"Of course our Baba Agusia doesn't steal bad girls from outside the valley; she only turns them to walking trees, and uses them to gather fruit."
He had to call his remark to me, and they lost some of their edge in the rain's crisped-new air, above the fringed tops of the trees. After minutes of fumbling, I'd found footing at last in one of the thin windows cut between the stones, one on the ledge and one on a spindling branch, carefully extended. This mostly meant that I had to hang on as best I could while I looked at the damage; the efforts of not slipping put quick retorts far out of my reach.
But I could see the damage better here: a cannonball had crushed a gaping hole through one of the higher walls. At night it let a few winds in, which swept the tower with damp moaning drafts. But there was worse news. The tower itself still stood, but enchantments and spells had been laid down over its centuries, to lace through the mortar. They weren't only Sarkan's, but the witches and wizards who'd come before him. In each broken place, I could feel magic still singing beneath the stones. But it seemed wounded wherever I looked, stiff with the centuries. Even now, it felt as if the whole tower tried to brace against me when I reached out, like an enormous porcupine with its spines plucked bare, struggling to prickle itself up.
Sarkan was still waiting when I sank back to the earth. "Well?" he demanded.
There was nastiness in his tone, I suppose, but not the kind that meant very much. Solya had come a handful of times in the seasons after, dogging Kasia's heels like a loose sole flapping from her shoes. Their quarrels hadn't been too ugly, but there was still a knifing chill to them, as if you'd wrapped yourself in silk and walked facefirst into a snowdrift. I'd learned to recognise a few of the signs that ran before them. Though he wasn't baiting a fight, he'd built up a string of grim, unpleasant things to say; now they only grew, clustering behind his teeth, waiting for the right word.
"They wouldn't call me that," I said.
His brows twitched together; his eyes flickered. "You know perfectly well what I meant," he said. "As for your villagers, you know what they'll say, too, if you keep unearthing hedgewitchlets and budding charmers in their pigpens and their quiet houses." Behind me, the wind sighed through the leaves; his glance cut sharp along the earth through the cold-stripped branches. "They certainly won't be short for fodder once you start building yourself a house out of monsters."
I could have argued with him. There were grown men and women in Zatochek who pressed their palms to the heart-tree on their bridge daily as they passed, in the reverent way that you touched your luck charms. An innkeeper in Olshanka had stopped me to confess that he had a young daughter who could sing stitches into cloth; she'd started knotting the laces of rude customers together with skipping rhymes and little whistles. It was true that there was fear in the wake of the Queen's passing—there would always be fear, I thought, for meadows burned clean, dresses which spun themselves from empty air. But I rather thought it more like the wariness of a horse now, watching smaller hands dig for a sharp thing caught under its hoof.
Time ran on; the Spindle's towns were growing, too.
"They were made monsters before," I said instead. "It's been a long time for many of them. They could use a place to rest."
He gestured. "You'll notice that they carry leaves in the warmer seasons. They were tree-born. Spells can alter and create, but to make a race of creatures out of nothing would be unthinkable. That means," he added, sardonic, "that some part of them will remember how to put down roots and hold still. Have you tried actual recitations first?"
"They could take it, but—"
A crop of reasons budded on my tongue. They withered at the set of his jaw. "You've seen me hang my workings on yours," I said. "Don't you think it might be worth trying the other way around, too?"
Incredulous, his eyes caught mine; his cloak flared as he wheeled from me. "Not that idea again. Singing emptily into the air until you hit upon a working key is hardly magic, let alone a real solution."
"The tower has the bones of what we need," I argued, walking around to face him, but he only turned from me again and again. This stopped me; exasperated, I planted my hands on my hips. "The defenses were broken, but they're still alive—I can find my way from what's in place."
"I've kept records of every great enchantment cast upon the tower. If you're telling me that you're willing to study those, and repair where they've been damaged—"
"It wouldn't be my magic, then," I said, and he broke off. "You know it wouldn't."
"Don't be ridiculous," Sarkan snapped—at a bush, as far as I could see. "Do you mean to tell me that all of this fuss is because you think you can't learn to work within a simple magic system? Even stories of Jaga never claim she couldn't cast just as well as any idiot at court. One kind might come to you more naturally, but you clearly have the ability to make the other."
"Protection isn't—a cantrip, or something built into place," I said. "That's not what mine can do."
