This time Ani found herself in front of the Long House, outside, bearskin covering the entrance from inside. She looked around. She stood on a tall cliff, over a dark grey sea, the likes of which she had never seen in her life. Nothing was on the cliff but the Long House, a prolonged wooden building, its walls and roof supported by thick polls, placed slanted. The semi-dome roof was covered in small wooden tiles. On each side the Long House was surrounded by land, only a few steps wide, with withered grass, and mud, and then the cliff would drop down, into the waves. The wind was tugging and yanking at her dress and hair. It was cold and wet, slashing her cheeks, and she rushed to the bearskin and jerked it to the side.
Inside the Long House was as warm and welcoming as she remembered. The dead King lifted his eyes. He was scooting in front of the fire pit, moving the embers with a long fire iron.
“Welcome back, honourable healer,” he announced in an offhand manner, and returned his attention to the fire.
Ani shifted between her feet uncomfortably, but then gathered her will and marched towards him. She stopped near him and pointedly cleared her throat.
“I spoke with one of your men. He spoke your tongue. I had not known it before I had a dream of you last time. There is still a chance it is my mind playing tricks on me. It is possible…” Her voice grew pensive. “If I looked back at the dream having heard the words from Danihla, and my mind distorted my memories, then I could imagine…”
“Would you stop your palaver, honourable healer?” the King suddenly asked in an irked tone and glared at her. She could see how tightly his hand was fisted around the handle of the iron. “I care not for your twisted assumptions. I am stuck in this place for Varpulis knows how long!” He sharply got up and threw the iron aside in irritation. It hit a burning log, showering everything around it with angry sparks. “There is nothing to do. I had half a thought of jumping off the cliff, except trying to kill myself after dying in a battle seemed excessive.” He stepped to her, looming over her, his burning eyes roaming her face. “So, what have you done to find Gosta? Has he left Lindrand? Have you checked in the inn in the docks?” His tone was impatient and demanding. “How long has it been? Is it the same night?” Ani took a careful step back from him.
“It has been three days.”
“Three days? What have you been doing for three days, nonsensical girl? Have you at least found a ship to travel after Gosta? He will find a way to escort you to the Veduniyas. They are old women, they know of the matters of life, and death, and spirit, and they will help you.”
“Help me to do what?” Ani was still holding on to the remnants of her composure.
“Gods be merciful to me, help me cross into oblivion of course! I can see you are meek. Are you also simple?” He gave her a derisive look over, from head to toe, and she was stricken by the contrast to the heady masculine appraisal she had received from him in the infirmary, when he still lived.
Ani turned around and quickly walked to the entrance. She moved the bearskin and looked outside. The same storm was raging around the cliff, sheets of water falling on the ground, adding to the muck at the threshold.
‘It is just a dream,’ she reminded herself. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath in. She heard if one wished to wake up, one just had to remind themselves of the place they went to sleep in. She imagined her narrow cot, the thin, scant blanket, and the quilt she habitually threw over it, the small, dim room above the infirmary that she currently occupied. She drew another careful breath in.
“Tell me you are not going to grow feeble at least.” The King’s sarcastic tone made her eyes fly open. He was watching her, his arms crossed on his chest, his wide mouth twisted in a sardonic smirk.
Ani quickly looked at her circumstances. With no other possibilities before her, she had to address the aggravation of the ghost in front of her, at least until she learnt a way to waken herself consciously. Firstly, though, she needed to establish the boundaries in this association as well as clarify a few matters.
She turned to him and gave him a direct look.
“I need a proof that you are not my imagination. Tell me something I could not know, but something that can testify you are not just a dream. And it has been eleven days since your demise. Your men left. If you need me to contact your comrade Gosta, you need to wait till my letter arrives to your islands. I can send a letter with the next ship, but it will be moons. And one more thing…” She stopped in front of him and jerked her chin up. “I need respect from you. Do you have any more visitors here? Anyone who is willing to listen to your snidy remarks and tolerate your cantankerous demeanour?”
She hoped the genuine meaning of her words was clear, and he tilted his head again and then his face broke into one of his toothy grins.
