The goal of the decoy army was simple to explain but difficult to accomplish. Five divisions made up the decoy army—just over five thousand warriors—but most of them newly recruited and green in battle. Ayalah was to lead the first division in the first wave of the battle, an honor both highly desirable and most likely to get her killed. It was no surprise to her to learn that Lady Westerly had been the one to volunteer her for such an operation. The decoy army was to sneak out of the city through the southern forests, head eastward through the trees and then the grassy hills lining the coast, killing any scouts or wayward battalions in their way, and then attack the Miltinian-Hodarian army south of the Ancient Meeting Place, distracting their main fighting force from the real Naralian host, which would come down from the north. They would use the landscape to their advantage and would rely on a few well-placed spies to spread rumors about the size of the Naralian (decoy) army, their superior fighting skills, and how many battles they’d already won. Hopefully, that combined with the element of surprise would be enough to save their skins long enough for the main force to strike and redirect the enemy’s attention.
Ayalah had no idea if the plan would work. It was risky at best. If even one scout from the enemy army discovered them and reported back, they would be easy prey. And five thousand warriors were hard to hide, even if they’d been the top-ranking warriors in all the land, rather than new recruits. As it was, Ayalah suspected they’d be disposing of a rather large number of enemy scouts.
As a child, she’d imagined going off to war with her head held high and her sword strapped proudly to her belt. But the reality was solemn, with friends to say goodbye to and family—family!—to beg her not to go. In her wildest dreams she never would have imagined a princess crying over her, but somehow her life had taken this strange course, and she walked through it in a daze, only dimly aware that she almost certainly went to her death.
There was no hero’s farewell for Ayalah or the five thousand troops accompanying her. In case of enemy spies within the walls of Naraloth, all their preparations took place in the dead of night. Warriors’ civilian family members were told that their small army was going to defend the Naralian Isles, and decoy ships were even prepared to leave from a small port town at the tip of the southern forest. It was an elaborate ruse, but even so Ayalah wasn’t sure it was one that would work. Nonetheless, the divisions were eerily quiet as they snuck out of the city just before the sun began to tint the sky, all of them on edge until they’d put a good amount of distance between themselves and the city walls.
There were no warhorses accompanying them on their march, though Monty did provide them with a dozen mountain ponies to pull the supply wagons and help them through the hills—should they reach them successfully, of course. They were not allowed cooking fires or torches in the dark, but the sun shone merrily during the daytime each day and a warm breeze weaved through the trees, keeping morale fairly high and complaints to a surprising minimum.
Most of the soldiers in Ayalah’s division were young men, eager to shed blood and convinced they were nigh invincible. But the top regiment within her division was a selection of somewhat more experienced warriors, to Ayalah’s relief, and she was pleased to see a familiar face among the ranks: Red, the warrior who had first shadowed Ayalah and Greyson when they’d arrived in Naraloth. They broke bread together often along the march, Red’s humor a welcome respite from Ayalah’s concerns and from the knot of tension between her shoulder blades that hadn’t dissipated since they’d entered the trees.
The march was slow and tedious, but luckily they met no serious opposition. To be sure, the elite party of one hundred men who made up the mock raiding force tasked with ranging ahead of the main host and reconquering towns saw a good amount of combat, but the rest of the army remained—as far as they knew—undiscovered and unchallenged. The towns they passed through were largely deserted, most of them having been looted and destroyed, whether before or after their occupants left, Ayalah could not always tell. The few towns filled with enemy soldiers were quickly taken care of, with no survivors left to escape and expose the decoy army.
Trees gave way to overgrown brush and then to rolling green hills that were soon trampled and muddied by the host of warriors. By the time they reached the hills, the rain had grown fairly constant, and the damp seeped into Ayalah’s clothes, leaving her soggy and rank, even to her own senses. They had to stay on the far side of the hills to keep from being seen, and the ground quickly grew boggy and murky. The upbeat attitudes of the men vanished in the face of the rain; grumblings began to be heard, and fights broke out whenever they stopped moving.
Thirty days and nights had passed since they’d left Naraloth when they stopped marching and assembled in battle formation to ambush the southern contingent of the Miltinian-Hodarian army. By Ayalah’s estimates, the Naralian army should begin arriving by boat in Bolladoth at the same time, so the time to strike was now—just before dawn, when the bulk of the enemy army would still be abed. Already Ayalah’s archers and raiding force had been picking off Miltinians and Hodarians among the trees and low hills, and although their estimate of a thousand men killed was surely inflated, still it was encouraging to the men that the enemy warriors were just as mortal as any other men.
As the leader of the decoy army attack, it was up to Ayalah to give the final command to send these men to their deaths. She’d been mentally composing her speech day by day as they grew closer, but the reality of this many men watching her expectantly was different in reality than it had been when she’d imagined it. She mustn’t disappoint them.
She stood facing the front ranks of the men and took a deep breath.
“Warriors of Naraloth,” she shouted, in as deep and commanding a voice as she could project. She hoped most of the men could hear her, though she knew from her own experience as a new recruit that the men toward the back would need to have her words relayed to them in whispers from their fellow warriors. “Some here are experienced fighters, with scars to boast of and tales to tell. Others are newly recruited, eager to see action and inexperienced in the ways of blood madness. No matter your skill level, fear is normal. Fear makes us fight harder, and longer. Fear is not something to be ashamed of.” She paused to take in the looks of discomfort of the men before her. None wanted to be known as a coward, of course—Ayalah least of all. “But whether or not you are afraid, you mustn’t let fear get the better of you. Stay strong, and remember that when we fight, we are fighting for freedom. We are fighting to save our people, our lands—” Cheers broke out, and she waited for them to quiet before continuing. “—and though some here may never again greet their families and friends, others will return, heroes, to tell our tale. Know that you are important, each and every one of you. Every man here has a role to play. I’ve heard mutterings that we’re being sent on a suicide mission, that we’re expendable.” Nods here and there. “Well, we’re not. Our mission is vital; our ambush could mean the difference between our nation winning and losing the war. When we fight, we fight with purpose. When we die, we die with honor. Now let us prove that we are heroes, every one of us, and may we live to tell the tale!”
If the enemy army wasn’t already aware of their presence, Ayalah thought, the roar that went up from their small decoy army would surely alert them. She hoped she had inspired the men. There was no course in the military to teach commanders how to give a speech—although, she thought wryly, if she survived this war, she planned to change that.
“For Naraloth!” she shouted. She turned and ran toward the enemy’s southern ranks.
“Naraloth!” the men shouted, following closely on her heels.
The ground pounded beneath them as they topped the final rise and spied the Miltinian-Hodarian army. The enemy army was frantically trying to prepare, many of the men staring at their approach, some only half-dressed in their black leathers with the red stripes down the arms.
Ayalah drew her sword as she grew close and aimed for the nearest man she saw.