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Author: Naomi Novik

These might all seem like small and petty things, little enough cause to give up a daughter, to anyone who didn’t live near enough the Wood to understand. But I had lived through the Green Summer, when a hot wind carried pollen from the Wood west a long way into the valley, into our fields and gardens. The crops grew furiously lush, but also strange and misshapen. Anyone who ate of them grew sick with anger, struck at their families, and in the end ran into the Wood and vanished, if they weren’t tied down.

I was six years old at the time. My parents tried to shelter me as much as they could, but even so I remembered vividly the cold clammy sense of dread everywhere, everyone afraid, and the never-ending bite of hunger in my belly. We had eaten through all our last year’s stores by then, counting on the spring. One of our neighbors ate a few green beans, driven foolish by hunger. I remember the screams from his house that night, and peering out the window to see my father running to help, taking the pitchfork from where it leaned against our barn.

One day that summer, too young to understand the danger properly, I escaped my tired, thin mother’s watch and ran into the forest. I found a half-dead bramble, in a nook sheltered from the wind. I pushed through the hard dead branches to the protected heart and dug out a miraculous handful of blackberries, not misshapen at all, whole and juicy and perfect. Every one was a burst of joy in my mouth. I ate two handfuls and filled my skirt; I hurried home with them soaking purple stains through my dress and my mother wept with horror when she saw my smeared face. I didn’t sicken: the bramble had somehow escaped the Wood’s curse, and the blackberries were good. But her tears frightened me badly; I shied from blackberries for years after.

The Dragon had been called to court that year. He came back early and rode straight to the fields and called down magic fire to burn all that tainted harvest, every poisoned crop. That much was his duty, but afterwards he went to every house where anyone had sickened, and he gave them a taste of a magic cordial that cleared their minds. He gave orders that the villages farther west, which had escaped the blight, should share their harvest with us, and he even gave up his own tribute that year entirely so none of us would starve. The next spring, just before the planting season, he went through the fields again to burn out the few corrupted remnants before they could take fresh root.

But for all he’d saved us, we didn’t love him. He never came out of his tower to stand a drink for the men at harvest-time the way the Baron of the Yellow Marshes would, or to buy some small trinket at the fair as the baron’s lady and her daughters so often did. There were plays sometimes put on by traveling shows, or singers would come through over the mountain pass from Rosya. He didn’t come to hear them. When the carters brought him his tribute, the doors of the tower opened by themselves, and they left all the goods in the cellar without even seeing him. He never exchanged more than a handful of words with the headwoman of our village, or even the mayor of Olshanka, the largest town of the valley, very near his tower. He didn’t try to win our love at all; none of us knew him.

And of course he was also a master of dark sorcery. Lightning would flash around his tower on a clear night, even in the winter. Pale wisps that he set loose from his windows drifted along the roads and down the river at night, going to the Wood to keep watch for him. And sometimes when the Wood caught someone—a shepherd girl who had drifted too close to its edge, following her flock; a hunter who had drunk from the wrong spring; an unlucky traveler who came over the mountain pass humming a snatch of music that sank claws into your head—well, the Dragon would come down from his tower for them, too; and the ones he took away never came back at all.

He wasn’t evil, but he was distant and terrible. And he was going to take Kasia away, so I hated him, and had hated him for years and years.

My feelings didn’t change on that last night. Kasia and I ate our chestnuts. The sun went down and our fire went out, but we lingered in the clearing as long as the embers lasted. We didn’t have a long way to go in the morning. The harvest feast was usually held in Olshanka, but in a choosing year, it was always held in a village where at least one of the girls lived, to make the travel a little easier for their families. And our village had Kasia.

I hated the Dragon even more the next day, putting on my new green overdress. My mother’s hands were shaking as she braided up my hair. We knew it would be Kasia, but that didn’t mean we weren’t still afraid. But I held my skirts up high off the ground and climbed into the wagon as carefully as I could, looking twice for splinters and letting my father help me. I was determined to make a special effort. I knew it was no use, but I wanted Kasia to know that I loved her enough to give her a fair chance. I wasn’t going to make myself look a mess or squint-eyed or slouching, the way girls sometimes did.

We gathered on the village green, all eleven of us girls in a line. The feasting-tables were set out in a square, loaded too heavily because they weren’t really big enough to hold the tribute of the entire valley. Everyone had gathered behind them. Sacks of wheat and oats were piled up on the grass at the corners in pyramids. We were the only ones standing on the grass, with our families and our headwoman Danka, who paced nervously back and forth in front of us, her mouth moving silently while she practiced her greeting.

