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Wind Rider

P. C. Cast

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  This book is dedicated to my dad, eternally my Mighty Mouse and my hero.

  This one was especially fun!


  As always I thank my agent and friend, Meredith Bernstein. How many is this now?

  Thank you to my Macmillan family, especially Monique Patterson, Jennifer Enderlin, Anne-Marie Tallberg, and Jessica Preeg.

  I appreciate the beautiful art created by my friend Sabine Stangenberg.

  Thank you to my awesome daughter, Kristin, who is always there to help me brainstorm and listen to me complain and rejoice. “Writing is hard!”

  And an extra-special thank-you to my dad, Dick L. Cast, who worked with me to mutate and create the fantastic post-apocalyptic flora and fauna in Tales of a New World. He is directly responsible for the Mouths and the Monkeys!



  Dawn was teasing the horizon and causing the sky to blush when River made her way silently from the crowded tent she shared with her mother, her two aunts, five cousins, three younger sisters, her mother’s mare and the two geldings who had many years ago chosen her aunts as their Riders. As Rider of the Lead Mare of Herd Magenti, her mother’s tent was situated close to the center of the spiral of stone monoliths that marked the Rendezvous Site as a place of layline power, but even had the stones not been there, positioned like ancient, mute guardians, the cavernous underground opening that lay in the center of them was evidence of the destructive power of the sun that was so great that centuries ago it had opened the earth and utterly changed the world. River glanced at the mouth of the cave, trying to get a glimpse of the herd of weanlings that waited within, but all she could see were shadows thrown by torches, though she could hear their restless nickers and nervous movements.

  River resisted the draw of the weanlings. It was against Herd law for any Candidate to interact with the young horses after they’d arrived at the Rendezvous Site—one reason they remained hidden away in the cave that usually housed entire Herds within the safety of its depths.

  Today is the Choosing. I only have a couple of hours left to wait for something I’ve been dreaming about since I was old enough to dream.

  River felt light-headed with nervous excitement. Even this early in the glooming before sunrise the huge campsite was already beginning to hum with activity. She turned her back on the cave and continued to wind her way through camp quickly, keeping her head ducked down—hoping not to be recognized.

  “A mare’s luck to you today, River!” called a vaguely familiar voice.

  River didn’t pause, but she did wave briefly in acknowledgment as she picked up her pace. She wanted just a few moments to herself before the day began and she became the center of attention.

  Don’t be so dramatic. Not everyone will be watching you—just everyone from your Herd, River chided herself with silent sarcasm as she wove her way through the rest of the bright purple tents that spiraled from her mother’s and marked the boundary of Herd Magenti. Her Herd. Her life. And, today, the source of her nervousness.

  Purple tents gave way to the differing shades of blue that marked Herd Indigo. River smiled to herself. Unlike her Herd, who valued one true, deep shade of purple to represent them, the Indigo Riders took pride in how many different blues they could create. It annoyed her mother, but River thought the variety was refreshing and beautiful.

  This early morning she didn’t stop to admire the array of colors as she would normally, but instead skirted Herd Indigo. She turned to her left and kicked into a jog, passing the yellow and red tents of Herds Jonquil and Cinnabar until she came to a gentle rise in the land as prairie met the cross timber line that meant a creek was nearby.

  Relieved that this section of the clear, swiftly moving Weanling Creek was currently empty of other visitors, River rushed down the grassy rise to the sandy bank. She used one of the long, purple strips of cloth she’d grabbed from the pile of specially dyed and decorated ribbons that would very shortly be woven into her hair, and used it to tie back her unruly mass of ebony curls. Then she knelt in the soft sand and dipped her hands in the creek, ladling the crystal water over her face. River sucked in her breath at how cold it was, as it was too early in the spring for the prairie to have heated up enough to take any of the chill off the mountain-fed creek. But River ignored the cold and washed her face carefully before pulling off her nightdress and, naked, wading into the creek, carefully choosing her steps over the smooth rocks, until she was waist deep. Without hesitation, she submerged herself to her neck and closed her eyes.

  Wash away my nervousness and doubts. Help me to make Herd Magenti and my mother proud. Great Mother Mare and Father Stallion, please let me be found worthy and Chosen as a Rider today.

  Chosen today …

  Those two words filled River’s mind as she remained submerged, ignoring the cold of the water.

  It was finally the day, and if it happened—if she was Chosen—after today her life would irrevocably change.

  And, of course, should she not be Chosen her life would change as well. Oh, there would be other Rendezvous. Every child of the Herd who had known sixteen winters was Presented at a Rendezvous three times—given three opportunities to be Chosen in consecutive years—and those who were never Chosen were still valuable members of their Herd. But they were not Wind Riders. Sure, they could ride—everyone born into the Herd could ride—but there was a vast difference between being seated on the back of a horse as a passenger and being bonded mind, body, and spirit to a horse who Chose you as his or her Rider, Companion, and life partner.

