“And who would you be, little bird?” The dead King looked her over, and she jerked her chin up.
“I am Ani, a healer from the Vales at the foot of the Golden Mountains.”
“Ani? Like a bird?” The King smirked, and turning around he confidently marched to a bench by the furthest wall of the room. He sat down, his feet planted firmly, knees wide, and with an inviting wave of his hand he gestured her to sit to his left. “So I was right in my moniker, little bird.”
The healer slowly approached and sat, folding her hands on her lap.
“Anis are hardly little birds, my lord. They are large, beaks are ridged, and they are savages.” The man shook his head, his eyes glimmering with laughter. He had a wide mouth, and his grin was toothy and unrestrained, making wrinkles run in the corners of his sharp greenish grey eyes.
“Merry creatures. Noisy too. Looking at you, I can only see the similarity in the colouring. Your hair is like a raven’s wing, little bird.” Ani suppressed the desire to make sure her heavy smooth hair had not escaped the braid around her head. “So, devichka, something tells me this is not my Long House. So where am I?”
Ani lifted her eyes she had decorously lowered. He was smiling, his head tilted to the right and slightly dropped back. He was quite literally looking at her down his long nose. The line of lips was soft though. She could easily imagine the teeth bared in a snarl and the jaw set. Strength and temper were radiating from him. The eyes were bright, framed with surprisingly fluffy lashes. Any village girl would envy these.
“You are in my dream, my lord,” Ani answered carefully. The tilt of the red head grew even more pronounced, and suddenly he guffawed.
“I am in your dream…” He shook his head again. And then he narrowed his eyes, clearly preparing to deliver a jest. “I am a maiden’s dream then. And hardly a proper one, is it not, honourable healer? I seem to be lacking in dress.” He gestured all over him, pointing at the bare feet, nothing but a thin tunic on the top part of his body, and then he pushed his large hand into the bright copper waves scattered on his shoulders. “Even the hair is unbraided.”
Ani pressed her lips. Her mind whirred, and she frowned. And then the King moved swiftly. He knelt in front of her, making her jolt from sudden proximity. His hand wrapped around hers, and he strangely flipped it, palm up. She could not understand what he was trying to see there. Her nose filled with some spicy fragrance, she recognised nutmeg and balsam fir oil. The fiery waves were right in front of her nose, and she realised the smell came from them. The beard was the colour of a ripe carrot, neatly trimmed, thick, and looked very coarse. Ani pulled her hand back.
“Am I dead, little bird?” The King’s voice was low, the accent stronger, and Ani just nodded. They studied each other’s face for a bit, some rebellious curiosity in his gaze, concerned confusion in hers. The King then looked at the wall behind her, and she exhaled with relief.
“I remember the battle, the Northmen attacking the city…” His eyes grew distant. “We pushed them back, to the water… Gosta was with me… And then he fell. I jumped ahead, and I did not see… Someone… There was another North scum behind me, and then here, in the right side…” Ani saw the wide hand, with freckles and coarse red hair at the back of the palm, lay at the spot where Ani knew the wound had been. The King frowned, and then his eyes shifted again and met hers. “Why am I not in Blazhena Kray?”
“What is it?” She once again asked herself how it were possible to speak another language in one’s mind, but then she resolved that surely she was not. It was just her mind playing tricks on her. To think of it, it was rather amusing if she did not think that the man in front of her were truly there and trying to grapple for some sort of understanding in his afterlife.
“It is… a land. We believe those who have met an honourable death go there. It is plentiful, and peaceful, and forefathers meet the fallen warrior there. One is to wait for his wife there, if she lives further. Those unmarried are met by enchanting temptresses.” She marveled at how quickly his face changed from a solemn frown, through the description of the battle, to an impish toothy grin, even his nose wrinkling in merriment. She wondered exactly how much he enjoyed the sound of his own voice. And then she reminded herself that he did not enjoy anything. He was dead, and now only a figment of her imagination.
“You probably are in… Blazhena Kray…” she pronounced the words tentatively. “It is just my dream.”
“Your hands… They feel as if I am awake,” he noted, and she only then noticed that he was still holding both her hands in his. He was right. She could feel the callouses from the sword, strong dry palms, and long fingers. It did not feel like a dream. She was staring at their clasped hands when he spoke again.
“Do I not feel real to you, little bird?”
Ani had to concede that he did. It had been years since she held male hands in hers unless in her vocation. And the ones she had in her memory had been so different from these ones. These were palms of a warrior, but wrists were surprisingly narrow, nails elongated.
