After several hours of weighing and considering, Ani decided to go to sleep. She would need strength the next day, no matter what her next steps were.
The Long House looked unchanged, the same cold sheets of rain were slashing across Ani’s face, sea raging at the foot of the cliff the building stood on, and Ani rushed to the bearskin. She pushed it aside, and before she could step in, a pair of strong hands grabbed her around her waist, thumbs and middle fingers almost meeting around her, and the dead baskak pulled her in.
King Einar bent down, his arms wrapped around her middle, and he pulled her up and to his lips, as if she weighed nothing. He swirled around the room, his kiss deep and compelling. Ani embraced him around his neck, tangling her fingers in the orange mane, her feet dangling in the air.
A few instants later she tore her mouth off his and mumbled, “Stop… We need to stop…”
Without putting her down he searched her face, his eyes burning and hungry, and then he made a strange movement, as if shaking water out of his ear, and then he lowered her on the floor and took a few steps away from her.
“Are we not friends now, rybka? I thought we grew fonder of each other last time.”
“We are friends,” Ani rushed to reassure him. “At least, in the sense you are seemingly implying.” She frowned, studying him. She suddenly doubted they understood each other. “I do wish to proceed with our intimacy, if chance presents itself.”
His lips twitched, and then slowly stretched in one of his toothy grins.
“Bogi moi, rybka, you do know how to turn a game into something medical.” He turned away from her and walked to a bench by the wall. Ani could see his shoulders tense, which she could not quite understand. His tone was light, and he was smiling, after all.
He then sat down, and tilting his head in an inquisitive gesture, he patted his lap. She readily walked up to him and settled on it. That gained her a surprised chuckle.
“So, what do you want to do then, if this is out of limits?” He tapped her lips with his long index finger. Ani had to admit, she had been recalling these very hands on her body in the days that passed since the night they had spent together.
“I want to talk,” she answered, keeping her tone even and mundane. Surely, her desires had to wait. On the other hand, perhaps they could still indulge, once the more important matters were addressed.
“Talk?” He guffawed. “You are not a chatty bird, so I gather there is news.”
“I am on the Pearl Islands. I have met the Witch, but I was unable to ask her advice on your predicament.” Ani decided she would not disclose the truth to him.
“Did she not agree to help?” He frowned.
“No, she did not. And Bozhidar now fell ill, and Naum, his right hand, refuses to help me. I did not feed him the same lie, about me being with your child, as he thinks I am Danihla’s bride.”
“That is wise,” the baskak agreed, his eyes distant. Ani noted the one of his arms was wrapped around her, while the second hand found her fingers, and he was gently stroking her knuckles. The caress felt surprisingly pleasant. Perhaps, she was more overtaxed than she had assumed. She seemed to be craving some warmth and care.
“And what about Danihla? You could speak to him, ask him for help.”
“He is dead,” Ani answered grudgingly. “He had a fight with Naum, and he is dead. Naum paid me with Danihla’s silver. I am in an inn.”
Einar let go of her fingers and rubbed his chin and cheek, with a frustrated noise. “How much time do you have? And how much silver? Can you return to Lindrand?”
“I can. I have enough to pay for travel there, and I will even have some left, but I have no safe company.”
He nodded, lost in his thoughts. Ani was carefully watching his expression. She expected him to insist on her continuing with her travel, but she seemed to misjudge. He was pondering all possible options, and she could not say she did not appreciate his consideration.
“Has Naum left the Islands? With Bozhidar on board, I suppose.”
“No, the Witch agreed to treat Bozhidar, they are waiting for him to heal.” That shook him out of his pensiveness, and he met her eyes. She once again noticed the changeable colour of his irises.
“So, their ladya is still there. And Bozhidar will get better, the Witch never fails. So you just have to wait for him. You will be safe in the inn. I assume he paid for it.” Ani nodded confirming. “So, no one will touch you. How long can you stay in the inn?”
“I have enough silver for a moon,” Ani cautiously pronounced. “But where would I go? Once Bozhidar awakes, where do I go? The Witch refused to help…”
“You need to go to Rodhina then. We have witches of our own, the Veduniyas. They will assist you.”
Ani stayed still and silent. She had expected this of course, but she was not enjoying this plan. He said nothing either, just sat, stroking her hand.
