Some warriors Ayalah had trained with genuinely enjoyed killing other men. It made them feel powerful, or brave, or heroic. Others hated it, preferring to tend to the horses or stay on at the academy as trainers or assistants. Ayalah didn’t fall into either category. Taking lives neither pleased her nor displeased her; for her it was the fighting itself she loved, the trading of blows and the skill needed to stay alive. She never felt more alive than when she was cutting down attackers on the battlefield, her entire body taut as a bowstring, her whole mind focusing on the task at hand. It wasn’t about the men she bested, but rather about her besting them.
So it was now. She didn’t notice the number of men she slew or the number of men still fighting beside her. The battlefield was chaos and death, and Ayalah’s vision narrowed to only what she needed to focus on: the men coming at her, the sound of sword clashing against sword, and the space immediately surrounding her, the area in which she could move around as she fought.
She twisted and lunged and dodged, parried and sliced and feinted. Her sword was an extension of her arm, and wielding it came as naturally to her as walking or riding a horse. The men she fought were blurs of black and red, their faces blending into one, their bodies reduced in her view to shoulders and arms and the weapons they swung at her.
Miltinian and Hodarian alike fell before her, some with shrieks and others with gasps. Wave after wave crashed against her, and though she grew tired she knew she mustn’t rest. She was the shark and these were bleeding fish, and she killed them not for pleasure but for survival, instinct overriding any desire to live harmoniously with them.
The day wore on, and it was hard to tell how many of her army still fought. The shouting seemed to have lessened as both sides began to tire, and Ayalah’s senses began to expand once more, remembering that she was in charge and must let her men rest.
“Fall back!” she shouted. “Naraloth, fall back!”
The first battle was done. She would live to see another day.
Day two was blustery and overcast, a bad omen for fighting if you believed in that sort of thing—which Ayalah did not. But the men were uneasy and the sun didn’t seem as if it would come out for a few hours yet, and that didn’t bode well on a more practical level, either.
Ayalah was used to smaller battles and skirmishes, but war was a completely different beast. It had been generations since the last war, and only the very elderly could even remember the last one, though most had been too young to fight in it. But the world had been different back then, simpler, and the kings of old had fought over land and honor, none of them so foolish as to think they could rule the world single-handedly.
In her time at the warrior academy, Ayalah had studied the old war accounts and learned about the old Miltinian fighting styles, siege engines, and tactics. She had prided herself on her knowledge; most of the men couldn’t even read, and her added knowledge meant that she was more likely to be given commanding duties—had the king not hated her, of course. But somehow all of that reading hadn’t prepared her for this—not really—and she found herself being continually surprised at the civility both sides showed to one another when they were not trying to kill each other.
When they’d retreated the day before, the enemy had been more than happy to let them go. She’d left guards posted around their camp to watch for night attacks and had even allowed the men to have a quick bite of cold breakfast before setting out for another day of fighting. And still no one attacked them, and they approached the enemy camp without any opposition. It was almost suspiciously quiet, but perhaps the rumors of their army’s size had helped to discourage the enemy from taking the offensive.
Their decoy army had started with five thousand men, and although they had lost a lot of men the day before—too many—they still had a surprising force remaining. Ayalah had no delusions of their being able to survive more than another few days of fighting at the most, but hopefully they’d at least been successful at distracting a large contingent of the Miltinian-Hodarian army from the main Naralian host. That was, after all, the mission of the decoy army; live or die, they must serve as a distraction.
Another day of fighting, and then another, and Ayalah’s entire body ached, her arms and legs shaking with the effort of movement. And it was then that the enemy army attacked, coming upon the Naralian force in the hour before dawn, bringing with them the bodies of three of the Naralian spies, their faces barely recognizable as they were dragged behind the horses of the three commanding Miltinian officers leading the attack.
Ayalah found herself fighting one of the officers, a surprisingly skilled warrior who met her every stroke, every parry, anticipating her moves and cutting her off before she could dodge and retaliate. The sky was beginning to lighten as the sun peeked above the horizon, and in the murky half-light all Ayalah could discern about her adversary was that he wore the leathers of a Miltinian soldier, not the heavy wrappings of the Hodarians. She began to pant with the effort of keeping up with him: dodge, feint, thrust, then a twist, then a sidestep. She could have traded blows with this man all day, if she had the energy; they seemed to be in a bubble, fighting off to the side by themselves.
Backswing, pivot, block. Lunge, roll, recover. Up, down, a slice to the side. The man blocked every move from her and she blocked every move from him, and the two of them took turns attacking and defending.
Ayalah nearly laughed with glee. The only warrior who had ever been able to best her in swordfighting had been—
She blocked a thrust that came uncomfortably close to her nose and held the man there, scrutinizing his face, trying to make out his features under his thick beard in the pre-dawn light.
They were both breathing hard, and his breath was warm against her cheek. “Olikai?”
His eyebrows went up and his sword arm relaxed. “Tarall?”
“Ha!” she crowed. “It could only be you!”
He grinned. “I don’t know how I missed that braid—”
And then suddenly a sharp pain ran through her and somebody gasped. She looked down. There was a sword smeared with blood sticking out of her, and when she looked back up Olikai’s smile had changed into a mask of horror.
“Looked like you needed help, Chief Olikai,” a voice behind her said.
The sword came out of her body with another stab of pain, and she fell to her knees.
Warmth was spreading down her torso; a chill crept into her fingertips.
She couldn’t breathe.
Dimly she heard Olikai shout, and there was a roar in her ears as she fell to the ground.
The sun was rising, she saw, the sky all yellows and oranges.
It was beautiful.