“Okay,” she said finally. “I understand. I get to choose which side wins, but if I want that side to win, I have to make the ultimate sacrifice.” She didn’t want to dwell on that last part just yet. “Is that correct?”
“Yes,” Swynn said. “It is not the sacrifice itself that will win the war for you, however. It is still, after all, a war spanning multiple peoples and countries.”
She nodded her understanding. “And what if I don’t want to make this sacrifice? What happens then?”
“Then that is your choice, and we follow that path.”
She stared at him. “But do I still choose a side?”
“You have already chosen one.”
She nodded. “Naraloth.” The choice was obvious. And yet, a part of her wondered what choice she would have made a year ago. “Right now, Miltinoth and Hodaroth have the Naralians outnumbered, but if Olekoth allies with Naraloth, we might have a fair chance.”
Greyson shook his head. “Olekoth would have to sail around the entire continent to Naraloth’s harbor. It makes no sense. It would take too much time.”
He was right. At the rate King Mathais was pushing his army, the Olekian fleet wouldn’t get to the mainland in time to come to Naraloth’s aid.
“Bolladoth,” she said. “We have to convince them to join.”
“Bolladoth?” Greyson repeated. “They’re neutral, they always have been.”
He was right again. Bolladoth had never retracted its neutrality since its founding—not once. She pursed her lips. How was she supposed to help her side win when she had to deal with such stubborn countries and monarchs?
“Is that the whole prophecy?” she asked. “There’s nothing more?”
“There is one more thing I have Seen,” Swynn said. “The final battle will take place in Bolladoth.”
“Bolladoth?” she and Greyson said in unison.
“But the last part of the prophecy,” Greyson began. “Or, the last piece of the pre-prophecy that I found in Hodaroth—it said that the final battle will occur at the Ancient Meeting Place.”
“What?” Ayalah snapped. “I thought it just led us to Swynn. What else did it say?”
Greyson looked sheepish. “Well, that’s mostly it.” He began to recite in Hodarian.
Ayalah winced. “Nevermind,” she cut him off. She couldn’t understand it anyway.
“It says,” Greyson said, “that the final piece of the puzzle can be found in this forest and that the final battle will occur at the Ancient Meeting Place between—” He paused and muttered to himself. “It’s hard to translate. Between two immovable forces, I guess. Whatever that means.”
They looked at Swynn.
“Well?” Greyson said. “Which is it? Bolladoth or the Ancient Meeting Place?”
The wizard smiled. “All will become clear in time, children. Do not be afraid to look within for answers.”
Ayalah sighed: he was talking in riddles again. She hated riddles.
“Now,” Swynn said. He clasped his hands together. “I have set in motion that which I was tasked with, and you have made your choice. Thus have the winds of change begun to blow. In exchange for the questions I answered, I ask that you each answer only one in return. Do you accept?”
She and Greyson exchanged a look and shrugged. They nodded.
First Swynn looked Ayalah in the eye, a piercing look that felt far too intrusive. “Are you prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice?”
She shifted in her seat. “Well, what will that be?”
“Do not answer a question with a question, child.”
He was beginning to get on her nerves. She stifled a sigh. The ultimate sacrifice: that probably meant her life, didn’t it? That was what all warriors were taught: that someday, their lives may need to be sacrificed for the good of a mission, or to save the king, or in war. It was an inherent occupational hazard. If sacrificing her life was what it took to win a war—to change the entire world for the better—then so be it. She was not so selfish that she would value her own life above the populations of the different countries of the world. She was no wizard and could not know what the outcome of the war would be, but surely King Mathais would rule mercilessly if he won, with only an eye for power and for expanding his own kingdom. Prince Komma, when he became king, would hopefully be wise and forgiving, like the ones in childrens’ stories who cared for the good of the people before their own ambitions. She was not so naïve as to think he would be a perfect ruler, but she had to believe that if she helped the Naralians win the war, it would be for the good of everyone. Without that belief, she had nothing.
She returned the wizard’s intent gaze. “I am.”
He continued to search her face for a long moment. Finally he nodded. “Yes. I believe you are.” He turned to Greyson and scrutinized him with the same regard. “To you I pose a very different question, the same one I asked when I saw you last. What are you?”
Greyson coughed. “What?”
Swynn repeated himself. “What are you?”
To Ayalah’s surprise, Greyson flushed an angry red.
“I don’t know what you’re getting at, old man—I am a simple blacksmith, and nothing more. Whatever answer you’re hoping for, whatever deep, dark truths you’re hoping I’ll reveal, I’ll have none of that. I am not the man you’re seeking; he disappeared long ago.”
Ayalah stared at him. What in the world was he talking about? And how did the wizard know about it? A dozen questions clamored in her mind, begging to be asked.
But Swynn spoke first. “Did he?”
Greyson said nothing, but clenched his jaw and glared at the old man.
“Consider, lad, the current state of affairs and what may be required of you. Consider what you well know: that your friend will need your help. With this decision, you too will play a part in the path we take.”
Still Greyson did not speak. Ayalah found that her mouth was hanging open in surprise; she closed it hastily.
“I ask of you again: what are you?”
“I am a man being pestered by a foolish old codger!”
Swynn grinned and shook his head. “Foolish old codger I may be, but still I want to know: what are you?”
Greyson was silent for so long, Ayalah wondered if he’d forgotten to voice his response aloud. The silence stretched between them.
He met her eyes, and for once she was able to read the warring emotions his face betrayed: hurt, anger, fear. She wanted to reach out, to help him through this, but she didn’t know how. She opened her mouth—but changed her mind and closed it again.
“I ask you once more,” Swynn said softly. “What are you?”
Greyson sighed. His shoulders slumped in defeat. “I am the former Lord of the Court of Bolladoth, northern region, mountain side.”