When she thought about it later—much later, weeks later, when she had time for reflection—Ayalah wasn’t sure where she’d found the strength or the adrenaline to fight the last two men who chased her. She’d happened on a stroke of luck: the knife that had been aimed at her ribs—that she’d dodged—was embedded in the ground, and she spotted its handle, gleaming in the waning sunset, as she ran by. She picked it up with her left hand and held onto it, despite the pain, as she headed for the stone pillars.
What surprised her in retrospect wasn’t that she’d held onto the knife, but that she’d found the strength to throw it. She wasn’t aware of it at the time, but her wrist was broken, and the fifth man’s sword had sliced clean through her muscle. Nevertheless, she took the time to pause, turn, aim, and throw—and, injured arm notwithstanding, the knife lodged in the fifth man’s abdomen. She’d aimed for his heart and missed, but the wound would still be fatal.
Now the fight was one on one. The man with the mace was nearly upon her, swinging widely with the spike-tipped weapon, and she put on an extra, desperate burst of speed to outrun his deadly blows. This man was in a frenzy, shouting as he chased after her, his face bright red, flecks of spittle dotting his lips. She wanted nothing more than to bury her sword in his heart, but now was not the moment: he had the advantage of strength, as well as a longer weapon, and her strength was flagging.
She reached the first pillar and paused just long enough to encourage the man to strike; then she ducked down low, nearly to the ground, and listened as the man’s mace slammed into the stone with a resounding crack. She pivoted around him as he shook off the reverberations from the stone. His distraction was all she’d hoped for. She faked right, went left, and sliced into his other shoulder: now both his arms were weakened.
It wasn’t enough. He swung again at her, and though she stepped to the side, she hadn’t been expecting such a low blow. The pain she experienced when the mace came into contact with her leg was astonishing, unlike anything she’d felt before. He must have shattered her shinbone. She was down on her knees, involuntary tears springing to her eyes as the pillar swam before her.
“Now you die, warrior girl.” The man’s voice was raspy in her right ear, his rage mastered only by his confidence that he’d won.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
Without turning toward him, she lifted her right arm over her shoulder and slammed it into his face. Greyson’s armband met the man’s nose with a crunch, and he reeled back. She twisted, using both hands to wield her sword, and let her momentum carry her blade into the man’s neck and out the other side.
If she hadn’t been so overwhelmed with pain, the sight of his head falling from his body would have made her smile.
As it was, she allowed herself a moment’s rest to enjoy the kill before attempting to rise. She must remain vigilant: two men yet lived.
Her left leg was useless, worse than useless. It was a hindrance, and she had to drag it behind her as she half-crawled back toward her tent. The grass blurred before her as she went. Every movement of her left leg sent a new wave of pain coursing through her, and her left wrist could only support the most minimal weight before giving out.
She headed for the first man who had attacked her. He was closest, and also the least injured of the three of them still breathing, herself included. She inched past the man with the knife stuck in his abdomen. His eyes stared blankly at the twilit sky. She yanked the knife out of his chest and left her sword next to his body—it was easier to crawl holding a knife than a sword. She moved another few feet, then paused as her vision went black for a moment. She thought she might throw up, but then the moment passed.
When she looked back up, she found that the first man was limping toward her, sword in hand. He didn’t appear to have spotted her yet, dark as it had grown and low as she was to the ground. She took aim and threw. If she missed, she would be both weaponless and injured, as good as dead.
She held her breath as the blade soared through the air.
The man gurgled as the knife lodged in his throat; she breathed a sigh of relief.
How she made it back to her tent she could not recall later. But somehow she was there, and she looked into the eyes of the one attacker still alive, her vision coming in and out of focus. The sword in his back must have gone pretty deep, for his eyes were glazed over and he made no attempt to defend himself—although, then again, she held no weapon.
“Who sent you?” she demanded. There was no way this was a chance encounter; this ambush had clearly been planned.
He blinked and focused on her but said nothing.
“Who sent you?” she repeated, jaw clenched.
Still he said nothing.
She inched closer until she was within arm’s reach of the foot she’d speared with her boot knife. She gripped the knife’s handle. “I will twist this blade until you beg for death.”
He watched her but did not speak.
“The king!” he finally gasped. “It was the king, I will swear an oath, it was the king who sent us!”
She stopped and stared at him. “The king? Which king?”
“Mathais,” he groaned. “Paid us. Kill you.” Tears were streaming down his face and into his beard now.
She barely processed his words. “And the ambassador?”
He looked at her strangely. “What ambassador?”
Her head reeled. Now his words made sense: this whole thing was a setup. There was no ambassador, there never had been. The king, her king, had sent her here to die. To be murdered.
She’d always known he hated her, but to murder her? This came as a shock.
She didn’t bother killing the man. He would bleed to death anyway, and she didn’t have the strength to end his suffering. Instead she grabbed her weapons saddlebag, dragged it with her out of the tent, and whistled for her horse.
She pulled herself up onto her right leg and managed to awkwardly mount the horse, sitting sidesaddle for lack of any strength to swing her crippled left leg over. She could not return to Miltinoth now—she could never return home.
She managed to steer her horse west. Her mother, after all, had been Naralian, so perhaps she could seek refuge from sympathetic locals.
Her thoughts were sluggish and disjointed. The king—her king—had tried to murder her! She didn’t know what to think. She couldn’t think. She held on to her horse and tried to ignore the pain coursing through her left side. But her adrenaline had run out; her body was overwhelmed. She felt her grip on the horse slipping, and then everything went black.