From the author: An adaptation of a Scandinavian fairy tale written into a fantastical version of ancient Mongolia.
Unegen raised her bow and nocked an arrow. Beneath her, Altan's legs churned at a canter. The mare had a smooth gait, but Unegen was still jarred with every stride. She concentrated on rolling with the motion, and when she was satisfied that they were as moving as one, she drew back the bowstring with her thumb. She adjusted for their movement and the wind, and then loosed. Not her best shot ever. She knew that as soon as the arrow left her fingers. Still, she hit the target just a bit off center.
As she slowed the mare, her brother Oyugun pulled up alongside, his long hair flowing out behind him. "I think you're better than me now."
She smiled up at her eldest brother. His face was tanned dark from long days in the sun. "You could beat that shot."
Fine lines around his eyes deepened with his answering smile. "Perhaps."
She stroked Altan's neck. "Thank you for teaching me." The other hunters had laughed when she said she wanted to learn the craft, but not Oyugun.
The mirth fell away from his face. "It's been my pleasure. I've never trained anyone who tries as hard as you do."
"I don't have the luxury of giving up." She gave Altan another pat, no longer able to meet Oyugun's eyes. They both knew that sooner or later she would have to give up the hunt.
For a long moment, the only sound was the hissing of the dry grass around them and the passage of their horses through it. The campfire stories of sorcerers who came for disobedient children in the night didn't scare her nearly as much as the prospect of losing the freedom she loved.
When Oyugun finally spoke, his voice was low and soothing, as if talking to a skittish horse. "Father wants to see all of us."
Unegen turned back to her brother, making sure her face betrayed none of her turbulent emotions. He led the way into the sprawling encampment.
"Did he say what he wanted?" Unegen asked as they approached a group of horses grazing in an area of younger grass. They handed off their horses to a pair of boys minding the herd for cooling out.
Oyugun shook his head and continued on to their father's yurt at the center of the camp. He ducked to enter the low doorway of the dwelling and waited for her to enter before lowering the door flap. Unegen wrinkled her nose as the faint scent of kumis surrounded her, sour after the fresh air outside. Her father rarely indulged in fermented milk unless celebrating or mourning. She wondered which occasion this might be.
Her other four brothers were already kneeling before their father's chair. The gnarled wooden chair, passed down for generations from father to son, was the one piece of furniture in the entire camp. Oyugun winked at Unegen before taking his place at the far left of the line.
Unegen moved to the right side and knelt. She tucked the front edge of her hunting deel under her knees so as not to wrinkle the heavy fabric. She clasped her hands before her, bowed her head, and waited.
A whisper of slippers over a woven mat announced the clan chief's entrance, but none of the children moved so much as a finger. When the chief of the Iarudi finally stood before them, he clapped his hands. All six siblings looked up as one. Unegen's father looked slowly over the line of his offspring, starting with Oyugun and working his way toward Unegen. He smiled broadly, deep lines creasing his weathered face.
"I have said since the day the first of you were born that my children are my life. For this reason I have kept all of you close, probably for longer than I should have. The time has come for you to begin your own families."
One of her brothers muttered something that drew a sharp look from her father. Unegen swallowed. She'd been dreading this day for years. Her father indulged her interest in what were traditionally men's pursuits, but her husband likely wouldn't.
"As is our way, my sons will find wives from outside. Oyugun, I trust you to lead your brothers on a hunt for suitable brides."
"Of course, Father. What of Unegen?"
"She will remain here with me. I couldn't bear to be parted from all of you at once. Find her a husband in your travels as well. Bring her a man with a backbone or she'll trample him."
Her brothers and her father all laughed. Unegen's cheeks heated. "If you truly love me, you will bring me no man at all."
Her father's face became serious. He stepped closer to her and cradled her chin in his calloused hand. "My fierce little fox. I only want you to be happy."
"Then let me stay by your side forever. I want no husband, no children. I want to ride and hunt, as you do."
"You will grow out of that, and you will thank me for ensuring you didn't turn into an old unmarried aunt in the meantime."
