“Your father is late,” sighs my mother, watching out the window, “I think I should check on him.”
I raise my head from my sewing. My fingers are tired and pricked. I have been sweating over a traditional wedding shirt for my husband-to-be for hours. I’m not very good at it, for my red embroidered sirins look like pop-eyed hens.
The wedding will be in Haymonth, and it means I’ll be able to wear grandmother’s light wedding dress for the ceremony. My future in-laws were trying to convince my mother to give them a chance to buy me a new dress when they are in the capital. But mother is an unassailable fortress. She’ll probably pull this dress on my daughter too if Goddess Mokosh blesses me with a healthy child.
All women in the village say I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth or saved the whole nation in my previous life, for these two things is the only reason why handsome Danko decided to propose me. His father is a head of our village and a rich man with a huge house made of stone, large areas of land, breeding horses, and a staff of people who take care of his property. My family, on the contrary, can’t boast about anything. Father is a simple handyman; he works day and night fixing the roofs, making wheelbarrows, repairing carts, building fences, and running other minor errands. Mother keeps up the housework, and takes care of a tiny kitchen garden, and nursing my baby brother.
“Don’t bother, mother. I’ll go there myself.”
“No, don’t even think it!”
My brother starts screaming in a tiny wooden cradle my father made for me eighteen years ago. I know every sweet detail: either a flower or an animal he carved on it.
“He needs your milk. I can’t give it to him,” I retorts, while mother is hopelessly trying to comfort a shrilling infant.
Mother is confused: she’s scared for her husband, but doesn’t want to live a slightly ill son with clumsy me.
“I can walk my sweetlove to her dear father!”
Danko is standing in the hallway and smiling brightly, showing his white teeth. Mother seems happy and grateful at once. But I don’t, for he, obviously, wants to stay alone with me. I know, most girls in the village would kill for him, and I’ll be his wife in a month, but I find it embarrassing to be kissed before the wedding day.
“I’ll go with you!” my younger sister Zabava is already putting on her bast shoes.
Danko’s face is long. Zabava has just ruined his kind of tryst with me. Good girl.
These days she wants to stay next to me as much as possible. Like a tender colt Zabava follows me everywhere or just sits with her head on my laps while I peel potatoes or hopelessly try to knit wool into warm socks for my maybe-children. Winter is always cold here.
She doesn’t want me to leave her, for I am going to move in a big husband’s house after the inevitable marriage:
“You will forget about me as soon as you get married!”
“Don’t be silly! You can visit me every day, and I’ll come to see all of you very very very often. I promise you, my little fun. Believe me: you’ll get tired of your annoying sister. And you will ask me not to come!” I say it with a smile on my face, but my heart aches.
“I will never say that!” whimpers my sister. “When you have a baby, you’ll forget about me...”
Maybe she’s right. I don’t know what my future hides. I see my mother who can barely leave the house or nearby territory because of all her duties. She’s young but always looks tired. Last Natirvik I saw some rich boyarinyas in bright fur coats with fluffy fox tail collars and red cheeks who stayed in our village on the way to the capital; I thought they were a little bit older than I, but was shocked having known their real age. No wonder, they don’t work or take care of the babies, and, probably, visit wise witches, whose services and “youth” potions are as expensive as a lucky ginger cow during a spring fair. I sadly look at my long plait with a fading ribbon woven into the strands. Danko has presented me lots of colorful ribbons soft as a dove’s wing, but I am too scared to wear such an expensive gift. Besides, I have this one which my father gave me: it’s still nice and solid. Why should I change anything?
The road is running up the hill.
Father is helping some workers in the neighboring village. He must have decided to spend the night with other smerds. This thought is comforting me a little.
Danko is trying to stand out in all his beauty. Like a silly rooster he’s walking around me in his fashionable caftan he bought in the capital. But to me, a young man is like an annoying horsefly: no matter how hard you try to get rid of it, it’s following you all the way.
“I’m scared,” whispers my sister, “...I can hear something.”
“If you are scared, why don’t you go back and let adults go alone,” snaps the young man.
“Don’t talk to her this way!” I snap back at him; he doesn’t seem so tender when my parents are absent.
He’s about to answer something when we hear Zabava’s shrill. Just behind us stands kikimora. It’s strange to see her here. These creatures usually dwell in abandoned barns or mills. But she is here stares at us like an ugly old broad with unnaturally long limbs and beaky muzzle full of teeth.