  River had grown up observing the bond between her mother and her beautiful mare, Echo, and she craved that incredible, unbreakable, indescribable connection. Preparing herself for today had been her focus for as much of her sixteen years of life as she could remember, and for the last year it had been her obsession.

  “I don’t care if the weanling who Chooses me is a contender for Lead Mare or Herd Stallion. I’d be happy with any horse—a sweet gelding would be wonderful. Just please, please let me belong to one of them. Let me be a weanling’s Choice today.”

  “You shouldn’t be worried. You know you have your mother’s seat, and Echo Chose her at the very first Rendezvous she was Presented.”

  Slowly, River turned to face the voice behind her that drifted across the creek. He was standing on the bank, holding her nightdress and smiling at her. His hair had gotten so long! And it was braided with scarlet ribbons that matched his vest, which left his wide, muscular chest mostly bare and made him look more than just two short years older than her. River felt a rush of happiness that surprised her—she hadn’t realized she’d missed him that much.

  “Clayton! When I didn’t see you the past few days I thought you wouldn’t make the Rendezvous. I’m glad you did—even if it means you eavesdropped on my prayers.”

  “I didn’t eavesdrop. I just sho
wed up and you were already praying—loudly.”

  “Riiiight. I’ll try to remember next time to pray more quietly. What are you doing out here anyway?” She grinned mischievously at him. “Want to join me bathing?”

  Clayton snorted. “No! I missed you and I was out here looking for you, but I choose to bathe like civilized people—in a tub heated by a hearthfire—or, better yet, in a steaming hot spring.”

  “Still a baby,” River teased, her full lips turning up.

  “Still a brat,” Clayton countered. “You should come out of there before you turn blue and have to petition Herd Indigo to join them. Plus, I have a good luck gift for you—though you don’t really need it.”

  “A gift?” With no sense of modesty or seduction, River stood and made her way to the bank and Clayton, who handed her the abandoned nightdress. She dried herself using the end of the skirt as she looked up at her friend. “You got tall.”

  “Taller,” he corrected.

  “And vainer as well?”

  “Nah. I’m pretty sure I’m still as vain as I’ve always been,” he teased.

  She slid the nightdress on and studied him. “You look stronger, too. I think you have more muscles. Herd Cinnabar must have kept you and Bard busy this winter. Where is your colt?” River glanced behind Clayton, expecting the three-year-old to be waiting in the lightening shadows that clung stubbornly to the grassy area beneath the verdant post oaks and willows that lined Weanling Creek.

  “My mother insisted on taking out the red ribbons from his mane and tail and is currently braiding them with what she calls the proper color.”

  “Herd Magenti’s purple, of course.”

  “None other.”

  “Um, did she not see that you’re wearing these?” River reached up and tugged on one of the scarlet ribbons in his hair. “Or this?” And tapped a finger on the blood-colored vest. This close to him she could see that it was intricately decorated with rearing horses in a deep sorrel thread made from a horse’s mane.

  “She did. She told me to take them out and change into a decent vest and then she shooed me away when she began cooing to Bard about how much she missed him and how it was well past time his mane was braided properly.”

  “Hey, want to see real cooing? Watch how everyone treats Echo.” She laughed softly as she rolled her eyes.

  But instead of laughing with her, Clayton’s expression sobered. “Well, sure, everyone coos over Echo. She’s Lead Mare, the wisest, strongest, soundest, most beautiful equine in Herd Magenti—many say in all the Five Great Herds.”

  River’s shoulders slumped. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean to sound bitter about Echo. She is magnificent and I love her as much as I love Mother.”

  “Then who did you mean to sound bitter about?”

  She answered his question with two of her own. “Clayton, would you say Echo is an extension of my mother? That Mother reflects Echo’s qualities?”

  He didn’t hesitate with his answer. “Yes, I would. Everyone would—in our Herd and the others.”

  “I would, too. My fear is that I don’t.”

  “You don’t what?”

  “Reflect her qualities.” She met Clayton’s gaze. “I don’t want to disappoint Mother or our Herd.”

  “You won’t. You couldn’t. Unless you’ve changed drastically over the six months I was gone?” His raised brows challenged her.

  “No. I’m still me.”

  “Then you’re the most dedicated Rider I know. Hey, don’t let all the people and the talk get inside your head. You know weanlings can sense your nerves. Focus on being yourself and on being open to accepting any horse that comes to you today—that’s all you need to do.”

  “Oh, that’s all?” River rolled her eyes.

  “Well, almost all. If you’re Chosen you’ll have the weight of the Herd’s expectations on your shoulders, especially if a filly chooses you. And if you don’t get Chosen you’ll have the weight of the Herd’s expectations on your shoulders as they worry about who will be Rider to our next Lead Mare…” He grinned at her. “There. Did that help?”

  “Absolutely not,” she said.

  Then the two friends grinned at each other and Clayton opened his arms. “Come here, worrier. I missed you a lot.”

  River stepped into his embrace, finding it strange and familiar at the same time. He hugged her tightly and she clung to him as well. Then, as was her right as a daughter of the Herd, River chose to break the embrace, stepping back to look up at Clayton.

