s sleep was troubled by fleeting disconcerting dreams. By now she was used to waking up from disconcerting dreams in the morning. What was new to her was waking up to remember that a battle of twenty thousand men was supposed to be going on a few hundred feet below her camp site.
The sky was mostly grey with a few gaps of blue, and a warm light wind came up the valley from the south. Sophie slunk away to pee, and when she slunk back, her dad was up and ready to slink away himself. He came back and they ate some hard bread and an apple each and drank some water. They didn’t say anything until the edge was off their hunger.
“Think it’s gonna be today?” she asked.
“What?” he asked.
“The battle, silly.” He grinned.
At that moment a wild chorus of cries came up from the valley.
Sophie and her dad jumped up. They stared at each other. Then they clawed their way out of the bushes and crept to where they could see down. Even after long staring, all they could tell for sure about the valley below was: there were a whole lot of men down there, trampling all over and yelling. Now the clash of metal came up to them as well.
“Someone needs to go down there,” said Dad, “probably both of us.”
“Why? Tell them there’s Frungans attacking them? I think they know.”
“Sophie, you’re here as a messenger. They might just need you right now to take messages. I might as well go with, they might send me with you. Or they might have me find them some Kug barbarians.” They stared downward for another few seconds. “I sure can’t stand to be up here while that mess is down there,” he added.
“Well, then, let’s both go.” Sophie was not especially eager to get near some thousands of men who had murder on their minds, and who probably had to get soused to get in the mood, but she knew she had to get it out of the way, so in another minute they were leading their horses down the steep deer-path and in half an hour they were riding in the woods on the valley floor. The din was a little more distant. The first thing they met that had anything to do with the battle was a hundred men sitting and standing around in a clearing.
“Are they us?” Sophie asked Dad.
“Hey, scouts,” called several of the men standing nearest to them. “Hey, scouts! What’s up? Are they coming?”
“We ain’t seen them down here at all,” said Dad.
A gentleman rode up on a fine horse. “Are you Sir Bodon’s scouts?” he asked.
“We are,” said Dad.
“So what’s the situation?”
“Frungans are attacking all along this side of the river,” Dad replied. He pointed north. “Go that way and you’ll run smack into them.”
“How many?” asked the gentleman.
“They look to have the same numbers as we do,” said Dad. “No sign of the Kug.”
“May it stay that way,” said the gentleman. “Sergeants, bring your troops forward!” Orders were shouted through the company. The gentleman saluted the scouts, who saluted back and continued toward the camp.
They passed more of their army moving forward in the woods, exchanging what little they knew for what little the soldiers knew. Morale seemed quite high, but for a while they couldn’t find any commander higher than a few men, usually on horseback, who commanded individual companies. These exchanged a few sentences with them as they moved up, but didn’t know and hadn’t thought about what the overall strategy was, or where King John and Prince Sylvester were in all these woods.
The sound of fighting, which still consisted largely of shouting, grew behind them as the sun rose and occasionally peered through the gaps in the clouds. Presently the shouts were joined by a low and rising mixture of moans.
The camp was still where it had been. There were empty tents and empty stables, there were pit latrines and piles of refuse, and there was all the stuff belonging to all the King’s men, guarded by a dozen or so of the King’s men. These, not the best in the army, gave the two only the briefest glance.
Dad led Sophie right up to a couple of hefty older men who were sitting on some luggage in front of a big tent. “The Royal Palace,” Dad explained as they rode up to the front of it. “Excuse me,” said Dad to the two men, jumping down. Sophie jumped down behind him. The noise of battle, a low grinding din, came from 180° of directions behind them as they faced the tent.
The two hefty men stared at them for a moment, then one said to the other, “Anyway, it was Margaret was married to the Duke before, but she survived him.”
“Excuse me,” said Dad.
“I hear tell she had him poisoned, not what he didn’t deserve it,” said the other.
“Excuse me, but we—!” Sophie started.
“Anyway, she remarried,” said the first.
“Some marquis or other,” said the second.
