Part Two: After the Battle
It was already mid-afternoon when Sophie and her dad turned back south, away from the battle. They rode without a word for a long time, keeping to the Vara River and its shores, until they came to its inflow into the Lesh north of Merrivan. The afternoon steadily cleared, and by evening there were only a few distant clouds, mere smudges on the sunset over the hills around Tenna and the province where both of them had been born.
Now, ahead of them in the last of the sunlight, was the ford of the old road up west toward Tenna, which came across the River Lesh just below where the Vara came in from the northeast, and continued east for a mile before striking the old road to Merrivan, the way they had taken to get to the battle. They could see a camp of men there on the eastern shore of the rocky ford. These did not look like any part of an army, but they were heavily armed and there were several hundred of them.
“Is it crazy to head up Tenna way a little?” asked Sophie. “Just sort of check out what’s up?”
“I don’t know what the heck else to do,” said Dad.
“I’m not eager to see Merrivan again,” said Sophie. “I think we’re well out of that place.”
“You may be right, girl,” said Dad, “but you have a couple of the King’s gold coins—!”
“One gold left, actually.”
“Well, okay, and you still have plenty of silver ones in change, anyway—and they were paid by the fine townsfolk of Merrivan, as much as by anyone else. So I think we ought to at least try to think of ourselves as the King’s scouts still. For one thing, Sir Bodon—!”
“All right, Dad,” said Sophie, “tell me right now. What’s the chance he still breathes?”
“Two in three.”
“Well answered,” said Sophie with a grin. “So who are these guys up ahead?”
“Well, they’re not Kug,” he replied, “and they’re not knights, but that doesn’t leave much out. They could be just a very large bunch of ruffians, but they could be part of one of these two armies we just saw in action, they’d be little different from ruffians right now. Frungans would have further to go than our boys would have, so I’m guessing they’re some leftover of the King’s Army. Ask me how likely it is that he still walks among the living.”
“But we’re still his scouts.”
“Daughter,” he said, in his serious voice, “there are folk living in Merrivan, there’s a Royal Family, a bunch of folk in the royal household, and the whole array of dukes and counts and earls and all their families, and all the trades, and the great merchants, and the little old men with the stores, the flower lady, all these peasants round about—Olk’s going to come in here and take everything they have.”
“I know. You think someone might pull it together to stop him? I saw a lot of guys lying on the ground, and I had the feeling the King had already pulled out everything he could.”
“We have to give them the chance,” said Dad. “They paid us for that much.”
“And you think Sir B is alive?”
“Sure hope so.” He glared once more at the ford and the camp beside it. “Well, let’s move on up the Lesh valley some, find a campsite up in the woods, do some hunting.”
“Wait, we’re not going to go check these guys out?”
Dad gave the camp a really long, piercing look. Sophie, after a moment, decided to do the same. It seemed completely disorganized, but gradually she detected a very rudimentary order to it: six or eight tents here in a knot, six or eight there, ten or twenty more over there against the forest, chopping down a few trees for whatever reason, and around the edges, along the river, one or two or three tents at a time, with men sitting or standing or lying about on the ground. A few men fished.
“No,” he said. “I’m sure I don’t want to check them out any closer than I have to.”
“Because they’re a defeated army? Because they’re our army, and they lost?”
He took another moment, then turned to look at Sophie. “Because they’re not an army anymore,” he said. “I don’t think they’re all bandits. Some of them are just dislocated farm boys, much as I am, I suppose. They don’t know what they’re going to do, however, and I do know what I’m going to do, I have a whole bunch of options, believe me. I just don’t want to think about any of them.”
“I am with you there, Dad.”
“But,” he said, “one thing I am not going to do is lie around and do nothing because I don’t want to do any of the things I could do. People like that worry me. They get up to trouble.”
“Okay, so what to do instead of go check those guys?”
“I’d like to find someone in some semblance of authority,” said Dad, “Sir Bodon popping up would be nice, but I don’t suppose anything like that is about to happen.”
“So,” said Sophie, mounting up, “we’re still in the King’s service.”
“I say so,” Dad replied, mounting as well.
“We’re not giving up on him, never, and never is not this week, and not next week either?” she asked with a dry laugh.
“Not this week,” said Dad, “but frankly,” and he smiled ruefully at her for a long moment before finishing, “next week ain’t looking so good.”
So they rode for two more hours up along the Lesh in a land of a few farms and much woods. The farms did not look friendly. It was dark almost before they knew it, and as soon as they knew it, they pitched their little tent in a dense belt of woods. They worked for fifteen minutes and then they rolled out their bedrolls and threw themselves down.
“Have some more of this fine jerky,” said Dad. “And I still have some Tenna wine.”
“Let’s have it,” Sophie replied. “Tenna may not be there, but—!”
“You know, it wouldn’t hurt to know that, at least,” suggested Dad.
They ate in silence, considering. They traded swigs on the bottle. Finally Sophie said, “Okay, maybe the Kug will have done their worst and pulled back by now.”
“I doubt it,” said Dad, “but who knows? And if so, maybe we can—?”
“Yeah,” said Sophie, “maybe we can.” She took another drink, passed the bottle back to Dad, and got up to go pee. When she got back, freezing under the vacuum of space, the tent was warm with Dad’s heat, and with the soft noise of his snoring. She crawled in and lay back to back with him, and for a minute she was besieged by all the things she had seen since that morning. The next thing she knew, she was waking from dreams of riding in a shallow river in the hills.
It was bright and chilly when Sophie crept out of the tent. She was surprised at how easily she was getting used to stuffing herself and her dad into that little tent. She was so sweaty that she practically could have squeezed water out of her shirt, but it froze as soon as she was standing outside; there was a cloud of mist rising from her as from the nearby river Lesh.
While peeing, it occurred to Sophie that she was always up before her dad. The old farmer, yeah, right, or maybe it was a sign of depression. She washed her face and a little of her body, went to talk to the horses about things, and then got back just in time to catch Dad coming out of the tent himself and stretching.
“Good morning, scout,” he said to her.
“Mornin’, sunshine,” she replied. “I’ll make tea.”
He went and used the same latrine, Sophie made tea, and then they sat and ate bread and dried beef and a couple of apples and discussed their direction. “Let’s cross right here,” said Dad. “It’s gravelly enough. We have some overland to do to get to the Tenna River.”
“I’m confused,” said Sophie. “We going west, northwest?”
Dad squinted. “Southwest,” he said. “We’re still a ways north of Merrivan.” He smiled at the woods behind them, and then downriver into the distance. “I’d actually say there’s a good chance someone in Merrivan can pull it out.”
“You think so, huh?” She sipped her tea from a metal cup. “Tenna too?”
He turned to squint southwest. “Oh, no,” he replied. “I don’t think there’s going to be much left of dear old Tenna. But we ought to go have a gander at it just the same.”
They saddled up and found that the Lesh was easy to cross up here. Then Dad led them up the opposite bank and straight into the river woods. By the time the sun was high they were following a trail up onto the table land between the Lesh and the Tenna rivers.
“Dad,” said Sophie after a minute, as they rode their walking horses along the ridge top, the trail passing from forest to clearing to forest again, “um, you know, if you don’t mind my asking this, um, honestly? What next?”
“You mean what the plan is? Well, we’re headed for Tenna.”
“No, I know.” She laughed. “Geez, Dad, I don’t even know how to ask this. Is this what being grown up is all about? Like, what on earth is going to happen next?”
“Ah, that,” said Dad. He thought about it for a good minute. Then, as they emerged into another scrubby clearing, he elaborated. “Sometimes you have no idea, things just come out of nowhere, and you sort of go, well, whatever you say, sweet Virgin.” They rode a little while she digested this rare moment of religious thought. She was about to say something when he went on, “And sometimes you can tell a mile away what exactly is going to happen, and yet you have to watch it happen anyway.”
“Like that whole military campaign we were just on,” said Sophie.
“Yeah. Like that.”
“So which one is like what we’re doing now?”
He took a minute before answering, “Well, I can’t wait to find out. I mean, I have an idea that the whole place was flattened, that it’s just a burnt spot on the ground, but really, who knows?”
Again, Dad took a minute. It was a nice day, it really was: the Autumn chill was dissipating in the steady sunlight, the air was clean and dry, there was hardly a cloud in the sky. The trees: somehow during the battle, Sophie had only had a sense of green turning brown, but here, in this light, the colors were incredible, sweeping down from their trail along the ridge across a valley of golden green, and then up to the next line of hills, red and purple and orange and the pale yellow of birches, and cresting with the impenetrable, immortal deep green of the pines. “Actually,” he said at last, admiring that view, “I was thinking of Merrivan. And, you know, everything.”
