Part Three: Merrivan and Killifar
Four riders rode along the ridge road above the River Lesh the next day. They came down off the ridge and out onto a shoulder overlooking Merrivan from the northwest. It was a lovely sunny afternoon and they were tired and a little hungry. There were several thousand people ahead of them. The four looked from their horses, then dismounted and climbed onto a convenient boulder and had another look.
“The camp is still forming up,” said Marthen. “I’d say this is the vanguard. I make it, oh, two thousand, maybe three.” He looked at Sophie. “What do you say, Stilts?”
She smirked. Then she took a minute to do her own estimation. “I’d go three,” she said at last.
“Yes, yes, three,” said Irena. “One thousand there, one thousand there, one more thousand sort of moving about.” They looked at Dad.
“I concur,” said Dad. “And I’m going to guess that they’re not our guys.”
“Frungai,” said Irena. “Frungans.”
“You speak their language,” said Marthen.
“Don’ remind me. Is not like I want to.”
“Yeah,” said Dad. “I can’t think of a way her command of Frungan is going to help us deal with an army that’s gonna be ten thousand in a week.”
They stood there for a while, as the horses munched on the late grass heads. It was a challenge, grabbing them as they bobbed in the wind, but it was worth it. The humans did not have as rewarding a time. Finally, having neither said nor thought of anything useful, they climbed down and stood around next to their steeds.
“Okay,” said Marthen, “so here’s what I got. We either try to go in or we don’t. Let’s just stack up the reasons on either side.”
“We go in,” said Dad, “and we have to get past three thousand Frungans. And then we don’t know what we meet inside. It could be like when we were last inside Tenna, but scaled up for the population. Heck, they could put us in irons. They could chop our heads off. They could make us stand on the walls and attract fire. But, on the other hand, it’s shelter. Maybe.”
“And there’s this thing about how we owe the King,” said Sophie.
Marthen looked at Dad. “Well, and,” said Dad, “maybe, just maybe the King has an army of some sort. I mean, looking at this lot, he’d better. Because there’s more than just this, these, like you say, they’re just the first arrivals. But where else do you go if you want to find an army to fight the Kug? It’s the Kug we really need an answer for. So? Ask King Olk of Frunga?”
“How’d you feel about that, Irena?” asked Sophie.
Irena stepped away from the others and spat on the ground, accurately hitting the dead center of a round stone buried in the road.
“Okay,” Marthen said reasonably, “I guess we don’t negotiate with King Olk of Frunga. I hadn’t considered that option, but we can now put it discreetly aside. What is our other option if we don’t attempt to gain entry to Merrivan?”
“We head for Killifar, or somewhere like that,” said Dad. “We have kin there: my daughter Margery is there, with her husband good Perkin Paton and some number of my grandchildren.”
“So,” said Marthen, “are there down-sides to this? It sounds all right to me. Would they put up, oh, a Frungan refugee who dislikes the Frungans, and a former bureaucrat in the military establishment from Merrivan?”
“I am not Frungan,” said Irena. “Am Yetva. From Vyotol.”
“Sorry. My question remains.”
“Oh, she’ll take us in, I’m sure,” said Dad.
“So, why shouldn’t we just do that?”
“Well, who’s going to have an army? Because we had an army that could have faced the Kug and maybe done something useful like get me back on my farm, but we blew that against King Olk of Frunga. So where else do we get an army? Helark in the South? They’re not going to want to send another bunch of their finest young men up here to die in the woods. Killifar’s very nice, but it’s no bigger than Tenna, and Tenna wasn’t going to make an army that could face the Kug. So where else around here could make an army? I’m sorry to say this, but Merrivan may be the only chance we have if we don’t want to all learn to speak Kug.”
“Not option,” said Irena. “Want me spit again? I got plenty of spit. Have lots of spit for Gama Kug and extra left for King Olk of Frunga.”
“So,” said Marthen to Irena, “no fan you of King Olk, and no fan of the Kug. I take it you hold no opinion as yet of Good King John, Ninth of that Name.”
“I hold no opinion,” she said, “as yet. What is King John Ninth of Name like? Is he stupid like other kings?”
“Oh,” said Marthen, “I think he does not exercise himself to develop new and better ways of being stupid, I think rather he tends to keep to the traditional stupid ways.”
“So, what do you think, Soph?” asked Dad as Marthen and Irena went on chatting about monarchy in theory and practice.
“I think those two get on way better than I might have expected,” said Sophie.
“No, about going in?”
“Oh,” said Sophie, “if we can get past the gate, we should be good. The problem is getting past the gate.”
“Sure,” said Dad. “And we go around the west side and hit one of the south gates, I’d think. But when we get inside?”
“Well, Dad,” she replied, “that’s when we’ll know if we really wanted to get inside.”
The four riders kept to the right after the road forded a wide stream and set out straight across intensively farmed bottom land toward the city of Merrivan. They tried to look inconspicuous. It seemed easy most of the time, as they passed among very recently abandoned farm houses and very recently emptied pastures and common fields. But it was a clear day, with not a shred of mist or shadow of cloud to hide in, and presently they saw a riding of six horses part from the vanguard camp and move to head them off.
“Can we avoid?” asked Irena.
“Just let me do the talkin’,” said Dad.
“No, let me,” said Sophie.
“I think not. And don’t even show that bow, much less string an arrow. Girl!”
“Yes, dad, fine, dad, yes, dad.”
“Any question, you two?” Dad asked Irena and Marthen.
“No, no, you talking,” said Irena. “Me stay mouth shut.”
It was long minutes still before the four riders met the six. The four were in no hurry, though they were easily visible the whole time across the flatland, and the six were waiting for them where two farm lanes crossed.
“Halt, halt, halt,” called the one who seemed to be in charge. Even the one word exposed his accent: not quite Irena’s but definitely not like Dad’s. He was clearly some sort of knight, while the rest of his delegation looked like farm boys. “Where be you going?”
“Ah,” said Dad, and he spent a few seconds thinking up: “And a good day to you, kind sir.”
“Good day to you,” said the Frungan knight. “Where be you going, man?”
“Ar,” said Dad, “south I believe, yeah, south indeed it is. South. Yeah. South, kind sir.” He gave the knight a sweet broad grin.
“South?” said the knight, also smiling. Dad nodded and grinned some more. “Where be you from, man, you and rest of here?”
“Oh ar,” said Dad, “this be me family, we be from up Tenna way, me wife an’ me kid here an’ me coozin an’ all. We don’ mean no harm, sir, that we don’t, just headin’ south t’ keep outa trooble from, if you will, the likes of thee an’ all.”
The knight took this all in with a half smile. The knight conferred with the eldest of his farm boy riders. He surveyed the other three and asked, “You rest, you say this all true?”
They all nodded. Irena grabbed Dad’s sleeve and pulled him down to her level to say something. The knight watched this, and Dad met his look. Dad said, “Me wife reminds me to mention as to how we be headin’ south t’ get outa the way an’ all, an’ not plannin’ t’ stay in yon city or even get anywheres near it, an’ you can follow us about if you wishes to an’ see, we be plannin’ t’ join me other coozin away south in Terlack an’ all, not plannin’ t’ come back atall sir.”
“One horse,” said the knight with a smile, “not like other horses. Where wife got horse?”
“Ar,” said Dad, “that be a pony what we bought las’ year off a feller from up over the hills. Don’ know where from, not like the others round here you see, is it?”
“No, not like other horses,” said the knight. He looked at them for a minute, then conferred with the elder farm boy, then, his smile wavering just a little, he waved them on.
“Thank ee, sir knight,” said Dad.
“Sure you go not in city,” said the knight. “We kill every man in city. Yes?”
“Yes,” said Dad, “indeed yes, aye, and a fond farewell, sir knight.”
The four passed onward and the six turned back toward the camp, and a little further on, Sophie said, “Nice accent. Come up with that yourself?”
“Your dad,” said Dad, “is a man of many talents.”
“So, kill every man in city. Do you think we need to tell them that?”
“The residents of the city.”
They all turned their heads to look at the nearest of the rambling walls of Merrivan, mere wooden stockade walls on this side, half a mile off. They slowed but did not stop moving southward. “I guess we ought to, at that,” said Dad, “although I grant my heart ain’t in it.”
When they got around to the south end of the city, they found its gates loosely manned and far from crowded. Masses of peasants were not pouring into Merrivan for sanctuary, nor were they pouring out of Merrivan for refuge elsewhere. The four dismounted and approached the towering stone gate—the rest of the wall here was still wood planks, but the gate was something to see. Marthen and Dad walked in front. Marthen nodded and smiled at each of the five guards they saw in the vicinity of the gate; Sophie didn’t notice much else, as Daisy, striding along in front of her, chose their entry into the city as the moment to leave some things to stink outside. So, stepping carefully, Sophie returned to Merrivan, city of no epithet.
The sun shone down on Merrivan, home of perhaps twenty thousand people. Like any city, it had its own internal gravity that made it, to an extent, immune from events. It was Sophie’s first and only city, and now, with a hostile army outside, Sophie really got what that immunity amounted to. It wasn’t that people didn’t know there was a hostile army outside. But they were in here, with walls to block out the view, with twenty thousand drinking buddies, with still enough food for the foreseeable future.
“Yeah, the future,” Sophie said aloud, standing in an irregular plaza a block in from the gate, looking at her three companions a little distance in front of her. She looked at Horseradish, who actually turned his head to give her a sideways look. “The future’s not this week,” she told him, “and it’s not next week, but it just might be the week after. Huh?”
She sauntered up to join the others. Dad was saying to Marthen, “So I guess it’s your turn to go exercise your connections and all, and we’ll find lodging for a bit, how’s that sound?” He looked back and smiled at Sophie. Irena was eying all the people in the plaza with equal suspicion.
“Tell you what, Squire,” said Marthen, “you and me find lodging, and then you and me go find my connections. There has to be something going on at the Halls. But who knows what? By the Virgin, what I would give to have Sir B show up about now.” They both looked around, but Sir Bodon did not choose that moment to appear.
“So you’re worried about security,” said Dad. “You want me with to help out with security. Thinking of your bag?”
“Oh, I’m not taking the bag,” said Marthen. He looked up at Sophie. “I could take her as security and leave you and the lady with the room and the bag, but all in all, I think it best we do it this way. Uh, you don’t mind, you aren’t offended or anything—?”
Dad laughed. “No, no,” he said. “This is good. One guy, situation like this, it’s just asking for trouble. Two together, it’s just a lot more formidable.”
“And,” said Marthen, “no offense, but a girl, even a formidable girl like this one, in a place like the Halls? It was trouble enough when, ah, when there was someone actually in charge.”
“No offense taken,” said Sophie. They looked around. “Because you know, even a formidable girl like this one, I have to make people know I’m formidable by, you know, slugging them or something before I can actually get them to realize how formidable I actually am.”
“And we can’t have you slugging every male in the city,” said Marthen.
“No,” Sophie agreed. “It’s inefficient.”
So the four of them went down the Main Street and found an inn with a reliable-looking stable, and went in to make a deal on a couple of rooms side by side. It was agreed that Dad and Marthen would share a room (and a bed) and that Irena and Sophie would share another. Then they got a bit of lunch in the common room, and Dad and Marthen left the women in their room with Marthen’s bag. Marthen showed them what was in it.
“I keep good accounts,” said Marthen, “as I think you may recall. See? What do you make this?”
“Well,” said Sophie, looking at the ordered piles of coins they had made, “134 gold, 82 silver, 55 copper. Plus assorted papers and a change of clothes.”
“I plan on taking a bath tonight,” said Marthen. “I’ll wash my dirties and put on my cleans. Dare I ask about your sanitary practices?”
“No, yeah, you dare,” said Sophie. “I’ll do the same, though I think I’ll use a different tub.”
“I asked,” said Dad. “It comes with the room. I don’t mind using Master Marthen’s water, nor letting him have it first, though I think I’d like to go ahead of his and my laundry.” He looked at Irena, mostly out of habit.
“Oh, by God,” she said. “I need bath so bad. And have only one clothing.”
“We need to get you some more,” said Sophie. “You boys wanna pick something up while you’re out?”
“Ah, no,” said Marthen, “maybe we leave that to you.”
Irena and Sophie had a look at their room, which had a nice little bed on the floor, and carefully chose places for their pathetic little bags of possessions. Then they went into Dad and Marthen’s room and sat on their bed looking at Marthen’s bag, in which the coins had been hidden again. There was a commotion on the stairs, and then a tub of warm water was being dragged down the hall. Some discussion ensued, and presently Sophie was sitting on Dad’s bed reading—a bird book handed down in the family—and Irena was in the water.
“You’ve been very quiet,” said Sophie.
“Am enjoying,” said Irena.
“When do I get to enjoy? I want to enjoy.”
“Look,” said Irena. “In Merrivan, I am Frungai. Yet to King Olk of Frunga, I am not Frungai, I am Yetva. He catch me, he ask question, what I am doing with folk from here. What I am doing? I am not know. What I am doing? What you are doing? What you are doing, Sophia?”
“How did you know my real name is Sophia?”
Irena looked taken aback. “Is what Sophie means? Means Sophia.”
“Oh. Well, anyway, yeah, it’s probably good for you to keep that accent of yours to yourself while we’re in Merrivan.” She stood up and walked around the little room. “Which won’t be too long, I don’t think.” She sat back down by Irena.
“Could be weeks until King Olk be ready to make something,” said Irena. “Could be King John make army by then, good enough to keep city anyway. Lots go wrong in war time. And winter is come quick. Could snow tomorrow.”
“No, not tomorrow,” Irena conceded. “Going to be clear for many days, many days. But, you get meaning, is not month, two months, King Olk has, can’t make siege all winter, is bad.”
“So he makes his move fast,” said Sophie. “I don’t know. I just don’t think this is going to work out. What am I looking for? When we were headed for, you know, Mudwick, I thought maybe that was what I was looking for. I guess that didn’t pan out. But that’s not what I’m looking for anyway. You know? What are you looking for?”
“Place to live in peace.” They both nodded sagely. Irena swished, then leaned toward Sophie. “Listen,” she said, though it came out as leessen. “When I was age you are, I thought, have man, have family, have house, farm, a cow. Had that stuff. Also had book, my father taught me to write, I copy books for people. I make ink, I make paper even. Not rich, but, but had enough, had enough I could loose—lose—is loose, or is lose?”
“Lose,” said Sophie. “Loose is like the opposite of tight. You had enough you could lose.”
“Had enough I could lose enough, and now? Have what is in bag. Want? Want to live in peace, maybe have cow, have books.” She smiled. “Is too much to want?”
“No, nope, no, not at all,” said Sophie. “Yeah. We could find a place to farm. A house. Some cows, sheep. Chickens. I want cats, a big ol’ dog. I want Dad to have stuff to do, be happy.”
“Want man? Want children?”
Sophie looked off into the imaginary distance. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’m liking it like it is. I guess maybe someday, but not for a while. I just want a place to live, like you say, in peace.” She stood up. “But I know one thing.”
“No peace,” said Irena. “Is too many army around.”
“Yeah,” said Sophie. “That peace thing is going to take some work.” She stood up and put the bird book back in Dad’s bag. “Okay. My turn. Come on, I have dirt on my dirt.”
When Dad and Marthen returned, Sophie had bathed and was showing Irena her sword moves at half speed in the men’s little room. “Whoa, whoa,” said Dad, “don’t damage anything, watch that candle dish.”
