When the world came rushing back, it was loud and ringing and painful. A face swam before her, and she blinked to try to focus on it. Greyson? No, there was a beard; Greyson didn’t have a beard. And then there seemed to be more faces looking down at her, and she wondered how addled her brain had gotten—she was seeing double, triple, there were so many men around her, it made no sense. And their lips were moving but no sound was coming out, or if it was she couldn’t hear it over the roar and the ringing and the searing pain. Was pain something you could hear? She supposed it was.
“…move,” a voice said in the distance.
She tried to lift her head. Was someone saying her name? It seemed to be echoing.
“Commander, can you hear me?” She tried to nod, but her vision went blurry again. “If you can hear me, don’t move. Stay perfectly still.”
She wanted to laugh at the voice but couldn’t find the strength to laugh. Don’t move? She had tried to move, but her body wasn’t obeying her. She couldn’t move. Something was wrong with her. She had no choice but to remain still.
There did seem to be quite a lot of faces surrounding her, and many of those faces had red scarves tied around their necks: healers. What had happened to her that so many healers were focused on her?
“What,” she tried, but her voice was muffled. There was something sticky on her face making it hard to move her lips. “What,” she tried again.
A woman’s face appeared over her, and then the woman’s arm stretched out with a wet rag. She gently sponged Ayalah’s face, and when she pulled back Ayalah saw that the rag was covered with blood.
Her blood? Or someone else’s?
“What?” she said finally. She would have finished her question, but she didn’t have the energy. It hurt just to breathe.
“You were hurt badly,” the woman said. What felt like dozens of hands still moved on other parts of Ayalah’s body, but the woman did not move, looking down on Ayalah with concern. “We’re going to help you, but you mustn’t move, Commander. Blink twice if you understand me.”
Ayalah blinked twice.
“Good,” the woman said. “Now lie still.”
Shouts and clangs rang out around her, but they sounded faint, distant, like a fading dream. Bursts of light seemed to fill the air in staccato, and Ayalah realized she was looking up at the sky, which was a vivid blue, unobstructed by clouds. She wondered if her vision was going in and out or if there really were bright flashes lighting up the sky.
“Down!” someone shouted.
A crack split the air, and then a scream.
Some of the hands on Ayalah disappeared. The pain coursing through her body was steady, rhythmic, like a pulse.
“He’s gone,” she heard someone say.
“Who’s in charge here?” someone else shouted.
“Get these men out of here—all of them. Immediately.”
Ayalah tried to sit up to see what was going on. What if someone needed her help? But hands held her shoulders down, and she was only able to lift her head a couple of inches before she found herself looking up at the sky once more, all the fight gone out of her.
A flash of light filled her vision.
“Don’t talk, either. We’re almost done.”
“Senior Healer Scribs,” a tremulous voice said. “We need to move out.”
“I know. Five more minutes.”
“He says right now, Your—um—Healership.”
“Can’t you see that I’m—”
Another flash of light, another crack. More alarmed cries.
“Scribs!” A deeper voice this time, filled with authority. “You either transport that warrior or you leave him—her—behind. Understood?”
The woman’s face appeared over Ayalah’s once more. “We’re going to give you something for the pain, Commander.” She turned, nodded, and turned back to Ayalah as something pricked Ayalah’s arm. “Watch my eyes, Commander. On the count of three.” Ayalah was pleased to feel a cold numbness spreading up her arm and along her entire body as she stared into the healer’s eyes. They were green, the green of the leaves in the southern forests in springtime, before the trees flowered. “One. Are you ready, Ford? Silk, remember, fast and smooth, don’t nick anything on the way out, then immediately apply pressure. You can do this.” She was holding Ayalah’s shoulders down with much more force than Ayalah thought was necessary. It wasn’t as if she was going anywhere.
The world lit up once more, turning the healer’s face an ashen white. The pain still coursed through Ayalah’s body, but now it was dulled, more like a toothache than a knife stabbing her.
“Two. Commander, keep looking at me. Don’t look away.”
“Scribs, get your men out of here now!”
One moment Ayalah was staring into the spring-green eyes of the healer, and the next her vision had gone completely white and someone was screaming.
“…at me, Commander. Commander, stay with me. Blink twice if you can hear me.”
It felt like her body was on fire, or like someone had ripped out her insides. She blinked twice. Was this what dying felt like? It was astonishingly unpleasant. She’d always thought she’d have a dignified death on the battlefield, a sword clean through her heart or cutting off her head—quick and not overly painful, brave and commendable. This was nothing like that. This was waves upon waves of pain, her consciousness going in and out, and she realized distantly that the screams were coming from her and that there were tears streaming unbidden from her eyes.
“Whatever you do, Commander, don’t fall asleep.”
She was lifted onto something flat and hard, and then the woman healer was barking out orders.
“Take her as far away from here as you can get before she goes into shock. You can give her something for the pain, but don’t let her lose consciousness. Silk, remember your training; the leg isn’t urgent. Ford, pay attention to how much blood she loses. I’ll catch up as soon as I can.”
And then they were off, the healers’ panting loud enough for Ayalah to hear over the booms and cracks as the men carrying her ran through the mud. They jostled her quite a bit as they ran, and she wondered yet again if the flashes of bright white light were real or if they were her brain’s way of coping with the pain.
Her insides must be dripping out of her even now, she thought. She couldn’t move even if she wanted to—which she did not—and she felt certain that whatever was wrong with her leg was more urgent than the healers thought. And then there was the matter of the blood on her face: the healer had washed off some of it, but the rest remained, feeling tight and itchy and sticky. Ayalah wished she could lift a hand to wipe it away, but even that movement was too painful right now.
“…blood,” said one of the men carrying her.
“…special treatment, anyway?”
“Scribs’s orders. It’s not our place to question.”
Ayalah tried to focus on the conversation the healers were having. If she could, she would tell them to leave her and focus their healing skills on men who weren’t at death’s door. But each slight bounce brought a fresh wave of pain, and she was so tired. She was too tired to talk. Were these healers aware of how exhausting dying was? Maybe she was the sacrifice after all.
She tried to keep her eyes open but found her eyelids growing heavier and heavier. She knew she shouldn’t sleep, the healer had seemed to think it was terribly important for her to stay awake, but she was so tired, and she just wanted to close her eyes for a moment…