“Quite a bite from such a little thing. And a wordy one as well.” He chuckled. “And nay, no more visitors for me here.”
“More reasons to appreciate the current company,” she pointed out.
He suddenly stepped ahead, and his large palm lay on her jaw, thumb pressed to the side of her face, brushing the cheekbone, his fingers sliding under her thick braids. She stilled, taking small careful breaths. The sensation of his dry pleasant palm on her skin alone could serve as an argument for the unusual nature of this dream for someone less skeptical. Ani, on the other hand, thought through the list of questions quickly forming in her mind.
“Why you?..” the King murmured, and pulled her closer, with only his fingers, on her nape. She obeyed, suddenly no room left between their bodies. “Why am I in your dreams?”
“What happens when I am not here?” She did not know why she was whispering. His eyes were roaming her face. She suddenly noticed faint freckles, so many that his skin just seemed touched by sun, but nonetheless they were there.
And then the strange tension of the moment broke, and he released her. He stepped back and went to pick up his iron.
“Nothing happens when you are not here,” he answered without turning. “It is as if there is no time here. I could not tell you how long it has been since your first visit.” He scooted in front of the hearth again.
“Three days,” she reminded him again, feeling slightly annoyed by the excessiveness of this discussion. He made a frustrated noise.
“Just minutes for me. Or not…” He rubbed his chin in some irritated restlessness. “There is not much to do here as you see. I tended to fire, and there are weapons, so I can train…” He distractedly pointed at a bearskin on one of the benches. She saw axes, swords, and a row of round shields leaned onto the wall.
“Does this place look exactly like your Long House?” Ani continued to investigate.
“It does. And it doesn’t. It is never empty, you know,” he answered with a smirk. “There is always noise. And druzhina, and women come with grievances, and children run around…”
“Your children?” she asked, suddenly remembering she knew nothing of him. She wondered if there would be a widow waiting for one of their ships with a row of oars on each side, carrying his corpse.
“I have none. At least not in the village. And elsewhere… None that I know of.”
He gave her a cheeky grin. She pursed her lips. At least, men of Lindrand and Fishermen Isles did not flaunt their promiscuity. She hardly believed in loyalty of males, but she did not enjoy his casualness on this subject.
“And a wife? Do you have one? I have heard that you, Westerners take one wife, and she is to wait for you for when you come to stay in the village between your raids. Is that correct?” She had not noticed when she started pacing back and forth in her usual habit. “I do care little, but it would make more sense for someone from your kin to see you in their dreams.”
She threw a glance at him and saw laughter dancing in his eyes.
“You are so strange,” he drew out shaking his head in disbelief. “Are you not at all boggled by what is happening? You are calm like water in a swamp. Asking about my wife, of all questions…” He sat down on a bench and gave her a look over, as if she were a strange vision here, and not him.
“Do not misunderstand me, I have no interest in your private life,” Ani said coldly. “I am just trying to understand. So do you, or do you not have a wife?”
“Nay, I do not.” He was smirking lopsidedly.
“And brothers? Sisters? Parents?”
“My warriors are… were my brothers. And no, no blood left on this Earth.”
“That still does not explain why me.” She exhaled in frustration. “I have only seen you once. You were dying. Your men were there. The delirium of agony took you already, you were violent…”
“You surely could have softened your words, honourable healer,” he interrupted with a short throaty laugh. She froze mid-step, once again having started to pace in front of him, and looked at him frowning.
“What would you like me to say? That you were clearly on the path of recovery? You are dead.” That gained her a booming guffaw.
“Yaka chudna devichka!” He loudly clapped his palm to the knee. “Look at you! Small, black and plain like a thrush, drozdzhek we call them, and look at that, eyes like two sharp pieces of ice! And nothing can bend you, I see?” His eyes went on sliding over her body, and she clenched her fists. “A deadman rattling in your dream, and you are asking wise questions and take guesses.”
He jumped up on his feet and came up to her again. She narrowed her eyes, hoping to show him how little she appreciated his constant closeness to her, but he stopped in front of her, his sternum a mere palm length from her nose. She could see muscles under the thin tunic; and the spicy fragrance of his skin filled her nose.
