Home > Uprooted(11)

Author: Naomi Novik

I tried to be glad for her. I was mostly sorry for myself. It was hard to be alone and cold in my high tower room, locked away. The Dragon didn’t mark the holiday; for all I knew, he didn’t even know what day it was. I went to the library the same as always, and droned through another spell, and he shouted for a while and then dismissed me.

Trying to cure my loneliness, I went down to the kitchens and made myself a small feast—ham and kasha and stewed apples—but when I put together the plate, it still felt so plain and empty that for the first time, I used lirintalem for myself, aching for something that felt like a celebration. The air shimmered, and suddenly I had a lovely platter of roast pork, hot and pink and running with juice; my very favorite wheat porridge cooked thick with a ladleful of melted butter and browned bread crumbs in the middle; a heap of brand-new fresh peas that no one in my village would be eating until spring; and a taigla cake that I had only ever tasted once, at the headwoman’s table, the year that it was my family’s turn to be her guests at harvest-time: the candied fruits like colored jewels, the knots of sweet dough a perfect golden brown, the hazelnuts small and pale, and all of it glazed and shining with honey-syrup.

But it wasn’t Midwinter dinner. There was no eager ache of hunger in my belly from the long day of cooking and cleaning without a pause; there was no joyful noise of too many people crammed in around the table, laughing and reaching for the platters. Looking down at my tiny feast only made me feel more desperately lonely. I thought of my mother, cooking all alone without even my clumsy pair of hands to help her, and my eyes were stinging when I put them into my pillow, with my untouched tray on my table.

I was still heavy-eyed and grieving, more awkward even than usual, two days later. That was when the rider came, an urgent scramble of hooves and a pounding on the gates. The Dragon put down the book he was attempting to teach me from, and I trailed him down the stairs; the doors swung open of their own accord before him, and the messenger nearly fell inside: he wore the dark yellow surcoat of the Yellow Marshes, and his face was streaked with sweat. He knelt, swallowing and pale, but he did not wait for the Dragon to give him permission to speak. “My lord baron begs you to come at once,” he said. “There is a chimaera come upon us, out of the mountain pass—”

“What?” the Dragon said, sharply. “It’s not the season. What sort of beast is it exactly? Has some idiot called a wyvern a chimaera, and been repeated by others—”

The messenger was shaking his head back and forth like a weight on a string. “Serpent’s tail, bat’s wings, goat’s head—I saw it with my own eyes, lord Dragon, it’s why my lord sent me—”

The Dragon hissed under his breath with annoyance: how dare a chimaera inconvenience him, coming out of season. For my part, I didn’t understand in the least why a chimaera would have a season; surely it was a magic beast, and could do as it pleased?

“Try not to be a complete fool,” the Dragon said as I trotted at his heels back to the laboratory; he opened a case and ordered me to bring him this vial and that. I did so unhappily, and very carefully. “A chimaera is engendered through corrupt magic, that doesn’t mean it’s not still a living beast, with its own nature. They’re spawned of snakes, mainly, because they hatch from eggs. Their blood is cold. They spend the winters keeping still and lying in the sun as much as they can. They fly in summer.”

“So why has this one come now?” I said, trying to follow.

“Most likely it hasn’t, and that gasping yokel below frightened himself fleeing a shadow,” the Dragon said, but the gasping yokel hadn’t looked at all a fool to me, or a coward, and I thought even the Dragon didn’t quite believe his own words. “No, not the red one, idiot girl, that’s fire-heart; a chimaera would drink it up by the gallon if it had the chance, and become next kin to a real dragon, then. The red-violet, two farther on.” They both looked red-violet to me, but I hastily swapped potions and gave him the one he wanted. “All right,” he said, closing the case. “Don’t read any of the books, don’t touch anything in this room, don’t touch anything in any room if you can help it, and try if you can not to reduce the place to rubble before I return.”

I realized only then that he was leaving me here; I stared at him in dismay. “What am I going to do here alone?” I said. “Can’t I—come with you? How long will you be?”

“A week, a month, or never, if I grow distracted, do something particularly clumsy, and get myself torn in half by a chimaera,” he snapped, “which means the answer is no, you may not. And you are to do absolutely nothing, so far as possible.”

