The day when Ani, a young healer from the Vales of River Snell, arrived at Lindrand, the largest port to the South of the Great Sea, the weather was grey and mournful, sheets of rain falling on the slate roof of the infirmary. The healer entered the city from the South, having walked through the farmlands, these days desolated by the war that had been raging through the continent lands for the last ten years.
The healer had been delayed in her travels from her native lands near the Golden Mountains, the roads having suffered vastly through the war and the unmerciful winter, but she knew that her skills would be more than welcome in Lindrand. The fighting had mostly ceased, only the islands to the North East still under attack of the remnants of the Northmen fleet. Still, everywhere she went, Ani heard that healers were needed in the sea borderlands. The armies from many allied Kingdoms and Islands had united defending Lindrand from the menace from the North, and they said, the healers tents covered every unoccupied length of streets of the port city as well as all of the land one could see standing on the tall fortified wall of Lindrand.
Ani had spent several more days in a farmer house in a village South of the city than she initially had planned, as she agreed to assist the local midwife in delivering twin children. The payment was minuscule, but the healer prudently decided that even a few more pieces of silver could not harm. Even if she were to find service immediately after entering the city, she would need a place to sleep and some food. She had previously been to Lindrand several times, but had not stayed long enough to now have any acquaintances to rely on.
Just as she had imagined, the infirmary was full of hassle, loud shouting of healers, the smell of balms and ointments, and the familiar stench of blood, and rotting flesh. Ani chewed on her bottom lip, gathering her courage, and started walking through the entrance hall, cots and bedrolls crowding the wooden boards of the floor.
A young man in a healer’s robe, of fern green, was running by her, and she grabbed his sleeve.
“I am searching for the Chief Healer.” The man gave her a hasty look over, his eyes running over her dirty, meager travel cloak, and the strap of the healer’s sack on her shoulder.
“This way.” He pointed at the wide stairs, probably leading to the solars on the upper floor. “He is attending to the Westerners, in the private rooms…” Ani felt the man was going to tell her to wait, but he was called for, and he dismissed her with the wave of a hand and rushed away.
She was in the way, and after twirling and dodging the shoulders of several other healers, she decided to intrude on the Chief Healer. She had a letter from the head of a large infirmary in a vast settlement of Woodmen, across the Iron Peaks, and she suspected that if the Chief was occupied, he would be more willing just to accept her service. She was confident in her skills and knowledge, but would prefer to avoid long questioning and unnecessary inquiries. She was an excellent healer, but the reason she had to leave her service was of personal nature and rather embarrassing. Ani fixed the strap of the healer’s sack on her shoulder and decisively walked up the stairs.
On the upper floor, behind the first door on the right, she found a large private chamber. The door was ajar, and Ani peeked in. In the middle of it, surrounded by a large group of both healers and Westerners, there lay a tall, large man, his torso bare, fiery red hair scattered on a roll under his head. His face was wan, a sheath of feverish sweat lay on the tall forehead and sharp high cheekbones. He looked thinned, but Ani quickly estimated his wound on the right side of his body to be no more than seven days old. Ani looked at the colouring of the skin on his stomach, at the rot spreading to his chest under the pale skin. The Chief Healer was attending to the wound, and Ani pressed her lips in frustration. She could see there was no need to keep on poking the poor man with sharp tools. He had no hope to recover.
Ani had rarely met Westerners before, but she could assume that the man on the cot was a baskak, one of their warlords. She had heard that not the bloodline but the skill of a warrior and the number of ships under one’s command determined a stature among Westerners.
The man on the cot was large, and old and new scars were covering his torso. The left arm was in splints, the right one lay passively along his body, the long-fingered, wide hand on a hilt of a massive Westerner’s sword. Ani noted the respectful air around other Westerners in the room towards their fallen comrade.
“Gosta, priblizhnik, pridi…” The man on the bed rasped out and stretched the hand towards another, who was sitting scooting by the wall. Ani looked and felt curiosity waking up at the sight of the second man. He was younger, but had the same fiery red hair, braids on the sides of his face. He was dressed in the same sort of leather trousers, as the other Westerners, a long dark blue tunic, embroidered with ravens and deer along the neckline. There was still the air of superiority around him; other men looked back at him with respect and, as Ani suddenly thought, with pity. His face was pale, with the same ivory complexion as most Westerners, bright orange freckles peppering the narrow elegant bridge of his nose and high cheekbones. Pained grimace ran over his features.