“Are you not afraid, little bird?” His voice rumbled in his chest, nothing but rasp in his throat, but still velvet and enticing. “You are alone here with me. This touch…” Both his hands lay on her shoulders, heavily, pressing her down. She only squared her shoulders more firmly. “Does it not feel real? Do you not think pain would feel real too? I can make you help me. I can make you desire to rid yourself of me. If these dreams turn into nightmares, would you not do anything to stop them?”
“You will not frighten me,” she answered firmly, keeping their eyes locked. “I have spoken with your men. I have asked around about your people. You have the code. You do not raise your hand on a woman and never force yourself on one.”
“But it is just a dream. And I am indeed dead. Why would I have to follow the law?” His eyes were cold and dangerous, but she stood her ground.
“Your gods forbid you violence against women. One of your warriors told me of Morosa, the goddess of death and harvest, the protector of unmarried women. Would you want to enrage her knowing what she would do to you?” His hands still tightly clasped over her shoulders, he tilted his head.
“I am already dead.”
“But you have not crossed the Mists of the Forefathers yet. Will she let you there if you hurt me?”
“Do you even believe in gods, healer? The people of Lindrand have this one god, but you are not of here. Where did you come from? I can hear it in your tongue. The Golden Mountains, is it not? Do you not have those hermits, the charmers, breathing in poisonous fogs from the mountain?”
“I do not believe in any gods,” Ani answered simply. “But you do. And I bet the promises of Morosa’s tortures sound rather convincing. What was it? Burning off your organ again and again every night? Or freezing it solid and smashing in pieces?”
He was studying her and then pulled her even closer. He leaned in and suddenly the pair of bright greenish grey eyes was right in front of hers.
“There are other ways to convince you, little bird.” He leaned even closer, and his lips almost brushed at hers. She felt his fresh breath trembling on her lips. “Should we not be friends, little bird? It will take a while for you to reach my islands. You will need to spend these nights…”
“What do you mean reach your islands?” Ani’s voice sounded much more sober than she felt, and yet she struggled to keep her mind unclouded. The King’s triflings were becoming rather familiar, and she decided giving them credence was hardly reasonable. He was changeable and moody. His threats scared her, of course, but as usual she felt more defiant than intimidated in such circumstances. His playfulness left her almost at all unaffected.
Ani knew her value. She also knew it did not lie in her looks. She was, just as he put it, small, black, and plain, narrow pale face, thin lips, body of a sickly youngling, all bones and angles. She had a rather common features for the people of the Golden Mountain, just not the most attractive kind. She cared not. She was gifted, in surgery and herbalism, and knew what she was worth. In her vocation she was ambitious and haughty. And her vocation was what her life consisted of. She hardly wanted to change that.
“I would prefer you to further refrain from your flirtations, my lord,” she said dryly. “Let us just agree. So far we are accepting that it is not a simple dream, you are indeed half alive in my mind, and we both want this to cease as soon as possible.”
“You seem to have sorted all out by now, honourable healer.” His words trembled between their lips, and she kept her face even and cold. He smirked and straightened up. “What an odd little thing…” He released her and sat back on the bench, inviting her to take a seat across from him. “Well, alright then, let us discuss our plans then.”
“I understand you want me to travel to the Weathering Isles, where your people live. But I have my service in the infirmary, and again, I do not see much sense in endeavouring on such journey blind. Perhaps, I could talk to someone before it…”
The King rubbed his chin again, she noted the freckles and copper hair at the back of the palm, and then he suddenly rejoiced.
“Ha! You might not have to travel far at all, little bird! You will go to the Pearl Islands and talk to the Old Witch there! She will help me! She owes me a debt.” Ani opened her mouth to argue, when he laughed loudly and gleefully. “I have once refused to lie with her daughter, though the cheek crawled into my tent in nothing but a silken ribbon in a bow on her neck. For that one night the Witch will aid me. The temptress of the daughter would have been a delight! I do not know how I held back!”