"Our Agnieszka of Dvernik has never actually commanded the trees, nor ridden to battle at the head of an army of any kind," I said. "Those are only stories."
It was true that years ago, my friend Agnieszka had gone into the Wood when it was still a malicious source of corruption. It was true that she'd stopped the greatest threat to our kingdom before it had brought the entire kingdom down. And over the years, I'd heard many stories about her, most of them using truth like a frugal cook uses expensive spices: sparingly.
But this was the first time I'd seen a painting depicting such a convincing lie. Agnieszka was shown in armor, holding the banner of Polnya, while the trees massed behind her and the army of Rosya quailed before her. She was in inspiring figure, but not quite the most inspiring in the painting. A lord bearing a shield marked with the black dragons of the Barony of Stillwater raised his sword in the very center of the painting, and light fell from above to give him a heroic glow.
"And there wasn't anything very heroic about fighting Rosya when it was the Wood that tricked us all into needless battles," I added sadly.
Lord Dawid of Stillwater, the current Baron, drew himself up to a height that put him an inch or so beneath my nose. He was thirteen, weedy and coltish, and the same age as my charge, Marisha, the Princess of Polnya.
"Captain Kasia, my father died in that battle," Dawid said. There was a light in his eye; I thought it would be difficult to convince him that his father had been anything but the most of knights. He'd have been five when his father died. I held my tongue out of respect for the dead.
Marisha, however, never shied away from a worthy fight. "Dawid, Kasia has spoken to Agnieszka many times and you haven't. And so have I. Agnieszka's a good friend of mine. So we know the truth. Agnieszka never fought the Rosyans."
"I hate to have to correct a lady, but I was here when they brought my father back, and I have spoken to the men who fought with him. I instructed the artist myself," Dawid said. "It is correct in every particular." He hesitated, then added, "Besides, aren't you one of the witch's partisans? A word of advice, not fighting the Rosyans is nothing to brag about."
Marisha prickled like a hedgehog. "It's important to understand the truth," she said stridently.
I shook my head at her, meaning to convey that there was no use arguing directly with the vision of glorious battle that lived in Dawid's head. A more circumspect approach... But Marisha wilted, her confidence disappearing in a way that was hard for me to see. Things had been difficult for her lately, she'd argued with her brother the king, and even though I wanted to support her and be her friend, sometimes I felt like the worst authority, just another aspect of the forces she was rebelling against.
"We must guard the border against the Rosyans," Dawid stated into the sudden silence, "and that is why my grandmother and I believe that the land formerly held by the Wood must be--"
"Never mind," Marisha muttered, turning away. "I know all about that."
Dawid raised his hands towards me, palms up, as if to ask for advice in dealing with a moody princess, but I had nothing to offer him but a shrug. Marisha moved on to study a brightly colored tapestry, an old-fashioned piece that once must have hung in the great hall, before the great hall had been redecorated. Now it filled in a dark corner of the entry hall, showing of the depth of history of the Barons of Stillwater, and their conspicuous wealth. The tapestry had gold thread in the embroidery, and the other colors could have only come from the very best dyes, some of them worth more than gold.
Marisha pursed her lips, pretending to be interested in the a standard hunting scene. Dawid came to stand behind her, and I followed along.
"Would you like to hear a true story of Agnieszka and the Wood?" I offered, speaking to Dawid but hoping to interest Marisha.
And Marisha smiled, as changeable as a cloudy day when the sun came out. "Tell him the one about Agnieszka and the pilgrim," she suggested brightly.
Dawid frowned, but he was a little curious too. "A pilgrim?" he said.
I led them both over to a bench. Marisha sat down first, filling the bench with her skirts, and Dawid sat too close, intruding on her space. Marisha pushed Dawid away, laughing like it was all a big joke, but she pushed a little too roughly. Dawid ended up sitting uncomfortably, pushed up against the armrest.
I sighed, and leaned against one of the columns as I waited. It wasn't my job to tell Marisha how to behave.
"We're ready, Kasia," Marisha said.
