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The Oldest Story in the World

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“You loved her.”

It was a statement. Not a question – as firm and rooted as the wood, as old as the valley, as endless as The Spindle. She was looking at him accusingly, holding up the small black book. The small letters of her name scribbled in the corner of the notebook.

He looked at her, his eyes steely.

“The woman who wrote this. You loved her,” she continued.

“I did,” he said, his tones clipped.

“What was she like?” asked Katerina. “She was my grandmother, after all. Of a sort.”

“Great-great-great-great Grandmother,” said Sarkan harshly. He didn’t like the kind of ownership that others could have. He didn’t like it – she was still his, she was his and his alone.

“Whichever,” said Katerina. She tossed her hair behind, and Sarkan involuntarily clenched. It was so like her – so impossibly like her, that he felt a surge of anger.

Sarkan shut his eyes. “She looked like you.”

When he opened his eyes, Katerina looked surprised. “Like me?” asked Katerina.

“Exactly like you.”

“Was that why -?”

“Yes,” said Sarkan. When Katerina had come to him – when she had said she had magic, he had been unable to comprehend anything beyond her hair, her eyes, her body. She wasn’t exactly her – not the same tiny fingers, the scar on her back, the same freckles on her shoulders, those were missing. Her dress wasn’t torn and messy, her hair were neatly tied – like some awful version of her, a version which was neat. And Katerina spoke politely, she didn’t demand things of him; she didn’t shout at him at all.

It was painful. It was too much of a reminder of her – a ghost of her, pressing herself into the places that she had lived, where she had been – the untidy kitchen, which Katerina had cleaned. The room where she had put flowers, and on and on and on.

“Oh,” said Katerina. “What was her name?”

“Agnieszka,” said Sarkan softly.

Her name came alive then – the curtains fluttered, the plants crept a little closer to the window. There was a hush in the kitchen.

“Agnieszka?” asked Katerina, her voice filled with wonder. “The Agnieszka?”

She had become a legend over the years, which irritated Sarkan more than it should. Not because she ought not to be, he was certain she’d had a ridiculous impact on the villages, on the people – on everyone who needed her to fix some inane idiotic trouble. Fix the knives, Agnieska; heal the baby – the cow might be sick, Agnieszka. They’d loved her – they’d elevated her beyond, and that meant there was a part of her that was theirs. He didn’t care for that – he wanted her whole memory, and he knew he was being entirely too selfish.

“What happened?” asked Katerina. “You don’t – have to –” she said. “I just – I just want to know –”

“I suppose she went into the Wood and never returned. Agnieszka gave up herself for the corruption to never return again,” said Sarkan.

“But she was nearly three hundred years old,” said Katerina quietly. “How could she have died?”

“I suppose being three hundred had something to do with it,” said Sarkan sarcastically. “Wizards become more powerful over the years, but they do die. They become weaker, eventually – even if their magic becomes more refined.”

Katerina touched the notebook. “What was she like?”

Sarkan felt the years then – he had aged, he had white hair now. Alosha was dead, Kasia was dead, Ballo was long dead, Solya was gone, the wood had become uncorrupted since Agnieszka died. Even the smaller heroes of the story were long gone – Wensa was gone, Marek was dead, Vladimir was dead. He was a monument to a lost people. They were history, almost certainly – every person of the story had inscribed themselves into the books of the world – but the people were gone.

The history books would never have remembered Agnieszka the right way. They wouldn’t remember how she had sticks in her hair, how she walked barefoot into the wood. They didn’t know the way Agnieszka pronounced her fulmia – they didn’t know the idiotic girl’s affinity to get into trouble, they didn’t know how she laughed at him, how she impatiently got cross with him.

They’d gotten soft in their old age. Less shouting matches, more small arguments, grumbled irritations. Kisses pressed by her on his cheek, calming him down – knowing everything he did in the day, and then getting him angry all over again.

“She was damnably intolerable,” he said finally. “She was irritating, she got on my nerves everyday – she ruined my library, and she almost certainly ruined my spells and my magic.”

“Her magic… was like mine?” asked Katerina cautiously.

He nodded tightly. “A mess. Just like yours. I tried to categorise it, I tried to understand what she did. It is not meant to be understood, I suppose. It’s just meant to be worked with.”

“That’s how you knew how to train me,” said Katerina. “You worked with this magic before.”

“She’d have known better,” said Sarkan harshly. “She would have said something annoying, like, ‘you know none of that matters, Sarkan,’ and I would have strangled her. I haven’t the slightest what she meant – but I knew her. Her magic was a story – not the kind of story that has been printed and written down, but a story that has been told for a long time, over the years, by thousands of voices.”

He paused.

“I sound like her,” he said, frustrated.

“Are you both the story?” asked Katerina.

“There are a thousand stories about us,” said Sarkan finally.

Katerina touched her braid. “But there’s one story – the one about how Agnieszka the witch made the Dragon fall in love.”

Sarkan said nothing. “The oldest story in the world, girl,” he said crushingly.

“It’s a good story,” said Katerina in a small voice. “My favourite.”

“Love is a good story, nothing more,” he said. “How would you know – you’re so young, how would you know how much it takes to love? How well you have to know the person, how easily you’d be able to hurt her. How many times you did. How they eventually die – the happily ever after doesn’t come, girl. You’re left alone, thirty years after her death with barely enough life in you for more stories.”

“You miss her, don’t you?” asked Katerina.

“How could I not,” he said angrily. “She didn’t even have the decency to let me die first.”

“I’m sorry,” said Katerina. “I didn’t mean to –”

“I can see you did not,” said Sarkan. “Now go away. And you’d better be learning the corruption spells Jaga has written in her first notebook.”

Katerina turns around. She hesitates – and he senses it. He had turned to the kitchen, to where Agnieszka kept her herbs. He needed some of the ginger tea she would make. His throat had been giving him trouble.

She turns around again, and she presses the black notebook in his hand.

“She would be proud of you,” said Katerina. She looks, for a minute, as if she’d say something more. As if she’d tell him more about a woman that he knew for three hundred years and she never did.

And she was gone. Sarkan opened the black notebook – his now wrinkled fingers floated over the words she had written, codifying small spells which should not have worked. How she had laughed when he had been annoyed when they did, how much she shouted at him when he made her cross.

There was a rose pressed between the pages.

She came to him then – the illusion of the rose they had created, her fingers in his, her eyes wide and searching him, their magic mixing together, her lips smiling softly, her hair in tangles, her skirt already torn in some corner or the other.

How impossibly frustrating Agnieszka had become – how – how – how capable of causing him tears. The pages of the notebook caught the tears, laughing at him – reminding him as Agnieszka would have, that no matter how cross and angry he had been, how determined to have walls and nothing more – he had loved her. He had loved the impossible person who had written these words.

And there was nothing more he could do about it.