Fiction logo

Ustinya

by Alliyah Gallows about a month ago in Fantasy
Report Story

A Tale from Kazimir

There weren't always dragons in the valley.

In fact, there weren’t always dragons anywhere, and it was possible this one only came here now because of the river Nona, one of the last remaining in Kazimir. For indeed, the Grey Waste—as Kazimir was often called—now stretched across the whole northern half of the continent.

Legend had it Kazimir was once a lush and fertile region until the forest goddess, Olga, offended the desert god, Ilia, over a simple game of bones. Never known to mind his temper, Ilia unleashed his fire-breathing horde, ordering them to scorch Olga’s forests into oblivion.

The mortal races fought back, of course. Kazimir the Black-Haired, who ruled the central kingdom of Borislava, famously led his ten thousand warriors against the first dragons. With spears and bows, they brought the winged beasts down. They harvested the dragons’ scales for armor and the bones to build great castles. But victory was bittersweet, for between the dragons and mortal armies, many forests were either burned or cut down.

Some hundred years after the death of Kazimir, dragons returned, this time attacking the coastal kingdom of Praskoviya in the west. They burned and sank the entire royal fleet. Learning from her ancestors, Queen Antoniya armed her warriors with great spears and bows, but she was not alone. Annoyed by Ilia’s petulance, the sea goddess Inna sent a great storm against the dragons. With her aid, the warriors of Praskoviya felled the dragons. But once more, many trees were lost, and the coastal kingdom was not blessed with many to begin with. Undaunted, Antoniya used dragon scales and bones to rebuild her fleet.

Two hundred years after the death of Antoniya, Pavel reigned over Yaroslava. It was a southern kingdom known for its heavy rains, courtesy of the goddess, Zoya. Unlike his ancestors, Pavel was not particularly wise. Selfish and indulgent, he neglected the shrines of Zoya until the goddess sent a drought. With its forests shriveled and rivers shrunk, Yaroslava was ripe for burning.

Emboldened by his first victory, the god Ilia sent wave after wave of dragons. They not only set forests ablaze but destroyed farms upon the plains. Their fiery breath evaporated entire lakes and rivers. People fled in droves, until once mighty kingdoms were reduced to small towns and cities. Even Ilia became appalled by the destruction. He tried to recall them, but they were as elemental as their creator, and their temperaments just as wild. They could not hear his voice over the glorious sounds of scorching earth.

Finally, when the dreaded beasts had little left to burn, they eventually turned on one another, clawing and biting until dragon blood rained from the skies. Distraught, Ilia was forced to watch, seemingly in penance, as his winged army decimated itself, until a mere handful were left to roam a now a mostly barren realm.

Centuries more passed, and legends faded as the land faded, into vast oceans of gray sand.

And when a dragon was finally sighted in a valley near the town of Bogatir, the now-weakly creature came not to burn farms or torch villages, but to softly land upon the banks of the great river Nona, bend over its deep waters, and take a quiet sip.

***

“Did you see that?”

Feodor looked up to see a young fisherman on the river, hastily docking his small boat before coming ashore.

“A dragon!” the young man exclaimed, eyes wide in dismay. “At the entrance of the valley!” He was so flabbergasted he didn’t think to bring his morning catch with him. Like most Kazimiri people, he was dark-haired, dark-eyed, with very light brown skin.

Feodor offered a weary smile. He was old, black hair long gone gray, eyes faded, but he could still mend fishing nets without watching his fingers. His was the first building inside the river gate; it gave him premier access to every fisherman returning to town. As always, he sat on his favorite stool right outside his shop. It was small, one-story building with wooden walls and a thatched roof. He never married or had children, so he never needed much.

“I did, my boy,” he nodded patiently, bony fingers still going. “Poor creature looked like it hasn’t eaten in weeks.”

“Poor creature?” The young man’s eyes widened even further. “That thing could burn down Bogatir!”

Feodor laughed shortly. “That thing couldn’t light a campfire if it wanted to,” he sneered. “Believe me boy, I’ve seen dragons in their prime.” And he still had the burn marks from when their caustic blood fell from the sky.