It was loud; it was a string of interruptions in a row. But I wanted to make him understand. With time, I thought perhaps I might be able to find words that might take root in the stones, persuade them to help. But that was no comfort. The weight of their song suggested deep memories, and no forgiveness for exceptions. Even if I could spin the right spell into place, any request I made would be all or nothing. I couldn't teach the walls to look for anything other than deep corruption; stones wouldn't understand pettiness or poison. If I asked them to keep out the dangerous things, then they would toss out every working within its walls that carried even the slightest taste of blood on its syllables. I didn't plan to find out what Sarkan might do if his own tower booted him out of a window during an experiment.
And deeper, I knew that part of me would always wonder about the walkers, if I left them so. The eyeless lines of their trunks and the soft way they crept across the earth when they followed me, cautious through the rustling grasses. The way more of them had begun to trail after me as I ran my errands; how they hid amid the grey trunks of smaller woods, always hovering, like birds seeking an inconstant south. What they would have grown into, if the Wood had made them out of hope instead of hard-edged rage.
I had kept silent for too long, trying to fit the right words together. The squelch of his boots took me by surprise. "Where are you going?"
"In," Sarkan said, stomping down the wet path. "I'm not going to have this talk with you in front of thirty trees."
"We live by a forest."
He flung a glare over his shoulder, dark and scathing. The walkers clustered together, branches whispering. "Hence," he said, "the need for my tower."
Six steps, four, then two, and I had the edge of his cloak—caught his sleeve as he spun on me, prickly as all the spells gathered in the stones. "It's never been done before,” I said. “But I don't think it matters. You know everything that I can do. I was never magic before this—not really. Whatever I had in me, I couldn't have worked it if I'd tried. But you tried to teach me, and then you saw what I learned on my own. You were there with me for every step—you know how to work with me. You know me."
He’d looked for too long—or perhaps I’d gotten too used to him. In the ink's gleam of his eyes, I saw myself for a moment as he must see me: snaggle-haired in old boots, my whole face flushed with cold and, behind me, the walkers shifting on their rooted feet like trees caught in a muted storm. If only I'd been a threat—he could have prodded around his books for the right incantation, recited his perfect string, and been done with me. But here I was: Baba Aga in truth, lumber-footed indoors, tripping incantations off my tongue and into my stilted teeth, breathing out valley air with my every word. A Spindle-born girl from head to heels, and he'd never looked away from me once without forcing himself.
"I won't ask you again," I said, fist tightening, "if you don't want to hear it. But give me a real reason, at least. Please."
His mouth pressed into a sharp, small line, then broke. "You're asking to build a tower out of bodies," Sarkan said at last. "Not even bodies—real corpses could be called to order. But these pets of yours are everything that the shields were laid down to keep out. It's unspeakable. You realise that."
"That was before."
"It doesn't change how they were made, and what they've done. Those walkers weren't born into their knots and wood, no matter how prettily they play docile for you now."
I looked at him: the pock of an old scar, his face's gaunt and whetted lines, though he still appeared no more than a handspan of years older than me. I wondered, a little, what he'd looked like when he'd first come to the tower. "I know," I said. "I know. It's why they want to sleep, I think. They've been awake for—a very long time." Snatching up woodcutters and shepherds alike, children who'd wandered too far from the closer fields of home. Rain had washed them bare of all traces over the years, but wood kept a memory all its own. I stood at the base of the old tower, with branching shadows stretched behind me, and thought of their mingling song. Slowly, I said, "And they want to be here, too. That'll help, in a spell."
Sarkan glowered. "Wonderful. Trees with needs. And suppose one of them takes it into its log-like head that after a few months it wants to wake up again and peel off of the bottom of my tower?"
"They're trees. A year or twelve is nothing to them; if they're going to wake, it won't be for—decades, probably."
"Forty years from now, then," he amended, snappish. "Or sixty. Presuming that dreaming doesn't teach them convenience, you've still given me no confidence that they won't crawl off in the middle of the night and leave me to fall eight stories out of my bed."
I gave this all the thought it deserved. "Well," I said. "I may get very fat in my old age yet. A bard once told me Jaga grew big as a house, towards the end. That'll give you something to bounce off, when we land."
A stiffness passed through his shoulders; a strange light struck his eye. For a moment, I didn't know what it was, and then I did.
Wondering, I said: "You don't think I'll be here."
His shoulders tensed at once. "If you're going to make up half the conversation in your own head," Sarkan said, more winter in his voice than all the walkers had seen across the years together, "then you may as well keep the whole thing to yourself. Let go."
He jerked at his sleeve, but I hung on. "I stopped you from running—"
"I wasn't running."
"—so you think I'll be the one to go."
"I'm not talking of promises to you."
"But we aren't," I said. "We aren't talking of anything but a year."