“So do you think we should have stayed with the army? They were going to eat Horseradish, I’m pretty sure they were. Don’t you think we did the right thing, leaving those losers behind?”
“No,” said Dad, “I’m sure we did the right thing, leaving those losers behind.” They rode down into the painted woods, and he went on. “It might look like cowardly treachery to someone of a chivalrous heritage,” he said, savoring the words as he let them go. “If you had, say, a real connection to the King in Merrivan. But I do not, I certainly do not. Nor do you. He paid me. He paid you. He didn’t even do it himself.”
“I’m with you that far,” said Sophie.
“Sir Bodon, I feel bad about, however,” said Dad. He laughed ruefully. “But I don’t think we’re likely to see him come up over the hill. And anyway.”
“And anyway,” said Sophie, “they were going to eat the horse.”
“They were, at the very least,” said Dad. “I had that feeling about Daisy too. I also had the feeling that a lot of people a lot closer to the King than you or me were a lot looser in their reverence for the command structure than we were. Anyway.”
“Anyway,” said Sophie, “I guess cross Merrivan off our list of places to visit. Been there, done that, didn’t enjoy it much. What next?”
He looked at her, then laughed. “After Tenna.”
“After we see what’s left of Tenna. You want to try and find out about the farm.”
“I do, yeah.”
“Well, all right,” said Sophie. “How hard are we planning on trying this time?” They looked at each other. He was trying to gauge what to say, and instead she said, “I think we shouldn’t risk too much on it this time. I just don’t think we should.”
“Okay, all right,” said Dad. “The way I see it, if it’s all there, if they’re, Ann, you know, and all of them, if they made it through what happened up to now, they’re likely to be there in a month. Maybe not to the end of winter, but a month, two months.” He looked at her again. “Just please don’t ask me how likely they are to be all still there and all.”
“Ned said they were still there before,” Sophie offered, mildly, thinking of something else. What she was thinking about was that neither she nor her father had any appetite, after what they’d seen the past few days, for overturning that rock just yet.
All that day they rode west, mostly following one trail or another, seeing no humans, only moose, birds and squirrels. “We’re a bit to the north of the line from Tenna to the river,” Dad explained as they sat on Daisy and Horseradish at the apex of a long east-west ridge, looking out and down. “The actual road we took to Merrivan is up that next ridge southwards there.”
“Ah,” said Sophie. She remembered that ride, every step into new territory. It seemed like centuries ago and it seemed like yesterday afternoon.
“We’d see some farms as we went, if we’d stayed down there. But there was those boys by the ford, and we didn’t feel sociable.”
“No we didn’t,” Sophie agreed. “Dad, what are those guys going to do? Couple hundred armed hungry men without anyone in charge?”
“What keeps men from behaving that way anyway?” asked Dad. “Get married, settle down, raise a family. Then you have something to protect. And you and the other folk in the same situation, you can raise a militia and a sheriff’s posse and make sure things don’t get done ill. Those boys—!” He shook his head.
“They need to get married?”
“Ahhh, forget it.” He laughed, sort of. “If only it were that easy. Now you got me thinking about the things men do to women.”
“I read one of your books,” said Sophie, “about how some tribe kicked out all its young men folk, and they went and defeated the next tribe over and took their women, and they started a new tribe, and that was the start of some old Empire or other. Was that true?”
“You mean, did that happen? You’re talking about the Rape of the Someone or Other. Maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s not exactly. Maybe the women after they got carried off started bossing the men around and that’s what they needed.”
“That how you and Mom—?” Sophie stopped on a dime and swallowed.
But Dad only laughed. “Naw, it was all her idea, that was, that we should get married. Good idea, too.” He laughed again, then shook his head. “No, I’ll tell you, what I know about how men treat women when they can, when they’re young and full of it. Maybe that thing actually did happen. But it wasn’t simple. It wasn’t pleasant. It wasn’t any fairy tale. Shall we?”
“Okay,” said Sophie. She followed him down off the high point, and they dismounted and walked the horses down a steep pitch before mounting up again, and then they were riding side by side on a wide flat trail under open woods. “Dad,” she said.
“Dad, is this what the world is like? People take what they can, men take what they can, you can only have what you can take from someone else and hang onto?”
They rode some distance. She could see the reply forming in his mind. Finally, not looking at her, he said, “No, Sophie. No, that’s not all there is to it. Dang it, it’s complicated. Times like this we live in now, seems like that’s the way it is. Ten years ago, it seemed like you could build something and your family and neighbors and even the, you know, nobles and lords and so on, would all work together to make everyone’s lives better. Seemed like that.”
“So it depends on what the times are like?”
“Sophie, stop a moment.” She did, and so did he. “Soph,” he went on, “you can’t even always trust yourself. That’s a fact. But look. You can always trust me. You can always trust family.” He laughed without humor. “Now even that ain’t true of everyone,” he said. “I got me a good family, you got a good family.”
“I have a heck of a dad,” said Sophie. “That’s a sure thing. And I love my horse.”
“Yeah. You can trust your horse. I got a good one too. And a good daughter. Well, let’s get a few more miles behind before we camp, sound good?”
They did get a few more miles in, and then they camped. A turkey dashed across their trail, and fell with Sophie’s arrow in it, and that chose them their camping spot. It was a lovely starry night, and the wind almost spread the joy of their fire to the rest of the forest. They sat side by side, practically in the fire on its windward side, blankets behind them, eating and tossing the bones in the fire. The uneaten parts they bagged up and hoisted high in a tree.
The next morning Sophie got up, found a stream and cleaned up a bit, came back frozen to the bone and found Dad getting up. They exchanged pleasantries, and he went to relieve himself and clean up, and then they ate a bit of turkey and took off.
In a couple of hours they were down from the highlands and among the abandoned farms on the eastern outskirts of jolly old Tenna.
The day started off warm enough, with steady sun, but clouds came in with a wind from the west as Sophie and her dad came down the trail off the ridge. They passed several farmhouses, all falling apart, but they were anything but abandoned: the first three were clearly the homes of dogs and cats, and from the fourth, a rambling affair that had once had more than one story, they felt eyes on them.
“Don’t look,” said Dad.
“I’m not,” said Sophie defensively. “It’s a girl, I think. In there.”
“She won’t be any less dangerous for being a girl,” said Dad. “She won’t trust anyone who comes close. Take it from me.”
Sophie half looked: the house was just beginning to fall behind them. “I get it,” said Sophie. She looked ahead. “Dad,” she said, “how dangerous is this?”
“Look at it this way,” said Dad, not hiding his own jitters. “Pretty much anything we do is going to carry considerable risk. If our side had won that battle, it wouldn’t be that way, but we didn’t, so it is.” He half looked back. “Merrivan, Tenna, uh, Mudwick, dear old town of our birth, none of them are going to be any sort of relaxation.”
“Better than going to see how the Frungans are doing,” said Sophie. “Dad, do you speak Frungan by any chance?”
“No, Soph, it just sounds like gibberish to me.” After a moment he added, in a low voice, “Might want to pick up a few phrases of Kug, however.”
“So what’s the plan? On to the town walls, or whatever?”
“Sophie, you keep asking me about the plan. I think you’re grown up enough now, you’ve killed a man, you’ve been in a battle, you’ve slugged I don’t even know how many fellas, it’s time you started doing some of the making of plans.”
“Wwwokay,” said Sophie. They rode a little more: now under a grey hurrying sky they went side by side in light woods, in lowland that had been farms twenty years ago. In a few minutes they emerged along the Tenna River. “Well,” she said, “rule one, when we see someone, we stop and think about whether we want to go any closer. What we do if we don’t see someone, and they see us, I guess I’ll leave that one up to you.”
“Okay,” said Dad, “fair enough. In that case, let your old dad do the talking.”
“And what we should say to the guys who are up ahead in that tree watching us,” said Sophie, “I think I’ll leave that to you also.”
“Ah, them,” said Dad. They halted, and the two spent a minute evaluating the great ash tree arching over the trail ahead, where the river bent back south away from them. Two, no, three figures crouched or lay hanging onto a long outstretched limb. “Welp, they don’t have us ambushed, but on the other hand, we can’t very well expect to ambush the ambushers.” They gazed a little longer. “Welp,” he said again, “what say we get a tad closer? I do believe they have bows and presumably arrows, but they can’t shoot well from up there. And you, girl, already showed me you can shoot from a horse. You can show them too.”
“I suppose I can,” said Sophie, letting go the sword hilt she’d been playing with and taking her bow off her shoulder. She found her quiver and pulled an arrow.
The two ambled closer, until they could easily see three men on the limb. Dad called a halt with a raised hand. “Hello there,” he said.
The three people seemed unsure what to do. One of them grunted something, and he and another one attempted to fire arrows. They were clumsy as they tried to hang onto the limb, and their shots flew wild and then one was objecting as he slid backwards and fell to the trail below, an arrow in his throat.