And then he was sweeping out. I ran to the library and stared down from the window: the doors swung shut behind him as he came down the steps. The messenger leapt to his feet. “I’m taking your horse,” I heard the Dragon say. “Walk down to Olshanka after me; I’ll leave it there for you and take a fresh one.” And then he swung up and waved an imperious hand, murmuring words: a small fire blazed up before him in the snowbound road and rolled away like a ball, melting a clear path down the middle for him. He was trotting off at once, despite the horse’s flattened-ear unease. I suppose the spell which let him leap to Dvernik and back didn’t work over so long a distance, or perhaps he could only use it within his own lands.

I stood in the library and kept watching until he was gone. It wasn’t as though he ever made his company pleasant for me, but the tower felt echoingly empty without him. I tried to enjoy his absence as a holiday, but I wasn’t tired enough. I did a little desultory sewing on my quilt, and then I just sat by my window and looked out at the valley: the fields, the villages, and the woods I loved. I watched cattle and flocks going to water, wood-sleds and the occasional lone rider traveling the road, the scattered drifts of snow, and at last I fell asleep leaning against the window-frame. It was late when I woke with a start, in the dark, and saw the line of beacon-fires burning in the distance almost the full length of the valley.

I stared at them, confused with sleep. For a moment, I thought the candle-trees had been lit again. I had seen the beacon-fire go up in Dvernik only three times in my life: for the Green Summer; and then once for the snow mares, who came out of the Wood when I was nine; and once for the shambler vines that swallowed up four houses on the edge of the village overnight, the summer when I was fourteen. The Dragon had come all those times; he had flung back the Wood’s assault, and then gone away again.

In rising panic, I counted the beacons back, to see where the message had been lit, and felt my blood run cold: there were nine in a straight line, following the Spindle. The ninth beacon-fire was Dvernik. The call had gone up from my own village. I stood looking out at the fires, and then I realized: the Dragon was gone. He would be well into the mountain pass by now, crossing to the Yellow Marshes. He wouldn’t see the beacons, and even when someone brought him word, first he would have to deal with the chimaera—a week, he had said, and there was no one else—

That was when I understood how much a fool I’d been. I’d never thought of magic, of my magic, as good for anything, until I stood there and knew that there was no one else but me; that whatever was in me, however poor and clumsy and untaught, was more magic than anyone else in my village had. That they needed help, and I was the only one left who could give it.

After one frozen moment I turned and flew downstairs to the laboratory. I went in on a gulp of fear and took the grey potion, the one that had turned me to stone. I took the fire-heart potion, too, and the elixir the Dragon had used on the prince to save his life, and one green one that he’d mentioned once was for growing plants. I couldn’t guess what use any of them would be, but at least I knew what they did. I didn’t even know what any of the others were called, and I didn’t dare touch them.

I bundled them back up to my room, and began desperately to rip apart the rest of my heap of dresses, knotting strips of silk together to make myself a rope. When it was long enough—I hoped—I flung it out the window and peered down after it. The night was dark. There was no light below to tell me if my rope reached the ground. But I didn’t have a choice except to try and find out.

I had sewed a few silk bags out of dresses, among my small mending projects, and I put the glass bottles into one of them, well padded with scraps, and slung it over my shoulder. I tried not to think about what I was doing. A knot was swelling at the top of my throat. I gripped the silk rope with both hands and climbed over the sill.

I’d climbed old trees: I loved the big oaks and would scramble up into them with just a scrap of worn rope thrown over a branch. This was nothing like that. The stones of the tower were unnaturally smooth, even the cracks between them very fine and filled to the brim with mortar that hadn’t been cracked or wormed away by time. I kicked off my shoes and let them fall, but even my bare toes couldn’t get any purchase. All my weight was on the silken rope, and my hands were damp with sweat, my shoulders aching. I slithered and scrambled and from time to time just hung on, the sack a swaying, ungainly weight on my back and the bottles sloshing. I kept going because I couldn’t do anything else. Going back up would have been harder. I began to have fantasies of letting go, which was how I knew I was close to the end of my strength, and I was halfway to convincing myself it wouldn’t be so very bad a fall when unexpectedly my foot jarred painfully, coming down on solid ground straight through half a foot of soft-piled snow, against the tower’s side. I dug my shoes out of the snow and ran down the cleared path the Dragon had made towards Olshanka.

They didn’t know in the least what to do with me when I first got there. I came staggering into the tavern sweat-stained and frozen at the same time, my hair matted down on my head and frost built up on the loose strands near my face where my breath had gone streaming away. There was no one there I knew. I recognized the mayor, but I’d never said a word to him. They would probably have thought me just a madwoman, but Borys was there: Marta’s father, one of the other girls born in my year. He’d been at the choosing. He said, “That’s the Dragon’s girl. That’s Andrey’s daughter.”

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