Ayalah’s mind reeled. Greyson was—a Lord of Bolladoth? All this time she’d thought he was a mere blacksmith, far below her rank, when in fact he was above her?
“I—” He swallowed and looked at her. “I left many years ago and took up residence in Miltinoth. All I ever wanted to be was a blacksmith, and if I stayed in Bolladoth, I never could have been one. Not in my position.” He paused. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.”
She didn’t know what to say. The moment while he watched her for a reaction seemed to stretch into eternity, only making it harder for her to think.
“Please, Ayalah,” he said, and now she knew she couldn’t correct him, even if she wanted to. But the hurt in his eyes was real, and the worry on his face was plain to see, and she could hear the pleading in his voice.
“I don’t understand,” she finally got out.
Swynn clapped his hands and rose from his chair. “Excellent,” he said with a smile. “Now you are both where you should be. Please excuse me while I tend to my noble friends, the birds.” He hummed to himself as he climbed the stairs.
“Ayalah, please try to understand,” Greyson said. He grabbed her hand before she could snatch it away. “If you had ever asked, I would have told you. I wanted to, I thought about it, but… it never came up. It’s not who I am anymore; it’s not who I want to be.”
She stared at him. “What kind of fool would reject a comfortable life in favor of struggling to survive in a village in the remote outskirts of Miltinoth?”
The crease between his eyes deepened, but he didn’t look away, and he didn’t drop her hand. “The kind of fool who is young and thinks he knows everything.”
“Say something,” he urged.
“Why?” she whispered. She wasn’t sure what she meant. Why would he keep this from her? Why did he have to complicate the situation? Why did it feel like a dagger was being twisted inside her chest?
“Because—” He floundered. “Because your opinion means the world to me. You should know that by now.”
She looked up again to see that he was looking intently at her. He caught her eyes with his and held her there for a moment.
But the moment was broken when Swynn came back down the stairs, still humming to himself. “I believe these belong to you,” he said to Ayalah. Greyson let go of her hand as Swynn dropped a pile of clothing into her lap.
“My uniform!” It was all there, from the trousers to the vest, even the bits of armor that marked her position as a commander of Naraloth. “But how did you get it?”
He grinned and winked at her. “Call it luck, if you will. Hurry and change, child, the clock is ticking, you know.”
“What do you mean?” she asked. But she stood anyway.
“You need to be on your way, now you know where you are headed.”
She blinked. “But where are we headed?”
Greyson spoke quietly, the reluctance in his voice apparent even to Ayalah. “To Bolladoth.”
In the realm of things that Swynn was able to produce inexplicably, Ayalah decided that she much preferred her Naralian uniform to the severed head he’d given her the last time she visited this forest. He had also presented her with her sword and dagger, for which she’d surprised even herself by growing a bit teary eyed.
In all that had happened since they’d set sail from Naraloth, she hadn’t given much thought to the parting gift Lumi had given her when they said goodbye. Actually, she’d forgotten about it entirely. But she heard a crinkle while pulling on her uniform, and she reached into her pocket curiously to find a small, sealed envelope lodged deep within. She turned it over in her hands, trying to remember what it was from, and then the realization dawned on her.
She opened the envelope carefully and unfolded the piece of parchment within. It was a portrait, and Ayalah felt a pang when she recognized Roran’s signature at the bottom. The woman in the portrait looked like Lumi, but younger somehow, happier. Ayalah couldn’t tell if the image was meant to be of a younger Lumi or of her sister Crissa, Ayalah’s mother. A note had been written in flowery script to the side: Trust your heart.
Ayalah was touched, though she didn’t quite understand the message. She folded the parchment back up, slid it carefully back into the envelope, and returned it to her pocket for safekeeping.
Swynn had sent them on their way with supplies and directions, and they headed the way he’d pointed, which would lead them, he promised, straight into Bolladoth.
She and Greyson had not spoken since they said their goodbyes to the wizard. They walked in uncomfortable silence, the soft chirps and creaks of the forest sounding strained and loud to Ayalah’s ears. She didn’t even know what to call Greyson anymore. Lord Greyson? Smithy Greyson? Was Greyson even his real name?
Finally, Greyson broke the silence. “When we get to Bolladoth, I’m not going to be treated like a returning hero or anything. Probably I’ll be apprehended; maybe even killed or exiled.”
He spoke in a soft, subdued manner that pierced Ayalah’s heart, regardless of how confused and betrayed she felt.
“What, you?” Ayalah said with a smile, trying to cheer him up. “A fine, skilled warrior, Lord of the Court of Bolladoth? They wouldn’t do that to you.”
Her words had the opposite effect she’d intended. Greyson turned to her, a wounded expression on his face. “Ayalah, I said I was sorry. I wanted to tell you but I—I couldn’t. You wouldn’t have believed it anyway. The fighting….” He trailed off, looking out into the forest. “Well, yes, I’ve been trained, but I’m not a true warrior. I dislike fighting.”
She nodded; she knew it was the truth. “If you had told me,” she said slowly, and he glanced at her before looking back at the trail they followed. “If you had told me, I would have turned you in to Mathais,” she admitted. “I wouldn’t have trusted you.”
He didn’t say anything.
“But,” she tried again. How could she indicate to him that, although she was hurt that he had kept so much from her, she wasn’t going to hold it against him? That she still valued his friendship? “I’m glad I trusted you,” she blurted. Was that clear enough? She didn’t know how else to say it.
To her relief, he slowed down and grinned at her. “Trusted? Past tense?”
He’d been by her side for over a year, always looking out for her, trying in his own way to protect her, while she tried in her way to protect him. Trust your heart. “Still trust.” They were a team; they were in this together.
His grin widened into a dazzling smile, and for a moment she forgot how to breathe. “Good,” he said.