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Wind Rider, Page 2

P. C. Cast

  “But when you’re Chosen today–”

  “If,” she corrected. “No one can predict a Choosing.”

  “Fine. If you’re Chosen today then will you have time for more in your life?”

  “I don’t know,” she said honestly. “I haven’t thought beyond the Choosing.”

  Clayton drew a deep breath and then said all in one big rush, “Would you please tell me if you’re even attracted to me or would you rather mate with another guy, or even a woman?” There was no bitterness in Clayton’s voice. The Herd considered sexuality fluid, so there was no stigma attached to women loving women, or men loving men—or even a woman deciding she would rather live as a man or a man desiring to live as a woman. Sexual exploration was normal and natural, and as long as it was consensual, all was accepted.

  River answered him with the only truth she knew. “I think you’re pleasing to look at. You’re smart and funny, and we’ve been friends since we were children. But I don’t have sexual feelings for you. I’ve told you that before—many times. I don’t have sexual feelings for anyone. I just want to be Chosen and begin my life as a Wind Rider and, hopefully, a Crystal Seer. That’s what is most important to me. Can you understand that?”

  Clayton’s body language completely changed. He crossed his arms and took a step back. His expression went from cajoling to flat and emotionless. Bitterness gave his otherwise charming voice a hard edge. “Can I understand you not having sexual feelings for anyone? No, not really. River, you’re sixteen. I’m eighteen. Everyone else our age—everyone we’ve grown up with and everyone we meet who’s about our age from the other Herds—they’re falling in and out of love and are pretty obsessed with it. So, no, I do not understand what the hell is wrong with you. But that doesn’t change the fact that I care about you—as more than just a friend. And I wish you would give us a chance.” He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “I’d wish you luck today, but you won’t need it. Your weanling will find you, and maybe then you’ll have time for the rest of your life—for love and a mate.”

  Then Clayton turned away from her and was gone.

  River waited, holding the crystal tightly and allowing it to slow her heartbeat and soothe her roiling stomach. Then she retraced her steps up the small incline.

  I won’t let it hurt me. I won’t let it make me feel like I don’t belong. Not today.

  River paused at the top of the incline and gazed out at the Herds that spread before her on the Tallgrass Prairie. The sun had lifted above the horizon. It was fat and the color of a ripe peach, shining a light that seemed suddenly golden upon the Rendezvous Site.

  The huge granite monoliths, mined centuries before by their ancestors from the nearby Rock Mountains, had flecks of crystals in them, and the caress of the morning sun made them sparkle magickally. They’d been placed in a careful spiral surrounding the slash in the earth that had been formed during the earthquakes that had razed the prairie when the sun exploded uncounted generations ago. Mirroring the spiral placement of the stones, the Herds circled around the cave, turning the prairie into a patchwork of color.

  River’s eyes found Herd Magenti first. Its purple tents and the long, swallowtail pennant that waved lazily in the morning breeze with the Herd’s insignia of a cluster of crystals shimmered and drew her gaze like fire draws moths. River loved her Herd, and was proud that the blood of Magenti Wind Riders was the only blood that produced Crystal Seers—those who awakened crystals and their sleeping properties within.

  There is nothing wrong with me! The Herd accepts me. Mother has never once chastised me for not choosing a lover or going on and on about wishing someone would desire me. We haven’t even spoken of it. And my friends don’t say much about it, either. Well, at least not much anymore.

  But did she really have friends? Or had they stopped teasing and questioning her because she’d withdrawn from them, especially over the past year?

  River clutched the crystal, drawing on the grounding properties of quartz to soothe the tumultuous thoughts Clayton had brought to the surface. She slowed her breathing. A wild neigh of greeting pulled her attention from the cluster of purple to the emerald green tents of Herd Virides and their pennant, adorned with the outline of a running stallion, as was proper for the Herd that consistently produced the swiftest horses. She watched a stallion prance to a woman dressed all in green. The woman embraced her Companion and then he bowed slightly—not in a sign of subservience, but in a sign of love so that she was able to leap onto his wide, bare back. Once she was astride the stallion the magnificent horse tossed his head and pranced before leaping up and kicking out spectacularly. River was sure she heard the Rider’s joyous laughter echoing around her before she lost sight of them among the tents and other waking horses and Riders.

