They rode through the night and well into the next day until Ayalah was forced to call a halt to have Healer Woodbridge tend to her injuries. She’d bled through her bandages and through her uniform, and Woodbridge gave her a sound scolding as he cleaned her up and padded her wounds as best he could with limited supplies. The other men tended to the horses, relieved their bladders, and stretched until Woodbridge and Ayalah were done.
They pressed on.
They passed through a few towns and a number of road blocks with sentries who insisted they prove their identities and loyalties before proceeding. At one road block they stopped to eat a quick bite and rest the horses again—a necessary delay, but one that still grated on Ayalah’s nerves—and then they continued on, racing north toward Bolladoth in a desperate gamble to save their king’s life.
When at last the Bolladian gates appeared in the distance, Ayalah sagged with relief. She’d lost a lot of blood, and she’d had to refuse Woodbridge’s numbing potions for fear of becoming drowsy and falling off her horse. She felt lightheaded and dizzy, gripping her reins with white knuckles and leaning down low over her horse’s neck to hide her face from the others. Somehow she found herself fretting that, out of all of this, she was riding a horse whose name she didn’t even know.
The ride through the delicate gates and the glittering city were a blur. Ayalah wasn’t even sure how they’d gotten through, but somehow they did, and all at once they were entering the queen’s gardens, lovely and untouched. If Ayalah had been in better health she might have thought the war was a dream, the fighting all imaginary; as it was, it was all she could do to keep herself in the saddle, the pain from her wound causing sweat to stream down her face. The sun beat down on them; not a single cloud was in the sky, and the gardens were deserted. They reached the palace gates without incident.
Komma was carried up a flight of stairs and into the chambers of a man who wore a crisp robe of the purest white Ayalah had ever seen. He nearly glowed in the fading sunlight streaming in through his window. He and Woodbridge spoke in hushed voices, and the man produced a contraption from one of his drawers that looked like a nail with a handcrank attached.
“Commander,” Woodbridge said, “you don’t need to be here for this.”
The blood had been cleaned off of Komma’s face, but there was a spot near the king’s temple that looked bruised and swollen, and the glowing man secured the device onto the king’s head, lining up the nail with that spot.
“What are you doing?” Ayalah asked. The room seemed foggy; she thought she might vomit.
“We need to drain the blood from his head,” Woodbridge said. “You should rest—”
Ayalah pushed his hands away from her. “I’m staying until I’m sure he’s okay,” she said. She stumbled.
A beautiful face swam before her, and then sturdy arms were holding her up, and a voice was speaking into her ear softly, telling her everything would be fine, and it was time to sleep now.
She woke with a gasp. She was in a soft bed in a room she didn’t recognize, and the curtains were drawn tight, letting no light in. She fumbled for a candle in the dark, but when she stretched her arms out a sharp pain radiated through her, and she cried out.
“Ayalah?” A figure appeared in a doorway to her right, an outline barely visible in the dark. The figure retreated and then returned holding a candle. “Are you awake?”
The princess hurried to her side and embraced her gently. “You’ve been sleeping for a few days,” she said, “but they fixed you, the healers I mean, they said you’ll be fine. And Komma too.”
Then it hadn’t been a dream; she must be in the Bolladian palace. Her tunic and vest had been removed, she saw, and only bandages covered her torso under the thick wool blanket covering her.
“What are you doing here?”
Rin laughed. “Straight to the point, even now. I’ve come to fight.”
“You what?” Ayalah bolted upright, wincing at the pain. “Absolutely not. You can’t.”
“I can,” Rin said, touching Ayalah’s arm with cold fingers, “and I will. Preslon and Roran are dead, and Ayer and Nestor are out there somewhere, fighting. Shanka is holding Naraloth, and what was I doing? Nothing. As if there was no war going on.”
Ayalah stared at the princess’s face in the flickering light. “But… don’t princesses have to encourage the people? Or something like that?”
Rin shrugged. “I suppose. I hosted a dinner party, a dance… but what’s the point? The men are off fighting, and the women are anxious and afraid. What we need is more warriors, not more ladies. And I want to fight.”
“But Rin—you could protect those ladies. Their children. Who will protect them now?”
The princess’s perfectly arched brows furrowed. “If you care about them so much, why don’t you go protect them?” she snapped. “I thought you’d understand, Ayalah. Why should my brothers go off to fight, to protect our country with swords, while I sit in the palace and work on my needlepoint?”
Ayalah was stunned. She didn’t have an answer, and even if she did she knew it would be unsatisfactory. “I’m sorry, Rin. But it’s dangerous out there. You’ve never been in a real fight before—”
“And neither have half of the men out there. Maybe more.”
It was true; Ayalah didn’t know what to say.
“The Bolladians have plenty of women in their army. There’s no good reason we shouldn’t, too. You said so yourself, or have you forgotten?”
“You’re right, Rin. It’s just—”
“Just what, Ayalah?”
“I’m just worried about you,” Ayalah admitted. “At least let me ride out with you so we can fight together.”
Rin’s face softened, and she nodded, but then her mouth settled into a bitter line. “Well, the important thing is, the healers say that Komma will be fine. So come what may, Naraloth will have its king, and he can make lots of royal babies. The rest of us are dispensable.” She shook her head. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be saying this. Why don’t you get some more rest? I’ll come wake you once the sun is up.”
“Wait,” Ayalah said. “Chief Husk asked me to deliver this to King Komma, or to one of you if he didn’t wake.” She pulled the sealed parchment out of a pocket and handed it to the princess; it was crumpled and dirty, but intact.
Rin raised an eyebrow. “I’ll give it to Komma in the morning. For now…” She broke the seal and read the chief’s letter by the light of her candle. She frowned. “He says they don’t have enough men to hold off the enemy. He asks for reinforcements.” She sighed. “We don’t have the men. With our army split between here and Naraloth, and the Bolladian army so small and inexperienced… the odds are not good. We were hoping Olekoth would send reinforcements, but…”
The princess shrugged. “We haven’t heard anything from them.”
“I’m sure Greyson will be able to convince them,” Ayalah said, but she didn’t believe her own words, and Rin clearly didn’t either.
Rin sighed again. “Might as well get some rest. I’m glad you’re okay, Ayalah. I worry about you, too, you know.”
She shut the door quietly behind herself, leaving Ayalah in the dark with her doubts.