“Do you believe in magic, Todric?” Ani asked the healer, and he lifted tired eyes off his plate.
His usually pale skin on the narrow, exhausted face had an ashen tone to it. They were eating in the common room, the time was close to dawn, and Ani would bet he felt no taste just like she did not. That was the first time they sat down since morning. Two of the men whom they tended to had succumbed to wounds around midday. Ani had also spent three hours in town earlier, visiting a woman with bleeding after delivering a babe. Ani’s hands were shaking so much that the spoon clanked at her teeth when she would try to put some of the stew in her mouth.
“Nay, I do not.” Todric’s voice was hollow and bleak as usual. “It is just something people like to tell themselves when they are scared. That there are some other forces, some spirits…” He angrily scooped more of potatoes from his bowl and stuffed the food in his mouth.
When the final combat started in Lindrand, the Northmen forces first hit the docks and the districts close to the port. What the united forces of the Known Lands were not prepared for was a small army of Northmen attacking the Southern wall of the fortress, marching through viaduct, assaulting the low, poor districts of the city. Todric’s family, namely his parents, an old grandmother, his pregnant sister, her husband, and Todric’s bride died in the first three hours of the attack.
“Where I grew up, we had charmers, men who lived in caves of the Golden Mountains,” Ani spoke quietly. “They predicted future and healed people. I do not know whether anyone has truly recovered after their treatment, but my grandmother always said we should believe their prophecies as the Mountains spoke through them.” Ani could hear herself how much doubt was in her own voice. Todric looked at her again, his eyes red and sunken.
“Woodmen believe in their hermits, Greenmen. Here in Lindrand people worship the Seagod, Oggin. Some believe in Sea Goddess. Westerners have their own gods, about five dozens of them,” the healer sneered venomously. “But you and I know that there is nothing to a man but flesh, and our life is nothing but slow rotting and dying.” He threw his spoon angrily into the now empty bowl. “You do not strike me as a kind to believe in this poppycock.”
“I do not.” Ani sighed. She had never believed in anything but what she could see, touch, and confirm based on experience. And even then she would still doubt and never take anything for granted. And yet, she had seen a dead man twice in her dreams by now.
“My family were believers. They would bring gifts to Oggin, every Sunday. Sometimes we would have no food for ourselves, but they would still carry a basket to the temple.” Todric’s face distorted in hatred. “That very temple that Northmen burnt right after they killed all guards in the port. And after they cut the throat of my little sister.” He got up, grabbed his bowl and threw it in a basin by the wall. It made a nasty sloshing sound in the dirty water, full of dishes and pieces of food, yellow grease floating on the surface. “There is no magic, Ani. And there are no gods.”
He left the common room, and Ani finished her meal. She had two hours of sleep before her next shift was to begin. She was only grateful when no dreams came.
The next few days Ani tried to spend as much time as possible near the Westerners. Customarily, in Lindrand and, even more so, further South from the Great Sea, women healers were not to tend to male warriors, but the wounded were so numerous that if the Chief Healer wanted to save at least a half of those slowly dying in his halls, he was to allow female healers and midwives to do the ‘man’s work.’ Ani kept her thoughts to herself, but she certainly thought it was for the best.
At the same time neither her, nor any of her sisters in service were allowed to tend to those who possessed a higher stature, among them the Westerners’ baskaks. Most female healers did not express any resentment towards it, while Ani felt the usual prickle of anger. Without false modesty, she knew she was one of the best healers in this infirmary, and all the previous ones she served in, when it came to wielding a surgical blade and predicting the course of a disease, and she was still reduced to changing bedpans and measuring out draughts.
And still, as enraged as she was by this inequality, Ani could see the point. Most female healers in Lindrand were young maidens, and many of them were sisters or brides of the wounded. Or those aspiring to become one. There was a saying in Lindrand, ‘Heal his wounds, and he will take you to his home.’ Very few stayed in the service after they found a husband. The same happened in Ani’s native lands, except even fewer women even attempted this vocation. There were midwives, but only men were allowed to meddle in the matters of combat injuries and wounds.
Nonetheless, Ani had learnt a lot from talking to the simple Westerners soldiers. Everything the King in her head spoke of was confirmed, and she could find less and less excuses every day to pretend she did not believe her dreams.