"My mother, who lives in Dvernik, told me this story, and she saw the pilgrim with her own eyes," I began. I gave the story as much flair as I could, to distract Marisha. And I left out the part where the pilgrim regaled the village with all of the trinkets he'd bought in the capital. The capital was a sore subject with Marisha. She wasn't officially in exile, but unofficially, she was in disgrace. The capital was forbidden to her until her brother relented.
So I skipped on to the part where Agnieszka gave the pilgrim directions through the wood, and I was just starting on the interlude where the pilgrim asks where the beer is brewed, when a hearty laugh interrupted me.
I knew that laugh well. It was how my second-in-command, Guardsman Teodor, preferred to announce his presence. Teodor had been the princess's own guard before the king assigned me for the duration of this trip. His laugh was probably meant to camouflage his dislike; I had come to dislike the laugh almost as much as the way he tried to undercut my authority with the other guards.
Worse, he spread enough rumors about my unnatural beauty and my unnatural strength, the legacy of a run-in I'd had with the Wood. He was never comfortable with me, but I tried to be polite to him nevertheless, so I smiled and asked him if anything was the matter.
"Captain Kasia, Guardsman Borys is in need of your authority in sorting out a matter of security," Teodor said with a broad smile. It said everything about our relationship that I immediately wondered what trap the simple request might be concealing.
"I will stay with the princess," he added. Then again, maybe he just wanted wanted his old job back. Whenever he was around Marisha, he flattered her outrageously and encouraged her to behave with an attitude of distant pride that I found obnoxious.
But I did have responsibilities.
With an internal sigh, I left Marisha to Teodor and Dawid, and sought out Guardsman Borys down out in the practice field. He had a surprising number of complaints to make about the local guards, the contingent of men that served the Lord of Stillwater. The dowager baron, the current lord's grandmother, had a strict regimen of training proscribed for her own guards, and mine were having a hard time finding time to do their own training.
I promised to speak with the dowager as soon as I could. Borys then passed me on to Guardsman Denys, who also had some complaints to make, and with one thing and another, it was quite some time before I was able to return to the castle.
Teodor cornered me in the stairwell as I was going up to my room, and pulled me into an empty room to talk. "Do you think it's wise to tell stories about that wood witch?" he said without preamble.
"What do you mean?" I asked, startled that he would raise this issue with me. Up until now, he had never questioned me outright.
"I'm telling you this for your own good," he said with a self-contained smile. "As a friend."
I waited, sure that there was more.
"The dowager told me that the king has been discussing marriage between the princess and the dowager's grandson. And that he indicated that you were expendable. Just someone to be got out of the way."
I didn't want to believe him. When the king had been a young boy, he had chosen me as the captain of his guard. He'd been in great distress at the time, and I had taken care of him. He trusted me then, and I thought I had lived up to that trust.
Now he was a young man of fifteen; he'd become harder to read. Recently, I'd had my moments of doubt, moments when the ebb and flow of politics brought me into conflict with what he wanted or made me seem controversial. I was a reminder of a time not everyone wanted to remember, and all you had to do was look at me to know that. But I'd always had to trust that I was still useful to him, and that the king would do what was right for his country.
I wanted to refute Teodor; my doubt made me mute.
"The princess must not be linked with that part of the country," Teodor said. "The mountains, the area that used to be known as the Wood... It will do her harm. You must not tell those stories."
"She likes the stories," I protested.
"She must learn to put aside what she likes for the sake of what she is going to be, and what that means to all of us. And so must you. Or you will find yourself back in your little village... Think about it, the dingy little village celebrations, when you've seen the bigger stage."
Dingy little village? I thought of the last time I'd been back to Dvernik. It had been raining softly, a quiet summer rain, and then just before sunset the sun had come out and the river had sparkled, and Agnieszka and I had gone for a walk through the forest and then returned to a splendid feast, a village dance that lasted into the night...