“Shall I tell the Count?” the young man asked anxiously. “He could send guards to kill it.”

“The Count is busy trying to sell his daughter to the highest bidder,” the old man snorted, still mending. “He’s not interested in a dying dragon. Its scales are withered, and its bones are probably weak. Even in death, it’s useless. Now,” Feodor blinked, beginning to lose patience, “did you actually catch anything out there, or did you need to buy something?”

***

“A dragon?”

Count Lyov Volkov was an aging, rotund man who loved nothing more than a hearty breakfast. Every day at dawn the kitchens at his Bogatir estate served a large spread of eggs, meats, cheeses, fresh fruits, and breads. Usually, his family joined him, but neither his wife nor daughter was particularly hungry today.

Breakfast was always served in the first-floor dining room, with the cozy hearth and dawn’s light streaming through the windows in the eastern wall. Lyov never dressed properly for breakfast; he merely threw a heavy robe over his night clothes and sauntered down. Everyone knew better than to interrupt this special time, and even when interrupted, nothing could make him stop stuffing his mouth…until now.

For the first time, Lyov’s fork froze in midair, halfway to his mouth, dark eyes fixed on the tall man standing at the end of his table.

“Yes, my lord,” Valeri bowed his head. He commanded the city guards of Bogatir, and was the only person allowed to interrupt the Count for any reason. “Just beyond the river gate.”

Lyov was hesitant. “Is it…mighty?”

“Old and sickly,” Valeri shook his head. “It may fly off once it’s finished drinking but—”

“Kill it,” Lyov ordered immediately. “Take however many men you need and kill it. I want that thing’s skull hanging from my gate before the suitors arrive. And call a priestess when it's dead,” he added. “We don’t need its spirit haunting our land.” He finally resumed his beloved pastime, pushing food into his mouth.

“Yes, my lord,” Valeri bowed once more, before turning and leaving.

Lyov nodded to himself as he vigorously cut his meat, muttering, “That should add at least another five thousand to her dowry.”

***

“A dragon?”

Ustinya Volkova came in from her bedroom balcony to face her mother, leaving the doors open behind her. It was a clear morning in Bogatir; the skies were streaked with gold, pink, and lilac, and very few clouds had barely formed. Even the air was perfectly cool, the winds light, and since this was one of the most important days of her life, something obviously had to go wrong.

At nineteen, Ustinya was tall like her mother, but unlike the very dark-skinned Aksinya, she was medium brown. Both women were wrapped in morning robes, while servants scurried about them, making Ustinya’s bed, lighting the hearth, and bringing up water for her bath.

Aksinya nodded stiffly, giving her robes a hitch. Apparently, the Countess’s anxiety was worse than her daughter’s. She was a foreign woman who only ever gave her husband one child, a daughter. Her single consolation lay in the fact that beautiful daughters of wealthy counts could command very high dowries.

Bogatir, an admittedly prosperous town, was in southern Yevpraskiya. It was a small kingdom in northeast Kazimir that was largely spared by the dragons, mainly due to its distant location. As such, most of the kingdom was still intact.

So the last thing Aksinya needed was a dragon showing up today and triggering people’s superstitions.

“Your father has ordered it slaughtered, of course,” she grimly stated. “He wants to display its skull, of all things. Thinks it will impress your suitors.”

“And who are my suitors?” Ustinya asked gingerly, going to kneel before her round silver mirror. She pulled off her silk head scarf and began to untwist her thick black hair. She'd been asking for days, and her parents kept stalling, saying the list wasn't final.

“Terenti of Tikhon, for one,” Aksinya replied, crossing the fur rugs to kneel and assist her daughter. “His father is also a count. Vasily of Spiridon—”

Ustinya’s brow furrowed. “I don’t know him.”

“His family isn’t noble,” her mother shrugged, “but they claim to own the last remaining silver mine in the entire kingdom.”

“Who else?”