“Okey doke,” said Dad. “Want to have a little talk now?”
The other man with the bow raised a hand. “I could plug him now easy,” said Sophie. “What say?”
“No, no, darlin’. It’s a parley. So, you speak like us?”
The fellow grunted. The other one, the one who had not shot, said, “We talk.” She—it was definitely a woman—had a strong accent of some sort.
“You’ll want to come down,” said Dad.
The two in the tree thought about that, then the woman said, “We, yes, we come down.”
“Don’t come down the way your pal did,” Sophie advised.
Sophie retrieved her arrow from the neck of the second man she had ever killed in her life. It was undamaged. She put it on her bowstring and kept its point toward the other man from the tree. He was short and muscular, with greasy, dirty blond hair and a swarthy complexion. A bit of yellow beard and mustache gleamed against the skin of his lips. He had a marked tendency to grin, but his grin was nervous and self-defeating. He talked almost nonstop, in his own language, and the woman interpreted what she felt like. She was short and wiry with hair black as night. Her clothes were dirty and her hair probably was as well but her pale, somewhat wrinkled face was clean.
“He say no cause for to fight, you and us,” she said as she hopped down. The man hopped down after her, his knife drawn.
“No, no, nope, no, noper,” said Dad, taking him by both upper arms from behind and basically shaking the knife loose. “No weapons, except for us.”
The man expostulated in his own tongue: why do you get weapons and not us? The woman did not bother translating.
“So what do we do with them?” asked Sophie, who was trying to figure out how she and Dad had managed to wind up with captives. “What the heck are they, anyway? Kug?”
“He is,” said Dad, throwing the man ahead of him.
He staggered, half turned and grinned, talking the whole time, as if he were telling a humorous story about how he and the woman had met.
“They’re bandits, though,” said Sophie.
“Sure they are. They’d as soon kill us as say hello. Life is cheap, I guess. Well, not my life, not your life. Their lives are cheap because they made them cheap.”
“What do you mean?”
The man started in on a whole new rant, and the woman turned to Sophie and Dad to say, “If you know what I go through, you not say life is cheap.”
“No?” said Dad. “What would I say?”
“Aah,” she replied, while her male comrade continued to talk, “maybe is cheap. Much people say me gonna die now, gonna die this time, I’m not die.”
The man seemed a bit incensed at her obvious failure to even pretend to translate his story for Sophie and her dad, and he gave the woman a piece of his mind. She turned to him and started ranting back in his language, waving her arms and then giving him a tiny push away. He pushed her hand out of the way and stepped up, slapping her with his wrist across her cheek, and then back with the back of his hand.
She fell back rather than down, and then came back at him even angrier. He pushed her hard away with both hands and then had another knife out of his boot. An awful whack was heard: he must have heard it the loudest, because it was Sophie clouting him on the ear with the flat of her sword. He went down in a heap. The other three all stood there looking at him.
“I got rope,” the woman said.
Half an hour later, the man was hanging from the tree, quite alive but now circumspectly silent, the rope tied under his shoulders and around his chest, and another piece of rope tight around his hands behind his back. Then Dad led the woman, with Sophie behind, off the road maybe half a mile up a vague track to the remains of what must have been a cozy little shanty twenty years ago. The woman did not seem to have any sort of weapon.
Sophie gathered wood and Dad and the woman made a little fire on the dirt floor under a hole in the roof. They shared the meat Dad still had from hunting and the meat the hanging man had managed to hunt the previous day. A bit of wine went around. Eventually they felt like talking.
“My name is Irena,” she said. “From north, from Vyotol. You know?”
She had thick coal-black hair with three or four grey strands, and what had been at least shoulder-blade length had been messily trimmed to an average of around the shoulder top. It had been tormented, but it was still the hair of a woman in her early twenties. Her face was scarred but bore only a few wrinkles. She was very thin but seemed made of wire. She was very tough and she had been hanging around with tough guys but somehow, to Sophie, she seemed very mental.
“Never heard of it,” said Dad. “My name’s John, and this is my daughter Sophie. We’re from up the Muddy River west of Tenna. Kug seem to have overrun our area, we was at the Fair in Tenna, now that’s Kug too I guess, if it’s still there.”
“Is still there,” said Irena. “Is own by three, four different clan. Big boss Gama Kug, he live up Tenna River, he live in farmhouse, maybe he live in you old house.”
“Maybe so,” said Dad, “just so he’s not drinking out of my son Jack’s skull.”
Irena looked Dad in the eye. Clearly she was thinking through what to say about that. Sophie wasn’t sure either. Irena raised her eyebrows and said, “Most likely not, yet who knows? They take me, from Vyotol, burn whole town, kill a hundred, two, three hundred maybe, they take me. I see things, you don’t wanna know. I don’t wanna know.”
“You’re Frungan,” said Dad.
“Yeah. Actually,” which she pronounced with relish, “no. Yetva. Not Frungan. Frungans come, tell us we are Frungan so we fight for them. King Olk, big stuff, huh?”
“He beat the crap out of our young King John, our old King John too,” said Dad. “Maybe your people helped out there. No hard feelings. Seems like the Kug took some bites out of his kingdom too. Things are tough all around.”
“Maybe,” said Irena. “Vyotol they attack. Everybody attack Vyotol. So Kug attack Vyotol. Ah, but Tenna. Tenna they sit on. Merrivan got money, they say. Kug gonna go see about that.”
“Merrivan? When? Before winter?”
Irena shrugged. “Soon as they work out who’s boss.”
“I thought this Gama guy was boss.”
She shrugged again and smiled. “Soon as they work out he’s boss.”
She reached for the bottle. Dad picked it up and held it to her, then pulled it back and said, “Before you get too messed up, I want to know what the situation is.”
Irena rolled her eyes and shook her head. She said, “Hokay. Is three, four head man in Tenna, all want to be Gama Kug. Not one is Gama Kug, only Gama Kug is Gama Kug. He knock all their heads when he want to. They all want to be Gama Kug’s best friend.”
“What about these boys you’re in with?”
“Was in with.”
“Okay,” said Dad. “You were in with.”
“They just bandits. Not good bandits even. But, they treat me good after what I got treated. Very big much better than was before. I eat enough, all that. Sleep with just me.”
“They left you alone,” said Sophie.
“They leave me alone. Boys leave you alone?” Irena asked.
“Oh, they leave me alone or I slug them,” said Sophie. “So these doofuses were better than what you had before?”
“You don’ wanna know what Irena had before.”
“You keep saying that,” said Dad. “Okay, so can we go into town tomorrow, see what the situation is? Is that going to be tricky?”
“And why do we trust you?” asked Sophie.
“Good question,” said Irena. “You ask right question.” She stood up. She pulled off her dirty brown jacket and shook it out. Underneath, she wore a tunic and work pants. She tossed the jacket to Dad, then kicked her miserable little rucksack toward him. “Go, look through,” she said. She kicked off one boot, then the other, and stood in bare, knobby, dirty feet. “Have look through boots too. You, girl, you want look through pockets? Got no pockets. Maybe you search me. No knives. You gonna look?”
Sophie stood up, then looked at Dad. He shrugged. He dumped the sack out, and there really was nothing worth anything in it: a very thin little blanket rolled up tight, a battered metal cup, three copper coins, several pieces of scarf, a small iron pan, a tiny little paring knife, about big enough to give someone a deep paper cut. A little piece of wood carved into an animal shape.
“So, do I pat her down?” Sophie asked.
“Might as well,” said Dad. Sophie turned to Irena, who was shivering. Dad said, “I’ll close my good eye, if you like.”
“Turn, turn, old man, turn away,” said Irena. He did, and Irena quickly dropped her pants. Nothing there. She pulled them up, and then pulled her shirt off and tossed it to Sophie. It was heavy and coarse but no, no hidden knives. Irena, half naked in a cold fall night, was not an especially attractive figure. For one thing, pretty much everywhere she didn’t have bruises, she had mostly-healed stab wounds. “See?” she said. “Then give, is cold.”
“It is,” said Sophie. She handed the shirt back, and Irena pulled it on, pulled the jacket on over it, and then secured her pants. “Dad, I’ll say this. If she has a sword in there, she just went to a lot of trouble to pretend she doesn’t.”
“So you trust her?” asked Dad.
“I wouldn’t go that far.” She pulled out her sword and casually pointed it at Irena. “See this?”
“I’m seeing,” said Irena neutrally, staring at the point a foot in front of her.
“So what do we do with you? What do we do with her? Dad! I have no idea how we got into this thing where we have—!” She stopped before saying that they had no home, or no way to get home. Instead she said, “A captive. So. Tie her up? Kill her?? Whack her on the head maybe, hang her up next to her friend?”
