The trip to the Pearl Islands took seven days. Most of them Ani spent in the tent, at the bottom of the ladya. She had learnt her lesson, and when a new wave of nausea rose, she crawled out of her shelter and up the side of the ship. She could not claim that she grew to love the view of the immensity of water surrounding them. She would bend over the edge, watching the horizon and the waves hitting the side, trying to ignore the curious stares from the rowers. She had learnt the names of the Westerners on Lastochka, mostly by listening from behind the canvas. They spoke their language, only rarely peppering their speech with the common language of the Known Lands. On the third day after her night with King Einar, their harsh voices and loud laughter gave Ani an idea.
“Could you teach me your language, Danihla?” she asked when the Westerner once again brought her a bowl of the fish soup. The strong smelling, thick dish was another addition to Ani’s discomfort. She had never enjoyed the taste of fish before; now she was growing to detest it.
“I can do that, lass.” The Westerner jumped at the opportunity, clearly willing to please her. Altogether, he seemed to be treating her as a small sister. Ani often wondered what exactly baskak Bozhidar told the blonde Westerner.
The classes started and quickly became the source of both merriment and frustration for the two participants. Danihla had no gift for teaching, while Ani lacked talent for learning. They started by learning words, but Ani had trouble remembering the harsh, rolling sounds, which to her ears were nothing but barks. They switched to complete sentences, but she was struggling with mimicking the accent. She would often think she was pronouncing a phrase right, and suddenly the Westerner would roll on the floor with laughter. Apparently, the only ability Ani was showing was to accidentally swear and speak obscenities. Ani was growing more and more annoyed. That was the first time in her life she was failing miserably.
“Hlebat,” Danihla said placing another bowl in front of her. Ani sighed and picked the dish up. “Esh, devichka. Eat…”
They decided that perhaps a running commentary from him would help a bit. It did not. The ever changing words of the Westerners’ tongue, switching from one set of coarse sounds to another depending on who spoke and what they spoke about, was driving Ani mad.
“Ya esh?” Ani tried. ‘I am eating,’ she meant.
“Ya eti,” Danihla corrected. Ani pressed her lips in frustration.
“Ty eti?” she tried again, pointing at her so called teacher.
“Ya emshi,” Danihla answered. Ani felt like thumping herself to the forehead with the wooden spoon he gave her.
“Because I am done,” Danihla answered looking at her as if confused by why she would not understand.
“Gods help me, it makes no sense…” Ani grumbled and put the first spoonful of the cursed soup in her mouth. And then she remembered. She lifted the bowl and pushed it under the Westerner’s nose.
“Rybka!” Ani announced, and Danihla’s eyes boggled. The memories of King Einar’s sensual whisper ‘Rybka maya…’ rang in her ear.
“Aye!” Danihla looked triumphant, as if the two of them had just deciphered some ancient volume. “Rybka! Fish! You are learning!”
Ani smiled widely and got back to her soup. That was the limit of her knowledge, but she felt so pleased with herself that she allowed the Westerner the praise. He was grinning widely and clapping his hand to his knee.
Days dragged, one after another, filled with bowls of smelly soup and unsuccessful studies, and Ani could not wait to see the Pearl Islands.
She had heard the most inconceivable tales about the Islands, with their white walled houses, harvesting nets, and red smoke rising over chimneys. They said that fooki, the main treasure of the Islands, a sea weed with bright green leathery leaves, and blood red juice running its veins, bought by many nations in the Known Lands for its healing properties, was also a potent nepenthe. It was grown on heavy cage like structures, in the shore waters, and then harvested from small rickety boats to be dried and prepared in the houses of those known as soorebu. It was rumoured that they were both the slaves and the masters of the weed. They knew how to harvest it, to process it to preserve some of its qualities or to rid it of others, but the red smoke of it was told to deplete their health and to drive them to insanity.
When Lastochka entered the dark blue waters underneath the precipitous rocks that the White City stood on, the tent of Chief Bozhidar shook seemingly for the first time, and he stepped to the deck of the ship. Ani watched from her spot how he confidently stepped to the steering oar, his shoulders squared and his back straight. He barked some harsh command to his men, and the oars of the ladya moved faster, propelling it ahead. The bulbous ship swiftly slid between two breakwaters, its red sail proudly shining in the sunlight, and suddenly a song rang above it.
