Danihla died quickly. At first it seemed that his agility, swifter movements, and lighter step were giving him advantage, but first a heavy blow across his thigh cut him down, and then Naum’s sword sank into Danihla’s neck, right above the shoulder. The sound was squelching, and Ani shuddered.
She had only seen one combat in her life, and it had been a mayhem. A band of bandits had attacked the village she was serving in, they rode into it on horses, and the villagers were running around, screaming and dying.
Two men meeting each other in a quick and concise fight with the only goal of killing another was not something Ani was prepared for. It was short and somehow faceless. Danihla fell on the ground, and Naum leaned in, and his sword went through the blonde Westerner’s heart. The limbs twitched, and it was over. The bright blue eyes were blindly staring into the sky. Somehow, Ani could not stop looking into them. She had seen plenty of death before, but never previously her heart had been beating so painfully in her chest.
“Come, say goodbye,” Nikolai encouraged her, pity in his voice.
“It is too late for goodbyes.” The words slipped off Ani’s lips without her will, and yet she made herself rise and walk up to the corpse.
She knelt in front of Danihla and cupped his face with her hand. She expected her mind to investigate and judge her predicament just as usual, and yet she could not find any thoughts. Her eyes roamed Danihla’s face.
Naum cleaned his sword, other Westerners moved and started talking in quiet voices. Ani could feel them throw occasional looks at her. Ani dropped her eyes to the ground, still feeling nothing and thinking nothing.
“We will take his body to Rodhina. He died honourably.” Naum’s voice was grave, and Ani lifted her eyes at him.
From the view of his dark face and unease splashing in his eyes she seemed to have woken up from her stupor.
“You killed him… How is that an honourable death?” she asked, shriekily, finally remembering to play the part of a grieving widow. “You took him away from me…”
Ani mentally asked forgiveness from Danihla. If there were any afterlife, she hoped he did not hold her theatrics against her. They were means to an end, she had an unconscious man to protect and a deceased one to help.
“You do not know our ways, girl,” Naum threw to her disdainfully. Ani had predicted such reaction, and despite her respect for their customs she jumped up on her feet and stepped towards the Westerner. She clenched her fists and snarled at him through gritted teeth.
“You left me without my beloved. I am away from home, and alone… At least leave me Danihla’s silver,” she hissed and took another step towards the man. “And… You owe me a debt now. At least show some respect, do not make an oath breaker out of me. Take Glava Bozhidar to the infirmary.”
Naum’s face distorted, and he opened his mouth, clearly to object, and Ani poked his chest with her index finger. He would not raise his hand at her, she knew. And indeed, the man took a step back.
“There is no infirmary on the island…” one of the Westerners mumbled. “They all chew on their seaweed.”
“There is the Witch. Take him to her!” Ani added steel into her tone, and her eyes locked with the cold grey ones of Naum. “He will not live if you do not. I am a healer and a good one. I know my craft. Take him to the Witch,” Ani repeated firmly, and Naum blinked, stepped back again, and then nodded.
Her mind whirled, and thoughts ran in circles. She won. She was small and unassuming, just a girl from the mining lands, but somehow she had not backed off. She understood how much was at stake, and when antagonising Naum, she suddenly thought of King Einar’s smile and his odd confidence in her. And she won.
Ani hastily turned away from Naum, hiding her face, worried he would see the triumphant smile, so unfitting on the face of a woman who had just lost her lover.
“Pick him up and carry him to the Witch,” Ani muttered, and throwing the last look at Danihla, she picked up her healer’s sack from the ground.
The court of the Witch’s house was just as crowded as before, but some faces were new. Others seemed to recognise Ani, and a low murmur ran the party. The Westerners carried their fallen baskak on a stretcher, and Ani followed them. Naum loudly knocked at the door. The Witch’s daughter once again opened it, and her eyes fell on Bozhidar’s unmoving body.
“What is wrong with him? He was just here…” She pouted her bright red lips.
“He had an injury. In a battle in Lindrand, weeks ago,” Ani answered, since the Westerners just stood in silence, their faces lowered. “We need your mother to examine and treat him.”
The girl looked over the baskak and pursed her lips. Ani was once again affected by how beautiful the Witch’s daughter was. Ani searched her mind, wondering why it suddenly mattered to her, and even asked herself whether she felt some sort of ludicrous jealousy towards the girl, but she had not found any in her mind. She decided to give it a proper thought later, and returned her mind onto the matters at hand.