“I got rope,” said Irena.
“I can look now?” said Dad, who was still facing away from them and the fire.
“Yeah, yeah,” said both women.
He got up and turned around. They were all standing next to the fire, with Irena more or less between Sophie and Dad. He said, “She hasn’t got any weapons. If she runs away, she runs away—what’s she gonna do, lead them to us? Why would they want us?” He turned a sharp look on Irena. “Planning on leaving us?”
She looked at him for ten seconds with her unwavering pale brown eyes. “Truth,” she said, “no. No way. Am happy here. I’m happy here. You get? Safe. Happy. Safe Er.”
“Of course.” They both looked at Sophie, who hadn’t eased up on the sword pointing.
Sophie said, “Okay. Here’s what I get. If she’s reliable, then we benefit. She can help us, she can translate, she can pull watch duty, it’s tough to stand watch duty with just two of us. She’s two more eyes, two more ears.” Sophie paused, looking over Irena’s shoulder at Dad, not saying that they needed friends because they didn’t have family. She rolled her eyes at the thought, and said, “The woman’s not stupid, obviously. How many languages do you speak?”
“Yetva,” said Irena, “Is language of my folk, of course. Frungi. Your language, some, we call it Merivi. Kug, some. Also Tafk, of Tafk folk from north in Frunga, also can read Frungi letters, can read Merivi letters, can read old script, was records? Records. In Vyotol, before Kug come. My family had much books, much records, my father was record keeper. Am healing, too, I know stuff how to heal. Good thing, right? I get to heal me.”
“Record keeper?” Dad repeated. “In this Vyotol you came from? What happened?”
She shook her head. “You no wanna know what happen. You no wanna know what happen to me. I no wanna know what happen to me. Don’t wanna know.” She smiled at her correction.
“You keep saying that,” said Sophie. “Yet we’re supposed to trust you.”
“You don’t have to trust me,” said Irena.
“So this Vyotol,” said Dad. “It’s part of Frunga?”
“No, no. King Olk, he come to Vyotol, he like way Yetva boys fight, he take hundreds of our boys. Hundreds. They go fight. Next year, same. More men go fight. Get paid okay. More fight. Win big battle, beat your King John.”
“My son Red died in that first one,” said Dad.
“Sorry. Very sorry. I lose—I lose too, you don’t wanna know what I am losing. But Kug come over mountains, take sheep, cows, come back later, burn whole town. We fight them, old men, women, boys, they beat us, they leave hundreds dead. Hundred and hundred and hundred and hundred they kill on battle field, hundred and hundred and hundred and hundred more they kill after. Aah, you don’t wanna know.”
“So you suffered,” said Dad. “We lost too. We lost those two battles. We lost—!” He stopped. She was giving him a look. “Okay, fine,” he said, imitating her. “I am giving up. You don’t wanna know. Very sorry.”
“Well, you don’t,” said Irena. “You don’t wanna know.”
“Maybe I don’t. So where are you going? At present?”
“Anywhere,” said Irena. “Got good place you go?”
“Not anywhere at all,” said Dad, “but yeah, we got some possible places. Mostly, you know, away from here.” He bent and picked up the wine bottle. “A bit left for each of us. Shall we drink? We could make a pledge. You promise to help us and not harm us?”
“Yes, I will promise that,” said Irena. “You promise that? You help and not harm?”
“I promise to help you and not harm you, as long as you promise to help us and not harm us.” He took a big swig and passed the bottle to Irena.
“I promise,” she said seriously, “help you and not harm you.” She took a drink. “Not, you know, run away, bring enemy to you, do stupid thing get you and me both killed.” She took another drink and passed the bottle to Sophie. It had just enough left.
“I promise,” said Sophie, holding her sword out with just one hand and the bottle with the other, “not to stick you with this unless you really need to be stuck.”
They sat back down and talked a bit more, pulling their blankets around themselves. Presently Irena was snoozing sitting up. She snored a bit. Dad smiled at that, then shrugged and said, “Go ahead and sleep, Soph. I’ll keep an eye on the fire.” So Sophie made a pillow of part of their folded-up tent, stretched out her long body on the ground and gazed at the stars.
When Sophie woke, it was just beginning to get light. Her toes and ears were frozen. Irena was still snoring, curled up now practically in the remains of the fire; Dad lay near, also snoring, his booted feet under the edge of Irena’s skimpy blanket. Sophie got up and went to pee, and found a pond; she got her pot and went back for water. Soon there was tea, and she and Irena and Dad were sitting around drinking it from their battered cups.
“Irena,” said Dad, “what actually happened to you?”
Irena raised her eyebrows, which met in the middle. “You don’ wanna know.”
“Actually, I do.”
“Your kid don’ wanna know.”
“No,” said Sophie, giving Irena her blue eyes in full glare, “I’m pretty sure I do.”
She met her gaze. She raised her eyebrows again and blew out some air. After ten more seconds, suddenly she was talking, with deceptive calm. “My husband, my son, they go fight for King Olk. Two years. Never see again. Olk come back, Olk’s men come back, they get more boys, get my brother, my second son. Never see again. Kug come, we fight them, they kill many, many. We fight, they come in anyway. They come to my house, they burn house. All my books, all records. They kill my youngest, my boy. Stab him then trample with horses. They kill my dogs. They kill cat. Ugh. They kill so many. I have one child left: Mariya. They take her, never see again. They beat me up, they almost kill me. They think I’m dead, but I’m not. They go to take me out and dump my body but I talk back, I say where we going? So. They beat me up some more. They burn house—I said that. They beat me many time. I am stab, here, here, here and here,” and she pointed to various places on her torso. “And here, here and here, and, yeah, couple times here,” and she indicated her left thigh. The pants had a long tear that had been sewn up. “They kill, they rape many girl. Not me, they think I maybe am useful, I know stuff. How to translate. How to fix bones, fix up wounds. Make, like, stuff to put on wound so it heal. So me they just beat, and oh, yeah, torture and kill my own sister in front of me, kill her baby. Take me with, use me for translate. Big man Ruum Kug, he beat me many time. Kill people in front of me. He beat me up, he say, but not with sex, so I don’t get with child, I don’t know why, he like get folk with child, his folk anyway, he love to rape girls in front of me, but not me. I’m useful to him. He beat me up a lot. He stab me couple times when he thinks I don’t translate right: here, yeah, that was him,” and she pulled up her tunic to show them a scar on her side. “But, he feed me. Hey that’s good, I think, I like to feed him, I like to feed him poison, but I don’t get to. I get trade to Gama Kug, he try to rape me. I bite him. His men beat me up. I escape, I get caught, but this time before they beat me or stab me or anything, I escape again. Get caught. They beat me so bad,” and she laughed, really laughed as if it were a funny story. “And they leave me for dead. But I’m not dead. I wake, I’m in field, dead folk all around. Me, not dead. I get up, I go walk. Get to Tenna, guess what, they capture me and they beat me up and they cut me and make me bleed, like, a gallon blood, I’m not even make that up, they think they kill me. Leave for dead, but I’m not dead. I walk, I get capture by these guys. But they don’t do nothing, they’re scared of Irena, I must look real bad. They need me.” She actually laughed, then she took a sip of hot tea. “I don’t need them, that’s for sure.” She looked at the other two. “So, you want to know? You know.”
“I guess we do,” said Dad.
“They killed your family,” said Sophie.
“That was just beginning,” said Irena. “Just beginning.” She sipped her tea while Dad and Sophie exchanged looks. She said, “So your family? Is worth risk you get caught?”
“We,” said Sophie.
“We,” said Irena. “You see, I don’t have reason to get back with Big Gama Kug.”
“Yeah,” said Sophie, “I see that.” She pulled out the sword and checked its point, its edge. “So, Tenna today?”
“I’m thinking,” said Dad, “we try going around.”
They packed up in an unhurried way. Dad and Sophie made sure to have another good look at Irena’s possessions, and she took the opportunity to comment on theirs.
“We could use good blanket,” she said. “My blanket is no good, yours—!”
“It doesn’t cover something or other,” said Sophie, shaking hers out before folding it. “Feet or hands or shoulders or elbows. Or I roll on my side and my butt’s stickin’ out.”
“I’ll go you that new blanket,” said Dad, “and raise you a new tent. This thing, we didn’t even put it up last night so you don’t know how very roomy it is, but me and Big Girl here, we both fit in that thing, though there wasn’t room for other stuff like arms and feet. We’d get to know each other real well if you had to crowd in there.”
“Is getting cold,” said Irena. “We need more than tent. You go someplace? I ask for real.”
“We taking her with?” asked Sophie. “We taking you with us?”