I didn’t know the other girls much. They weren’t from Dvernik. All of us were silent and stiff in our nice clothes and braided hair, watching the road. There was no sign of the Dragon yet. Wild fantasies ran in my head. I imagined flinging myself in front of Kasia when the Dragon came, and telling him to take me instead, or declaring to him that Kasia didn’t want to go with him. But I knew I wasn’t brave enough to do any of that.

And then he came, horribly. He didn’t come from the road at all, he just stepped straight out of the air. I was looking that way when he came out: fingers in midair and then an arm and a leg and then half a man, so impossible and wrong that I couldn’t look away even though my stomach was folding itself over in half. The others were luckier. They didn’t even notice him until he took his first step towards us, and everyone around me tried not to flinch in surprise.

The Dragon wasn’t like any man of our village. He should have been old and stooped and grey; he had been living in his tower a hundred years, but he was tall, straight, beardless, his skin taut. At a quick glance in the street I might have thought him a young man, only a little older than me: someone I might have smiled at across the feast-tables, and who might have asked me to dance. But there was something unnatural in his face: a crow’s-nest of lines by his eyes, as though years couldn’t touch him, but use did. It wasn’t an ugly face, even so, but coldness made it unpleasant: everything about him said, I am not one of you, and don’t want to be, either.

His clothes were rich, of course; the brocade of his zupan would have fed a family for a year, even without the golden buttons. But he was as lean as a man whose harvest had gone wrong three years out of four. He held himself stiff, with all the nervous energy of a hunting dog, as though he wanted nothing more than to be off quickly. It was the worst day of all our lives, but he had no patience for us; when our headwoman Danka bowed and said to him, “My lord, let me present to you these—” he interrupted her and said, “Yes, let’s get on with it.”

My father’s hand was warm on my shoulder as he stood beside me and bowed; my mother’s hand was clenched tight on mine on the other side. They reluctantly stepped back with the other parents. Instinctively the eleven of us all edged closer to one another. Kasia and I stood near the end of the line. I didn’t dare take her hand, but I stood close enough that our arms brushed, and I watched the Dragon and hated him and hated him as he stepped down the line and tipped up each girl’s face, under the chin, to look at her.

He didn’t speak to all of us. He didn’t say a word to the girl next to me, the one from Olshanka, even though her father, Borys, was the best horse-breeder in the valley, and she wore a wool dress dyed brilliant red, her black hair in two long beautiful plaits woven with red ribbons. When it was my turn, he glanced at me with a frown—cold black eyes, pale mouth pursed—and said, “Your name, girl?”

“Agnieszka,” I said, or tried to say; I discovered my mouth was dry. I swallowed. “Agnieszka,” I said again, whispering. “My lord.” My face was hot. I dropped my eyes. I saw that for all the care I’d taken, my skirt had three big mud stains creeping up from the hem.

The Dragon moved on. And then he paused, looking at Kasia, the way he hadn’t paused for any of the rest of us. He stayed there with his hand under her chin, a thin pleased smile curving his thin hard mouth, and Kasia looked at him bravely and didn’t flinch. She didn’t try to make her voice rough or squeaky or anything but steady and musical as she answered, “Kasia, my lord.”

He smiled at her again, not pleasantly, but with a satisfied-cat look. He went on to the end of the line only perfunctorily, barely glancing at the two girls after her. I heard Wensa drag in a breath that was nearly a sob, behind us, as he turned and came back to look at Kasia, still with that pleased look on his face. And then he frowned again, and turned his head, and looked straight at me.

I’d forgotten myself and taken Kasia’s hand after all. I was squeezing the life out of it, and she was squeezing back. She quickly let go and I tucked my hands together in front of me instead, hot color in my cheeks, afraid. He only narrowed his eyes at me some more. And then he raised his hand, and in his fingers a tiny ball of blue-white flame took shape.

“She didn’t mean anything,” Kasia said, brave brave brave, the way I hadn’t been for her. Her voice was trembling but audible, while I shook rabbit-terrified, staring at the ball. “Please, my lord—”

“Silence, girl,” the Dragon said, and held his hand out towards me. “Take it.”

“I—what?” I said, more bewildered than if he’d flung it into my face.

“Don’t stand there like a cretin,” he said. “Take it.”

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