They worked their way southwest over the next few days, the armies of Miltinoth and Hodaroth falling before them or yielding, one regiment after another, as they retook the fields leading to Naraloth. The Naralian camp Ayalah had left only a couple of weeks before was abandoned, most of the tents ripped to pieces by explosions or burned by raiders. But a small force had survived, taking shelter in a nearby village with a small stone tower in its center. The survivors rejoiced at the sight of the princess and thanked her profusely for the Olekian reinforcements and supplies; the Naralian, Bolladian, and Olekian armies were permitted campfires and ale that night, the war temporarily forgotten for all but the wounded and the healers.
Soon they received word that the eastern Olekian contingent had beaten back the enemy army and taken the eastern shore: another victory. The Miltinian-Hodarian army was being herded westward toward them, but they were pushing the armies around them eastward simultaneously, the battleground gradually narrowing to the Ancient Meeting Place, where the prophecy had foretold the final battle would take place. Slowly, slowly, this war was coming to an end.
King Komma, too, was on the move. He’d been recovering from his injuries for the past fortnight, and now he rode south with a small contingent, headed straight for a confrontation with King Mathais. I will end this war one way or another, he’d written to Rinnah. Mathais cannot hope to triumph now, not unless he holds a hidden army in reserve. Too many men have laid down their lives for this war already; I shall restore peace to the world or die trying. Rin and Ayalah were to continue moving west, to break the siege on Naraloth and remove any threat of retaliation from Mathais’s remaining army. Already they’d split his force in two and greatly reduced it, and now they would solidify their victory.
After nearly a week of fighting, they defeated the final division of Miltinians that stood between them and what remained of the main Naralian host led by Princes Ayer and Nestor. The remaining men in the Naralian army looked half-starved and miserable, and they welcomed the Olekians with more relief than real enthusiasm. Rin approached one such exhausted warrior—who watched their approach warily—and inquired after her brothers.
“Can’t say as I know,” the man said with a shrug. “Them princes can’t be bothered with the likes of me.” He paused. “Begging your pardon, of course, Yer Majesty.”
Rin didn’t correct him. “Warrior Green, was it?”
The man nodded. “Aye, like the color.”
The man’s surly disposition brightened noticeably. “I did fight off a number of them Miltinians,” he said. “My father was a warrior back in his day, the first of our line to leave the fishing business, and the family told him he was crazy, they did, but he thought it was important, and I think so, too. Someone’s got to defend the women and children, begging your pardon, Majesty, you being a lady and all. Never thought I’d see so much bloodshed in my life; my father only served during peacetime, but there you have it, I suppose that’s my lot in life.”
Rin opened her mouth to speak, but the man barreled on.
“Started out as a fisherman, o’course, but when I near drowned in a squall I decided it was time to pack up my nets and enlist. Fish, men, they’re the same in the end, got to get them afore they get you, especially the big ones, the fish I mean, not the men. Well, the men too, come to think on it, you’ve got to watch out for the big ones, though I had a cousin who was a giant, I mean really a giant, towered over all the rest of us, the only one in his family to be so tall, and both his parents regular sized like me. Anyhow, he kept telling me the sea was safer than the battlefield, but he was thrown overboard during that big storm, you know the one, about four years ago, and look at me, fighting through a war and coming out in one piece. It just goes to show, that’s what I always say, Majesty. Every man’s got his part to play, and this here is mine.”
Rin smiled her most charming smile, the one Ayalah had seen her use in ballrooms and at dining tables. “Your bravery is commendable, Warrior. I hope to hear more about it at another time.” She turned to Ayalah, who had been watching the exchange with a hand on her swordhilt and her eyebrows raised. “Come, let us leave Warrior Green to rest and find someone who can direct us to my brothers.”
Warrior Green fairly bounced in his eagerness to be helpful. “Begging your pardon, Majesty, but I do know that the highborn have their tents down thataway.” He pointed to indicate which way he meant, and Rin smiled again.
“Thank you, Warrior.”
“It was a pleasure talking with you, Majesty,” he said, and he bowed deeply—as he should have at their approach, Ayalah thought sourly.