“Excuse me,” said Dad, waving both arms at them. The sound of hooves turned Sophie around. Sir Bodon and three others rode into the camp, wheeled, saw Sophie and headed for her.
“Girl,” cried one of the others with a look and voice as if he’d been angry at everyone he met for the past two hours, “get to the left and tell Sir Milus to get his men in line.”
“They have to move up, got that, girl?” said the man next to him.
“Left?” asked Sophie.
“That way,” said the first horseman.
“Squire John,” said Sir Bodon, “can you find out in the next quarter hour if the Kug are over there?”
“Yes and yes,” said Dad, remounting. Sophie mounted up too, and off they sped. On the other side of the camp, he pointed Sophie at some men a mile or so off toward the fighting. “Milus has the biggest beard on that side of the battle,” he told her. “I’ll be looking for Kug. You don’t go near any of them.”
“You either,” she called over her shoulder as she turned Horseradish toward the fighting.
In two minutes she was approaching a few dozen men, lying around with wounds and injuries. Through a few trees she could see the Vara River. The noise of fighting was just ahead in dense woods. “Where’s Sir Milus?” she asked them. They waved her on. She rode up through tall grasses toward the trees. A dozen more men stood around nervously in a trampled area among large bushes. They looked up at her but said nothing.
The noise ahead grew suddenly louder by the addition of a chorus of shouts and cries. The nervous men looked up and readied their weapons: spears, pikes, a few swords, and one with a long shovel. A whistling whine, and an arrow landed twenty feet in front of Horseradish, sticking up out of the sandy soil. More shafts landed, humming like bees: one hit the guy with the shovel, and he fell over, the arrow sticking out of his neck.
Sophie did not have long to think about the poor man, who died quickly: where he was from and whether he left loved ones and what it was all for, none of these things had time to enter her mind. Men came bursting from the brush, shouting incomprehensibly. Arrows began to land amongst the bushes: several men fell. A hundred men or more were passing her, while more yet came out and turned to fight or to see what was behind them. Sophie, instinctively, drew her sword, while Horseradish, acting on his own instinct, backed away.
A handsome middle-aged man with a moustache and blood on his forehead raced out, then stopped and shouted to Sophie: “Tell the headquarters: they’ve broken through! Milus is down! Archers across the river—!” More arrows landed about, some of them short, skinny ones that whistled, while others were long and hefty and silent. The handsome man ran among those fleeing, trying to rally them. He took one more moment to shout at Sophie, “Go! We need help!”
She turned Horseradish around and headed back, as the handsome man tried to form his men up again. Men were falling still behind her, but that was what happened in battles. She just didn’t want to know about it. Back in the camp, there was somewhat more commotion now. More men on horseback had gathered, dressed in fine mail with helmets and mask-like visors. Sir Bodon sauntered over to her, his visor up to reveal a worried face.
“They said Milus is down,” she told him. “They aren’t moving up, they’re falling back. Archers across the river.”
“They’re not—are they?” he asked.
“Whistling arrows,” she said. “Those little ones. Dad says Kug have arrows like that.”
“Frungans sure don’t,” he replied. “Name the devil.” He turned his horse and shouted to the others, who now amounted to a cavalry of fifty or so. “We have Kug archers across the river,” he shouted. “Kug archers. Milus is down. The left is falling back.”
“Can’t be Kug,” shouted a knight with an accent from the coast.
“And yet they are,” shouted Sir Bodon. He turned to Sophie. “Get over to the right. Pull them back to the edge of camp. Then we’ll try and find the King in all this: he’s supposed to be somewhere in the middle. We’re obviously going to have to hold up the left.” He pulled his visor down and headed back to the others, shouting at them to come over to the left side.
Sophie took another look behind her: the left wasn’t crumbling so fast yet that the retreating rabble were visible from camp. She nudged Horseradish, who took a look himself, and then the two rode off eastward. In a few minutes they were alone in light woods, and even the sounds of battle were faint.
