Her head was pounding so hard, she thought it might explode. In fact, she thought groggily, that might even be preferable to the sharp pain resonating through it at the moment.
She opened her eyes. Some light filtered through the leaves, but not much. It was probably daytime, maybe heading toward evening. Greyson sat nearby, dozing against a tree.
Good, Ayalah thought wearily. Maybe she could convince him to carry out a pity killing. A blade through her temple couldn’t hurt much more than it already did.
She tried to sit up, but the attempt left her gasping for breath. Pain shot down her head and neck, and she felt as if she’d been spun around and around: the trees whirled before her.
“Ayalah? Are you awake?”
She squeezed her eyes shut and nodded, ignoring his typical breach of conduct for the moment. For some reason, she felt even dizzier with her eyes closed. She opened them again. Greyson was at her side, watching her. She opened her mouth to talk, but he held up a hand.
“I found the bags where you left them. Are you thirsty? Do you think you can sit up?”
She nodded: she was thirsty. She doubted whether sitting up was a good idea, though.
He lifted her torso—gently, so gently—and leaned her against something soft. It must have been the bag with their clothes in it; she was grateful for the cushioning. She waited for the worst of the dizziness to subside before opening her mouth and accepting a drink of murky-tasting water from a canteen.
“So you found water?” Her voice, when it came out, sounded scratchy and hoarse.
“Just a trickle of it. We’ll have to keep looking.” He paused. “Ayalah, what was that beast? I’ve never even heard of such a creature.”
“Neither have I,” she said. Her throat was still so dry, so painfully scratched; each word she managed to get out was an effort. “Maybe it only exists in this forest.”
“Maybe,” said a deep voice from the trees, “you just need to travel some more.”
Greyson was on his feet instantly, brandishing Ayalah’s sword. “Who’s there?” he bellowed.
Ayalah had jerked upright at the voice, which proved to be a mistake. Her head reeled, and she slumped back down. She was in no state fit for fighting; this stranger had caught them completely off guard and unprotected. The one ray of hope was Greyson. She hadn’t thought he even knew how to wield a sword, but he seemed to be handling it well as he turned about in the clearing, trying to spot the newcomer.
“Put the blade down, young man,” said the deep voice. “I am here to offer help.”
Out from the trees stepped an old man. He was short and thin, with knobby elbows and a sharp, pointed chin underneath a short gray beard. He stooped slightly, shoulders bent, and there was a slight tremor in his hands that bespoke a great old age.
“Forgive me, aged one,” Greyson said, lowering the sword. But he sounded unsure.
“You have questions,” the old man said, nodding. “Answers will come in time. First, let us tend to our injured warrior.” He smiled kindly at Ayalah. “How about some water, dear? Young man, fetch that water bag over there.”
Greyson nodded. “Of course, aged one. But I’m sorry to say that there is no wa—” He stopped as he began to lift the bag. “Why—it’s full!”
The old man cracked a tiny smile. “Is it?”
Greyson stared at him in wonder as he dribbled some of the water into Ayalah’s mouth. The water was cold and refreshing; Ayalah could feel the cool spread across her chest and over her limbs as she gulped it down.
She swallowed a final mouthful gratefully and regarded the old man for a moment. The water didn’t seem to be poisoned, and it appeared to be given freely, with no payment expected, judging by the old man’s serene smile. But how could he afford such a gift? His clothes were plain and nondescript; he did not appear to be wealthy. “Thank you,” she said finally, and then gasped. Her voice sounded normal again; her throat no longer hurt her in the least. “Who are you?” she asked incredulously.
The old man bowed. “I am the wizard Swynn.” He turned to Greyson. “Drink, lad, drink.”
She ignored Greyson’s great gulps as he greedily drank from the bulging water bag. “The wizard—!”
He nodded. “Yes, I know you have been looking for me.”
She gaped at him. A real wizard? But they had all died out centuries ago.
The corners of his mouth twitched up just a tiny bit. “I see you are skeptical.”
“Forgive me,” she said. “It’s just that wizards are the stuff of children’s tales and fireside stories.”
Swynn nodded. “Well, it is true that I have become a bit of a recluse in my old age. I have had no real desire to see the rest of the world lately.” He chuckled to himself. “Hmm, yes, well. Come come, sit up now. Let us have a bit of a chat, shall we?” He sat on a chair by the fire and beckoned to Ayalah and Greyson to join him.
Ayalah started in surprise. Those chairs hadn’t been there a moment before! She tried to push herself up a bit more to a proper sitting position, a little at a time—but she soon realized that she didn’t need to be so cautious. Her head felt fine now. She wasn’t dizzy at all.
