Legend had it that when the early rulers of Miltinoth, Bolladoth, and Naraloth had first become aware of one another’s existence, they had agreed to meet in a neutral location to discuss how best to keep the peace among their lands. A barrier was erected to mark the spot, and all land within the barrier was thenceforth considered to be neutral land. The land to the west of the meeting spot, bordered to the north by mountains and to the south by trees, belonged to Naraloth; the land east of the meeting spot, bordered by trees to the north and mountains to the south, belonged to Miltinoth; and the land north of the meeting spot, bordered by mountains to the west and trees to the east, belonged to Bolladoth. The rest of the land was divvied up somewhat arbitrarily, and the spot at which the rulers agreed to meet from then on was known simply as the Meeting Place, and, after a few generations, the Ancient Meeting Place.
Ayalah had never been to the Ancient Meeting Place before, and she was surprised to find that it took her over two weeks of hard riding before she came to it. She had never been this far west before, and she noted with interest that the trees gave way to grassy mountains in the distance, though the forest immediately on her left, in front of the mountains, seemed to stretch all the way from coast to coast. She passed landmarks she’d heard of only in old stories, like Turtle Rock and Cutthroat Creek, and she waited out a particularly bad thunderstorm in an abandoned cabin that she and her horse shared with a skittish fox. It was with a degree of relief that she spotted the Ancient Meeting Place toward evening on an overcast day.
By now the spot was nothing more than three stone pillars standing in a triangle in the center of a field. The pillars were weatherworn and craggy, but they stood tall nonetheless, like something truly out of a legend. She stood before them for a long while, awed by their size, as her horse grazed nearby. Surely no mortal hand could have placed such massive stones here strategically, she thought, especially as the nearest mountains were a few weeks’ riding from here. Each stone was at least two times her height and wider than her arm span—it would have taken dozens, perhaps hundreds, of hardworking men to move these stones, solid and heavy as they must be. She thought briefly of the mysterious wizard Swynn—if wizard he truly was, and not some common illusionist—but then shrugged and prepared to make camp.
She spent the next three days huddled in her tent as an angry black cloud settled over the plain, pouring massive droplets of water down onto the grass below. The rain pelted her tent so hard, she’d quickly fetched her horse and tied it down inside, ignoring the beast’s nervous stamping and eye rolling. For lack of anything better to do, she sat or paced the tent, attempting to figure out what the tight feeling in her chest meant. She felt tense, somehow, but she couldn’t figure out why. Articulating her feelings had never been something Ayalah excelled at, and now was no exception. She felt lousy, heavy, disinterested, but she didn’t know why.
The fourth day dawned foggy and humid, but soon the sun came out, and she let her horse roam as she idly practiced sword thrusts and feints, tucking, rolling, and sparring against an imaginary enemy. By the fifth day, she was starting to grow impatient. The sun shone brightly, illuminating the Ancient Meeting Place as well as all the surrounding area, but no one could be seen in any direction. She bit at her thumbnail. The king had said three weeks, hadn’t he? Well, she’d been here right on schedule. It wasn’t like ambassadors to be late, either. The king had told her not to return without the information, so she’d have to wait at least another few days before moving on. Was it possible the Naralian ambassador had run into trouble on the way to her? Should she go looking for him, in case he needed help?
She forced herself to stop biting her nail. No: she should stay put, wait a few extra days, and then reevaluate. She sighed and reluctantly sat in the grass to watch the sun set. What kind of information would an ambassador need to give to a messenger, anyway? Weren’t ambassadors supposed to visit the court when on official business? The more she thought about it, the stranger it seemed.
Ayalah sat, deep in thought, as rays of pink began to tint the sky. The area around her was all soft, fluffy grass; the trees were a good way away, and it was easy to move without making noise in the field. A nervous whinny from her horse, therefore, was the only warning she had that she was no longer alone.
She was on her feet instantly, sprinting for her tent. She was almost there, it was just feet away—but a bearded man jumped in front of her, swinging a broadsword at her neck with such force, it would have sliced her head clean off had she not ducked just in time. She rolled forward, sprang up, and ducked again as the man aimed a second blow at her. This time, she kicked out, as hard as she could, and felt the man’s shin snap as her foot came in contact with it. The man howled and dropped straight to the ground.
She used the moment to free her sword from its scabbard, and just in time—another bearded man was flying at her, spiked mace in hand, and she blocked his first blow with her sword. The whoosh of a knife registered in her mind a split second before it would have lodged itself in her ribs; she side-stepped, aimed a thrust of her sword at the man with the mace, and reached down to grab her dagger from her belt.
She wasn’t quick enough. The man with the mace slammed it into her side, and she doubled over, struggling to breathe, as he aimed another blow. She backed away, just barely dodging him, and in one movement pulled her dagger, spun out of the mace’s reach, threw the dagger into a third man’s forehead—the one who had thrown the knife, she hoped—spun again, and, grabbing her sword with two hands, sliced into the mace-wielder’s right shoulder. He was immobilized only for a few moments; she used his distraction to bolt past him, still headed for her tent.
She hesitated just before entering it. Another man was already inside, rifling through her saddlebags; any moment now, he’d find her extra weapons and use them to his advantage against her. She couldn’t take that chance. She barreled into the tent despite her misgivings about the close quarters, slammed into the man, and elbowed him in the face, cleanly breaking his nose while he was still off guard. She caught the blade of a fifth man with her arm—with the wonderful armband Greyson had made for her, in fact—and pushed him off, scrambling to her feet and swinging her sword at him.
Her feet were pulled out from under her, though, by the man she’d elbowed, and she fell hard, cushioning her fall instinctively with her left hand while she held onto her sword with her right. A sharp pain radiated through her left arm, but she tried to ignore it, rolling out from under the fifth man’s sword and into the foot of the fourth man, who kicked her square in the stomach. She gasped for breath, and the fifth man’s sword sliced into her left arm. She screamed as a wave of pain shot through her.
She would not go like this, ambushed by five men and immobilized, lying down, in her own tent.
This was not how she was willing to die.
She tried to force her way to her feet, half blind with pain, slashing out erratically with her sword. The emergency knife she kept in her boot came in handy, and as she crouched on the floor, she jammed it into the fourth man’s foot, through flesh, tendon, and bone. He fell on top of her with a shout, and she used his body as a shield: the fifth man had already swung his sword, and his momentum carried it into the back of his companion, who shouted anew. She sprang out from under the man, unsure at this point whose blood was all over her, and bolted from the tent.
Of the five men who had ambushed her, one was dead, her dagger embedded in his forehead. Two were down, but only injured, not fatally wounded. And two pursued her now into the field with unholy rage, gaining on her as they ran.
She was losing blood quickly. Pain radiated up from her left arm; her breath came in ragged gasps.
There was no one to help her.