She found out that the baskak named Bozhidar was to leave Lindrand in five days. Those of his warriors who were capable were preparing his ladya. The ship was apparently damaged in the battle. Together with the ships of Kings Einar, Radovan, and Branko, they were in the first to clash with Northmen. They had to fight in the neck of the Lindrand Bay and were pushed back towards the land under the forceful assault of much larger Northmen ships.
Ani gave herself another day to gather her thoughts, and in the early morning of day two out of five she left the small room above infirmary she now occupied and walked to the docks. Lindrand was surrounded by a tall fortified wall, now half destroyed, charred by the fire that raged through the shore districts when the wharves started to burn.
The wind was cold and harsh, jerking her cloak. The sky low and grey, the heavy clouds on the West were perhaps promising the first snow of the year, and Ani wrapped her arms around her middle. The breakwater was long, still littered with detritus of the city wall and ships. She could see a long piece of what she assumed was a mast from a Westerners’ ship. A bit further, half submerged into the dark blue water of the bay, there lay a figure previously decorating the sternpost of a Northmen ship. It was a terrifyingly looking horse head, but with sharpened teeth and forked tongue, crudely cut and dyed red.
Ani walked, her eyes drinking the desolation around her. Waves crashed into the rocks on the slopes, in white angry foam, and salty cold splatters hit Ani’s face. She stopped and came closer to the edge.
She had never seen the sea before. As numerous as her travels had been, in her nineteen years she had never previously reached that far North. The day she arrived to Lindrand she wanted to go and have a look, but she was given the healer’s robe and the apron right away, as soon as Todrid had one look at her recommendation letter, and since then she had not had a chance to even leave the infirmary. Even now she was stealing time from her service and expected to be censured for it. There were too many wounded.
The sea terrified her. As foreign as such emotions were, she felt some fantasmic power, unpredictable and volatile, radiate from the cold dark mass of water. Ani could see how living near it could make people invent gods and bring them gifts even when they had so little. One would want to mollify this capricious enormity.
Ani shook her head, chasing away the mawkish thoughts, and turned back to march to the city, its towers clearly etched against the slowly brightening sky. She needed to speak to the one called Bozhidar.
She found the baskak in the backyard of the infirmary. He was sitting on a bench, leaning his back on the wall of the building. His eyes were closed, face bearing the signs of exhaustion and physical pain. Two of his warriors stood a few feet away, smoking long wooden pipes customary for the Westerners. Ani’s sensitive nose caught fragrant smoke, so unlike the pipeweed common in Lindrand and in her native Southern lands. The leaves, smoked by the city men and the villagers she grew up with, smelled bitter, somewhat sour, and her throat would feel scratched from the harsh blueish smoke. The Westerners were said to buy their pipeweed from the peregrines of the Amber Gardens, the mysterious lands that lay to the West North from the Westerners’ coast. Ani could swear she could smell flowers and even dried fruit in the snow-white smoke, softly curling above the bulbous, intricately carved bowls of the pipes.
“My lord, allow me to speak to you,” Ani softly called to the man by the wall.
His eyes slowly opened. They were bright blue, framed by short thick blonde lashes. He had a direct look in his wide set eyes, and altogether his face looked like one of those crudely cut wooden figurines the Westerners carried with them. Kept in small cloth bags, they were supposed to represent their family, ancestors and some idols or gods they worshipped. King Bozhidar’s features were simple, distinct. He had a wide nose, crooked, probably having been broken many times, firm line of lips, and a thick red beard.
He frowned and studied her for a moment, and then nodded. She stepped closer.
“You are healer, aye? I saw you with Danihla.” He had a low voice, accent in it stronger than in other Westerners Ani had spoken to.
“I have assisted the Chief Healer in Danihla’s treatment,” Ani confirmed.
She was surprised to find no trepidation in her mind. She was to lie to a warlord of a barbarous nation, prompted into it by a figment of her own imagination, and her goal was at the moment to find a way to endeavour on a sea voyage, having never travelled by sea before. And yet, her heart beat evenly and without haste.
“I have come to ask for your aid.” Ani’s voice trembled, but the sentiment was all pretense.
As if from outside she watched her mind make cold calculative decisions. Her teeth sank into her bottom lip, as if to suppress a sob or a gasp. She then willed her hands to wriggle. She kept her display of feigned sentimentalism rather moderate. If the baskak had seen her before, he would not believe if she suddenly turned into a maudlin village girl.