The Chief by the oar, the rowers, and those men who stood on the deck, as Ani only now noticed, clad in mails, helmets, shields in their hands, joined their voices in a low, throaty singing. The oars cutting through the water set the rhythm, and although the meaning of the song was unknown to Ani, she could still perceive the doughty, prideful spirit it was born in and was now carrying in it over the waters of a foreign bay.
“Come, honourable healer, we are ready to accompany you.” Chief Bozhidar threw a thoughtful look at Ani, who had climbed down the ladder and was now standing, pressing her sack to her chest.
Bozhidar, Danihla, and five more Westerners, in full armour, were to go with her to the city. The rest would stay on the ship, to rest and to trade with merchants, who swarmed around the ship, as soon as it was quayed. When Ani followed Bozhidar and his men down the gangboard, two Westerners had to walk on her sides, unceremoniously pushing some of the merchants away from her.
Both men and women of the Islands, dressed in red and white linen garbs, hands full of crates, boxes and woven baskets, were shoving their goods into Ani’s face, screaming loudly in several languages, including the common tongue, strange accent colouring it, giving a lilt to the familiar words. Ani lowered her head, unprepared to such familiarity.
“Beautiful girl, buy the apples!” an older man, his hair white and moustache long and curled at the ends, yelled at her, and Ani peeked and saw that the fruit in his basket were surely not apples. “Island apples! Make your skin sweet!”
“Bread! Fish! Bread!” another one hollered.
“Belt! A pretty belt for a pretty lady!” a young girl sing-songed, suddenly grabbing Ani’s sleeve and pushing the belt into Ani’s face.
“Buy your bride a dress!” A man jumped up to Chief Bozhidar, only to be rudely shoved away by one of the Westerners.
Another of Ani’s companions stepped to the girl with the belt, who hissed something clearly rude to his face and released Ani’s sleeve.
“Watch your silver pouch, honourable healer,” Danihla shouted into Ani’s ear, and she squeezed her sack tighter.
Merchants swirled and rushed by, abandoning the Westerners for the sake of other potential customers, and then returning back to them, a kaleidoscope of faces and goods making Ani’s head swim. They walked the quay, and she saw many ships, from all over the Known Lands, some tall and heavy, from the South where Ani had grown up, some light and graceful, such as the jutip, the lithe lateen sail ships of the people of the Amber Gardens. Ani had seen many foreigners in her travels, and especially in her short stay in Lindrand, but she had never seen a crowd that diverse and colourful.
Ani quickly realised that her previous opinion of the Westerners as dangerous barbarians was clearly shared by most of other peoples. Wherever her company stepped, people would scatter away, and quite in haste. She could see that only about a half of merchants and street traders dared to approach them, and their manners were much better than when addressing others.
Chief Bozhidar brought Ani to a tavern in the port, she was offered a room to clean up and have some meal, which she gladly accepted. The inn was a four story building, with outside staircases, the same white walls, painted with nendoo, the white clay, singular to the Islands. In the room given to her, Ani found a narrow, low bed, a trunk that could also serve as a bedside table, a round table, a strange three legged stool, and to her immense joy a large round tub. A maid showed up, in the familiar local white garb, and brought buckets of hot water. Ani thanked her, and the girl smiled to her. There was an awkward pause when Ani realised that the girl expected some gratuity, and Ani wondered how much was appropriate to pay.
Mostly to avoid embarrassment, but also out of prudence, Ani pointed at the door and spoke firmly, “The Westerner. He will pay.”
The girl gave her a merry look over, shook her head, and left. Ani exhaled loudly and decided to ignore the prickle of humiliation she felt.
Ani now had to pour the water in the tub herself but she was more than happy to do it. She then pulled out herbal essences out of her sack, dropped a generous amount of them into her bath, and sank in the water, unable to suppress a moan of pleasure. After five days on the boat, with very little chance to clean up or even attend to her basic needs, she was now in bliss. Eyes closed and her body soaking in the water, she allowed herself repose.
She then proceeded to scrubbing her skin with a rough cloth she also had in her sack. She also finally had a chance to tend to her hair, and she spent a long time washing, oiling, and brushing it.
She was sitting on the bed, running the brush along her black strands, when a knock came into the door. Ani allowed a visitor entrance, and the same maid came in with a tray. She placed it on the trunk, tilted her head, giving Ani another evaluating look, and then with another shake of the head, she left. Ani pursed her lips and moved to the tray to look at the meal.
