There were still patches of snow in the tall grass; as if it grew too fast and shut out the sun. They sat on a rise waiting for the horses to return, regretting the lack of shelter. Sometimes the horses came late, and a yurt would have been helpful.
Töregene didn't give a shit, and Yelena had nowhere to go anyway. It took quite a lot to be banished by the Kahn. Banishment was for cowards not worthy of execution. Yelena disagreed with the verdict; turning husbands into small dogs wasn't cowardly, it was efficient. Snapping their necks took planning; you couldn't just do it outside the city walls or in the sanctity of the family yurt. If a husband was to be executed, he was to be executed publicly with a spectacular display of strength. She put on a full scale production the first time, but snapped his neck too quickly for the Kahn's taste and was punished with two more husbands. Yelena was fifteen and exhausted. It was good of Töregene to sit with her; she didn't think she'd object to wandering the steppes alone. She objected to dying alone.
An outcast is still a person. A dead outcast without anyone to perform the rites was an outcast without a spirit to pass on. To die alone is to perish forever. Even a rider, dead half a year could be returned; it only required the smallest possession cast upon the fire. Yelena might be found one day, but without a name she was meaningless. Maybe her irrelevance was the cause of all this sadness. She said as much to Töregene.
You know, you don't have to be a non-person. Decide what you want and make it so.
What I want is to matter. I want to be seen. It doesn't have to be much; I just don't want to vanish.
So, go then. Go and make a new life with new husbands in a place where no one cares if you turn them into dogs.
Töregene, I turned them into dogs because I didn't want them in the first place.
Husbands are necessary. Even if we don't like them, we need them for children.
I can get my children in other ways. I don't need a husband for that.
When the horses returned, Töregene picked two and handed one to Yelena. She pointed to the west, paused, and moved the dial of her arm slightly north. Yelena was already mounted with half of Töregene's possessions on her back. They'd stripped her of her weapons before she turned away; but that was largely ceremonial. She'd never really needed them. Töregene didn't need them either, but accepted the value of discretion; she never understood why Yelena had to be so damn obstinate. She asked if Yelena would accept her gift; but that was also ceremonial. Yelena accepted only the traditional and Töregene was caught off gaurd. She didn't want to do it. If she did this thing, she would not see Yelena again; not in this lifetime, not in the next. To be immortal is to walk away from the living. You can have as much contact as you like, but gone is gone.
Töregene took a stone from a small sack and held up her hand. Yelena had to take it; free will is the foundation of any act of magic. She reached out, plucked the stone from Töregene's palm, popped it in her mouth, and swallowed. Töregene grinned. This is my sister; when she's decided a thing, there's no room for hesitation. Yelena gave Töregene one last look and headed west. Töregene bound the horses and turned to face the mountain. Now she was alone with the magic; that felt empty and somehow wrong. It took an egregious act of violence to bring it back; but that was a long time later and she couldn't see the outcome.
Becoming a Forest Witch took a lot more work than Yelena was counting on. She made a house and a garden but was burned twice at the stake before she accepted that doing anything she pleased had consequences. She moved deeper into the forest and worked on transparency. Two centuries passed before Yelena encountered another human being. In the meantime, she'd discovered fear.
Yelena had migrated farther west than expected. When you get up and move your house every six months, you've got to expect an eventual change in scenery. The hardest change to understand were the faces. It was a gradual shift, but eventually she had to accept that she was moving through ghosts. She must have left the land of the people without noticing. They were pale, their faces nearly shapeless, they'd lost the high, broad cheekbones. Noses were too narrow. They must not need to breathe. However, they were easily spooked, which made no sense. Why would a ghost be alarmed by a Forest Witch? She couldn't do anything to them; they were already dead.
It was an accident the first time. Her horse spooked and kicked a man to the ground. She turned and rode back for a closer look. He was motionless and he was bleeding. Only people and animals bleed. Why is he bleeding? She dismounted to get a closer look and realized he was breathing through that tiny, narrow nose. His breathing was shallow and there was an awful lot of blood. Yelena thought she ought to fix him. Accidents often require reparation, and it's the polite thing to do anyway. She cupped the back of his head with her right hand. With her left, she put her fingertips to his neck. The blood still pulsed, he would live.
The man staggered to his feet, felt the back of his head, and turned to face her. She was still kneeling when the axe came down on the back of her neck. He didn't cut clear though and so she allowed him to live. Cutting clear through would have taken a great deal of effort to repair and she was tired again. It was sadness that brought on tired, and people that brought on sadness. Without a word, she turned him into a dog, got back on her horse, and left the village.
In her wake, she left behind the seed that grew a thousand years of myth, legend, and fear. She didn't know.