“Come and meet my mother,” I said. I reached out and took Sarkan's hand and pulled him gently forward.
He resisted for a second, heels digging in, shoulders going up. It made the silver dragon embroidered on his coat look like it was moving in the firelight. “Agnieszka, I am not, this isn’t, what are—” he clamped his mouth shut and flushed, as if he could feel the weight of the people around us watching interestedly.
Funny how the threat of meeting my mother could fluster him as fire arrows and corrupted Wood creatures could not. I grinned at him, and his lips curved up in response before he scowled. It only made me grin wider. He’d drunk from the Spindle, and he’d come back before the summer’s end, even though I’d been sure he wouldn’t set foot in the valley for ten long years.
I gave him a tug. “It’s alright, she’s forgiven you for taking me. Or at least, mostly forgiven you.” He took a reluctant step forward, then another.
“I came to receive the taxes,” he repeated, as if I hadn’t heard him say it the first time.
“Of course,” I said. Taxes that there was no need to him to collect in person; tribute that he only really had need for if he was staying, to replenish the stores of the Tower. “Taxes. Was it hard to convince the court you needed to leave for that?” I was full of bubbling happiness, and I wanted to tease him for his clothes, the finery better suited to the king’s ballroom. Before, I would have thought it was to intimidate us all, but now I knew it for his version of nervousness.
“Agnieszka,” he grumbled, but he didn’t try to slip his hand free as I headed us in the direction I’d last seen my mother. We walked over the fresh cut grass, the air full of the feast-day smells of food and woodsmoke.
We passed beneath the trees edging the green. Maybe one day I would be plant a heart-tree here, in the centre of the village, and know that the wounds the Wood had left had finally healed over fully.
“Yes,” he said, sounding very annoyed about it.
“Yes, what?” I asked.
“Yes, it was difficult to convince the court,” he said. “If you knew the lengths I’d had to—” but here he cut himself off again. “But the Tower needs repairing in any case, and Alosha is recovered enough to root out any remaining corruption at court. My presence there is no longer—”
I stopped, turned, and kissed him before he could do more than squawk in outrage. Despite it, his hands shifted to my waist and pulled me closer, and I was the first to pull away. Sarkan’s eyes bore into mine, dark and hot, sparking an answering heat low in my body.
“I could meet your mother later,” he said meaningfully. I swallowed.
“Nieshka!” My mother’s voice.
Sarkan stiffened. My cheeks were hot as we turned, but I didn't let go of Sarkan's hand.
My mother was striding towards us, looking bemused. My father was with her, his eyes narrowed at Sarkan, weighing him up. Danka was with them, grinning broadly, and the heat in my face increased.
“Nieshka,” my mother said again, affection wound with reproach, as if I’d come in with mud on my dress yet again.
“These are my parents,” I told Sarkan and introduced them. Sarkan looked like he was strongly considering transporting us both away by magic, but instead he nodded stiffly and said he was glad to meet them.
My mother smiled at him, a question in her eyes as she looked between us, and I knew she was seeing the contrast we presented; me in my homespun dress, Sarkan in a coat to shame a peacock. “It's good to meet the man Nieshka has spoken of so much.”
My father’s gaze had come to rest on our joined hands, and I could see caution of the Dragon warring with fatherly concern, his frown deepening. “You’ll come and see me in the morning.” That was our way, in the village, when you were courting, before you jumped over the broom together.
Sarkan bristled like a cat, but my father just kept his gaze steady, and eventually Sarkan gave a sharp jerk of his head and made a strangled sound that my father took for agreement. I squeezed Sarkan’s hand; he threw me an indignant look. I knew his dignity was bruised, but laughter still bubbled up in my chest.
As if my parents’ approach had been a sign, more of my village joined our group, bright with curiosity and the same wariness as my father. Sarkan bore it well, though I could feel his tension increase with every person added to the eddies around us, the questions about the capital and the other stories they'd heard about the new regent. They all assumed he would be moving back to the Tower.
“Dance with me?” I suggested, and he took the escape route with some relief.
The other dancers accepted us with a mix of caution and a few knowing smiles—and a sort of resigned huff from one of Kasia’s brothers. I hadn’t really been able to imagine the Dragon dancing, but he moved with catlike grace, catching and turning each partner in turn as if he’d danced with us all our lives. We danced to the rhythm of the Spindle, the silvery magic of the valley finding its way into our steps, and it made Sarkan’s eyes bright, face flushed. He kept his coat on, even though sweat beaded his forehead.
“How did you know all the dances?” I said when the dance came to an end, both of us breathless, the air between us full of heat.
Sarkan gave me a very superior look. “Village dances are watered down versions of proper court dances, and those I learnt in my youth.”
I rolled my eyes, and this time it was he who pulled me in to a kiss, almost angrily. Magic rose around us, his and mine both, and when the kiss ended we were no longer on the village green. It was his old room in the Tower, thick with dust. His bed stood unchanged from the last time we’d set foot here, and I couldn’t help remembering what else we’d done here last time. My skin buzzed with anticipation.
