Cutting the Heart Asunder
The beauty of the world, which is so soon to perish,
has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish,
cutting the heart asunder - Virginia Woolf
Sarkan spent five months of his self-imposed exile from his Tower looking for a book.
Eventually in Ballo’s old workshop, he found the tome, and touching it made his skin crawl. He’d spent years searching - years of working with talentless, unremarkable women - and just went he’d given up hope, his hard work had paid off.
Only fairytales happened in stories, and his magic had gifted him someone who did not return his regard. Their magic was made for each other but that mattered little to someone like Agnieszka.
As a child he’d hoped and wished for a soulmate.
Now he held the only book capable of breaking the bond between him and Agnieszka.
"What," Solya said, voice cracking like a whip, "do you think you're doing?!"
Sarkan looked up from his research and closed the book carefully. If Solya was going to attack him, it wouldn't do for his best chance at freedom to be caught in the crossfire. Kalinga's Marking was too rare a book to lose to an angry compatriot.
"Research," he said, lifting an eyebrow.
Solya sneered. "Kalinga? What poor soul are you trying to tear asunder then?"
Sarkan pressed his lips together. "My own."
Solya frowned. "Your ow - you found your soulmate. You're actually trying to cleave your soul from theirs? Have you completely lost your mind?!"
When he reached for the book, a gust of wind slid it out of his reach and into Solya's. "You're meddling with forces you cannot handle, Sarkan."
"I've done little but, this last half year," he snapped. "I will not play this game with you. Give me back the book."
Solya tightened his grip on it. "Never."
"You have no idea what this is," Sarkan snarled, thin trails of smoke curling around his fingers. "You don't know this feeling."
Solya scoffed. "How little you know. You don't understand a single thing about soulmates." There was a thread of something like heartbreak on the wind around them, and Sarkan sat back in his chair.
"You have a soulmate," he murmured with dawning comprehension.
"Had?" Sarkan asked, not gently. "Your soulmate was Ballo?"
Solya recoiled. "No!"
"No other wizard died because of Marek's folly, so..." Sarkan trailed off, watching the minute flinch in Solya's expression. The first stirrings of what might be called sympathy burned to life in his chest. "It was Marek."
"It was Marek," Solya agreed, soft.
"How did you know?"
Solya shook his head. "The same way you always know. My magic knew the minute I cast a cantrip on his eyes. I thought perhaps he'd been hiding his magic."
Sarkan privately doubted that Marek would have ever been able to hide anything of that magnitude but he held his tongue. "I take it that wasn't the case," he said instead.
"I reached out with my magic, and... Nothing. It was like hitting a wall. Marek's soul never answered mine."
Sarkan grimaced. "And yet you followed him into a pointless battle that caused pointless slaughter."
"He was my soulmate. Wouldn't you have done the same?" Sarkan said nothing. "Sarkan. You have a real chance, where I had none. Don't let your pride ruin what you've already gained. Someone will tell her eventually, even if you don't." His tone implied he'd be the one to tell her, and he met Sarkan's angry gaze without flinching. "Don't let her die before telling her." Like me, went unsaid but was largely heard all the same.
"She has Kasia," Sarkan said, dismissive in tone, even though the words made his chest ache.
"You're an idiot," Solya replied.
"She doesn't want me," Sarkan snapped. "She has her beloved Kasia, and I have my work here. The incompetent fool is living in the Wood. Would you have me take a corrupted soulmate, Solya?"
"I would have you stop making excuses, but I stopped trying to convince you of that fifty years ago," Solya said dryly.
"Stay out of it, Solya," he muttered tiredly.
Solya sighed. "We merged our magics, you know," he said, off-hand, oblivious to the spike of rage that flared the fire in the hearth. "It was like spikes of ice trying to dig into my skin. The girl is as gone on you as you are on her."
"She's a hedge-witch who should keep her magic to herself," Sarkan growled.
Solya actually grinned at that. "Unless it's you? Your jealousy is transparent, old friend."
Snarling, Sarkan turned away. "You are a tiresome busy-body, Falcon."
"That's exactly why you should listen to me," Solya said, with an audible shrug. "I see things better than you ever have.”
Sarkan rolled his eyes. "Are you quite finished?"
"For now," Solya said. "Do be careful, Sarkan; you're right on one thing only. Your little hedge-witch does have Kasia. Best you don't wait so long she finds that out on her own."
