Sigh. I'm late. The story isn't going as quickly as I'd hoped. I've written 90%, but I'm struggling over the last part. I'm going to post what I have. Maybe the feedback I get from you all will help me write the last 10%. I'm posting the first half of it, because it is going to be a little long for one sitting.
Thanks for reading and posting.
First draft and subject to change. Please don't quote or post anywhere else.
When Mora came to the Run of the Unicorns, the other girls laughed at her and made jeers and catcalls.
“Misfit Mora!” “Why are you here, Ugly?” “Not even a unicorn’s horn can make you beautiful!”
When Mora stood on the path, silent and stubborn, the girls threw pebbles at her.
I’m ashamed to say I threw one, too, but only a little pebble that I’m sure didn’t hurt her much.
And then the first wave of unicorns appeared on the path, running, running toward some unknown goal, for some unknown purpose. I stood, transfixed, watching the sea of white approach, the flow of long manes, the flash of dark eyes, the rhythmic rise and fall of wicked sharp hooves, the deadly gleam of bone-white horns.
A cloud of noise and dust enveloped me. I coughed and choked and could hardly see the straining white bodies all around me, dancing and swerving and leaping to avoid us. The feeling of wild magic and purpose ripped a longing cry from my throat—but a longing for what, I could not say.
I heard that same sound to one side of me and turned my head to see Mora standing nearly at my shoulder, her arms outstretched to the herd. She stood in the path of a unicorn that did not swerve to one side, but appeared ready to run her down.
Something brushed past me. Tarla, the oldest of us, thrust herself between Mora and me, directly in the unicorn’s way. At the last moment, the unicorn made an impossible leap over all of us, and Tarla sprawled in the dirt.
And the unicorns were past, white mass of struggling bodies disappearing as quickly as they’d come. Silence returned, dust settling in fine clouds.
Tarla jerked to her feet, angry, disappointed sparks in her eyes.
“If you weren’t going to try, at least you could have moved, Cali, instead of standing there like a lump!”
I looked around to see that every girl panted from her efforts for a slice, a graze, the veriest bit of drawn blood from the Touch of a unicorn—except for Mora and me—I because I didn’t, she because she couldn’t.
“And her! The great cow! Look at her! She can’t even stand on her own two feet!” Tarla gave a snort like an angry mare and stormed toward the encampment.
I blinked and wiped the dirt from my eyes. I gazed up the path, but the next wave of unicorns would not come through for some time yet.
I hesitated beside Mora. She lay in the rutted path and tears made clean tracks in the dirt on her face. She said nothing and would not look at me.
Squashing the impulse to help her up, I continued on. I looked back once to see Mora struggle painfully to her feet and shuffle away with a jerking, injured-bird motion.
As I neared the encampment, I could already hear Tarla raging.
“Why does she get to stand with us? She spoils our chances! The unicorns are attracted to chastity, aren’t they? Then why is she allowed?”
“She cannot be forbidden,” I heard Matron Aryn say in a hard voice. “And you would do well to bide your tongue, Tarla. Mora had no choice in what happened to her.”
I passed beyond earshot. My mother waited at the entrance to our tent with a damp towel, which she used to wipe the dust from my face, arms, and hands, and looked to see if any hint of blood lingered on the skin.
“Don’t bother,” I said with impatience. “I never even got close.”
My mother refocused on my face, blinking her eyes. “If you don’t try, why did we come?”
I was silent. ‘Because it’s expected,’ seemed like the wrong answer.
“Mora stood in the Run,” I told her at last.
She stilled, her hands clutching the damp towel. After a moment, she turned away and said, “That must have been difficult for her with that left hip and leg.”
I don’t know what I expected her to say, but I didn’t expect such a mild comment from her.
“The girls threw rocks at her.”
She drew a breath, but didn’t turn around. “Did you?”
“One. Very tiny.”
“Don’t do it again,” my mother said.
Something in her voice dried my throat and raised goosebumps in my flesh. I backed out of the tent. I could hear her crying before I hurried away.
Tarla found me crouching on a spot that overlooked the Run, watching the empty trail. She stood there, waves of anger emanating from her, until I turned my head.
“Your family has more reason than anyone not to want Mora here. Why don’t you speak up?”
I shrugged and dropped my gaze, drawing pictures in the dirt by my feet.
“You know that this is the one chance we have at the Run. The Matrons won’t let us return next year. We’ll be too old.”
“We don’t have the right to keep her out,” I said.
Tarla seethed. “If you don’t have the stomach for it, at least don’t get in my way.”
I watched her walk away, angry determination in every step. I sighed. If I followed the spirit of my mother’s command and not just the letter, I should do something to stop Tarla.
Mora was not in sight when the Hopefuls walked through the line of waiting Matrons. With blessings ringing in my ears and holy water trickling down the back of my neck, I stepped onto the Run to find Mora already there. The Matrons had blessed her onto the Run first.
I noted that she had not cleaned herself—swathes of dust still decorated her cheek and dress. The tear tracks stood out on her dirty cheek like scars.
As soon as the Matrons had finished and withdrawn, Tarla moved to stand in front of Mora.
“You’re not welcome here,” Tarla told her. “You’re not worthy to stand in the Run.”
“Why, because she’s not a virgin?” I heard myself say.
Tarla whirled on me, stunned and furious.
“That’s an old wive’s tale,” I continued. “I’ll lay odds half the girls here aren’t virgins. When Natina the Blessed was Touched, she was married. You know as well as I do that chastity has nothing to do with it, only age.”
“Why do you defend her! She destroyed your family!”
I made my eyes and voice cold. “You know nothing of it. And it seems to me you argue too loudly. Maybe we’re not having good luck because of you. You’re the oldest one here. Maybe you’re too old.”
Fright flashed in her eyes. “You’re just trying to stall us.”
The first tremors of the Run crept through my shoes and into the soles of my feet. I smiled at her. “The unicorns are coming,” I said softly.
Tarla turned aside, planting herself solidly, aggressively in the front, hands clenched into fists. The other girls fell in behind her.
Mora, after one unfathomable look in my direction, faced the unicorns. I found a position not far from her.
We stood like rocks in the stream, thunder beneath our feet, and the smell of magic in our nostrils.