He looked briefly surprised, as if either the teleportation or the location wasn’t quite what he’d intended, and then a rueful smile flickered about his lips. “I’m becoming sentimental,” he reflected, looking around.
I put a hand on his chest; his attention rapidly re-focused.
“I missed you,” I said, unpicking the button at his throat. Heat flared in his eyes as I worked my way down his coat, impatient with what seemed like ten thousand silver buttons. His hands went to my skirts at the same time as the magic spilled out of me, un-buttoning his coat all in a row and half-pushing the coat back from his shoulders. We both fell onto the bed in a clumsy tangle, his warm body beneath mine. One of Sarkan’s arms was bent at an awkward angle, trapped in his coat, and he began to laugh, looking up at me. He shook with laughter, and all his walls fell away with it.
“Can’t you have five seconds’ patience, you madwoman?” He kissed me again, hungrily, as if it had been years rather than seconds. He tasted of smoky power and the beat of great wings, and I leaned into the sensation, chasing his tongue with mine. When we broke apart, panting, his eyes were nearly black. “I missed you too.”
We unwrapped each other, with hands and magic both. Last time we’d been together, the coming battle had loomed over us, filling us with urgency, leaving no space to linger, just a desperation to sate ourselves as well as we could before the dawn. Tonight, no army camped on our doorstep, but I was still bursting with the same impatient need.
In my haste I pulled my dress over my head with unnecessary force and ended up flinging it across the room, where it hit Sarkan's drawers and sent a metal comb clattering to the floor. He laughed again, low and fond, his hands once more at my waist. I could feel the silvery hum of him, the spider-web connection between us and the valley. His eyes widened; he felt it too, but it did not make him fearful. Instead he drew in a sharp breath of determination, as if he’d been waiting for it all along.
There was a breathless moment where the world flipped and then he was pressing me down into the mattress. I scrabbled eagerly at his shoulders, but he did not seem in any rush.
“Nieshka, patience is a virtue,” he murmured, that burr of amusement still in his voice.
“What are you do—” but his hands found my breasts and my words garbled into startled pleasure.
He played me like a fine instrument, with determined patience, as if he wanted to make up for all the things there hadn’t been time for, before. It was a different kind of good to the frantic need that had driven us last time, even if it drove me half-mad. I whimpered, my skin afire, the breath gasped out of me every time I tried to draw a deep lungful of air. But I could see Sarkan loved this as he loved clever, intricate magic, the fine-tuning of sensation, the calibration of every caress.
A fine sheen of sweat glimmered on our bodies, lit only by the moonlight from the window. Sarkan was as beautiful as any of his carefully constructed workings, slim hips, lean muscle, and sharp-cut profile half-hidden by his hair falling across his face.
I reached for him. “I want—Yes!” He gave a low, rough chuckle and finally pressed into me, the sleek hardness of him driving into my core.
I arched, digging my fingers into his back. I wanted more, more, more, and that silvery hum between us sang in response. Pleasure rose in a wave, the Spindle in flood, and his control unravelled, the rhythm changing to something harder, earthier. It wasn’t magic, I didn’t think, but it felt like those moments when a spell between us caught, the whole suddenly incandescent and greater than the sum of its parts. Heat washed through me, and I bit at his neck, crying out his name, the smoke-sharp taste of it in my mouth.
“Agnieszka!” my own name as a harsh cry of pleasure, and he shuddered his own release.
It took a while for my heartbeat to quiet enough to stop pounding in my ears, and we lay sweat-soaked and sated together, a nest of limbs.
“Agnieszka,” he murmured again against my neck, this time a caress. Happiness lit in my chest again, and I wriggled so that we were lying side-by-side. His dark eyes flickered over me. He muttered a spell with a lazy gesture down the length of our bodies, and some of the stickiness between us vanished.
I couldn’t help laughing; it was a very Sarkan spell, that bit of fastidiousness. “You are—you are going to stay, aren’t you?”
Earlier, the question might have made him stiffen, puncturing through his careful attempts to distance himself from the valley, but now he just raised an eyebrow at me, his lips curving. Our lovemaking had left him uncharacteristically languorous and mild-tempered. I made a note of that; it seemed like a thing that might come in useful at some later point.
“I spent a hundred years managing not to form a connection to this damn valley before I met you, you know.” Perhaps he was trying to seem exasperated, but his expression was too soft, uncharacteristically open—and vulnerable. “You don’t need me as a teacher anymore though.”
“No, I don’t,” I said firmly. “But the Wood left enough behind for an army of wizards to spend several lifetime fixing.”
“Fixing there should probably be some record of,” he said drily, knowing how I was at note-taking. “For posterity. And for the next infuriating village girl who can't learn proper magic.” He was baiting me, eyes gleaming.
“I have been!” I said indignantly, even though I knew my occasional rough notes to jog my memory wouldn’t count, to him. I understood Baba Jaga’s little book better now. “I’ll have more time to make a proper record come winter, I hope.” The Wood had always been quieter in the cold. “But if you think it’s so important, you'd better make your own notes.”