Unegen scowled, but she didn't argue further. She knew he wouldn't change his mind, no more than she would.
Oyugun broke the tension with a hearty chuckle. "I will find her a husband as pliable as the high grass in the summer wind. That is the only way he'll survive her wrath."
The men laughed again, but Unegen didn't. She clung to the hope that, in the excitement of finding himself and his brothers brides, Oyugun would forget all about finding her a husband.
Moons passed into seasons and summer came around again, and there was no word from Unegen's brothers. Her father sank into despair. He sent scouts in all directions to search for them, heedless of the cost.
The clan began to suffer from the lack of men. For the first time in her life, the other hunters seemed pleased to have Unegen join them to fill their depleted ranks. She worked hard alongside the other hunters to fill the near-empty smokers, and in so doing gained the respect of men who had once scorned her desire to learn from them. Still, every dusk that fell without the return of her brothers brought further unease.
Unegen desperately wanted to join the searches, but her father would hear no word of her leaving. He shouted that she couldn't possibly survive an enemy that had bested her five brothers, and perhaps he was right. Regardless, she packed secretly and headed off one night with only Altan for companionship.
Unegen rode her mare over a wide stone bridge to the Palace of the Seven Waterfalls. She had followed the trail of her five missing brothers from the dry steppes into the verdant foothills, and now finally to the cold severity of the mountains. The merchants and townsfolk nearby all told the same story. A sorceress had come down from the high reaches and conquered the palace in less than a day. Her brothers had last been seen within the walls, wooing the old king's handful of daughters. No one had heard from them since.
As Unegen approached the gate, the uneasy silence of the place sent a shiver through her. Altan's hooves clomping rhythmically over the bridge was the only sound. She couldn't say exactly what bothered her until she glanced over the barren cliffs to either side of the palace walls. The waterfalls that lent their name to the palace were silent, stopped up so that the naked, water-smoothed stone face was visible. The amount of power required to halt the fall of that much water staggered the mind.
Unegen considered turning around. She could go back to her father and tell him what had happened. He would raise an army, and they would stand a better chance than one girl on her own.
Would they, though?
What chance did an army have against a sorceress? Even if her father raised a thousand men, would that be enough?
As she continued to ride forward, a row of statues came into view in the courtyard, and they decided her. At the very front was a statue she recognized as Oyugun, and her stomach clenched. She wanted to cry out, to run to him and hug him just to feel him in her arms. He wouldn't hug her back, though. She drew a shaking breath and kept riding past them.
Oyugun stood frozen, having been turned to stone in the act of loosing an arrow from his longbow--the string still hadn't returned to the resting position. Neither the arrow nor his target was anywhere to be seen. What Oyugun aimed for, he hit. That his attacker wasn't in view meant the rumors had been true: the sorceress couldn't be killed by conventional means.
Her brothers stood in a semicircle, shielding five young women, also stone, from whatever had attacked them. They had been trying to escape through the gate, but the sorceress had trapped them all with her spell.
"You've wandered far from where it's safe, little duckling." A warm honey voice poured from the palace and smothered Unegen.
Altan stopped abruptly, her hooves mired in something Unegen couldn't see. The mare's ears laid back. Her muscles strained as she tried to work herself free.
"Please don't hurt my horse," Unegen managed to gasp out.
The constrictive hold loosened somewhat. "Why don't you beg for your own life?"
She glanced over the darkened palace windows but couldn't find the source of the voice. "I'm ready to ride the winds with my ancestors."
The force binding Unegen fell away. "Leave the horse and continue forward. Try to escape and I will kill you both before you make it two steps."
Unegen dismounted and led Altan to a patch of grass deeper within the courtyard. She continued toward the palace doors, checking each window as she moved closer.
The doors were fashioned of the largest pieces of wood Unegen had ever seen. Ornate carvings depicted the waterfalls that should have surrounded the palace. When she was several paces from the doors, they swung inward. The sunlight only penetrated a few hand spans before being absorbed by the darkness.
The voice startled her. Getting her feet moving again was easier than it should have been, given the situation. Once she was inside, the outer doors closed with a heavy thump, and she was submerged in blackness.