“Are we done with our talk, rybka?” His voice shook her out of her somber thoughts. She looked at his from the corner of her eye.
He seemingly was back into his previous mood. Ani weighed her options, and nodded. He cupped the back of her head and pulled to his lips. She responded eagerly, and he toppled her on the furs covering the bench.
She woke up in the morning, with the first rays of the sun crawling on the sill of her room. The day already promised to be hot, and Ani took a bath, ate her breakfast, and sat in front of an open window. She doubted walking the city alone was safe, so she restricted herself to just watching the life of the islanders.
She was starting to doubt the picture Bozhidar had drawn to her of the life in the White City, and more and more she believed the words of Einar. The townsfolk did not seem unhealthy or dependent on any sort of drug. They indeed were harvesting the seaweed, and it was drying in a few yards near white walled houses Ani could see from her window, but the inhabitants of those houses looked anything but mad or sickly.
Ani spent the next week observing the life and talking to her maid. After a few generous gratuity payments, the girl grew chatty and friendly. Among other things Ani found out that the berries she had been so mesmerized by in the yard of the Witch’s house were called boodo, and the locals made brew out of them. Ani tried it, it was clear like water, and very strong. Ani had astonishing for her size and age resistance to alcohol, but even she could feel its effect.
The girl, Tamara, also explained to Ani that, although there were ways to make the seaweed meddle one’s mind, the smoke coming from the houses of soorebu, the harvesters, did not have any effect. Many of the things people of the Known Lands told about the Island turned out nothing but yarn, and Ani was starting to see why Einar suggested she lied she was to stay here to raise his nonexistent child.
On the ninth of Ani’s evenings in Aporokoori, a knock came to her door. She invited a visitor, and instead of Tamara with Ani’s dinner, the Witch’s daughter slowly came into the room. Ani jumped off her sill.
“Good evening, honourable healer.” The girl had a low sensual voice, and she gave Ani’s an evaluating look over.
The young Witch sat down on the only chair in Ani’s room, without waiting for an invitation. Her large dark eyes roamed Ani who felt an urge to straighten her simple dress.
“Tell me of the Westerner, whose favour you came to invoke.”
“Baskak Einar?” Ani sat on her bed, facing the young Witch.
“Yes. Einar…” The girl’s voice wavered, and then she exhaled, flaring her nostrils. “He was the one who refused me eight years ago. I need to know about him.” Ani pressed her lips, and quickly weighed her choices.
“Why?” Ani’s tone was cautious.
“I think my Mother was unfair. He deserves more help.”
“He is dead.” Ani kept her voice even, and intently watched the girl’s face. The beautiful brown eyes widened, and lips parted. “But he left me a task,” Ani quickly continued. “He sent me here, to your Mother, and now that she refused, I need to go to his motherland, Rodhina. But for that I need baskak Bozhidar to get better. He promised to help me.”
The girl got up and walked to the window. She was obviously hiding her face, watching the city, her shoulders shaking, and Ani allowed her the privacy.
“I was fourteen when they came…” The girl’s voice was monotonous. “I have never seen men like that. They were bloodied, tired… but merry… And he was the youngest, but they all listened to him. He was just of age, did you know?” the Witch’s daughter asked without turning around.
“Twenty one. We measure age differently here. And they all listened to him, and even Mother did. She wanted them to leave, but he whispered something in her ear, and I had never seen her like that! She threw him a glance, as if she were young again, as if… he made her young. And she agreed to help. She was asking something, and examining their friend, and he stood by the wall… He seemed so… sure of himself, but merry… So very merry…”
“I was fourteen, one year away from jookoo,” the girl spoke on and turned, and Ani saw tears in her eyes. “It is a ritual. When a woman in my family is of the right age, a ritual happens. That turns her into the next Witch of the Island. And I got scared, and I crawled into his tent. I wanted him to take me…”
“Away from the Island?” Ani asked, and suddenly the young Witch laughed loudly.
“No! Not from the island…” She gave Ani a pointed look from under a raised eyebrow. “A Witch has to be a maiden when jookoo takes place.”
Ani froze, understanding dawning on her, and the Witch laughed again.