His expression grew distant, as if he’d already mentally gone downstairs to the library. He shook himself out of it and said quietly, “Someone else might suit you better.”
I rolled my eyes and prodded him in the chest. “Well, they don’t.”
He shifted, looking pleased.
I voiced my own secret fear. “You won’t get bored? I know at court—”
He chuckled. “Agnieszka, I chose tax collecting to escape that shallow pool of sycophants.” His hand smoothed small circles on my hip. “I find I’ve not much taste for politics, anymore. I don’t know if I ever did, really.”
“That’s settled then,” I said happily, tracing down his chest. Interest kindled in his eyes, but I had one more question. “Are you really going to visit my father tomorrow?”
Sarkan’s stroking came to a sudden halt. “It would be nice,” he hissed furiously, “if a man could make certain plans without interference!”
I pushed him back and climbed on top of him.
We repaired the Tower. I kept my tree-cottage, but I did not often sleep there—and when I did, it wasn’t alone. Sarkan looked at the moss-floor with something between amusement and outrage.
But he still asked me to show him how I’d done it, and when I came back to the Tower one evening, I found we now had a courtyard extending towards the forest with space for trees to grow, and the rooms closest had grown that same moss-carpet. It was as soft and luxurious against our naked skins as the finest of Sarkan's rugs.
I knew Sarkan would never be just another man to the people of the valley—just as I would never be just a village girl again—but he no longer sat entirely aloof and apart from them either. He belonged to the valley now, too.
Our first winter together after the Wood, we held a feast in the great hall, throwing open the doors to anyone who cared to come—which included those who’d come from further than just the valley.
Kasia arrived late in the day at the head of a small group of Stashek’s guards, all dressed in smart colours. She wore a sword at her side and held herself with straight-backed confidence. She looked beautiful and fierce, like a warrior queen of old. Stashek and Marisha crowded behind her, eyes wide but not fearful.
I dashed the length of the hall to throw my arms around my friend, and she hugged me back without hesitation, no longer afraid of her own strength.
“I’m sorry we’re so late,” she said, smiling down at me. “The pass took longer than we expected.” Her eyes widened as she took in the changes to the hall, decked with evergreen boughs and ivy, all the hearth-fires lit, the air thick with the smell of mulled mead and the low hum of contented conversation. Representatives from all the villages had come, and if some were glancing around with wariness, others were taking full advantage of mine and Sarkan’s hospitality—and mead—whole-heartedly. Kasia’s eyes went last to Sarkan, who was listening with calm civility to Danka. He looked up to see Stashek’s group, said something to Danka to extract himself, and began to make his way towards us.
“He’s changed,” she said softly, as Stashek and Marisha exclaimed to see me and demanded I greet them in the same fashion as Kasia. “Though you haven’t.” She smiled at the hair already falling out of my no-longer-neat braid and tapped a finger on her cheek. Reaching up to match her, I found a spot of pine resin on mine. I rubbed it off hastily.
“He hasn't changed as much as you think," I said. "You should have seen him yesterday when I sorted one of his potion shelves by size.”
She chuckled, but she still searched my face with a trace of concern. Whatever she saw, it seemed to make her relax.
Later, after the children had gone to bed and the feast had wound down to its dregs, I sat with Kasia in front of the embers of the hearth fire, outlined only by its orange glow. Kasia’s tankard had been full of river-water but was now empty.
“I saw the heart tree in Zatochek,” she murmured as we listened to the sounds of the tower quietening. Sarkan had long since excused himself from the revelry. “I thought it would upset the children, but it seemed to comfort them instead.” She paused, picking her words, looking at the wood-grain of the skin of her hands, expression going distant. “It felt…peaceful.” She gave herself a shake and came back to me.
“You’re not—” I didn’t want to ask, not if the answer was yes. I didn't want Kasia to become one of the dreamers, not yet, not for a long, long time. Had the Wood changed her too much; did she long to be a tree properly now?
She smiled. “Don’t worry; I’m not planning to become a tree anytime soon. But maybe, one day…”
I squeezed her hand, relieved. “When we’re old and grey and have thirty-seven great-great grandchildren.”
She laughed and squeezed back. “Yes.” A quick, curious look stole over her face. “What about Sarkan?”
There was a sound behind us, and we swivelled towards it to find Sarkan padding across the stones. He carried a heavy jug.
He set the jug beside Kasia, and I saw it contained more river-water. She thanked him with faint surprise, refilling her tankard.
“You should visit us again in the summer,” he said to her. “Swimming in the Spindle would benefit the children.” His expression was fond as he met my eyes. “And if you are ever so foolish as to become a tree, who will keep our thirty-seven great-great grandchildren in line?” He gave a deep, put-upon sigh. "Me, no doubt."
Happiness bubbled up in me like the headwaters of the Spindle, and as Kasia giggled I reached out to pull him down to the hearthrug to sit with us, heedless of his dignity.
“When would you like to start on those?” I asked.