Home > Uprooted(14)

Uprooted(14)
Author: Naomi Novik

Jerzy’s house was inconvenient, near the edge of the village farthest from the pens, with the forest crowding close to his small garden. The road was unnaturally quiet for afternoon, with everyone still back at the pens. Our feet crunched in the last snow that had fallen overnight. I floundered awkwardly through the corner drifts in my dress, but I didn’t want to spare any strength to change it for something more sensible. As we came near the house we heard him, a snarling gurgled moan that never stopped, louder and louder the closer we came. It was hard to knock on the door.

It was a small house, but there was a long wait. Krystyna finally opened the door a crack, peering out. She stared at me without recognition, herself almost unrecognizable: there were dark purple circles under her eyes, and her belly was enormously swollen with the baby. She looked at Kasia, who said, “Agnieszka’s come from the tower to help,” and then she looked back at me.

After a long slow moment Krystyna said, “Come in,” hoarsely.

She had been sitting in a rocking chair by the fire, right next to the door. She’d been waiting, I realized: waiting for them to come and take Jerzy away. There was only one other room, with just a curtain hanging in the doorway. Krystyna went back to the rocking chair and sat down again. She didn’t knit or sew, didn’t offer us a cup of tea, only stared at the fire and rocked. The moaning was louder inside the house. I gripped Kasia’s hand tight and we went to the curtain together. Kasia reached out and drew it aside.

Jerzy was lying in their bed. It was a heavy clumsy thing made of small logs jointed together, but in this case that was all to the better. He had been tied hand and foot to the posts, and ropes were bound over his middle and under the whole bedframe. The ends of his toes were blackened and the nails were peeling off, and there were open sores across him where the ropes rubbed his body. He was pulling on them and making the noise, his tongue swollen and dark and almost filling his mouth, but he stopped when we came in. He lifted his head up and looked straight at me and smiled with his teeth bloody and his eyes stained yellow. He started to laugh. “Look at you,” he said, “little witch, look at you, look at you,” in an awful singsong voice jangling up and down. He jerked his body against the ropes so the whole bed jumped an inch across the floor towards me, while he grinned and grinned at me. “Come closer, come come come,” he sang, “little Agnieszka, come come come,” like the children’s song, horrible, the bed hopping across the floor one lurch at a time, while I pulled open my bag of potions with shaking hands, trying not to look at him. I had never been so close to anyone taken by the Wood before. Kasia kept her hands on my shoulders, standing straight and calm. I think if she hadn’t been there I would have run away.

I didn’t remember the spell the Dragon had used on the prince, but he’d taught me a charm for healing small cuts and burns when I cooked or cleaned. I thought it couldn’t do any harm. I started singing it softly while I poured out one swallow of the elixir into a big spoon, wrinkling my nose against the rotten-fish smell of it, and then Kasia and I went cautiously towards Jerzy. He snapped at me with his teeth and twisted his hands bloody against the ropes to try and scratch at me. I hesitated. I didn’t dare let him bite me.

Kasia said, “Hold on.” She went out to the other room and came back with the poker and the heavy leather glove for stirring up the coals. Krystyna watched her come and go with a dull, incurious expression.

We laid the poker across Jerzy’s throat and pressed him down flat to the bed from either side, and then my fearless Kasia put on the glove and reached out and pinched his nose from above. She held on even as he whipped his head back and forth, until finally he had to open his mouth for breath. I tipped in a swallow of the elixir and jumped back just in time; he heaved his chin up and managed to close his teeth on a bit of trailing lace from my velvet sleeve. I ripped free and backed away, still singing my charm in a wavering voice, and Kasia let go and came back to my side.

There wasn’t that same blazing glow I remembered, but at least Jerzy’s awful chanting stopped. I saw the gleam of the elixir go traveling down his throat. He fell back and lay jerking from side to side, emitting thick groans of protest. I kept on singing. Tears were leaking from my eyes: I was so tired. It was as bad as those early days in the Dragon’s tower—it was worse, but I kept singing the charm because I couldn’t bear to stop when I thought it might change the horror before me.

Hearing the chanting, Krystyna slowly stood up in the other room and came to the door, a terrible hope in her face. The glow of the elixir was sitting in Jerzy’s belly like a hot coal, shining out, and a few of the bloody weals across his chest and wrists were closing. But even as I sang on, dark wisps of green drifted over the light, like clouds crossing the face of a full moon. More of them and more drew around it, thickening until the glow was lost. Slowly he stopped jerking about and his body relaxed into the bed. My chanting trailed off into silence. I edged a little closer, still hoping, and then—and then he lifted his head, eyes yellow-mad, and cackled at me again. “Try again, little Agnieszka,” he said, and snapped at the air like a dog. “Come and try again, come here, come here!”