Her breaths came faster. For what felt like a very long time, nothing happened. Something touched her face, and she flinched. A sound like low chanting brushed her ears, but she couldn't make sense of the words. Then light blossomed, so slowly at first that Unegen was sure it was her imagination.
Reclining before her was the most singularly beautiful person Unegen had ever seen. Long dark hair was piled atop the woman's head in intricate braids. Her cheekbones formed high angles that accentuated her skin, which was as golden and burnished as the dawn.
"Closer," the sorceress purred.
Unegen stumbled forward and ended up on her knees beside the sorceress. The scent of bluebeard flowers filled her head.
A gust of wind removed Unegen's hat and blew her hair back from her face. The sorceress reached to caress her cheek. "Why have you come, duckling?"
The truth almost came pouring out, but at the last moment Unegen caught her traitorous tongue. "I've heard stories of sorcerers, but I wanted to see one for myself."
The sorceress gripped Unegen's chin and pulled her closer, close enough that Unegen could see her reflection in the night-dark eyes.
"You are a brave one." The warm wash of the sorceress's breath feathered her cheeks.
Unegen didn't feel very brave with her heart thumping in her throat like a frightened hare. "Thank you."
"Don't you have a husband to keep you out of trouble? You seem a likely age."
"I don't ever want to marry."
One corner of the sorceress's mouth lifted. "Neither do I." She released her grip on Unegen's chin. "You amuse me. I will keep you as a pet until you cease to."
Unegen knelt in the front room of the palace, trying very hard not to move. Before her, the sorceress lounged in an ornate chair with a leg draped over one gilded arm, her embroidered red skirt gathered above her knee. She could sit that way for hours, her unfocused gaze searching for something beyond the world that Unegen could see. The moment Unegen moved, the sorceress would come out of her trance and ask a question as if they'd been deep in conversation rather than sitting in silence for half the day.
The question was usually absurd, and often impossible, but the answer wasn't important. The sorceress enjoyed watching her squirm more than anything else.
Her calf twitched. Unegen let out a slow breath and wiggled her toes to try to relax her cramped muscles. She had been in the palace nearly a full moon cycle and hadn't made any progress in freeing her brothers. If the campfire stories were to be believed, the only way the sorceress could be defeated was to find where she'd hidden her heart.
Whenever she was left alone, Unegen searched for the sorceress's heart. The palace had a seemingly unending number of rooms and alcoves, all silent and cold as the coming winter. She looked under lavish, empty beds and in cabinets that bore the disintegrating clothing of the former residents, but she found no sign of a heart. She began to wonder if the key to defeating a sorcerer had been made up or was a symbol of something else.
She finally gave in to the building discomfort in her leg and shifted to sitting cross-legged.
The sorceress blinked. "Have you ever been in love?"
Unegen folded her hands in her lap, trying to hide how uneasy the question made her; that would only make it worse. "My father believes love is a conceit of the village-born with no place among the clans."
The sorceress tapped her lacquered nails against the arm of the chair. "I didn't ask what your father thought."
"I'm not interested in becoming someone's wife, so it's never been a consideration."
"Also not what I asked."
Unegen looked down at her hands. Her nails were cut short and square because long nails weren't practical when knuckle-deep in guts. Why did she suddenly have the urge to grow them? "I love to hunt."
The sorceress didn't respond until Unegen lifted her gaze and their eyes met. "Tell me."
"I love to feel the wind on my face as I chase down my prey." Unegen paused, breathless. "I love the thrill when my arrow strikes true."
"And when the helpless animal falls to the ground, do you love that too?"
Unegen's cheeks heated. "I feel no shame for the lives I've taken."
"Yet you judge me for the same. I can see the disgust when you look at me."
"I kill so that my clan may survive."
The sorceress stood, the lines of her body taut. Power crackled around her. "The king of this place murdered the only person I ever loved when she wouldn't agree to wed his awful son."
Unegen recoiled when the sorceress's emotions pressed against her. Loss. Loneliness. Despair. So much pain that she couldn't draw a breath.