The man’s face wavered, and his eyes roamed her features.
“How can I help you, honourable healer?” Ani caught sincere concern in his tone, and she stepped even closer, leaving his comrades out of the hearing range.
“I have known…” She then shook her head, as if changing her mind on what to say. “I need your help to travel to the Pearl Islands… It is for…” Once again her pretense was just the perfect balance of restrained bathos and feigned self-control, and the Westerner as much as stretched his hand toward her in sympathy. She took a deep breath in, seemingly collecting her thoughts. “It is a matter of honouring Glava Einar…” Her voice appropriately broke around his name. “I have known him… Three moons ago I met him in Lothian… I need to travel to the Pearl Islands. He told me to!” she blurted out, as if not capable of containing her words anymore.
“You knew Einar?” the one called Bozhidar asked, and she dropped her head.
“I did. And he told me if anything were to happen to him, I was to travel to the Pearl Islands. He said you would help…” She sniffed loudly.
“Many women could claim… knowing him,” Bozhidar’s voice was slightly sarcastic, and Ani’s body jerked as if in mental pain.
“I know…” she whispered. “But not many women can claim to carry his son under their heart.” She then lifted her face and gave him an haughty look. Once again, she was surprised to notice that deep down she felt utterly calm, carefully observing the man’s reactions.
His eyes widened, and then they dropped on her middle. She venomously asked herself what he expected to see considering she just claimed having known his comrade only three moons ago. Ani remembered King Einar telling her that Bozhidar had two daughters. Apparently, Westerners were no better than men of the Known Lands in the matters of children. The man was silent, and Ani pressed forward.
“He promised me that a baskak would not leave another baskak’s woman without help. I know his gold went to Gosta, but he told me you would give me plenty.” Their eyes met, and Ani saw storm of emotions in his irises.
She felt rather confident in this conversation. After all, she had planned her attack well.
“I do not need much!” she as if hurried to reassure him. “Just help me get to the Pearl Islands, and I will need to pay for my travel back! That is all…” She let her voice trail away. She saw in his eyes that she was perceived exactly the way she was hoping for: heartbroken over the loss of her lover, distraught in her parturiency, but proud and independent.
“In Lothian, you said? That was where you knew him?” the man asked again, and she decided it was time for another attack. She sank her teeth in the lip harder, hoping to look as if in emotional agony.
“We had only a week. He was alone, travelled without his warriors… He did not explain much, but…” Ani remembered the dead baskak’s advice to invent as little details as possible. She hid her face behind her hands and made a small noise. It was time for the last touch. “I do not know why the herbs did not work…”
“Sit down, honourable healer.” Bozhidar’s voice was emotional, and Ani blindly stepped towards the bench. She dropped the hands and saw exactly what she was aiming for. Pity, a fair amount of curiosity, and still plenty of doubt were written on the man’s face. Ani sat down on the other end of the bench, and pressed her hands into her knees. She hoped she looked adequately embarrassed.
“I know what you think…” she spoke, her voice trembling. “I am hardly alluring enough… but it happened, and… I still cannot believe he is gone…” she sobbed out, her hands once again flying up to cover her face. “I followed him here, I learnt of the battle…”
Two days ago through cautious inquiries, Ani had confirmed that the Westerners’ route to Lindrand indeed had lain through Lothian. That was the final argument for her to accept that she indeed had met a dead Westerner warlord in her dreams.
“Did you see him before… before his death?” the man asked tilting his head trying to see her face.
Ani had thought of this question as well. None of those who had been present in the room when she had met the dying baskak was left in Lindrand, except for the Chief Healer but he was unlikely to thwart her scheme. She shook her head mournfully.
“I was too late… He never found out…” She fisted her hands and drew a sharp breath in. “He will never know he had a son…”
“Why a son? How can you know?” The question sounded agitated, and Ani understood she won. She lifted her eyes at the man, hoping they burnt just as when she had practised before a mirror in the infirmary’s common bath chamber.
“That was what Einar would say… That if there were a babe, it would surely be a son.”
The man’s lips twisted in a pained grimace.
“He was of the Bear Clan, their firstborns are always boys.” The man’s voice was hollow, ache hiding somewhere in its depth, and he stretched his hand and picked up hers.
“Fear not, honourable healer. I will take care of you.”