As far as punishments went, being evicted from a muddy campsite and sent to assist the king wasn’t the worst Ayalah had brought upon herself. She had expected the stocks at least, but Prince Ayer was so embarrassed to have been bested by her, he simply wanted her as far away as he could send her, and that was to the part of the army on the other side of the continent. In point of fact, he had ordered her to report to the eastern contingent, not to the small force led by King Komma, but Ayalah figured she could always say she got sidetracked on her way east and was forced to fight to defend her king there. Komma was more likely to commend her for breaking his brother’s nose than to chastise her, and Rin was next in line for the throne even if something happened to Komma. So, Ayalah thought, it didn’t really matter what Prince Ayer thought of her, so long as there were credible witnesses—and there were—so he couldn’t embellish the story too much in his favor.
Anyway, it wasn’t like the purple bruising spreading across his face was permanent, Ayalah reasoned.
Rin had been furious with both of them. In the privacy of her own tent she’d called Ayalah reckless and foolish, and she’d called Ayer much, much worse—words Ayalah didn’t even think a princess would know.
Ayalah hadn’t been pleased at the idea of leaving Rin there without her protection, but Rin insisted on staying to keep an eye on her younger brother—and anyway, she’d more than proven her worth as a warrior; surely, Ayalah hoped, she could handle anything Ayer threw at her. Nonetheless, Ayalah was relieved when the princess’s entourage arrived with the last of the army and the supplies. The more allies and friends Rin had around her, the better.
If Ayalah could have let her mare gallop all the way to the Ancient Meeting Place, she could have been there in less than a week, but men and tents were strewn all over, and the mud made it slower going and messy. She traveled alone—part of Ayer’s obvious hope that she’d end up getting killed along the way—and though that allowed for faster movement, it also meant that she had to keep a constant watch, even in friendly territory. One couldn’t always predict where a spy was likely to be, and Ayalah knew from experience that an ambush could be waiting for her anywhere, particularly in the least expected places and from the least expected people. She slept on the ground each night with her hand on her sword hilt, each snap of a twig or hoot of an owl startling her awake. She wasn’t sure if she was protecting her horse or if her horse was protecting her, but nonetheless they made their way across the countryside without any real difficulties.
A day’s ride from the ancient stones that marked the circle of neutrality between all the world’s nations, Ayalah heard the clash of steel on steel and the cries of man and horse echoing over the muddy field. She approached slowly, picking her way through the bodies on the outskirts of the fighting, to try to assess what had happened. Men lay dead in a mixture of blood and mud, the bodies stretching from horizon to horizon like a blanket covering the ground. There were good men here, she knew, men who had become warriors to feed their families, to prove their courage, to protect their loved ones. Did these men deserve to die like this, with their innards spilling out and buzzards already pecking at their flesh before they’d gone cold?
Her horse snorted and tossed its head at the stench of so much death, but they plodded on inexorably toward the noise of battle. They passed score after score of corpses before Ayalah realized what she was seeing: the bodies littering the ground wore a mix of Miltinian and Hodarian uniforms—and only those uniforms. There were no Naralian bodies mixed in, and no Olekian bodies or Bolladian bodies either. She began to pay closer attention to the positions of the bodies and the weapons buried therein, and soon she understood. “They turned on each other,” she whispered. She wished she could relay the news to someone important, like Komma or Rinnah or even one of the Chiefs, in case they weren’t already aware. It might not be all that important now that Olekoth had joined them and turned the tide of the war already, but just in case….
She spurred her horse onward. She’d just have to fight her way through to whoever was in command of the nearest regiment or division.
She neared the edge of the fighting and found mainly Olekians and Hodarians trading blows, though a number of warriors from the other countries were scattered about as well. She wondered if the Olekians had come across the enemy army in the midst of their fight amongst themselves or if the Olekians had traversed the field of corpses like she had, coming upon the survivors of the struggle and challenging them after the fact. In any case, that didn’t matter now. What mattered was that she’d found a fight she should join, and she intended to fight beside her Olekian allies and work her way to her king.
She charged in with a shout and with her sword held high, startling her allies and enemies alike. As the only mounted warrior present, she had a clear advantage over the Hodarian foot soldiers, and she pressed her advantage as much as she could, raining down blow after blow and trampling as many men as she could with her horse, who got in a few good bites and kicks of her own. The Miltinian-Hodarian army was already starting to fall back, regrouping in a tighter, stronger unit like a fist ready to strike, and Ayalah was more than happy to fracture that fist, driving a wedge in the middle of the men and cutting them off from each other again.
For a moment she felt pleased with herself, but then she remembered that these men weren’t really her enemy, merely the blade her enemy wielded, the shield he hid behind. Her real enemy was King Mathais, the childless king of Miltinoth who craved power like other men craved love. She hoped that was how the world would remember him, after she’d stabbed him where his heart should be: as a power-hungry, loveless, barren fool of a king who cared little for the happiness of his people so long as his wants were met.
Her rage boiled up inside her, and it was then that she noticed another fight taking place, separate from the main battlefield.
She wondered briefly if her anger had been powerful enough to summon King Mathais to her, but it seemed someone else had gotten to him first. The two kings, Mathais and Komma, were trading blows in the center of the stones that marked the Ancient Meeting Place. Mathais rode a black Miltinian-bred destrier, with shining black armor and a bright red saddle blanket embroidered with the king’s seal rendering it visible from many leagues away; Komma, in contrast, rode a common brown stallion, its standard-issue armor and Bolladian features reminding Ayalah that Komma’s own warhorse had most likely been lost in the same attack that had nearly killed Komma himself. What Komma’s mount lacked in size and muscle, he’d have to make up for in skill and speed; Mathais’s advantage was a small but important one that had the potential to determine the course of events to come.
This must be it, then, Ayalah thought: the final battle the prophecy had foretold.