They seemed to jump through the grass toward Ayalah and Greyson all at the same time. One moment she was standing tall, sword at the ready, and the next a half dozen men were charging toward her, shouting furiously, brandishing swords and axes wildly. They all seemed to be targeting her, sidetracked by Greyson only because he threw himself in their paths. These men were Hodarians, but they were not the untrained civilians from the ship she had come on. These men were trained warriors like herself, albeit burlier and less graceful on their feet.
Fighting off multiple attackers at once was a finely crafted skill Ayalah prided herself on. It took a mix of training, fluid maneuverability, and timing, along with a fair bit of a stubborn unwillingness to die. Ayalah had been at the top of her warrior training class in Miltinoth at fighting off multiple men; she intended to honor that distinction.
She knocked aside the blow of the first man who reached her, then stepped aside quickly to parry another. Rin had been correct: the way Ayalah fought was a lot like dancing. Her footwork was nearly as important as the work her arms did, swinging this way and that, blocking, thrusting, twirling. She danced to the left, sliced to the right, spun and felt her blade slide smoothly through a man’s abdomen. She ducked, letting the whoosh of an axe go by above her head. The man swung for her again, but this time she locked blades with him, pushing him back with hers, leaning into him so that her leg was free to kick out behind her, down and out, toward the legs of a man coming at her with a sword. It only slowed him down momentarily, but the delay was enough: she pushed off from the man with the axe, pivoted to the side, caught the man with the sword in the gut as he swung through where she’d just been, and then jumped away a few steps from the man with the axe. Two down, temporarily; one to go.
Greyson had taken out two men of his own and was currently locked in an intimate embrace with the final attacker, their swords pressed against one another, their faces inches apart.
She danced around a few more paces, making the man with the axe chase her. She led the man toward Greyson and his foe, parrying blow after blow without making an offensive move of her own. She waited until her back was nearly up against Greyson’s attacker; the man swung his axe, shouting something in Hodarian that made the other man step to the side abruptly, leaving Greyson wide open. Ayalah was ready. As soon as her attacker swung his axe, she dropped to the ground and rolled to the same side as Greyson’s opponent. Her opponent’s momentum forced him to follow through with his swing, giving Greyson an opening to hack at the man’s shoulder, hard. She, in the meantime, popped up behind Greyson’s attacker, whose attention was still focused on Greyson: a mistake. She speared him straight through, and pulled her sword out of him as he fell.
The men she’d wounded refused to let her rest. They came after her, their fury almost tangible in the way they spat at her like she was truly an evil spirit. She had to admit that their ferocity was impressive; but ultimately, her skill was better. And now, combined with Greyson’s skill, she thought with a wicked grin, she was virtually unstoppable.
The rest of the fight didn’t last long. She didn’t particularly enjoy killing men when they were already wounded and no longer attacking her, but she couldn’t take the chance that one of these men would make it back to the rest of the army to report that she and Greyson had gotten away. And besides, it was unlikely the men would live long enough to return to camp; really, she and Greyson were probably doing these men a favor by killing them right now, saving them a lot of pain and suffering from bleeding to death.
She looked up as she finished wiping off her sword in the grass.
Greyson was surveying the men they’d defeated. He sighed. “Such bravery. Such potential.”
She quirked an eyebrow at him.
“I do not view lightly the taking of another man’s life.”
She nodded. She wouldn’t have thought he did, what with his noble ideas and peace-loving tendencies. “Let’s go. More of them may follow.”
They sheathed their swords and ran on.
They slept that night in the middle of the field, not so much because they wanted to, but because their bodies simply could not go on. They stumbled through the dark until they collapsed, and they didn’t wake until the sun began to tint the sky again. Then they stood and stretched and ran once more.
They didn’t speak until they reached the edge of the trees. It was midday of the second day, and Ayalah wasn’t sure how they’d made it so quickly. Her body ached all over; it felt as though knives were being stabbed into her sides, and her breath came loud and wheezy.
Greyson wasn’t faring much better.
The leaves of the trees filtered out much of the sunlight, and Ayalah found that she was chilled and shaking as they moved through the forest. It felt nearly the same as it had the last time, save for the sweltering heat they’d endured then. They slowed down to a walk, then a slow shuffle, and then finally they stopped.
Greyson pointed, and Ayalah followed the trajectory of his finger to see a small stream a little ways away. They moved toward it wordlessly. Ayalah sank down beside it and swallowed greedily, drinking slowly only because it was still hard to breathe. She felt the cool of the water spread through her chest and down into her fingers. Finally, she allowed herself to lie down in the grass beside the stream. Her breathing slowed, she let her eyes drift and lose focus, and soon she fell asleep.
She woke to find that she was shivering. She sat up, with some effort. Greyson was crouching near her, trying unsuccessfully to light a fire.
“Branches are too wet,” he said when he saw her watching him.
His hands were shaking violently, she saw, and he was growing impatient. Finally, he threw up his hands and huffed. He kicked the pile of branches and came to sit on her left.
She didn’t know what to say to him. He’d lied to her, misled her completely about his character and his motives, and didn’t do anything to help her when she was enslaved. Then he’d acted like he didn’t even know her—but then, bafflingly, deserted the Hodarian army with her, fighting by her side for all the world like allies, like old friends.
“You never told me you could fight,” she said finally. She’d meant to sound accusatory, but it came out as a whisper.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“You never told me you spoke Hodarian.”
“Or that you were planning to desert the army and take me with you.”
He pressed his lips together.
“You seem to have kept quite a lot of secrets from me.”
“Will you let me explain?”
She looked at him. He was huddled into himself, shoulders slumped, elbows resting on his knees as his arms dangled limply before him. He looked miserable. She thought of how he’d saved her life once, at the Ancient Meeting Place, and had again staged a rescue of sorts for her just now. She certainly owed him at least the chance to explain himself.
He took a deep breath and began.