She came out into a field and stood, screened by a line of yellow bushes. A hundred yards ahead, bands of men were slugging it out on foot. From here it just looked like a big fistfight. She got up her courage and sauntered up. There were a few men lying about in the casual poses of death, and some cast-off and broken weapons, and a few limbs as well. She still didn’t feel she had time to feel anything. A couple of men materialized from the fighting: a huge red-bearded fellow with some wounds and a big club, and a hefty old man with a scraggly grey beard and a spear. “How’s the King doing?” the old man asked her.
“I don’t know. Sir Bodon says to fall back to the edge of camp.”
“What? Why?” asked the redbeard, as if it were an insult.
“The left is falling back,” she said. “I think Sir Milus is dead. There’s Kug archers coming across the river.”
The redbeard rolled his eyes, then turned and shouted. “Fall back, men! Fall back! In rank! In rank! Fall back in rank!” Some of the men turned, and several were brained as they looked back. He rolled his eyes and ran over as if to move them himself.
“We’re doing pretty good over here,” said the old man. “Not doing so good on the other side? Too many of those Southerners over there.”
Sophie smiled. “Too many Kug there,” she said. “I have to go find the King.”
“Long live the King,” said the old man with sincerity. He grinned and waved his spear.
“Take care of yourselves,” Sophie said, wondering what the old spear-man’s contribution to the cause could possibly amount to. She turned and rode back to the light woods. When she got there, she turned right, west, toward the river. She took one last look to her right, back across the field. She could see the soldiers backing up and fighting, backing up and fighting some more. They were still in good order. She could hear the red-bearded man shouting still behind her as she rode on.
Sophie met nothing at first, not even dead bodies. She felt she was nearing the river, which was definitely too far. She saw a clump of fighting in the distance under the trees to her right, maybe a few dozen of each side. None of them looked anything like a King or a Prince: they just looked like a bunch of drunken louts pounding each other in the street in front of the tavern. She stood and watched them for a minute or two: above, the clouds were giving way grudgingly and thin rays of autumn sun were slipping through the bare trees.
She cut back, southeast, to the rear and back toward the center, and then stopped when she could see the tents of camp through the trees. Nothing much going on there. She turned due north toward where the line of battle should have been. A mile along a trampled trail, and she saw several dozen men coming her way. They looked dazed, and many were wounded.
“Who are you?” she asked. They stared at her as they approached and began to pass her on the right. “Where’s the King?” she asked one of them.
“Back there,” he said, waving behind.
“You guys are the wounded?” she asked. Naturally they didn’t bother to answer. “Well, the left’s falling back, and so’s the right,” she shouted at them as they wandered past. She watched them disappear into the woods in the direction of camp.
Sophie turned and looked north. The sounds of clash were not so loud now, but there seemed to be a lot of whimpering far ahead, a chorus of snivels. She got Horseradish to hustle forward across a grassy belt and into more trees. She came to a dry stream, and found herself in among a hundred or more corpses. A few were alive still, lying there moaning. She looked down at one, a brown-bearded young man who stared at the sky and said, “Ohhh, ohhh, ohhh.”
“Where’s the King?” she asked him. He looked at her, then went back to moaning.
Another band of men materialized from the woods ahead: several dozen, then maybe several hundred on either side of them. They were armed and armored just like the rest of the infantry: not very well, compared to the knighthood. A few were wounded but most had the unfought look of reserves. They came down to the stream bed, and one of them called to her with a concerned look: “Hiven farken garben harven hiven” or something like that. Sophie thought about that for a moment, then turned her horse and headed back with all speed.
After half a mile, she stopped and thought about it. None of the dead looked kingly or princely either. She turned to the left, toward the high ground, and rode along at a walk, the noise of woe and clash sounding, now loud and now soft, from various points on her left.
A voice on her right called, “Ho, girl, scout!” She stopped and looked, her hand on her sword. It was a young knight from the south.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Tell anyone you see to regroup along the edge of camp,” he said. “We’ve done all right in the center, now we just have to take the vanguard and march it left to cut off where the enemy’s advanced too far. You get the right back to the camp.”