Irena and Dad looked at each other, and for just a moment Sophie felt like she was a kid between two adults. “I can go just me, alone,” said Irena, “but, okay? I like to go with, is safer.” She bent over to stuff her skimpy blanket into her beat-up bag. “Could be useful for you,” she said, facing the bag.
“She could,” said Dad, and Sophie suddenly lurched from feeling like a child to feeling like a parent, of a boy who brought home a stray cat.
“Okay. We’re taking her with us. Um, like I say, that might help, it’ll certainly give us more to talk about around the old campfire.” She smiled at Irena, then clapped her dad on the shoulder. “So where are we going? Shall we say Merrivan for now? After we have a look for the old homestead?”
“That is the plan,” said Dad.
“And not through Tenna.”
“It just don’t seem worth it, do you think?”
“Okay. So, around on the north side, or what?”
“Well,” said Dad, gazing out across the flat low scrubland they were in, “we are a tad north of Tenna, so yeah, let’s head due west. Which is that way.”
“Okay,” said Sophie, “let’s saddle up and all, huh?” She looked from Dad to Irena.
“Um,” said Dad, “yeah. You don’t have a horse.”
Irena looked from Dad to Sophie. There was a lot of looking at one another. Sophie rolled her eyes and said, “She can ride behind me. Then maybe we get her a horse.”
“Get me a horse?” replied Irena. “I don’ ride horse much. I don’t know.”
“Darlin’,” said Dad, “we may have to hightail it, getting away from pursuit and all. You never know. You’ll want a horse. Um. You ride ever?”
“Okay. I ride horse,” said Irena. She smiled at Horseradish. “Is beautiful horse. It is.”
“Thanks,” said Sophie, smiling. She patted the big horse.
“Still,” Dad said, “if you’re going to be with us for a while, you’re going to need your own ride.”
“Okay,” said Irena. “Where we get horse?”
Sophie looked at Dad. “We’ll, uh, have to see about that,” she said.
They mounted up, Irena behind Sophie on Horseradish, who hardly noticed the extra weight. The day warmed a little, and the mist changed imperceptibly into a thin rain. The three of them and their horses got slowly soaked as they made their way through light woods and unharvested fields. Irena hung onto Sophie’s belt, usually with just one hand, as all three riders spent most of their time surveying the flatland around them.
They had ridden slowly for an hour or so, hardly talking, when they came to a field with a functional wooden fence. They came to the fence and stopped, the horses side by side. Across the field, which seemed not as overgrown as the others they had seen, there was a rambling house. A few little horses, midgets compared to farm laborers like Horseradish and Daisy, were tied up outside.
“I’m counting up,” said Dad. “How long ago did we leave Tenna?”
“I don’t know,” said Sophie.
“Ssh.” He was talking to himself. Then he said, “Welp, let’s see. We camped a night between here and Merrivan. We was in Merrivan what, five days? Maybe a week. What do you say to that?”
“Sure,” said Sophie. “A couple days before we met up with Sir Bodon and at least four more after.”
“Right. And then we was three nights camping on the road north, I think. And then the battle, and we was coming south and we had two nights since then, and last night. So, say two weeks from when we left Tenna.”
“Seems like two years,” said Sophie.
“Seems like two hundred years,” said Irena, “from I left Vyotol.”
“Time flies when you’re having fun,” said Dad. Irena looked at him funny. “You never heard that? They don’t say that in Yetva or whatever? Time flies like a bird, my daddy used to say, fruit flies like an old apple.”
“Fruit? Flies like?”
“It’s a joke,” said Sophie. Irena just put her eyebrows up, and let them drop again.
“But these here boys,” Dad went on, “they would’ve been here before Tenna fell, maybe before it even got completely besieged. I bet the outriders, the raiding parties, they’d’ve come through a place like this early and taken it over. They could’ve been here three weeks, four maybe.”
“Who?” asked Sophie.
“Kug,” said Dad. “Those ain’t local horses. Those are Kug horse. They like ‘em small. See? We don’t have that breed around here.”
“Yeah, I see that,” said Sophie. “But this isn’t a Kug house.”
“No, it’s not. Their houses are round, so I understand it. No, but it’s a Kug house now.” He rubbed his unshaven jaw: he hadn’t even hacked at the whiskers since the morning before the battle. “No,” he said, “there’ll be some dead farmers somewhere over there. Kug wouldn’t even bury them, lucky if they don’t plain eat them, but I suppose they’re eating their livestock.”
“Kug don’t eat man flesh,” said Irena. “Eat pretty much every other thing but that.”
“Okay, correction accepted,” said Dad amicably. “It don’t rule out much.”
“So,” said Irena, “why we sit here look at them? Why not we keep going now?”
“Nervous?” He laughed, but quietly. “That’s because you have brains. Okay, Soph, let’s take these horses a little further, see what we can see.”
They returned to the woods and in a few minutes they were following a thin track. Presently they came to more fields, but these were overgrown, uncut. The one fence they saw was down. They saw a house, which looked abandoned, and then another. They passed another band of woods and came to more fields, and ahead they could see a fallen house. There were dogs and smaller animals, but absolutely no sign of human life.
“Want to see closer?” asked Dad. “Or not?”
“Where are we relative to Tenna?” asked Sophie.
“Probably a little past it by now. North and a bit west, headed due west.”
“How can you tell?”
“Ah, I’m not going to give up all my secrets,” he said. “So?”
“Sure,” said Sophie. She looked over her shoulder at Irena. “You okay?”
“What?” asked Irena. “Go look? Okay, we go look, but—!”
“Oh,” said Dad, “we’ll be quite ready to hop on and ride off like the wind, trust me.”
The house was a ruin, but it was a recently burned ruin. Beyond it lay a village: like Sophie’s house near dear old Mudwick, this had been a farmstead just outside its hamlet. The hamlet in question had been entirely razed. Its layout was clearly visible, but in a year or two it might look like it had never existed.
They stopped in the yard next to the house. There was a body, much decomposed in the ongoing rain, sprawled across the path. Daisy carried Dad around it, and Horseradish followed suit, and Sophie did not look closely to unravel the mystery of what parts were sprawled which way. On the other side of the house, they paused, and Sophie dismounted. Irena and Dad did not.
“Soph,” said Dad.
“I just want to look a little, okay?” she replied.
He rolled his eyes, then waved. She shrugged and set off down the trail and soon she was amongst more burnt houses. The common field in the middle of town, with its pond and stream, looked fairly normal. More bodies lay about: three more that Sophie let herself notice. There were also hoof prints and boot prints, mostly eroded in the rain. A big fire in the middle of one house lot had big bones in it, the bigger bones of a cow. A number of pieces of log stood nearby, evidently the chairs of the diners at the victory feast.
Sophie knelt down to examine the bone, the cinders, the dirt.
She let herself think through what had happened. Perhaps many people had gotten away. But some were still here when the Kug came. The barbarians would have thundered in on their little horses, shooting their whistling arrows from horseback. Old lady in her doorway, whistle, thwack, thud. Child running with toy, whistle, thwack, thud. Man trying to save his little girl, whistle, thwack, thud. Little girl, slave maybe. Or butchered.
And from there to Mudwick was not a far leap. Sophie could just about stretch the map of this village to fit the village near her house. Ned’s dad’s place there, Lof’s shop there, the wood bridge there, the shrine to the Virgin there.
Our house, just down that lane, around the old oak, between the two big pines, and then you see it, barn first, then house, a couple milk cows out front watching for Sophie to get back from fishing. Cats in the window of the barn, more in the windows of the house. Ol’ Yellow Dog hobbling up, then gallumphing out with a smile on his dumb old happy face seeing her.
People had lived here. She could see them. They had been here for lifetimes, centuries untold. Suddenly it had all ended. The Kug had come from somewhere, and they had come here. But it wasn’t the Kug that Sophie saw in her mind. Someone else had been here. The Shadow Man had been here.
She knelt there for a minute. Then she found she was hearing something. The patter of rain. The sound of a horse breathing. Not one of her horses. She knew them too well.
She stood up. She took her bow from her shoulder, and strung an arrow. It was the one that had killed Irena’s associate.
Dad and Irena were on Daisy and Horseradish, chatting amicably. Three Kug warriors sat on their own little horses about thirty feet away, screened by an unkempt hedge. Two of them had bows, and they were drawing the strings back with great patience, aimed at Dad and Irena. The third was watching their targets with a memorable grin. He was the commander.
“Hey stupid,” called Sophie.
The Kug all turned to look. Her arrow was in flight, silent as a cat. It hit one of the bowmen in the face, and he went down. The other started, then pulled back to fire on Sophie, but she was fast to reload. His arrow flew whistling—high in the air, and before it landed he was out of his saddle, another arrow in the face.