  It would be nice to be Chosen by a colt—one that would someday become a stallion. Nice, but not River’s dream.

  Her gaze went from the green tents to Herd Jonquil and their bright, sun yellow tents. Their pennant was the easiest to read from a distance as the dark outline of a magnificent bison labeled their Herd as supreme hunters.

  Beside Jonquil was Herd Cinnabar, with their bloodred tents and their pennant that showed a single black spear. From as far north as the great, frozen lakes, as far south as the brackish entrance to the Southern Sea, as well as all the way east to the Mighty Miss, the river that served as boundary of the prairie, to the base of the Rock Mountains just west of where they were now, young men and women Wind Riders came from all corners of the enormous prairie to train with Herd Cinnabar’s unparalleled warriors.

  Did Clayton go to them because of me? Because I rejected him? She’d not had that thought before and she immediately pushed it away. If I am why he left, then that is his issue, not mine. I promised him nothing. I’ve promised no one anything!

  River squeezed the crystal around her fisted hand, letting the warmth from it thaw the anger within her that made her feel cold and alone.

  Calm again, River’s gaze went to the beautiful blue tents that marked Herd Indigo. Each was a unique shade, and from this distance she thought they looked like water refracting the sun’s rays. She saw that this time their pennant was a sweet, summer day blue that showed off nicely the intricately braided circular pattern that filled the center of it, symbolizing that Herd Indigo were experts in the complex art of healing.

  Each of the Five Great Herds was a unique part of a whole. Though different, they depended upon one another—they traded together; they shared the bloodlines of their horses; they mated with one another—they were together, yet separate.

  Why is that not okay for me? Why can’t I be part of our Herd, but not intimately tied with any one person?

  It had confused River since she and her female friends had begun to develop breasts and bleed with their moon time. That change had affected River physically, as it had the other girls, but unlike them it hadn’t affected her mentally—or at least not much it hadn’t.

  River’s focus had remained the same—she wanted to be Chosen. She wanted to be the kind of Rider her mother and her Herd could be proud of. The other girls? They still did their assigned duties caring for the Herd, but where they all used to pretend to be Wind Riders together and daydream about racing over the Tallgrass Prairie and leading Herd Magenti into prosperous season after season, her friends now wanted nothing more than to rush through their duties so they could preen for and flirt with boys who not so long before had been too silly and immature for them to even bother being friends with.

  River thought they were ridiculous for letting lust command so much of their lives. She sighed. If she was going to be honest with herself she had to admit that her friends obviously thought River ridiculous for not lusting after anyone.

  Sure, she’d done some experimenting. She’d let Clayton kiss her—several times, actually, before he’d left for warrior training with Herd Cinnabar. The kisses—they’d been okay. Not great. Not awful. Just okay. Certainly nothing to gush and gigg
le over.

  River had also kissed Gretchen, one of her childhood friends who very openly liked girls and boys. She’d liked how soft Gretchen was, and appreciated her beauty, but again the kiss was just okay.

  “I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. No kiss has ever made me feel even close to the excitement that fills my mind, body, and spirit when I’m with the Herd’s horses. And why is that so wrong—so hard for my friends and Clayton to understand?” River queried the warming air around her as her eyes continued to scan the Rendezvous Site in appreciation of the combined might of the five Wind Rider Herds.

  With a jolt she realized how sun-filled the morning had become and how much activity was happening on the prairie below her and she hurried down the lip of the bank, sprinting toward the purple tents of Herd Magenti.

  * * *

  “Hold still—I’m almost done!” River’s mother reprimanded her as she fidgeted.

