The return to the mainland was a shock. The ship docked at the port town near Miltinoth, where Ayalah had first discovered her love for the sea on a much happier occasion a lifetime ago. Had it really been only a year since she’d first met Greyson?
They disembarked and were greeted by a man with skin so pale, Ayalah thought he must be ill before realizing that was just his natural skin color. She wondered if the man had ever spent more than ten minutes in the sun.
“Welcome, Hodarians!” He smiled. “I was told that a man by the name of—”
Greyson strode forward.
“Ah, good day, Master Greyson. I trust your voyage went well?”
The men exchanged pleasantries for a few moments in full hearing distance of the Hodarian warriors, whose eyes glazed over with a clear inability to understand the language they were hearing. The man speaking to Greyson was not someone Ayalah recognized, but she kept her head down just in case and tried to remain inconspicuous.
“We appreciate your willingness to lend a hand here,” the man was saying. “We’ve been trying to explain our strategy to the Hodarian chiefs, but they just don’t seem to be grasping it. Breaking down the language barrier should prove to be quite useful in this regard, we hope.”
“Certainly,” Greyson said.
The man seemed to be waiting for a further response, but when none came, he nodded. “Very well. If you and your men would follow me, I’ll take you to your quarters and then to the war tent.”
They followed him on foot through a land Ayalah no longer recognized. Troops were splayed out everywhere, and the land, once grassy and healthy, was muddy and trampled. Winter was already turning to spring this far north, and Ayalah and the Hodarians found that they needed to shed their heavy coats, though a faint chill in the air persisted. If she didn’t know it, she wouldn’t be able to tell she was back in Miltinian territory, so close to the city she grew up in and the king she loathed. She wondered if the city itself was similarly downtrodden and overtaken by the war efforts.
The men they passed looked disheartened and surly, Miltinian and Hodarian alike. “…wasting our time,” one Miltinian man was grumbling as she passed him. “We’ve been freezing our tails off all winter, and for what?” Another man was nodding. “Could have been at home with my family this whole time.”
She felt a chill run down her back that had nothing to do with the breeze. Had the war been going on all winter, while she was stranded on an enemy island? That would mean that it would have to have started when—when she sailed from Naraloth. When Roran was killed. When she was captured and made a slave.
Anger welled up inside her.
They were shown to an area on the edge of the encampment with a dozen large tents, each big enough to sleep ten men comfortably, fifteen if they squeezed. “Your men will sleep here,” the pale man said to Greyson. Greyson turned and translated for the Hodarians, who began to explore their new homes and claim bedrolls for themselves. Ayalah wasn’t sure where to go; there didn’t seem to be enough beds.
“The smaller tent over there is for you and your troop’s chiefs. With a partition inside, per your request.”
Greyson met Ayalah’s eyes and nodded so slightly, she wondered if she had imagined it. Then he returned his attention to the man. “Excellent, thank you.”
She took what she assumed was her cue and headed for the small tent, for the private, partitioned area. The three men who had been leading the warrior-training exercises on the ship gave her dubious looks but seemed to forget her presence as soon as she closed the partition behind herself. She sat down on her bedroll and listened to the men talking.
“Now if you’ll follow me, Master Greyson,” the pale man was saying, “and bring your chiefs, I’ll lead you to the war tent so you can begin your work.”
She waited until their voices faded into the distance, and then she snuck out of the tent and followed them, trying to look nonchalant, as if she was on official business. She was hyperconscious that she was still wearing the chaffing Hodarian dress she’d been forced to wear as a slave, but thankfully this area was filled with Hodarians, so she didn’t need to worry about being recognized.
She therefore nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard her name—her real name, not her assumed name—being whispered. “Tarall. Tarall, is that you?” It was the first time she’d heard her name in months.
She whipped around to see a flash of black and red disappearing into a tent; she followed warily.
“Tarall? We thought you were dead!”
“Olikai!” The usual intensity of his emerald-colored eyes was thrown into sharp relief against his suntanned skin and he had stubble growing all over his cheeks, but she’d recognize him anywhere.
“Nevermind that,” she whispered. “Olikai, you can’t tell anyone you’ve seen me. Swear to it.”
She hesitated. Olikai stuck his head of the tent and looked left and right.
“Ain’t no one else around,” he assured her.
“Olikai, Mathais tried to have me killed. He sent some thugs after me—five of them. If he knows I’m alive…”
He stared at her. “Mathais? You sure?”
She raised an eyebrow at him.
“I knew he didn’t like you, but that’s pretty serious, saying he tried to have you killed.”
“It’s the truth.”
“So, what, you fighting for the Hodarians now?”
He squinted at her. “Well, so long as you’re on our side. Bolladoth’s neutral, o’course, and Olekoth can’t make up its mind.”
Ayalah nodded. This didn’t come as much of a surprise to her: on the one hand, Miltinoth and Olekoth had an ancient alliance to honor, but on the other hand there was the kings’ mutual hatred of one another. It must be tough indeed for the king of Olekoth to choose.
“So, right now it’s Miltinoth and Hodaroth fighting Naraloth?” Naraloth was bigger than Miltinoth, with more warriors and better defenses, which she knew better now than ever, having been a part of that army. But now she’d also seen the fighting strength of Hodaroth, and it was certainly no force to be considered lightly. The men of Hodaroth were determined and unyielding; what the commoners lacked in training they made up for in size and cunning.
“Yep. Some skirmishes here and there, but nobody’s really committed yet. I hear Mathais has been trying to convince Bolladoth to come ’round to our side, but they ain’t interested.” He caught her troubled look. “But don’t worry, Tarall. We’re gonna win this. Then you and I’ll do some catching up, just like old times, hey?”
She smiled. “Just like old times. I bet I can still drink you under the table.”
The sound of boots squelching through the mud alerted them that someone was coming. “I’d best go see who that is,” Olikai said. “You stay here, then sneak out when I whistle.”
Good old Olikai. Despite her mortification at him seeing her in this dress, she was glad she’d run into him. She waited patiently in the tent, then made her way leisurely back to her tent at his signal.