We'd laughed and joked about my fancy clothes and Agnieszka's festive gear already stained with berry juice from a patch Agnieszka had found as if by magic (I hadn't asked). It had been so easy and comfortable and homey, sharing stories of our lives and gossip about the people we both knew, every now and then one of us pulled into a dance or asked to sing, because they all knew us, back in Dvernik. They'd had the time to get used to their most eccentric children, all grown up now.
Return to Dvernik? It didn't sound so very bad. But it wasn't what I wanted.
After my talk with Teodor, I went down to the great hall. Marisha was there, along with Dawid, both of them listening to a red-capped troubadour singing a song about a rose garden. The princess was listening with an unblinking intensity that surprised me, her lips parted breathlessly, her body swaying slightly in time with the intricate melody.
The song had never been one of my favorites. I asked Marisha if she wanted to come practice archery with me, but she waved me off, so I went to practice alone. I used two of the usual targets, and my bow sent the arrows hard enough that they disappeared into the straw and sometimes went all the way through so that I could pull them out from the back.
By the time I finished, the targets were shredded, shedding straw in every direction.
The next day, the troubadour in the red cap was still in the great hall, and Marisha and Dawid were still listening, whether out of genuine interest or out of boredom--
I watched Marisha from amidst a group of dicing guards, trying to see the Marisha I knew. The one who'd been so much of a firebrand at court that she'd gotten herself unofficially exiled. I couldn't blame her; she'd been defending Agnieszka, who had come to court to petition for control of the land that she'd been caring for, the land that had once belong to the Wood. She told the king that farmers were starting to pluck up their courage and move deeper into the Wood, and there were areas that must be protected. She argued that the wood needed her stewardship, the trees that had once threatened us needed the care of a magician, and a political storm ignited around her.
Marisha had always fought for the ones she cared about, and never known that there might be a cost. But she cared about Agnieszka, and that was one of the reasons the king had sent her away.
I knew that her discussion with the king still rankled; I knew how Marisha must have felt. I'd counted on the support of the king too. Had she decided to turn over a new leaf, in the hopes of pleasing the king?
She listened to the troubadour's song -- this song was about a knight, but I didn't like it any better than the one the day before. She didn't dance or sing along, she didn't talk it over with Dawid or seek out anyone else to talk to. She held Dawid's hand tightly, and sat in front of the smoldering fire, and there was something smoldering about her. More heat than lightness.
I knew she had a fondness for Teodor, but did she believe him when he told her what the king wanted? I wanted to talk to her, find out what she thought and what she wanted, but I was so lost in the question of how to approach the subject that I lost a dozen coins to inattention, and almost missed the messenger wending his way through the hall.
As he passed them, Marisha glowered at the messenger, and Dawid got up and led him aside. At the last moment, as the messenger disappeared into a side room, I noticed that he was wearing the insignia of the Dragon, the lord over Dvernik and a great deal of the surrounding area near what had used to be the Wood.
My heart started beating faster, even though the Wood had been empty of intelligent malice for many years. I followed Dawid and the messenger into the side room, and walked in on an argument.
"But Lord, I've got a message to be read before your whole court, by order of the king. It concerns the Wood." I knew the messenger slightly; he was named Rafal, from a village near Dvernik.
"I understand. Go down to the kitchen, and eat and rest. We will call you in good time--"
Rafal caught sight of me in the doorway. "Kasia!" he called. "I've got a special message for you from Agnieszka. She told me to put it directly into your hand."
Dawid stepped in between me and the messenger. "We will have the news at the proper time," he said. "Now is no time for interruptions."
I thought of him and Marisha listening to the troubadour, and wondered... Not even sure what I was wondering, just knowing that something seemed off. I couldn't really suspect Dawid; the worst that could be said of him was that he was pompous.
But he surprised me. "It wouldn't be proper," he shouted, like this was a matter of life and death to him. "It will only get in the way." Even more surprising -- his hand was on his sword when he said it. It was only a decorative blade, but it had a real edge. Anyone else would have had to mind the damage it could do. I, with my unnatural skin that couldn't be pierced by any normal blade, stepped forward and put my hand on top of his, to stop him drawing.
His eyes clouded over with confusion, as if he hadn't even realized what he'd been about to do.
