Hadjar awoke with a shout and reached for his sword. Instead, he grabbed someone’s wrinkled hand and not the makeshift blade he’d wielded previously.
“I'm too old to fall for such tricks, stranger,” a hoarse, raspy voice told him.
The Prince turned his head; amber eyes stared back at him. He was tied up, lying in a large bed in the living room of a rather impressive house. In any case, this room was far more spacious than Robin’s entire house had been.
The old woman was sitting by the bed, slathering a fragrant, green goo on his burns. She looked like any other forest witch—fat, with a sharp nose, wearing clean, well-kept clothes with visible patches on them.
There was a wardrobe filled with numerous clay jars behind the sorceress. Hadjar saw a variety of medicines he was familiar with inside the wardrobe, marked with the familiar hieroglyphs.
The Prince inhaled the odor of the goo, recognizing the sharp, slightly putrid smell.
[Swamp Ointment. Healing properties: low]
“Is that Swamp Ointment?” He asked.
The witch looked up. He shivered slightly at her glance.
She was a kind of stereotypical forest ‘witch.’
“What’s your name, smartass?” The old woman asked him, speaking clearly and precisely, unlike the other villagers.
She just shook her head.
“Your name is too dangerous these days.”
She was obviously not one of the natives. And her house was situated on the outskirts, outside the village stockade.
“Is your name Gnessa?”
“You’re a quick-witted one.” Despite her age, the healer’s movements were strong and quick. She easily bandaged his hands and right thigh. “How do you know about the ointment?”
Hadjar stared at the old woman for a while. She finished bandaging his burns, got up and walked over to the wardrobe, where she put away the rest of the ointment. It was a rather rare medicine. It would be possible to buy a horse in the city for a tenth of what Gnessa had just stored.
Scholars manufactured all of the healing concoctions, and there were a lot fewer of them than the practicing warriors. Learning how to do it took too long and was too difficult.
“My teacher told me about it.” Hadjar had no reason to lie.
“Teacher?” Gnessa was wiping her hands with a rag towel as she spoke. “Did the river bring you here?”
“How did you guess?”
The witch smiled. She came over to a homemade table (to be fair, everything there was homemade) and picked up a bowl of delicious soup. She handed it, along with a spoon, to Hadjar, and then sat down again.
“It brought me here, too. It’s brought many people to this and the other villages in the valley. Sometimes, I even think that it takes away those who have been rejected by the outside world: the runaways, the poor, the ones with broken hearts. They are healed here.” Gnessa looked out the window and smiled at the midday sun. “The Forest heals them.”
That's right—the word ‘Forest” was written with a capital letter. She’d pronounced the word ‘Forest’ with a lot more respect than the natives had.
Hadjar touched his chest. It was hard to argue with the sorceress; his heart really had been broken.
“I won’t ask you to be my disciple,” she said suddenly. “You have another fate, stranger Hadjar, one tied to wielding a sword.”
She looked at him so pointedly that only an idiot wouldn’t have understood— the wise woman knew. But, how…
”The merchant told me about it many times, years ago,” she said, answering his unasked question. “And then Lida came back one day, saying that the river had brought a newcomer… Then two worn out hunters came out of the forest with a wild story. Iry and his brothers were dragged back in body bags. We asked the hunters what had happened and they... They told us about the Alpha, about the heroism of the stranger. And, of course, you and Robin were carried back to me on stretchers.”
“Does anyone else know?” Hadjar asked.
He appeared calm. He was eating soup and talking peacefully with the harmless, old lady. But he was ready for anything. He’d already found at least four escape routes out of this room and a few items that he could use as weapons.
“Do you mean the natives?” Gnessa laughed. “I love them, of course, but they’re like pets. They’re simple, harmless. They’ll never guess the truth.”
Hadjar remembered the powerful bodies of the native men and the explosive tempers of the women. He could’ve argued with the healer, but said nothing. Regardless of the situation, it was always better to listen more than you spoke.
