Home > Uprooted(15)

Uprooted(15)
Author: Naomi Novik

The wolf in the lead was a little smaller than the rest. He sniffed the air towards me, and then jerked his head sideways without ever taking his eyes off me. Two more came padding out of the trees. The pack spread out as if he had signaled them, fanning out to either side of me, to block me in. They were hunting; they were hunting me. “Kasia,” I said, “Kasia, go, run now,” with my heart stuttering. I dragged my arm out of her grip and fumbled in my bag. “Kasia, go!” I shouted, and I pulled the stopper and flung the stone potion at the lead wolf as he sprang.

The grey mist rose up around him, and a great stone statue of a wolf fell like a boulder by my feet, the snarling jaws snapping at my ankle even as they stilled. One other wolf was caught in the edge of the mist, a wave of stone creeping more slowly over its body as it pawed the snow with its front feet for a moment, trying to escape.

Kasia didn’t run. She grabbed me by the arm and pulled me up and back towards the nearest house—Eva’s house. The wolves howled with one terrible voice in protest, nosing cautiously at the two statues, and then one of them yelped and they fell in. They turned and came loping at us together.

Kasia pulled us through the gate of Eva’s front garden, and slammed it: the wolves leapt the fence as lightly as springing deer. I didn’t dare throw fire-heart with no protection against its spreading, not after what I’d seen that day: it would have burned all our village, and maybe all our valley, and certainly the two of us. I drew out the small green vial instead, hoping for enough distraction to get us inside the house. “It grows grass,” the Dragon had said, dismissively, when I’d asked: the warm healthy color of it had looked friendly to me, like none of the other strange cold enchantments in his laboratory. “And an inordinate number of weeds; it’s useful only if you’ve had to burn a field clean.” I’d thought I might use it after the fire-heart to renew our grazing meadow. I wrenched open the stopper with shaking hands, and the potion spilled over my fingers: it smelled wonderful, good and clean and fresh, pleasantly sticky like crushed grass and leaves in spring full of juice, and I threw it out of my cupped hands over the snowbound garden.

The wolves were running at us. Vines erupted like leaping snakes out of the dead vegetable beds, brilliant green, and flung themselves onto the wolves, wrapping thick coils around their legs, and pulled them to the ground scarcely inches away from us. Everything was suddenly growing like a year crammed into a minute, beans and hops and pumpkins sprawling out across the ground and growing absurdly huge. They blocked the way towards us even while the wolves fought and snapped and tore at them. The vines kept growing even larger, sprouting thorns the size of knives. One wolf was crushed in a swelling green twist as thick around as a tree, and a pumpkin fell smashing onto another, so heavy it struck the wolf down to the ground as it burst.

Kasia reached for me as I gawked, and I turned and stumbled on with her. The front door of the house wouldn’t open, though Kasia wrenched on it. We turned for the small empty stable, really only a shelter for pigs, and slammed inside. There was no pitchfork there; it had been taken to the pens. The only thing left like a weapon was a small axe for chopping wood. I seized it in desperation while Kasia braced the door. The rest of the wolves had fought their way out of the bursting garden, and they were coming at us again. They reared up and clawed at the door, snapping at it, and then ominously they stopped. We heard them moving, and then one of them howled on the other side of the stable, outside the small high window. As we turned in alarm, three of them came flowing through it, one after another leaping. And others howled back, on the other side of the door.

I was empty. I tried to think of any charm, any spell I’d been taught, anything that might help against them. Maybe the potion had renewed me, like the garden, or else panic had done it: I didn’t feel fainting-weak any longer, and I could imagine casting some spell again, if I could only have thought of one that would be of any use. I wondered wildly whether vanastalem could summon up armor, and then I said, “Rautalem?”—groping, muddling it up with a spell for sharpening kitchen knives—as I grabbed up the old water-dish made of battered tin. I had no very good idea what it would do, but I hoped. Perhaps the magic was trying to save me and itself, because the dish flattened out and turned into an enormous shield, of heavy steel. Kasia and I crouched behind it into a corner as the wolves leapt for us.

She grabbed the axe from me and chopped at their claws and muzzles as they scrabbled around the edges, trying to tear it down or away from us. We were both hanging on to the shield’s handles for life, desperate, and then to my horror one of the wolves—a wolf!—went deliberately to the barred door of the stable, and with its nose it nudged the bar up and open.

The rest of the pack crowded in towards us. There was nowhere else to run, no trick left in my satchel. Kasia and I clung to each other, held on to our shield, and then abruptly the entire wall of the shed ripped away from behind us. We fell backwards into the snow at the Dragon’s feet. The wolf pack leapt for him as one, howling, but he raised a hand and sang out a long impossible line without a pause for breath. All at the same time the wolves broke, in midair, a dreadful sound like snapping twigs. They fell huddled dead into the snow.