Sarkan spun around but Solya had already vanished, words of Power dropping away into the wind. He was alone in his room again.
Endless pouring over Kalinga’s spellbook had left him with even emptier hopes. The only way to sunder a soul from another was with permission from both beings. He would have to join his magic to Agnieszka's and pull their souls apart.
Sarkan had never been possessed of self-reflection, but even knew he wasn’t strong enough to do that.
He’d hoped to pack his things and go before Solya caught wind of his plans but Sarkan had never been that lucky.
"You're leaving, I take it?" Solya said, leaning against the wall of Sarkan's chamber.
"No, I'm spring cleaning," Sarkan snapped. "What does it look like."
"It looks like you saying I was right."
Sarkan snarled, flicking a tendril of fire at Solya who dodged ably. "I have to fix the Tower."
"Oh of course. The Tower."
Annoyed, Sarkan slammed down the book he was trying to fit into the bag. “What do you want from me Solya?” he growled.
“I’d love to hear that I was right but I’m not delusional enough to expect it.” Solya leaned against the door frame, showing no signs of leaving him alone. “I wrote Kasia,” he said, idly. “I asked her to marry me.”
Sarkan paused, his fingers curled around the book. “I imagine she did not react well at all?”
“I got a twelve page response,” Solya said, rueful. “None of it was kind.”
Lips curling up in a smirk, Sarkan packed the last of his books. “Was any of it actually a no?”
Solya opened his mouth, then closed it, contemplative. “Shockingly,” he murmured, “that was not one of the sentiments expressed in the letter.”
“Write her again,” Sarkan suggested, half because he didn’t wish ill upon Solya and half because watching Kasia yell at him, even through writing was hilarious.
There was a pause as Solya digested that, before he asked, “Are you going to break your soulbond?”
Sarkan pursed his lips. “... No.”
“Good,” Solya said. “You’re not an idiot, at least, which is more than I can say for some. What’d you do with Kalinga’s?”
“I put it back where I found it,” Sarkan said. “It deserves to be forgotten about.” He lifted his things. “Good luck with Kasia, Solya.”
Solya snorted. “Thank you, old friend. I suppose I’ll need it.”
Sarkan didn’t deign that with a reply, letting words of Power fall between them instead of a traditional good bye.
He hadn’t directed himself to the Tower, expecting the magic to take him, but instead found himself standing in the space between the Wood and Agnieszka's house.
Sarkan left his things were he’d landed, and his feet took him back to her house almost of their own accord. He didn’t see her, but his magic knew she was inside.
He stood in the doorway watching her - she was as unkempt as ever, hair wild and covered in twigs and leaves, clothes stained with mud - and she was still the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.
"Sarkan," she said, and the water in her magic was in her voice, the little fool.
His own power reached out gladly, escaping from his grip, from his skin, to mingle with hers, steam and fog and twinning antipodal magic. He braced himself for the euphoria and -
His magic slapped against a wall of stone, repelled from Agnieszka and sloughed away, to fall useless to the fire. His fingers grip the door jamb tightly.
Sarkan's heart cracked in his chest, even as she smiled. "Come," she said, an imitation of his familiar command. "Let me introduce you to my mother."
Sarkan honestly couldn't say what he'd wanted to do less.
After an excruciating dinner with her mother, Sarkan finally followed her down the path to the edge of the Wood. He halted there, unable to step over the threshold, still seeing the way the heart-tree had swallowed her whole.
"I'm surprised you came back," she said. "Considering how fast you fled."
"I had things to do, you foolish creature," he grumbled.
Her eyebrow lifted. "Is that so."
"It is," Sarkan snapped. "Which you'd have been aware of, if you'd come out of this thrice-forsaken Wood."
She shrugged. "Suits me just fine."
Fire curled through him and Sarkan growled. "Foolish girl, come back to the Tower with me."
Her eyes hardened. "No." She instead took a step back, letting the Wood shade her. "I think not. It's been a year, Dragon. Kasia wrote me, the children wrote me. Even the Falcon wrote me. But I heard not one word from you. That speaks for itself, doesn't it?"
Feeling this confrontation rapidly slipping out of his control, Sarkan took a step forward and Agnieszka matched him with another hop back. If he went any further, he'd be in the Wood.