She and Rin walked their horses through the camp, and Ayalah waited until they were out of earshot to speak. “That man was insolent and disrespectful. Why did you let him prattle on to you like that?”
Rin smiled. “That man will fight to the death for me and for our country now. In exchange for a few minutes of my time, I have ensured his loyalty and boosted his morale and the morale of all the men he speaks to of me.”
“But he’s been fighting for Naraloth anyway. He’s a warrior; that’s what we do.”
“Yes, but he was fighting for honor, or something to do, or a place to live. Now he will fight for me.”
Ayalah shook her head. “I think you’re giving him more credit than he deserves.”
The princess gave her a shrewd look. “I gave you just as much credit when I met you, and look how that turned out.”
It was true, and Ayalah didn’t know what to say. She supposed her story was similar to that man’s—she’d come from a humble background and her father had been a warrior—but her story differed in important places, like how she’d always wanted to be a warrior, how she’d been orphaned and trained in the ways of manners by Gavin, how she’d never had an extended family to rely on like that man had. But Rin was smirking like she knew something Ayalah didn’t, and she wondered if she was wrong, if princesses were trained to understand people the way warriors were trained to understand swords.
Soon they were being greeted and led to a large tent decorated with the Naralian seal, their horses led off to the side to be watered and brushed down. They entered with no fanfare, but the handful of men inside bowed politely when they saw them.
“My beautiful sister,” said one of the men, and Ayalah was surprised to see that it was Prince Ayer, who had grown out his hair and beard since the last time she’d seen him. He and Rinnah shared an embrace that lacked any semblance of warmth, and he nodded politely to Ayalah. “Commander Tarall.” His breath stank of ale. He indicated the other men in the tent, who stood around a table with a map spread on it. “I believe you both know Senior Chiefs Cross and Tomson. This is Chief Bitters over here, and at that end of the table is Senior Commander Cob. Gentlemen, my sister Princess Rinnah and the ever-faithful Commander Tarall.”
The men murmured polite greetings, and Rin smiled at them all. Ayalah’s hand unconsciously moved to her swordhilt once more.
“Where is Preslon?” Rin asked her brother.
“Fallen in battle,” Ayer said. “Arrow in the throat.”
Rinnah’s face fell. “Did he—?”
“He’s dead, yes. Left me in command of the lot. I hear Komma was injured as well.”
“Yes,” Rin murmured. She stared at her brother as if she did not know him.
“He’s recovered, though,” Ayalah put in.
“I see,” Ayer said. “And yet he sent my sister to try to win my battles for me?”
Ayalah gritted her teeth. “Your sister has won every battle she’s tried her hand at so far.”
“The Olekians won those battles,” Ayer said. “But I’m sure Rinnah’s pretty face inspired some of them to greater glory than they might have accomplished otherwise.”
Ayalah hissed. “How dare you?”
“He’s drunk, Commander,” Rin said. “Ignore him.”
“I have enough wits about me to know that this commander,” he sneered at the word, “couldn’t have gotten this far on her skill alone.” He smirked. “Or at least not with a sword.”
“Enough, Ayer,” Rin said.
“No no,” Ayalah said with venom, “let him continue. If that’s his theory for how I’ve earned my place in the world, I’d love to know how he claims to have earned his. Did your mother bed every man in the realm, or were you the only mistake she made?”
The blood seemed to drain out of the prince’s face. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
Ayalah looked pointedly at his nose, which differed so vastly from those of his siblings. “Don’t you?”
“Stop it, both of you,” Rin said, and now the other men in the tent had begun to speak up, too, alternately chastising both Ayalah and Ayer and begging them to calm down.
“My mother was a queen, a woman of honor. The only woman in the palace who can’t keep her legs closed is my s—” Ayer began, but he never finished his sentence. He reeled as Ayalah’s fist connected with his face, and she felt the satisfying crunch of his nose breaking before he fell. The tent went silent.
“Poor prince,” Ayalah sneered, “now your face will be even uglier than it was before.”