The baskak named Bozhidar promised Ani to take her to the Pearl Islands on his ship and even offered to talk to the Chief Healer on her part. She agreed grudgingly. She was hoping to have her place saved for her for when she were to be back from her trip to the Islands, but she feared she would not receive such promise. Perhaps, the succour from a warlord from the Westerners could help.
She then packed her scarce belongings; the healer’s sack contained all of them. There were tools of her craft, one more dress besides the one she wore, another pair of shoes and a few small necessities. It was agreed that she would still work one more day, and at the dawn of it she went to talk to the Chief Healer.
He had just finished his morning round and was in the herbal closet, inspecting the supplies. She explained to him that she was required to travel to the Islands as she had a previous obligation to fulfill, and he listened to her calmly, twirling a pestle in his fingers. She said she assumed the journey was to take five weeks at longest. Two weeks to travel there, and two to return, she said, and then she finally lifted her face and met his eyes.
“Are you hoping to have your place here back when you return, Ani?” the Chief Healer’s voice was dull. There was so much work in the infirmary that even his usually impeccable appearance – the shoulder length white hair and trimmed beard, and his customary floor length robe – was in slight disarray.
“I would not worry about it. There is still too few healers, and too many dying wounded,” the man said bitterly and dismissed her with a wave of his hand.
Ani felt a prickle of shame. She was abandoning her patients.
She walked to the door of the closet when the Chief called after her.
“You showed quite a gift here, Ani. I did not expect you to leave my infirmary just after a few weeks of serving. And with those men, no less.” The Chief jerked his head in disdain, and Ani drew a sharp breath.
She wanted to rush to reassure him, but then she lifted her chin and kept silent. She soothed the ache of the humiliation reminding herself that she would be back after talking to the Old Witch and that would be the proof of her trustworthiness. The Chief Healer went back to his crates, and Ani left.
The last day Ani was working the Great Hall, a large room filled with cots where those recovering were placed. It was always noisy there, the stench of blood and rot mixed with the sharp smell of swamp calendula and garlic essences used for washing floors. Men snored, or talked, or laughed, or moaned in pain; healers rushed between them, exhausted and neglectful. It was Ani’s favourite shift. She preferred the impersonal, hasty treatment she was expected to give to patients in the Hall as opposed to feigning considerate and caring attitude to those patients who were deemed worthy of being placed in solars. She was also exceptionally good at the quick decisive judgement upon a patient’s state required in the Hall.
A man caught her sleeve and pulled. She turned around, a large basket of dirty bandages in her hands.
“Are you the healer Ani from the Golden Mountains?” he asked. He was a Westerner, from the ladya of the one called Branko.
“Aye, I am.”
“I am Mykola, Danilha’s brother. I have heard he is coming back with Bozhidar. Please take me with you.”
Ani stared at him in confusion.
“Why are you asking me?”
“There are rumours… That you are… you know…” he trailed away.
“No, I do not know,” Ani answered sharply. “What sort of rumours?”
“We do not take women on our ships,” the man mumbled, as if not quite believing she needed the explanation. “The sea does not like women. So, we all assumed… that you are to come back with Danihla. He is the only one without a wife out of Bozhidar’s men.”
Ani gave herself a moment to think it over. She could argue and try to explain that she was nothing but a passenger on that ship, but she doubted that would cease the gossip. It stung, to have it thought of her, that she would run away with a man after less than a moon of knowing him, and would give up her service for him. On the other hand, Ani knew a lost battle when she saw one.
“I will mention your request to your brother when I see him,” Ani grumbled and walked on, without listening to the man’s mumbled gratitude.
She told herself she might as well get accustomed to all sorts of embarrassing situations and unflattering assumptions regarding her. Between being considered the Westerner’s bride, or mad if the truth were to be disclosed, she decided she preferred the reputation of a brainless village girl who fell for blue eyes and a chatty mouth. At least this way she would be protected against unwanted advances. That was, of course, if she understood Westerner’s customs right.