She saw that there were no rings on his fingers. Altogether, except for the tunic and light linen trousers he wore nothing else, even in his hair there were no beads, which Ani knew was uncharacteristic for a Westerner. He was bare in every way, his nakedness seemingly only covered for propriety purposes. Another oddity struck her mind. He was very clean. His skin, nails, hair, everything seemed cleansed, fresh. The same pleasant smell of fir oil and spices came off his skin. And with all honesty such appearance was not to be expected from a man. Ani herself had an almost obsessive preoccupation with cleanliness, but again she was a healer. And besides, it was in her character to execute control over her circumstances and surroundings. She was neat as a new pin, and often unapologetically difficult about it. She forced herself to stop studying his hands and cleared her throat.
“I am overtired. I have attended to the wounded for two days straight.” Her voice was dull. “I have clearly been affected by your agony, and my mind conjures this preposterous tale…”
“My agony?” the King interrupted her, and Ani once again pressed her lips in irked expression. She could not stand lack of manners, though she was used to it.
“I have witnessed one of your last days. In the infirmary, in Lindrand… You were… dying.” She forced herself to speak through unease. “I had just arrived seeking a position of a healer then.” The King frowned. He was still holding her hands.
“I do not remember. Everything after the wound is like a fog… Gosta was there… was he?”
“Aye, he was.”
“Tell me I kept my dignity,” the King pronounced in a strange high-pitched voice, and she looked at him in confusion. Only after meeting his laughing eyes she realised he was imitating a child’s griping. “Was I wan yet dignified?” Ani did not know what to answer and just continued gawking at him.
His volatility was making her head spin. Suddenly his hands wrapped around her forearms, and instead of the safety of the warm palms she felt as if iron shackled around her wrists.
“Find Gosta.” The King’s tone was imperious and voice almost menacing. “Find him. Tell him of this dream. He will help you to resolve it.” Ani attempted to take her hands back, but he was so much stronger. “Tell him… Va hitrosti dedov sol’ zhitiya. Did you remember the saying? Va hitrosti dedov sol’ zhitiya. He will know what to do.” He kept on demanding, and she jerked in his grasp. “I need you to remember and tell it to him.”
The long fingers clasped even more tightly, digging into her skin, hurting her, and she gasped.
“Repeat it, devichka. Say it,” the King demanded, and she pressed her lips stubbornly. “Say it!” he barked. “Do you not feel the light coming? We have no time…”
Ani looked over her shoulder and saw rays of light sliding into the Long House, through small openings around the bearskin on the door, crawling on the floor, closer and closer to the bench she was sitting on.
“The light is coming, devinchka!” the King as much as growled. “Repeat the words!”
“Va hitrosti dedov sol’ zhitiya,” she breathed out…
… and woke up with a jerk.
Ani sat up on her bed sharply, hot tears running down her face, her body quaking, breathing laboured. She pulled her blanket to her chin and let herself cry. It was just a dream, she repeated to herself, but the memories of warm dry hands and the fragrance of oils made her wrap her arms around the knees, eyes fixed on the darkness of her room. She sat, her mind working through the puzzlement, and when the first light of dawn came, she had her decision.
The next three days she worked in the infirmary, but her thoughts were preoccupied by the dream. Once she was asked by the Chief Healer whether something was ailing her. She apologised for being distracted and brought her mind back onto her everyday responsibilities.
The morning of the fourth day came. In the restful hour after the wounded took their meals, and most quietened, she walked through the ground hall to a cot in a corner. There lay one of the Westerners whose pains had been too great to join their comrades who had already embarked on the return journey.
He was short, stocky, all his body was covered in swirls of red hair. Ani knew of his merry nature and friendly disposition. Though in immense ache himself, he had tried to cheer up those lying on cots near him. It was still unclear whether his right leg could be spared or had to be taken knife to, and yet he remained in high spirits.
“Danihla?” Ani addressed him, and he lifted his eyes from some whittling he was doing.
“Ah, honourable healer, what a good day! A visit from you, and without a knife in your hands,” he jested, smiling widely to her. She returned the smile with a small nod.
“Could I sit with you? I have a few minutes and wanted to ask how you were faring.” He readily put aside his craft and pointed at a stool near his bed.
“So, what does the Chief say about my leg?” The man’s voice was worried. Ani suppressed the urge to remind him that just this morning the Chief Healer had had a conversation with Danihla and explained to him that they had to wait a few more days to see how the wound fared.
“He asks for your patience,” Ani repeated the same old formula she had been taught to give to her patients. She added some cordiality into the tone, having reminded herself how often she had been censured for coldness and insensitivity. She had to agree. She was an excellent surgeon and herbalist, but her bedside manners were practically nonexistent. She had no patience or empathy for those in pain. She was good with wounds and bodies, not hearts and minds. “I would not give up hope, Danihla. Give it time.”