"Solya wrote you?" Sarkan said, alarm beginning to slide through him.
She nodded. "He was very apologetic about everything. Offered to help me clear the Wood, not that I believed the kindness came from his heart."
"I'm going back to the Tower," he snapped. He had no desire to listen to Agnieszka speak of Solya in such fond terms.
"Bye then," she said. "Suppose it would have been too much to ask that you didn't run away again."
Sarkon froze, the spell to teleport himself dying halfway between the working to fall flat like broken musical notes. "What."
"That's what you're doing, isn't it? Running? It's what you're good at." Her tone was bitter. "That's alright. That's what I'm good at too. Fitting, for soulmates."
She smiled. It wasn’t kind. "Isn't it."
"He told you."
Agnieszka's lips twisted. "Sound more disappointed, Dragon."
"He goes too far," Sarkan snarled. "This had nothing to do with him."
Her eyes turned sad, tears standing out in them. "So it's true then, you don't want me and you never did."
"I didn't say that," he snapped. "Insufferable creature, will you let me explain?"
"If you wish to explain, you may do it in my home rather than yours," she snapped, sounding for a moment, far too much like him.
"Do not make me step foot into that accursed place," he said, a shade away from begging.
Her mouth set into a grim line. "If it accursed, so am I."
She began to fade from view, the darkness of the Wood swallowing her up. "Agnieszka!" he snapped, her name tearing through him like a winters gale. It tasted like freshly fallen snow, and the dark hardness of mint. The sound echoed like falling water, leaving him drenched with the taste of her magic.
"You know," her voice said, floating out of the darkness. "I do believe that's the first time you've ever said my name."
It wasn't, not even remotely; he'd ended the Summoning to free her from the heart-tree by chanting her name, every syllable in tune until she began to emerge.
It was, admittedly, the first time she'd heard him say it.
"I cannot go back," he murmured.
"Tell me why."
He didn't have the words for it; the language of loss escaped him, it always had, walled up behind his heart of stone. "Because all I can see is your death," he said simply.
The Wood was silent, he couldn't even hear her breathing anymore. "Tomorrow," she said, her voice too close. "I'll come to the Tower tomorrow."
It would have to be good enough.
The Tower wasn't the destroyed mess he'd left behind a year ago. It had been repaired, though it was no longer shining and white, instead the outer walls were a rich earthy red, and they sang with Agnieszka's magic when he stepped through them.
The internal structure had been left alone, and the patches of wall that had been fixed and replaced gave the foyer the look of a scarred limb.
He returned to his room, and spent a cold, lonely night there, remembering the last time he'd slept in the bed.
If he dreamed of Agnieszka, he couldn't blame himself.
When he woke in the morning, it was to the smell of freshly baked bread, and further exploration led him to a much improved kitchen.
Agnieszka sat at the table, nibbling on the bread, dipping it in a raw looking honey paste, one of his books open before her. "I... didn't think you'd come," she said, awkwardly around her mouthful of food.
Still a hayseed, at least that hadn't changed.
"It's my Tower," he pointed out.
She grimaced. "Explain," she said, and slid Solya's note across the table.
It was short, to the point, much unlike the man himself. "Ask him about being your soulmate," it said in clear, unadorned cursive.
Sarkan's lip curled. "He's a meddling fool."
"It seems to me, everyone you speak to is a fool," she said tartly. "Explain, Dragon."
He hated the way his face name sounded coming from her.
"Tell me," he spit out, turning away to busy himself with the loaf of bread. "How do... the common folk find their soulmates?"
Her lips purse. "Most times, they don't," she answered him. "If you're lucky, when you touch for the first time, you know, you can feel the... the bond, the magic, snap into place."
"Wizards feel it in their magic," he said, gruff and still not looking at her. "If your magic merges, then you have found them."
"I merged my magic with Solya and it hurt."
It hurt him to hear his name so candidly while she continued to call him Dragon. "He mentioned."
"So it really is true. The Dragon is my soulmate." She laughed, a snorting, vaguely hysterical sound. "My soulmate and you hate me."
That startled him. "I don't hate you."
"You can't even look me in the eye."
Sarkan dragged his gaze up. "I am triple your age."
"So? I'm a witch now, right? I won't age either. What does age matter?"
Sarkan grit his teeth. "That isn't the point."