"That is what love is." The sorceress's voice echoed through the room, rattling the furnishings.
A tiny noise squeezed through Unegen's constricted throat. The idea that the pathetic sound might be her last act shamed her far more than the fact that she'd failed to see her brothers safely home. Then, without warning, the oppressive darkness lifted as if someone had thrown open the windows to let in the sun. Unegen collapsed, gasping for breath.
The sorceress turned and stalked toward the door, fists curled at her sides.
Unegen watched the sorceress's retreating form from the floor. She'd never considered that the sorceress might have a reason for her rampage. "I'm sorry he broke your heart."
The sorceress paused. "Because of him I have no heart." Her shoulders lifted and dropped with a heavy sigh before she continued on, leaving Unegen broken and alone.
Unegen didn't see the sorceress for two days. She spent most of her time in the courtyard, staring at the statues of her brothers. Every time she focused on Oyugun's face, tears threatened. He always knew what to do next.
She'd searched every dusty corner of the palace, but somehow she knew this was the last place the sorceress would have brought her heart. Unegen had failed to rescue her brothers, and she was out of ideas.
When the sorceress finally returned, her fine dress was wrinkled and soiled. She wandered to the rock wall where Unegen sat and settled next to her. She glanced over the statues. "They were trying to protect the king's daughters from my wrath, which is why they're still alive."
Unegen swallowed. "Then why not let them go?"
"If I undo the spell, they will probably try to fill me with arrows again."
"But they can't kill you, can they?"
"No, but arrows hurt." The sorceress shrugged. "It's easier to leave them like this."
"Surely they have families that miss them?"
The sorceress turned toward Unegen, her dark eyes narrowing. "They didn't consider my family before they tried to turn me into a porcupine."
Unegen glanced at Oyugun. He focused on his target, dispassionate and calm. No, he wouldn't have considered the sorceress's family, or even her humanity. In that moment all that mattered was the arrow and the target. Didn't that make him the same as the sorceress?
Unegen looked back at the sorceress. "Where is your family?"
"A long way from here. I was born where the earth ends, far beyond the steppes."
"The giant sea of salt?"
"The very one. I'm surprised you know of it."
"My father saw it once. He likes to tell the story."
"When I left to train in the mountains, I was sure I'd never see home again." The sorceress gazed out over the grasslands far below them, her lips held in a tight line as if to hold back sharing more.
"I don't think I could make that choice."
"I didn't have a choice, not then. Powerful men wanted to use my talent, and my family was poor."
"Will you go back to see them now?"
The sorceress shut her eyes briefly, lashes casting long shadows over her cheeks. "I've become something they wouldn't understand."
"I'm sure they miss you and would like to see you all the same."
The sorceress nodded in the direction of the palace. "After this I would only bring them pain." Sadness marred the delicate curves of her face. She fussed with the ruined skirt of her dress as she stood.
As Unegen rose to join the sorceress, a surge of pity bloomed within her. She couldn't afford to feel sorry for the sorceress, not if she wanted to find a way to free her brothers. "I'll draw you a bath."
The sorceress caught Unegen's arm. "Why are you so kind to me? I've taken you prisoner." She tilted her head to one side, the fall of her dark hair stirring in the mountain breeze, vulnerable in a way Unegen hadn't seen before.
Standing so close, Unegen worried the sorceress would pick up on a lie. "There's nowhere else I want to be right now." Close enough to the truth, she hoped.
The sorceress sighed and leaned against Unegen's shoulder, the heat of her body a decadent counterpoint the cool mountain air. "I'm sorry I hurt you."
Unegen suppressed a shiver. The shape of the new plan forming in her mind disturbed her. In order to find out where the heart was hidden, she had to make the sorceress trust her. She wrapped an arm around the sorceress's back and guided her to the main doors of the palace.
Altan was frisky when Unegen went out to feed her and the other palace horses the following morning. The mare wanted to play, so Unegen spent some time with her, chasing her around the gardens. Frost rimmed all the plants, but it melted at the first touch of sunlight. After a while, she felt the sorceress's gaze on her and glanced back at the palace. The sorceress stood framed in the arched doorway, her hands tucked into the sleeves of her floor-length fur-lined coat.
