The witch’s house was a two story building, white walls just like other ones on the island, an outside staircase leading to the second floor. An open yard was in front of it, fruit trees, herb garden, and some thick dark green plant crawling up one of the walls of the house, succulent bunches of berries hanging off thick branches. Ani had never seen a plant like this, and curiosity woke up in her. She made a mental note to ask about it.
The yard was full of benches and a colourful crowd was sitting on them. Ani recognised the clothes of several of them. There were those who came from Lindrand, two women were dressed in the Woodmen of the Southern Mountains clothes. Ani even saw three men in the attires of her native lands. People were sitting; some, clearly sick, were lain on the ground, on covers. Everyone was talking loudly, exchanging food, the sick moaned, the healthy discussed. Two young girls in local clothes were walking around, talking to the visitors, giving out food, taking coins for it. Ani thought that it were an infirmary, it was quite a disorganised one. No one seemed to be tending to the sick, it looked more like a festivity of sorts, just with some of the participants were wan and lying on the ground.
The noise subsided a bit, once Ani and her companions stepped through the wide ajar gates to the yard. Clearly, an unassuming young girl in a plain dress, obviously from the South, in a company of six Westerners in armour, was not something the people saw every day.
“We are here to see the wise woman,” Bozhidar spoke, his tone respectful but firm. “Whom am I to speak to?”
People exchanged looks, and Ani noticed that one of the girl who had been serving food disappeared in the house.
“She is not here,” one of the women in the Woodmen clothes spoke. “We have been waiting for week now. They say she will be back in a few days.”
Ani looked at Bozhidar and saw the same cold mask of an expression on it. He gave the yard a look over, and some people nodded vigorously, confirming the woman’s words.
“What do you need here, seafolk?” a loud sharp voice came from the house, and Ani whipped her head.
A beautiful young woman stood now in the door frame. She has as tall as the Westerners, a mane of black wavy hair was picked up and pinned in a high do. Her eyes, wide set and as dark as the strongest of coffee, as well as the red lips, bore an haughty expression. She was frowning, and the fists were pressed into the hips. Ani would have believed the animosity of the tone, if the girl had not quite purposefully stopped in the door that framed her, clearly underlining her merits. There were plenty of those, from round hips to opulent bosom. Ani made the most logical conclusion of who she was, and then wondered how baskak Einar had managed to resist.
“We are here to see your mother, my lady,” Bozhidar answered, seemingly unfazed by the acrimonious reception.
The girl suddenly dropped the act and stepped out of the doors.
“I know you! You were here eight years ago! Dying, from the venom arrow… You came with…” she then stopped herself, and pursed her lips. Ani suddenly realised that the girl was hardly older than Ani herself, probably two decades or so of age. The beauty and arrogance had hid the youthfulness before.
“Aye, I have been your mother’s ward before,” Bozhidar agreed. “We came to see her again. We have silver, and…”
“She is not here,” the girl interrupted, regaining her composure. “Will return in a day or two. You will have to wait.”
“We will be in the inn in the docks, send a maid to us when your mother returns.” Bozhidar’s tone was tired now. “She owes one of us a debt. She will want to see us.”
“Which one? The same one who came last time?” the girl asked, and then recoiled from her own eagerness. Her eyes then slipped on Ani, and the healer saw one of the thick black brows jump up in a questioning, rather mocking gesture. Ani lifted her chin and kept her face cold and reserved.
“Good day, fair maiden.” Bozhidar turned around, and since Ani still stood, withstanding the scrutiny of the witch’s daughter, he put his heavy hand on her shoulder. “Come, honourable healer. She will send for us.”
The walk seemed to have exhausted him. Once they stepped out of the yard, he stopped and wiped the sweat off his forehead.
“My lord, how are…” Ani started, only to be sharply interrupted by him.
“You go back to the inn. It is no good wandering these streets alone for a maiden. You will take Nikolai and Mishka.” He pointed at two of his warriors. “Go back. Do not stop anywhere.”