My stomach churned. "The message," I said to Rafal.
It came in two parts, and I picked up the pouch first, because it was stained with berry juice and a little ragged at the edges -- I thought I recognized it. Inside, there were several vials of a softly glowing potion. I recognized it as one of Agnieszka's and Sarkan's innovations, a potion against corruption.
My stomach churning, I reached for the message, but Dawid reached just before me and had his hand around it.
I could crush his hand, easily and he surely knew it. I knew he'd attended the tourneys in the capital, the ones where I took on knights on horseback from on foot, and inevitably won. "Do you want to arm wrestle for it?" I asked him.
Rafal laughed, and Dawid looked startled, and withdrew his hand.
I opened the message and quickly read it.
A red capped troubadour...
This one's to you in your official capacity.
It's not the Wood, not like the old Wood we used to know, but we think it's a little pocket of corruption, maybe something like a few years ago when you came down to Dvernik to help. Maybe not quite so bad as that.
In any case, you need to look out for a troubadour with a fiddle and a red cap. He's been through the villages of the valley, and left a lot of trouble in his wake.
We had to burn some of the fields, and confine some of the people until we were able to develop the potion I've enclosed for you. It's a variation on one of our earlier potions. Use it early, if possible.
Be careful, Kasia. You know as well as I do that any bit of corruption can be dangerous.
I rushed back into the great hall and looked toward the corner where the princess had been listening to a troubadour, and didn't see her or the troubadour.
"Where is the princess?" I shouted.
Lady Stefania, the dowager, was up on the dais with some of her guards, but the group of royal guards had disappeared. She frowned at me, the sort of calculating frown that said she didn't quite have me pegged but she was working on it.
"You'd better see to your grandson," I said, climbing up onto the dais. I had confidence in Lady Stefania's organizing abilities and in her management of her grandson -- that was one problem taken care of. I turned to the hall.
"Did anyone see where the princess went?" I shouted, my voice cutting through the turmoil with the tone of command I had learned to use when speaking to my guards. It worked here too.
"She went up to her chamber," one of the maids said, sounding frightened.
I pushed through the door at the far end of the dais and rushed up the staircase. Marisha was staying in a guest chamber near the family's own chambers. I was staying in the outer chamber, and I noticed as I ran through that it looked disheveled, as if someone had been through it looking for something. Marisha's room was just as bad, but both rooms were empty.
I stood still, letting my eyes rove over the mess, hoping to see some clue, but nothing I saw suggested anything to me.
A noise from outside drew my attention. I rushed to the window and looked out through the wavy glass to see a group on horseback, and Marisha was in the middle of them. Even with her face hidden by the sheen from the impurities in the glass, I recognized her by the security of her seat on horseback.
I threw open the window and what I'd taken for a flaw in the glass became a tangle of green leaves and brown thorny branches. It looked like she'd uprooted a rose bush and draped it around her, but there were no flowers.
"Marisha, wait!" I called out the window.
She turned her horse to look up at me. Her eyes were feverishly bright, and I flinched away from the anger in them. Then her horse shifted and the connection between us broke. I leaned out to get a better look at the rest of the pack -- Marisha, Dawid, more than half the guards from the great hall -- and the red-capped troubadour, holding a fiddle, getting ready to play.
Across the courtyard, Teodor emerged from a passageway, leading a contingent of guards. The drawbridge was still up, blocking their exit, but the gatehouse was not well guarded from the inside. I started calculating trajectories.
As soon as the troubadour started singing, none of that mattered any more.
I didn't have to wonder what Marisha had found so fascinating about the troubadour's song; if this had been focused on her, it was no wonder she'd been enthralled. Now, with the corruption being broadcast to everyone in earshot, the song was spellbinding.
Everyone froze. Even the horses. I heard a picture, a memory, a fragment of meaning that left me grasping after more.