“Hey, I’m being careful,” Sophie replied. “Whatcha know?”
“Well,” said Dad, “stew’s in the common room, and no one’s in charge at the Halls. Want to hear about it now, or over stew?”
“And wine,” said Marthen. “In the common room. It smells wonderful, and I was basically living in the Halls the last few years so I can only imagine what it would smell like if I still had my sense of smell.”
“Okay,” said Irena, “common room. Even though I must keep mouth shut there except eating.”
“What?” asked Dad.
“She doesn’t want people to notice her accent,” said Sophie.
“She’s got the right idea there,” said Marthen.
“It’s actually okay?” asked Dad. “I know you hate not talking, Irena.”
“Is big pain,” said Irena, “but I can eat horse.”
“What? Oh, you could eat a horse. Ha! No need for that just yet, in dear old Merrivan.”
“Funny,” said Sophie. “I notice whenever you call someplace ‘dear old,’ you’re basically kissing it goodbye.”
A few minutes later, with their possessions trusted behind the unlocked doors of their rooms—except for Marthen’s bag, which sat in Sophie’s lap—the four of them pulled up benches to a long table in the crowded common room. Sophie and Irena sat on one side, and Dad and Marthen on the other. A lady came by and dropped off crocks of stew, and then, in receipt of a silver coin, came back with a jug of wine and four cups. She still had nothing to say, but she smiled this time. Everyone around them, including the elderly tradesmen literally rubbing elbows with Sophie and Dad, seemed happy to ignore them.
After the waitress left, they turned to the stew, and Dad and Marthen took turns talking. “So, yeah,” Marthen said. “My old stomping ground is all in a tizzy.” He looked at Irena, who shrugged, so he went on. “The arms stores are empty, and the one thing that’s still happening is that men are there making spears and arrows and as soon as they set out a box of arrows, someone takes it. No one’s brave enough to stop anyone, and everyone’s now armed to the teeth.” He looked at Irena, who shrugged again.
“We got basically ignored,” said Dad. “Picked me up this nice old knife.” He pulled from his pants a knife that must have reached to his knee. It was straight and heavy and clearly much used, and it was dull enough that it would mostly function as a sort of edged cudgel. “Not going to chop onions with it, but it’ll work for some things.”
“Can I?” asked Sophie. He handed it over. She stood up, and almost immediately a man passing by behind her stopped to cop a feel. She turned and put the butt of her left hand hard into his right eyebrow. Then, her left hand dropping to his elbow, she kneed him in the groin hard enough to lift him off the ground. He was her height and weight, but she was young and strong and restless and he went down with a thump and a short slide on his back. If anyone else looked at what had happened, they turned their attention back to their food immediately. Sophie swung the knife a couple of ways and then put it up in a blocking action, tossed it, caught it by the hilt, flipped it and caught it by the blade, and handed it back.
“Nice work,” said Marthen. “Impressive.”
“It’s a good shield, that’s what it is,” said Sophie. She sat down and leaned toward Marthen. “So what about our King?”
“Oh, he’s still up at the castle,” said Marthen in a very low voice. “His knights from the south are with him. One suspects he’s thinking about going on a long vacation, a pilgrimage to the coast lands perhaps.”
“People think this?”
“People say this,” said Dad. “Fellas at the Halls. But he’s biding his time. Maybe he can’t get out. Maybe someone has something on him. Or, maybe the knights from the south are all deluded, and they’re deluding him.”
“Or maybe they actually can beat this King Olk,” said Sophie.
They all looked at Irena, who shook her head emphatically. “I would have to agree,” said Marthen. “They have five hundred tops. The militia is maybe three thousand, enough to man the walls, but the walls frankly are not worth manning. Don’t you think, Squire John?”
“I’d have to agree too,” said Dad. “They should be fixing them up, but they’re not. Tell you what’s mostly going on at the Halls. Mostly drinking. Some fighting, a bit of whoring, but mostly drinking. Now it’s true that you might want to get your men drunk right before battle, but not for the whole two weeks before a battle. It’s one thing to fight drunk, it’s quite another to do it hung over.”
“Yeah,” said Marthen, “the reason there isn’t a riot all over the city streets most of the time is that the riot is pretty much right there at the Halls and thereabouts. It was never a great place for law and order, funnily enough, but now it’s basically where you go for free alcohol.”
“And free weapons,” said Dad, hefting his new used knife.
“So,” said Sophie, “King’s probably looking for the right time to bug out, common folk are only here because there’s no place else, and what they have for an army is on a multi-week bender. Where does that leave us?”
They sat there looking at each other and slurping stew, mostly tubers and mushrooms with a faint flavor of mutton, but tasty and warm.
“It leaves us,” said Marthen at last, “checking our list to figure where we go next.” He took another good slurp of stew, then wiped his trim little beard on his sleeve. He took a drink of wine. “Well,” he said, “no hurry, anyway, we should have a few days to sound things out, and still have at least a week to put distance between us and imminent disaster. There’s at least time for a whole string of hot baths.”
They ate well enough, and they got a little drunk, and they went back upstairs and went to their separate rooms. The boys got their baths: management was too busy to get a new batch of hot water up the stairs, so they just bathed in the ladies’ bath water.
Back in the ladies’ chamber, Sophie and Irena made ready for bed. “So tired,” said Irena. “So look forward to this.”
“So you don’t want to go buy yourself some new clothes now?” asked Sophie.
“You hear your man Marthen,” said Irena, lying down on the bed in her dress, with her thick socks on. “He says we have days yet. Maybe we get good price?”
“Maybe,” said Sophie.
“Going lie down? Is plenty of room.”
“Sure,” said Sophie. “Should I blow out the candle?”
“Nah. Let burn.”
With a shrug, Sophie lay down on Irena’s left. There was just about enough room for them both, and Sophie’s feet, also in socks (made by her mom), stuck off the end of the bed. Sophie expected Irena to have some more to say, but the woman was quiet, and in less than a minute her sleep breathing could be heard.
Sophie lay, wide awake, for some time, thinking she would never fall asleep. It was weird, not sleeping in a tiny tent with her dad. It was weird, being back in Merrivan, which seemed like an entirely different city. It was weird not even remembering where they had stayed before. It was weird being here after the battle, after the loss of whole provinces, after the fall of her home town and the market town that served it. It was weird, having probably lost her whole family except for Dad. It was weird having killed seven, nine, ten? Ten men, in the past couple of weeks.
She lay thinking of what she had lost, not of what she had gained, of what she had learned, and worrying about what she had forgotten. She lay thinking of what she had to do, and what she didn’t know how to do. She lay thinking of who she served, and what she cared about, and what she could still save from the wreck of what had seemed to be her life. She lay thinking of how in spite of it all she had somehow never been happier than she had been, at times, these past two weeks, riding in the woods, sleeping on the ground, hunting and cooking and eating and choosing her road anew. She lay adding it up and comparing, what she had lost and what she had seen, and the next thing she knew, she was waking in the morning, a thin sun coming through the open window, Irena moving about, humming.
They had breakfast of porridge in the common room, and then they went shopping and got Irena two new dresses and some warm socks, and Sophie got herself a new shirt and some warm socks. They bought a few cooking utensils and some spices, a nice bag of salt, a chunk of cheese, a jug of wine. Then they went for a walk in the city, which seemed only slightly more familiar than it had last night. They took with them everything they thought precious.
Sophie and Irena went to the north gate, which was securely shut, and found it fairly easy to climb onto the nicely built north wall and look off its stone parapet, ten feet above the ground outside. They weren’t the only people taking this tour: the townsfolk seemed to think it a proper spot for a day trip. Before them now, across Merrivan’s northern farms, an invading army began to spread and organize itself: horse pens here and here and there, supply yards there and there, tents everywhere. Farm houses were burned or commandeered as headquarters. Livestock still on the farms were led into new pens to be milked or butchered to feed the invading army.
Sophie had expected that a Frungan envoy would approach and seek audience with the King, and that demands would be made and rejected and negotiated and agreed on. Nothing like that seemed about to happen. The Frungans were gathering on the north side and assembling their equipment and their forces for an attack, and their cavalry was already patrolling all around the city, and it struck her that to the people inside it was all somewhat of a lark.
“So what’s the King going to do?” asked Sophie of no one. Irena just shook her head. Around them, a dozen Merrivanians gawked at the scene before them.
“What’s the King to do with it?” an old man nearby said.
“Well, isn’t he sort of, you know,” said Sophie, “supposed to, I don’t know—!”
“Hey,” said a gruff guardsman, moving toward their group along the top of the wall, “you folk ain’t supposed to be up here, you know.”
Having said his piece, the guardsman kept going. Sophie and the others watched him walk away and went back to rubbernecking.
They ate in the common room again that night. It was the same plain, decent fare, a stew and some bread and a young ale and some cheese. Dad and Marthen had tried to find some authority at the Halls, again, and again had utterly failed. Then they had tried to get in to see someone at the King’s citadel palace, a tiny but well-fortified triad of round towers in the northwest quarter of the city, and again they had failed. There was no Sir Bodon, though there were lots of knights and nobles from the kingdoms in the south, presumably worried about losing their investment in the kingdom centered at Merrivan.
“It’s the King of Frunga,” said Sophie, “not the King from such and such city. And Helark’s king isn’t actually the King of Helark, he’s the King of Helara. So what’s John? King of Merrivan?”
“No, no,” said Marthen. “That would imply that he’s not king of anywhere else.”
“Well,” said Dad, “he’s not going to be, if he don’t do something.”
“Question,” said Irena. “What means ‘do’? Do, does, don’t, doesn’t. What is?”
“It’s just a word,” said Sophie. “We stick it in wherever.”
“It’s a verb,” said Dad, glaring at Sophie. “It’s a helping verb,” said Marthen.
“Any other language questions?” asked Dad.
“Sure. Yes,” said Irena. “Why you, why do you, put in, everywhere, before words, ‘a’ and ‘the’? What means, what is meaning of ‘the’? Does, does it mean anything?”
The native speakers all looked at each other. “Okay,” said Sophie, “it sort of tells you if it’s a particular one like the King, or if it’s just some king, a king.”
Irena stared at her for a few seconds, then shrugged. Then she looked at Dad and said, “Anyway, you mean doesn’t.”
“If he doesn’t do something.”
Dad laughed. “Ah, Irena. It sure does me good to have you correct my speech. I mean, if that doesn’t beat all.”
They laughed and made jokes and drank a fair amount, and eventually they went up to their rooms. Marthen dumped his money bag on the floor by the bed he shared with Dad, Sophie set her sword on the floor in the shadow of the bed she shared with Irena, they had a last chat in Dad’s room, and then they parted and went to bed. Sophie and Irena chatted in the dark for a while, in the light of a single fat old candle, and then Irena dropped off to sleep. Soon she was softly snoring.
Again Sophie felt that sleep had never been further from her. She couldn’t think why. She should be tired. Maybe it was the restless energy of the big city. Of Merrivan. Riiiight. Whatever.
But it was no use fighting it. One could not struggle oneself to sleep. She lay another minute, and then rolled off soundlessly to stand by the bed. She checked in her pants pocket: yep, seven silver and a few copper. She pulled on her jacket. She found her boots without too much trouble, took them out in the hall, listened at Dad’s door—they were chatting jovially as one of them bathed. She went and sat on the stairs to pull her boots on. Then she was down the stairs and out the side door onto the alley.
Sophie decided that a good walk in the chill evening air would do her wonders. And wonders she saw, wonders she had never imagined as a girl in Mudwick: for instance, at least a dozen men peeing in alleys, and several peeing in streets, and several women peeing in alleys and at least one man going all the way to number two in a dead end lane between derelict houses. She saw any number of dead animals—rats, something larger like a muskrat, a few cats and dogs, a few pigeons. She saw dead that could only have been human, dumped in alleys and ditches and forgotten.
She also saw lots of live people and animals, lots of men and women and children pushing through crowds in the intersections or loitering on the edge of the street or in houses seen or heard through windows. A few were on rooftops; one was peeing off a rooftop. Several times she saw old women drawing hexes on doors in colored paint. Most of the people were just going about their business in the dark of night, and some had business whose nature was not obvious. Sophie made sure to push her pony tail down into the back of her jacket, and pull her warm cap over her hair, and given her height and relative lack of bosom, not to mention the sword stuck in her belt, she went largely unbothered.
She walked and walked and stopped across from the east wall to have a good look. The moon was between half and full and was casting a rich light on the wall, which didn’t look like much and wouldn’t look like much more in the sunlight. It was wood plank and about six feet high, and it stretched between a couple of squat stone towers at least two hundred feet apart, and while it would probably provide decent cover for any archers who might be placed on the low scaffolding behind it, they had best be careful not to lean too hard. There were knots of men along the wall, messing around drinking, pushing each other around, puking on the scaffolding. She stood across the wall street from the scene, taking it in.
“Well,” she said to herself, “they’re definitely not ready to defend the walls, but on the other hand, if the Frungans were about to attack, wouldn’t these idiots be the first to know?”
She felt eyes on her, and she turned, expecting to see someone to slug. Instead she found herself the subject of the gaze of three, no, four women who might have been prostitutes, or wives or girlfriends or mothers of the men along the wall, or just beggars, or possibly witches on the lookout for things to hex. Sophie returned their gaze only for a moment, and then turned on her boot heel and walked away as fast as she could along the wall street. She turned at the next street and headed back into town. A block of walking and she could forget there even was a wall.
She passed an open door and pleasant sounds came out: some people were playing instruments, someone was dealing out pints of beer, and lots of folk, men and women alike, were standing around talking. A few were attempting to confine a jig to a small patch of open floor.
Sophie went in, fished out a silver and held it out to the lady pouring the beer. “The ruddy ones are plenty,” said the ale wife. Sophie put her silver back and got out a copper, a dirty thing with a vague approximation of King John VIII on it, and that bought her a wooden mug of ale.
There wasn’t much area to stand inside the little tavern, so Sophie stepped out onto the street, where the rest of the spillover was. She sipped: it was pretty good, for an ale that had not been alive more than two weeks.
“Think we have a chance?” a fellow with a thin beard asked when she took a spot next to him. Sophie shrugged.
“Oh, we got a chance,” said an old guy on his other side. “Lightning might strike down King Olk of Frunga. Virgin could bring a plague down on ‘em, like in them olden days.”
“Ground could open up and swallow that there army,” said an old woman. She cackled, then doused it in a quaff. Sophie smirked and quaffed too. This stuff was pretty good.
“Naw,” said a middle-aged man. “We wait them out till winter, and we watch them wither away. It works every time.” He turned away and gazed up the street toward the wall.
“Except,” said Sophie, emboldened perhaps by her beer, “every time someone does that to you, you lose more of those farms, more of those villages, and you never get them back, and you can’t feed a town this size without those farms and villages, and that is a fact.” She drank.
“Hey,” said the man next to her, the one with the thin beard, “you a girl?”
“And you keep going this way,” she went on, “and you’re not defending anything. You’re starving a little at a time. And those walls? No one’s even bothering to fix them up, are they? That’s all you have to stop King Olk and ten thousand? You had a look at those, right?”
“Prefer not to,” said the old man.
“You are a girl,” said the man next to Sophie. “You got a boyfriend? ‘Cause if not—!”
“Put that beer down,” said Sophie, her heart racing.
“Put your beer down. Don’t want to spill it, it’s good stuff.”
