River Dragon's Curse
by Jamie Lackey
Lin peeled off her rough dress and dropped it beside the dusty trail. The still, dry air stung in her lungs, and the glaring heat of the sun burned against her skin.
She glanced over her shoulder. No one had followed her. At least not yet. They were still mourning the chickens that had died from the heat.
Her throat tightened, and her hand shook. She pressed her palm against her belly and imagined a stirring there. She was sure it was too early for that, but there it was anyway--another sign that her body was not her own.
She swallowed, glanced up at the punishing sun, and took a deep breath. "This is your best option," she told herself. "At least this way, the drought will end."
She stepped into the river. Slimy mud oozed between her bare toes, and cool, brown water curled around her ankles. Despite everything, she sighed in relief as the water cooled her skin.
It took seconds for River Dragon to sense her presence. Scales flashed in the water. Lin flinched. Her good sense screamed at her to run.
She took a step forward.
The river swirled around her thighs, and River Dragon's angry, pinched face emerged from the water. His long, serpentine tail brushed against the backs of Lin's knees.
Lin's whole body shook, and ripples spread around her. Her breathing came in tiny gasps. There was no turning back now. "I--I have come as a sacrifice."
Shouts sounded on the path behind her, and Lin dashed a few more steps into the river, so that the muddy water would protect her modesty.
And what good is modesty to me now, anyway? she wondered, disgusted with herself.
River Dragon coiled his body around her--not tight enough to hurt, but she couldn't move. His scales slid smoothly against her skin, warmer than the water around them. He smelled like fish and lightning.
Lin forced herself to relax into River Dragon's embrace. It can't be any worse than Lord Ji, she told herself.
Lin heard footsteps on the bank behind her, then her mother wailing. Then splashing while someone--probably her brother Hao--stopped her mother from rushing into the river after her. Lin's throat tightened. She didn't look back. It's better this way. For everyone.
River Dragon hissed in anger, and his coils tightened. "This girl gives herself as a sacrifice to me. Do not disrespect me further, else your village will continue to suffer."
"Calm yourself, woman. Your display is unseemly." Lord Ji's ever-present sneer twisted his words.
How dare he speak to my mother that way! Rage flashed through Lin, white and hot. I'm here to die. I don't have anything to lose. "I also offer you the life of my unborn child, River Dragon."
River Dragon spun her around, so that she was facing the shore. The entire village was gathered there. Her mother, father, and Hao all wore matching expressions of shock. Lord Ji's face was blank. He looked almost handsome without his sneer.
Regret flickered through her. I wonder if my baby would be handsome?
River Dragon lowered his head to her belly and listened for a few heartbeats. His pinched face split into a grin. "A healthy boy!" he exclaimed. "A most worthy sacrifice!"
Lin's mother covered her mouth with both hands. Hao's gaze shifted to Lord Ji. His face was tight with hatred. Oh, Hao. Don't do anything stupid. I'm not going to be around to protect you from him anymore.
But maybe she could protect her family, her village, beyond just lifting River Dragon's curse. It had been Lord Ji's disrespect that brought River Dragon's anger down on the village in the first place. Everyone would be better off without him.
A plan blossomed in Lin's mind. She took a deep breath. "Not only a boy, but a noble."
"That is a lie!" shouted Lord Ji.
"Lord Ji told me to tell no one about the child," Lin said. "He didn't want you to know, River Dragon. He didn't think you were worthy of such a sacrifice. But I know differently. My family honors you."
"She is crazy," Lord Ji said. "I would never sully myself by dallying with a peasant."
River Dragon's tail whipped out of the water and wrapped around Lord Ji. Within moments, he was tangled in coils in the river next to Lin. If she could have moved, she would have kicked him.
River Dragon laid his ear against Lord Ji's chest and listened.
"The child is yours," River Dragon roared. "You dare lie to me?"
Lord Ji stammered an incomprehensible reply.
River Dragon dropped Lin from his coils and spun her toward the shore. "I will take this one as my sacrifice, in payment for his disrespect and his lies. You will take his place. Raise his son to honor me, as you do, and there will be peace between us." Lord Ji's head disappeared under the brown water. River Dragon met Lin's eyes and nodded to her solemnly. "I lift my curse from your village."
He vanished without a ripple.
Lin stood ankle-deep in the river, stunned to be alive, dizzy and naked in front of the whole village. Mud clung between her toes, and her skin stank of river and dragon. Her mother ran to her and wrapped her arms around Lin's bare shoulders. Hao brought her dress and bowed as he gave it to her.
Thunder boomed overhead, and gentle rain began to fall on the parched ground.
Lin pulled her dress over hear head, marched out of the river, and led her people home.