It would have been easy to ignore the the sickly-sweet miasma of corruption, but I'd experienced the true power of the Wood, and I would never forget it. This was corruption that the troubadour had brought with him, it was a seed that had been planted before the Wood's guiding intelligence was put to rest, and it had been waiting all these years for the right conditions to grow. Perhaps the troubadour stumbled upon a corrupt musical instrument, or heard a corrupt song being played through the branches of a tree by just the right breeze. It could be anything; the Wood had been inventive.
I knew there wasn't much time before the corruption found its way under my skin, through my ears and into my mind, twisting my beliefs and turning my mind to ill. I was invulnerable to many dangers, but I had no protection against any product of the Wood.
I forced my clumsy fingers to untie the leather binding on the pouch Agnieszka had sent, cursing myself for tying it up again after I'd looked inside. It seemed to take forever, and the troubadour kept singing.
When the princess joined in, it was even worse. The song about the garden had turned into a song of rage, a rosebush that had been over pruned growing into a thicket that cannot be pruned, and which conceals the bodies of anyone who attempts it. And the ravens feed upon the dead in the thicket...
When I realized the princess had taken my lute, the one that I'd had specially crafted with a sturdy, compact design that was not as vulnerable to my unnatural strength, my own rage flared. I broke loose for just long enough to swallow down Agnieszka's potion.
With it burning in my veins, I carefully set aside the pouch and jumped from the window, flying across the courtyard to land in a tangle of thorns on top of Marisha. The thorns ticked against my skin, failing to penetrate. Marisha fought me tooth and nail, but to even less effect. I soon had her pinned, and looked up, hoping that Teodor and his guards had done the rest.
The courtyard was in confusion, swords ringing and guards fighting guards. Then the drawbridge fell and the troubadour kicked his horse into a canter, across the drawbridge and away, the guards on horseback gradually breaking away from their fights and trailing after him.
I held tightly onto Marisha, searching her face for any sign that she was in there, that she was looking back at me. I knew it would be hard to tell, I knew that I would hold her with or without hope, exactly the way I had been held when this had been me--
Something hit the back of my head, and I fell forward, heavily. I was only vaguely aware of someone trying to move me and get to the princess. When everything came clear again, Teodor above me, his ears covered with a great deal of muffling material. He wasn't stupid, I'll give him that.
"Did you--" I began to ask incredulously, and then I saw Dawid, a sword clutched in his hand. That had been what hit me, not Teodor.
Before I could figure out what to do, Dawid feinted at Teodor and then leaped onto Marisha's horse. Teodor lunged after him, but he was too late. Dawid galloped away after the troubadour.
After we confined those who were obviously corrupted, Lady Stefania took charge of the task of scouring her entire manor for any signs of further corruption. Teodor and the guards that remained -- some of mine, some of Lady Stefania's -- fell in with her. It was clear that she knew every nook and crevice. She dispatched guards to all the obvious places, and took the unobvious places for herself.
I overheard Lady Stefania telling her steward to work fast but do not dare miss anything, because when they went after Dawid, they'd need a clean base of operations to return to. I told them what to look for, and asked them to bring anyone or anything that might be corrupted to me. I didn't tell them what I would do about it; I was already worrying about running out of Agnieszka's potion.
I stayed with Marisha. The rose branches that had covered her body had disappeared, and I'd brought her new clothes to replace the ones the thorns and the fight had ripped. She'd refused them, crying and pleading with me to let her go.
I'd called for wax and plugged my ears against her, but I couldn't bear to leave her alone, chained as she was. While Marisha raged and pleaded, twisting her body when she realized her voice wasn't getting through, I opened the stained leather pouch and counted my resources. Nine vials, each of them exactly the same. Each of them glowing a beautiful clear golden color, very much like the earlier version of this same remedy that I'd seen in action.
A few years ago, there was an outbreak in Dvernik. A mill with a corrupted millstone, bread that caused laziness and anger. It had been subtle, nothing like the quick spread of corruption we'd once known, back when the Wood had been under the control of an ancient embittered queen, but it had been enough. All winter, the flour was made into bread, and the people of the village sank into lethargy, and in the spring...