She got to her feet and sat at the fire with the two men. It had grown dark quickly, and their party seemed a pleasant and inviting one. Somehow, the heat of the day seemed to have dissipated, and the air was cool and crisp.
“Care for something to eat?” Swynn asked. He handed them each a platter of hot, steaming meat and potatoes. “Whipped that up myself a few minutes ago. Well, stop staring at me, eat up! It is quite good, I assure you.”
Ayalah and Greyson exchanged a look and hesitated, but the smell was so enticing—and, after all, if he’d wanted to poison them, Ayalah reasoned, he would have done so already with the water.
Swynn waited until they were chewing happily before speaking. “Well, go on, now. Ask away.”
“Where have you been hiding?” Ayalah burst out. “Why couldn’t we find you? How did you find us? Have you been following us?”
The old wizard seemed to be perpetually amused, and now was no exception. “Well, I could not very well let you find me before I had determined whether or not Akanra had gotten to you first, now could I?”
“And yes, I have been following you. In a manner of speaking. As soon as you set foot in this wood, I was tracking your every movement. Keeping note, you see, in case you did, in fact, work for Akanra.”
“But who is Akanra?”
“My turn, dear,” he chided, reminding Ayalah of a parent scolding a small child. “Best not to be rude. What do you seek in this forest?”
She swallowed. “I am a warrior of—”
He nodded impatiently. “Yes, yes, I know who you are. But what do you seek, I asked? Do not answer a different question from the one I asked.”
She stared at him for a moment. “We seek a stone.”
At this, Swynn giggled. “A stone? Well, go on! There are three hundred and seventy-three stones in this very clearing. You may take whichever you deem most worthy.” He broke into peals of loud laughter, slapping his thigh and throwing his head back.
“Aged one,” Greyson chimed in, “I believe we seek a specific stone. A large one, worth a considerable amount.”
Swynn’s laughter subsided. “Yes, yes, I know. I was only teasing.” He wiped tears of merriment from his eyes and grew serious. “Listen to me, children. In the first place, you are meddling in things that ought not be meddled with by anyone who does not know the meaning behind them. This is serious, now. Do you understand what I am telling you?”
Ayalah and Greyson exchanged a look and then shook their heads. Ayalah’s patience was running thin; she had never been particularly gifted at solving riddles, and the old man had a strange way of speaking—something she couldn’t put her finger on—that rubbed her the wrong way.
“This stone,” Swynn continued on, unperturbed, “contains power beyond what you have ever conceived existed. You were sent here by your king, and that is well and good—but whose order is he taking?”
Ayalah stared at him, uncertain. “I don’t believe you’ve met our king. He would never take orders from anyone. He has too much pride to do that.”
Swynn eyed her shrewdly. “Indeed. And in the second place, just how presumptuous is this king of yours to think he can send a lackey in his place to come to my home and demand I hand over one of my own possessions?”
A lackey! She opened her mouth to protest.
“Hypothetical, dear,” Swynn said. “And in the third place, it was not I who set those abominations on you last night. Think about that for a moment, if you will.” He raised his eyebrows as if to punctuate his remark.
“Abominations? You mean those creatures?” Greyson asked eagerly.
The wizard nodded.
“But what are they?” Greyson asked.
Swynn shook his head. “My turn, young man. What are you?”
Greyson looked at Ayalah; she shrugged. “I am a smithy,” Greyson answered.
“Ah,” Swynn said, nodding but looking disappointed. “Indeed. Well, to answer your question, smithy, those revolting examples of what wizardkind can create are a recent invention, I believe. You see, the dark wizard Akanra has taken his servants and fused them with various animals to create hybrid beings—it is his idea of improving the human race, you see.” He spat into the fire. “Disgusting.”
Ayalah waited, unsure if it was her turn or the wizard’s turn to ask a question. She and Greyson had finished eating now, and she felt pleasantly warm and satisfied.
Swynn looked up at the treetops. “Is it tomorrow already? Today always ends too soon.” He stood up. “Well, I had best be going. You will find your way out of the trees if you head that way in a straight line.” He pointed to a path in the trees that hadn’t been there a moment before. “Ah, you may need this.” He handed Ayalah a cloth bag that was knotted at the opening. “Give it to your king. Tell him you got lost in the enchanted forest, and you were never able to find me. He will believe you.
“Well, goodbye, goodbye. A pleasure chatting with you.” He inclined his head to them and was off, moving through the trees slowly before disappearing from sight.