Lastochka, Bozhidar’s ladya, was a long flat bottom ship, with a single mast with a large square sail decorated with what Ani assumed was a symbolic depiction of a sun, a large circular form in bright red. The ship had a row of oars on each side, benches near them, some sort of a tent above them, probably to protect the rowers from the weather. There were to be about twenty men on each Westerners’ ship. Lastochka now carried twenty three.
The baskak and Ani were each to have their own small tent, placed at the bottom of the ship. Ladyas had no deck, men and cargo were to be protected by the ship’s rounded sides, while to reach the seats to row and the stern one would have to climb rope ladders on the insides of the walls.
Once Ani stepped into a small boat that brought them to the ladya from the shore, a sinking feeling made her bite into her bottom lip. She had been in a boat a handful times before, just in small fishermen ones, on the River Snell, where she grew up. She had hated it and tried to avoid it in her further travels. When she slowly went down into the belly of the Westerners’ ship, she already knew the journey were to turn into a nightmare. Standing on the bottom Ani felt dizzy, and sharp nausea rose. She pressed her hand over her mouth, and then the ladya rocked on waves. It seemed the world around the healer swayed, and pain slashed across her lower abdomen. Vile bitterness rushed up her throat, burning it, and she sucked air in through her nose.
“Honourable healer?” Danihla who was following her with her sack over his shoulder asked, but Ani did not hear. She rushed to the closest ladder leading up, hoping to vomit over the planked side, but the content of her stomach spilled while she was only half way there.
She grabbed tighter to the rope with one hand, still pressing another one to stop the vomit from flying in all possible directions. The ship rocked again, and another bout of heaves assaulted her. She squeezed her eyes, trying to ignore the sour stench of her own sick, when suddenly a pair of strong hands grabbed her around the waist and pulled her down.
She vomited again, this time on the man who was holding her, gently pushing her somewhere, and she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
“The anchor is not even aweigh.” Danihla’s voice rang with laughter.
Ani heavily leaned into him, and he led her somewhere to the side. She felt him lower her on a hard mattress and then a bucket was pushed into her hands. It came handy just a few instants after. Ani assumed this was the last time she would throw up anything, her stomach was now empty.
She was right, the next few hours were filled with nothing but dry heaves at first, and then her body spitting out water she was industriously pouring down her throat. From time to time Danihla would bring her new water skins or empty her bucket. No one else seemed to approach her.
At some point she fell into half-slumber, half-unconsciousness. She would prefer the second, since her daze was full of some slithering forms and of the understanding that the more the boat rocked, the more pain was coiling in her stomach.
She opened her eyes once. She could see the white of the tent canvas above her, and then the sky with white fluffy clouds peeked from the edge of the canopy above her. It only made her vomit faster, and she squeezed her eyes.
In her delirium she seemed to sometimes find herself on the rock with King Einar’s Long House, as if she were kneeling in the cold mud, dry grass between her fingers, and she swayed, trying to get up or crawl towards the wooden building, and she even remembered calling to him, as there was no one else to ask for help, and she could almost hear him shouting her name in return, but then she would fall into slumber again.
When she opened her eyes, it felt like an early morning. As soon as the light streamed into her eyes and she saw the walls of the tent in front of her, the sickness was back. She felt too weak to fight it anymore, and her sick spilled on the covers she lay on. She heaved, curling her fingers into some rough fur, a bear perhaps, and moaned.
A rustle came from behind her, but she had no strength to look.
“Honourable healer, I brought you soup.” Danihla’s voice was soft. Pain pierced her right side, like a red hot iron rod, and she whimpered. “I know you think it will make it worse, but it will help. Here.”
A bowl of some dish smelling of fish was pushed under her nose, and she tried to wince away. She was then forced to sit, and she would have sobbed, had she strength.
“Come on, honourable healer, believe an old sailor, you need to eat. And then we will go for a walk. Come on, devichka, three spoons, aye?” The tone was the one people used with stroppy children, and Ani tried to twist her face away from the wooden spoon in front of her nose. “Davay, devichka, one spoonful…” the Westerner continued mollifying, and his hand was rubbing her back comfortingly.