“I’m so sorry about your parents, Hadjar,” Gnessa took the empty bowl from him. “I didn’t know them. I was just a simple student of the Scholar back then. The royal treatments were beyond me, but... They were good people. Yes, the Kingdom had been poor under their rule, but the people... were happy. And now…”
She waved her hand as if to dismiss the thought, stood up, and took out another jar that was full of simple forest berries. The witch offered them to Hadjar, and when he refused, began to eat them with gusto. The native’s way of life could probably still affect even the most enlightened people.
“The merchant said that there are no settlements left in the south and the cities are empty. All the people have been taken to the mine. Is that true?”
“It’s true,” Hadjar nodded. “Primus signed a treaty with The Darnassus Empire, which is at war with The Lascan Empire. If Primus delays the delivery of the Ore even a little, we’ll be wiped off the map. A legion of Imperial soldiers has been stationed in our country.”
“The Warlord has his reasons, surely you can sympathize.”
“I can?!” Hadjar felt furious.
“Yes, calm yourself, Prince without a crown,” her amber eyes lit up. “Or do you not know the story of what happened fifteen years ago? When your father and uncle went off to yet another war?”
Hadjar stood still. Even if he wanted to, he could never forget the day his parents died. What had his father said before he’d died? “It was an accident."
What’s the story? What happened at the border?
Gnessa paused and then shook her head.
“I mustn’t tell you. I didn’t see it for myself. My teacher had been a military doctor back then. One of the injured officers told him. One of the commanders had told that story to the officer. And my teacher’s maid told it to me. I don’t know how much truth and how much falsehood was in that story. But know this—your uncle had a good reason for what he did.”
The sorceress was about to say something, but then she smiled slyly instead.
“I’m a witch of the forest, aren’t I?” She slapped her knees. “You’ll find everything out on your own, Hadjar. And now, take this.”
She pulled out another drawer that had a lot of parcels inside. They resembled the one Iry had tied to an arrow and shot near the deer. She pulled one out and put it on the table next to Hadjar’s bed. He immediately concentrated and felt the aura emanating from it. It was the aura of a beast at the Alpha stage.
Such a stone would cost at least five hundred gold coins in the city. It was a huge amount of money, even for a nobleman.
However, these stones weren’t used for trade around here.
They were used in hunting.
“I can’t accept that,” Hadjar protested immediately.
The villagers had already done too much for him. The fact that he’d helped the hunters had just been payback, nothing more.
“Accept this gift, stranger,” Gnessa slammed the drawer shut and pushed it back under the bed. “I told you, the people here are simple. Don’t offend them with your refusal. They wouldn’t understand your reasons.”
Hadjar sighed and nodded. It would be stupid to deny that he wanted to have the stone. It would greatly increase his chances of breaking through to the next stage— The Stage of the ‘Bodily Rivers’.
He would have to open his meridians and allow energy to circulate through his body in order to open up new horizons.
“I want to give you one bit of advice before we part, Prince Hadjar,” the witch stood at the door, her head turned away. “Don’t seek revenge. It’ll burn you from the inside until there’s nothing left and you’re a shell of your former self, wandering the world.”
Don’t seek revenge?
For his father’s death?
For his mother, who died in his arms?
For his sister, who still didn’t know what had happened?
For the ten years, he’d spent living as a persecuted freak?
For the people who’d spent all this time enslaved?
For a country that had become not even a vassal, but a slave to the Empire?
“I'm not looking for revenge,” Hadjar could hardly restrain his fury. Gnessa took a step back because his blue eyes were blazing with the force of his wrath. “I'm not going to the capital for revenge. I’m going there for justice.”
“There is no justice in this world, Prince. And if there are other worlds, then there is no justice there, either. People don’t know how to be fair.”
Hadjar chuckled and lay back on his cushions.
The wise woman shook her head with a heavy sigh and walked out the door.
Maybe people didn’t know how to be fair, but Hadjar strongly doubted that, after recent events, he was still a man. In any case, his heart was clearly from another tribe.
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