The bindings around Ayalah’s chest were useful both for enabling her to breathe more easily and for lessening the likelihood of her accidentally reopening the wound where the splinter of stone had pierced her—or from where a sword had skewered her, for that matter. She seemed to have had quite a lot of near-death experiences lately, and she was hard-pressed to stay put in the healers’ tent yet again. She had to ask one of the healers to prop her up with some cushions after he’d changed her bandages, but once that had been accomplished she was able to lift herself the rest of the way upright to a sitting position. Then all that remained was swinging her legs off of the cot she’d spent the last unknown number of days in and standing up.
At which point she discovered that her broken leg was much more painful than she’d anticipated. In the past she’d broken her shin bones, but never her thigh bones—and the two felt remarkably different. At least with a broken shin bone, she could hobble around and sit comfortably, but with a broken thigh bone everything was uncomfortable. Even shifting positions hurt, and resting all her weight on her leg was out of the question.
Nonetheless, she swung her legs to the side, waited a few minutes for the tent to stop spinning around her, and then eased herself off of the cot.
“What the—!” A healer ran over. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“I have to look for a friend,” Ayalah said through gritted teeth. Where was Swynn’s magical healing tea when she needed it? Or the mysterious silhouetted woman?
“What you need to do is rest, Senior Commander. You can look for your friend once Senior Healer Clem clears you to do so.”
Ayalah took a shallow breath and shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I really must do this now.” She tried to take a step, but her right leg couldn’t support her for even a moment; she tried to hop on her left leg, but that jangled her whole body, causing a spasm of pain to shoot up her body. She cursed under her breath.
“There, you see?” the healer said. He steadied her with a hand on her back and gently turned her back toward her cot. “You would have fallen flat on your face on your own. You’re not ready yet to move around, Senior Commander, plain and simple. You may not want to rest, but your body is not giving you a choice.”
“But my friend,” Ayalah protested. “Perhaps you could find out where he is?”
The man hesitated. “Things are a bit disorganized right now, with the kings all locked in a room discussing what’s to be done now that the war’s won and all that. And we lost a lot of good men—both sides did. Seems it’s likely to take a long time to find out where one man went among the many.”
“But,” Ayalah tried.
The healer situated her back in her cot, removing most of her cushions so that she couldn’t try to stand up again. “Now get some rest, Senior Commander, and in a few days when you’re starting to regain your strength we can talk about this friend of yours.”
“Will I be able to leave then?”
“Depends how much you rest right now,” the healer said. He smiled at her and walked away.
The waiting was maddening. What if Greyson was hurt but alive? What if he wasn’t hurt at all? What if the ultimate sacrifice had been someone else? Rin, maybe, or Lumi? Or—she felt a chill run down her spine at a possibility she hadn’t previously considered—what if it was Gavin?
Time seemed to slow down in the healers’ tent. Somehow, no matter how many meals she ate or how many times her bandages were changed, no matter how many men she saw come and go, somehow time never seemed to move forward. She was in a perpetual state of agony, the pain and fear and frustration building inside her until she thought she might explode—that is, if her chest bindings allowed her to.
She couldn’t have said if it took days or weeks, but her breathing began to improve, the cuts and bruises covering her body began to heal in shades of yellow and brown, and she found herself able to sit up and stand on her own again. The way the healers explained it, she would need to learn to walk anew, and her leg might never fully heal. This, they told her, was a good thing—she was lucky to be alive, they repeated, as if this would make it true.
She wasn’t sure she agreed. Could she have chosen to sacrifice herself? Would someone else have been spared if the healers hadn’t saved her?
At long last she was given a staff to lean on and strict orders to rest; then, mercifully, she was released from the healers’ tent.
The tent she’d been sequestered in was leagues from the Ancient Meeting Place, and she had no horse to ride—although, realistically, she wasn’t confident in her ability to mount a horse one-legged anyway. The armies had begun to dispose of the dead, collecting bodies, identifying them when possible, and burning or burying them as their station merited. Ayalah looked out over the muddied field in the brilliant light of a summer’s day, her chest feeling tighter and more constricted than ever. Somewhere out there she might find Greyson’s body.