There was fish again, and Ani scrunched her nose. It was fried with some red vegetables at least, and Ani tentatively picked a small piece with a two tined fork she found on the tray. The taste was potent but not unpleasant. There were plenty of spices and some seeds in the dish, but it went well with some boiled tube vegetable she found in a smaller clay bowl. The slices of several kinds of fresh fruit and large juicy berries she was given were a much greater pleasure, and Ani lay back on the bed, chewing on sweet orange flesh of some fruit, for the first time in days enjoying the lack of rocking underneath her.
As it was discussed, she was woken up from her nap, which she did not notice how she had fallen into, by Danihla. He banged loudly at her door, and she rolled off the bed, not quite understanding where she was and what was happening. She then straightened up her dress and opened the door. They were ready to go to see the Witch.
It was twilight, and yet the weather was still balmy. They said the hotter weather of the Islands was caused by the warm stream that washed their shores. When Ani was leaving Lindrand, she could almost smell the first snow in the air. On the Islands she did not even need a shawl over her dress. She even decided to skip the long thick underpants that, as she remembered, King Einar had found so amusing.
The Westerners confidently walked through the narrow, hilly streets of the city, people once again quickly stepping away from their path.
“Honourable healer, a word.” Bozhidar threw to her over his shoulder, and she hasted and caught up with him. He looked at her sideways.
“What is it?” Ani asked and saw him draw a deep breath.
“If the Witch refuses to help you…” His tone was suddenly uncertain. “Did Einar tell you what to say to her? She is not to be played with.”
“I know what to say.” Ani sounded more confident than she felt.
“If she refuses you…” The baskak threw a quick look at his men. “I will not go back to Lindrand, but Danihla will stay with you, and will take you back to your city.” Ani nodded, and the baskak sighed again. “I will leave you silver, and Einar’s share as well.” The plan, it seemed though, did not bring him appeasement.
“I am certain the Witch will help me. She owes King Einar a debt. He promised me she would accept me as her apprentice and I would be able to stay on the Islands,” Ani quietly repeated the lie they had decided on in her discussions with the dead baskak.
“I do not think it is the wisest way, honourable healer.” Bozhidar shook his head almost mournfully. “The Islands might be warm and plentiful, their trade flourishes, and their harvests are rich… But the red smoke is in the air here at all times, and people are drunk on it. In your situation…” The baskak trailed away and glanced at her middle.
Ani agreed with him wholeheartedly. If she had indeed carried a child, she would have never considered the Islands to bring up her child on. She had nothing against the local customs and people, of course, but they were so different and confusing that she felt disoriented and apprehensive.
Ani thanked the baskak, and they continued their journey in silence. Ani noticed that their path mostly led upwards, in a gentle yet stable ascent. She knew that the city was built on the shore, with thick woods lying behind it, and soon the streets became narrower and sleepier, and there were more children playing in the gardens, and women were hanging laundry on strings between the houses, sometimes stretched across streets.
“How do you know where to go?” Ani asked the baskak quietly.
“What did Einar tell you of the Witch?”
“That eight years ago he was here with his men, and one of them was sick, and the Witch helped.”
Ani decided to forego mentioning the loose morals of the Witch’s daughter and King Einar’s apparent ability to refuse a half bare, alluringly curvaceous woman crawling into his tent.
“I was the man who was sick then,” Bozhidar spoke in a dull voice, his eyes fixed somewhere between the houses ahead of them. “Not so much sick, as… dying. We were attacked in the waters to the North from here. The Northmen have those poisoned arrows, they kill you slowly. Many prefer to end their life before death finally comes. There is too much pain… Einar did not let me, ordered to tie me to bed. Kept on promising me I would live through it.” Ani frowned, watching the pained grimace run the face of the Westerner. “We were returning from the fight, only a fifth of us survived. And Einar’s baskak fell then, so Einar took his place. He was the youngest then, but no one argued. And he brought me here, and I do not know how much he paid… And whether he even had enough silver, or he paid with something else…”
“Something else?” Ani asked in confusion.
“They tell strange stories about the Witch, about the price she sometimes asks for her service. They say she can take a strand of your hair as a payment, and then use it for her magic…” Bozhidar’s face was uncharacteristically anxious, almost frightened, and Ani would have rolled her eyes, just as she did when King Einar was spinning the same yarn, but she just pressed her lips, and allowed the man to continue. “And yet he convinced her to help, and I know others would have failed, but she saved me.”
Ani kept quiet and went on walking, looking under her feet, thinking of what she had been told and planning her words to say to the Witch, when the Westerner suddenly stopped. Ani lifted her eyes and stared at what was no doubt the house of the Old Witch of the Pearl Islands.