With a laugh, he set his beer down on the ground. He turned to face her, and here came her right hand, the base of it planting in his forehead. He bowed back, and her left fist was into his belly, He bent over and seemed inclined to have a lie down. She and the old guy caught him and lowered him gently to the ground. When Sophie stood up, the old lady handed her the extra beer.
“Ah, you finish it,” said Sophie. She drank down the rest of hers: yes, she was finding her way to actually liking ale. She set the cup down and found the old couple watching her. “Well,” she said, “this is just what I needed. You folks gonna get out of town?”
“You think we should?” asked the old man. “Wife and me?”
“I’m coming around to that opinion,” said Sophie. “But what do I know?”
Sophie managed to find her way back to the inn and back upstairs. She got into the room without waking Irena, got her boots off, dumped her coat on the floor, set her dad’s sword, no, her sword against the side of the cot and lay down, listening to Irena breathing, snoring a bit. Sophie stilled herself and tried to think calming thoughts. Slowly she calmed.
Did she sense her mother nearby? Or the Shadow Man? Or Father Slumber, who came throwing puffs of dust on the eyes of those who deserved to sleep? No, none of those, although she found herself picturing her mother in the house last summer, her mother rolling out pie crust, her mother smiling as she watched Nell nurse her baby. Sophie longed to long for the old days, longed to long for her mother’s arms.
But much as she longed to long for something that was not there, she could not make herself long for something that was not there. Perhaps this was the surest sign that it was not there. Or perhaps she had been right to think that her mother would only appear to her now if her mother were a ghost. Or perhaps she had been misinformed about the nature of ghosts. Or perhaps the gloom of an October night was just as empty as it seemed to be.
Irena had not taken the position her mother had filled. No, Irena seemed to have taken the vacant position of auntie, left by the death by stroke of her dad’s sister two years ago. Sophie lay thinking of it, remembering Aunt Meg, remembering her mother’s four brothers, remembering her grandmothers, her mom’s mom gone since Sophie was four, her dad’s mom whose scarf she still wore at this moment. She touched it, loose about her neck. And there, as if turning left instead of right in dense woods, she found herself on a long and pointless journey in her head. Many minutes later she still lay thinking, and many minutes after that she woke suddenly, not having realized she had been falling asleep.
Now she had the strongest sense that there was someone in the room, someone other than the softly snoring Irena. She lay there considering: yes, there were two sets of stealthy breaths, one from her faux aunt beside her, and one from near the door.
She slipped out of bed and crouched, listening again. She found the hilt of her sword—it was definitely, doubtlessly her sword now. She crept the two steps to the door. She crouched again. She was face to face with the intruder.
“Dad,” she said.
“Hm? Huh?” said Dad.
“Wake up. What on earth are you doing in here?”
“Huh? Hm? Oh my gosh, Sophie. I must’ve walked in my sleep.”
“You walked, and you came in here, and you decided to sit down on the floor by the door and go back to sleep?”
“Well,” he said, “I couldn’t sleep in there, okay? I’m used to having you there. He, geez, he doesn’t even breathe when he’s asleep. It’s nervewracking. At least Irena breathes.”
“She doesn’t snore as loud as you do, Dad.” They paused and listened to Irena’s soft noises.
Then they both jumped without even getting up—there was a crash next door. Irena jumped up cursing in her own language.
Sophie pushed Dad out of her way, and by the time he was in the door behind her, she was in the next room. There was another crash, and another, and then the moonlight was streaming in through the shutters Sophie had thrown open.
By the time Dad was back with a candle lit from the one in Irena’s room, Sophie and Marthen stood over two men. One was out cold, and one was starting to come around.
“Take that candle, Marthen,” said Sophie. “Dad, help me with this guy.”
“He wants to go out the frickin’ window, Dad. Take it from me. Can you help me give him his wish?”
“He’s not dead, is he?” asked Dad, yielding up the candle and noting the lack of blood about.
“No, Dad, as you can plainly see. I used the butt of the sword. It’s got a lovely bolt down there, it’s great for this sort of thing. Come on, we’re only on the second floor.”
Indeed, the man on the floor was trying to ascend to hands and knees, and not having a great time of it.
Dad looked at Marthen, who was drawn up on the bed clutching his bag. “I think he might need to get whacked again,” said Marthen. “Show him that lovely bolt.”
“No, no, goin’,” said the intruder, stepping over to the window. Dad and Sophie gave him the bum’s rush, and then tossed his still-unconscious friend out after him. They turned, and there was Irena in the door, clutching her own bag.
“Go get mine too,” said Sophie. “We are all sleeping in this room tonight. Is everyone in this town a thief or a perv?”
“A what?” asked Dad.
“Never mind. Jerks.”
And so they all found places to sleep in the one little room, and they slept peacefully enough, until the smell of burning wood woke Sophie just before dawn.
“Damn it! Damn it, damn it!” cried Sophie, jumping up from where she had been sleeping against the door. “Dad, wake up!”
“What? What?” asked Dad. He jumped up from the floor in front of the shuttered window. Marthen and Irena still slept side by side, in their clothes, on the bed. Sophie shook one, then the other by the feet. “Soph,” said Dad, “something burning?”
“You and your amazing intuition,” said Sophie. She threw open the shutters while the other two stirred and Dad fumbled with his bag.
“What’s going on?” asked Marthen groggily.
“Getting out the window,” said Dad, also a bit groggy. “Inn’s on fire.”
“Ah, check that,” said Sophie. “Inn’s not on fire. City is.”
“What??” was the gist of the response from the other three.
“Come on, you guys,” said Sophie, after judging the distance out the window to the street for one second. She turned around, climbed out the window, let herself down until she was hanging by her hands from the sill, and then dropped onto a pile of lumber. It half collapsed, but she kept her footing and looked up. Irena was just dropping, and Sophie half-caught her. They both half-fell off the pile, which further collapsed.
“Great,” said Dad, “now I have further to drop.”
“Get on with it,” Sophie advised. “The next block is on fire and there’s lots of people running in the street.”
“Ah, damn it,” he said, and then he crouched in the window and took a long hop off a short sill. Sophie and Irena jumped forward and managed to slow his fall so that he didn’t quite injure himself. Then they turned to look and Marthen was in the window with his bag. “Well, come on,” Dad called, “we need to get the horses.”
Marthen fidgeted. “Toss the bag down first,” said Sophie. He clearly didn’t want to, so she said, “Just drop it, I’ll catch it, I promise I’ll stay and catch you too. Marthen. Squire Marthen. I promise I will catch you—!” Before she could say “too,” he closed his eyes and let go the bag. She caught it and found it heavier than expected, and she let it slide to the woodpile at her feet, and then she stood and here he came too. He wasn’t that much heavier than his money.
“Whew, thanks,” said Marthen as Sophie set him down. Dad put his bag in his hand. “You know, you could have made off and left me.”
“No we couldn’t,” said Sophie.
“We are leave town, right?” asked Irena.
“Well, it’s on fire,” said Marthen, following Dad further up the side alley.
“Is invaded, Frungans, they come in,” said Irena. “If not already, then soon.”
“She’s right,” said Sophie. “These guys weren’t ready to fight anyway. And the walls on the east and west are just wood. It burns.”
“They were in already,” said Dad. They gathered around him. They were about thirty feet from the other end of the alley, where they could see people crowding in the next street to the north. The crowd was somehow simultaneously milling and being pushed backwards, westwards. Some were stumbling this way, into the alley, but then turning around as if this was not the way to go. Dad gestured to a gaping window above them. “Stable’s through there.”
“What the?” But now she could hear the whinnying, wailing really, of horses, and the sounds of men yelling from through the window. Sophie climbed into the window and dropped down inside. The other three stood looking at the window waiting for her to tell them something, and ten seconds later, a wooden partition, possibly a broken barn door, burst out and there she stood with an axe in her hands. She kept on chopping away what was left of the wall. Dad and Irena and Marthen ran in past her. “God damn wall,” said Sophie, still chopping. “Can’t keep the enemy out. Just gets in the way.” She chopped a few more chops, and then cries from the street nearby got her attention: the crowd was now a race, men and women running all out from right to left, and then several stumbling and being ridden down by men on horses, men with armor and lances.
“Uh, Soph,” said Dad. He was through the opening, leading Horseradish and Daisy; Marthen and Irena were behind him with new horses of their own.
“Go that way,” said Sophie, pointing back up the alley southward. “I’ll be there in a moment.”
Several horsemen had stopped at the alley mouth and were now starting toward her. She ran in through the busted wall of the stable, and in a few seconds was chasing a dozen remaining horses out into the alley, yelling, “Giddap! Giddap! Get going, you! Git! Go!” She managed to goad the horses into heading toward the horsemen, and that thirty feet got very crowded. Then she was running the other way, and trying to pull herself up onto Horseradish. He wasn’t enthusiastic.
“Damn you, you stupid horse,” she shouted, and he stopped fighting her. She was in the saddle before she said, “Sorry, fella, I didn’t mean it.”
“Can we go?” asked Marthen.
“Soph,” called Dad from a little ahead up the alley, “can I have the axe?”
“Oh yeah, sure,” said Sophie. She tossed him the axe. Brandishing it like a sword, he got Daisy to set off at a good careful run, and the others followed. Sophie pulled out her sword, and Marthen pulled out his own long knife, and they headed into the next street.
It was less crowded: the Frungans were already past here on this street. A dozen riders choked the way a block ahead. “That’s the way we want to go,” said Dad. “At least, I—!”
The riders were turning to look their way. Sophie let out a whoop and used her foot to goad Horseradish, who was already on edge, into charging. Her second whoop was much more professional than the first one, and she kept on whooping, swinging her sword around. Dad was behind her, then next to her, on Daisy, his axe swinging; he was whooping it up too, and Irena and Marthen were doing a pretty good job of it themselves. They rode down the Frungans, who dodged into side streets or fell off their horses. Sophie kept right on going until they came to the plaza before the Halls.
There was a battle going on, but it was completely confused. The Halls itself was on fire, as were most of the buildings on the north side of the plaza, and there were dead men all across the stones, and more who would soon be dead, of both sides. Sophie took a moment to consider that she had left this spot just two weeks ago with an army. Then she whooped some more and took off to the left, southward, away from the fighting. The others followed.
It was only when they came to the market just inside the south gate that they encountered enemies, and these were few, half a dozen who had hastened to hold the gate against the defenders. They were already fighting, against a small mob with various weapons, and the riders were not having a good time of it. The new entrants charged in and everyone separated. Sophie managed to get in a couple of whacks at a retreating Frungan with an uncooperative horse, and then her own horse carried her right out of the gate and into the night.
They kept riding for several minutes, and then they were clattering across a short wooden bridge. It crossed a stream of some sort. The riders gathered on the other side.
“Who the hell are you guys?” asked Sophie. There were not four riders now: there were ten or twelve. She picked out Dad, and Irena and Marthen, and there were several more men and at least two more women. One had a baby.
A young guy near her on a skinny horse said, “Guess I got caught up in the enthusi-whatchamacallit.”
“Enthusiasm,” said the woman with the baby.
“Yeah, that thing,” said the young man.
Sophie looked around them again. She counted up: three more women, five more men, a baby. Two of the men looked like they were with the city guard or whatever one wanted to call it; another was an old man with an old woman, not the couple from the tavern; the young man who was caught up in the enthusiasm looked like a farm boy; the woman with the baby just looked like she had been through a lot. The baby was not more than a couple of months old.
They were watching Merrivan burn. The fine stone south gate was now surrounded by structures on fire, and the buildings in the center of town were going up in a spectacular way. The noise was like demons stage-whispering to each other and pelting each other with bricks. Above, the starry firmament was breaking out from a thin cloud cover: the wee hours of a lovely night. They could hear shouts and cries and the sounds of animals wailing. People were coming out of the city, but they didn’t seem to be getting this far: there was commotion over there, and Sophie supposed that the men on horses were using their swords and spears and lances on the poor would-be refugees.
“Soph,” said Dad, “this is quite the spectacle, I mean, it’s definitely not something you see every day, but maybe we should cut this short and move along a bit?”
“Yes, exactly,” said Marthen. “Where do you suppose lodging is for the rest of the night?”
“There’s not that much left of it,” said Dad. “The night, I mean. Tell you what, though. Let’s get down the road to Killifar a bit and make camp when it’s light, rest a bit, see what we want to do then. You all up for a bit of a ride?” Everyone nodded or said something like yes. His eyes landed last on Irena, next to him, watching the city burn with a far away look. She turned her glance to him and nodded.
“You gonna be okay?” Sophie asked the woman with the baby.
“Yeah,” she replied in an accent that was pure Merrivan. “We’re fine.”
Behind them, the folk of Merrivan were steadily emerging into the fields south of town. They didn’t seem to have any further idea of the future but to get out of the way of the flames and the men with swords. The Frungan cavalry began to encircle the city within the next hour, and it was around dawn when King John and his southern supporters emerged in a group, and only then was there any sort of battle. Sophie and her companions didn’t see it.
The twelve riders turned from the smoke and flames and disaster and followed the road south. It was a real road here, wide enough for the largest cart, wide enough in places for two large carts to pass each other. Slowly the light rose in the sky. There were farms around here, but every house and barn had been torched. After riding for three hours, an hour into the day, they saw a track to the right and the sod roof of an intact house.
It was empty, recently abandoned. There were clay bowls and a few wooden spoons and one big heavy iron cooking pot on an iron rack by the fireplace, there were five identifiable beds, there was a table and a couple of benches. Three of the four windows had working shutters and both doorways had useable doors, though the back door was completely off its hinges. The twelve riders filed around back, following Dad’s lead, and there dismounted and tied their horses to a bit of railing. Sophie left Horseradish on his own recognizance. They all went inside.
“Nice place,” said Marthen. “Wonder where the residents are.”
“They’re in the bleeping city,” said the woman with the baby. She was standing by the fireplace, nursing her child. “Everyone went there to be bleeping safe. They’re safe all right. Safe in the bleeping grave. Someone get a fire started?”
“Yeah, yes, sure,” said the enthusiastic young man.
“I’ll help,” said both the guardsmen.
The rest of the discussion went on lazily. Marthen wandered to the front door, and Sophie and Dad followed him. He had it open a little and was looking toward the road.
They heard noise from there, noise of the passage of many horses, and some cries of men. After a minute, the noise diminished toward the south. Marthen turned away after a moment, walked into the middle of the room and cleared his throat.
“The King has departed from Merrivan,” he said. “I believe he is taking a bit of a sabbatical in the South.”
This news was greeted with little enthusiasm. Most of the people at the house were inclined to have a good lie down. The nursing mom had some suggestions, which she instinctively put to Sophie, with Dad paying close attention. The enthusiastic young man stood near with a goofy grin.
“My name is Emma,” said the woman, who seemed to be about twenty. She had straight dark hair and sharp blue eyes. She was thin, as they all were, but wiry. She was tall for a woman, but not to compare with Sophie. “This is Matty. Matilda.”
“Hi Matty,” said Sophie. Matty paid no attention, being nine tenths asleep in view of Emma’s mostly-covered breast.
“Listen,” said Emma. “Here’s what we need. We’re all hungry, okay? No one thought to bring food, I bet. I have a little wine, that’s it, and a bit of cheese, but we need something more. If you can hunt, I can make a stew that’ll knock your socks off. Seriously.”
“Okay,” said Sophie, “so we also need wood for the fireplace.”
“That was my second item,” said Emma. “We need wood. Now I can’t be a lot of help, I wish I could, but at least I can cook.”