The commander pulled out a long knife and kicked his horse in the gut. It leapt to charge Sophie, who pulled another arrow, but the horse suddenly turned aside and the man kept going, a lesson in physics as yet unexplained by any scholar’s calculus. He slid on his face almost to Sophie’s feet, another arrow in his back. It had come from Dad’s quiver.
Dad was by her in a moment, still on Daisy. Irena coaxed Horseradish over behind him. She wasn’t looking at Dad and Sophie: she was scanning the scenery. There was nothing to see.
“Girl,” said Dad.
“I’m getting too good at this,” said Sophie. “Well, lookie, Irena, we got y’all a horse.”
The little horse was friendly enough, to Irena and to Sophie and her dad, who talked to horses all the time. The little guy didn’t want a saddle, but that seemed to be all right with Irena.
Dad dumped out the warriors’ packs. Irena started right in picking over their food: some herbs, a little pan, a hunk of lard, something like cheese, some dried meat. She wouldn’t take any of the other Kug stuff except for their blankets, which were beautiful and thick. Each rider had one blanket, and now Sophie, Dad and Irena each had one more blanket. One of them even had a stretch of animal skin that could function as a tent.
“Kind of tempted to take a few of these knives,” said Dad. There were at least a dozen, all in a style not seen in these parts: good steel, curved prettily, with handles of bone or antler. “Maybe the arrows too, what think you?”
“I think not,” said Sophie. “I don’t mind a couple knives. But my arrows are better.”
“I’d have to agree,” said Dad. “Sometimes silence is golden.” He looked up at Irena, who was now astride her new horse. “You all right, Irena?”
“I’m okay,” she said. She grinned, which held their attention, and then she said, “I have horse.”
“You sure do,” said Dad. “Let’s use it.”
They went back the way they had come, back to the trail in the low woods, and they turned west as the drizzle gave way to a clammy afternoon. They rode in silence, Sophie in front. West of Tenna they were in empty hill country again: the Tenna River was away south of them, and the Muddy came in from the northwest still some miles on. After a couple of hours, when they were mostly dried out and not terribly cold, they began to see the edges of a village again, but it was not dear old Mudwick. It was just as well. The village appeared to have been totally wiped out.
They sat on their horses in the shadow of a dense little coven of pines and surveyed the ruins: in the foreground, the burnt hulk of a barn, and the merest footprint of what had been a house nearby; beyond that, more broken buildings and a few very rotted human remains. But there was also a sign of life: several houses, a hundred yards away, stood intact, with a couple of goats in their front yard. In front of the little group of houses flew a sort of banner: a spear was stuck in the ground between two of the houses, and from it flew a few strips of brilliantly colored cloth in the fitful breeze.
A woman, dark and little with long, braided, thin blondish hair, came out to say something to the goats. They looked at her and she laughed and told them something else—in a language Sophie did not know. Dad turned his horse and rode back into the woods. Sophie and Irena followed.
They took to the trails in the wooded hills again and turned westward. The clouds were breaking up in the west, and a fresh breeze was drying out the forest. It was also hastening the fall of the leaves, the gold and orange and red of maple, the pale yellow of birch, the golden brown of oak, and the various contributions of ash and beech and elm and chestnut. For a while, they could have been riding to visit an aunt in another town. For a while, Sophie could have wished that they would ride this way forever and never reach any destination.
She was increasingly feeling the nearness of home. The mix of trees, the color of the boulders, the texture of the dirt, the smell of the lichens, the way the wind blew, the shape of the hills, it was all steadily approximating where she was born. But she knew she was not going to dismount in front of the house tonight, and lead Horseradish into the barn, and skip back to the kitchen door, already smelling dinner and a pie. She knew. She had already decided, over the days, that there was no point in deceiving herself about that, no point in keeping that particular article of faith, that she would find her home unchanged, and her place within it.
But it did not mean that she saw any reason to confront the change in circumstance to the extent of actually seeing what was left of the house and family. Her mother dead? Her barn burned to the ground? The fences down, the animals just charred bones in a fire pit? She could admit that something like these things was likely. She felt she had to admit that. But that did not amount to a reason to see.
So she rode up the trail, in front of the other two, strangely reluctant to actually get anywhere. She did not slow Horseradish down—that would have been against the rules.
The sun broke through. The forest, along the side of a long hill to their right, was suddenly filled with golden light. They all took long breaths and let them out smiling. They rode on up a long slow slope, then crested a small ridge in an opaque pine forest, then descended and emerged into a wild meadow, the sun an inch above the horizon before them.
Far across the meadow, Sophie could see a stream lined with trees. The trail came down to it and even from here she could see a wooden bridge.
“Well,” said Dad, coming up next to Sophie.
“This is it,” she said. “This is the place.”
She looked at him, beside her, horseback to horseback. He looked from her back to the distant bridge. “Ayup,” he said. “That there is the mighty Birch Brook. On account of, you know, all the birch trees along it.”
“I don’ understand,” said Irena, coming up on his other side. “Is no birch, is oak, how you call, is mulberry, lot of mulberry.” In her mouth it sounded like moolbeddy.
“That’s why they call it Birch Brook, you see,” said Dad, an old joke of his. “Welcome to jolly Mudwick.”
“Dad,” said Sophie.
He looked at her. He took in her feelings, which seemed to be streaming off her face like heat off a workhorse in the summer. “Well,” he said, “here’s what I propose. Let’s back off into the woods a bit and camp. Then we have a good, careful recon in the morning light. Sound okay?”
Sophie sighed. “It sounds very okay,” she said. “Very, very okay.”
“Is okay,” said Irena. “I get vote?”
“Sure you do, little lady,” said Dad.
“Okay,” said Irena. “What you want dinner, last bit of Kug jerky?”
“Ah, no, I think I’ll hunt a bit if it’s all the same to you,” said Dad. “Sophie? You mind getting the tent up? We might need it.”
“Oh sure,” said Sophie. She looked at Irena, who smiled at her. Sophie turned to Dad. “Seriously, Dad, don’t take chances, okay?”
“Okay, my love,” he said. “Same to you.”
They retreated into the pine woods and picked a flat enough spot. Sophie and Irena easily got a fire going, and then set about putting up the old tent and the new one, the skin they had gotten from the dead Kug warriors, tied between two trees as a lean-to against the wind.
“Irena,” said Sophie, “did you ever hear of the Shadow Man?”
Irena didn’t answer at first. Sophie looked up from her work on the knots. “Of course,” said Irena. She shut her mouth as if she had given enough answer. They finished their work and stood stretching. “Only we say is woman,” Irena went on. “Babalaka. Means Granny Laka. Go about very slow, lives in woods, in house back in woods made of skins and bark. You out walking in forest, you see her house, is bad. But she come dark night time, come into house, walk about rooms, look at everything, if she look at you and you wake and see her eyes, you die.” She said this lightly and Sophie looked at her. Sophie thought she would be smiling, but she wasn’t. “She take your child,” said Irena softly. “She take your father, your mother. She take your brother, sister.”
Irena met Sophie’s eyes. “Have you seen her?” asked Sophie.
“No,” said Irena, wiping her hands on her tunic. “Only see her work.” She nodded left and right and said, “So, Shadow Man, he is?”
“Kneel down,” said Sophie softly.
Irena looked at her oddly, then slowly knelt. Sophie knelt too. Then she stood up fast, her bow in her hand. An arrow was on the string, then it was flying.
Sophie knelt again. There were harsh voices. Sophie looked into Irena’s eyes, her finger over her mouth. Irena whispered, “Is Kug, is speaking Kug.”
Sophie rolled her eyes. She stood up again, turned thirty degrees left and shot again. She ducked down as a thump told her what had become of her arrow. She scurried to the right, screened by the tent. She looked back: Irena threw a broken pine bough up and behind, and two arrows whistled through it as it flew.
Sophie came out on the other side of a big pine. Two men on horses were standing in front of the tents, their little bows ready again.
Instead, it was Sophie’s arrow that flew, silent as an owl in the night, and the nearer man took it in the neck. He fell toward his comrade, who turned his horse and brought his bow around to aim at the big blond girl.
A rock hit him in the side of the head. Irena said something to him in his own language. He turned, a look of terror on his face. Sophie’s fourth arrow hit him just below the ear.
“This time,” said Sophie as she and Irena looked at their work, “the Shadow Man was a woman.”
“Was two woman,” said Irena.
They stood looking for some time. Then they heard the crashing charge of another horse, a larger one, a mare named Daisy. They turned and here came Dad like the King’s Messenger. He jumped down.
“I see you’ve been busy,” he said, panting. “We gotta go. Let’s toss these things back on the horses and get the heck out of here.” He looked from one to the other and then down at the last two men Sophie had shot. “I shot one of these myself,” he said. “Missed the second one.”
