The weeks seemed to fly by now that Ayalah was staying with her aunt. Lumi’s days started before dawn, so Ayalah would get up early with her and arrive at the barracks just as the sun was rising. She’d been assigned to the twenty-first division of the Naralian warriors, which was, so far as she could tell, the sorriest lot of warriors in existence. But if this was some kind of test of her skills as a commander, she wouldn’t be discouraged that easily. She drilled them from sunrise to sundown, pausing for only a handful of breaks throughout the day for food and water. At sundown, she would dismiss the troops, return to Lumi’s cabin, and let Lumi regale her over dinner with stories of her mother. Every so often, Greyson would make the trek up to the palace to join them for dinner, but most of the time Ayalah and Lumi were alone.
One night, they were sitting in silence together by the fireplace, Lumi knitting and Ayalah sharpening her knife. It was a quiet night; autumn was now fully upon them, even this far north, with chilly, windy nights and a smell in the air warning of a bitter winter to come. Lumi began to hum quietly to herself. It was a tune Ayalah didn’t recognize, and at first, focused as she was on counting how many times she’d run her blade against the sharpening stone, she didn’t realize Lumi was also singing some scattered words here and there. But something distracted her: a rhyme Lumi had murmured, a short phrase. She stopped her sharpening and listened more closely.
“Where fish is dead, and land is red—”
Ayalah gasped, and Lumi looked up sharply, her song grinding to a halt.
“Don’t drink the water,” Ayalah finished for her, in a whisper.
Lumi nodded. “That’s right, dear! Is something wrong?”
“I’ve heard that phrase before, but not sung to a tune.”
“Well, it was originally a story. An old wives’ tale. But then some folks put it to a tune, and it’s stuck around in some circles.”
Ayalah was paying such close attention, she’d forgotten to blink, and her eyes felt dry and stretched. “Go on, Lumi, please. What does it mean? Where does it come from?”
Lumi shrugged. “Well, that wasn’t the whole song, dear. Shall I sing the rest? Do you remember it from your mother singing it?”
Ayalah shook her head. “This I heard from—well, it was very recent. And the man who told it to me only knew that part.”
Lumi began to sing once more.
Where fish is dead,
and land is red,
don’t drink the water.
My love has drunk
and in a funk,
he fell to the slaughter.
He grabbed a knife,
and on my life,
he killed our only daughter.
“But husband, why,”
with a gasp sobbed I,
and his rage flamed only hotter.
He swung for me,
and dead I’d be,
but his feet began to totter.
“O, woe is me,”
with a shout said he,
“what have I done to our daughter?”
He took his life
with that very knife,
after warning me ’bout the water.
Lumi was silent for a moment. She cleared her throat. “You see, there was a story about a woman who’d gone mad and killed her daughter and husband. But the way she told the story, it was he who’d gone mad after traveling overseas, and she was lucky to be alive.”
“What ended up happening?”
Lumi shrugged. “I know that the moral of the story is supposed to be Don’t let your husband stray too far from home, but I don’t think it ever specifies what happened to the woman who survived and whether or not she was guilty.”
“But what was the city she spoke of?”
“Oh! Hodaroth, of course. You didn’t know? It’s rumored that the land there is red, like blood.”
“Hodaroth,” Ayalah repeated. She stared into the bright flames before her, no longer noticing their heat. Now she knew where she needed to go to find the next piece of the prophecy—the only question that remained was how to get there.