“It’s fine,” said Dad. “You need anything like spices, vegetables? Might find something this time of year.”
“They got taters here in the garden,” said the older woman. “The former folks here never got a chance to dig them up, but we can do that.”
“Well,” said Dad, “sounds like we got ourselves a stone soup.”
“Yes, very nice,” said Emma. “A lot of work goes into one of those stone soups.” She looked around: most of the others were lying on the floor napping. “And these are going to need feeding, and they better show some energy or they bleeping get left here. So, do we make stone soup every day for the rest of the winter and spring? How’s that work?”
Irena cut in and said, “I dig up garden, I help cook, we make good soup, Emma, no stone.”
Emma gave her a look, then said, “Okay, good, that’s the kind of response we need.”
“Why don’t you ladies do the cooking,” said the goofy young man, “and this Sophie and me, we go hunt up something?”
Sophie gave Emma and Irena a long look, then turned fast and grabbed the young man by the shirt. She practically carried him out the back door. “Take care of the horses, you,” she said to him, throwing him into the back yard. She came back in and prodded one of the guardsmen, who seemed inclined to watch her, with her boot. “You two can gather some firewood. Are ya up to that much work?”
“Yeah, oh yeah,” they said, getting up and backing away from her.
Sophie grinned at Emma and Irena. She said to Dad, “Do you want to hunt?”
“Since you ask so nicely,” he replied.
So they hunted. It wasn’t hard. In an hour of cloudy chill daylight they brought down three big rabbits and two pheasants. They could have had peasant as well: over the course of the morning, hundreds of refugees wandered down the road away from Merrivan. Many of them saw the house, saw Dad and Sophie, saw people in the house waving at them, and just put their heads down and kept trudging.
“Ah, we don’t want them anyway,” said Dad. “We got enough mouths to feed. And enough work making sure they work. That Emma’s a kick, though, ain’t she?”
“Her kid’s gonna know some interesting vocabulary,” said Sophie. She held up the pheasants, which they had just shot out of the air side by side. “Is this all enough, this and the bunny rabbits?”
“Oh, for today,” said Dad. “Then what, is what I’d want to know.”
“Well,” said Sophie, “we’re going to Killifar, I guess.”
“I guess,” said Dad. “If only we had a really decent option. But we haven’t had a huge number of decent options ever since King John lost that battle, and I mean the one last year.”
“Okay,” said Sophie. “I guess we get that stew started. And then we have some stuff to talk about.”
They made a stew. Irena and Emma were already at work on the broth, with water they found in a cistern, tubers the old couple dug up in the garden and herbs they found here and there. Dad and Sophie cleaned and cut up the meat and roasted it a little before throwing it into the broth with the bigger bones. They let the whole thing boil, and they looked at each other: father and daughter, mother and child, husband and wife, widowed refugee and former quartermaster. Then they looked at the other five people in the house: two guardsmen, two younger men, middle-aged woman, all lying on the floor taking it easy. The woman and the guardsmen had their eyes open, staring at the ceiling.
“What I want to know,” said Emma, “is what you all want. What do you want?” The middle-aged woman and the guardsmen looked at her without moving. “You,” said Emma, pointing at the older of the two guardsmen. “What do you want?”
“Me?” He laughed a little. “Nothing.” She kept staring at him, and he rolled away, but then he rolled onto his knees and got up with a groan. Sophie was about to say something, but Emma held up her hand. The man stood there sheepish, and then he said, “I guess I want to find someplace safe to start over, you know?”
“Yeah, I know,” said Emma.
“That’s what I want too,” said the middle-aged woman. “Lost my husband in the war, lost my son, my daughter died of fever last winter.”
“Wow,” said Sophie. “What have you been doing?”
“Cleaning the King’s Guard’s latrines,” she said. “I don’t miss it.”
“So,” said Emma, hoisting Matty up onto her shoulder still asleep, “would it be safe to say we all want to get away to somewhere nice and safe where we can start fresh and have plenty to eat and be safe and so on?”
By now all the people in the room were standing up. The goofy young man was sniffing the stew at a distance, and smiling about it.
“Look,” said Sophie, “we really need to know where we’re going after this. I don’t think staying here is an option. Okay? We need to decide what we want to do. And if you don’t want to do what I want to do, that’s fine, we just need to know so we can have a nice farewell party or something. So what do you all want to do? Where are you from, and where do you think you’re going?”
“Well,” said the elder guardsman, “where are you all going?”
“Me?” Dad replied.
“You and your kid and her,” he said, indicating Emma, “and Master Marthen and all.”
“I don’t actually know,” said Marthen, “but I gather I was invited to accompany Master John here and his daughter Sophie to Killifar, where they have family. I don’t think I have the authority to extend the invitation to all and sundry.”
“No,” said Dad, “but I think we ought to think about the possibility that we all head that way, together. I mean, I want to know more about you people, but I don’t see anyone here I think would not deserve a, what did you say? Safe place to start fresh? I don’t know if it’s Killifar—!”
“Look,” said the latrine-cleaning woman, “I don’t care where it is. This one,” she said, waving a hand at Sophie, “wherever she’s a-going, I’m a-going. I feel kinda safe around her, know what I mean?”
“I know exactly what you mean,” said Marthen.
“Me too,” said the two guardsmen, echoed a second late by the goofy young man.
“What the heck?” asked Sophie.
“Face it, Sophia,” said Marthen. “I can honestly say that I feel safer around you and your old man. You can be very persuasive for a what, eighteen-year-old?”
“Sixteen,” said Sophie. “I still don’t know what you mean.”
“Okay, look,” said Emma, putting Matty up on her shoulder and thumping her back lightly. Just as Emma was about to say something, Matty burped. “Anyway,” said Emma. “Here I am. No husband, no home, no mom and dad, no city. We had a little farm, part of my folks’ farm, on the north side of Merrivan. It got raided a few days ago, and let’s just say that Matty and I are the only ones who got out alive.”
“Oh, Emma,” said Sophie.
“You’re sure?” asked the old lady. “Maybe—!”
“I’m sure.” Emma stopped, very serious, then looked up half smiling, her eyes glistening. “And now even Merrivan’s been sacked. I bet they burned that bleeper to the ground. Ah, bleep.” She composed herself; the swearing seemed to help. “So here we are,” she said, “me and my daughter, and—well,” and then she shook her head. “Augh. It’s bad.” She shook her head again, and looked up, and not a tear had fallen. She smiled. “And I know I am not going to settle down in some other place with some guy and make him my new husband and have a lovely new family. Not, you know, without a lot of other stuff happening. You understand? You all understand?”
“I do,” said the old man. “Me and my Kate, we just settled in after we got chased off our farm by Tenna. Priest of the Virgin let us settle in at her place, now she’s probably gone and we’re out here on the road again. We can’t just live out on the road, not us, but we can work good and hard.”
“Yeah,” said Emma, “that’s the whole thing. I can work. I will work. I want to know what I’m working to build. Because this stew is nice, but it’ll be gone in a day or two tops, and then what? We can’t stay here, Frungans and Kug and—you’re not Frungan, are you, Ir—?”
“Irena,” said Irena. “Not Frungan, thanks much for to ask. Am Yetva. Am run away from Frungan and also Kug.”
“Anyone got a problem with Irena?” asked Dad. “Because I can tell you she’s been damn useful to us, and I trust her with my life. Right, Soph?”
“Yeah,” said Sophie. “I trust her, I trust you. You remember you said there was no one in the world I could trust, except that I could trust you? Well, I guess that’s expanded a little. Irena saved my life with that rock—!”
“Only as you save my life with arrow,” said Irena. “Two, three time? More maybe.”
“Who’s counting?” And she commenced to count anyway. “I trust you. I trust Dad. I trust Marthen. I think I trust Emma. I’m pretty close to trusting Kate and, um—?”
“Arthur,” said the old man from up near Tenna.
“So what are we going to do?” asked Emma. “You said Killifar. Any hope there?”
“Do you think the Kug will stop with Tenna?” asked the goofy young man, not looking at all goofy all of a sudden. “Do you think King Olk will stop with Merrivan?”
“Who knows about Olk,” said Marthen. “But if I may, I don’t see any reason the Kug would settle for Tenna. It wasn’t much for them, just an appetizer or something. And Merrivan won’t be much now that Olk got there first. Killifar’s the biggest town left in the west of the kingdom, they’ll want to go grab it before its wealth all runs away. Don’t you think so, Irena?”
“Yes,” said Irena. “Gama Kug, he will get under hand all gangs in Tenna, he will stretch arm out to next good fruit.”
“Is that our only choice then?” asked the middle-aged woman. “Can’t we head south like the King?”
“Olk’s aimed that way,” said Marthen. “And Helark’s not going to hand out land to you all to farm on, they’d let you starve if they didn’t think you were okay with cleaning their latrines.”
“Not going to Helark,” said Dad. “Going to Helark means we’re no longer even in our own country. Tell me, Irena. How do you like not being in your own country?”
“Is better now,” said Irena, “but mostly? It sucks.”
“What it comes down to,” said Sophie, “is that we need to find a place we can make a stand, start over like you guys said, but also defend ourselves. And maybe Killifar could be that place, or maybe somewhere up in the hills.”
“Well, I’m in,” said the goofy young man. “My name’s Padric, I’m from Merrivan myself.”
“Yeah, I’m Otho,” said the older of the two town guards, “and this is Edmar Crane, and we don’t got no tie to nowhere now as our, um, employer is kind of, how you say it, defunct.”
“That’s a fact,” said the younger guard, Edmar.
“I’m in,” said the middle-aged lady. “If you all could use the royal under latrine cleaner, you can count on Aedith, she’s a hard worker, I’m a hard worker. Lost my husband and son and daughter last year and this, and my dogs too, guess that makes me starting over.”
“Like a lot of us,” said Otho.
“Like me,” said the other young man, who had stood silent in the back all the time. They all looked at him and he stooped as if to hide in his own shadow. But he pulled himself up after a moment and said, “My name’s Ulf. I was in that battle up the Vara couple weeks ago. I’m here. I’m in.”
“Okay, so,” said Sophie, “I’m used to traveling with just Dad. We make a good team. We added Irena, and we’re still a good team, I always seem to know what they’re thinking and they know what I’m thinking. Marthen, we saved from some guys, he’s part of the team. Can we do that with what, twelve people? Thirteen, if you count Matty?” She was caught by Matty’s unfocused gaze. “You count as a half, don’t you, cutie?”
“Sure, we can do that,” said Otho, the older guard. “We’ll find out,” said his colleague Edmar.
“Let me see,” said Emma, hoisting Matty high onto her shoulder, holding her with her right hand and taking her left hand away. She looked at Sophie. She had a long knife in her left hand. It was basic and black, and it looked sharp. Everyone was watching her. She raised her left hand and pulled it down, letting the knife go. It flew briefly and stuck well into a wall support eight feet from her, right next to the not so goofy Padric.
After a moment of respectful silence, Padric said, “I want you on my side.”
“My husband and my three-year-old son,” she said, “they were burned up in the house. The Frungans shot my dad dead in the front yard. My mom, three others, maybe four, all neighbors or related, they slew with their swords. I used to throw the knife just for fun. My dad thought it was funny. Priest in the village was worried I was a devil child because I was a lefty. She would’ve pooped if she’d seen me throw a knife. Well, if we’re just going somewhere quiet, I’m not sure I’m in. If we’re fighting for that quiet life, yeah. I’m all the way in.” Matty started to fuss, and Emma turned her attention to whispering to the child.
“Let me tell you,” said Sophie. “I killed what, seven guys with arrows? One with a sword. Every one of them were going to kill me if they could. This is not a nice world. This is a world where we have to fight for a place to, for a place for that baby of yours to grow up safe and happy. It’s not what we wanted, but it’s what we got.”
Emma put out her left hand, then switched baby arms and put her right hand out. Sophie took it and they shook. The young men let out a cheer, and it turned into general applause. Emma shook Dad’s hand, Sophie hugged Irena, and they all had a good round of greetings. They exchanged a little banter.
“Food’s ready,” said old Kate, peering into the stew. She had a spoon in her hand.
The crowd in the house found they had among them four bottles of wine, mostly full, and a couple of wine skins and three various-sized flasks of various kinds of brandy. The stew was very tasty, and the second bowls were better than the first. The tired respite in the abandoned house, having turned into a tense meeting, became a fairly polite party. Padric and Edmar both tried, a little, to hit on Sophie, but she didn’t even have to slug them. Places to sleep were eventually found. Dad and old Arthur, Kate’s husband, went around the house finding ways to shutter the windows, while Kate and Aedith and Otho worked out bedding. There were just about enough blankets to go around.
Sophie was sitting out front around midnight watching the nearly full moon and the stars when Emma came out with a fussy Matty. She nursed her a little, then changed the rag that was serving her for underwear, and then nursed her some more.
“Lovely night,” said Emma. “Not a cloud.”
“Big Bear, Queen of Heaven, Huntress and Hound, Bull,” said Sophie. “Venus, no, that has to be Jupiter, the Wandering King, you know.”
“Emma, have you ever heard of the Shadow Man?”
Emma smiled at the stars. She didn’t say anything for a minute. Then she said, “I heard that story. He can’t move in the light, he hides in the shadow, and if you see him, he takes you. No. I never believed in that. I believed in the Virgin and her son.” She looked at Sophie, her eyes glittering in the moonlight. “Now I’m not so sure I didn’t have it backwards.”
Sophie smiled at her, then at Matty, nursing. She leaned close and sniffed Matty’s head. “Love me some baby smell,” said Sophie.
“Going to be ready to head out tomorrow early?” asked Emma.
“Don’t know about early,” said Sophie. “But we shouldn’t stay here. I just feel like we’re in danger still. Maybe it’s just habit.”
“No, it’s not,” said Emma. “Maybe King Olk just came down here to squash King John. Check that off the list. But he’s not going to turn around instantly and go home. He’s in control of the Merrivan valley, and he might as well stay here till winter comes at least, he can get home okay even if there’s some snow and cold, but if he goes away too soon, he must figure King John will come right back with his Southerners.”
“Why don’t they come back anyway and put him on the throne again, if they like him so much?”
“They tried to prop him up,” said Emma. “Didn’t work so well, did it? There, baby, let’s work on the other side.” She laughed as she switched Matty over. “Listen to us. The women folk. Talkin’ strategy!” She reached out her free right hand and took Sophie’s left hand.
“I hate to say it,” said Sophie, “but I think we’re running the show. You and me.”
“And your dad.”
“And Irena, but they’re both tired, Dad’s tired. He hasn’t really accepted that Mom is gone, not yet. Not sure I have, but, but he definitely hasn’t.”
“You don’t know if she’s dead.”
“We don’t. We tried to go up to Mudwick, village where I was born, don’t laugh! It’s called that because it’s on the Muddy River. We tried to go there and Kug were all over. I had to, um, shoot four of them. Six of them. Seven—geez, one does lose count.”
“So you’re a soldier.”
“Yeah, but in what army?”
“So we have an army here,” said Emma. “It’s not a big army, and it’s got moms and old men and even a baby, but we have an army.”
“I don’t like armies,” said Sophie. “I hate frickin’ armies.”
“So do I,” said Emma, looking down at Matty happily nursing, her tiny hand stretched out into Emma’s dark hanging hair. “But this army’s kind of different.”
