Wandering Dolls: Chapter 1

Here, have a scene from my newest WIP! To learn more about it, check out the Books section of the site.

In ten days, the world will end. 

This is what Daga’s mother had told her, as she had been told by her mother, as she had been told by her mother, and on and on for centuries. The world would end after the Autumn festival, to be reborn in the Spring. 

And it all started with the Pageant, the most important ritual of the year. 

Daga was effervescent with excitement, because today was the Choosing. One girl in her seventeenth year would be chosen to play the Pageant’s Maiden. The Maiden would be the center of attention for the whole Autumn Festival. She would have the best place at the feast. All of the best young people would want to dance with her. She would be crowned and celebrated and admired. If that were not inducement enough, everybody knew that being chosen as the Maiden was almost a guarantee that you would be married by the next year. To be secure of a lover by your eighteenth year—Daga could scarcely even laugh for giddiness. She was a hopeless romantic, always full of quixotic notions and swooning stories. To find her true love—that would be everything. 

“Daga! Dagmara! You’re letting the hem trail.” Jadzia’s voice pierced through Daga’s reverie. 

“Oh no!” Her stomach sank. Indeed, the white pageant gown in her hands had dragged in the dirt, muddying the hem. She would have to wash the whole thing again. 

“Daydreaming again?” Jadzia teased lightly. 

“I can’t help it!” Daga balled up the dress and dunked it into the washtub. “How can you think of anything else right now?” 

“Because there’s work to be done. We can’t have a festival in dirty clothes.” Daga knew that Jadzia was also excited, but her joys had always been more tempered and measured than Daga’s free-floating, spiraling emotions. She shared her enthusiasm in quiet smiles and hidden twinkles of her eye. 

On the other side of the washtub, Poldek snorted. “All you think of is the festival. Festival this, festival that.” 

“You’re just jealous because boys can’t be chosen.” Daga stuck out her tongue at him. “You only get to play the gods.” 

Playing Zerno and Belo in the Pageant were both honors afforded to someone of any gender, but only those who identified as female could be chosen as Maiden. 

“No one will be chosen if you don’t hurry.” He checked his pocket watch. “The ceremony starts in twenty minutes.” 

Jadzia gasped and looked ashamed of herself. “Oh no! I should have been more watchful of the time. Let’s hurry.” 

Daga would have been happy to abandon the washing, but too-good Jadzia and Poldek would never allow them to shirk their work, even for something so important as the Choosing. Still, that didn’t keep Daga from rushing through her scrubbing and haphazardly pinning clothes to the line like frantic butterflies. 

Pulling up her skirt, Daga raced with her friends to the square outside of the town council hall, where already most of the villagers were gathered. Pieklo was large enough that there were people whose names she didn’t know, but small enough that their number wasn’t many. She scanned the faces, wondering who among them would be Maiden. 

The ceremony had already started by the time they found their places at the back of the crowd. Cezary Krzeszewska, mayor and head of the elders council, stood at the front podium, arms spread wide. He wore the traditional stroje ludowe in celebration of the festival season. The costume consisted of a white linen shirt, a bright blue embroidered vest shaking with tassels, and striped trousers. His krakuska hat with its red felt and peacock feather sat proudly atop his salt-and-pepper hair. He was of a middling age, younger than the youngest of the elders, and Daga admired him deeply, although Jadzia often reminded her that he was of an age with her own father. “It’s mere respect,” Daga would say, blushing. 

Cezary’s trademark broad smile seemed to glow especially for Daga today as he proclaimed, “People of Pieklo! Today marks the beginning of the end of the world!” 

A raucous cheer roared from the crowd. Daga whooped along with them; excitement like ale bubbled up from her stomach into her throat until she was almost dizzy with it.  

Cezary basked for a moment in the applause, then he shushed the crowd, who obediently fell to a low murmur. “To ensure the rebirth of the world in the spring, today we choose a Maiden from among our girls who have come of age this year.” 