“Zabava, come to me, quick!”
But it’s too late; kikimora grabs my pale sister and runs away with her pray. I turn to my betrothed in despair, but I see his frightened face and trembling lips that speak better than words.
“Where are you going? We must save my sister!” I’m almost screaming, looking at Danko who’s about to rush the opposite way.
“Are you insane, woman?! This creature will kill us!” he’s almost squealing. “I don’t want to die because of your stupid sister who must be already eaten!”
Bitter tears are running down my cheeks. I can't believe these words are coming out of his mouth. A strong, handsome, powerful man is standing in front of me, but bending like a thin rowanberry.
A great owl or maybe a twilight mara, heavily beating her dark wings, flies from the tree. I can see only her dark wings and glowing saucer-shaped eyes. He sobs like a toddler and runs to the village without looking back.
Once Danko told me he would bring me a dragon’s heart…
I follow the way kikimora took my sister with her. I’ve heard from the village boys about some dens in the hill, but never found them myself. Knowing kikimoras’ nature, one of these dens might be her lair.
I’m scared to death, but keep on moving forward without looking back. A hole, bigger than a barrel hoop, is hidden between whimsically intermingled roots. Here and there some old yarn is seen. There is no question - it is what I have been looking for.
My hands are trembling. It’s difficult to get inside in my long skirts: they are hanging onto the annoying roots and twigs.
It’s dim and damp inside kikimora’s den. My sister is not seen anywhere, but a young woman sits on the floor and leans to the cold wall.
“Release me, girl, and I’ll give you a lot of gold. I’m a princess.”
“You are not a real princess, and I don’t need your gold,” I laugh bitterly, looking at a gloomy girl in dirty clothes with a bag of black matted hair, though her muddy face is very pretty. “How can I help you? Did kikimora hurt you?” I’m really sorry for her: she seems hungry and miserable.
“Just throw thisss dragon figure away. It restrictss me from ssshifting,” she says, hissing the “s”.
Poor soul must have gone mad, sitting here all alone for so long and waiting for help. I do what she asked to comfort her when the bright light covers the girl’s skin, and her body transforms into a dragon.
I fright back in fear, but the black serpent rushes towards the appeared kikimora, sinking her teeth into the kidnapper.
“Sso how much gold do you want, dear?” she’s a human again in her old dirty shirt. I can see her strong though bleached hips.
“I’ve already told you: I don’t want your treasures! I want my sister back. Have you seen my sister?” I stay closer, for I don’t care if she’s a dangerous dragon. If it had happened several hours ago, I would have probably fainted. But the fear for Zabava and worries about father are giving me strength.
“Gold maybe? I’ve heard peasants have a lot of siblings: one more, one less... I’m joking, Beauty,” she’s smiling, looking at me. She looks even prettier than before. “I have seen lots of kids and teens during my stay here. I don’t pay attention to humans, usually. They were brought here, and here they are staying with me”, she points at the floor where between dirty yarn some white bones are thrown.
I have not known about any lost children or teens in years, “How long did they keep you prisoner?” I gasp, but she doesn’t answer.
Old women tell us stories about dragons who can shift into humans, but I thought they are just fairytales. It’s incredible that I can see a real regal dragon. I touch her shoulder, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t think about me, Beauty. Think about your ssister, for my life is long and her life is short. Let’s find her dead or alive.”
“Are there any more kikimoras here?” I ask my dragon, while we are going deeper into the lair. It seems we have already crossed through the hill.
“Two. One now,” she answers wearily.
“Are you all right?” I ask her, scolding myself for not taking a water bottle.
“Watch out!” The dragon girl partly morphs into a dragon and rushes to the aid of me.
She’s tired and losing the battle. This kikimora is taller and stronger than the other one.
“Run, girl! I’ll try to hold her off,” panting the prisoner.
“No way!” I scream and throw the scattered yarn and bones into the evil creature. It distracts her for a second. But the second is enough time for a dragon to grab someone’s rib and plunge the improvised spear into kikimora’s heart.
I run to the dragon princess and hug her tightly. I’m still trembling; my dress is in creatures’ blood, dirt, and dust.
I've just remembered, father told me he would be late…
I’m on her back with my cheek on her warm scales. My sister is sleeping in her paws while we are high in the sky. My village looks so small; Danko’s house looks so small.
I won my dragon’s heart, and I don’t want to lose it.