She dreamt she was falling through the clouds in a storm, the wind buffeting her from all sides, a voice in the wind saying her name, far away, more distant the longer she fell. There was no ground to break her fall, just endless sky and dark clouds and the rumble of thunder and the feeling of falling. A flash of lightning lit the sky, and Ayalah could see for a split second that there were swords all around her. She dodged and kicked, shrouding herself in a cloud, but one of the swords followed, undeterred by the wind and the rain. She shrieked, and it buried itself inside her, twisting and twisting until all her insides poured out and her throat was raw from screaming.
She woke when the thunder stopped. It had been going on for so long, the sudden quiet confused her. With difficulty she cracked open her eyes. The pain in her abdomen was intense, radiating outward and leaving her in a fog of half-consciousness.
She was in what appeared to be a covered wagon. Food and supplies surrounded her: dried beef, potatoes, and bandages, from what she could see without lifting her head to look around more. Holes in the wagon top let in tiny spots of light, and gradually she became aware of the sound of voices outside the wagon.
Her breath came in wheezy gasps.
The back flap was pulled open, and Ayalah winced at the sudden flood of light.
“This her?” A voice she didn’t recognize; a woman’s voice, but gravelly, tired.
The woman knelt beside Ayalah and gently ran her fingers up and down Ayalah’s torso, tracing the outside of the raw wound but never touching it directly. Ayalah tried to make out the woman’s features, but with the sunlight streaming in behind her, her face was shrouded in darkness.
“Will she live?” A man’s voice, vaguely familiar.
More probing, then the woman’s fingers withdrew. “We may be too late; I’m not certain.”
“But you said—”
“I know what I said. Are you certain she is worth it?”
A pause. Then: “Yes.”
“Girl, can you hear me?”
Ayalah tried to nod. “Not,” she wheezed, “a girl. Commander.”
The woman let out a soft chuckle. “You may yet be stubborn enough to live, girl. Drink this; it will help with the pain.”
A wooden cup was lifted to her lips, and she drank obediently, feeling suddenly as though she hadn’t had a drop to drink in weeks. The liquid burned her throat and made her cough, each inhale and exhale a spasm of pain.
And then all at once she felt as if she was floating, her pain forgotten.
Dimly she felt the woman’s hands on her wounds, but it didn’t matter, she didn’t mind.
Three times she woke, and three times the silhouette of a woman made her drink the burning potion that numbed her. The fourth time she woke, she was alone in the darkness, and the wagon was moving.
When the wagon came to a stop once more, the quiet was broken by shouts and the hiss of swords being drawn. She couldn’t discern the voices through the heavy fabric of the wagon top, but she didn’t have long to wonder before the back flap was pulled aside again.
“Someone bring her out into the light,” a voice barked.
Four strong hands lifted her, and she hissed as the movement brought with it a fresh wave of pain.
“She’s one of our own,” someone else announced.
“Healers’ tent,” the first voice said, and she was hoisted onto a litter and bounced through the camp and into a tent that stank of death and lye, her consciousness coming and going with each bounce.
“Oi, Woodbridge,” said one of the men carrying her litter.
“Another?” said the man presumably called Woodbridge. He was a bald and clean-shaven man with a deep crease between his eyebrows. He inspected her briefly and then sighed. “Infection risk. Put her next door, in one of the cots on the right side of the tent. The right side!” he shouted after them.
“Yeah, yeah,” said the other man carrying her. “What do we look like, idiots?”
“Hey,” said the first man, “do you think he means the right side of the tent from when you walk in, or from where he’s standing?”
The two men paused.
“Well, we’ll just put her in the middle, then.”
They resumed their walking.
They deposited her on a cot and hurried away, and by the time the healer came over to her she found that she was shivering and queasy.
“Hello. I’m Healer Woodbridge,” the man said. He wore the same uniform as all the other men, with only a red scarf tied around his neck to indicate his position—that and the belt at his waist, which bore pouches of herbs and a short dagger instead of a sword.
“Commander Tarall,” Ayalah wheezed by way of greeting. She felt as if she was struggling to breathe through a narrow tube, and her entire body shook with shivers she could not control.
She nodded, and he poked and prodded in much the same way the mystery woman had. “You’ll be on bed rest for at least a fortnight,” the healer said when he straightened. “Possibly longer, depending on how quickly you heal.”
She frowned. “I can’t lie here while there’s a war going on out there.”
“You can and you will. Let me put it to you this way, Commander: you stay put and let this wound heal, or you go fight and it festers and you die. I don’t have time to negotiate with you; it’s your choice.”
“Men are dying out there as we speak,” she pointed out.
He nodded. “They’re also living.” He beckoned over another man who wore the red healers’ scarf. “Healer Oxfall will change your bandages and let you know when you can begin to move around again.”
“Hullo,” said the other man. His black curls were plastered to his forehead with sweat, and he smiled nervously at her as she inspected him. “It might hurt when I clean your wounds, er—”
“Commander Tarall. So it might be a good idea if you drink this first. It should also help with your fever.” He presented her with a viscous green liquid that smelled as vile as it looked. “Uh, please?” He smiled and mopped his forehead with a handkerchief.
She gagged but managed to swallow the stuff, and when he poured a strong-smelling clear liquid over her wounds, the burn was almost bearable. He sterilized the wounds and put fresh bandages on.
She was already asleep before he’d finished.