In her dreams she wandered the world in circles. It was quiet, and though she searched the highest mountains and the most remote forests, she could find no other sign of life. She was thirsty, but when she tried to drink from the rivers the water she touched turned to mist; she was hungry, but when she tried to eat the leaves she touched turned to dust. She walked through grass and dirt and water, her feet finding sturdy footing even on the ocean waves, the current lifting and helping her, depositing her where she wished to land. There were no people or animals, no towns, no castles, no rain or snow. The sun shone down on her, warming her skin, but she felt cold, alone, and she shouted for someone, anyone, to keep her company.
When she woke, things weren’t much different. She was in a tent, and there were healers all around her, but she was just as alone as she’d been in her dreams, just as cold and thirsty and hopeless. Another healers’ tent. Another day not knowing what she had lost.
She ignored the voices surrounding her and retreated to her lonely dreams.
“Ayalah,” a voice was saying. “Wake up, Ayalah, I know you can hear me. Ayalah. Ayalah, look at me.”
She opened her eyes, but the face she saw in the flickering candlelight made no sense. “Gavin?” She shook her head. “You’re not real. I have a fever. This is a fever dream.”
A chuckle. “I’m quite real.”
“Am I awake or asleep?” She was drenched in sweat, and the air around her felt still and stuffy. There were no healers in the tent; it was empty save for her and the dimly lit figure next to her.
“Sweetling, I’m really here. Shall I prove it?” When she said nothing, he sighed. “When you were four, you fell on the cobblestones and scraped your knee. You gave yourself a pretty nasty cut, but you never cried. I’m willing to bet you even have a scar from that cut.”
Ayalah didn’t respond: of course a Gavin she dreamt would know her memories.
“When you were eight, you slapped me—I can’t remember why. I laughed and laughed; you looked so sure of yourself, so utterly convinced that you could hurt me, and when I laughed you cried.”
She smiled. She remembered that. She had been so confused and hurt by his laughter, and he’d later explained how sometimes words could hurt more than fists—a lesson he’d needed to repeat more than once over the course of her childhood.
“When you graduated from the academy, I was so proud. You were never like the other children, you know. Not to me.”
Ayalah watched Gavin’s face, how sad he looked when he smiled. She burst out crying, the tears streaming down her cheeks. “Gavin,” she sobbed, “were you the sacrifice?”
A healer rushed over and began to feel her head, her neck, her pulse.
She tried to sit up to grab Gavin’s hand, but she didn’t have the strength, and she flailed ineffectually before flopping back down.
“Gavin,” she sobbed. “You were like a father to me. Don’t leave me. Please.”
He inched closer. “I won’t,” he said. “I’ll stay right here, like I used to when you had nightmares.”
“I’m sorry,” she said again, her words sounding thick in her mouth. “The sacrifice… the wizard… he…”
The next time she opened her eyes it was to brilliant sunlight flooding through the open tent flap. She managed to raise herself up on her elbows to look around and was surprised to see that the tent she occupied was not a healers’ tent after all, but rather a private tent, with a small stool and a table to one side. The stool was currently occupied by a slumped man, his head pillowed on his arms on the table as he snored softly.
A number of strange tools were arrayed on a small table next to her cot, along with a mug of something. She sniffed at it. Sleeping draught.
She set the mug back on the table, and the sound woke the slumbering man. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Ayalah, you’re awake,” he said, coming hurriedly to sit next to her.
It was Gavin. She stared at him but didn’t know what to say. Was he really here, then? She hadn’t conjured his spirit in her fever dreams?
He grabbed one of her hands and held it between both of his. “How do you feel?”
“Achy,” she said.
“I suppose so. And you?”
“Also alive.” He let out a long breath. “I was worried you weren’t going to make it. You were talking in your sleep—convinced I was dead, babbling about sacrifices and wizards.”
Ayalah tried to laugh. “That’s… odd.”
“But the healers say you’re going to be fine. Your leg wound was infected, but I guess they caught the infection before it spread. You’ll have a limp the rest of your life, but at least you’ll still have two legs.”
Ayalah took a moment to absorb this new information. She was really quite fond of being able to walk and run and ride; could one even be a master swordsman with only one leg?
She was still so tired.
“Where are we?”
“We’re northwest of Miltinoth, about a day’s ride.”
“So close to Miltinoth? How did I get here?”
Gavin smiled. “You know, I was so preoccupied with other trivial things—like you being alive—that I forgot to ask.”
She smiled ruefully. “Fair enough. How did you find me?”
“So many questions, so soon,” he said, rubbing his eyes again. “It’s a bit complicated.”
Ayalah indicated her bandaged body. “I’ve got time.”
He nodded. “To begin with, once Mathais left Miltinoth to join his armies, there were riots in the city. Violence, fires, looting…. Queen Tazarah chose to hide in my home, and I comforted her as best I could. That madman had well abused her, Ayalah. Abused. She had bruises all over her body and was convinced that if she did not grow heavy with child soon, he would have her killed and a new queen crowned. To tell you the truth, I think she was right.
“Word came to us through one of my connections that Olekoth had joined the war, and so I plotted to return our queen to her people and to her brother, for her own safety and for my peace of mind. I smuggled her from Miltinoth, but that turned out to have been the easy part. We didn’t know where her people were or who were our friends and who our foes. We camped for a night, and when we woke it seemed my queen’s prayers had been answered—for sitting before us was a man I recognized only by name, a good man, who had traded his smithy anvil for a sword.”