“Gosta…” the man on the cot called again, and the younger warrior got up on his feet.
“Einar, do not speak… Save your strength…” the one called Gosta spoke, thick accent in his speech, r’s rolling, deep velvet voice rumbling in his throat.
Ani bit into her lip. He was astonishingly beautiful. While the wounded was of a more masculine, rougher sort, the one called Gosta, though also wide-shouldered and long-legged, had some sort of a magnetizing grace around him. The face was narrow, eyes slanted, like a cat’s, bright green, at the moment roaming the face of his wounded comrade in agitation.
“I am dying, Gosta. And I have never liked holding back…” The wounded started laughing, raspy stuttered breath mixing with a low bark of guffaws, cough quickly overpowering his frolics.
“Einar…” The voice of the second man was tortured, and he leaned back at the wall he had been scooting by.
“I am afraid, we could do very little now.” The Chief Healer of the infirmary shook his head mournfully. Ani could guess the unease he was feeling. The Westerners in the room gave him gloomy and suspicious looks. “We truly have done all we could…” Several other healers, present in the rooms, nodded hastily. Westerners, after all, had the reputation of noble yet brash barbarians.
The Westerners started murmuring between themselves, and Ani kept on looking at the two men. The wounded, Einar had been quite a character, she thought. And then Ani scolded herself for thinking of him in past terms. He was, after all, still alive. Not for long, the professional part of her mind whispered. His breathing was more and more irregular, and then he suddenly grasped some sort of an odd pendant around his neck. It looked like a minuscule wine jug, made of simple clay, no longer than Ani’s third finger. The man jerked at the chain holding the pendant, but it held.
“Sostoy!” The one called Einar shouted, his voice suddenly strong and clear, and several of the Westerners rushed to him, including the one called Gosta.
“Who are you?” The voice of the Chief Healer shook Ani out of petrification, in which she was watching the Westerners trying to struggle down their wounded leader, some trying to pull the necklace out of his clawed fingers. The chain was cutting into his throat. Ani shifted between her feet. She had thought she was well hidden in the shadows by the door.
Ani turned and met the cold grey eyes of the Chief Healer. He was a man of around sixty, stout and respectable looking. He had made a few steps away from the cot, allowing the Westerners to handle their agonising comrade.
“I have arrived seeking service. I am a healer from…” Ani’s voice was drowned in the loud commotion. Suddenly the one one called Gosta started pushing other men away from the wounded warlord. The young man was shouting and widely gesturing, pointing at the necklace, as if trying to reassure his compatriots on something.
An old, white haired and white bearded Westerner barked some harsh command, and everyone in the room froze. Ani and the Chief Healer turned to the Westerners again. The picture was almost comical. Five Westerners were trying to push their baskak back on the bed, but his massive, wide torso was still suspended mid-air. The splints were dislocated from his left arm, as well as the bandages, and his blood was dripping on the linen of the infirmary sheets. Black was oozing from the fatal wound on his right side. The one called Gosta had his arms wrapped around the wounded man’s shoulders protectively. For the last few instants he had been trying to simultaneously pull the small clay vial out of his fingers and make sure the chair did not decapitate him.
The one called Einar still had the little vial in his right hand, and while everyone was starting to move, some already speaking something in Western tongue to the elder, the chain had finally snapped. The jug flew through the room and rolled under Ani’s feet.
Without thinking she bent down and picked it up. The surface was rough and uneven, the vial was crudely made and plugged with a small cork. There was blood smeared on it. Ani assumed it was from the cuts the chain had made on the man’s neck; she could see red dripping on his bare chest. While rolling, the vial caught some cotton from the floor, probably left after the last rebandaging, and Ani blew at it, brushing the cotton fluffs off.
Seemingly with all eyes in the room on her, she made a few steps forward, the vial in her stretched hand.
“Here, it is yours…” She internally scolded herself. That was certainly a meaningless thing to say.
The man on the bed sat up sharply, shaking off the others, in what looked like the last bout of strength in him, and his large, scorching hand wrapped around hers. Their eyes met.