By the time the October sun was up, Sophie, Emma, Irena, Dad, the older guardsman Otho, and the old folks Kate and Arthur were all up having mint tea and leftover stew. Matty was asleep again after her predawn nursing.
Marthen, lying on the floor wrapped in a blanket, rolled a few times and tried to stay asleep. Finally he got up, smiled blearily at the others, and went outside to pee. He came back in and started kicking the young men.
“Wakey wakey,” he said, “wakey wakey, soldier boys, there’s horsemen on the road and I don’t think they’re our guys.”
“What??” said Sophie jumping up.
“Yeah,” he said, moving to prod Aedith with his boot. “They went past on the road, then came back up and I think they’re sort of searching the farms around. Maybe they’re foraging. If King Olk’s got ten thousand coming, yes, they’ll need to.”
“Bleep, Marthen,” said Emma, getting up, hoisting Matty onto her right shoulder. “We need to get the bleep out of here. Come on, up and at ‘em, you bleeping—!”
The old folks got up and started dishing as much of the stew as they could into the relatively portable bowls and mugs that had been left in the house. Dad, Marthen and Emma got the others up and moving, and by the time they were all packed, Sophie and Irena had the horses more or less ready. Perhaps twenty minutes after Marthen had gone out to relieve himself, the twelve horses had people on them.
“This track,” said Dad, “it doesn’t go anywhere, it peters out just over the hill west, that’s where Soph and I bagged those bunnies.”
“Well, we can’t very well go back to the main road,” said Emma.
Ulf, the quiet young man, had strayed on his thin mare back toward the south side of the little house, and stood looking over the hedge toward the road. Just as Sophie looked his way, he ducked and turned his horse to hustle back to the group.
“Let’s book it,” he said, not slowing as he caught up with the others. He hurried on up the lane, and they followed. Indeed, over the hill, the track disappeared into a meadow, and indeed, as Sophie looked back from the top of the hill, from near the back of the group, she saw horsemen coming around the sod-roofed house, filing through a gap in the hedge. She hurried to catch up, and just like Ulf, she rode through the rest and onward without slowing down.
“They’re at the house,” she said as loudly as she dared. “I didn’t see if they were following.”
The others did not ask why the men on horseback would even bother following. Sophie and Dad led them across the meadow and into the woods again, and Marthen and Otho and Ulf put in noticeable effort making sure everyone didn’t just scatter. They crashed through the forest’s opening tangle, and then they were in the corridors of a deep wood. It began deciduous, with colorful maples and golden birches and brown to red oaks and much undergrowth, and then it went over to tall green white pines. They rode, roughly two by two, for another hour, and presently found themselves following a stream west and northwest into rising hill country. They came to a place where a trail of sorts forded the stream.
“To the left,” said Dad. “I don’t know the trail or anything, but that’s definitely the way to Killifar.”
“How far are we?” asked Marthen.
“Us?” Dad looked around. “I’d say we can do it by tomorrow night, if we can make a straight line from here to there.”
“This forest stretches across the hills a ways,” said Ulf. “Used to go hunting up here, me and my paw and his paw. But I figure we’ll be camping under the trees tonight.”
“I don’t give a bleep,” said Emma, taking the chance to nurse Matty, “just so they’re not on fire.”
“So,” asked Marthen, looking left and right along the trail, “what’s the likelihood that someone will be coming along here? Like, say, an army?”
“On this trail?” Dad replied. “A, they’d move pretty slow, and B, we’d smell them a mile away.”
“I’m good with this,” said Emma. “You okay with this, Matty girl?”
“All righty,” said old Kate, “just so you promise we ain’t lost.”
“Not promising anything,” Dad replied. “But if we’re lost, we’re lost together.”
The group, or miniature army, or whatever they were, had a very nice ride the rest of a warm mid-fall afternoon in sun-dappled woods. The track, whatever it was, persisted, wandering mostly southwest, fording several medium-size watercourses. There was not a settlement to be seen, though they saw two old campsites with old campfire sites. They did not adopt a consistent order, but they mostly rode two by two, and mostly with Sophie and Dad in front, Emma and Ulf right behind them, and mostly with Padric and Edmar in back. Ulf seemed to know the area somewhat; Emma seemed to think her executive involvement was important; and Padric and Edmar seemed to be effective at keeping a watch behind them.
With the Sun halfway down the sky, they came to a third old campsite, a clearing large enough to suggest a former house site. Nothing else about it suggested a dwelling: there was no sign of foundation, no rotted piling or chimney base or kitchen midden. There was a ring of low stones surrounding a nice place for a campfire, obviously used but obviously not used recently.
“Couple hours of daylight left,” said Dad. “Let’s have a couple of twos go out hunting, and the rest of you get to put together a nice little homestead for our sleeping pleasure.”
“Okey doke,” said Sophie. “You and me?”
“Seems the obvious thing. Who else?” He looked at Ulf. “You want to hunt?”
“Sure,” said Ulf. He looked around at the others. “You hunt?” he asked Edmar.
“It’s been a while,” said the young guardsman.
“Just walk quiet,” said Dad, “and if you see something edible, shoot it. You got a bow?”
“Crap, yeah,” said Otho. “He can take mine.”
When Ulf and Edmar returned to camp, Edmar had a cut on his forehead and a bad scrape on his knee, but he and Ulf were dragging a young buck. The women made fun of Edmar, the city boy, but Otho slapped him on the back and Irena set about salving his wounds. Emma and Aedith and Kate, and also Ulf, set about cleaning the beast and setting him up to roast.
Sophie and her dad were well into the woods, on foot in the piny corridors, before they said anything. “So, new army, huh?” said Sophie.
“What? Oh,” said Dad. “You mean all our new best friends. Gonna be hard getting used to. And I do wonder what Master Perkin Paton is going to think of his father-in-law and sister-in-law and a bunch of folk from away showing up in his front yard. He’s a man of some class, you know, your sister married possibly a bit above herself.”
“No way,” said Sophie. “He just thinks she married above herself. And by now, I’m guessing Marge has let him know full well what the facts are.” They walked some distance and she said, “You think you can find your way around in these woods? They’re not like back home. This all looks so different that it all looks the same to me, know what I mean?”
“I know what you mean, but,” said Dad, “I am not going to have difficulty finding our way back, because I am an excellent tracker. As I said before, daughter, I have not taught you all my tricks or you wouldn’t need me anymore.”
“Oh, I’ll need you.” They walked some distance and it still all looked the same to her: rocks buried in moss, fallen trees now soft with moss, the feel of moss under their feet, the feel of pine needles a foot deep under their feet, spider webs across the way which Dad cleared with a wave of his little bow. The spiders seemed to be the largest animals awake at this time of day: the woods were almost echoing with silence. Sophie said, “I do wonder what Margery will think of all this.”
Dad had gotten a little way ahead. He stopped on what seemed to be a slight rise in the forest floor. He waited, holding a hand up. Sophie joined him, quiet as a cat. Several hundred feet ahead, four deer moved and grazed and moved again.
“Too far,” he whispered.
They watched for a minute. “Well?” whispered Sophie. “Do we get closer?”
“Sure,” he whispered back, “let’s—!” But just then there was a faint whistle from beyond the deer, and one of them went down. The other three took off, but one more fell a second later. A second after that, Sophie and Dad were backing off the rise and very quietly taking to their heels.
Dad and Sophie got back to camp and found the roast just getting started. Irena and Emma were clearly in charge; everyone was getting stuff done and having a good time doing it. Aedith was cooking; old Kate was walking around chatting with Matty, who was gawking at all and sundry; Otho and Arthur were involved in an old guy conversation of some sort; Ulf and Padric were talking as they cooked, and sharing something from Padric’s flask. Sophie and her dad stood on the edge of the clearing, both wondering if they should just pretend they hadn’t seen what they had seen.
“Nothing, hunters?” said Aedith, noticing them as she made up a sauce of some sort from wine and herbs. “Fortunately the young fellas got enough for everyone.”
“Uh, listen,” said Dad, “we weren’t the only ones out hunting deer tonight.”
Everyone stopped: Kate in mid stir, Ulf and Otho in the middle of turning a side of venison, Irena in the middle of applying more salve to Edmar’s forehead.
“Kug,” said Sophie. She looked at Dad. “We were what, maybe a mile from here?”
“Well,” said Marthen, who had been discussing management issues of some sort with Emma in the middle of the camp, “they’re foraging too, right? Not scouting? Did they see you?”
“The question is,” said Emma, “do we need to move on or can we stay the night?”
Dad and Sophie looked at each other. “I dunno,” said Dad. He took a breath. “I think we can stay the night, just so we get off early tomorrow. Can we get off early tomorrow?”
“Did they see you?” asked Emma.
“No,” said Sophie. “They definitely did not see us.”
“Is this a good idea?” Emma asked.
They all looked at each other. “I think it’ll be fine,” said Marthen. “Let’s make sure the fire don’t smoke much,” said Otho. “Matty don’t cry a lot, that’s good,” said Kate.
“We’ll have to keep double watch,” said Sophie, “and also scout a bit. Dad? You want to scout, or me, or both of us?”
“You scout,” said Dad. “Take Irena. Maybe she can understand what they’re saying.”
“Okay,” said Irena. “Maybe take one of young guy too, can shoot if need.”
“Okay,” said Sophie, “good point. Ulf. You busy?”
“Naw,” said the young man, “Pad can handle this all.”
The rest of the camp noticeably quieted as Sophie, Irena and Ulf made off on foot into the woods. They turned around once they were just a short distance into the forest, and the camp was already hard to see and harder to hear. Sophie smiled at her two companions, and then put a finger on her lips and turned to lead them onward.
She had only the vaguest sense of landmarks, but presently they came down into a dry streambed that looked familiar only once they were standing in it. Sophie made a guess and took them left, and they followed it, grimacing every time they stepped on sticks. They walked what must have been several miles, and as the dark deepened, they stopped, had some water and turned around without a word. Sophie had not gone so long without saying a word (while awake) in months.
They were almost back to where they had come to the streambed. Ahead of them they could all see something, and then Irena put her hand on Sophie’s arm. What Sophie could see resolved into parts of several horses, glimpsed in twilight through branches.
There were at least three horses, drinking, and two men on them, and a third standing by the stream, looking at the ground.
Sophie heard a noise next to her. Ulf was putting an arrow on the string.
She put her hand up, palm out toward him. Then she drew her own bow and strung an arrow. The men on horseback were still chatting, and the one on the ground was still looking around.
An arrow flew from next to her. She saw it arc over the man on the ground and just miss one of the horses. Ulf cursed mildly.
The three men all went to alert. The man on the ground got back toward his horse, and the other two got arrows loose. Both missed. Sophie’s arrow passed them and took one of the horsemen in the chest. He fell slowly back from his horse, which bolted.
Two more arrows flew their way. One missed, and one made a whistle-thunk, and just as Ulf was suppressing a grunt of pain, his own second arrow hit the man on the ground, who was trying to get onto his horse. The third man turned and started his horse away down the streambed.
Sophie turned to look at Ulf, who was struggling with an arrow embedded in his right shoulder. Irena stopped him struggling and set about extracting it with her knife. It was impressive how quietly the two of them, medicine woman and wounded man, sat him down and set to work.
Sophie did not stay to watch. She sprang out into the open, ran ten paces up the streambed and planted herself on a flat rock. The remaining horseman was climbing up onto the far bank, forty yards away. Her second arrow flew on a type of arc that would, in some number of centuries, be thoughtfully considered by analytic geometers.
She came back to the other two five minutes later with her arrows and Ulf’s. “He okay?”
“They were scouts,” said Sophie to the others as they sat around the fire (low and smokeless) and ate hunks of venison. “Kug scouts. Yes, we made sure they weren’t going to report back.”
“She made sure,” said Ulf. “Sophie made sure. That girl’s a good shot.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” said Dad.
“And this lady’s good with that sauce of hers.”
“Is not sauce,” said Irena. “Sauce is if we eat you. You are not meat yet.” She laughed and slapped him on his unwounded shoulder. He smiled painfully.
“So I ask again,” said Emma, “can we stay here tonight?”
“Yes,” said Sophie. “Yes. Yes. I bought us that much.”
Emma sighed and rolled her eyes and Matty fussed. “I think Emma raises a valid point,” said Marthen. “Are we sure we’re okay?”
“No fire tonight,” said Dad. “No noise. We get going before light if possible. And we set double watches during the night. First watch, me and Edmar Crane. Till the moon is straight overhead. Then Otho and Aedith. You okay with that, latrine lady?”
“I’m okay with you not calling me that, too,” said Aedith.
“Okey doke. Till the moon is halfway down. Then Sophie and Marthen. Emma, you make triple watch whenever you’re up with that kid of yours. Obviously, try to keep her quiet.”
“If she makes a noise,” said Emma, “I will stuff a tit in her mouth.”
“Okay,” said Dad. “I think we’re good.” They all looked around.
In the dim firelight, they were all just shadows, Shadow Men and Shadow Women. Sophie thought of the men she had killed in just the past week of her life. Shadow Woman indeed. “Where do they all come from,” she said to herself.
“Who?” asked Dad.
“All those Kug I just killed. I’m like the Kug Angel of Death.”
“Don’t you worry,” said Irena. “They make plenty more.”
They ate and drank for a while, and then they all laid out whatever they had for blankets or bed rolls and tried to sleep. Sophie was sure she wouldn’t be able to, lying on a blanket laid over some moss and leaves, with rocks poking through as she rolled around. But presently she was awakened by Aedith, over whose head was a narrow round realm of stars hemmed in by black treetops. “Wake up, Sophie girl,” said Aedith. “It’s your turn.”
Sophie rolled over and got to her feet. She took a breath and let it out: she could just barely see the mist of it in the starlight and a slant of nearly full moon from the west through the trunks. She looked at Aedith, a stout dark figure in the gloom. “Anything interesting happen?” she rasped.
“Moose wandered up,” said Aedith. “Had a look, took off. Otho thought about taking a shot at it, but I told him we’d just have to lug it.”
“Wise,” said Sophie. She took another breath, steadily waking. “Get some rest, Aedith,” she said.
“Oh, I could sleep in a tree, dearie. Maybe I should, with these Kug about. Night night.”
Sophie began to walk around the clearing, shaking out her arms and legs. She found a man standing, his legs apart: Marthen, peeing. She turned and went the other way. She was standing a little way off when he came up and stood next to her. “Nice starry night,” he said. “Cold as a witch’s whatnot. You need to relieve yourself?”
“Come to think of it,” said Sophie, and she made off into the darkness. To her mind, she was crashing through the undergrowth like a dozen drunken bears, finding her way through black tree branches and black bushes in the blackness. But then she got to spend a minute or two enjoying one of Nature’s great opportunities for meditation. Even once she was done, her pants pulled back up and re-buttoned, she stood in the nighted wood, listening to the little sounds that would have been covered by even the slightest conversation. After a few minutes, she came back to camp. “Nothing out there but mice,” she said.
“You say,” said Marthen, “but a spider as big as my hand ran right over my boot in the moonlight just now. I was absolutely frozen with fear. I must have twitched, because the poor thing took fright as well and, um, rather booked it, as the young fellows would say. I suppose it was rather repulsed by the thought of me.”
“It’s just trying to live a life, and not get trampled,” said Sophie. “Not so different from us.”
