Within a week, Ayalah was beginning to understand the frustrations of the men she’d overheard grumbling about their time being wasted. Nothing whatsoever appeared to be happening, at least in their division. Rumors drifted through the camp about the progress of the war: they were winning; they were losing; King Mathais had a secret weapon he was going to deploy soon to win the war; the Naralians had set up a barrier to force them through a narrow opening, making them easy targets. None of the rumors seemed to be based on any real facts, so she disregarded them completely.
Greyson acted like he didn’t know her. She had to share the tent with him and the three chiefs, but the four men didn’t even acknowledge her presence as she came and went. Since they’d landed here, her nightmares seemed to have stopped—or at least, she didn’t remember them in the morning, and she didn’t wake up gasping, which would have been embarrassing. That, at least, was something to be grateful for.
She’d grown used to enforced solitude, but somehow it seemed lonelier now that she was back in a land where she spoke the language. She took to sneaking out between training sessions and passing messages back and forth with Olikai. Once they were even able to break bread together far from the rest of the Miltinian regiments, but Olikai acted stiff and awkward, and Ayalah didn’t attempt it again.
One early afternoon, as some of the men were sparring in pairs and Ayalah was sharpening her sword nearby, a trumpet broke through the calm. Shouts began to break out here and there, and all semblance of order vanished. Men ran around wildly, some with purpose, others with sheer panic. Ayalah crossed her arms and waited by the side of her tent; she was already prepared.
Greyson and the chiefs emerged from the tent, swords and axes strapped to their waists, and began shouting at the men, regaining their control over them. Greyson spared her a glance. “Get ready to get moving. We’ve been called in as urgent reinforcements. Seems there’s been a skirmish at long last.”
She nodded. “I’m ready.”
A corner of his mouth twitched up, but he said nothing.
The men formed three orderly lines, one behind each chief, and began marching through the camp heading west. They quickly caught up with other regiments and fell into step with them, marching, marching, past tents and recently extinguished cooking fires. The energy among the men was mounting with the dawning realization that they were on their way to fight, and Ayalah couldn’t help but grow excited, too. She was itching to take her frustrations out on someone, anyone, preferably on the Hodarians around her. Perhaps she could plead stupidity and “accidentally” attack her own regiment. They already thought she was possessed by an evil spirit, anyway—why not lend their superstitions some credibility?
Her regiment, comprised of new recruits, only accounted for about one-fifth of their division’s strength, and she knew that the other divisions were at least twice their size. Most of the military was already deployed in some way, whether besieging the Naralian wall, guarding food and supplies, or scouting and terrorizing the outlying Naralian villages. Yet even so, Ayalah was impressed at the size of their camp. The going would have been easier on horseback, but new recruits were forced to walk; and for some reason the entire division moved at a sluggish pace, as if the men at the front were dragging their feet and holding up the rest of the troops.
They reached the edge of the eastern encampment as the sky was beginning to turn shades of orange and pink, and they spread out, no longer walking in single file. Ayalah was focusing on the movement of her feet, trying not to get distracted by excited murmuring around her, when suddenly a hand on her arm shoved her through the men, away from her regiment and into another.
Greyson appeared by her side. He pushed her again, hard, into another regiment.
She was baffled. What was he doing?
Then he was next to her, pushing her again, subtly moving her through the ranks toward the northern edge of the troops. The men around her balked and grumbled as she interrupted their rhythm, but only one or two outright tripped, and they were quickly back on their feet and shouting curses after her. There were a lot of men to push through, but they seemed to go by in an instant, and all at once she and Greyson were on the edge of the field. The sky was settling into a pale purple haze of clouds, with hints of dark blue around the edges; the sun had nearly set.
Greyson shoved her one last time. “Run!”
She had no idea where to run to, but she didn’t have to be told twice. She took off at a sprint, with Greyson at her side, toward the trees of the enchanted forest to the north. They were running through the tall grass that had once taken them days to walk through; running and running, not allowing themselves to look back to see if they were being followed.
Her breath began to come in ragged gasps. She was aware of a sharp pain in her side as she ran, and her legs began to burn, but she couldn’t allow herself to rest.
She couldn’t believe she and Greyson had just deserted the army. Was he out of his mind? For that matter, was she? She hadn’t even hesitated in obeying him. They would probably be dragged before the king as traitors—and Mathais might merely hang Greyson, but he would certainly do worse to Ayalah. He would probably torture her, for days, weeks, months, as long as he could.
Was that a crack behind them, from someone following? They were easy enough to follow, trampling the tall grass as they were and making so much noise. This wouldn’t do, she decided. She could keep running until she fell over from exhaustion, which would make her an easy target, or she could turn and fight while she still had the strength.
She was a fighter; she always had been.
“Hold!” she shouted, allowing herself to lose momentum.
Greyson skidded to a stop a few yards from her. He, too, was winded, his chest heaving with each breath.
He stared at her. “What?”
She drew her sword as an answer and listened. It didn’t sound like too many men had followed them.
Greyson shook his head, but he drew his sword anyway.
The first man crashed through the grass before them at a sprint. His head was off before he even had a chance to slow down, much less draw his sword; Ayalah’s blade had sliced through his neck so cleanly, she was happy to see, there was hardly any blood on it. This sword didn’t have the same heft and feel as her own sword, the one that had been taken from her, but it would do.
The second man didn’t fare much better. He was smarter, with his axe already drawn and at the ready, but he was no match for Greyson’s strength; Greyson parried the man’s blow, flipped him over, waited until the man landed on the ground with a thud and a cry, and then stuck his sword in the man’s chest for good measure.
So far, so good. But surely there were more than two men following them.
A rustle in the grass told her that she was correct. The first two may have been easy to dispose of, but the other pursuers were learning from their predecessors’ mistakes. They were moving stealthily through the grass, so quiet Ayalah could only hear a whisper here and there, enough to know she was prey being stalked by a clever predator. And still she didn’t know how many men there were.
A breeze rippled through the grass, and with it came a soft whistle to her left. Then another to her right. She and Greyson stood back to back, waiting. Two quick whistles sounded from somewhere in front of her, and one—or was that two?—from behind her. Then one loud one on her right, and their pursuers attacked.