“You want me to travel to the Pearl Islands…” Ani repeated slowly. “That is weeks of travel, and now, with the war just having ended, it will require a lot of expenses. The Leagued Fleet is scarce, most of your compatriots have left the port already. I have just paid my rent, I have no silver.” He smirked.
“You have quite a sober head, honourable healer.” A low warm chuckle rumbled in his chest. She gave him a cold look from under frowned brow.
“At least one of us has to be sober.” The snidy remark slipped off her lips almost without her will. He boomed a laugh.
“I take my words back. You are not meek. And definitely not simple. It is the appearance that deceived me.” He gestured all over her, and she narrowed her eyes at him. “Is that how you look in waken state? Or is it a mask?”
She could not hold an irritated sigh back. “Is that what you wish to discuss?” Her voice was rising. “You are dead. You visit the dreams of a person you have not known in life. I am still not certain you are not a symptom of some sort of brain fever. I need a proof to even consider taking any steps. And all you seem to wish to talk about is my appearance, which you, apparently, find objectionable…“
“I do not,” he interrupted and once again gave her a look over. “I am generally fond of more around here…” He waved his hand around his chest. “And here…” A pat on his hip followed. “But altogether, there is no such thing as an ugly woman. Especially with enough mead.”
And then he proceeded laughing at his own joke, all his white teeth on display in a wide open mouth, his nose scrunched, his right hand loudly clapping his knee in glee, and Ani wondered whether he would get a goose egg if she threw a clay mug from the nearest table into his head.
She let his frolics subside, just standing there, her eyes on him, and he chuckled, wiped tears off his eyes, and finally looked at her.
“Oh, do stop pouting, healer!” He grinned once again. “What is life without a bit of laughter?”
“You are dead.” She decided that repeating the same statement was the way to go. Perhaps, he was the simple one here.
“I am aware. Does not mean I am going to be ill-humoured about it.” He gave her a wink and patted his knee in a clear invitation. She cocked a brow signalling to him that he as much as lost his mind if he thought she would even consider it. He guffawed.
“Is this your people’s outlook on death?” she asked, feeling curiosity waking up in her. Something stopped her from just assuming he was feeble-minded and did not understand the gravity of his situation.
“It is a warrior’s outlook, honourable healer.” His wide mouth was still smiling, but the eyes were sharp and cold now. “Every battle can be the last battle. I have met mine. I would have accepted my journey to Blazhena Kray with gratitude to gods, except…”
“Except you did not go there,” she finished for him. “Or at least, so it seems.”
“Do not correct yourself, devichka. You do believe me, as much as you are fighting it.” There was laughter in his voice again, and she met his eyes. No, he was certainly not dim, nor simple, nor flighty. Just volatile and capricious.
“I still need a proof,” she spoke stubbornly, and he nodded.
“I will solve two of your grievances at once, healer. But first, sit, it is hard to talk when my neck is getting sore.” He once again patted his lap.
“I am the same height as you when seated. Your neck is very much in comfort,” she mumbled but nonetheless walked closer. She sat on the next bench, at least two steps away from him, and he shook his head.
“Upryamitza…” His native tongue rolled, his voice low and velvet, but she stubbornly ignored any of its effect. “Are there any of other baskaks left in your infirmary?”
“Aye. Radovan, Bozhidar, Branko, and Borwin.” The King nodded, pondering.
“We will go with Branko. He is most trustworthy, and you are in no danger from him…” Ani shifted uncomfortably on her bench. He caught her movement from the corner of his eye and smirked. “Fear not, honourable healer…” The corners of his curved lips were twitching. “You were right, we do not force women… in showing kindness to us. Gods do forbid that. But it does not mean we cannot try to persuade them.”
“I am not a dim-witted village girl. It would take more than a good-for-nothing rogue of a Westerner to persuade me.” Her voice dropped venomously around the word. An auburn coloured brow cocked up, and he gave her a disbelieving look. She had her chin jerked up, withstanding his scrutiny.
“You should learn to bite your tongue sometimes, healer.” There was a clear menace in his voice, and she clenched her teeth. “Those are my comrades you speak of. Warriors with noble hearts that spilled their blood for all the Known Lands for years before the last decade, and even more so through the cursed war. We have lost more than a half of our baskaks in the fights against the Northmen, and gods only know how many will die on the ladyas home.”
Ani took his advice and kept her thoughts to herself, although the snidy thought of his so-called noble warriors being generously paid for their sword was on her mind. On the other hand, she did not hold her next remark back.
“Many of those who are traveling back wounded should have stayed in the healers’ tents,” she muttered. “Many of them were not ready for moons at sea.”
“We believe that in homeland even dirt under one’s feet helps recovery. And have you not thought that they just long for home, their wives, and their kin?”
‘Or perhaps they are in a rush to claim the places of those very fallen baskaks,’ she thought, but she was beginning to think that if the King were not guided, useless palaver would never cease.