It wasn't pretty. When I heard, I requested leave to return home and help. That was when I'd seen the potion in action. It wasn't quite as strong as the old potions that the Dragon used to make, but it was easier and quicker for Agnieszka and the Dragon to make together, and it was effective in the end.
As I placed the vials in a row on a table that had once held stores, Marisha stared at me. The manor didn't have a dungeon; an old storeroom, quickly cleared out, had had to suffice. The chains had once secured books in the library -- that was how old the library here was.
I smiled at her, painfully. "It's not like the old days, when the best you could hope for was to be killed quickly," I said. "You're going to be all right, whatever it takes. Agnieszka will come, or perhaps the Dragon... But probably it will be Agnieszka." Deep in my heart, I knew it would be Agnieszka, because it would be me who sent for her. She'd come with dozens of pouches of potion, bearing the most powerful magic in the land, but she'd be dressed in a simple, practical dress with rips and stains. Still the same Nieszka as ever.
And just like always, she'd cast about a bit, and it wouldn't look like she was doing much of anything, but eventually her stubbornness would pay off, and we'd all realize that she'd found something that everyone had overlooked. Like the last time.
The corrupted had been filled with anger, and it had spread like wildfire through the dry winter grass. Agnieszka had been working too hard for weeks, and was reeling with exhaustion, as were the other magicians and healers, but every time we thought we were making progress, the corruption found a new way to spread. Some of the king's men were talking in low voices about the old ways. I silenced them with a stern look and a few words, using the authority of the king's favor.
My mother was there too, but I'd been avoiding her. She came up to me, crying and begging for me to help her. My sister had begun baking pies made of mud.
"Bring some of the potion, you can get that," she cried. "Ask Agnieszka..."
I was impatient with her. "Agnieszka is too tried to make more potion. We have to save it for when it can do the most good. There will be a source, something that is reinfecting everyone, over and over again. Until we find the source..."
"But your sister..." my mother begged.
I shook my head, but the damage was done. For the first time, the king's men looked at me and saw just a local girl, with a red-eyed mother and a sister who was corrupted. I sent one of them off with my mother and went to find Agnieszka.
Together, we talked to all of the corrupted, listening to what they had to say and putting together the clues. I watched out for her, catching her when she faltered, forcing her to rest and to use the potion on herself to keep herself free of corruption. She did the same for me.
We uncovered dozens of secrets, human secrets, that the corrupt magic had seized upon and used for its own purposes, but the corruption itself -- the source -- that was well hidden. But eventually someone said something about the millstone, and we tracked it down and cleared the corruption from the source. My sister was cured as well, they were all cured.
And now I faced the same question again. Could this golden potion cure Marisha? Was there enough? Was she too deeply corrupted?
Thoughtfully, I picked up one of the vials and pulled the cap from it. The scent engulfed me. This should be enough, I thought, to clear any corruption. It smelled like healthy land and growing crops and clear flowing water, like an apple tree about to bloom, like good nourishing bread fresh from the over, when you first cut into it, and slather a thick piece with butter, and take a bite.
I breathed deeply, but Marisha flinched away. She looked vulnerable, all her confidence stripped away. Her anger was as vulnerable as her stillnesses.
I couldn't say a spell and burn enough of the corruption from her to calm her and allow her to take the potion easily, like Agnieszka could. I was still waiting to hear the full story of how badly the manor had been compromised. I didn't even know exactly how much corruption lived within Marisha.
I put a drop of potion on my thumb and approached. Marisha stared at me, and her mouth moved, but I was protected against whatever she was saying. I placed my thumb to her forehead, and she began to writhe and struggle. Through my ear coverings, I could hear a thin thread of melody starting up again.
I backed away. I could see shadows through her skin, like worms. They were all through her.
Teodor came to tell me the tally of the corruption; I followed him out, leaving Marisha behind in the storeroom. The door closed with finality on her sullen face, and I found myself breathing easier to be out of the company of corruption.
But the news wasn't good. They'd found more corruption: a few of Lady Stefania's companions had been corrupted, two of the maids. I hesitated, then gave Teodor six of the vials, sighing as I did so. I wanted to keep them all for Marisha, but that would be unwise. I thought of Lady Stefania, tried to match her sense, and gave the vials where they would do the most good.
