A dozen men already lay on the deck in puddles of their own blood. One or two, as Ayalah passed, gasped in pain; the others lay silent. The deck was slick with snow and ice, and heavy snowflakes continued to fall, blanketing the ship in silence, muffling the cries of the men still fighting.
Ayalah joined the fight the moment she came near one of the attackers, slicing her sword clean through his arm as he raised it to strike a sailor. There were at least twenty men on the ship that shouldn’t have been there, and more continued to board as she parried a blow from one man and plunged her sword into another. The men must have been from Hodaroth: they wore complicated-looking, reddish-brown draped outfits and shouted at each other in a harsh, guttural language Ayalah recognized as Hodarian. She’d met a handful of Hodarians before—intelligent, hard-working folk—but these men quickly shattered any illusions she’d had about theirs being a peaceful nation. These men were plainly trained warriors, ducking and pivoting and lunging flawlessly, as Ayalah had been teaching her own regiment to do.
The Naralian ship was outnumbered and outskilled. She tried not to think about it as she watched one of the Naralian sailors’ heads go tumbling. These sailors, hardened and experienced as they were, were no match for the Hodarian attackers—but she was. Hodarian bodies began to pile up alongside the Naralian ones, and if one of the Hodarians managed to land a blow to her left shoulder, it was only because she slipped on the icy deck and missed her target. Armor or not, she wouldn’t let it happen again.
She kicked a man coming at her, jabbed him in the side with her sword, and ran to defend one of the young deckhands from a Hodarian more than twice his size—but someone else came to his rescue before she could get there. She skidded to a halt and blinked. Was that Greyson? He was wielding a two-handed sword beautifully, with the power and precision that could only be born of years of training. She watched, holding her breath, as he spun and crouched, kicking out to knock the man’s feet from under him, before jumping up and slicing behind himself, a clean cut through another man’s neck. The man on the ground he speared with his sword, almost casually, before turning to meet another attack.
A guttural cry from behind her brought her back to her senses, though she found that her heart was beating loudly in her ears and her cheeks felt flushed and hot. She turned, deflected her attacker’s blow, kneed him in the groin, and punched him in the neck. As he staggered back, she rolled on the ground, grabbed a fallen sword in her free hand, jumped to her feet, and sliced, a blade in each hand, at the man’s neck. A Hodarian head for a Naralian head, she reasoned.
She was beginning to feel hopeful. Perhaps they weren’t going to lose this battle after all. One by one she fought off the Hodarian warriors, and the sight of Greyson holding his own as well on the other side of the ship cheered her immensely.
But then she heard a shout.
She didn’t wait to hear the rest. She turned and sprinted across the deck to the foolish prince, catching a passing sword in her side: a shallow cut, nothing more. She spun as she ran, thanking the man for his trouble with two gashes of her own; she didn’t stay to watch him bleed to death as she continued on to the prince.
“Roran: to me!” she bellowed.
He was a fool, but he didn’t need to be told twice. He ran to her, brandishing his own sword. “But I’m an ambassador!” he shouted. “They can’t attack me!”
Ayalah looked around. These men didn’t appear to care in the least who or what they were attacking; they were frenzied, hurling their guttural shouts at her and at the prince, sneering their disdain. “Your Highness, they can and will attack you. Why didn’t you stay down below?”
But it was pointless to try to reason with him now. The stairway was blocked off; she must defend him up here, in the flickering light from the torches.
“I’m an excellent swordsman, Commander!” Roran shouted breathlessly. “Have no fear—I can hold my own.” He shouted something to their attackers—she’d forgotten that he could speak Hodarian—but they ignored him, swinging their weapons at him all the more forcefully.
They fought back to back, Ayalah noticing only peripherally that Roran was indeed good with a sword. She inched them toward the foremast of the ship, hoping to gain a solid barrier behind herself. Ideally, she would get Roran into a corner so she could defend him more easily, but that seemed unlikely with all the Hodarians swarming around. Fighting to defend someone was much more difficult than simply fighting: she had to watch for attackers coming at her and at Roran, she could no longer twist and whirl, limiting her movement and agility, and her attention was split between fighting and worrying that Roran might let a chance blade in and find himself skewered despite her best efforts.
Roran’s clothing clearly identified him as some kind of nobility. The prince had taken the time to get fully dressed, and he wore a plate armor vest with leather trousers and fur-trimmed boots. His clothing was telling, but at least it was practical—she felt at least a small degree of comfort in knowing that he wouldn’t get speared quite as easily, despite being a much more gaudy, noticeable target.
She gritted her teeth, shook her head to clear the snow from it, and focused her thoughts on her swords. She wasn’t a warrior holding and wielding weapons; she was the swords, spinning and slicing and glistening with the blood of her enemies. The cold stung her cheeks as she parried a blow with her left-hand sword and lunged with her right. Forward, back, parry, slice, turn, block, swing, lunge, dodge, stab, twist. The bodies kept coming, and she kept cutting them down.
The coating of snow on the deck was much thicker now. Her steps began to crunch in the snow.
A soft thunk and a gurgle behind her made her turn. Roran stood there, sword in hand, his eyes wide in disbelief at the arrow that was lodged in his neck. He stumbled and then slumped, slowly, to the ground.