“What do you want me to do with Branko?”
“What state is he in?” Ani sighed. She had grown to understand that such was his habit, leaving yet another of her questions without a direct answer.
“I have seen him two days ago.” This subject was comfortable, and Ani immediately felt more confident. “His right arm is shattered, his right lung is punctured. He will recover, but slowly. Probably will never wield sword again.”
“He can use both hands with the same ease, he will just have to restrict himself to one toporina.”
A toporina was an axe of the longer kind, though there were short ones as well, in scabbards on the Westerners’ belts. A toporina was usually clasped to a warrior’s back. The edge of it was made of hardened steel welded to the iron head and had a wedge-shaped cross section. Some of them, probably of those warriors who had shown much valour in battle, were elaborately decorated with inlays of precious metals. The hafts were long, Ani had seen men leaning on a vertically perched axe, their bent elbows on the top of the axe cheek. As fierce of warriors as the Westerners were considered, Ani could not imagine one wielding two of these terrifying weapons at the same time. On the other hand, she had witnessed only one true combat in her life, and it hardly involved genuine warriors. Nonetheless, Ani shivered from the memories of the bloodshed.
“We cannot choose Branko then, we need someone who will travel soon,” the King continued while Ani was lost in her thoughts. “Who is close to recovery then?”
“Radovan. The bones are broken in his right leg, he will stay limp, but with time, I am certain, he will learn to live and fight with it. He cannot walk, but I have overheard that he is ready to travel back. They have been discussing making him a cot on his ship.”
“What about Borwin?” Ani once again suppressed rebellious urge to question his certainty that he could tell her whom she were to travel with, considering she could not even claim she was inclined to travel at all.
“A Northman spear into his left shoulder, close to the heart, cut through a major blood vessel. He had lost a lot of blood, and some ligaments were to be stitched. He will need another moon.”
“Bozhidar then?” He was rubbing his chin in a gesture she was already familiar with.
“He sustained a blow to the head. He is physically well, but there have been falling fits. And sometimes his mind is meddled.” Her cold analysis made the King jerk his face up and look at her. For the first time she saw sincere grief in his features, and his mouth twisted in mental pain.
“Will he recover? He has two young daughters, and his wife was with child when we were leaving.”
“He is young. His mind might still recover. The lapses in memory are becoming less frequent.” His face grew distant, and she saw muscle knots dance on his jaw. The teeth were gritted, in an animalistic snarl.
“We told him to stay. There is no dishonour in tending to one’s wife. He almost lost her last time, with his youngest, but he decided to go. Durak.” The obvious swearing sounded mild, more affectionate and exasperated than malicious.
Ani kept silent. She was never good in mollifying, especially when one was to deceive to alleviate a worry. Wounds to one’s mind were trickier and harder to treat. Ani had always considered them more important to a warrior’s well-being than those sustained by the body, but spirits were left to the care of priests and wisemen, both in her native Southern lands and here, in Lindrand. Ani sighed.
“Does Danihla live?” the King asked, shaking his head seemingly to return his thoughts to the matter at hand.
“He does. He is one of Branko’s warriors, is he not?” she asked, and the King nodded.
“His sister is married to Bozhidar. He might want to return to their village, to tend to her, since Bozhidar is invalided.”
“He is not! He has been wounded, but no more than others. He has a chance to recover, no less than the ones with broken arms and legs. He might still be back to his old self, while as you have just said, Branko will never wield two of your horrid axes.”
“You said he had falling fits…” Contemp seeped through the King’s sympathetic tone.
“He does. But it makes him no less of a man or warrior! With the right care, he perhaps have more chances to heal than any other!” Ani snorted disdainfully.
“Then you will travel with him. And you will take Danihla with you. That is decided.” The King’s voice left no room for discussion, and Ani drew a sharp breath in.
“Firstly, nothing is decided.” She saw him roll his eyes, and she continued, as much as hissing at him, “Secondly, I still have no proof that you are no dream, and no means to travel with them. Thirdly, Radovan will travel sooner. And fourthly,” she raised her voice and jumped on her feet, “I am utterly tired of you answering none of my questions and not listening to me. I feel like I am one of those donkeys pulling a milling stone. Again and again, in circles! I demand…” Her voice broke, she was taking sharp breaths, in an uncharacteristic to her agitation. “I demand respect.”
And of course, her outburst brought no result. The King continued sitting at the same spot, his face haughty and mocking, and Ani decided it were a decisive moment.
“Either you start listening to me and answering my questions, or I am going straight to Radovan and…”
“And what?” He barked a derisive laugh. “Will you tell him you see me in your dreams? Or will you offer him your virtue?” he scoffed. “He might agree on the second, though I have to tell you, he is spoilt by all the attention. He might reject such a plain little thing as yourself. The first idea is even more dim, honourable healer. He will not believe you.”
