By the time Greyson shifted positions to get more comfortable, Ayalah had grown drowsy again and lost track of time. She opened her eyes to find that it was dark and that there was an unseasonable chill in the air, though the smell of fresh grass foretold the beginning of spring.
“Last time we were here, it was oppressively hot,” she mused, “much hotter than it should have been, even in summer. And now it’s cold, though spring should have started already this far north.”
Greyson murmured an agreement. “Enchanted.”
“You’d think that wizard would be around here, though. If he could at least bring us a blanket—”
“That’s a good point,” Greyson interrupted. “In fact, he should be expecting us.”
She whipped her head around to look at him. “What?”
“I forgot to tell you that I did accomplish one very important thing while cooling my heels in Hodaroth. I found the last piece of the prophecy, which led right back here.”
“You what?” She was fairly screeching at him.
“Oh, come now, child,” said a deep voice from the trees. “You did not think you would get to have all the fun, did you?”
She knew that voice: the wizard. “Swynn?”
Greyson began to get to his feet.
“Sit, young man. There is no need for formalities here, and you are injured.”
“You’re injured?” Ayalah squinted at Greyson in the flickering light. “Where?”
Greyson shook his head. “I’m fine.”
Swynn clucked his tongue. “Nonsense, lad. Here now, drink this tea. It will warm you.”
Greyson used both hands to accept the mug the wizard held out, and as he raised his arms Ayalah saw in an instant what Swynn meant: there was a dark stain spread over Greyson’s left side. He must have purposely positioned himself to hide it from her. He winced with the movement of reaching for the mug.
“What happened?” she demanded. She reached for his waistband, to pull up his tunic, but a soft chide stopped her.
“Leave him alone now, dear,” Swynn said. “He is feeling much better.”
Greyson’s eyes opened wide as he sipped his tea. “I do feel better!”
Ayalah remembered how, at their last meeting, Swynn had somehow cured her injuries as well, without her even realizing it; she nodded and left Greyson alone.
“Oh, and where are my manners?” he said. “One for you, too, Commander.”
She accepted the tea gratefully; it tasted of jasmine and spiced mint, and she felt warmth spreading down her body and into her fingers and toes.
The old wizard hummed a tune Ayalah didn’t recognize as she and Greyson cradled their mugs in their hands and sipped slowly. He had his eyes closed, but he seemed to know the moment she drained the last of her tea. “Ready?”
She looked up at him. “For what?”
“Why, bed, child. You two can barely keep your eyes open. You will need to be well rested for what is to come. Up you go, follow me.”
He set off into the trees, and Ayalah and Greyson scrambled to their feet and ran after him, their only guide the flickering light of the lamp Swynn carried with him. He went only a few dozen steps into the trees before he stopped.
“Here we are.”
Ayalah looked around, peering in the dark for a home of some sort, a cabin or a cottage, perhaps. “I don’t see—” Then she realized Swynn was pointing upward, and she looked up to see a rope ladder hanging down from the lowest branch.
“Up you go, child.”
She gaped at him. He wanted her to sleep in a tree? But she hadn’t forgotten their visit last time, or the severed head he’d handed her so casually—she didn’t question him, but caught the last rung of the rope ladder, hoisted herself up, despite her protesting muscles, and began climbing. When she got to the branch at the top of the ladder, she found that another rope ladder hung down, a few feet to her right, leading up to the next branch. So it went, from branch to branch, until she was high up, six fat branches above the forest floor. The tree they were climbing was massive, and even this high up the branches hadn’t started to thin out yet, though she did see a large flower or two unlike any she’d seen before dotting the higher branches.
Swynn was waiting for her on the sixth branch. She gasped and jumped back, nearly losing her footing. How had he gotten here before her? Was there another, more direct route she’d missed? Maddeningly, he chuckled at her discomfort. “Welcome to my home!”
He opened a door that appeared to lead directly into the tree trunk—and Ayalah saw before her a cozy sitting room, complete with chairs and a bookshelf filled to the brim with books of all different shapes and sizes, many of them looking as ancient as the tree they lived in. As Swynn hung his lamp on a hook by the door, she saw that there was a narrow staircase curving around the room and reaching up the tree trunk in a spiral, though it disappeared beyond the floor of what she guessed was a room above them.
Greyson gasped as he followed her through the door. “You live here?” he asked Swynn. “In a tree?”
“Why, certainly,” Swynn said. “All wizards live in trees. We have since the beginning of time. What did you think, that we live in flimsy huts on the ground, like you?” He chuckled. “Rhetorical, of course. Absurd idea.”
The room was surprisingly spacious, and sturdy despite being made of a hollowed-out tree so high up in the air. There was no fireplace, for obvious reasons, but the tree seemed to radiate warmth on its own. Ayalah felt immediately and completely comforted. She was so sleepy she could hardly keep her eyes open.
Swynn handed them each a dull green blanket made of—was it moss?—and pointed to the stairs. “Your beds are up there.”
Ayalah yawned. “Thank you,” she said.
“Yes, thank you,” Greyson echoed.
They walked slowly up the stairs and crawled into the cots that awaited them.