Home > Uprooted(16)

Uprooted(16)
Author: Naomi Novik

There were a dozen spells for healing and for cleansing wounds—of sickness and gangrene, not of enchanted corruption, but at least worth the trying. I read over one spell, which advised lancing the poisoned wound, packing it with rosemary and lemon-peel, and doing something which the writer called putting breath on it. The Dragon had written four crammed-close pages on the subject and drawn up lines in which he noted down nearly five dozen variations: this much rosemary, dry or fresh; that much lemon, with pith on or without; a steel knife, an iron one, this incantation and another.

He hadn’t written down which of the attempts had worked better and which worse, but if he had gone to so much effort, it had to be good for something. All I needed right now was to do him enough good to let him speak even a handful of words to me, give me some direction. I flew down to the kitchens and found a great bundle of hanging rosemary and a lemon. I took a clean paring knife and some fresh linens and hot water in a pot.

Then I hesitated: my eye had fallen on the great cleaver, lying on its chopping stone. If I couldn’t do anything else, if I couldn’t give him the strength to speak—I didn’t know if I could do it, if I could cut off his arm. But I saw Jerzy on his bed, cackling and monstrous, far away from the quiet, sad man who had always nodded to me in the lane; I saw Krystyna’s hollowed-out face. I swallowed and picked up the cleaver.

I honed both the knives, resolutely thinking of nothing, and then I carried my things upstairs. The window and door stood open, but even so the terrible stink of corruption had begun to gather in my small room. It turned my stomach with dread as much as physically. I didn’t think I could bear to see the Dragon corrupted, all his crisp edges rotted away, his sharp tongue reduced to howling and snarls. His breath was coming shorter, and his eyes were half-closed. His face was terribly pale. I lay the linens under his arm and tied them on with some twine. I peeled off wide strips of the lemon’s skin, tore rosemary leaves off the stems, crushing them all and throwing them into the hot water so that the sweet strong smell rose up and drove out the stink. Then I bit my lip, and, steeling myself, slashed open the swollen wound with the paring knife. Green tarry bile spurted out of it. I poured cup after cup of the hot water over the wound until it was clean. I caught fistfuls of the steeped herbs and lemon and packed them down tight.

The Dragon’s notes said nothing of what it meant to put breath on the wound, so I bent down and breathed out the incantations over it, trying one and then another, my voice breaking. They all felt wrong in my mouth, awkward and hard-edged, and nothing was happening. Wretched, I looked back at the crabbed original writing again: there was a line that said Kai and tihas, sung as seems good, will have especial virtue. The Dragon’s incantations all had variants of those syllables, but strung round with others, built up into long elaborate phrases that tangled on my tongue. Instead I bent down and sang Tihas, tihas, kai tihas, kai tihas, over and over, and found myself falling into the sound of the birthday song about living a hundred years.

That sounds absurd, but the rhythm of it was easy and familiar, comforting. I stopped having to think about the words: they filled my mouth and spilled over like water out of a cup. I forgot to remember Jerzy’s mad laughter, and the green vile cloud that had drowned the light inside him. There was only the easy movement of the song, the memory of faces gathered around a table laughing. And then finally the magic flowed, but not the same way as when the Dragon’s spell-lessons dragged it in a rush out of me. Instead it seemed to me the sound of the chanting became a stream made to carry magic along, and I was standing by the water’s edge with a pitcher that never ran dry, pouring a thin silver line into the rushing current.

Under my hands, the sweet fragrance of rosemary and lemon was rising strong, overpowering the stench of corruption. More and more of the bile began to flow from the wound, until I would have worried except that the Dragon’s arm kept looking better: the dreadful greenish cast was fading, the darkened and swollen veins shrinking back.

I was running out of breath; but besides that, I felt somehow that I was finished, that my work was done. I brought my chanting to a simple close, going up and down a note: I had only really been humming anyway by the end. The shining glow where he held his arm at the elbow was growing stronger now, brighter, and abruptly thin lines of light shot away from his grip, running down his veins and spreading out through them like branches. The rot was disappearing: the flesh looked healthy, his skin restored—to his usual unhealthy sunless pallor, but nevertheless his own.

I watched it holding my breath, hardly daring to hope, and then his whole body shifted. He drew one longer, deeper breath, blinking at the ceiling with eyes that were aware again, and his fingers one after another let go their iron grip around his elbow. I could have sobbed with relief: incredulous and hopeful, I looked up at his face, a smile working its way onto my mouth, and found him staring at me with an expression of astonished outrage.