Ani wanted to argue, he was clearly ailing. She could see he was trying not to show weakness in front of his warriors, but the professional part of her mind had already registered the signs, and they were not auspicious. His eyes seemed fogged, he blinked several times trying to focus his gaze on her, his lips were white, and she suspected that he was hiding tremor in his left hand. Ani also seemed to be noticing a strange twist to his lips, as if one corner of his mouth was drooping. Altogether, his composition and his behavior told Ani that the head injury was impairing him increasingly more. He needed rest and a thorough examination. Ani pursed lips in agitation. Her vocation demanded her to interfere but she did not know how to do so delicately. By her own nature, she would go with a not so delicatel approach, but he clearly was not going to give her a chance.
She threw another attentive look over him, but then nodded. She started walking back to the inn, the two warriors following her, leaving the baskak behind them.
Just as it was discussed Ani stayed in the inn, waiting for a maid to be sent for her when it was time to visit the witch. Three days passed, and Ani had half a mind to escape the inn and explore the city. She understood she would be unsafe anywhere but in the room the baskak had paid for, but the boredom was almost insufferable. She ended up spendig hours in sitting on the sill of her window watching people go by, studying the ways and the habits of merchants and dock workers. She was starting to see patterns, and making assumptions of what the life of the Pearl Islands was in actuality, when a knock came to her door.
She lunged and jerked the door open. Despite what she expected, she did not find the baskak but Danihla and two more warriors behind him. Judging by their distraught faces and rigid postures, they were not here to take her to a walk.
“It is Bozhidar…” Danihla’s voice was distressed. “He is not waking up. And there is blood, out of his nose…”
Ani rushed back to her room without any words. She picked up her healer’s sack and followed the Westerners to their ship.
The first thing that alarmed her was that the Westerners had placed their unconscious leader on the dock. Furs and covers were placed straight on the boards of the pier, and Ani knelt in front of him. Indeed, a small stream of blood trickled out of his nose, she also saw blood in the left ear. The eyes under the lids she pulled up had rolled up. The breathing was weak, and she could hardly catch the heartbeat.
“We need to carry him to the witch’s house, or better so to an infirmary if they have one here,” Ani said, her hands running over his body. She noticed the silence in return and looked up. The Westerners were standing around her, and she quickly found Danihla’s eyes in the crowd.
“We are going home, honourable healer,” one of the Westerners spoke, and Ani recognised Naum, Bozhidar’s right hand, a large man, taller than most, with a heavy jaw and obvious temper. “What is ailing him? Is it something we can catch?”
“No!” Ani exclaimed and gave the man a glare. “It is the hit to the head he sustained.”
“Then we are taking him with us. If he makes it to Rodihna, our Veduniyas will heal him.”
“You cannot move him. It is dangerous!” Ani got up and went as far as standing between Naum and Bozhidar’s body on the ground. “That will surely kill him!”
“Then such is his fate,” the man growled and waved his hand, ordering the warriors to pick up the baskak. Ani clenched her fists and made another step towards them. She knew she could not stop them, and her mind worked quickly.
“I am a healer, honourable sir. I gave an oath! I cannot allow you what I know is harmful. Do not make an oathbreaker out of me!”
The Westerners halted and exchanged looks. Ani saw Naum frown. She venomously thought that the mental effort was a new endeavour for him, but clearly he could not ignore an appeal to a matter of honour that easily.
“We are not staying in this port. We do not know if he ever wakes up,” Naum grumbled.
Suddenly Danihla stepped forwards and muttered something in Westerners’ tongue. His face was tense, and Ani saw several Westerners shift. Some exchanged looks, and then Naum faced the blonde Westerner, with a snarl on his face. An argument started, in hushed menacing voices, and Ani’s eyes jumped from one face to another. She could not understand what was going on, but an alarm was tolling in her mind.
Naum placed the first blow. It was just a shove into Danihla’s shoulder, but the blonde immediately retaliated with a much stronger one in return. They stepped as close as possible to each other. A comparison with fighting roosters flashed through Ani’s mind. She felt panic rise, but she did not allow herself to succumb to it. She withdrew, kneeling over the senseless Westerner, taking careful breaths and trying not to miss anything.