They chatted for some minutes, and then by some sort of mutual agreement, they wandered a quarter turn in opposite directions and took up positions at opposite ends of camp. Sophie sat on the ground until it was too cold or crampy to stay there, then she stood up and stretched and walked a bit, and then sat down again, and so on for the next several hours. She listened. She gazed into the woods. She saw things there that were not there, just shapes made inside her mind, and after an hour she had learned to factor them out.
She thought that what was left would be the Shadow Man. There he would be, once she learned to eliminate all the rest of the noise, standing in the forest facing her, dark except, perhaps, for his eyes, which would burn through the gloom and into her soul. But that would only be if he was here for her. Perhaps he was not here for any of them yet, not even for Ulf, bandaged and salved and resting well enough. Perhaps he was only following them, waiting for tomorrow, waiting for tomorrow night, waiting for the next moment of truth, waiting for the fell winter.
But then she began to think it was her mother, there in the forest just a few yards from her, not waiting, not pleading, not hoping or cursing, just watching her, as she used to watch Sophie playing in the yard or riding the fence line or reading or practicing her letters. She sighed.
Sophie heard a noise behind her. It was Emma, and Matty, and the baby was making small unhappy noises, the preface to a real wail. Emma was a good mom, though. This time, at least, Matty would not get to wail. Emma was changing her underwear again: she had cleaned her three extras, last night or this morning, in the house, and let them dry while riding. Sophie watched the process, wondering, not for the first or last time, if she would ever want a baby of her own.
Emma finished, then brought the baby over to where Sophie stood. Emma could read minds, evidently, because she said, “They’re a lot of trouble. They’re totally worth it, but they are a lot of trouble. So don’t go wishing for a baby without realizing there are downsides.”
“Oh, I know,” said Sophie. “Sit down?”
“Yeah, I have to nurse,” said Emma. She sat down, and Sophie went and got her blanket and sat down against her, wrapping it around both of them.
“You lost a son, didn’t you?”
Emma looked high above her at the little circular universe of stars. Matilda was nursing happily, but reached a hand up to Emma’s cheek, and Emma looked down to make baby talk to her. Then she looked at Sophie and said, “My son. John. Just like your dad. My dad was named John too. My husband was Rob. The men in my life, I used to say.” She laughed. “I loved Johnny Jack, that’s what I called him. We would dance. We’d sing together.”
“My oldest brother was named Jack,” said Sophie. “Is. Maybe.”
“But I miss my mom the most, I think of her the most,” said Emma.
“Me too. I was just—I was just thinking.”
Emma looked at her with a sort of smile. They could see each other’s faces now: dawn was more than an hour away, but a little light was starting to show. “What was your mom like?”
“She was quiet, she was the quiet one. I bet that doesn’t surprise you, given that me and Dad both hold our own in conversation. She could cook anything. She could roast a side of beef, or she could make three random ingredients into something amazing. She was amazing with eggs: give her some eggs and a little flour and a little cream, or buttermilk? Cakes for breakfast. Toss in some berries, oh yeah.”
“She wasn’t comforting when you were sad, or anything, was she?” asked Emma.
“She was the one I went to,” said Sophie. “I fell asleep in her arms oh, a hundred times I bet. Then I’d wake up in my bed, and I’d get up and she’d be cooking and she’d smile at me.”
“My mom was just like that,” said Emma. “Not much of a cook, but I did a lot of that, I’m the eldest. But she rocked me, Papa made a rocking chair for her, he called it her throne. Must’ve been a hundred times I fell asleep in her arms in that rocker.”
They sat for some time. Marthen walked past and exchanged good mornings. Sophie said, “I miss my mom so. But I’m so glad I’ve got Dad. You lost everything.”
“Not everything,” said Emma, looking down at Matty, who was drifting off to sleep again. The two young women sat there looking at the baby. Emma looked up at Sophie and said, “We’re the moms now. I’m the mom. I have to be the mom.” She paused, then said, “It’s scary, but there isn’t any choice.”
Sophie put her hand on Emma’s hand, on Sophie’s knee. “We’re going to make it,” said Sophie.
“I don’t know. But we’re going to make it.”
“And how do you know this?” Emma asked with a smile.
“Because we’ve come this far,” said Sophie. “We have to make it.”
Sophie and Emma sat and talked in soft voices for some minutes, with Matty dozing well wrapped in blanket and mother’s arms. Once it was clear the dawn was coming fast and there was no way around it, they got up and roused Marthen from a standing daze and set about waking everyone else up. The fact that it was cold was much remarked on.
“It’s definitely above freezing,” Sophie pointed out several times, while handing out chunks of venison left over from last night.
A few minutes later, they were on horseback and riding back into the green shadow of the white pines. They managed to be quiet at first, so quiet that Matty’s little utterances of interest as she watched branches pass by above and around her were audible throughout the group. Most of them were still having their meaty breakfasts. Presently talk began to break out, and the twelve, plus baby, rode along chatting in low voices. The Sun was just gleaming flat and bright down the forest’s halls.
“Don’t know how you did it, Soph,” said Dad, “but you got them on their horses and off before dawn.”
“I don’t know how I did it either,” said Sophie. “How we did it. Emma.”
Emma, riding just behind the two of them, said, “How’s this going to work at Killifar? Are they going to let us camp there? Are they going to let us—dare I even ask it—stay there?”
“I don’t know,” said Dad. “Now we get near, I do wonder. But I guess I always wondered. You know, they must know there’s an invasion, no, two invasions. The Kug won’t have made it there yet, but Killifar isn’t in the dark about the Kug being in Tenna. They aren’t in the dark about King Olk of Frunga attacking. They may not know yet that Merrivan’s burned to the ground, but we’ll have to tell them.”
“So you think,” said Emma, “that because you have a daughter who lives in Killifar, and because we’re all hardened warriors, not refugees or whatever, and because they need us to man their walls against these two armies, that they will welcome us?”
They rode a little before Dad said, “No. No, I don’t think that. I think people are inclined to see things the way they want to see them, with a bias toward the way it’s always been. If a bunch of folk showed up in my yard looking for a place to stay and told me there was barbarians behind them destroying things, I wouldn’t be hospitable. Matter of fact, that did happen, and I wasn’t hospitable.”
“But we’re,” said Sophie, and she stopped and threw her hands in the air.
“Different,” said Dad. “That’s for sure.”
“Well,” said Sophie, “we can at least stop at Margery’s and then go try and talk sense into the, I don’t know, town council, the local earl or whatever. They have both those things, don’t they?”
“They have a town council,” said Dad, “and they have a Baron of Killifar, if he’s made it back in one piece from the wars. No idea who he is, of course.”
“Well,” said Emma, “I guess we’re going to find out.”
The sun shone down and burned away the mist and chill once they got going. The day grew sunny, breezy, warm for October, with a moist air coming from the south. “It smells of the sea,” said Otho, the older of the guardsmen, when they stopped around midday. They dismounted and ate whatever they had—some meat from last night, some of Emma’s little block of cheese, some berries.
“You’ve been to sea?” was the response of several of the others.
“I’ve been to see the sea,” he replied, somewhat defensive. He turned and saw Ulf riding along, his right arm in a sling to keep his shoulder from moving. “You okay, young feller?”
“Can’t feel my shoulder even a little bit,” said Ulf. “Guess that’s good.”
“Is good,” said Irena, coming over to check his shoulder. “Let shoulder be. Has big mess hole in it. Tomorrow, you can feel shoulder. Not feel great.”
“Does it look okay? Is his shoulder going to fall off?” asked Aedith.
“No, no, not fall off. Not sick shoulder, that’s whole thing. Wash, salve, bandage, not get sick. Wound like this, messy, needs not to hit heart or stomach to kill him. Kill him if wound get sick, you see?”
“Infected,” said Dad.
Irena looked at him. “Yes, yes,” she said, a little enthusiastic. “Wounds infect. Days later, you think you’re fine, you get fever and die. Can happen very fast.”
“You’ve seen this.”
“Yeah. I have seen this. I have seen in Kug. Big Gama Kug not happy his men hurt each other, then one die days later. I tell him why. I tell him, wash wounds, bind up, I tell him nothing can be done, have to wash wound. He slap me around. This is thanks I get.”
“We won’t do that,” said Dad. “I promise.”
“Naw,” said Ulf, “and I got a thing or two to say to this Gama Kug feller if I ever see him.”
“Well, if we don’t want that to happen way too soon,” said Sophie, “we’d best get on the road again, boys and girls.”
But there had been no sign of pursuit, and there still was no sign of pursuit. All through the day, the twelve (plus baby) wandered in a generally southwesterly direction. A couple of hours before dusk, they began to see open meadow again. They also began to see pheasant, which they began to shoot at, and while their percentage wasn’t very good, it still resulted in four birds to roast when they camped. Dad and Irena chose a spot on the edge of what seemed an abandoned pasture, screened by a line of evergreen bushes, and there they got up a nice fire.
“While we cook,” said Dad to Sophie, “why don’t you and Irena go scout around behind us a bit? On horseback.”
“Anyone scouting ahead?” asked Sophie.
“Tomorrow, honey,” said Dad. “Irena, you good on this?”
“Oh sure,” said Irena. She smiled at Sophie. “You good on this?”
A few minutes later, after Irena had fussed over Ulf a little more and then fussed over her ride, she and Sophie got out of camp and started across the meadow. They were nearly to the other side when they saw someone, but it wasn’t any Kug barbarian.
They were approaching the wall-like edge of the woods, where the outer shield of colorful leaves hid the dark corridors beyond. They were chatting about how nice the weather had been and how it would surely storm tonight: tall clouds with tall ravines of blue between them were moving purposefully above. Sophie, then Irena, turned to the right: forty yards away, something was breaking through a patch of big bushes covering a swampy area. It was a guy on a horse, and while he looked like he could have been one of their boys, he wasn’t. He was dressed in farmer clothes, a sturdy tunic and pants and boots, and he looked about twenty. He carried a bow.
They stood looking at each other from across forty yards: the two women and the young man. Sophie and the guy both had bows but no one went for a weapon. After five seconds, the man turned his horse around and crashed back into the bushes.
“Well, that’s interesting,” said Sophie after a moment. “What do you think of that?”
“You wanted scouting Killifar,” said Irena. “Killifar, I think it scouts you.”
The rest of their scout didn’t amount to much. They rode perhaps three miles back up the trail which had faithfully led them here, and saw nothing but deer and birds and squirrels. They stopped for a few minutes, talked in the green closets of the pine forest, then turned and came back. They returned to the meadow and found the camp all set up, quietly preparing dinner. Emma had done something with spices and herbs and a few edible wild greens and tubers and even some berries, and it smelled wonderful. As soon as the two women appeared, Dad and Emma and Marthen and everyone else wanted to know what they had seen. So they told them.
“Okay,” said Dad. “Contact. I mean, what are they going to do, tell us we can’t camp here?”
“It’s kind of a good sign, isn’t it?” said Marthen. “At least they’re keeping an eye out.”
“But if that guy thought we might be friends,” said Emma, “he certainly had an odd way of showing it. Why did he bleeping turn tail at the sight of two women?”
“Such language,” said Kate, cuddling Matty.
“She’s used to it, Kate. So? Don’t you think it’s odd? What does it say to you?”
“It says they’re worried about invaders,” said Marthen.
“It says they’re worried about refugees,” said Emma.
“It says,” said Dad, “well, I don’t know what it says but we’ll find out tomorrow. Eh, Soph?”
Dad ordered double watches again: him and Padric, Sophie and Otho, Edmar and Irena. Again, nothing came at them in the night: no Shadow Man, no Kug horde, no enigmatic guy on a horse. There was not even a moose or large spider. Even the storm petered out into a few periods of drizzle. The Sun greeted them the next morning.
Irena got Sophie up with little difficulty. There were leftovers from last night’s dinner: paltry but tasty. Kate found mint and water and made tea. The twelve and a half riders had a pleasant little breakfast. They discussed what to do, at leisurely length, but the result was Dad, Sophie and Marthen scouting ahead while Otho and Padric took a short scout behind into the woods they had left and Emma and Irena managed the packing up of camp.
“Bear in mind,” said Dad, as the three rode up a densely wooded continuation of the trail, “I’m not very sure how far we have to go yet, I’ve been down here a couple of times in my life but I’ve never come this way.”
“Did you ever come this way, Sophie?” asked Marthen.
“No,” said Sophie, “I wanted to and he said he would take me but he never got around to keeping that promise, did he?”
“Until we went to the fair in Tenna,” said Dad, “and then the second time we did that, remember what happened?”
“It’s still happening.”
They came through a wall of browning greenery and found themselves at the top of a sloping meadow. A small river flowed at the bottom of the slope, and across that was a wide section of farmed field, and on the other side of that, perhaps a mile from where they now sat on their horses, stood the town of Killifar behind low stone and earth walls.
Before it stood, seemingly, a second town, a ghost Killifar of small houses, shanties, and tents. The one inside the walls showed tile roofs and good timber and plaster houses with well-fit shutters; the one outside was all tree limb and sod and scrap wood and rough cloth and animal skin. After their days camping in the woods, where everyone was polite enough to choose a different tree to pee behind and to make sure the tree was at least a stone’s throw away, the smell of the outer town came to them with a wallop. They looked at each other.
“Well, here we are,” said Marthen.
“It’s not exactly as I remember,” said Dad.
“Are we sure it’s Killifar?” asked Sophie.
“Oh yes. Yes, it’s Killifar. Well, shall we?”
The three rode down into the outer town. It wasn’t exactly a shanty town or a refugee camp, but it was at least fifty percent refugees. They watched Sophie, Dad and Marthen with some interest, but no one interfered with them before they reached the very serviceable, but far from impressive, stone gate of the inner town. It was shut: very sturdy double doors were closed quite snugly and no doubt barred on the inside.
“Halloo,” called Dad up at the top of the gate, perhaps six feet above his head.
“We have news from Merrivan,” Marthen added.
Two men looked down from the parapet atop the gate. One had a helm on, but the other looked like he was just fixing the wall. They spent perhaps three seconds looking down, then vanished. The three at the gate waited a lot longer than it would have taken men inside to have a full discussion of whether to open the gate. Still on their horses, they turned and looked back, to the north, at the outer town.
Here before the gate was an open area, and a market was going on there, though it looked pretty shabby. At the edges of the market, encroaching on its space, people had tents up and were cooking and minding their children. People stood around looking at the three horsemen. A knot of gawkers developed. Sophie looked back at the walls, and not an eye seemed to be on them from that direction.
And then from the market crowd burst a young man with a happy cry. He was halfway to them when Dad cried out in joy as well, slid off his horse and ran to meet the young man. By the time they were hugging, Sophie was running to join them.
“Slim! Slim, for Virgin’s sake!” Dad was saying. They laughed and grinned and just took each other in, unready to move on to the situation, here or back home.
“Slim, I can’t believe it!” cried Sophie.
“Gosh almighty!” cried Slim. “Sophie girl, let me take a look!” He grabbed her and held her by the shoulders at arm’s length. “When did you get taller than me?”
“Do not tell me I’ve grown, Slimbo,” said Sophie. “Come on! Are you here by yourself? Are you staying with Margery? What?”
Slim, still holding Sophie at arm’s length, got a serious look. “Come on yourself,” he said. “I need to take you someplace. You and Dad both. Hi,” he said to Marthen, who was still in the saddle, “I’m Martin, everyone calls me Slim. This is my father, and this,” and he slugged Sophie on the shoulder, “is my sister. I don’t think we’ve been introduced.”