Unegen grabbed a bunch of bluebeard she had gathered and headed toward the palace. When she drew near the sorceress, she held the flowers out. "They're nearly wilted from the cold. I thought we should bring them inside."
Dark eyes appraised Unegen for a long moment, and then the sorceress reached for the flowers. She buried her nose in the blossoms and inhaled. A contented hum floated through the air.
"You must be almost as frozen as they are, come inside." The sorceress's voice was deep and velvet. The warm touch of her fingers closed around Unegen's chilled hand. Unegen let herself be drawn through the doorway into the front room. The sorceress turned back to say something, but Unegen pulled her closer and covered her open mouth with a kiss.
Unegen had never been kissed. A handful of young boys in her father's clan had tried, but most of them ran off when she shoved them away, and one had left with a black eye. That had discouraged the rest. She'd never understood the appeal. Until now.
The sorceress tasted of honey and spices from her morning tea. Her lips were soft and warm, and they yielded at the slightest nudge. Unegen lost herself in the rhythmic pattern of their mingled breath. Her heart raced when the sorceress clutched her tighter, their bodies fitting together as if carved from a single piece of stone.
Like a statue.
Unegen pulled away. Disgust nearly upended her stomach. How close had she come to betraying her family for a single kiss? The woman in front of her, no matter how alluring, had turned her brothers to stone.
The perfume of the bluebeard, crushed between them, was heavy in the room, a haunting memory of the kiss.
"You've never kissed a woman?" The sorceress finally said into the silence. She watched Unegen, dark eyes wary.
"I've never kissed anyone."
"You've got a natural talent, then." A small smile lifted one corner of the sorceress's mouth.
Unegen remembered the touch of those lips too well. Her cheeks burned and she looked away. "I'm sorry if I overstepped."
Petals from the ruined flowers drifted to the tiled floor as the sorceress stepped closer. "You didn't." She waited until Unegen met her eyes again. "Since Erdene was killed, I've had trouble connecting to this world. I'm thankful you came along when you did."
Unegen found the sorceress's direct attention somehow disconcerting and appealing at the same time. "What was she like? Was she very beautiful, like you?"
The sorceress smiled. "She would not have said so, but I thought so." She touched Unegen's face. Her soft fingers traced the curve of Unegen's cheekbone. "Sometimes you remind me of her. She was also a creature too wild for the role she'd been born into."
Being compared to the sorceress's dead lover should have been a boon for Unegen, but an uneasy feeling settled in her gut and wouldn't let go. "Is that why you've kept me here, because I remind you of her?"
"Perhaps." The sorceress withdrew her hand. "Does that upset you?"
Unegen clamped her jaw. The idea that the kiss they'd shared somehow belonged to the other woman gnawed at her until she couldn't hold the anger back. "Yes."
The sorceress hesitated for a moment that drew out as she stared into Unegen's eyes. Finally, the sorceress looked away. "You are free to go whenever you like."
Unegen reached for the sorceress's arm. "I don't want to go."
"What do you want, then? I have nothing else to give you but your freedom."
"I want your heart." Unegen regretted the words as soon as they'd left her mouth. The truth of them made her eyes sting. She'd never wanted anything so badly.
The sorceress drew back, her face smoothing to an impassive mask. "What would you do with such a treasure?"
Unegen struggled for an answer that wouldn't be a lie and also wouldn't give away her true mission. She leaned closer. "Give it back to you, so you could see me and not just the ghost of her."
The sorceress pulled her arm free and turned away. Her shoulders rose with a sigh. "The ridge above this palace is home to a temple built when men first ventured into these mountains. They thought to commune with the gods by proximity to them." She wrapped her arms around herself and squeezed. "Within that temple there is a box that holds the item you seek."
Unegen had no idea it could be so easy as asking. Joy filled her to bursting. She could save her brothers after all. She was most of the way out of the room before she realized she'd taken off without saying goodbye. When she turned to tell the sorceress she'd be back soon, there was no one else in the room.