Sophie and her dad and the woman Irena tossed everything onto the horses and nominally tied things down. They left the fire smouldering, as a distraction to pursuit. Perhaps the four dead bodies would distract as well. Then they made themselves as scarce as possible, as quietly as possible. By far the loudest noise in Sophie’s ears was her own heartbeat, until they were miles away eastward.
They stopped in a dense patch of wood and looked around. Suddenly the gloom under the pines was night-like. After a moment, Dad jumped down, and the women followed suit, and they set about putting up the tents.
“Do we need these?” asked Sophie.
“Gonna be chilly tonight,” said Dad.
“Agree,” said Irena. “Cooooold. Under starry sky, is always cold.”
They had the old tent up in one minute, and it was Dad’s idea to put the skin up as a sort of extension. This took one more minute of work by Dad and Sophie; when they were done, Irena had a bit of fire going. Then the three of them stood around it and stared at each other in the slightly enlightened gloom.
“Dad,” said Sophie.
She wrestled with herself for a few seconds and then said, “I just killed four guys. I just shot four guys dead. Yeah. I’m pretty sure they’re dead. Dad, what does that make me?”
“Sophie,” he started.
“I don’t want to play this game anymore. I’m tired of this game. I want to go home. I just want to go the heck home. Can I go home now?” She stared into his glittering eyes, and then she suddenly turned to Irena and fell weeping into the woman’s arms. “But there’s no home,” she gasped out, and then she went back to sobbing.
Irena proved equal to the task. She held Sophie, standing by the little fire, and said, over and over, “Is okay. Is to be okay. Will be okay. Is fine. Is okay.”
Dad bent down and put another dead limb on the fire. “Wish someone would tell me that,” he muttered.
“Is going to be okay, John,” said Irena.
“Sophie,” said Dad, “we don’t know, we didn’t—!”
“We do know. The heck,” said Sophie. “The heck. I only killed six guys. I only killed. Six. Guys. Was that how many I killed? I do lose count after a while.”
“Soph, darlin’,” said Dad, “you killed in self-defense. Am I right? Don’t—!”
“Okay, yeah,” said Sophie through more tears, “I killed those guys and they were going to kill me. But I—!”
“Is true,” said Irena, still loosely hugging Sophie. “Was going to kill you. Us.”
“But,” said Sophie, “I mean.” She blubbered a bit. Irena continued to comfort and Dad, unable to think of what else to say, continued to build the fire. Sophie got herself together and partly separated from Irena to say, “I mean, I grew up on a farm. I was raised by my mom and my dad and my brothers and my sister and my sister-in-law and my grandma. I played in the mud. I ran in the woods. I picked the flowers. And—and these four guys, I think I’m pretty sure they grew up somewhere, they had a hut or something, I don’t know, they played with stuff, they played in the mud, they ran in the woods, they picked flowers, they had moms and dads and sisters and brothers and—!”
“They are murderers,” said Irena.
“Well then,” said Sophie in as adult a way as she could manage right now, “I am also a murderer. Maybe it was self-defense. But those guys came here because they were supposed to come here, and they are not going back. Someone is not going to have a dad because of me. Someone is not going to have her son come home because of me.” She stopped and cried a little more.
But Sophie knew she could not cry forever. She could not even cry for long. She straightened, and gave Irena an I’m-all-right squeeze. They partly separated. She looked at Dad. He was looking straight at her, as he used to when she was in trouble.
“Sophie,” he said. “Listen to me.” So she attended, and so did Irena, stopped in their mental tracks by his tone of voice. He had to think what to say, and they just watched, as the fire grew and lit them in dapples from below. “Listen,” he said again. “What I’m going to say is not happy. It’s not a nice thing. But it’s true. Okay?”
“I guess you’ve noticed things are not the way they used to be. I noticed too, and I don’t like it one bit, but no one asked me. I guess you’ve started to notice this basic fact: life is not fair. It’s just not the kind of thing that’s fair, okay? You do a job for someone and they pay you what you agreed: that’s the kind of thing that’s fair, or not fair. You build your farm, raise your family, sow and reap and sow and reap and do everything by the rules, everything the way your dad and your granddad did it, everything the way you’re supposed to, to maximize the good stuff and minimize the bad stuff, and then one fine day some army shows up and you’re out of your house and if you’re one of those people in that village they burned down, you’re dead, your dad’s dead, your kid’s dead, your horses, your sheep, your cows. The whole thing, all you made, all you gathered, all you built up, it’s all turned upside down. You’re out on the road, you’re hiding in the woods, all you own is in your bag on your horse. Your next meal is probably running around still looking for its next meal. Is its life fair? That turkey or that rabbit or whatever? So when some guy decides it’s best to shoot you rather than let you keep breathing, yeah, you shoot him first. You leave him lying in a pool of blood. You don’t have to spit on him, I wouldn’t, but maybe he would’ve spit on you. But yeah, you shoot. Because one thing that I will not accept, little girl. I can accept that you kill a man. I can accept that you do it without a thought. What’s this, six in one day? I can accept that. I can accept that you’re sixteen and you’re as tall as I am. I can accept a lot of things about you that I might not have thought I could. But I cannot accept that you are the one lying in a pool of blood. Do you understand that?”
“Because at this point, it comes down to choices. Are you going to keep going, or are you going to sit down and die? Or, are you going to ride away from this, or is that guy? Which one of you is going to be lying in a pool of blood? Because back there by the tent, it sure as heck was going to be either you two, or them four. You chose wisely. That’s all there is to that. Questions?”
She looked at him. “No,” she said, “no, I’m good.”
He looked at Irena. “I think she choose right too,” said Irena.
“You don’t shoot, do you?” he asked.
“No,” said Sophie, “but she throws a mean rock. She might’ve saved my life.”
“Really,” said Dad, smiling at Irena.
The woman shrugged. “You choose,” she said. “So, dried meat is dinner, okay?”
The three of them decided without much discussion to post watches. Dad watched first, and at midnight he woke Sophie, and she was falling asleep under the bright cold stars when Irena suddenly woke from a bad dream.
“Is fine,” she said, as Sophie tried to comfort her. “You sleep, me watch now.”
“I have no idea how long I watched,” said Sophie.
“I get your father up if I get sleeping,” said Irena. “You sleep.”
“I darn near got sleeping already,” said Sophie. “Sure you’re okay?”
“I okay.” They looked at the lump that was Dad: he seemed to be muttering and twitching. “I not only one have dream.”
Sophie, however, had hardly a dream at all before she woke to the sound of Dad getting the biggest pan out of his pack to fetch water in. She got up and she and Irena got the fire going good and soon they were drinking herb tea and chewing on the chewiest remnant of the dried meat.
By the time the sun was well up, they were on their horses. They turned east again, but bore to the left, north, uphill, and took to the high ground. They did not make great time, but they saw no one and they took two turkeys, one each for Dad and Sophie. That night’s roast was excellent and they had meat left to hang from a high branch and take with them.
The next day the three slept in, sort of, and Sophie found the Sun above the horizon when she rose and crawled out of the tent. Again the feeling of sweat evaporating into snowy vapor woke Sophie right up. She fetched tea, and she and Irena were already trying to sip it when Dad came out, went off to pee and came back to join them. They took the one remaining drumstick and passed it around and soon they were all licking their fingers and picking the last bits.
“Is good,” said Irena, cleaning her teeth with a fairly clean fingernail. “Is good dinner, is good, you say breakfast.”
“Yeah,” said Dad. “Because you fasted all night, and now you break your fast.”
“It is good,” said Sophie. “You spiced it somehow, what did you spice it with?”
“Is, ahh, I don’ know how to say it,” said Irena. “Kind of mint.”
“Mmm, well,” said Sophie, looking at Dad, “Mom wouldn’t have used a spice like that with turkey, but I gotta say, it works for me.”
“Yup,” said Dad, examining a bit from between two teeth and then chewing it thoughtfully, “things sure do change.”
By mid-morning they came to the rocky end of a ridge. They could see below them to the east the great valley of the Lesh and beyond it, perhaps, the Vara; to the south the Tenna River drained its own wide valley. The sun was bright, the wind cold and sharp. The leaves were just past their prime, but were still incredible.
“You can see forever,” said Sophie, the little girl inside her peeking out.
“I never see so much at one time,” said Irena. “Is very,” and she just giggled and shook her head.
“Amazing,” said Dad. “Marvelous. Astonishing. Beautiful. A sight for sore eyes. And so on. You’re here the right time o’ year, little lady. Reds and oranges and golds and purples—!”
“And not a horde of invaders in sight,” said Sophie.
“Ah, yes, there’s that. And it’s been over a day since my Soph has killed a man.”
He looked at her, suddenly contrite. “Anyway,” he said after a moment, “as you can see,” and then he turned and waved toward the southeast, “away down there the Lesh and the Tenna come together and the Lesh leads on down toward Merrivan. And I guess that’s where we’re headed.”