“I will see what I can do,” the girl said and went back inside.
Ani threw a look at Naum. He stood a few steps to the side from the stretcher, as if emphasizing how little he had to do with what was transpiring. Ani felt irritation rise but she suppressed it. It was no time for emotions.
The door opened, and then the Old Witch stepped out into the court. The people waiting outside started jumping at their feet, and talking at the same time, and an elderly woman rushed to her, dragging a young limp girl behind her. Ani’s attentive mind caught myriads of little details, and movements, who was healthy, who was sick, the clothes, the signs of diseases, and she felt momentarily worried that the baskak in her care and herself would be lost in the sea of the shouts and pleas, but the Witch raised her hand, and everyone grew silent.
She was short, bulbous, eyes large and dark. She used to be just as beautiful and enticing as her daughter, but now, when her hair was white and face wrinkled, she looked like a kind grandmother every child dreamt of, except her eyes that would make anyone’s skin crawl. They were not just dark, they were black, and empty, like holes into some bottomless pit. They ran the crowd and stopped on Ani. The healer’s heart dropped.
“You. The thin one. I will talk to you.”
The Witch turned around, and Ani felt everyone’s eyes on herself. Everything was shaking inside.
“Who is she?” a man whispered somewhere near, and Ani sank her nails into her palms and walked after the Witch.
She wavered only once, while walking with her head held high and her jaw set. By the very door, she threw a look at the Westerners standing by the fence, but she could not find a single friendly face. She honestly should not have expected to. And yet, there was an instant there when she craved to see a flicker of warmth in someone’s eyes. Her eyes then fell on Bozhidar’s body, and she reminded herself that she had responsibilities to fulfill.
Ani entered the house, trying not to gawk around. The room was spacious, some sort of soft low sofas along the walls, tall vases, and cages with birds. Ani felt that the unblinking stares of the surprisingly silent birds were most disturbing.
The Witch confidently wobbled through the room, and pushed a small door in the opposite wall.
“Come, girl. Let us talk,” she threw over her shoulder, and Ani felt an urge to refuse, or even run. She clenched her fists, her arms straight and tense, along her body, and walked into a dim stuffy room.
This one looked like any other herb room that Ani had seen or worked in through her service. Bunches of dried herbs hanging from the ceiling, jars and boxes on shelves on the wall, and strangely enough, another cage with another alive, but quiet bird, surrounded Ani, and she slowly sat down on a low soft settee offered to her by the Witch’s silent wave of the hand.
The Witch sat on another chair in front of Ani. Her daughter remained standing leaning on the wall.
“Speak, girl.” The white haired woman’s accent was thick, but altogether the voice was pleasant. If not for the unsettling eyes, she could almost seem unthreatening.
“The man in your court… His name is Bozhidar, he is a baskak from a Westerners’ ship. He was wounded in the battle, in Lindrand. He received a blow to the head, and it was untreated, and now…” Ani was hurriedly explaining, when the Witch raised her hand in the already familiar gesture.
“You. Tell me about you. I can see blood in the man’s head. It leaked through his ear, yes?” Ani nodded. “I do not need to look. I know.” The woman gave Ani a sly smile, which looked twice as alarming since her eyes remained empty of any emotion.
“My name is Ani, and I traveled from Lindrand with the Westerners.” Ani paused and quickly gave it a thought. She could mention her fake betrothal to Danihla, or she could talk of Einar. It was time to make a choice.
The Witch was studying her face, and Ani suddenly wondered if the woman already knew what Ani could only frantically consider, and even what Ani would choose.
“I came to ask for your advice,” Ani started carefully, and the Witch cackled.
“You did. Do you want it now?” The low voice was mocking.
“Yes, I do. I need your help,” Ani hastily answered.
“You do. But what do you have to pay with?” The Witch picked up a dry flower from the table and twirled it in her fingers, feigning interest towards the faded purple petals.
“I have a favour to invoke. The man named Einar told me you would help me as you owed him a debt.” Ani’s voice trembled. She had been preparing to say these words for days, but now her voice betrayed her. She internally scolded herself for weakness.
“Einar…” the Witch drew out, and then chuckled. Ani caught a slight movement from the corner of her eye. The Witch’s daughter shifted between her feet, her arms going around her middle. The Witch threw a side glance at her.
“I remember him. I am old, I saw many men, but I remember him. So much… zooie.” The woman smacked her lips.