Agnieszka set her book down with a snap. "If it isn't age, magic, or the last half year, then it must mean that you simply do not want me. And that's fine, but I do wish you'd say so."
It was very clearly not fine. Her eyes shone with tears, and her expression trembled with distress. "That is not-" he began to say but she interrupted again.
"All you're doing is saying what it's not. Come find me when you're ready to say what it is." She stood up and for a second the Wood was overlaid with his kitchen and then Agnieszka was gone.
Sarkan waited, but Agnieszka did not return.
He was going to have to go to the Wood.
He didn't go to the Wood.
He made it only a few inches into the place before the feeling of drowning closed his lungs up.
Sarkan had never been a man ruled by fear, but now he found he could do nothing but be ruled by it. There were no cantrips, no spells, nothing to master something ingrained in his soul.
A month passed before he could get more than a foot inside the Wood. A walker chased him out, and Sarkan let himself be bullied.
A frontal assault was both beyond him, and disallowed by the denizens of the Wood. Agnieszka was an unconventional witch; he would have to take an unconventional approach.
Agnieszka , he wrote, I cannot go into the Wood. It is not for a lack of trying, foolish thing, so do not make that face. When I try, not only do your walkers chase me out but I am stalled by my own... feelings.
When I breathe in the air, all I can recall only the way you disappeared into the heart-tree. I can taste the Spindle, feel your magic fade and die under mine. The Wood holds nothing but loss, for me.
I have never feared anything before now. You inspire strange things in me.
He signed it Sarkan, smearing wax to close it.
When he tried to access the Wood and the walker dropped out of the tree, he left the letter as tribute.
And so Sarkan settled in to wait. He made himself busy finishing the repairs to the Tower, loathe to touch with Agnieszka had already done, and it was child's play to finish the rest.
Another five days passed before the Wood filled his library and Agnieszka stepped through. His letter was crumpled in her fist and he despaired of the girl and her inability to stop from destroying all she touched.
"You came," he murmured.
"I did," she replied. "You wrote me a letter."
He scowled. "Yes, well. I was overdue."
Sarkan didn’t like admitting it, but Agnieszka was right; he’d been long overdue to reach out to her, and he was unused to needing to make up for things. The other girls he’d taken and taught had all abandoned him as soon as their ten years were up, she - she was the only one he’d ever wanted to keep.
But he’d done what he always did and set fire to their fledgling relationship.
Dragon was no longer just a face name, it was Sarkan, and dragons were covetous things.
“You were,” she agreed, crossing her arms over her chest. “What made you change your mind?”
Sarkan’s lips twisted. “Solya,” he finally admitted. “He - lost his soulmate in the war with the Wood.”
Agnieszka frowned. “I hadn’t realized there was another wizard there,” she said, dubiously.
“There wasn’t,” Sarkan said. “It’s rare, but occasionally, a wizard’s soulmate is mundane, and they never connect with them, not like - not like we can.”
He had to give her credit. She wasn’t stupid, it took her only moments to figure out. “Marek,” she murmured. “His soulmate, it was Marek.”
“Yes,” Sarkan said.
“I suppose he didn’t know.”
It took him a moment to connect what she said with what she meant. “Marek was absolutely the sort to seduce a pretty young virgin despite having a soulmate,” he said acidly. “But no, in this case, he was ignorant of his power over Solya.”
Agnieszka absorbed that with a frown. “What happens to someone when their soulmate dies?” she wondered, obviously thinking of the Falcon. Sarkan hated that her concern over the other wizard made his blood boil - he should be better than the petty jealousies of mere men.
“I don’t know,” he was forced to admit. “It happens rarely when wizards or witches are involved. Our lives are long and so is -” He faltered.
“And so is?” Agnieszka asked, her voice hard, and her eyes boring into his.
Sarkan growled, the fire in the hearth flaring with his ire. “Our love,” he bit out. “Our lives are long and so is our love.”
Bizarrely, that made her smile. “There,” she said. “Was that so hard?”
“Foolish thing,” he grunted. “What are you going on about now ?”
Agnieszka held out her hands for him. “I just wanted to know if you could say it.”
Irritated, Sarkan scoffed. “I am capable of the word,” he said. He watched her, and all she did was turn her palms so they faced the ceiling, waiting for him. They’ve touched before, of course they had, and Sarkan sighed.
He reached out and took her hands.