“We’ve done all right in the center?” she repeated.
“Where’s the King?” she asked. “And the Prince?”
Doubt suddenly entered the young knight’s face. “What did you see? Were you up in the middle just now?”
“Yeah, and I didn’t see a thing,” she said, “but a pile of corpses and some guys who sounded like they were speaking Frungan.”
“Well,” said the knight, “get the right back to the edge of camp.” He rode off the way she had come, headed toward the river.
Sophie spent the next hour wandering in the woods at the foot of the ridge. The woods were far from quiet, but the noise of battle was definitely less than before. She met a few dozen of her own army, wandering southward toward the camp already, looking confused. She saw a few more clumps of battle, but no one there seemed interested in moving the fight to other ground. In dense woods, she came upon two men, heavily armored, slugging it out with clubs and shields in a shaft of sunlight. She found many dead men. But she didn’t see a soul who seemed interested in her orders, so she turned back south to get new ones. It was then she met a sizeable part of the King’s army.
She came out onto a knoll, a rocky outcrop on one side of a hill, and stood there on her horse looking down on that track in the woods, running north and south, here with open fields around it that had once been farms. On it, there were some little crowds of men. A large crowd were on horseback, and they engaged in a sharp affray while behind them a large band of men on foot hoofed it southward. Suddenly half the horse were breaking off and scattering south, southeast toward her and southwest. The rest, in three disciplined groups, pursued the fleeing riders. Sophie looked down from her unexpected vantage point, and below her rode past a band of a hundred or so knights bearing the heraldry of Helark and Faravon: Prince Sylvester, his helmet dented, was among them. The foot proceeded south at a run.
But then the Frungan cavalry, for she could now identify Frungan green and gold banners among them, turned on the fleeing infantry. The two groups came together, and stopped and did something to each other. Sophie couldn’t tell who did what to whom, but she got the idea that a lot of men were going down, but few of the horses. She shaded her blue eyes and pierced the intervening air. Yes, in the afternoon sun, what must have been the largest remaining corps of the Merrivan army was being slaughtered or scattered by armored knights bearing Frungan signs.
Sophie raised her eyebrows and let out a puff of air. She looked up at the sun: early afternoon. The sound of dying cries came from a mile or so away. She turned her horse south again and headed for camp.
By the time she got there, it was inhabited by perhaps a thousand men, mostly on foot, mostly wounded. They were picking through the luggage and getting ready to head on. She saw no one she knew, not the redbeard, not Sir Bodon, not the handsome guy with the mustache and the head wound, not Prince Sylvester or King John or the optimistic young knight; not Dad. Sophie stood there on Horseradish, looking around.
“Get the horse,” someone said to someone else. “Hey girl, give us the horse.” Dozens of the rabble turned her way looking as if they saw steaks when they looked at Horseradish. Sophie gave them one frown and took off toward the river. Behind her, the army was interrupted in looting its own camp by the appearance of several long rows of Frungan cavalry from the woods to the north.
More men burst from the brush on her right. Her steed startled and reared back like a prize stallion, but they just ran by, and some fell to the whining arrows. To her right, shapes were moving in the brush, charging forward and already almost in the open.
Sophie nudged Horseradish forward. He was a smart horse and rarely needed much nudging: he hurled the two of them forward across the open space. Warriors were breaking through the brush, then standing to fire whining arrows into the retreating soldiers. They had strange armor, and dark skin with pale blond hair, and bloodthirsty smiles.
Girl and horse got into the woods along the river and found themselves alone. There were bodies floating downstream.
She turned downstream herself, and rode about a mile when she saw another horse ahead of her. It was Daisy. She went up to investigate, and just as she came alongside, someone dropped from a branch behind her, landed on Horseradish’s fat rump and fell to the ground with a mild curse. It was her dad.
“Man, am I glad to see you,” she said.
“Heh heh, the feeling’s mutual,” he said, climbing onto his horse. “Let’s get out of here.”