“Spirit…” Her daughter breathed out the translation.
“Life force,” the Witch amended. “Full of life he was. Warm hands too. Such warmth comes from a heart that burns.”
Some strange unpleasant feeling flooded Ani, something cold in her chest, unfamiliar and distressing.
“Alright, have your wish then, do-feela Einar. What help do you need of me?” The Witch focused her mesmerizing eyes on Ani. When the healer opened her mouth to speak, the Witch made a series of loud clicking noises with her tongue and said, “But just one. One debt, one payment. What do you want, do-feela Einar?”
Ani closed her mouth, with an audible clank of teeth. She was now certain that the Witch if not knew, then at least surmised that Ani had to ask, and suddenly Ani saw what this conversation was – a trap.
Her mind raced, she felt as much as shouting to the Witch that she needed a moment to consider, but the woman and her daughter seemed to be aware of Ani’s bedraggled state, and both were silent. The Witch was picking up and putting down dried flowers, seemingly aimlessly, while her daughter remained unmoving, her arms crossed on her chest, only the knuckles, white and tense, betraying her agitation.
Ani’s thoughts thrashed, and she took one shallow breath after another. Among other things, she tried to fall back onto her previous certainty that there was no such thing as magic, and witches, and surely, only in fairy tales one answer could decide someone’s fate, and yet, in the dim room in a white walled house on an island already not in the Known Lands, Ani realised she was at crossroads.
“I need you to help baskak Bozhidar.” Ani’s words fell gravely in the silent room. “I invoke Glava Einar’s favour to help Bozhidar.”
Ani felt as if all air suddenly left her lungs, and something painfully clenched in her stomach. She gulped the heavy air of the room, and then exhaled through open mouth.
The Witch put down yet another blossom and looked at her daughter over the shoulder. A short, bark like question followed, accompanied by a mocking look at the younger woman, and the daughter gave the Witch a defiant look back. The older woman laughed loudly and shook her head.
“I see my daughter is not happy. She feels you deserve more. Or at least your friend Einar does.” The Witch got up, and Ani jumped at her feet. “And yet such is my decision. You can go now. I will help the one given by Gods.” Ani frowned, not understanding, and the white haired woman laughed louder. “You travel on their ship, you meddle in their lives, girl, and still do not know anything of them. ‘Bozhidar,’ it means ‘the gift of the Gods.’ It seems their Gods do not know how to make gifts, I think, or it is their cruel joke,” the Witch added with some nasty smirk on her lips. “He is in my care, twice now, and he is even closer to Death this time.”
Ani stood in front of the Witch, who looked her over again, and another shake of the head followed.
“You doubt your choice, girl.” Ani jerked her chin up preparing to argue. “You should,” the Witch deadpanned. “It is the second time the one called Einar saves his friend. But this time he did not make this decision. Will he be happy with you, girl?”
Ani asked herself the same question, but she did not know the answer. The Witch dismissed her with another wave of her hand, and Ani followed the daughter outside.
“Mother will treat your friend. It will take days, maybe weeks, but he will wake up. Leave him here. And I will send for you, when it is time to come for him.” The daughter stood in front of the Westerners, her face cold and haughty. “Or he will come to your inn on his own legs. He will live and will heal. So do not leave.” The girl then gestured the Westerners to lift the stretcher. “Come, I will show where to put him.”
The Westerners obeyed and slowly started moving towards the house. Ani was left behind, in the shade of a large tree, eyes of other patients and their kin jumping between her and the procession of the Westerners.
Naum, who was helping to carry his fallen comrade, looked back and ordered something to one of his warriors. The man, whose name Ani did not remember, stepped to Ani and stretched a hand with a large pouch of silver to her.
“Your silver, honourable healer,” Naum announced loudly, and it felt like a slap across her face. “You will have enough to return to Lindrand, and even will have some left. Farewell.”
The Westerners disappeared in the house, all but one in front of her, and Ani grabbed the pouch, and twirled on her heels, and fled. Her cheeks were burning, tears stung her eyes, and she ran, her heels hitting the soft white dust of the streets. She did not remember how she reached the inn, and she rushed up the stairs, and into the room she had occupied since they came to the port.
She wanted to fall on the bed, and a sob tore at her throat, but she locked the door behind her, and sat on the bed, still grasping the silver pouch in her hand. She needed to think. Tears had to wait.