She didn’t even know she’d fallen asleep until she woke to the sound of birds chirping. She rolled over to find that Greyson was just opening his eyes, too.
“Morning,” he said, his voice gravelly.
She had no idea where they were, though she felt strangely peaceful and relaxed. She sat up and looked around. She and Greyson had slept on cushioned cots in the middle of a cramped room. On closer inspection, she realized that the room was probably fairly large—or at least, it would be, if it wasn’t filled to the brim with books. Shelves stuffed with giant, dusty tomes lined the walls on every side, the books spilling over here and there onto the floor in neat but seemingly random stacks. In an instant, she remembered: they were in a house made of a tree, which was the home of the wizard Swynn. He must really love to read, she thought with a shrug.
She stood and stretched; Greyson did the same.
The movement caught her eye, and again she noticed the stain of dried blood on his tunic. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
He nodded and lifted his shirt to prove it: the skin underneath was smooth and clean, with only a fresh, pink scar stretching from his ribs down to his hip to indicate that he’d ever been injured.
She nodded. She didn’t know what to say.
The sound of soft humming from below reminded her that Swynn was probably waiting for them. She led the way down the stairs.
Swynn smiled. “Sleep well, did you?”
They nodded. The happy chirps of birds were so loud, Ayalah looked up, expecting to see a line of the creatures perched on a bookshelf, but the three of them were quite alone in the sitting room.
“Good. Now you may take a seat and eat while I answer your questions.” There were three old, cushioned armchairs in the center of the room facing each other. Swynn sat in the most cushioned of the chairs, which also seemed to be the most tattered, with a book in his lap. “There is a table behind you there,” he pointed, “if you care to bring it over.”
Greyson picked up the small table easily and set it down between the two empty chairs. As soon as they sat down, Swynn handed them each a plate filled with scrambled eggs and buttery rolls. They dug in ravenously.
He watched them for a few minutes before clearing his throat. “Who would care to begin?”
Greyson swallowed and met the wizard’s eyes. Ayalah wondered if Swynn found that to be as infuriating as she did. “I will. Why did the prophecy lead back here?”
“Because I am the holder of the last piece of the prophecy.”
Ayalah stopped eating mid-chew. “You what?”
“It is quite simple, really. I had to be sure it would not fall into the wrong hands, so I kept the final piece for myself.”
“I don’t understand.”
“This way, the prophecy would lead everyone back to me, and I could choose whether to divulge more. Do you see?”
She and Greyson looked at each other and looked back at Swynn. They shook their heads.
“A prophecy is not a prophecy unless it foretells the future. Would you agree? That is, by definition, what it is meant to be. Have you not wondered why the bits and pieces you have uncovered did not predict anything?”
Ayalah stared at the old man. “We were chasing a fake prophecy,” she guessed. Had all that searching been in vain? She felt tension building up in her shoulders.
“No. You were merely following a path set out for you many years ago, long before you, or your parents, or your parents’ parents, were born: a path that would lead you to the real prophecy, if you were worthy.”
If she was worthy? How would he decide that?
“But,” Greyson said, “who wrote the pieces of the prophecy—or, I suppose, the pre-prophecy—that led us here?”
“Why,” Swynn said, “I did, of course. An apprentice carried it out into the world for me; this was long ago, when the world was smaller, but even then I was an old man, and not keen to travel.”
Ayalah scrutinized him, her food forgotten. Was he truly old enough to have written the original prophecy, all those generations ago? Certainly, his cheeks were carved with layers of wrinkles, his forehead creased, his hair the bright white of the moon. But for him to be hundreds of years old? Maybe even thousands? She was skeptical.
One side of his mouth twitched up in a smile. “Perhaps you need to look deeper than the surface, child.”
She opened her mouth to ask what he meant, but Greyson spoke first.
“But then,” he said, chewing thoughtfully, “if you already knew who would be coming to you, why didn’t you tell us this a year ago when we were in this forest? Why wait until now?”
“You were not ready yet.”
She wanted to shout at him that she had been as ready then as she was now, that he shouldn’t have wasted their time. But she supposed a lot had happened in the past year; a lot had changed.
She sighed and let her anger flow through her and be replaced by calm, as Gavin had told her time and again to do. “So what is the real prophecy, then? Will you tell us?”
“I will.” He cleared his throat and sat back in his chair. “The real prophecy tells that, when an impotent king wages war on an old friend, joining forces with an island and a force of darkness, then a great warrior will appear who is unlike any man seen before. This warrior must decide the fate of the world. Whichever side the warrior chooses will be destined to win, for better or for worse. However,” his gaze met Ayalah’s, and she felt a chill run down her spine. “The warrior must make the ultimate sacrifice to ensure victory.”
“It doesn’t rhyme,” Greyson murmured.
Swynn’s face had been cold as stone, serious as death. But at Greyson’s comment, the mask shattered and the old man burst out laughing. “Indeed!” he gasped between guffaws. “Real prophecies, I am sorry to say, do not rhyme. Only silly wizards do.”
“A warrior unlike any man seen before,” Ayalah repeated, more to herself than to the laughing wizard. “Well, I am a warrior and a woman, not a man. Swynn,” she said, raising her voice. “Am I this warrior? The one in the real prophecy?”
He nodded. “Naturally. But you are not the only woman warrior in the world.”
He smiled gently. “No. But you are the only one who will become a truly great warrior.”
She sat up straight, feeling her cheeks flush. Was the prophecy really about her? She felt herself grinning foolishly. A truly great warrior?
“Then—then Ayalah controls the fate of the world? The entire world?” Greyson asked.
“Yes. This war will redefine the world you know. Life will go on, of course, no matter the choice she makes. The sides in a war are never light and dark, good and evil. Innocents will get involved on both sides, and those who aspire to greatness may lose their way. Such is the pattern of generations, the folly of man. But this great warrior has the power to determine in what way the events will unfold. There are many paths, many futures she can bring about, but she must never See her options or therefore risk choosing another road entirely, a dark one I do not wish to discuss.”
That was a sobering thought. Her smile faded. “But why me? Why should my actions or choices affect the entire world?”
The wizard shook his head. “I do not know, child. I have simply Seen that it is so.”
They sat in silence for some time, listening to the chirping of the birds that echoed all around them. The ultimate sacrifice, he had said. Ayalah wondered what that meant. She felt her shoulders droop: no matter what it meant, it certainly did not bode well.