“My name is Edgar Marthen,” said Marthen, sliding off his own horse. “And no one calls me Edgar, so, Marthen meets Martin. I do believe we will refer to you as Slim in our future dealings.” They shook hands vigorously, then both looked instinctively at Dad.
“Well, here it is,” said Dad. “Marthen, you ought to go back and get the others, move them to here, and Soph and I will confer with my son here and we shall see what our next course of action might be. Slim, you know that Merrivan has burned? It’s in the hands of the King of Frunga.”
“I did not know that,” said Slim. “But come, Dad, I know things you don’t know and I don’t know how to tell you any of them but to show you. Okay?”
Slim led Dad and Sophie through the dirt lanes of what might be termed the Old Outer Town, where the poorest residents of Killifar had resided for over a century, to the New Outer Town, whose residents had taken up residency in the past few years, or months, or in many cases weeks. The hovels lost even the seasoning of tradition, and many were frankly tents. The newest neighborhood was all tents, skins stretched out between rough-cut poles to afford a little shelter from precipitation and none from the wind. He brought them, with doubts growing in the fertile ground of their hearts, to a section where four particularly grand examples of this architectural form stood. These had skins stretched down to cover the sides as well, and were taller, and appeared to be divided into rooms. Each of the four had a couple of goats as well, and several had a few horses, and each had a boy or girl or two on watch; the grandest was watched over by an aged man with a huge beard and a cudgel.
Dad stopped, aghast. Sophie stopped too, wondering, then ran forward with a cry. “Andy!” she shouted. “Andy Andy Ba-Bandy!” A stick-like boy of nine let her grab him. “Gosh darn it! How big are you!”
“I’m not any bigger than I was last month, Auntie,” said Andy.
“But you’re bigger, you are,” said Sophie’s sister-in-law Nell, from the doorway of the skin-covered mansion.
“Well,” said Dad, standing with Slim just behind Sophie, holding the reins of both horses, “I can see we have some things to learn.”
They were escorted inside and tea was distributed, in earthenware cups Sophie knew well from home. Along with Andy, who was Nell’s second son, there were Sally and Sue, her younger children, four and five years old, and Sophie’s next younger siblings, Ella, who was now twelve, and Jim, who was ten. Andy was left outside to watch the three goats along with Nell’s and Jim’s horses and Dad’s and Sophie’s. Nell, who seemed to have aged twenty years in a month, waited till everything was settled and everyone was sitting, on slices of log, before explaining. Dad and Sophie restrained themselves and let her take her time.
“All right, first of all,” she said, pushing back her black hair, which had somehow developed strands of grey, “Jack is dead.”
“What??” asked Dad.
“But Mom is still alive, still on the farm,” Nell went on, “she and Little John and the cousins, Dick and the twins, you know, and the younger children are still there, or they were when we left. The Kug came through, it must have been two days after you left for the Fair, but they didn’t do much at first, they sort of combed through the farms and took half the animals. They came back and combed again, and Jack got into it with them, and that, ah, didn’t go well.”
“He fought them,” said Dad.
“He just sort of stood up to them. You know how stubborn he was. We weren’t doing well, or so we felt, the kids were hungry and upset, we had nothing stored away for the winter but some cheese and some of your old wine, and he just thought, I guess, he ought to stand up and do something. You know how he was.” She put her head down, then shook it, then went on. “They had words. They’re not so good with words, these Kug.”
“So they killed him.”
“I didn’t see it happen, Dad. I mean, I was in the doorway to the kitchen, and they were over by the door of the barn, and I saw them around him, and they were scuffling and then they were laughing and they took away the rest of the cows. Three cows. And there he was.”
There was silence. Then Dad said, “And Ann kept you from getting in trouble.”
“And Ann,” said Nell, “Mom, she made me and Slim take my kids and Jim and Ella and get out. Head for Killifar, she said. Everything will be fine, but you better go. And she made us take the last two horses. Well, what could I say? She was absolutely adamant.”
Dad laughed, kind of. “I know how she is,” he said. Then he stood up and reached out. “Come here, Nell. Come on.” Nell got up and got the hug she had coming, and then got one from Sophie. “So,” he said, “how are you providing?”
“Hey,” said Slim, “I can hunt. How are you providing?”
“Ah,” said Dad, finally actually smiling. He looked sidelong at Sophie. “Killer here—!”
“Dad,” said Sophie.
“No, no, no modesty. She has now slain double digits of Kug. Am I right?”
Sophie nodded. “Yeah, okay,” she said. “We have a story too. Want to hear it, or shall we have some more bad news?”
So Dad and Sophie told the tale of their month wandering, backtracking to explain who Irena was, how they had originally met Marthen, what had made them leave Tenna. Slim asked a lot of questions; Ella, and Nell’s girls, looked on Sophie with glowing eyes; Jim sat politely with a sad look on his face. Nell kept saying “Wow” and “Really?” and “Really? Wow.”
“So we feel bad,” said Dad, “but we really tried to go back. Now we come to find out, Ann’s probably there waiting for us and all.”
Nell and Slim looked at each other, and Nell said, “Dad. It was dangerous. You know that.”
“So what are you saying? We’re cowards, or she’s—!”
“You’re not cowards. You’re just not. All right? But Mom, she might be alive and not there anymore, but if she’s there and alive, she’s either bad off, and not going to stay there longer than she has to—or maybe she’s left since we did. I mean, we were out of there, I guess, before you were even to Merrivan the first time. And more Kug were coming over the mountains. It’s a whole invasion, it is. Why we live in such times—!”
“Well, to answer that,” said Dad, “they have some success, so more come to join them. King John’s knocked off his throne, that leaves a, what you call, a vacuum.”
“Anyway, we made it here, you made it here, we’re all together,” said Slim. “That’s good, ain’t it?”
“Nell,” said Sophie, “have you been in to see Margery?” Nell and Slim looked at each other again. Sophie asked, “Isn’t that why you came this way? Isn’t that why we came this way?” Again, looks were exchanged. Sophie’s heart sped up and she said, “Where else is there we can all go? And all these people? All these people who just got here?”
“They’re all from Tenna province,” said Slim. “They basically all came together. We were trailing, us and a couple other big families, Old Joram, his clan, you must’ve seen him.”
“Guy with a beard?” asked Dad.
“Big beard. Yeah.”
“But Margery,” Sophie stuck in.
“Margery won’t talk to us,” said Jim.
“Well,” said Nell, “we can’t get in to see her. The Baron of Killifar, and the town council, they’re closing the gate to anyone who isn’t in the inner town and doesn’t have farm deliveries. Folk from the outer town can get in, but not folk from somewhere else. I tried dropping Perkin Paton’s name, I know him some from when he came courting Margery. He’s on the town council. I don’t think the other folk on the town council want us to get to see him, he might let us in and they’d look bad.”
“It’s just like Tenna all over again,” said Dad.
“But with better walls,” said Sophie. “Or maybe Master Perkin Paton doesn’t want to be bothered and his fine colleagues on the town council help him keep his dignity without having to say no to his pesky in-laws.”
“Well, one way to find out. Know what I mean?”
“Dad,” said Nell.
“Nell,” said Dad. “How was your family?”
She shook her head. Her eyes glistened, but she retained her calm voice. “My folks wouldn’t leave. My brother stayed with them. I tried to get them to come with. They told me to go. They said they’d be fine. Dad.”
“Nell, darlin’,” said Dad, “everyone ends up somewhere. You make a decision and you go. Or stay. Heck, I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and it never seemed like we actually decided anything, except to leave Tenna, and that was sort of the obvious thing to do. I mean, Merrivan burned down around us. And then we found ourselves with a bunch of other like-minded individuals. Oh, I can’t wait for you to meet our Irena. And our Emma, she’s a bolt of lightning, baby and all. Marthen’s bringing them in, supposedly, I ought to go check on their accommodations. Then I ought to go see Master Perkin Paton. And my eldest daughter. They can’t keep us from seeing my daughter, can they? I mean, I ask you.”
“They just might,” said Slim. “They’re kind of jerks, that’s what I noticed, these folks here in Killifar. The richer they are, the jerkier they are.”
“That’s true everywhere,” said Dad.
“Dad,” said Sophie, “they can’t kick us out if we sneak in, can they?”
“Interesting idea, that,” said Dad. “What about it? Slim?”
“You don’t have to go in through the sewer or anything,” said Slim. “The south gates are usually less watched. The big dairy farms are just outside the walls there. If in doubt, I always just climb the wall. It’s not watched down on that side, I’m telling you.”
“Really. And since you say you haven’t seen Margery, one does wonder: why would you be climbing walls, Slim? If I dare ask.” Slim just grinned.
“Okey doke,” said Sophie. “Dad knows the way. Maybe we take Marthen again? He’s like the King’s Representative or something, he actually was in the pay of the King.”
“So were we, girl, just we don’t look the part like he does. Well, all right. Nell, Slim, all of you, I can’t tell you what a relief it is to see you all. Hang on a moment.” He looked about and saw four-year-old Sally, hiding behind her frizzy blond hair. With a pounce, he grabbed her and hoisted her up. “There you are, my granddaughter. You too, Suzy. You guys been good?”
“Yes,” said Sally smiling.
“You gonna be good while we’re off in town visiting?”
“Yes!” said Sue and Sally.
“That’s good enough for me.”
“Wait,” said Nell. She stood up and held out her hands to Sophie, who had not bothered sitting. “Sophia,” she said. “I just want you to know.”
“What?” asked Sophie, taking her hands, expecting Nell to relay some word of wisdom from Mom.
“You really have grown in the past month,” said Nell.
The rules in the Inner Town may have been strict, but in the New Outer Town there were none. For Sophie’s little army, this was mostly a good thing, as was the fact that Nell and Slim had staked their claim on the outer edge. By early afternoon, all the horses were gathered outside Nell’s lodging, and more tents had been added to what was now a tent mansion, and Sophie’s kinfolk and her new friends were having a sort of tea party in the cool sunlight. Otho and Arthur and Kate were making friends with the full-bearded Old Joram next door. Emma, Nell, Dad, Sophie, Slim and Marthen were discussing business while Irena and Sophie’s sister Ella googled at baby Matilda.
“You sure you don’t need me,” said Slim.
“Actually,” said Sophie, “if you were thinking of doing any sort of business in town, you could sort of guide us and then we could go chat with your lovely older sister while you do whatever you do. That sound okay, Dad?”
“Sounds fine to me,” said Dad.
“And you want me with you,” said Marthen. “I know how to talk to people like these.”
“You don’t want me,” said Emma. “I don’t.”
“What would you tell them,” asked Marthen, “if you were there instead of me? I ask so I can rephrase it in my own terms.”
“Well,” said Emma, “leaving out most of the swearwords, Killifar has two choices. No, maybe three. They can let us in and we can help defend the place, and maybe hold off the Kug and make a go of it together, all of us, or they can try and defend the place themselves and probably get the bleep kicked out of them, or they can leave with us and hope the Kug and the Frungans settle for taking whatever we leave here.”
“And hope they fight over it,” said Dad.
“They won’t leave, I’ll tell you that much,” said Nell.
“Not from what I’ve heard from, from my girl in town,” said Slim.
“Now it’s out of the bag,” said Dad with a grin.
“Okay, then two choices,” said Emma. “Stay and withstand a siege, or maybe let themselves get talked into letting more people in.”
“I know one thing,” said Dad. “Appealing to their better natures is probably not going to cut it.”
“Nope. Saying, look, all these poor people out here are going to bleeping get killed—!”
“I agree with you on that,” said Marthen. “Until the Kug show up, they won’t concede that there’s a problem. Once the Kug show up, or once the Frungans show up, they’ll want to concentrate on defending the walls, and to them, all these folks out here are just a distraction.”
“At least they have better walls than Tenna did,” said Sophie. “Or Merrivan. What was up with that?”
“As in, who makes walls out of wood? Evidently, once upon a time, that was sufficient. Merrivan grew, you know. As Killifar has grown. Merrivan built flimsy walls around everything. Killifar simply sticks to its original walls and declares everything to the outside Not Killifar.”
“So if we know what they’re going to say, is now the time when we go and let them say it?”
“Sure,” said Dad. “You, me, Slim and Marthen. You girls going to be good?”
“Of course,” said Nell, just as Emma said, “Dare you even ask?”
An hour later, Sophie, her dad and her brother Slim escorted Edgar Marthen, King’s Envoy, on horseback to the gate on the southwest side of town. The major river of Killifar, the Gella, passed the walls just next to the gate, which let out onto an extremely rudimentary farm road. The only bridges over the Gella within ten miles of Killifar were the three inside Killifar, not that the stream couldn’t be crossed most places during most seasons by a horse or by a human willing to get wet up to the armpits.
The gate itself was open when they reached it, just past the midpoint of the afternoon. It looked like it could shut securely enough, but the little river necessitated a gap in the wall right next to the gate’s puny stone tower and that significantly complicated the defense in that quarter.
“Why don’t you just wade in along the river’s edge, Slim?” asked Sophie. “I mean, why go over the walls instead of around them?”
“I don’t like to get my pants wet.”
“Let’s hope,” said Marthen, “that if the Kug attack, they’re particular about their clothing. Excuse me, sergeant,” he went on, addressing a man who was standing in the gate, wearing a leather long coat and a metal-studded leather cap. The man harkened to him and said nothing. “But you see,” said Marthen, closing the gap, “I come from Merrivan. I have news for the Council.” He pulled from an inner pocket a signet ring, let the guard feel like he’d gotten a look at it, and put it back.
“News from Merrivan,” said the guard. “Are they calling up?”
“Are they calling up our militia?” the man asked, in a thick local accent. “We could send them that lot around th’other side o’ town, I s’pose.”
“No, no, it’s nothing like that,” said Marthen. Somewhat theatrically, he added, “It’s—well, I shall have to report to your Council, shan’t I?”
“Yes, yes,” said the guard. Just as he seemed about to let them into town, another guard, at least ten years younger and possibly too young to date Sophie, showed up.
“Who’re these?” he asked.
“King’s messenger,” said the guard who actually was an adult. “I believe they’re his retinue.”
“That’s right, yeah,” said Marthen.
“And the girl?” asked the older guard, eying Sophie, mostly with suspicion.
“She’s my niece,” said Marthen with just the right hint of annoyance.
“All right, all right,” said the guard. “Know where the council hall is? Just keep down the street here, it’s very nice, right on Market Square.”
“Thank you, squire,” said Marthen. They all nodded at the guards as they led their horses in, except for Sophie, who attempted a haughty reserve. They climbed back on their horses and proceeded up what seemed to be the main street. It was very clean, with only a few people out, none on horseback. After half a block, Marthen said, “Let’s hope the Kug don’t try that either.”
“Oh, this horde?” Sophie intoned. “They’re my niece. Why do you ask?”
“We could warn the Council about it,” said Dad. “Left on the chandlers’ lane up ahead. See, just where the tinker’s shop is. That place hasn’t made a profit in decades: the Council has to prop him up just to keep Killifar in the tin business. Why it matters I haven’t a clue.”
“Well, they’re not going to be shopping for tin in Merrivan anymore,” said Marthen. “Here? Nice street.” They turned left onto a narrow street whose stones were half-buried in sand and organic matter.
“It is,” said Dad. “Hope it stays that way.”