Daga shivered with excitement and looked around at the faces of girls she recognized. Any female people in their seventeenth year were eligible. It was a carefully guarded secret every year, who would be chosen and how exactly the decision was made. There were no common threads among the choices as far as wealth, popularity, or appearance. Every girl was eligible, and every girl was equally possible. Daga surveyed the girls around her and dreamed. Would it be Ksenia, mild and brown-skinned and sedately beautiful? Or Szarlota, freckled and pale and independent and loud? Or perhaps Kazimiera, with her striking dark hair and olive skin and easy smiles? 

Or, perhaps, could it be Daga herself? Clumsy, red-headed, and plain? She crossed her fingers against the evil eye and prayed to Belo. Choose me. Choose me. Her fingertips fizzed with electric anticipation. 

Cezary’s eyes twinkled as he surveyed the group of young women clustered at the front of the crowd. Daga eased forward onto her toes, straining towards him as though if only he could see her, he would choose her. 

“Our Autumn festival maiden this year is . . .” The silence lengthened into a vibrating, living thing. The crowd thrummed like the plucked string of a lute. “Jadwiga Grzybowska!” 

Daga’s insides froze. Of course. Of course they would choose Jadzia. Jadzia, lithe and fair, her blond braid with never a strand out of place. Not like Daga’s wild red locks always windblown and tangled with leaves from lying in the grass, dreaming of other worlds. Jadzia, mild-mannered and obedient. Not Daga, who frequently forgot to collect the goats from grazing because she was reading a story of romantic adventure in the ruined castle. 

Happy cheers and whoops boiled up from the crowd. The other young women clapped politely, although many a disappointed air contoured their well-bred smiles.  

Moisture threatened to glass up Daga’s eyes and betray her feelings to Jadzia, who looked as flabbergasted as though she had just been sentenced to death. Daga clenched her fists and plastered a smile onto her lips. Jadzia was the last person to believe in her own merits; Daga always had to do that for her. She couldn’t hurt her friend by betraying her envy. “Jadzia, I’m so happy for you!” 

Jadzia relaxed, although only a little. “It should have been you, Daga.” 

Yes, it should have, said Daga’s traitorous mind. But she shook her head extra fiercely, because she knew that Jadzia absolutely meant it. “No, it should be you. You deserve it.” And Daga meant that too, even though the other half of her was clutching and cold in its envy. 

Poldek beamed and threaded his fingers shyly through his blond hair. “Go, Jadzia, they’re waiting for you! Congratulations!” 

“Oh! Right!” Jadzia blushed deeply. The crowd parted and strained to catch a glimpse of her face. With small, uncertain steps, she walked through the gauntlet towards Cezary and the town council on the stage. 

Daga watched Poldek watch her go. A moony expression slackened his mouth and dusted his eyes with starlight. He had been in love with Jadzia for years, and everybody knew it—except for Jadzia. Another hot claw of jealousy closed around Daga’s heart. Not because she was in love with Jadzia or Poldek—Jadzia was too much her sister to think of romantically and Poldek was Poldek. But because Jadzia, always unsuspicious of anything that distinguished her, would eventually realize that Poldek loved her, and that she could love him. They would marry, and Daga would be alone. 

Daga shook her head and some of the darkness cleared. No, no, she couldn’t think like that. Her prince or princess would come for her, just like in the stories. She just had to wait. For now, she was happy with her family and her friends. Her wonderful best friend had just attained the highest honor that Pieklo could gift to a young woman. And what would follow this ceremony was ten days of dancing, revelry, and merriment. 

A genuine smile settled onto Daga’s lips, and with it true delight eased the sting from her heart. It was not in her nature to be melancholy; she could never sustain a negative mood for long. 

Ten days of merriment, and her best friend as Maiden. It was perfect. It was glorious. 

It would be an Autumn festival she would never forget.