“You’ll have to marry a tailor, my little Agnieszka,” my father would say, laughing, when he came home from the forest at night and I went running to meet him, grubby-faced, with at least one hole about me, and no kerchief. He swung me up anyway and kissed me; my mother only sighed a little: what parent could really be sorry, to have a few faults in a Dragon-born girl?
Our last summer before the taking was long and warm and full of tears. Kasia didn’t weep, but I did. We’d linger out late in the woods, stretching each golden day as long as it would go, and then I would come home hungry and tired and go straight to lie down in the dark. My mother would come in and stroke my head, singing softly while I cried myself to sleep, and leave a plate of food by my bed for when I woke up in the middle of the night with hunger. She didn’t try to comfort me otherwise: how could she? We both knew that no matter how much she loved Kasia, and Kasia’s mother Wensa, she couldn’t help but have a small glad knot in her belly—not my daughter, not my only one. And of course, I wouldn’t really have wanted her to feel any other way.
It was just me and Kasia together, nearly all that summer. It had been that way for a long time. We’d run with the crowd of village children when we were young, but as we got older, and Kasia more beautiful, her mother had said to her, “It’s best if you don’t see much of the boys, for you and them.” But I clung to her, and my mother did love Kasia and Wensa enough not to try and pry me loose, even though she knew that it would hurt me more in the end.
On the last day, I found us a clearing in the woods where the trees still had their leaves, golden and flame-red rustling all above us, with ripe chestnuts all over the ground. We made a little fire out of twigs and dry leaves to roast a handful. Tomorrow was the first of October, and the great feast would be held to show honor to our patron and lord. Tomorrow, the Dragon would come.
“It would be nice to be a troubadour,” Kasia said, lying on her back with her eyes closed. She hummed a little: a traveling singer had come for the festival, and he’d been practicing his songs on the green that morning. The tribute wagons had been arriving all week. “To go all over Polnya, and sing for the king.”
She said it thoughtfully, not like a child spinning clouds; she said it like someone really thinking about leaving the valley, going away forever. I put my hand out and gripped hers. “And you’d come home every Midwinter,” I said, “and sing us all the songs you’d learned.” We held on tight, and I didn’t let myself remember that the girls the Dragon took never wanted to come back.
Of course at that moment I only hated him ferociously. But he wasn’t a bad lord. On the other side of the northern mountains, the Baron of the Yellow Marshes kept an army of five thousand men to take to Polnya’s wars, and a castle with four towers, and a wife who wore jewels the color of blood and a white fox-fur cloak, all on a domain no richer than our valley. The men had to give one day a week of work to the baron’s fields, which were the best land, and he’d take likely sons for his army, and with all the soldiers wandering around, girls had to stay indoors and in company once they got to be women. And even he wasn’t a bad lord.
The Dragon only had his one tower, and not a single man-at-arms, or even a servant, besides the one girl he took. He didn’t have to keep an army: the service he owed the king was his own labor, his magic. He had to go to court sometimes, to renew his oath of loyalty, and I suppose the king could have called him to war, but for the most part his duty was to stay here and watch the Wood, and protect the kingdom from its malice.
His only extravagance was books. We were well read by the standards of villagers, because he would pay gold for a single great tome, and so the book-peddlers came all this way, even though our valley was at the very edge of Polnya. And as long as they were coming, they filled up the saddlebags of their mules with whatever worn-out or cheaper stock of books they had and sold them to us for our pennies. It was a poor house in the valley that didn’t have at least two or three books proudly displayed upon the walls.
These might all seem like small and petty things, little enough cause to give up a daughter, to anyone who didn’t live near enough the Wood to understand. But I had lived through the Green Summer, when a hot wind carried pollen from the Wood west a long way into the valley, into our fields and gardens. The crops grew furiously lush, but also strange and misshapen. Anyone who ate of them grew sick with anger, struck at their families, and in the end ran into the Wood and vanished, if they weren’t tied down.
I was six years old at the time. My parents tried to shelter me as much as they could, but even so I remembered vividly the cold clammy sense of dread everywhere, everyone afraid, and the never-ending bite of hunger in my belly. We had eaten through all our last year’s stores by then, counting on the spring. One of our neighbors ate a few green beans, driven foolish by hunger. I remember the screams from his house that night, and peering out the window to see my father running to help, taking the pitchfork from where it leaned against our barn.
One day that summer, too young to understand the danger properly, I escaped my tired, thin mother’s watch and ran into the forest. I found a half-dead bramble, in a nook sheltered from the wind. I pushed through the hard dead branches to the protected heart and dug out a miraculous handful of blackberries, not misshapen at all, whole and juicy and perfect. Every one was a burst of joy in my mouth. I ate two handfuls and filled my skirt; I hurried home with them soaking purple stains through my dress and my mother wept with horror when she saw my smeared face. I didn’t sicken: the bramble had somehow escaped the Wood’s curse, and the blackberries were good. But her tears frightened me badly; I shied from blackberries for years after.