The silent elegance of the temple loomed over Unegen as she tried to regain her breath. Her fingers burned, scraped raw on the climb up the cliff that had once been a waterfall. The sorceress had stopped the flow of water further upstream, and as a result, the arms of the river that had embraced the temple had been turned into muddy ditches.
Unegen waded through one sloppy channel toward the temple. With each step she thought she might lose her boot in the knee-deep mire. By the time she made it across, her legs shook with exhaustion and she was breathing hard again.
Closer to the structure, she could pick out the differences in color and texture of stones that formed complex designs on the walls of the temple. Gilded accents at the corners and apex of the roof glittered in the afternoon sun. Whatever gods protected this temple were still in residence. Unegen held her breath as she passed through the oversized doorway.
She hesitated just beyond the door to let her eyes adjust to the dim interior. Small footprints framed in dust showed the way the sorceress had gone. Unegen followed the path, the sound of her boots echoing from the cavernous ceiling. Tiny speckles of colored light danced over the floor in a strange circular pattern. In the center of the room, the footprints abruptly ended.
Unegen looked up. Ten body-lengths above her, a jeweled object shaped very much like a large bird's egg hung from a rope, and she knew at once that the sorceress's heart was locked inside. She glanced around the room, trying to find something that would help her reach, but the room was as empty as it was dark.
She squinted up again. The shot would be a simple one. She could hit a bird in flight at ten times that distance--but could she catch the egg before it fell? Before she could talk herself out of trying, she unslung her bow, drew an arrow, and stepped back two paces. Unegen nocked, drew back the string, and inhaled. She held her breath as she focused on the rope.
Easy. Just like the target games she'd played with Oyugun. She'd won those since she'd been able to string her bow alone. Oyugun often asked her how she could hit the smallest spot exactly every time, no matter the weather or what was going on around her. She always shrugged, not because she didn't know, but because the answer sounded ridiculous. She waited until it felt right.
The instant she loosed she knew the arrow would cleave the rope exactly as she had pictured it. She lowered her bow and stepped forward, reaching for the egg with her left hand.
Unegen was certain she was too slow. She didn't have any idea what would happen if she dropped the egg, but she didn't want to find out. She dropped her bow--the hunters of her clan would have been horrified--and held out both hands, stretching forward until the weight of the egg fell solidly into her grasp.
With a sigh, she cradled the egg against her body. The egg was slightly warm to the touch, and something inside pulsed with a slow rhythm. She tried to pry the jeweled exterior open, but aside from irritating her raw fingers on the glass, nothing happened. Unegen held up the egg. The pulsing grew louder and the pinpoints of light spun faster, bathing her hands and arms in gold, red, and blue.
She bit the inside of her cheek and wondered what to do next. No idea presented itself, so she tucked the egg into her pouch, collected her bow, and started for the palace.
On her way back she thought of ways to get the egg open. She could try prying or crushing, but that seemed too likely to damage the heart inside. Unegen couldn't be sure if killing the sorceress would free her brothers, so she had to be careful.
When she reached the courtyard, she took the egg from her pouch and held it in both hands. The colored lights echoed the painted sunset sky above her in a way that made her smile.
Rather than call for the sorceress as she'd intended, Unegen paused. The egg seemed so fragile and the idea of smashing it so wrong. Once again, the beating of the heart within grew louder.
Unegen wondered at the pain removing her heart must have caused the sorceress. Was it anything compared to the pain of losing her only love? The colored lights brightened. She ran her fingers over the facets of the egg and the surface shivered. Then she knew, with no doubt, that violence was not the key to opening the egg.
She leaned forward and pressed her lips to one small pane of glass. The egg split open without a sound to reveal its contents.
Unegen had seen many hearts. She'd gutted all manner of animals. But never in her life had she seen an organ so obviously diseased. The heart of the sorceress was blacker than the sky on a moonless night and gnarled with blood vessels that had never existed in a mortal body. She almost dropped the egg when the heart suddenly lurched, but she managed to hold on.
