There was a tight feeling in her chest that grew as the leagues passed. She didn’t know where they were going, but the carriage driver seemed to, so she sat back and watched the scenery pass with unseeing eyes. Clouds swallowed up the sun, day turned to night, and a nearby rumble told of oncoming rain—yet still the horses ran, never resting, never flagging. Gavin must have paid good money for this carriage, Ayalah thought numbly. The kind of money royalty possessed.
The sun was struggling to shine through the clouds when the carriage slowed to a trot and then a walk. They had reached the remains of a Naralian camp, which seemed to be occupied now mostly by healers, injured warriors, and a few bored-looking guardsmen. The carriage passed one tent after another until it finally came to a stop.
“We’re here, Senior Commander,” the carriage driver said. “I’m to wait outside for you, Master Gavin’s orders.”
“Thank you,” she said.
She stepped out of the carriage carefully, leaning on her walking stick more than she really suspected was necessary. The carriage had brought her to the far edge of the camp where a large tent stood, its flaps open to let in whatever pre-dawn breeze it might be able to catch. She supposed, then, that this must be where Greyson was. Or where someone-who-might-or-might-not-be-Greyson was, anyway.
The tent was eerily quiet when she entered. Unlike other healers’ tents, this one was hushed and smelled strongly of crushed flowers, the only sound within that of quiet sobbing coming from a man near the door who was dying slowly and, from the looks of it, painfully. Ayalah stepped gingerly, scrutinizing the face of every man, alive or dead, she passed.
It was dark in the tent and she stumbled, nearly tripping over her staff. A healer caught her by the arm with the ease of one accustomed to caring for the injured and righted her gently.
“May I help you?”
“I, um,” Ayalah said. She felt like a hand was clutching at her heart, squeezing it hard enough to crush it. She was having a hard time finding her voice. Did she really want to know what had happened to Greyson? Was she even in the right place?
“Ah,” the healer said, holding a candle up to see her face. “I was told to expect you. Woman warrior, long braid, Senior Commander status. He’s back in the corner over there.” He pointed. “Here, take my candle, I’ll get another. I hope it’s the man you’re looking for.”
She thanked him and went in the direction he indicated. Everything seemed to be a blur—unreal, sluggish—and when she saw a figure bent over the body she headed toward, she thought for a moment that she was hallucinating.
She looked down at the cot. It was Greyson, no doubt about it. But his face was covered with blood, and he was broken and unmoving, and when she said his name he didn’t open his eyes. She tried again, hoping for a different result.
“I am sorry,” Swynn said.
Greyson. This was real, and Greyson was dead, and she was standing here talking to a wizard. Greyson was dead, and she was standing here.
Greyson was dead.
She burst out sobbing, anguished moans and hysterical hiccups alike escaping her. She ignored the wizard and bent over Greyson’s body, resting her head on his chest, her grief leaving a puddle of tears on his tunic. She cried until she ran out of tears, and then she let silent sobs take control of her, shaking her entire body with the force of her pain. Her broken leg was forgotten, her staff abandoned somewhere as she’d fallen.
Was this her fault? Could she have saved him?
She raised her head and looked at the wizard. “You did this.”
“I have done many things.”
“This.” She pointed at Greyson, at his cold, lifeless body in the dim light of her candle, which sat forgotten on the ground nearby. “This is your fault. Not mine.”
“Fault?” The wizard smiled. “Who can truly be blamed for the tragedies that befall humanity? That is indeed a riddle for the ages, I will admit.”
Was he really talking to her about riddles again? At a time like this? She gritted her teeth and wiped her cheeks with the sleeve of her tunic. “Why are you even here?” she demanded. She ought to punch him, to scream at him, but she couldn’t find it in her to do anything but ask questions.
“Do you know how your friend died, child?”
Her rage increased. “How dare—”
“Answer the question, dear. Do you know?”
She glared at him. “No. I wasn’t there.”
“You—!” Was he admitting that he killed Greyson?
“It was not my spell that hit him, however. Akanra has always been sloppy, and in his haste to attack me…”
Ayalah had no idea what Swynn was talking about. Akanra? Spells?
She noticed suddenly that Greyson’s shirt was rumpled, his hair a mess. She smoothed his clothing, tried to straighten his hair to no avail, and ran a finger along the rough stubble of his chin. How could Greyson be dead? Why couldn’t she have been the sacrifice? His body was cold, the cold of a body long dead and preserved in ice, though Ayalah could see no ice nearby, nor any way of freezing water in this heat.
“Did you hear me, dear?”
Ayalah raised her eyes to the old man. “Hmm?”
“I was saying that the magical energies contained within spells need to go somewhere, but not necessarily where they were directed. In the same way you can suck the venom from a snake bite, so too can the venom from a spell be removed, though at great peril to the healer.”
Ayalah stared. “What are you saying?”
“There is one final piece of my vision—of the prophecy—that must yet come to pass.”
But Greyson began to cough mightily, deep coughs that wracked his entire body, and Ayalah turned back to him with a gasp.
“Healer!” she shouted in a hoarse voice. “Healer, I need you, now!”
Greyson was coughing violently, but he was breathing, he was alive. A healer rushed over, took one look at the scene before him, and ran for water and herbs and bandages, leaving Ayalah to stare at Greyson.
“Greyson?” she said softly. “Greyson, can you hear me?”
His eyes opened but did not focus.
“Greyson? Do you know me?”
A moment of recognition, and the beginnings of a smile—but then he was wracked with another coughing fit, and a look of pain crossed over his face.
The healer pushed her out of the way and began to tend to Greyson’s wounds, which oozed anew.
Ayalah looked up to thank Swynn. He might be crazy, and he might have earned a good punch or two with all his riddles and half-truths, but in the end all that mattered was that he’d saved Greyson and that she would get another chance. She’d made the ultimate sacrifice, but Swynn hadn’t said that sacrifice would be permanent—it was yet another of his riddles, she supposed, another truth couched in deception.
This time she would do things right. She wouldn’t be afraid to laugh or to cry; she would trust, and she would love.
But the wizard was gone, and Ayalah and the healer sat alone next to Greyson in the dark tent, the candle’s wick slowly burning down.
Greyson squeezed Ayalah’s hand. He squinted up at her, and the candlelight reflected off of his eyes, just for a moment, so quick she could have imagined it, before he blinked.