He struggled up from the pillows. He stripped his arm clean of the rosemary and lemon packing and held it in his fist with a look of incredulity, then leaned over and seized the tiny journal from the coverlet over his legs: I had put it there so I could look at it while I worked. He stared at the spell, turned the book to see the spine as if he didn’t quite believe his own eyes, and then he spluttered at me, “You impossible, wretched, nonsensical contradiction, what on earth have you done now?”

I sat back on my heels in some indignation: this, when I had just saved not only his life, but everything he might be, and all the kingdom from whatever the Wood might have made from him. “What ought I have done?” I demanded. “And how was I to know to do it? Besides, it worked, didn’t it?”

For some reason, this only made him nearly incoherent with fury, and he levered himself up from my cot, threw the book across the room, all the notes flying everywhere, and flung himself out into the hallway without another word. “You might thank me!” I shouted after him, outraged myself, and his footsteps had vanished before I recalled that he had been wounded at all in saving my life—that he had surely pressed himself to terrible lengths to come to my aid at all.

That thought only made me feel more sulky, of course. So, too, did the slogging work of cleaning my poor little room and changing my bed; the stains wouldn’t come out, and everything smelled foul, though without the terrible wrongness. Finally I decided, for this, I would use magic after all. I began to use one of the charms the Dragon had taught me, but then I instead went and dug up the journal from the corner. I was grateful to that little book and the past wizard or witch who had written it, even if the Dragon wasn’t to me, and I was happy to find, near the beginning, a charm for freshening a room: Tishta, sung up and down, with work to show the way. I warbled it half in my head while I turned out all the damp, stained ticking. The air grew cold and crisp around me, but without any unpleasant bite; by the time I had finished, the bedclothes were clean and bright as though they were new-washed, and my ticking smelled like it was fresh from a summer haystack. I assembled my bed again, and then I sat down upon it very heavily, almost surprised, as the last dregs of desperation left me, and with them all my strength. I fell down on the bed and barely managed to drag my coverlet over me before I slept.

I woke slowly, peacefully, serenely, with sunlight coming in the window over me, and only gradually became aware that the Dragon was in my room.

He was sitting by the window, in the small work-chair, glaring at me. I sat up and rubbed my eyes and glared back. He held up the tiny book in his hand. “What made you pick this up?” he demanded.

“It was full of notes!” I said. “I thought it must be important.”

“It is not important,” he said, although for how angry he seemed over it, I didn’t believe him. “It is useless—it has been useless, for all five hundred years since it was written, and a century of study has not made it anything other than useless.”

“Well, it wasn’t useless today,” I said, folding my arms across my chest.

“How did you know how much rosemary to use?” he said. “How much lemon?”

“You used all sorts of amounts, in those tables!” I said. “I supposed it didn’t much matter.”

“The tables are of failures, you blundering imbecile!” he shouted. “None of them had the least effect—not in any parts, not in any admixture, not with any incantation—what did you do?”

I stared at him. “I used enough to make a nice smell, and steeped them to make it stronger. And I used the chant on the page.”

“There is no incantation here!” he said. “Two trivial syllables, with no power—”

“When I sang it long enough, it made the magic flow,” I said. “I sang it to ‘Many Years,’ ” I added. He went even more red and indignant.

He spent the next hour interrogating me as to every particular of how I had cast the spell, growing ever more upset: I could scarcely answer any of his questions. He wanted exact syllables and repetitions, he wanted to know how close I had been to his arm, he wanted the number of rosemary twigs and the number of peels. I did my best to tell him, but I felt even as I did so that it was all wrong, and finally I blurted out, as he wrote angrily on his sheets, “But none of that matters at all.” His head raised to stare balefully at me, but I said, incoherent yet convinced, “It’s just—a way to go. There isn’t only one way to go.” I waved at his notes. “You’re trying to find a road where there isn’t one. It’s like—it’s gleaning in the woods,” I said abruptly. “You have to pick your way through the thickets and the trees, and it’s different every time.”

I finished triumphantly, pleased to have found an explanation which felt so satisfyingly clear. He only flung down his pen and slumped angrily back in his chair. “That’s nonsense,” he said, almost plaintively, and then stared down at his own arm with an air of frustration: as though he would rather have the corruption back, instead of having to consider that he might be wrong.

   
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