“So what we think?” asked Irena.
“What we think?”
“Yes. What we think, you folk, your King, he fight good now when Kug come to his gate, ask for gold? You think he and King Olk make good friends, fight together Gama Kug?”
“My impression,” said Sophie, “was that King John had already raised his last army. We don’t even know if he’s still alive. But I’ve been, uh, informed,” and she gave her dad a sharp steady look, “by a certain authority, that I am still in the pay of the people of Merrivan and so I have some sort of obligation as far as that all goes.”
“Ah,” said Irena with a little laugh, looking Sophie in the eye, “and this authority, he think that if you go to Merrivan and find that Merrivan is, is—!”
“A basket case,” said Dad. “Which it will be, I’m taking all bets, ante up everybody.”
Irena blinked at this bit of verbiage. “Basket? Case?” she said after a moment.
“Bad off,” said Sophie.
“No one’s gonna be in charge,” said Dad. “I’m betting.”
“Betting?” Irena repeated, still confused. “Is betting going in basket case?”
“No, no,” said Sophie. “A basket case is a hopeless situation. I have no idea why. Get it?”
“Basket case,” said Irena.
“Oh yeah,” said Dad. “Tenna was a basket case when we went through a couple weeks ago. Merrivan was in fine fettle—okay, Merrivan was in good shape, it was well off. Now, battle lost, King maybe dead, armies marching toward it with all deliberate speed from at least two directions—it’s gonna be a mess.”
“Mess,” said Irena. “Like kids make.”
“Yeah. But worse.”
“We want go there anyway?”
“Yeah,” said Dad. “Carefully.”
“Like we go Mudwick, carefully?”
Dad took in a breath. Irena kept looking at him, and Sophie kept looking at her. Irena clearly knew she had said the wrong thing. But Dad let his breath out and shook his head. “Yeah,” he said. “Carefully. And I don’t mean we won’t be ready to put arrows in anyone who looks at us funny. You comprehend that?”
“Yeah,” said Irena. “I comprehend that.”
After a little more discussion, Sophie and Dad and Irena got their horses to carry them down off the ridge southeastward. They rode through the noon hour and then they paused for a bit of leftover turkey. They stood around their horses pulling hunks off the remaining meat in the bag and talking softly. Sophie was smelling the wind and smiling in the sunlight and then they were wiping their hands on their pants and climbing on their horses again.
“You gonna name your horse, there, Irena?” asked Dad. “Mine’s Daisy and Soph’s is Horseradish.”
“Horse Radish?” repeated Irena.
“It’s a spicy root,” said Sophie. “I think you’d like it. Anyway, I guess I thought it was a cute name when this big boy was a colt.”
“Okay,” said Irena, “I think about it.”
With that, they rode on gently downhill through thin pine woods until they came out on a track running more or less their direction with a slight bias to the left, and this they followed until it came out in a wide field. There was a house on the other side, and smoke was rising from its chimney. The place was fairly rundown but to them, at this point, it looked as pretty as a mansion of the rich and just as menacing.
There was a man tied up by the back door of the house, not too far from five big horses. The man saw them as they got within thirty feet, jumped up and clearly stopped himself from saying anything.
Two more men, big and hairy and not at all tied up, came out of the back door and left it open. They were talking in grunts in a language recognizable as a variant of Sophie’s local dialect. Their words could not be distinguished because they did not talk very well. They looked up and saw the three riders.
“Henga,” called one of the men, grabbing a spear from beside the door.
“All right, now,” said Dad, “no call for suspicion. We’re soldiers of the King in Merrivan, ain’t we, Soph?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Sophie, her bow across her lap, an arrow gently nestled on the string. “You guys soldiers of the King too?”
“Oh, aye,” said the man who had called out. “You got any news there, have ya?”
“Yep,” said Dad, “come down from Tenna way, Kug pretty well in charge there, thinking o’ coming this away before snows, they are.”
“Is that so.”
They all remained as they were, three on horse, two standing by the door, one standing tied up. The door opened and two more men came out. There was a soft sound and then a thwack, and one of them fell back into the arms of the other, an arrow in his chest. His own arrow flew high and landed behind the riders, sticking up out of the crushed hay. Sophie had another arrow on the string. “So, Dad,” she said, “you figure that was justifiable?”
“Seeing as he had an arrow he wanted to do something with,” said Dad, “and seeing as I did not perceive a single turkey or deer in the field back there, yes, I think I’d have to call that justifiable.”
He looked at the two men standing by the back door. The fourth man let his dead friend down gently and stood up, his hands raised. “We don’t want no trouble,” he said.
“There’s four here, counting the dead,” said Dad. “And five horses. Now why’s that?”
He looked at Irena. She put a hand on Sophie’s arm. Sophie looked at her, then where she was looking. “Nope, nope, nope,” said Sophie. “You don’t do that, you.”
An arrow flew from a narrow window. Sophie ducked sideways: it would have missed her anyway. She straightened and put an arrow in the window. Dad had his bow out and an arrow on the string: the man in the door, halfway to having his dead comrade’s bow, chose wisely and let it drop. The other two backed up, their hands up and open: the spear man let his spear fall to the side with a hollow clunk.
“Okay,” said Dad, his bow at ready, “here’s how it’s gonna be. You have two horses more than you need. You give up one of them to us. And you give up your prisoner. And whatever he had with him. If you don’t think this is fair, we can continue dealing on the basis we’ve been up to now. Would you prefer that? What do you say?”
The man who had dropped the spear ducked his head a bit and said, “No sir, we would prefer what you said first. Can I, ah, get my knife, like, to you know, cut them ropes and—?”
“Ah, no,” said Dad, “you-all just stand there like you’re doing, it looks great. Irena, would you do the honors?”
Carrying out the deal was not without its complications, but the deal itself was simple enough and in half an hour the three, with one addition, were riding away down the road. The remaining horses of the men in the house were running free, and while they would likely be caught and returned to their duties, it would delay the men from foolish pursuit.
That evening, the four riders made camp in yet another ruined farm house just out of sight of the road. The former prisoner, a little man who was not clean but was cleaner than he had been after a cold bath in a stream, was examining his recaptured bag.
“Is it all there?” asked Sophie.
“Not all of what I had in there at one point,” said Marthen, “but all I had when those gentlemen took me in. I daresay they had not worked out how to divide the assets.” He was stroking his neat little beard: Sophie struggled to recall if he’d had that neat little beard when they had last met before the battle, oh, ten years or a week ago.
“I daresay,” said Dad, “that mathematics is not their strong point.”
“They knew there was more of them than us,” said Sophie. “Fat lot of good it did them. But all that stuff you have to take into account when you shoot out a window, you know. Wind speed, tricks of the sunlight, allowing for the arc and so on, they weren’t sharp on that.”
“No, they were not especially sharp,” said Marthen. “And yet they managed to take me prisoner. Ridiculous really, I should be more careful.”
“They should be more careful,” said Dad. “Getting my daughter pissed off. Not a good idea.” He gave Sophie a worried look. “Too soon?”
“No, no,” said Sophie. “I’m over it. I’m a big girl now.” She smiled sweetly. He raised his eyebrows, then looked at Marthen.
“You two,” said Marthen. “I would have known if anyone came out of that battle smelling like roses, it would be you two. And who is the lady?”
“I am called Irena,” said Irena with all her charm. “And you are?”
“I am called Marthen,” said Marthen. “Edgar Marthen, in fact, but no one ever called me Edgar except for my mother.”
“Do you think Sir Bodon got out of that battle?” asked Sophie. “I thought he was the only one in the leadership with any brains.”
“Oh, he was the only one in leadership with brains,” said Marthen. “So no, I haven’t seen him and no, I’m not optimistic.”
“And do you still work for the King in Merrivan?” asked Dad.
Marthen gave him a long look, then raised his eyebrows and shrugged. “I guess I might,” he said. “He got out, you know, him and most of the knights from down south. We lost at least half our men up on the Vara River, but the knights always find a way, don’t they?”
“That’s generally been my experience,” said Dad, “though we did lose a fellow from Tenna a year back who seemed a nice enough guy despite being Sir. Anyhow, we going to Merrivan together? See how the King fares? It’s been our estimation—!”
“That we still owe him a couple of gold’s worth of service,” said Sophie. “Paid by you, actually.”
“I well remember,” said Marthen. “I thought for a few days there maybe we had a chance. I guess we did. A slim chance, however. Well, I have to say, after being tied up for two days and nights and kept in the yard like a milk cow, seeing you’s giving me that same feeling.”
“Of maybe having a chance?”
“Yeah, that one,” said Marthen. “I don’t know a chance of what, but something.”