Ani opened her mouth to say it would make matters worse, but Danihla used the opportunity to push the spoon between her lips. Ani coughed, choking on the spicy, smelly liquid, and then he pressed her nose, gently but firmly, and she had no choice but to swallow the food and open her mouth to breathe. Another spoonful followed, and she vindictively thought that this time her vomit on him would be even more disgusting.
Two more spoons after – Ani was pacifying herself with vengeful thoughts – he suddenly grabbed her under arms and started dragging her out of the tent. She groaned objecting.
“Davay, devichka, I know what you need. You need to look at the sea, meet her eyes. She is a moody lass, she loves respect…”
Ani weakly thrashed in his arms, but sunlight hit her eyes. Smells assaulted her nostrils, the salt, the water, some sharp smell, of tar and something else unfamiliar, and then the sounds flooded her mind, rhythmical screeching of oars, voices, sharp shouts of seagulls.
Danihla pulled her after him, higher and higher, and she stumbled, but then her hands fisted around ropes, and she moved, followed his stubborn orders, and suddenly she hung, almost folding in half, over the edge of the boat.
Her eyes flew open, and she saw the sea. It was dark blue, with a tinge of green on the horizon. She gulped sharply, tangy air filling her lungs, and she stared at the endless mass in front of her.
“Well done, devichka. Look at the sky border.”
It helped. The nausea seemed to ebb, and Ani realised that her mind was catching up with her body. Before, they were in discord, her mind telling her nothing moved around her, while her body felt the waves.
“What is it?..” she rasped. “Devichka. Einar called me that.” The Westerner chuckled.
“‘Little girl.’ You are small like a mouse. And look no less grey right now.” He chuckled again. Ani looked down at her dress. It was repugnant, and she scrunched her face in disgust.
After giving her a few minutes to breathe in sharp cold air and watch the line of the horizon, Danihla said, “Go back to the tent, honourable healer, I will bring you some water to wash your face.” She nodded weakly and started clumsily climbing down the ropes.
At the last moment Danihla caught her hand, and she looked up at him in surprise.
“Just no more moaning Einar’s name in your fever, alright, devichka?” he whispered conspiratorially, and Ani gave him a disbelieving look. “It just does not look good. Men here think you are coming home with me, and how do I look? My bride sobbing the name of another, heh?” He gave her a wide merry grin.
She searched herself for desire and ability to rebuke him, but all she could think of was the suddenly tempting hard mattress in the tent and the promise of some water to wash off. She pulled her arm out of his and continued descending.
After a small unsatisfying wash Ani changed into her other dress and Danihla brought her another bowl of the thick fish soup. Ukha, he called it, was full of several kinds of fish, some unfamiliar herbs, which gave it a strange heady taste, and Ani decided that she was definitely not fond of Westerners’ cuisine. An apple was pushed into hand, and she devoured it with a moan of pleasure. Danihla sat with her for a few moments, and then, once again quietly laughing, he left.
Ani was starting to feel if not well, but less close to death. It was enough for her to start pondering her current situation. Clearly, King Bozhidar decided to sustain the erroneous assumption his men had made about her, and she was now treated as Danihla’s bride. Ani had heard of women of the Known Lands marrying into Westerners, though they were very few and the most preposterous rumours surrounded their proceeding fate. Most theories were rather unflattering for the sea roaming barbarians.
The fact that she had not been approached by a single other Westerner disproved the so very popular scandalous rumour that Westerners shared their women. Given Ani would be in no shape to bring any pleasure to a man, the fact that she was given her privacy and treated with care seemed promising.
On the other hand, she was feeling increasingly worried. When leaving Lindrand she thought herself under the protection of baskak Bozhidar. He had promised her aid and after all it was him she had convinced to take her to the Pearl Islands. And yet, she had not seen him since all of them embarked the ladya.
Ani curled on her mattress, and sleep took her. She was almost unsurprised to find herself in front of the Long House again.