Chapter 88

Time seemed to have slowed down, but in reality the fighting went on uninterrupted, save for how distracted Ayalah now was, trying to watch the kings fight and defend herself at the same time. She maneuvered through the ranks toward the ancient stones. She had no way of knowing if she’d get to her king in time to assist him, or if he’d even need help, but she had to at least try.

She blocked a Hodarian axe aimed at her horse’s flank and spun around to strike back at the attacker. A quick glance toward the stones, just long enough to see Komma lunging in his saddle toward Mathais, was all the time she had before another sword came slicing toward her, this one of Miltinian craftmanship. She parried it, but before she could retaliate one of her compatriots had attacked the Miltinian warrior, and she let the two of them fight as she spurred her horse onward toward the stones. She caught a glimpse of a horse rearing and one of the kings falling out of his saddle, but then a line of mounted warriors appeared before her, and her focus narrowed on her own sword and the swords aimed at her.

Three men came toward her—Miltinian, judging by their uniforms—and one of them even looked vaguely familiar. The first attacker swung his broadsword at her with such force that for a fleeting instant she wondered if her sword would break from the pressure. But it didn’t, and then the second attacker was upon her, and she parried his blow just in time, catching it mere inches from her horse’s neck. The first attacker was busy deflecting another blade, and Ayalah had lost track of the third man who’d seemed to be aiming for her. She swung at the second attacker and was pleased to hear a satisfying rip as her sword opened a gash in the man’s leather sleeve, slicing clean through his flesh. But a scream from her horse quickly drowned out her satisfaction, and she turned to see a deep gash running along her horse’s flank, blood spilling out too fast for Ayalah to stanch.

She had only a few moments to worry, though, before the first attacker was back with a vengeance, his broadsword raining down blow after blow, his horse foaming at the mouth. The force of his attack was astonishing; pain seared down Ayalah’s sword arm with every parry and block. The second attacker slammed his horse into Ayalah’s, and her mare screamed again as it regained its balance and then reared up. She held on and sliced down at the second attacker, catching him in the neck right as he looked up at her. Blood squirted out, and he fell from his saddle as Ayalah’s horse touched the ground again.

Before she could lift her sword again, the first attacker was hacking at her with his broadsword once more, slicing open her right shoulder so she lost the momentum of her swing and then circling back to chop at her left arm as well. She spun her horse just in time and lunged at the man, but suddenly she was being pitched forward, tumbling out of her saddle as her horse stumbled.

She rolled out of the way and watched in horror as her mare’s legs buckled beneath her. Blood poured out of the horse’s chest, frothing as it screamed in pain.

“No,” she whispered. She had failed. Her horse had stood by her, had saved her life—but she hadn’t been able to do the same for it.

She had dropped her sword as she fell, and now she looked around for it frantically, angrily.

“Hold,” a voice said quietly. She looked up to see a bloodied sword leveled at her throat; she obediently froze. It was the third attacker, the one who had looked somewhat familiar, though she couldn’t quite figure out why. He must be the one who had cut down her horse.

“I don’t want to kill you, Tarall,” he said, “but I will if I have to.”

Her head snapped up to look at him more closely. Grey eyes, grey hair, and a grey beard. Did she know this man?

“Who are you?” she asked.

“I admit the years have taken a greater toll on me than they have on you,” the man said, “but I do hope I’m not so easily forgotten.”

She continued to stare at him, the sounds and movement around them seeming to melt away as they watched one another. Her training swordsmaster had been clean-shaven, with fewer wrinkles and a head of brown hair as dark as hers, but those eyes and that voice were so familiar…. “Chief Irons?”

“That’s Senior Chief Irons for some years now, Tarall.”

Ayalah could hardly believe it. This man had been her swordsmaster for years, back when she’d first started warrior training; at first he’d been contemptuous of her, working her twice as hard as any of the men, but soon he’d grown to like her and began to use her as the pinnacle of swordsmanship for the other recruits to strive for. She hadn’t seen or spoken to him in at least a decade. And now he’d killed her horse and held a sword to her throat.

How times changed, she thought wryly.

“Good to see you again, Senior Chief Irons.”

“You as well, Tarall. Is it Commander Tarall now? Of the enemy army?”

“Senior Commander, actually.”

She risked a glance toward the Ancient Meeting Place, where the kings still fought. Both men were now on the ground exchanging sword blows with one another, but Komma was on the defensive, losing ground quickly as his strength flagged. Ayalah remembered with a fresh wave of concern that Komma had nearly died only a few weeks before—even this much fighting was probably too much for him.

“Don’t even think about reaching for that dagger,” Irons said. Ayalah had started to move her hand toward her dagger without thinking, but she stopped the motion. “Do you yield?”

She looked her former swordsmaster in the eyes. Was that regret she saw? “Never.”

“Nor do I,” said a voice behind her, and she turned to see a familiar Olekian face grinning down at her from atop a Bolladian stallion. “Well met, Warrior Tarall,” he said.

“Well met, Captain Theidan,” she replied with a smile.

“What are you waiting for? Go! I’ll take care of this old man.”

She didn’t need to be told twice. She left Irons and Theidan to fight each other and sprinted toward King Komma. A few foot soldiers swung at her, but she dodged them, took a moment to grab a sword from a lifeless hand on the ground, and continued toward the two kings.

It seemed that while she’d been otherwise engaged, Komma had knocked the sword from Mathais’s hand, but Mathais now wielded a staff instead. A golden staff.

She ran.

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