"I see you've found it," the sorceress's disembodied voice said from everywhere. "Are you pleased with your conquest?"
Unegen swallowed and tightened her hands around the egg. The tips of two fingers brushed the warm surface of the pulsing heart. "The men you've imprisoned are my brothers. Set them free or I'll destroy you."
"Duckling," the warm honey voice said, "you would be doing me a service by ending my interminable life." The ground under Unegen's feet grumbled with displeasure. "But I don't take kindly to threats."
Lightning struck from a cloudless sky, so bright and loud that Unegen recoiled, instinctively cradling the egg and heart against her stomach.
The roaring assault stopped, and Unegen tried to catch her breath. "Set them free or I'll kill you." Her voice shook with fear and with the certainty that she could never crush the sorceress's heart. When there was no answer, Unegen lifted her head.
The sorceress stood before Unegen, tears shining in her eyes. "If you had asked me to release them for you, I would have."
Unegen swallowed past the ache in her throat. "Set my brothers free."
The sorceress waved her hand absently. A deep, rumbling sound came from the direction of the statues. The sorceress turned away and retreated inside the palace. Unegen ran for the garden.
Her brothers and their brides readied their horses in the courtyard while Unegen watched the quiet walls of the palace. There had been an argument around the fire the previous night about what their next step should be. The group was split between those that wanted to hunt down the sorceress to try to kill her again and those that wanted to leave her be.
Unegen hadn't told them about the heart. It rested in its egg once more in the pouch that hung from her belt. They had asked how Unegen had freed them, and she responded by saying that she'd merely asked. They all laughed, but they seemed to believe her, except for Oyugun, who frowned but didn't contradict her. In the end, Oyugun had won them all to his side with the argument that hunting the sorceress put the ladies in too much danger.
They were all mounted and ready to set off when Unegen pulled Altan out of line and rode next to Oyugun's mare. "I have something I need to do. Go ahead."
Oyugun's dark eyes scanned the front of the palace. He lowered his voice to a whisper. "She's still in there, isn't she?"
"She won't try to stop you. I'll catch up."
He gave her the full weight of his disapproving frown. "It's too dangerous."
"I've been here for weeks and she hasn't harmed me. I'll be all right." Unegen nudged Altan to bring her around and end the conversation.
"Father will be proud to hear how you rescued us," Oyugun called after her.
"I know." She rode back toward the castle, wondering why he brought up their father now. She didn't look back as Oyugun informed the rest of the party that they would be moving on. If they saw worry in her face, they might not leave.
When she could no longer hear them, she brought Altan to a halt and dismounted. Unegen walked the rest of the way to the palace on foot. She hesitated when she reached the doorway, then pushed the heavy doors open.
"I know you're still here."
"Where else would I go?" The sorceress materialized in front of Unegen, severe and beautiful. "I had hopes your brothers would try to get their revenge."
"Do you crave blood so badly?"
The sorceress paused, then shook her head. "No, but I didn't want you to go."
Trying to ignore the blood rushing to her cheeks, Unegen cleared her throat. "I wanted to give this back to you." She pulled the egg, closed once more, from her pouch.
The sorceress examined the egg with a frown. "You should keep that. How else can you be sure I'll let you all escape?"
"Because I'm not going. I'm staying here." She hadn't been certain what she was going to say until the words escaped her. Relief eased the tension she hadn't realized she'd been carrying since her brothers had been restored.
The sorceress closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, she sighed. "You should be with your family."
Unegen stepped forward, offering the sorceress the jeweled egg. "I've done my duty to them. They are free. I owe them nothing else. They would make me a slave to a husband I don't want."
The corners of the sorceress's lips trembled. "That's yours, to do with as you will."
Unegen lowered the egg and hugged it against her chest. "Then I'll protect it and put an arrow in the heart of anyone who tries to take it from me."
The sorceress smiled softly and reached to touch Unegen's face. The light from the egg intensified, bending swirls of colored light around them. In the distance, the sound of tumbling water began as tears fell from the sorceress's eyes.
This story originally appeared in Vitality, Issue 1.