She slept soundly, but when she awoke, the dark tent and Greyson’s snoring nearby alerted her that it was nighttime. She reluctantly closed her eyes once more and slept fitfully until he began moving about the tent again.
“Good morning,” he said with a smile when he realized she was awake. “Want to sit up?”
He propped her up again, and this time she held her head up on her own, looking around the tent. “So where are we?”
“Along the edge of the trees. I found you in the middle of the plain, but I didn’t think it would be a good idea to camp out in the open.”
She nodded. “Good thinking.” Then a thought occurred to her. “And my horse?”
“Stood over you until I arrived. She barely even moved to graze.”
This surprised Ayalah. “The horse stood over me?”
“She was guarding you. She’s very smart, you know. Well trained. Loyal.”
Her first instinct was to regard the horse as a mindless beast, but reluctantly she acknowledged that her horse had saved her life at the Ancient Meeting Place, and apparently again after she’d fallen unconscious. “Of course she is. Is she all right?”
“She’s fine,” Greyson said warmly. “I’ve been taking care of them.”
“You didn’t think I followed you on foot, did you?” Actually, she had, though she hadn’t really thought it through. But before she could respond, he continued. “We’ll need to stay put for at least a few weeks. Probably longer, until your ribs heal. Then we can figure out where and how to enter Naraloth.”
She nodded. She’d broken her ribs in the past, so this didn’t come as a surprise to her. But still: “We should move deeper into the trees, then. What if Mathais finds out I’m still alive and sends more assassins after me?”
“I don’t think he’ll find out that you defeated those men. I burned their bodies. I burned the entire campsite, actually, to hide all the evidence.”
He seemed proud of himself, so Ayalah tried to let him down easy. “But what will the king think when they never report back?”
“Maybe…” He hesitated. “Maybe he’ll find out about the burned campsite and be satisfied?”
“He probably paid them half in advance, with a promise for the second half upon proof of my death,” she pointed out. “That’s the only way to win the loyalty of men like that: temporarily.”
His shoulders slumped. “I hadn’t thought of that. I guess I wasn’t really thinking clearly after I found you.”
She smiled ruefully. Maybe this was for the best. She’d always hated Mathais, after all. Now she could be open about her wish to kill him. Beheading sounded nice; or perhaps a poison dart in his neck. No, she thought. Some direct contact would be more satisfying, like personally beating him to death.
She realized she was scowling and tried to wipe the expression off her face. “In any case, we have at least two weeks before he sends more thugs to find me. Probably another two before they’d get here. So we have some time to move and cover our tracks.”
Having assassins chasing after her was bad enough, but being unable to do anything about it while she was healing made it that much worse. She would have to force herself to be patient while her body healed. Someday she would get the opportunity for revenge.
The weeks passed slowly. Greyson hunted and cared for the horses, and after she had declared that she would not simply sit idly by and watch him do everything, he let her do the cooking so long as she didn’t move around too much and hurt herself. The meals she made weren’t spectacular, but she enjoyed feeling like she had a purpose, albeit one that wasn’t quite so glamorous as being a warrior.
Moving deeper into the forest was painful but necessary, and Ayalah was happy for the peace of mind and increased sense of security. They didn’t go far enough into the trees to find any outlying villages, though once or twice Ayalah thought she heard the far-off sound of a whistle. The grassy mountains she had noticed on her ride out to the Ancient Meeting Place now loomed much more closely to the south, and on clear days she could also make out the outline of more mountains far to the north. Summer turned into fall, and soon the fallen leaves provided an extra, crunching layer of protection from ambushing intruders.
Her bones slowly healed. She began limping around with a giant wooden staff for support, relishing the beauty and quiet of the forest. Life here was simple and peaceful, with a sense of calm that resonated deep within her and let her sleep soundly at night, with no dreams to disturb her. Incredibly, no attacks came, although whether this was due to their hiding place or to some motive of Mathais’s was a mystery to her. But she was glad of the chance to let her guard down and, for once, to be answerable to only herself.
She and Greyson were finally getting along. He was a patient but stern caretaker, and she willfully submitted to him out of gratitude for his saving her life and continuing to care for her. She could not be an easy charge—she had no misconceptions about that—and so his willingness to stay and his ability to smile at the end of the day were continually surprising to her. They developed an easy camaraderie, filled with light banter and, often, comfortable silences that stretched for hours or days at a time. Truly, she thought, she was lucky to have the smithy with her.
After a couple of months, with her ribs and wrist healed and her leg on the mend, she decided it was time to move on. Naraloth awaited them; hopefully she could find refuge there and start a new life. They had no money and nowhere to go, but at least she would be safe from the clutches of a murderous king. And if Naraloth would not take her in, well—she had been without a home before, and she would survive it now just as she had when she was a child. If not Naraloth, then maybe Bolladoth would accept her, or perhaps she would settle down in the forest and live as a hermit in a cottage.
She strapped on her sword, tightened the strap of her saddlebag, and looked at the trees around her. She tried to imagine herself as a solitary hermit, away from any action or society. She grinned and shook her head at the absurdity of the image.
“To Naraloth,” she said.
“To Naraloth,” Greyson agreed.