Krystyna moaned aloud and slid down the doorframe into a heap on the floor. Tears were stinging my eyes: I felt sick and hollow with failure. Jerzy was laughing horribly and thrashing the bed forward again, thump-thump of the heavy legs on the wooden floor: nothing had changed. The Wood had won. The corruption was too strong, too far advanced. “Nieshka,” Kasia said softly, unhappily, a question. I dragged the back of my hand across my nose, and then I dug into my satchel again, grimly.

“Take Krystyna out of the house,” I said, and waited until Kasia had helped Krystyna up and out: she was wailing softly. Kasia threw me one last anxious look, and I tried to give her a little smile, but I couldn’t make my mouth work properly.

Before I edged closer to the bed, I took off the heavy velvet overskirt of my dress and wound it about my face, covering my nose and mouth three and four times over, until I had nearly smothered myself. Then I drew a deep breath and held it while I broke the seal upon the grey churning flask, and I poured out a little of the stone-spell onto Jerzy’s grinning, snarling face.

I thrust the stopper back in and jumped back as quickly as I could. He had drawn in a breath already: the smoke was sliding into his nostrils and his mouth. A look of surprise crossed his face, and then his skin was greying, hardening. He fell silent as his mouth and eyes fixed open, his body stilled, his hands locked into place. The stink of corruption was fading. Stone rolled over his body like a wave, and then it was done, and I was shaking with relief and horror mingled: a statue lay tied down upon the bed, a statue only a madman would have carved, the face twisted with inhuman rage.

I made sure the bottle was sealed again, and put it back into my sack before I went and opened the door. Kasia and Krystyna were standing in the yard, in the ankle-deep snow. Krystyna’s face was wet and hopeless. I let them back in: Krystyna went to the narrow doorway and stared at the statue in the bed, suspended out of life.

“He doesn’t feel any pain,” I said. “He doesn’t feel time moving: I promise you. And this way, if the Dragon does know a way to purge the corruption …” I trailed off; Krystyna had sat down limply in her chair, as if she couldn’t support her weight anymore, her head bent. I wasn’t sure if I’d done her any real kindness, or only spared myself pain. I had never heard of anyone taken so badly as Jerzy being healed. “I don’t know how to save him,” I said softly. “But—but perhaps the Dragon will, when he comes back. I thought it was worth the chance.”

At least the house was quiet now, without the howling and the stink of corruption. The terrible blank distance had left Krystyna’s face, as if she hadn’t even been able to bear thinking, and after a moment she put her hand on her belly and looked down at it. She was so close to her time that I could even see the baby move a little, through her clothes. She looked up at me and asked, “The cows?”

“Burned,” I said, “all of them,” and she lowered her head: no husband, no cattle, a child coming. Danka would try and help her, of course, but it would be a hard year in the village for everyone. Abruptly I said, “Do you have a dress you could give me, in trade for this one?” She stared up at me. “I can’t bear to walk another step in it.” She very doubtfully dug out an old patched homespun dress for me, and a rough woolen cloak. I gladly left the huge velvet and silk and lace confection heaped up next to her table: it was surely worth at least the price of a cow, and milk would be worth more in the village for a while.

It was growing dark when Kasia and I finally went outside again. The bonfire at the pens was burning on, raising a great orange glow on the other side of the village. All the houses were still deserted. The cold air bit through my thinner clothes, and I was drained to the dregs. I stumbled doggedly along behind Kasia, who broke the snow for me, and turned now and then to hold my hand and give me some support. I had one happier thought to warm me: I couldn’t get back into the tower. So I would go home to my mother, and stay until the Dragon came for me again: what better place was there for me to go? “He’ll be at least a week,” I said to Kasia, “and maybe he’ll be fed up with me, and let me stay,” which I shouldn’t have said even inside my own head. “Don’t tell anyone,” I said hastily, and she stopped and turned and threw her arms around me and squeezed me tight.

“I was ready to go,” she said. “All those years—I was ready to be brave and go, but I couldn’t bear it when he took you. It felt like it had all been for nothing, and everything going on the same, just as if you had never been here—” She stopped. We stood there together, holding hands and crying and smiling at each other at the same time, and then her face changed; she jerked on my arm and pulled me backwards. I turned.

They came out of the woods slowly, with measured paces and wide-spread paws that stepped without breaking the crust on the snow. Wolves hunted in our woods, quick and lithe and grey; they would take a wounded sheep but fled from our hunters. These were not our wolves. Their heavy white-furred backs rose to the height of my waist, and pink tongues lolled out of their jaws: huge jaws full of teeth crammed in on one another. They looked at us—they looked at me—with pale yellow eyes. I remembered Kasia telling me that the first cattle to fall sick had been wolf-bitten.

   
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