He stopped trying to unstitch himself from my grip; his fingers brushed mine, then dropped like stones. "You're young," Sarkan said. His eyes flickered over my face, strangely measuring, though I couldn't have guessed what for. "You were a different person a year ago, and a child ten years before that." His brows beetled briefly into another glower. "Take a sapling, for example. Plant a seed and go away for ten years, and what you come back to won't be something you can crush with a boot."
His jaw was set; his mouth had pinched into an acid line, inarguable. Alosha would have ignored him, and done as she pleased. My mother would have advised me to wait for his temper to settle. Kasia, hard-armed and gleaming as she was now, would have dragged him to the nearest body of water and tossed him in to cool.
"Just for a day or two, then," I said. A wind had been rising; now it dropped. In the hush, my voice seemed to carry all the sound in the woods. "I can't shout you down, and I don't want to. But I think it's something worth trying. Will you do the working with me? Just once. Just to see how it goes."
His eyes closed, winching tight against a frown, then opened again. "It won't be very much," Sarkan said, after a moment. "I have the most basic incantations for support and summoning memorised, but they were structured for efficiency, not power. I suppose you'll want them sung."
"I think it's how the spells were laid down," I said, and saw him sling another black look at the tower: his system betrayed at its very roots. Hastily, I said, "Do you know 'Burning Campfire in the Forest'?"
He did, and began to argue with me over our starting note, the first syllables that each of us would take, the keys in which we would sing. It was hard to think that the back-and-forth had so little history to it; the rhythm suited me like the marrows in my bones, as ordinary and true to me as my own pulse.
In the end, it was a simple thing. I hummed where the plucked strings should have carried us into the opening. It felt a little clumsy, like a partner who wasn't sure where your feet would take the dance; but I reached out to the stones and let their hum seep into my bones. Sense and watch, sense and watch, I sang, and flicked Sarkan a look as he turned his snort into a hasty sneeze. But it was building, after all; magic clustered onto my tongue, pearl after pearl of it, bound into the melody as much as the words that I strung together. When I reached the end of the first verse, the trees at my back gave a great sigh, and in the rushing air, I heard the next verse, and the next.
Sarkan joined in on the third verse, his syllables halting but true to every note. Putting words to the sort of music that you'd only heard in childhood was always strange; but this was a scouting song, the sort that woodsmen's boys learned on their first vigils, and bards trotted out in the city as nostalgic curiosities. Probably he hadn't heard it in years.
It didn't matter. I lifted my hand, and he clasped it tight before the offer had even come clear between us. Above our heads, the tower stood dark and still.
But the walkers began to move.
The defenses were blind to our intent, our weaknesses; it knew only that here was power, here was the way to mend itself, and it took us by storm. Syllables seemed to boil out of my veins, molten on my tongue—there was a time when they had been fire, the stones said, and how they chipped, and weathered, and crumbled and cooled and fitted back together. It was all I could do to listen. Beneath my feet, I could feel the scrape of steps as walkers shuffled past me to their purpose—
We reached the chorus again, and all at once, I could see.
Walkers crowded along the walls, body clambering over body to cover the tower stones. The older ones had begun to crack in their trunks and limbs; these climbed to the top, shedding twigs and never slowing. Everywhere I looked, willow-wand fingers pressed deep between the stones, thickening where the mortar had crumbled, growing bolder and glossier as our voices twined through the chorus. They fitted. Under each word, I could feel them sinking themselves into where the broken parts had been, bracing up where the shields had worn thin, glad to put themselves to better use, glad to rest. Even the scrubby branches at the tops of their heads bent close, as if they meant to sink into stone themselves. Beneath their weight, the high walls shifted and groaned out a welcome all their own.
Silence fell. Neither walkers nor the tower moved again. In the sudden quiet, we stumbled together to the end of the song and let it fade, listening to the last warm note eddy into the empty air.
"You keep thinking about endings," I said out of nowhere, then stopped.
He was looking at me with an exhausted curiosity—but what I said hadn't been quite true. The thought had been mine first. I'd imagined for a little while that it would be enough change that he'd come back for me—that he'd danced with me in Dvernik, bitten his tongue before my parents, shucked his boots and sharp spells when he stepped into our house. In the way of all magic, apparently, that was as true as it wasn't.
"And," I said, slower: "that isn't how it goes. Making a home where you need it. You look through what’s offered to you, and you make the best beginning you can. We can learn to shore up the rest as we go along."
Even as it came out, it rang in my ears like so much riddling, a cross between woodcutter's advice and hedgewitchery. Sarkan sifted through the words for sense, then glared.
But he didn't contradict me as I tugged him along, and his hand was warm in mine as we walked all around the tower to see the start of our work.