Though his features were less refined than those of his younger companion, he was nonetheless very attractive. Even with his paleness and the impending bereavement written into his features, Ani could not help but feel blush creep on her cheeks under his gaze. He had a long nose, thick bright orange beard, neatly trimmed, the beads in his braids were richly adorned with gems and runes of Westerner’s tongue.
He suddenly gave her a wide roguish smile, his eyes roaming her body, in an open male evaluation, and Ani blushed even more furiously.
His hand was shaking, and the greenish-greyish eyes were burning feverishly, and nonetheless Ani felt as if enveloped in his confident strength and brazen sensuality.
“Mine indeed, little bird,” he murmured, and she jerked her hand back, out of his palm.
“Einar…” The one called Gosta muttered in warning, and the wounded jerked, his eyes lost astuteness, rolling back. His body slumped into the arms of his younger companion. A violent cough shook the one called Einar, and dark red foam poured out of his mouth.
Ani stepped back allowing the healers to attend to the patient.
“Go already,” the Chief Healer threw to her over his shoulder. “Find Todric, he will look at your letters.”
Ani nodded and left the room.
Todric, the Chief Healer’s apprentice, was a young apathetic man, defeated by his service, and by the loss of his family during the Northmen’s siege of the port. He looked through her letter, hardly reading it, and sent her to find the housekeeper and get her robe. Ani’s service started, in an endless series of familiar responsibilities; bandages, blood, feces, stitches, lacerations, ointments, draughts; day after day, and night after night.
Two days later she heard that King Einar, or Glava Einar, as his compatriots called him, passed away. Ani noted with surprise how much long he had been fighting for his life. At the dawn of the next day, his corpse was loaded on one of their swift wooden ships called ladya, and five closest to him, the captains of his ships, and Gosta, who, as the healers explained to Ani, was some sort of a lieutenant of his, left for their homeland, a far away shore, where their villages peppered the sea side of another continent land.
Many of their compatriots still stayed in the infirmary of Lindrand and in the healers tents, and Ani would often hear the Westerners mourning one of their most renowned warlords.
Nine days after King Einar drew his last breath, Ani returned to her room in a small inn in the outskirts of Lindrand and fell on her hard, narrow bed. She closed her eyes, and slumber came in a matter of instants. She had been attending to the wounded for two days straight.
Ani found herself standing inside a large wooden house. It was one big room, with a bank of earth going along the walls, covered with wooden boards, furs and linens thrown on them. It would clearly serve as a sleeping place, for at least two dozen people, and the beds could probably be also used as benches, for people to sit around the clay-covered hearthstone burning in the center of the house. The room was lit by flickering light of torches on the walls. The air was warm but fresh, and Ani turned around noting a doorway behind her, covered by a large skin of a bear.
Strangely, Ani caught the fragrance of her favourite blooming apple trees in the air, as if May breeze had brought their fragrance in a light rush from a garden outside the house.
By the wall in the shadows there stood a man. She could hardly see him, just his wide powerful silhouette. Ani felt strangely calm and joyous, as if meeting an old friend, perhaps because she quite clearly saw it was nothing but a dream.
He turned to her and stepped into the light. He was clad in a thin, dark blue tunic and linen trousers, barefoot, his bright orange hair scattered on his shoulders, and he gave her an uncertain look.
“What are you doing in my Long House, devichka?” The word was unfamiliar, and Ani shortly wondered if it were even possible to speak an unknown language in one’s own dream.
She felt like quipping back and asking him what he was doing in her dream, but then she bowed to him and answered politely, “Forgive me, my lord, I did not want to intrude…”
“Where are my druzhina?” he interrupted her, though probably not speaking to her, and slowly turned around, his bright green eyes roaming the hall, and that was when she recognised him. Her breathing hitched, and she made a small step back.
“King Einar…” she muttered, and he faced her again and gave her a wide smile.
Uncertainty was still hiding in the corners of his eyes, but nonetheless he gave her a confident bow, alike those she had seen from his compatriots before. It was a wide and beautiful gesture. He first touched his left shoulder with the tips of his right hand, and then dropped the hand in a semicircle, simultaneously almost folding in two in a low graceful bow, the back of his hand almost brushing the ground.
He straightened up, and she met his laughing eyes again.
“Well met. And who would you be, little bird?”