She didn’t sleep that night, and by the time the sun began to tint the sky, she was armored and ready to ride, knocking on the princess’s door.
“Rin,” she called, “are you dressed? The Bolladians are preparing to leave; we need to get in formation.”
The door swung open to reveal Rinnah already fully decked out in the armor Greyson had designed and hammered out for her, with only her head and face exposed, the curls in her hair still fluffy and perfectly coiffed.
“Have you been practicing with the armor?” Ayalah asked. She’d instructed the princess months ago to gradually work up to fighting in armor, but the task had completely slipped her mind once she’d been taken prisoner in Hodaroth. Now it was an urgent issue at the forefront of her thoughts: if Rin could barely move in the armor, she might as well hand her head over to the enemy on a gold platter.
Rin nodded. “It still seems heavy, but I can fight in it now.” She demonstrated by lunging and twisting and thrusting with an imaginary sword in hand.
“Good,” Ayalah said. “And the helm?”
“It limits my vision. I dislike it.”
Ayalah smiled. “Too bad. You still have to wear it.”
“But you don’t wear one.” A stubborn jut of the chin and a frown reminded Ayalah uncomfortably of Rin’s youngest brother Roran, murdered on his own ship while Ayalah tried to defend him, and of Rin’s older brother Komma, nearly killed from a blow to the head.
She would not let the same thing happen to Rin. She would not.
“I’m not a princess,” Ayalah said. She shoved the helm at Rin, who took hold of it reluctantly. Then she grabbed the princess’s sword from the maid—who held it out in trembling hands—and strapped it to Rin’s waist herself, making sure the buckle was tight but not too tight, the scabbard well oiled, the sword sharpened and securely sheathed. “Don’t be nervous,” she told the princess. “I won’t let any harm come to you.”
Rin smiled shakily. “Nor I you, Commander.”
They reported to the front of the Naralian ranks, where two horses waited for them, already saddled and heavily armored. Ayalah was to ride out at Rin’s side, the honor afforded to her at Rin’s royal command even though Ayalah’s rank did not merit it. She would have traded all of these honors she didn’t deserve for one more day with Greyson.
She gasped as they grew closer and saw the horses, and Rin grinned.
“A gift from our friend Lord Monty. Seems two Miltinian-bred horses were sold at the market last year, and it took Monty months to track them down and buy them himself.”
Ayalah’s mare whickered when she saw her former master approach, and suddenly tears were stinging Ayalah’s eyes again, and she put her hand on the horse’s nose and stroked her softly. I will not let you go again, she thought at the horse.
They mounted and prepared to ride. A cheer went up from the ranks when the princess donned her helm, and she saluted to the men, making their cheers grow even louder.
Greyson’s regiment went first, and then Ayalah and Rin followed, with the host of Naralians and Olekians behind them, some ahorse and most afoot, brandishing swords and axes and maces and pikes, longbows and crossbows and spears. There was a heavy layer of dew on the grass and thick fog that seemed to follow them as they moved southward. The Miltinian-Hodarian army had pushed past the Naralian-Bolladian lines, but they were still a half day’s ride from the walls of Bolladoth, and the morning flew by in a blur of grass and mud. Ayalah could feel her mare itching to break into a gallop as they rode, but she obediently kept pace, moving slowly so as to stay with the foot soldiers. Ayalah rode by Rin’s side, yet for once the princess was quiet, pensive, and they did not speak, merely listened to the sound of the horses’ hooves, the creak of leather and armor, the murmur of the foot soldiers’ voices muted by the fog.
When the leading regiment of Bolladians came upon the enemy, they fell on them with a roar, and the clash of steel on steel reached Ayalah’s ears like a forgotten memory, the hairs on the back of her neck standing up as the screams of men echoed around them. She wasn’t sure if the fog had thickened or if her vision had narrowed, but somehow the enemy seemed to appear out of nowhere, suddenly before her, all too quickly surrounding them and engaging the ranks and ranks of men behind her. Each soldier fought his own battle, many of the men engaging or attempting to engage two or three adversaries at a time. In a way Ayalah thought war was a beautiful expression of life, the way men held onto it and fought for their every breath.
Rin may have been afraid, but her warhorse was well trained and did not shy away, and soon the princess was hacking down attackers with the fury that only newly blooded warriors displayed. It was clear that she’d been practicing, and if Ayalah had had time to think about it, she would have felt a surge of pride at the way Rin handled her sword. The princess fought with skill and passion, letting no man get through her defenses, not even one blow getting close enough to dent her armor.
Ayalah hoped the adrenaline would keep the princess going so long as their men could see her; the sight of their princess locking swords with the enemy was sure to improve morale, and if Rin showed any sign of weakness, the men might falter, too.
The fog stretched its fingers all around them, making small islands of men and horses and weapons between the shadows.
For her part, Ayalah was more focused on protecting Rin than on attacking the Miltinians and Hodarians; she could not let Rin down like she’d let down Roran. This fight was easier, in a way: Ayalah was mounted, and most of their opponents were not; it was not the middle of the night and there was no snow falling. Still, they had weapons that could cut through blood and tendon and bone, and she had to protect her horse as well as herself, which added to the challenge. It had been too long since she’d fought on horseback; she could feel her thighs straining to hold her upright, her back muscles aching with the no-longer-familiar feeling of sitting a horse all day. But her mare knew what to do, and they’d trained so many years together that they moved seamlessly in response to each other’s subtlest movements, two parts of a deadly weapon. The enemy fell under hooves and blade, and for a little while Ayalah forgot that she and the horse were separate entities.
As the afternoon wore on and the fog began to burn away, the onslaught finally slowed and then stopped altogether. They’d won—this battle, at least. A Bolladian war horn sounded off in the distance, announcing their victory.
Rin reined up beside Ayalah and removed her helm, shaking out her sweat-dampened hair and smiling.
“Well,” Rin said, “that was fun. What do we do now? Attack some more men?”