“Sure, sure, I will trust the kind healer.” The Westerner nodded gleefully, encouraged by Ani’s words. “I can see my druzhina recovering, I will be up in no time.” Ani felt her cheeks grow cold from blood rushing away from them.
“Druzhina?.. What does it mean?”
“My friends… Well, my brothers… in arms. That is how we call our warriors. We are all brothers…” Ani felt her heart slowly and painfully beat in her chest.
“Even your Kings? Are they your brothers too?” Her voice was even, but something probably showed in her eyes.
“Our Kings?” The man asked cautiously, but then his eyes suddenly squinted mischievously. “Has the honourable healer taken notice of one of our baskaks? There is about half a ten of them left here in the infirmary. Others left, but…” He gave her a playful wink. “Who was it? Bozhidar? He is a fair fellow. Or perhaps, Radovan? Though I would not look his way, honourable healer. He is as we say, vilyaet hvostym.” The words of Westerners’ tongue weaved into the man’s speech, already coloured with his thick accent. “Not much for solitude this one is. A new bride in each port…” The man was now openly chuckling, and Ani’s mind worked quickly.
If the man thought her a dimwitted maudlin girl, that was what she could use to her advantage. She dropped her eyes to the floor and emitted a loud mawkish sigh.
“I do not know his name… And he left already… But…” She heard a louder chuckle and pointedly wriggled her hands as if in anguish. She then looked at the man with what she hoped looked like a imbecilic bathos. “He was tall, and wide shouldered… But narrower than most of you. He was with that baskak of yours who died…”
“Einar? He was with Einar?” Danihla’s face grew immediately sorrowful. “What a loss, honourable healer… What a loss…” He cringed in a pained grimace and shook his head mournfully. “He was the best of us. His druzhina… No one could fight like him, and his ship… Miroslawa, she is the nimblest ladya, but those are the hands that steer, that is what matters. His men will now have to choose another baskak… Gosta is too young…”
“Gosta!” Ani flailed her arms in feigned frenzy. She hoped she did not overdo it. She had none of her own personal experiences to base this pretense on, but she saw other women engage in such appalling triteness. “That was his name!” She searched her memory for something an enamoured halfwit would not stop thinking about. “His eyes were like cat’s, green and slanted. And his strands…” Ani would cringe at her own breathy tone but her pretense seemed to yield the right results. A moronic condescending smile was blooming on Danihla’s face. “They were like fire, like the sunset…”
‘Like an Autumn pumpkin,’ she added in her thoughts. She then pressed her hands to the chest and battered her lashes at the wounded Westerner.
“I just cannot seem to forget his face… ” Danihla laughed loudly and then clasped his square palm over his mouth, under the disapproving glares from other wounded.
“I doubt it is his face that visits you in your dreams, honourable healer,” the Westerner jested, and Ani grew rigid on her stool. “Some other parts perhaps…”
“Watch your tongue, boltun.” A gruff voice of another Westerner came from the cot to their left. Ani turned and looked. He was older, silver almost replacing the copper in his beard and around the face. The right side of his torso was wrapped in bandages, and Ani’s sensitive ear caught the hiss in his breathing. She assumed his right lung had been punctured. The arm on the same side lay passively, the wrist twisted under the unnatural angle. Since no splints were put around it, it was probably beyond repair.
Ani’s eyes met the cold grey irises of the older warrior.
“Do not listen to him, honourable healer. He knows not his place.” The man probably possessed higher stature than Danihla since the merry man pressed his lips and nodded obediently.
“It is quite alright… I have started this improper conversation myself.” Ani felt the need to explain herself to the seasoned warrior, but that would cost her the advancement she was gaining in her inquiries. “I was just hoping to find out of the destiny of… your comrade Gosta.”
“He was Einar’s priblizhnik, his right hand. He is to escort his baskak’s body back to Rodhina, to our land, for the burial,” the older warrior answered. “Then he will either pledge himself to the new head of his clan…”
“Or..?” Ani asked sensing some underlying tension in the words of the Westerner.
“Or he can try to claim the power in a combat,” Danihla answered instead. “But there will be many desiring…” Danihla added, giving Ani a pointed look. “Gosta is good. He was the only one who could take down Einar, but he will not want to lead… Not now, not when Einar is gone…”
Ani felt she needed to ponder what she had found out, and she rose. She wished both warriors quick recovery and excused herself.
That night she lay in her bed, fighting drowsiness, dreading the repetition of the dream. The dream did not come. And neither did it the next night. And only when Ani started feeling more and more certain it was nothing but a trick of her mind, and had almost managed to convince herself that her overtaxed nerves were to blame, the second dream came.