Naum barked something, Danihla answered with a taunt in his tone, and Naum stomped towards their ladya. Other Westerners followed, and Danihla turned to Ani.
“Worry not, honourable healer. I will take what is mine, and then I will take care of you.”
“What are you doing, Danihla?” Ani asked in hiss, and he gave her a wide grin back.
“Bozhidar was my shurin, sister’s husband. His ladya is mine now.” Ani felt like reminding the Westerner that his shurin was not yet dead.
“I thought the power goes to the right hand.”
“I have more right!” Danihla’s face distorted in an angry grimace. “I will get what is mine!” He twirled on his heels and marched towards the ladya following his companions. “You stay here and wait for my decision about you,” he threw over his shoulder. He probably endeavoured to sound haughty, but all Ani heard was a tone of a stroppy child.
Ani had nothing else to do but to sit on the edge of the covers, near Bozhidar’s body. Two warriors, Nikolai and Mishka, who had accompanied her previously, also stayed on the pier, standing two steps away from her, and she wondered whether they were her bodyguards or jailors.
A few hours passed, Ani would check on the baskak, and then go back to her tense waiting. She was cold, hungry, and worried. The two Westerners seemed no less affected. Their whispering was frantic, and she could see them throw concerned looks at the ship.
Finally, Ani saw Westerners disembark again. Naum and Danihla were walking first, nothing but light tunics on their upper bodies. Each carried a sword and a light round shield in their hands. Other Westerners followed, exchanging looks. They did not seem uneasy, but there was certain solemn anticipation in their faces and the movements of their bodies.
“What is going on?” Ani asked Mishka. She could see doubt colour his features. Her status was unclear, and he was evidently not accustomed to be left without guidance on how to behave. Ani took a discreet breath in. “I am his bride… I need to know!” She hoped she sounded convincing.
The Westerners exchanged looks, and Nikolai nodded. Ani internally scolded herself, she had chosen the wrong man to appeal to. Apparently, her skill in reading men was still to be much approved.
“Please…” She now threw to Nikolai what she hoped looked like a distraught worried look of a woman in love.
“Danihla claims Bozhidar’s place,” Nikolai answered gravely. His accent was very thick, and she understood he was searching for words. “He is from other ladya, but he is blood. They fight. The winner gets the ship.”
Ani turned and looked at the two competitors. They had walked to the further end of an unused pier and were warming up. Naum was at least a head and a half taller than Danihla, his arms were massive, but Danihla seemed swifter. Ani knew nothing of sword fighting. Their weapons were short and wide, and Ani noted the lack of armour or helmets. She had a growing suspicion why.
“When does a fight stop?” she asked, half knowing the answer and dreading it.
“One dies. Another wins.” Nikolai said, and for an instant his stone like face wavered. He looked at her with pity. Ani cared not for it, but it told her whom Nikolai considered a more probable victor, which was what Ani was mostly interested in.
Ani wondered whether, to sustain her pretense, she should run to Danihla and fret around him. She assumed that was how a lover would behave. Surely, a last embrace and a kiss would be needed. She had seen wives and brides of warriors in the infirmary. She had always considered them mawkish and unnecessarily clinging to their men. She quickly calculated what would be the right line of behaviour that would benefit her in either of the outcomes.
Were Danihla to die, she would be left behind. Were he to live, her destiny would be less clear but probably not much different. Bozhidar was her protection, he was the one who had given her his word. On the other hand, were Danihla to die, she would need to convince the Westerners to at least leave her some silver. She would be as much as his widow. Surely, they would at least pay for her return journey to Lindrand. Were he to live, she should be on his good side as well.
Ani jumped up on her feet and rushed to them. She stopped in front of the Westerner. He gave her a surprised look, and she dropped her eyes to the ground, to hide the lie in them.
“Please, be careful,” she whispered and then suddenly got up on her toes and pressed her lips to his cheek. The red beard scraped at her lips unpleasantly. Their eyes met, she feigned worry, and he gave her a grin again. She deceived him but felt no joy from it.
She hastily stepped back, and the fight began.