“No one will believe me!” she cried out and felt like stomping her foot. That would be childish and so unlike her. “I do not understand why you feel your friend Gosta would. I at least agree that a witch might even consider my words, but a sane, prudent person would just assume I abuse ale or poppy tears!”
“Gosta will.” Ani felt as much as screaming from his stubborn, calm confidence. “And the Old Witch will. But you have to get there first, and I repeat, you are not going with Radovan. You will wait for Bozhidar…”
“Why?!” she screamed into his face, and he was suddenly on his feet as well, standing right in front of her.
“Because I said so!” He grabbed her upper arm and gave her a sensitive shake. His fingers hurt her, digging into her skin, and she hissed at him. At least she now knew he had been right before, pain was real in these dreams as well. “You will go to Bozhidar.” He leaned in, and his eyes, intense, of green and grey, as if outlined by thick auburn lashes, were right in front of her. “You will tell him you knew me before Lindrand, in Lothian. Tell him we had a week together there. And tell him you are neprazdnaya.” She was taking careful breaths, still trying to pull her arm out of iron shackle of his hand. He gave her another shake. “Are we clear, honourable healer?” he sneered.
“What does?.. What does it mean, neprazdnaya?” she asked grudgingly.
“Not idle, busy,” he answered, but a wicked smirk on his lips told her that was not quite the full answer. She pursed her lips and gave him a glare.
“I though we have already agreed I am not dim,” she muttered, and his smirk grew into a grin.
“We have. Well, alright then. It also means ‘with child.’” She gaped at him, and he wiggled a brow at her. It would have looked almost merry, were he not still hurting her arm. “Tell him we had a week of sweet loving, and now you are carrying my child under your heart. Demand passage to the Pearl Islands. We stayed in a village near Lothian three moons ago, and I left Bozhidar, Branko and my druzhina alone, for a week. None of them knows where I was. You can spin any tale you want to them.” He finally released her and straightened up, once again looking at her down his long narrow nose. “It can be an inn, or we spent it all on some hay loft, with little lambs playing in the barn underneath…” His tone was mocking, and she continued glaring at him. “Draw any picture you want. And to prove it to him…”
He suddenly jerked the belt on his trousers, and she dashed away from him. She was almost at the bearskin covered entrance, when he called after her.
“Matka maya, you are skittish!” he laughed, and she quickly looked back at him. “Come back, healer, the last thing I have on my mind is what is under your skirts. I am showing you your proof.”
He pushed the side of his trousers down, off his right hipbone, and she saw a so-called ‘coffee stain.’
It was a small brown spot on his skin, of the kind she had previously seen on her patients and several newborns. They were considered harmless, just marks on a skin. The old wives tales said that was an imprint left on a persons by their mother’s wishes during parturiency, but Ani hardly believed in such nonsense.
The King’s coffee stain sat low, in the hollow between his thigh and his organ, so that she could now see the dark red hair peek from under the linen of his trousers. She quickly shifted her eyes. The stain had a rather distinct shape, and more than anything it reminded Ani of an upside down butterfly, with two sets of wings, those closer to his hipbone were smaller, the wider ones at the bottom.
“My men have seen it of course, in banya, while washing that is, but the only way you could have seen it would have been, if we…” He did not need to continue, and she nodded and waved her hand in the air.
“Please, cover yourself, I have seen enough,” she muttered, and he laughed again.
“Judging by the flaming cheeks, you are not married, are you, honourable healer?” he asked, and she felt his presence close to her. “And not familiar with male bodies.”
“I have seen many male bodies,” she hissed stubbornly and dared to peek. He was clasping the buckle on the belt, smirking. “I have stitched plenty of wounds below waist, and have tended to plenty of lover’s disease. I am not fond of them, but I am not inexperienced.”
“Not fond of male bodies?” he asked, one brow hiked up. “Women then, perhaps?” he asked lightly, and she looked at him in surprise. She first intended to correct his erroneous assumption, her words pertained to the diseases, but then she gave him a questioning look.
“Would that not shock you?” He hummed and shrugged.
“Why would it? Love is love.” Such affiliations were very much frowned upon in her lands and even in seemingly much more liberal Lindrand, and Ani was surprised to learn that the Westerners apparently saw no fault in it. “Is that what it is, healer?” he asked, studying her face. She chewed at her bottom lip and nodded. “No matter,” he said, “I am certain you will still manage to convince Bozhidar, just do not go into details.” He smirked. “Mention the spot and then blush and mumble. He will believe you. And ask him for silver, he will give you plenty. My share of silver went to Gosta of course, but no baskak would leave another’s son without aid.”
Ani was going to ask why he was certain it would have been a son, when she saw a ray of light crawl on the floor, just like the time before it, and the King looked at it as well.
“Well, that is a goodbye, apparently,” he merrily announced, and she pressed her lips together, irked by his seemingly light tone…
… and woke up in her bed.