“Ermolai of Nazar. He’s only a baron, but his family trades in pearls, both in Kazimir and across the Eastern Sea.”

Ustinya tried to hide her disappointment. “And it’s just those three?”

“One more,” Aksinya assured her, reaching for a large, wide-tooth comb made of dragon bone. “Grigori Antonov…of Yevpraskiya.”

Ustinya stopped moving, stopped breathing in fact. Gazing at her mother’s self-satisfied reflection in the mirror was suddenly not enough; she had to turn around to face Aksinya properly as her heart thudded in her chest.

“I could be a princess?”

***

Castle Yaromir , Ovdotia

“A messenger from Bogatir just arrived,” Queen Ludmila announced, striding past her stepson’s servants to where he stood before his giant mirror, modeling new robes. “Count Volkov claims to have slain a dragon.”

At the word ‘dragon’, Grigori’s dark eyes widened in the mirror. He whirled around to face her in a fury, barking to his servants, “Out.”

Ludmila was visibly amused as she watched them go. Usually the prince was such a stoic man; she couldn't recall the last time she'd seen him get angry. When the last servant shut the door behind them, she turned back to Grigori. “You know you can’t marry that girl now.”

Normally, the prince ignored his stepmother. He was twenty, she was twenty-two, and the only reason his father married her was for her looks. Kazimiri people were dark—dark hair, dark slender eyes—but Ludmila had light hair, and eyes like twin sapphires. She came from no great family, she had neither connections nor lands, and in the three years she’d been married to the king, she’d borne no children.

Yet she dressed lavishly in silk and jewels every day and moved about the castle like she owned it.

“I don’t know where you grew up,” he coldly rasped at her, “but you can’t just throw that word around here.”

“Gundula,” the Queen replied cheerily, “about three days’ ride southwest of Kazimir. Our king is Erhard and our goddess is Imke, if anyone’s curious.”

No one is curious,” Grigori hissed. “And a dragon is no reason not to marry Ustinya.” He turned back to his mirror, adjusting his robes. They were long, almost to the floor, and form-fitting, though the sleeves were slightly loose. He’d chosen dark blue silk for the occasion, embroidered in silver thread and beads. His hair fell past his shoulders and was so dark it was almost black. As was the custom, he would tie it up before going out in public.

“Well, she’s lowly, for one,” Ludmila shrugged, taking this rare opportunity to explore the prince’s rooms. Kazimiri nobles traditionally blanketed their floors in fur, but their estates were often built from wood. Royalty, on the other hand, lived in great stone castles, decorating floors with finely woven rugs and walls with exquisite tapestries.

The large wooden bed had a canopy with sheer curtains. The main room was filled with all sorts of carvings and paintings the prince had amassed throughout his travels. He had a small balcony overlooking the Eastern Sea; the sound of waves wafted in along with the salt air.

“That’s what I told my father about you,” Grigori replied curtly. “However, Ustinya is not only said to be a great beauty, she will also be a countess in her own right someday.”

“Her mother is a foreigner,” Ludmila continued.

“You mean, like you?”

“Yes,” the Queen nodded honestly. “I’m from a neighboring realm, and we all saw how well your people responded to that. The Countess Volkova isn’t even from this continent.”

“The House of Volkov has stood for over a hundred years, through war, famine, plague, and yes…dragons,” the prince informed her, finally turning from his mirror to face her. “By marrying an Easterner, Lyov helped to establish trade across the sea. Not to mention, he’s the lord of one of the richest towns in our kingdom. Your status a foreigner was not the problem, Stepmother.” He never used honorifics with her. “Had you a drop of noble blood, you would know why these things matter and how they work in our world.”

“I may not understand politics, but I do understand perception,” she assured him. “Lyov has been eyeing suitors since his daughter’s first blood, yes? Years of negotiations gone by without incident. Yet on the day you are to finally meet this girl, a dragon appears. A dragon! No sightings in half a century, then one suddenly shows up in that town, on this day.” She cocked her head to the side, tsking. “People will talk, Grigori.”