Kasia and I were still clinging to each other as the wolf corpses thumped down around us one after another. We stared up at him, and he glared down at me, stiff and furious, and snarled, “Of all the idiotic things you might have done, you monstrously half-witted lunatic of a girl—”

“Look out!” Kasia cried, too late: one last limping wolf, its fur stained orange with pumpkin, flung itself over the garden wall, and though the Dragon snapped out a spell even as he turned, the beast caught his arm with one raking claw as it fell dying. Three bright drops of blood stained the snow crimson at his feet.

He sank to his knees, gripping his arm at the elbow. The black wool of his jerkin was torn and gaping. His flesh was already turning green with corruption around the scratch. The sickly color halted where his fingers gripped the arm, a faint glow of light limning his fingers, but the veins of his forearm were swelling. I fumbled for the elixir in my satchel. “Pour it on,” he said with clenched teeth, when I would have given it to him to drink. I poured the liquid on, all of us holding our breath, but the black stain didn’t recede: it only stopped spreading as quickly.

“The tower,” he said. Sweat had sprung out across his forehead. His jaw was locked almost beyond speech. “Listen: Zokinen valisu, akenezh hinisu, kozhonen valisu.”

I stared: he couldn’t mean to trust me to do it, to spell us back? But he didn’t say anything else. All his strength was too plainly going to hold back the corruption, and I remembered too late what he’d told me, how if the Wood had taken me, untrained and useless witch though I was, it could have made some truly dreadful horror out of me. What would it make of him, the foremost wizard of the realm?

I turned to Kasia and dug out the bottle of fire-heart and pressed it into her hands. “Tell Danka she has to send someone to the tower,” I said, flat and desperate. “If we don’t both come out and say everything’s all right, if there’s any doubt—burn it to the ground.”

Her eyes were full of worry for me, but she nodded. I turned to the Dragon and knelt in the snow beside him. “Good,” he said to me, very briefly, with a quick dart of his eyes towards Kasia. I knew then that my worst fears weren’t wrong. I gripped his arm and closed my eyes and thought of the tower room. I spoke the words of the spell.

Chapter 6

I helped the Dragon stagger down the hall the short distance to my small bedroom. The rope of silk dresses still dangling out the window. There was no hope of getting him down to his own room; he was deadweight even as I lowered him to the bed. He was still gripping his arm, holding back the corruption somehow, but the glow about his hand was growing ever fainter. I eased him back on the pillows and stood anxiously hovering over him a moment, waiting for him to say something, to tell me what to do, but he didn’t speak; his eyes saw nothing, fixed on the ceiling. The small scratch had swollen up like the worst kind of spider bite. He was breathing in quick pants, and his forearm below where he gripped it was all that dreadful sickly green—the same color that had stained Jerzy’s skin. The fingernails at the end of his hand were blackening.

I ran down to the library skidding down the steps badly enough to scrape my shin bloody. I didn’t even feel it. The books stood in their neat elegant rows as always, placid and untroubled by my need. Some of them had become familiar to me by now: old enemies I would have called them, full of charms and incantations that would invariably go wrong inside my mouth, their very pages tingling unpleasantly when I touched the parchment. I went up the ladder and pulled them off the shelves anyway, opened them one after another, paging through lists, all for nothing: the distillation of essence of myrtle might be highly useful in all sorts of workings, but it wouldn’t do me any good now, and it was enraging to spend even a moment looking at six recipes for forming a proper seal upon a potion-bottle.

But the uselessness of the effort slowed me long enough to let me think a little better. I realized I couldn’t hope to find the answer to something this dreadful in the spellbooks he had tried to teach me from: as he’d told me himself, repeatedly, they were full of cantrips and trivialities, things that any witling wizard should have been able to master almost at once. I looked uncertainly at the lower shelves, where he kept the volumes he read himself, and which he had stringently warned me away from. Some were bound in new unbroken leather, tooled in gold; some were old and nearly crumbling; some tall as the length of my arm, others small enough for the palm of my hand. I ran my hands over them and on impulse pulled out a smaller one that bristled with inserted sheets of paper: it had a worn-smooth cover and plain stamped letters.

It was a journal written in a tiny crabbed hand, almost impossible to read at first and full of abbreviations. The sheets were notes in the Dragon’s hand, one or more of them inserted between almost every leaf, where he had written out different ways to cast each spell, with explanations of what he was doing: that at least seemed more promising, as if his voice might speak to me from the paper.

   
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