“He was a Westerner! They are known for their lechery. He was sleeping, but when I crept in, he jumped up and pressed his dagger to my neck.” Her beautiful round hand flew up to her neck. “I explained to him that I was willing, and that he could have anything he wanted, and I even think I unbuckled his belt…” The Witch stopped in her tracks, and Ani was holding her breath.
“And he stopped me, and…” The two pairs of eyes met, and for the first time in her life Ani understood what they meant by the sisterhood of all women. Understanding ran between them, and the Witch slowly spoke, “He asked me what I wanted. Not what I was running from, or what I was scared of, but what I wanted. And I thought hard… He did not rush me, just sat with me. He was patting my head, like a child’s… And he was so young then. And then I said I wanted to go home, and be the Witch of the Island just as all the women of my blood before me. And he smiled to me… You should have seen his smile, honourable healer!” The girl emitted a small silver laughter. “Such teeth. Like a karcha…” The Witch searched for the word. “A shark!”
Ani laughed against her will. “Indeed.”
“You have known him then?” the Witch asked.
“Not too well,” Ani said. “But he asked me to do something, and I need to go. I have enough silver to wait here for Bozhidar. How long till he recovers?”
“Several moons, at least. Mother is brewing a drink for him, but it will take time.”
“Several moons? I do not have several moons! I will have nowhere to live soon.” Ani frowned, and the Witch came up to her.
“What is the task he has given you?”
Ani pondered the woman in front of her. She had learnt from Tamara that there could only be one Witch of the Island. They passed their knowledge to their daughters, but people believed that magic served only the oldest living one. The daughter, generation after generation, carried magic in her, dormant and inert, until her mother died. The daughter could not help her, Ani suddenly understood clearly, but an urge to share her burden overwhelmed Ani.
“His spirit cannot pass into the afterlife, I am supposed to help him.” Silence fell in the room. And Ani waited.
“Why you?” The Witch’s eyes roamed Ani’s face, but there was more softness in them now.
“I do not know. I was hoping your Mother could explain.” The Witch sat down back at her chair, and twirled a long string of shells around her neck.
“I have no magic to answer your question, honourable healer.” Ani felt disappointed flood her, to her own surprise,although just a moment ago she thought any hope for help from the young Witch improbable.
“But I have an Uncle who is a merchant and will travel to the Westerners’ shore in three days.” Ani’s eyes flew up, and the girls smiled to each other. “He is a decent man,” the Witch continued. “He will treat you well. He can be trusted with a young girl on his boat.”
It was Ani’s turn to study the Witch. Ani had always considered that her luck of never being brutalised like most of girls around her was only due to her prudence in her travels. Now she was to trust someone else to make her travelling choices, and rely on them, and it was not in her nature.
“Can I have a day to think about it?” Ani did not have her answer, and did not like making hasty decisions.
“Of course,” the girl agreed easily. “But do not wait for too long, the boat leaves in three days.” Ani nodded and the girls sat in silence.
“How did he die?” The Witch’s voice was small.
Ani suddenly remembered that the girl had only seen twenty two Winters in her life, and Ani sighed. Somehow she had always felt that her nineteen years were much longer than anyone’s thirty.
“In a battle. With honour. Just like he wanted.”
“There is no honour in dying,” the Witch suddenly bit back, and Ani looked at her in astonishment. “There is honour in living, and loving, and children, not… all that blood and rot.”
Ani frowned. She had never previously questioned the right and duty of men to go to war.
“Do men not fight on the Island?”
“Not if they have a choice.” The Witch wrinkled her nose. “We are no cowards, but we love life too much. But thankfully, other people need our seaweed, and we guard our secrets well.”
“That is why they say that the smoke is poisonous, and that the harvesters go mad! You are protecting your island by infamy!” Ani exclaimed, and the Island girl smiled to her.
“Do not tell our secret, do-feela Einar.” The large brown eyes were laughing.
“What does it mean? Do-feela Einar? Your mother called me thus.”
“The friend of Einar… Not friend, no… Well, more like ‘bonded.’” They both stilled, and then the Witch shook her head. “She does know more than anyone, does she not? But she is stubborn. She sensed your purpose, but did not help. I wonder why.”
Ani wondered if she would ever know why. But then she shrugged. She had more pressing matters to attend to.
The young Witch said her goodbyes, and they agreed on meeting the next day. Ani closed the door behind her and sat on her bed again, deep in her thoughts.