So it was that she joined the crew of cleanup workers, limping alongside men from every nation of the world as they shared in the grievous task of finding, identifying, and disposing of their fellow warriors. So many men had died in this war, too many; these men were sons, brothers, fathers, husbands. Bodies of women appeared too, Bolladians mostly, women who had been daughters, sisters, mothers, wives. Healers lay dead as well, killed in the midst of their efforts to save others, some still with bloodied rags in hands, others still clutching herbs from their belts. Warriors, all of them, and they’d all died honorable deaths, deaths their families could mourn with pride.
Ayalah didn’t know any of the men she scouted with, but she did recognize many faces of the dead, and it was with a heavy heart that she helped to identify them to the record keepers and scribes. Miltinians, Naralians, Bolladians. Olekians, Hodarians. They may have hailed from different parts of the world, but they died together, equals, united. She imagined the tears that would be shed for each of the fallen warriors, the memories they would never know. Perhaps, she thought, war wasn’t a beautiful expression of life after all.
Her crew held out hope. They brought a novice healer with them, just in case they found anyone still living, and at each new battle site the men called out for survivors, hoping against hope to hear a voice, to see a hand grasping at the air. There was hope, and there was mourning. But in the end, the only opportunity the healer had to practice his craft was in changing Ayalah’s bandages.
Greyson’s was not among the bodies they found. Could it mean that he was still alive, perhaps in a healers’ tent somewhere? A small flame of hope began to burn, faintly, in the back of Ayalah’s thoughts. If Rin had been the sacrifice, she reasoned, surely she would have heard of it—a princess’s death was no small matter. But Greyson, Lumi, Gavin… Ayalah’s thoughts spiraled, wondering, not knowing, despairing. What if the sacrifice was more than one life? What if she’d lost them all?
She began to feel frantic as the days wore on. Her breath came in shallow gasps. She found herself shivering despite the heat of summer, and she felt, most often, like screaming. Curse that wizard and his vague prophecies: she wanted to know exactly what or who she had sacrificed, and she wanted to know now.
After two weeks of scouting duty, Ayalah found herself wandering through a sea of bodies in the moonlight. She couldn’t sleep, and she’d grown tired of staring up at the stars and listening to the steady breathing of the rest of the cleanup crew. A walk in the quiet would calm her, she thought, so she stumbled along in the dark—but instead she found her thoughts racing again, the unanswered questions torturing her in the silence. It was impossible to make out the features of the dead warriors’ faces in the dark, but a part of her thought she might still be able to recognize Greyson by his shoulders or his hair or his armor. How could she rest when he might still be here somewhere, waiting for her to find him?
She limped along, tripped on an outstretched leg, and fell to the ground sobbing.
“Swynn!” she shouted in a voice that did not sound like her own. “Show yourself, you meddling old man! Tell me what the sacrifice was. What have I sacrificed?”
Each sob brought with it a new wave of pain, and when the healer found her facedown in the mud some time later, she didn’t try to hide that she was crying. What was the point? This man didn’t know her; he didn’t know what she’d done, he didn’t know the true cost of their victory.
“Leave me,” she whispered, but he turned her over gently and examined her injuries. “Leave me!” she growled. “Let me die, healer, I’ll just be another corpse among many. Tell the others I died with dignity. Lie to them. Lie to them for me.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” he chided softly. “It’s the fever talking.”
“Curse this fever, and curse you for not obeying me!” She wasn’t sure now if she was yelling or crying. Or both. “Just leave me alone. Let me die.”
He held a canteen to her lips. “Drink this. It will help.”
“Will it stop my suffering? Will it bring him back?”
She drank. She didn’t want to, she tried to resist, but her body defied her, forcing the liquid down her throat, and the healer patiently waited out her choking and coughing, encouraging her body to keep breathing, to keep living.
She was not the sacrifice. She couldn’t die even when she tried.