He worked hard not to tense up in front of her. Ludmila was right, however, unlike her, Grigori not only understood perception, but the politics behind it.

“The dragon is dead,” he reminded her. “Lyov no doubt sacrificed it in honor of the river goddess. He also probably harvested its scales and bones, like a king of old. So tonight, I will offer him even money for his daughter’s hand. I will drink to the sacred Nona, thanking her for sending a dragon to bless this most auspicious day.” His tone and facial expression were exaggerated, but he meant what he said.

“Now,” Grigori leaned in, frostily whispering, “get out.”

***

Ludmila didn’t actually care about the dragon.

South of the Grey Waste, no one had ever seen a dragon. Most people in her homeland didn't even believe they existed. She had hoped the sudden appearance of one would stop this betrothal, for as soon as Grigori wed, he and his new wife could start churning out children of their own. And as a lowborn foreigner, Ludmila’s position at court was precarious enough; her persistent childlessness, however, was becoming nothing short of disastrous.

She strode back towards the throne room, head held high and confident as always. Castles were filled vultures posing as human, and she knew better than to show weakness. But almost as soon as she left the prince's chambers, she felt a familiar throbbing pain in her lower back, followed by a moistening of her under garments between her thighs.

Seriously, Imke? the Queen sighed. She paused at first to rub her back, then quickened her pace, needing to reach her rooms before she bled through her clothes.

Her chambers were bigger than her stepson’s, and even though her household was also supposed to be, it wasn’t. In the past year, King Vladislav had dismissed four of her maids and cut her monthly allowance by half. After all, she had no children, no mother or sisters staying with her. What need did she have of extra staff and coin?

Her rooms were not furnished as grandly as Grigori’s either; Ludmila was not well-traveled and never bothered collecting art. Her wardrobe, on the other hand, was quite extensive; one of her rooms was solely dedicated to the storage of her gowns and furs. The maids kept them in large wooden chests, and there was so many that they actually formed aisles.

Ludmila took no comfort in her riches; some of her clothes and jewels were from the late Queen Shura, while others were stripped off some countess from a fallen house. Whatever finery the king gifted her, he could easily take away at whim, and Ludmila was reminded of this every day.

“Out,” she ordered as she soon as she entered her chambers. Her maids obeyed wordlessly, leaving her to strip down and tend to herself. She pulled on new undergarments and cloths to absorb the bleeding. But before putting on a fresh dress, she washed all the soiled garments—save one—in cold water.

Her cycles had never been regular; her womb cared nothing for the lunar tides nor, apparently, the production of children. It made no difference; Ludmila would temper the king’s disappointment the same way she always had. After all, here was perfectly good blood, freshly flowing. Why let it go to waste?

Once clean and dressed, she unlocked one of her smaller rooms, where her maids were never allowed. The chamber was empty save for a single wooden table in the center. It was covered in white chalk symbols and carried a cow’s skull, surrounded by several candles burned halfway down. Ludmila lit the candles and placed her bloody cloth on the altar, next to a lock of Vladislav’s hair. She'd taken it their first night together, cut it while he was sleeping for occasions just like this.

Imke, goddess of womb and hearth,” she implored in her mother tongue, “as the red flower blooms, so too should my king’s heart. May his eyes see me as though for the first time, and may his blood warm at the sight.”

Tonight, she would mix her blood with the king’s favorite wine, sing him songs from her homeland, and play her lute. Her childlessness would be forgotten for a time, leaving her free to turn her attentions back to the prince's impending nuptials.

For Ludmila had learned long ago that the best spells in the world were always the simplest ones: spells to kindle affection, spells to quell it…and even spells to render a womb completely barren.

Fantasy

About the author

Alliyah Gallows

I'm a goth scribbler from Houston, TX. Follow me on IG @mileenaxyz.

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights

Comments

There are no comments for this story

Be the first to respond and start the conversation.

Sign in to comment

    Find us on social media

    Miscellaneous links

    • Explore
    • Contact
    • Privacy Policy
    • Terms of Use
    • Support

    © 2022 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.