I visited a nearby storeroom for extra candles before I returned to Marisha's windowless storeroom, even though I knew the light wouldn't illuminate all of the darkness that was present.
When we'd found the source of the last bout of corruption -- the millstone, and the unhappy miller who'd found the gold in the Wood to buy it -- I'd been there to see the end of it. We cornered the woman in the pasture, by the final fence, where she'd tried to run into the wood. When she knew she was caught, she spat and scratched like a wild thing. The corruption had been deeper in her than the corruption went in Marisha, I was sure.
Surely there were no deep resentments in Marisha, as there had been in the miller.
"I just wanted what she should have given me," she had screamed. There was an inheritance dispute, I vaguely recalled. The previous miller, a well-respected widow, had two daughters, and when she died, one of the daughters had taken her inheritance to the capital, leaving her sister to run the mill. "Why'd she have to leave me, before I was ready? I slaved for them, but things would have been different if my mother was here, my real mother, and then I found her. And she gave me what I needed, you've got no right to take it away again."
Her grievances had had years to festered, but Marisha was young. She wasn't corrupted, she was just caught up in something bigger than her, something powerful. Surely the potions would cleanse her.
She struggled, as soon as I approached with the potion. Her eyes were wild and senseless, and I had to hold her against me, immobilizing her, and force the potion down her throat. Her face contorted like my touch was painful to her. I knew that I could hurt her with my extraordinary strength, but I also knew that I wasn't.
The first vial cleared the air in the storeroom, and I felt like I could breath again.
"Listen to me," I said to her, my words echoing in my ears because of the wax. "You can break free. I know, I know as well as anyone..."
But I'd had Agnieszka, and the truth to set me free. Could I have discovered the path on my own? Was that too much to ask?
At least Marisha was still when I fed the the potion from the second bottle. The glow, the feeling of warmth, it was still the same.
"Fight it!" I encouraged her. ""Think of your parents," I said. "Remembered the prince and the princess, and their bravery. Be brave like them."
Her eyes were glittering, but I couldn't hear what she said. And then the potion faded, and there were still shadows under her skin. I couldn't read the look in her eyes.
I was weeping as I retreated to the table and sat down with my feet swinging. The room was very cold; no windows, no draft, just dank cold rising from the stone floor.
After the miller had been cleansed of corruption, she'd wept with remorse, and embraced Agnieszka. They'd stood together for a long time, so long that I had begun to worry. But then Agnieszka had taken the woman back up to the village, and made her show her the secret cache where she'd put the gold.
"Is this all of it?" Agnieszka asked. I stood behind her in my royal tabard, lending her my authority.
The miller nodded.
"Are you sure?" Agnieszka asked.
The miller wrapped her arms around her chest, shrinking away from Agnieszka, but nodded once more. Agnieszka shook her head sadly. "Kasia," she said, and I came to stand between her and the miller, while Agnieszka crossed the room to the fireplace. In a hollow behind a loose brick, there were five more gold coins, all of them seeds of corruption, as dangerous as they were valuable.
"If you give in to corruption, it leaves a mark," Agnieszka said as we were walking home. "Just like--" She touched the back of my hand, the smooth skin, no longer entirely human. Her skin was warm and her flesh pressed against mine was soft and giving. "But it's a mark in the mind. I'll have to ask one of the older women to look in on her, and...talk to her about what she's experienced. Someone needs to help her, and it's not something that magic can do."
A mark in the mind, I thought, staring at Marisha. Had she given in? How deep was the corruption?
There was still one vial left. If I didn't catch it now, the corruption would have more time to grow within Marisha. One vial full of hope...maybe this time it will be enough...
I sat with my sword across my knees, trying to nerve myself to do what I knew needed to be done. I needed a surer hope than one vial when two had already proven ineffective. I was not Agnieszka. There was no guarantee that the corruption would retreat before me.
The candles flickered and eventually they guttered, and darkness gathered.
I left with the vial still stoppered, still unused.