Slim took his leave in front of the tinker. The others headed for the house of Master Perkin Paton. Down the Chandlers’ Lane, right onto a small wide street, and they found themselves in a small square surrounded by three-story houses punctuated by clean little alleys. Dad led them straight across the square to the middle of three houses, where they dismounted. He knocked at the door, three times, firmly. After ten seconds he knocked again the same way. Three seconds later the door was opened by a serving girl. Dad overwhelmed the girl, the other two travelers in his wake.
“Margery,” he called in a loud but apparently pleasant voice, “Margery, your kinfolk are here to pay you a nice visit!”
There was a palpable bustling in the back rooms and upper floors. The front room was small and neat, a merchant’s greeting room, with a nicely trimmed fire in the neat fireplace, with a big book sitting open on a table for visitors to make their marks in, with several chairs and a small table, not a bench in sight. A big old dog who didn’t look like he got up much lay on the floor. Along the left side of the room rose a steep staircase, and down this, after half a minute, Sophie’s sister Margery almost fell.
“Father,” she said, standing at the foot of the stairs, wiping her hands on her long plain dress.
“Sophie,” Margery said, pushing back her plain light brown hair.
“Big Sis,” said Sophie, cocking her hips: it was a gesture she had developed, not on purpose, but she was happy with it. It showed off her sword, and yet it was the sort of thing a man would never be able to manage.
“Lady,” said the serving woman, trailing Margery down the stairs. She hadn’t gone up them: Sophie figured there must be another staircase in back. Such luxury.
“It’s fine,” said Margery. “Could you get their horses taken care of?” She looked at Dad, still wiping her hands. “Are you staying somewhere in town, Father?”
“We are staying,” said Sophie, “with Nell. You recall Nell, don’t you? Married to your brother John, also known as Jack? Well, it seems that Jack is deceased—terrible, isn’t it?”
“Yes, yes, it is, terrible.”
“You knew,” said Dad.
“Yes,” she said faintly, “we had heard.”
“And Slim,” said Sophie, “you remember, Martin your brother? He’s here too. So are Ella and Jim. Well, not here. Out in the, what would you call it? Camp? Out on the edge of town.”
“Slim’s all right?” asked Margery, clearly distracted.
“He’s fine,” said Dad, “but he says he hasn’t been able to get in to see you. Nell told me she hasn’t managed to talk to you. Is that so?”
“Well, the, um, guards do stop folk at the gate,” said Margery.
“Are you saying, Sis,” Sophie put in, “that you had no idea Nell and Slim were here?”
“Um, no, no, I really had no idea. Not really. Um—!”
“Tea would be great,” said Dad to another serving woman, who hurried back to the back rooms without waiting for a nod from Margery. “Now does your lack of idea extend to the Kug horde that is barreling down on Killifar from the north? Or what might you not know yet about the fact that Merrivan was burned to the ground three days ago? Margery, it’s all right, just tell me.”
Margery took a second to compose herself. Before Sophie’s eyes she seemed to transform from the wife of a merchant to the daughter of a well-off farmer. “Dad,” she said, “I knew things were bad back home. We had heard. But the word was that if we could maintain enough supplies in the town we could hold off the barbarians, they wouldn’t hold a siege for a winter. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. Obviously I didn’t mean to keep my own brother and sister-in-law and my dad and my sister and—Dad, where’s Mom?”
Dad glared for a moment and then said, flat, “She’s back on the farm. She and John John and Dick and the twins and a few others. Or they were, when they made Nell and Slim and Nell’s kids and, well, Ella, Jim, made them leave to seek your, well, help actually.”
“Dad.” They spent another few seconds glaring at each other. “Dad, did you say Merrivan’s fallen to the Kug?”
“No, no, the Frungans, actually. Not that that’s better.”
They stared at each other for more seconds, softening. Margery looked at Sophie, who didn’t look at all softened. Margery got her courage up and closed the distance, and Sophie took her older, foot shorter sister in a polite hug.
The front door opened as grandly as it could, to admit Master Perkin Paton.
There was an attempt at civility, and then a brief attempt at rational discussion. Perkin Paton, a man of forty with the waist of a successful merchant and the eyes of a worried one, declined on principle to debate policy without the rest of the town council present. He would see his way clear only to not have his father-in-law and sister-in-law, and the officer from Merrivan, thrown out of the town, which he referred to as the City of Killifar. Sophie managed to only roll her eyes. She was tall enough to get a great view of Perkin Paton’s bald spot, and it gave her a little sympathy for him.
An uncomfortable hour later, Sophie, Marthen and Dad had gone with Master Paton to the council hall on the main square. In a large room with small high windows and plenty of places to rest one’s mug of wine, they found themselves faced with four more men much like Master Paton, mostly older than him, and one much older man, the Baron of Killifar. He was luxuriously dressed, in the sense that the folds of cloth he was lost in looked very expensive. He seemed to be mostly asleep, though the occasional belch or glint of an eye checking on things betrayed the fact that he was actually still alive.
There was a certain amount of hand-shaking, and presently the group got down to asking what exactly it was that Marthen and his friends had to say, and what exactly they wanted.
“You say Merrivan’s caught fire or something,” said the oldest of the councilmen.
“Yes,” said Marthen. “We had returned from battle and from certain, ah, adventures in the northwest of the kingdom, and I had planned on going to the palace for further orders. But the Frungan army was already arriving, and during the night, somehow the city was set on fire. The Frungans took advantage of course, and now the town is theirs, what’s left of it, anyway, and the King is gone to the south.”
“But you did not actually witness the Frungans taking control of Merrivan, did you?” asked another councilman. “Or if there was a general fire,” another pointed out, “or just a fire in one or two places, you know.”
“Oh, there was a fire,” said Marthen. “And Frungan troops inside the city. We witnessed it as well as it could be witnessed by anyone who didn’t want to be captured or burnt alive.”
“And how can you be sure the King is fled south?” asked the eldest councilman. “We didn’t hear anything about any of this; it all sounds doubtful to me.”
“It happened three days ago,” said Marthen patiently. “This is you hearing about this. We are the first to bring you the news.”
“Ah, we thank you,” said Perkin Paton. “We trust you will stay for dinner before going on about your duties.”
“Our duties?” Sophie repeated.
“Who is she?” asked several of the council, but Dad gestured to Sophie that now would be a good time for her to hold her tongue for once.
“Our news is not complete,” said Marthen. “On our way here, we encountered scouts of the Kug horde which is currently in control of Tenna. In fact, we encountered both scouts and hunters. Their forces are on the move, and they’re coming this way. And only the forest lies between Killifar and the Frungans.”
Into the brief silence one of the councilmen said, “And?”
“And one wonders,” said Marthen, “if Killifar has a better plan for this eventuality than Tenna did. One has seen what happened to Tenna and one would not want it to happen here.”
“Even if we believe the news about Merrivan or the news about these supposed barbarians from Tenna,” said the oldest councilman, “the Frungans are doubtless happy with what they have, and the Kug are doubtless fully embroiled with Tenna. Killifar will be fine. We don’t need any interference.”
“If they actually were to come,” said Paton, “surely they would wind up fighting one another.”
“And the King,” said another, “if it’s true he’s gone south, then he will be back north with a new army soon enough. And he would come through Killifar if he couldn’t get directly at Merrivan; that would make the most sense.”
A cough that sounded something like “indeed” came from the Baron’s beard.
“If we are engaged in wishful thinking,” said Dad, “then we ought to plan on what to do with all the gold we’re going to mine from under the hay bales around here.”
“What?” asked a councilman.
“Look,” said Dad, “maybe you’re right about all that, and maybe you’re not. If you’re not, then you are in for trouble. King Olk has ten thousand. The Kug may have thousands, or maybe they have more than Olk. King John may never be back—he certainly didn’t look like he was thinking of coming back. So what’s your plan in case you don’t get help and two armies show up, cooperating? You do realize that all the wealth left in the kingdom is right here in your coffers.”
The assembled worthies exchanged looks of concealed concern, and then returned to their mutual task. “Preparation for a battle that may never happen is waste,” said one. Another said, “You can tell his Royal Highness for us that we stand ready to protect his flank when he returns with this army we hear he’s raising down in Helark.” This remark seemed to them to strike the perfect balance: hear hears were exchanged. The Baron might have coughed again.
“In any case,” said the eldest councilman, “as you say, we are the wealthiest town in the kingdom, and we—!”
“I didn’t mean that you’re the wealthiest town in the kingdom,” said Dad. “More like you’re the only town in the kingdom. You’re the only one left of significant size. I guess that makes you the wealthiest and the poorest at once.”
“And the poorest town in the kingdom,” said Sophie, “is the one you’re keeping outside your gates.”
“And that, young wench,” said a councilman, “is where they’re staying. We can’t have rabble from all over the countryside move into our clean little city here. We didn’t become prosperous from letting the wretches from all over Tenna and such come in here and muck things up.”
“You’re a right bastard, aren’t you,” said Sophie. The councilman, who was about four times her age and not her height, stood up and advanced on Sophie, ready to give her a piece of his mind. She shoved him back and Dad got in between.
“Now daughter,” he said, not sure whether to laugh.
“My good councilmen,” said Marthen. “Let me attempt one more time to set a few things straight. First, it is mere pretense to imagine that Merrivan did not fall or did not burn or that the King did not flee. It is pretense to imagine that the Kug and the King of Frunga are not on our soil, or what was until recently our soil. It is pretense to imagine that the King is coming back any time soon, certainly any time before spring. Discard those pretenses, all right? Live in the real world, gentlemen.” He looked around. Several of the council threw up their hands in surrender to that much of the real world. “All right,” he went on. “Now you have, as one of my own wise advisors put it, three options. The first is that you can let those people outside your town in, and let them help defend the place. We will help as we may: I have people with me who served in the King’s last army, and who know something of military tactics. No doubt you have some who do as well. Together, we can defend this town and quite possibly counterattack against the barbarians.”
“That sounds all right,” said one, “except for the letting folk in the town.”
“It’s non-negotiable,” said Perkin Paton. “The townsfolk wouldn’t hear of it.”
“You mean the inner town’s folk,” said Sophie. He just raised his eyebrows.
“All right,” said Marthen, “or you can hold out until an army or two shows up here, and then clear out with the rest of us, and try and rebuild a little further away from the front, with everything you can possibly move, and hope that they will slow down when they enter an abandoned and already looted Killifar.”
“That’s definitely not going to happen,” said the elder. “Go on to option three.”
“It’s what I figured you would choose,” said Marthen. “You stay here and we take everyone camped around town further south. You try and hold out all winter and hope that neither of the two armies come this way, or that if they both do, they somehow cancel out without laying waste to your whole territory. How many people do you suppose you have in town?”
“Three thousand,” said one councilman. Another said, “Five, definitely five.”
“That’s ours to know and not yours,” said the elder.
“And outside?” asked Marthen. “I would guess at least as many, probably more given new arrivals this past month. But take them out of the figuring: the number that matters is how many Kug and Frungans show up here. So how do you like your chances of holding the town with three thousand men, women and children, old folks and babies, against ten or fifteen or twenty thousand warriors? You like those odds?”
“We have excellent walls,” said the elder. “You must have seen them.”
“They’re not made of wood, anyway,” said Dad. “Give them that. Wood burns, you know: we saw what that was like at Merrivan, don’t doubt we did. The Frungans saw what it was like too, and even if they didn’t start the fire there, though I guess they did, they’d have seen for sure how nice a tool fire is. So. No walls of wood, and not too many of your houses are wood, not the nice ones anyway. But where’s your grain? Where are your stores?”
“We have plenty of grain and cattle and chickens in our silos and barns,” said one of the councilmen, “and that is all you need to know about that.”
“Oh, I do know,” said Dad. “I saw them. I noticed two things about them: you know what they are? One, they’re just inside the walls, and two, the silos and barns are made of wood.”
Several of the councilmen blanched. Others brushed the idea off like ash from Merrivan. “We’ll be safe behind our walls, young man,” said the elder councilman. “Look to yourself.”
“Oh, I will,” said Dad. “I’ll look to all those poor wretches outside your gate too. I trust them more than I trust you.”
“What do you mean you’ll look to them?” asked the elder, while the others just got indignant.
“I mean,” said Dad, “we’ll be off, and we’ll be seeing who wants to come with us. You don’t seem to want them.”
“We can’t let those people go off,” said one councilman to Perkin Paton. “He can go where he likes but those people in the outer town, they need to stick right here in case we need them to man the walls.”
“And the farms,” said another.
“Gentlemen,” said Marthen, “you seem to have decided you didn’t want them. I’m afraid you can’t have it both ways. You can negotiate with us, and you can negotiate with the poor people outside your walls, and possibly you will be able to negotiate with the Frungans or the Kug, but you can’t negotiate with reality: reality doesn’t make bargains.” He looked around: the councilmen seemed confused, cowed, concerned, but the one thing they were was quiet. “Come, my friends, we’ve made our pitch, and got our answer. Let’s go talk to the high command about what we do next.”
“Wait, what’s this high command?” asked one of the younger councilmen.
“Just some wretches,” said Dad. “Shall we?” He turned to Sophie, who had subsided a little. They looked at Marthen, who smiled pleasantly at the council and turned to go. Just then, a young man appeared in the door, in riding clothes.
“It’s you,” said Sophie. “It’s him.”
“Who?” asked Dad with fatherly suspicion.
“The dude Irena and I saw on a horse out by camp.”
“Scuse me, sir,” said the young man. “Scuse me.”
“You a scout?” asked Dad.
“Yessir, I’m scout for the Baron and all.”
“Well,” said Marthen, blocking him from the council, “I’m the King’s Man. What have you seen?”
The scout looked at Marthen, then advanced to a point between him and the council. Looking around at everyone, he said, “Kug’s in the woods north o’ town. Hour away, tops. Huntin’. Don’t know when they’re gonna move up. But there’s Frungan on the trail to Merrivan, there is, I account over a thousand, maybe as many as five. Maybe more behind, can’t tell. A day away, tops, maybe less.”
There was a silence, then a burst of questions. Marthen took Dad and Sophie by the elbows and led them to the door. Perkin Paton got up among them just as they emerged into the council hall’s anteroom.
“Listen,” he said, “I really don’t want you to think—!”
“Do you suddenly have qualms about losing that cushion of human beings out there,” asked Dad, “or do you want to come with us?”
“Or maybe,” said Sophie, “he just wants to make sure we think well of him. But I’m not planning on thinking of him much at all, once we’ve left this place behind.”
“Listen, look,” tried Paton, “what I really need to say is—!”
“Do either of you have any particular idea of where to go now?” asked Marthen. “Because we ought to go there posthaste, wherever it is.”
“Look, all right,” said Paton. They looked at him. He sighed. The commotion in the council hall was still loud, considering it was almost all made by five older men.
“Listen, Perkin,” said Dad, putting a hand on his shoulder, “you come on south with us, you and the family. Don’t wait, or you’ll just have a harder time of it. But even if you do wait and straggle in late, don’t worry, all will be forgiven.”
“Listen,” said Paton. They listened. “There is an old monastery south of here, it overlooks the coast. It’s called Elavon. I think maybe a few nuns still live there, maybe they have gardens. I’ve been there, it’s a lovely country. It was ravaged by invasions centuries ago, in the years after the Empire, but it’s mostly grown back, and now no one much lives there. I expect you could defend yourselves a little bit in a place like that. Anyway.” He sighed. “Good luck.”
“Same to you,” said Sophie. On a whim, she hugged him. “That’s for Marge,” she said, letting him go, his dignity only a little ruffled. Then she and Dad and Marthen turned and went out into the evening.