  “I hoped you missed me, too,” he said.

  “I did!” She could see in his eyes that he wanted to say more and she held her breath, hoping he wouldn’t make their reunion awkward. And, thankfully, he didn’t. Instead he reached into his pocket and took out something concealed in his fisted hand.

  “For you.”

  She opened her hand and Clayton dropped the crystal into her palm. It fitted perfectly there—a long finger of glistening quartz. It was warm from his touch, but as it connected with her skin it heated even further, syncing with the Magenti Crystal Seer blood that ran strong through her veins. River could feel it—feel the sleeping power of the crystal—and though she wasn’t even a Wind Rider yet, the stone began to wake and harmonize with her, calming the firefly-like thoughts that had nervously been flitting through her mind since she’d arrived at the Rendezvous Site two days before.

  Instinctively, her breathing slowed and her shoulders relaxed, and for the first time in days they stopped burning with tension. River opened her mouth to thank Clayton for the amazing gift, and then her thanks turned into a shocked gasp as the soft light of dawn caught the crystal’s faceted surface, revealing what was within.

  “Clayton! It’s a phantom!”

  “Keep looking. It’s not just a phantom.”

  River lifted the crystal, squinting to study it, and her eyes widened. “Oh, Mother Mare! It’s an amethyst phantom! Clayton, I can’t accept this. It’s way too valuable.”

  Clayton gently closed her hand around the crystal. “Not to me it isn’t. To me it’s just beautiful. It takes a female Wind Rider of Herd Magenti to wake its secrets.”

  “You could trade this for so many things—a whole tent of your own. Seriously, Clayton, take it back.”

  “I believe it’s too late for that. You look relaxed—or at least you did before you noticed it was a phantom. It woke for you, didn’t it?”

  River couldn’t help herself. She opened her palm and stared at the glistening gift. She could feel the rhythm of her heartbeat echoing through the crystal.

  “Well? It’s awake, isn’t it?” he prodded.

  “Yes.” She couldn’t take her eyes from the stone. “It’s definitely awake.”

  “I knew it! You have more than your mother’s seat. You’re also a Crystal Seer!”

  Her gaze snapped up from the crystal. She glanced around them as she told him, “Ssh! We can’t know that for sure unless I’m Chosen by a weanling. You know it would be looked at as pure arrogance if anyone heard either of us say something like that.”

  “But it’s the truth—you’re holding the proof in your hand.”

  “All I’m holding in my hand is an extremely unusual, powerful crystal that recognized and resonated with my blood.”

  “Blood that has a history of producing powerful Seers,” Clayton added. “Do you know what property the amethyst phantom signifies? After I found it I didn’t want to ask anyone. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I knew it was a phantom and that was enough to make me keep it hidden until I got it to you.”

  River’s gaze went back to the crystal, warm and pulsing in her open palm. “The amethyst phantom allows Seers to see the beginnings of each life cycle.”

  “Wow. But, uh, what does that mean?”

  “It means that this crystal can be used to see what life lessons a person was meant to learn each life cycle, and knowing that, the Seer can help the person understand what he or she was meant to accompl
ish.” River looked from the crystal into Clayton’s dark eyes. “For instance, if you were depressed—I mean really depressed, not just a little sad—a Seer could use this phantom to look at your lives and see what it is that you haven’t accomplished in this life that your soul is aching for.”

  Clayton nodded. “There was a girl in Herd Cinnabar who was like that. So, so sad. She and her mare went over a cliff—purposefully. No one could stop them. No one could help her. Do you mean this crystal could’ve saved her?”

  “In the hands of a Crystal Seer, yes, probably. But don’t be too hard on yourself. You didn’t have any way of knowing that.”

  “It happened before I found the crystal. But I’m glad I know now, and I’m glad I found the stone and put it in your hands.” Clayton reached out and cupped one of those hands in both of his, rubbing his thumb in a slow, sensual caress across the skin of her wrist. “Use it to help others, Crystal Seer.”

  “I’m not a Seer,” she said automatically, though she could feel the crystal echoing her heartbeat.

  “Not yet you aren’t. Let’s see what happens later this morning, though. At least it has helped relax you a little.”

  “More than a little,” River said. Impulsively she tiptoed, hugged him, and then kissed him softly on his cheek. “Thank you! This is a wonderful gift.”

  As she pulled away he caught her face in his hands gently. “River, I thought about you every day I was gone.”

  “Every day for six months is a lot of thinking,” she said. “I’m pretty sure you’re exaggerating.”

  “I’m not exaggerating and I’m also not kidding around. I’d show you how serious I am if you’d give me the chance.”

  Slowly, River stepped back so that Clayton had to stop cupping her face. “Clayton, all I’m thinking about right now is the Choosing.”

  “That’s all you ever think about.”

  Her gaze remained steady on his. “You’re right. Becoming a Wind Rider is now, and has been for as long as I have memories, the most important thing in my life.”