As soon as their hands touched, the magic Sarkan had been holding back burst free. It swept over Agnieszka like flame, and her Spindle water answered.
The charm for clothing rolled off his tongue without his conscious permission, his hands following the path of skin it revealed on her body. They hadn't even left the kitchen, but Sarkan lifted her by her hips and deposited her on the table. "Wh?" She started to ask, her face bright red.
"Hush," he said, and dropped to his knees.
"Sarkan?" She asked, her voice too high with nerves. "What are you doing?"
He smirked, looking up at her. "Tasting you."
She squeaked and fourteen months ago, it might have been unattractive. Now, he just wanted to make her sound like that again. He murmured another spell for warmth, letting it leap from his skin to hers, wrapping around the essential coolness that was her magic, and he pulled her legs until she was sat on the very edge of the table.
"Sarkan?" She asked, her fingers clenching on her thighs.
"Hush," he sighed again. "If you hate it, I'll stop."
Then he leaned in and kissed her.
Her agreement was lost in her sharp shout, lost in the way her hips canted up into his grip. Sarkan had many lovers in his time, had performed this like a duty for them, he knew where to touch, and how much pressure, and Agnieszka writhed for the knowledge.
He spelled out charms for health, for stamina, for luck against her flesh, painting runes and designs with his tongue until she sobbed. He used the Spindle of her body to press magic into her skin, sliding two fingers inside her to make it last.
When she stiffened and came against his mouth, he didn't stop, pulling more from her as she screamed his name.
The magic in her voice echoed in the room, fire and flame and fanned passion until she fell back against the table and arched her hips higher into his grip.
Magic ebbed and flowed between them, heightening her pleasure and his desperation until liquid ran down his wrist and she was incoherent, spells left behind for more primal magics.
When he suckled at her, she shrieked, thighs trying to close and where she touched him, his clothes fell away. He was hard, ready for her - beyond ready for her - but it was secondary to feeding their bond.
The mark on his soul that spelled her name brightened with each pull of magic and when she stiffened and came for a third time, the cup of power between them overflowed.
The fire in the hearth roared, and the sparks fanned out through her hair as she twisted and sobbed in his grip. A pipe burst behind them, raining heat down into their midst like rain.
He spat out the rest of the cantrip to leave him naked, and he pulled her off the table, another spell shoving the ruined wood away from them.
Agniezska knelt over him, ice and fire caught in her hair, her expression as wild as the Wood but full of lust.
It wasn't going to take either of them long. She sank down on him, rolling her hips as the waves of her magic pulled through them both like the tide.
It was too hot, the fire roaring, the water pouring out around them, as magic and pleasure built and built and built. The friction between them made Agnieszka shudder in his arms and he pulled her down to kiss her.
This kiss was different.
There was no magic in this, just an artless, desperate press to muffle sounds, but there was more emotion in it than Sarkan had felt in a century.
He slipped a hand between them and pressed his fingers against her sensitive core, and her head fell back with a cry. His own end was reaching the point of no return and he worked his fingers over spelling magic and charm and 'i love you', 'i love You,' 'I love You'.
Agnieszka came, his name screaming out of her pale throat and Sarkan could do nothing but follow her off the edge after.
He doesn't shout, but when she laid against his chest in the panting aftermath, he pressed his lips to her ear and murmured, "Nieszka."
The Bond snapped to life between them.
The people of Dvernik told stories of the Dragon and the Root, the two wizards who battled the Wood and won. They said that it was only because of the wizards that they could grow their crops, and have their water supply be so bountiful.
The Root had come from Dvernik, the older generation said, she’d been the last tribute to the Dragon of the Tower. Everyone knew the Dragon was her soulmate. Stories were told of their romantic clash in the Wood, how the Dragon had given everything to keep the Root safe.
They were only seen when the villagers need was great, and children clamored to get a better look at the two wizards.
“Hey,” the Root said, leaning on the Dragon’s arm. “I cleared away the dead trees. You ready to go?”
“Of course, you foolish creature,” he responded, even as their fingers twined together.
They never stayed for long, and the Dragon only accepted payment occasionally. The thought of tributes was entirely forgotten, and teenage girls began to live for themselves again.
Despite the prying eyes and ears of many a child, the wizards names were lost. The names in stories always were. But with the Wood calm at their borders, the villagers of Dvernik needed no names to know their power.
To name something is to own it, after all.