The days and nights blurred together. She was in another healers’ tent, and healers and injured men came and went as she listened to the steady beat of her own pulse and the chatter of the men around her. Many of the men seemed to be in fairly good spirits, and Ayalah guessed from their level of familiarity with one another that they must have been part of the same division.
“I heard they were both as tall as trees, and as thin, too,” said one man.
“Naw, don’t be stupid. They were old and wrinkled, that’s all.”
“I heard one was a woman.” A third man.
“Idiot. They were both men.” The second man again. He spoke with a rumbling baritone, and much louder than the other men.
“But there was a woman involved, Warren, I’m sure of it.” The first man again.
“Women can’t be wizards, Forster, everyone knows that,” the second man said. Ayalah could all but see him rolling his eyes in frustration. “They were two old men, I saw them with my own eyes before they made us all clear out.”
“Did they turn anyone into a toad?”
“You’re dumber than rocks, you are. Did that broken arm addle your wits? Wizards don’t turn people into toads.”
“And how did you become such an expert on wizards? Next you’re going to be teaching us about dragons and fairies.”
The men chuckled at that, and the talk died down for a bit.
Ayalah, meanwhile, was thinking furiously. Wizards? Old-men wizards?
“Warren,” she said loudly.
The men went silent. “Aye?” It was the man with the baritone voice.
“Old men. Regular, wrinkled old men. I can’t remember their faces… it’s a bit fuzzy.”
“But they were wizards?”
Chuckles from the other men.
“Very funny, laugh if you want, but yes, they were wizards, I’d swear to it.”
“How do you know they were wizards?” one of the men asked.
“Maybe they were wearing badges,” another man suggested. “Or waving magic wands.”
“They were fighting,” Warren said loudly. “Sending magic at each other and killing anyone in the way, sometimes on purpose and sometimes accidental-like.”
“With their magic lightning bolts?” The men laughed.
“Yes, actually,” Warren said, though now he was beginning to sound doubtful. “Lit up the sky just like lightning each time the one attacked t’other.”
Lighting up the sky? That meant Ayalah hadn’t imagined it—the flashes of light she’d seen had been real. “I believe you,” Ayalah said.
More laughter. “She’s as big a fool as you, Warren!”
“Best marry that one, she believes your tall tales!”
“Tell her you’re good looking and rich, maybe she’ll believe that, too!”
She waited for the noise to die down again before speaking; it was too hard to try to shout over it. In fact, this was the first thing resembling a real conversation she’d had since her injury. Apparently (so the healers told her), when she’d broken the staff, she’d also broken her leg in a few places. On top of that, whatever magic had been in the staff had rebounded on her when she broke it, and it had sent her flying into one of the ancient stones, which then cracked on impact. Part of it fell onto her and cracked a number of her ribs, but a tiny splinter of it—tiny being a relative term, apparently, as the so-called splinter had been as long as her dagger—had pierced through her, just narrowly missing any vital organs.
The healer who had explained this to her had seemed unduly pleased as he’d gone on to say that the biggest risks now were infection and internal bleeding. These possibilities, he assured her, were better than a punctured organ, which would almost definitely have been fatal. She wasn’t reassured; a man next to her had had an infected wound that festered and killed him not two days before, and she knew of at least a dozen other men she’d trained with who had died from infections. A swift death from a punctured organ might have been a preferable way to die, she wanted to tell the healer, but she was in too much pain to argue with him.
The healers limited the amount of pain relief they would give her. They used the stingers of a certain species of bee to provide numbing relief for badly injured patients, a relatively new technique on the mainland but one the Olekians had been using for centuries. It seemed the venom of these bees could be used for medicinal purposes in small quantities, but too much of the venom could have dire consequences. Ale and wine could have helped to dull the pain, but it wasn’t exactly standard issue in the healers’ tents. Thus, most of Ayalah’s time was spent gritting her teeth and trying not to move any more than necessary. Breathing hurt, talking hurt, moving hurt. Everything hurt.
When the room quieted once more, she braced herself to ask one more question.
“Warren,” she said. “Is the war over?”
Of all the gossip she’d overheard in this cursed tent, somehow no one had seen fit to mention this. Come to think of it, she realized, she was probably the only person here who didn’t already know the answer to her question.
“Aye,” Warren said. He sounded surprisingly solemn for one bearing good news. “We won. Naraloth won.”
Cheers and whistles rang out. “Long live King Komma!” the men shouted.
“And King Tazar!” another voice added.
“And King Davin and Queen Maera!”
So Komma was alive then, Ayalah thought. Mathais hadn’t killed him.
But she didn’t join in the revelry, and she certainly didn’t feel like cheering. If they’d won, then that had to mean one thing.
The ultimate sacrifice.
And if it hadn’t been her life, whose had it been?