She circled around the stones to run up on foot from behind Mathais, hoping to remain unnoticed by any but King Komma. The golden staff Mathais held was, Ayalah realized with a shock, the very same staff Greyson had crafted when she first met him—the one Ayalah had handed to Mathais herself. Yet despite how ordinary that staff had seemed when Ayalah held it in her own hands, when Mathais wielded it each blow seemed to have an incredible amount of power behind it, throwing Komma huge distances, its impact somehow magnified or enhanced. A whisper at the back of her mind reminded her of the rumors she’d heard that Mathais had a secret weapon he could use to win this war. Could it be that this staff—the one that had led her inexorably on the path she now followed, from Greyson to the rest of the pre-prophecy and the real prophecy and now a war spanning the entire world—was that weapon?
The fight wasn’t fair at all, Ayalah thought angrily. Man to man, Komma had bested Mathais. They’d both been unhorsed, and although Komma still lacked his full strength, he had knocked the sword from Mathais’s hand. But once Mathais switched to his staff, his strength seemed to have increased tenfold, his energy renewed, while Komma was panting, gripping his side in pain.
Ayalah knew she was going against some unspoken rule the rest of the men were following by getting involved in this fight, but she had to intervene; this had stopped being a fair fight when Mathais had introduced a magically-enhanced staff.
She didn’t have time to formulate a plan. She knew she needed to act quickly and decisively, or else risk being seen by Mathais and/or chased down by Miltinian warriors. Both options, she knew, had one probable outcome… and she wasn’t interested in dying just yet.
She sprinted to the stone nearest Mathais and rested behind it for a moment to catch her breath. A whoosh of wind rushed past her, and then Komma went flying overhead to land in a heap on the ground. He made no effort to rise from where he’d fallen.
Now was her chance.
She waited one beat, and then another, and as Mathais approached Komma—who appeared to be conscious, though dazed and gasping—she burst out from behind the stone and threw her whole weight onto her former king. They tumbled to the ground. Mathais’s staff was knocked from his hands, and though Ayalah tried to hold onto her borrowed sword, it went flying as well. They were tangled and muddy, and Mathais growled when he recognized his attacker.
She was up and sprinting to the golden staff before he could say anything. She grabbed it and spun around in time to see him leveling the point of her borrowed sword at her across the muddy grass.
“Give it back, Tarall,” Mathais snarled, “and I might be kind enough to kill you before chopping your limbs off one by one.”
She grinned. “Such a charming offer. I’m afraid I’ll have to pass, though.” She twirled the staff and felt a faint vibration in her hands with each twist. There was an empty groove at the top of the staff where, presumably, a jewel would go.
“The staff won’t work for you, Tarall,” Mathais warned. “Though if you’re fool enough to try it anyway, I’d love to watch.”
She frowned and leveled it at him. Was he bluffing? “What do you mean?”
He tossed the sword aside and stood empty handed. “Go ahead, give it a whirl.”
She remained poised to strike but did not yet move.
“You’ve been a thorn in my side for so many years,” he said. He barked out a laugh, but there was no joy behind it. His face was lined, haggard. He looked, now that she took a moment to scrutinize him, like he had aged ten years in the months since she’d last seem him. “And now, to think, I can finally be rid of you.”
“Why do you hate me?”
“There’s not enough time in the day to answer that fully.” He smirked. “Now hand over my staff.”
They’d begun circling around one another, and Ayalah fervently hoped that Mathais was too focused on her to notice Komma getting to his feet a short distance away.
“You know what your problem is, Tarall? You think you’re better than everyone else. You can never accept when you’ve been beaten.”
“Maybe,” Ayalah said. “Or maybe you’ve just never beaten me. To tell you the truth, I’m surprised you even remember how to do anything other than sit in a fancy chair and give orders.”
“The staff, Tarall. Now.”
“Come and get it. If you think you can.”
He rushed toward her with the speed of someone twenty years younger than himself.
“Komma!” Ayalah shouted. She threw the staff to him the way she would throw a spear, but Mathais slammed into her before she could see whether Komma caught it. They rolled in the mud, and Ayalah savored the feeling of her fist connecting with Mathais’s chin as she pinned him on his back.
He turned his head and spat a mouthful of blood into the mud. “Is that the best you can do?” He lifted her effortlessly and rolled her over so that he was sitting heavily on her hips, holding her arms above her head in an iron grip.
“Stop.” Komma’s voice was strong and steady—and nearby. He held the tip of the golden staff inches from Mathais’s head. Even a normal staff could have bashed in the Miltinian king’s head at that range, but this was no ordinary staff; Ayalah had no idea what kind of damage it might do. Mathais obediently froze. “On your knees, Mathais.”
“No,” Mathais said. He produced a dirk seemingly from thin air and held it to Ayalah’s throat with one hand, holding both her arms with his other. “Drop my staff and I won’t cut the throat of your loyal pet.”
Komma did not waver. “Her death would be regrettable.” There was no hesitation, no regret in his voice.
Ayalah felt a bead of sweat run down her forehead.
The tip of Mathais’s knife pricked her skin. “Don’t try to bluff, Komma. Your father wasn’t good at it, and neither are you.”
“Commander Tarall is a warrior, Mathais. Risking her life is part of her job. Put down your blade and surrender, and you can stand trial for your crimes. Kill her, and you die as well.”
A flash of doubt crept into Mathais’s icy eyes as he looked down at Ayalah. “Even your new king doesn’t care if you live or die,” he spat. “You aren’t even worth a sharpened blade.” He relinquished his grip on her and obediently knelt in the mud.
Ayalah struggled awkwardly to stand, her boots squelching in the mud. “You’re not even worth an ounce of my strength, or a second thought,” she growled. She aimed her foot at his abdomen and kicked as hard as she could; he doubled over with a grunt. She kicked him again, all those years of pent up rage traveling through her body and into her steel-tipped boots. “It’s a good thing your seed is as worthless as you are; any child of yours would have been born a monster.” She aimed her foot once more, but a firm hand on her shoulder stopped her.
Her foot was already raised.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” she said to Komma. But then she let her leg finish its trajectory, and something in Mathais made a satisfying crack as her foot connected.
Then she stepped back obediently.
“Here,” Komma said, holding the staff out to her. “I don’t want it. It feels… wrong, somehow. Tainted.”
She knew what he meant. The vibrations going through her hands as she took the staff from him felt almost like bugs were crawling up her arms. “But Your Majesty,” she began.
Mathais was up in a flash, Ayalah’s borrowed sword in his hand.
He ran not at her but at the now-defenseless King Komma, and time seemed to slow down. The moment seemed to stretch into eternity as Ayalah weighed the possibilities. She was mere steps away from Komma, but still she would not reach him before the blade did. Even if she could, Mathais was too strong for her to fight on her own, at least while the staff seemed to be giving him power. She could see only one path, one desperate bid to defeat Mathais, that might succeed.
With a surge of strength born of anger and fear and adrenaline, Ayalah lifted her leg and brought the staff down on it as hard as she could. For a split second, as pain seared up her leg, she thought it hadn’t worked—but then the staff broke with a deafening, satisfying snap.
Ayalah was flying—or was she falling?—and then she let the pieces of the broken staff fall from her hands.