She felt the explosion before she heard it, and she quickly realized that the ringing in her ears was the sound of men screaming. She’d been lying on her side to avoid the tender spots on her back and front—as she had been for the last week, since she was delivered here—and the effort of sitting up wrenched her in such a way that she was sure she’d reopened her wounds. But before she had a chance to try to find her sword, a handful of men came in bearing a body.
“Healer!” one of them was shouting, a grizzled man with bushy eyebrows and gray stubble on his cheeks. “All healers report!”
They gently laid the body on an empty cot.
Four healers trotted over, their herb belts bouncing with the movement.
“Woodbridge,” the man said, “are you the senior-ranking healer here?”
“I am, Chief Husk,” Woodbridge said.
“It’s the king. There was an explosion, and he—”
“His injuries, Chief,” Woodbridge interrupted.
“His head, we think.”
Ayalah craned her neck to try to see what was going on. King Komma looked to be only half-armored, with blood caked on the side of his head and smeared on his armor. His eyes were closed, his face pale. The last time she had seen him, he’d been animated and angry, the very picture of perfect health. She tried to stifle the chill of fear that ran down her spine.
The men who had carried in the king backed up a few steps to let Healer Woodbridge examine him. “We’ll need to drill into his head to drain the blood,” Woodbridge said after a long moment. The men burst out in horrified shouts and Woodbridge held up his hand for silence. “It must be done, I’m sorry to say, or else the internal bleeding will kill him. We’ll need to take him to Bolladoth so that their Master Healer can perform the surgery.”
“Bolladoth? Why Bolladoth?”
“It’s the closest Master Healer I know of, Chief. Only a Master can do this—one wrong move and the surgery could just as easily kill him.”
The chief squinted at Woodbridge. “Sounds like we’d be better off keeping him here.”
Woodbridge shook his head. “If we get him to Bolladoth in time, we might be able to save him; if he stays here he has no chance.”
A frown gave way to a curt nod from Chief Husk. “Let’s get him ready to leave, then. I’ll find some men to form the escort.” The chief looked up and caught Ayalah watching.
“You there,” he said, “Commander.”
Woodbridge hurried off. The other men who had accompanied the chief stood guard around the king.
“Yes, Chief,” Ayalah said, trying to sit up straight and look more composed than she felt.
“Are you well enough to lift a sword?”
“I think so, Chief, yes.”
He weaved between the cots to stand before her and scrutinize her face. “I’ve heard about you from Senior Chief Brooks. Seems you’re quite good with a sword.” He spoke with such a rapid rhythm, it took Ayalah a moment to process his words after he’d finished speaking.
“Thank you, Chief.”
“Fast on a horse?”
“Heard you led that suicide mission in the south, too.”
“I did, Chief.”
“Anyone besides you survive?”
“I don’t know, Chief.”
He frowned. “If what Brooks says about you is true, you’re a good soldier, loyal to our king. I’d go with the king myself, but Senior Chiefs Bell and Ironhand are dead, and someone’s got to lead this lot until reinforcements arrive. It seems you’re the best I have right now.”
Ayalah wasn’t sure if she’d just been insulted, but she nodded anyway. “Thank you, Chief.”
“I can’t spare more than a handful of men, but the roads to Bolladoth are safe, so you shouldn’t need more than that. Whatever happens, you keep the king safe and get him to this Master Healer Woodbridge mentioned.” He lowered his voice. “If he doesn’t survive the journey, see that his body is delivered safely to Naraloth for proper burial—you understand?”
Ayalah nodded, and Chief Husk turned back to his men. “Hunter,” he barked, “get me a litter and have the servants prepare a dozen horses for travel. Stinkeye, check to see if any of the king’s servants survived the blast. Where the hell is Ford?” A boy of ten or eleven ran up to him.
“Boy, your father is dead. I’m sorry.”
The boy stared. “My… what?”
“No time to mourn him now, I’m afraid. Find a parchment and quill and bring them to me immediately. Now, Ford!”
The boy ran off, wiping his eyes with his dirty hands as he went. Chief Husk looked around in time to see Healer Woodbridge hurry back into the tent.
“Woodbridge. You will accompany the king back to Bolladoth. He may need your help on the road.”
The Ford boy returned and held a piece of parchment out to Husk. Husk took it and the quill the boy offered, dipped it into the ink the boy held up, and scribbled a quick note onto the parchment.
“I could only find Senior Chief Ironhand’s seal, Chief. The others—”
“The litter and horses are ready, Chief,” the man called Hunter interrupted.
Husk sealed the parchment, stamped it, and handed it to Ayalah. “For the king if he wakes; for one of his brothers if he does not.” He turned back to Hunter. “Get the White twins and Warriors Fry, Peak, and Underbelly. If you can’t find Underbelly, get Rush. Commander,” he said as Hunter ran off again. “Tarall, was it? Like the lake?”
“That’s right,” Ayalah said, too surprised to keep her expression blank.
“Grew up near there,” Husk said by way of explanation. “Nice place. Foggy.” He nodded. “It’s Senior Commander Tarall now. Remember your orders.” He spun on his heel, gesturing to his men to follow him, and left the tent before Ayalah understood what had just happened. Promotions in the field weren’t unheard of, she supposed, but she’d never expected it to happen to her.
She recognized the White twins on sight when they entered the tent, though she’d never met them before. They were both tall and lanky, with the same pale skin and white-blonde hair. They could almost be considered good looking, save for the way their front teeth seemed too big for their mouths. They carried in an empty litter, moved the king onto it gently, and hurried out. Ayalah gingerly got to her feet and strapped on her swordbelt, and she and Healer Woodbridge followed.
The horses were waiting just outside the healers’ tent, and the men mounted quickly as servants secured the litter in a wooden cart and hooked the cart to two of the horses. Woodbridge helped Ayalah mount carefully, to avoid further ripping open her wounds, and positioned himself in the cart beside the king. Fires were blooming all over the camp, the scent of it thick in Ayalah’s nose, a combination of flesh and canvas burning. Her horse whinnied nervously, and Ayalah remembered that she was now the highest-rankest officer among them.
“We ride as quickly to Bolladoth as we can without endangering the king,” Ayalah told the men Chief Husk had given her. “Any questions?” When none arose, she nodded. “Ride!” She drove her heels into her horse and cantered between tents and men, who jumped out of the way when they realized she had no intention of slowing down or going around them.
Each movement of her horse brought a fresh wave of pain with it, but she didn’t have time to dwell on the pain, and she couldn’t slow down. King Komma’s life was the most important thing right now, and nothing could get in the way, least of all the injuries of a common warrior like herself. She checked to make sure the men, horses, and litter were still behind her, and when they’d cleared the main part of the camp and the White twins nodded to her, she kicked her horse into a gallop. Screams and the sounds of battle followed them until the camp was little more than a speck receding in the distance, and then there was nothing to do but ride.