  “Mother, I look great. I have too many ribbons in my hair already. We’re going to be late!”

  “You can never have too many ribbons in your hair,” said River’s Aunt Heather as she ducked inside their tent. “But River is right. Those being Presented are circling. The rest of the Herd is already there waiting to cheer our arrival. Time for us to go.”

  “Take the girls and go ahead. River and I will follow shortly. They will wait for all the Riders of the Lead Mares to arrive, especially when one of those Riders has a daughter being Presented,” said her mother, completely unfazed by the nervous excitement that filled the air.

  “Mother, please. Let’s go. Now. My friends are already there.”

  “The last thing on your mind this morning should be what others do or think.” Then her mother smiled, softening the admonishment. “They will wait. Cinnabar has a daughter of their Lead Mare Rider to Present as well. You can bet she hasn’t arrived yet either.” Her mother stepped back, studying River. “You are almost perfect.”

  “Mother—almost?” River paused, trying not to whine or bolt out of the tent.

  “Yes, almost. And I know how to make you entirely perfect.” Her mother went to the worn wooden travel box that doubled as a table. She moved aside the purple cloth draped over it and opened the lid, easily finding what she sought in an inside drawer. Then she straightened and approached her impatient eldest child, holding the sparkling necklace out before her. “This makes you entirely perfect.”

  “Oh! That was Grandmother’s necklace. I thought it was entombed with her.”

  “No.” River’s mother paused, touching the necklace reverently. “She asked specially that this piece not go with her to the Otherworld Plains. She wanted you to have it on your Choosing Day.”

  “But don’t you think Grandmother meant for me to have it only if I’m Chosen?” River blinked away tears as she stared at the necklace she hadn’t seen in the five years since her Grandmother’s death. It was just as beautiful as she remembered. Silver beads that had been carved with tiny images of horses were interspersed with the most exquisite amethyst stones River had ever seen anyone wear. The purple was the shade of spring lilacs. Each stone was the size of an unshelled walnut, but flat and faceted to catch and play with light.

  “No. Your grandmother told me exactly what she meant. She said, Give this to River on the morning she is to be Presented, and give her my love in a kiss that morning as well. Now turn and let me fasten this on you.”

  River wiped tears from her eyes as she obeyed her mother. The necklace hung heavy and reassuring around her neck. River reached up to touch the two largest amethyst stones that dangled from the main part of the necklace. They were smooth and cool at first, though after just a few moments she could feel them heating and syncing with her heartbeat.

  Her mother turned her and studied River again, this time with tears pooling in her eyes. Then she lifted a polished piece of precious glass, holding it so that she and her daughter could gaze into it together.

  River touched the center amethyst stone, thinking that her grandmother’s necklace looked extraordinary against her smooth, dark skin. Her mother always had been exceptionally good at braiding the Herd’s ribbons into her hair, and this special morning Dawn had done a spectacular job on River’s mane of black curls, weaving ribbons throughout in an intricate braid pattern that hugged her scalp, but allowed her hair to cascade freely down her back to mingle with purple ribbons embroidered with silver horse hair from her mother’s precious mare. Even River, who rarely gave much thought to how she looked, had to admit that the effect was striking against her burnished shoulders.

  “Is that really me?”

  Dawn wiped a tear from her eye and put her arm around her beloved eldest child. “It is, and you are magnificent.” She kissed River on the forehead. “This is from your grandmother.” Then she kissed her daughter softly on the lips. “And this is from me. Remember that I will always be proud of you. All I ask is that you behave with kindness and honesty, and that you always do your best.”

  “And if I’m not Ch–”

  “No!” Her mother cut off her words. “We are not speaking of weanlings now. We are speaking of my daughter, of whom I am now, and always will be, proud. Today be calm. Be present. Be open. Be yourself. That is all I, or any weanling, can ask of you.”

  “I’m nervous.”

  “I am, too!” Dawn gently touched her daughter’s cheek. “But not because I doubt the outcome of today. I do not. I am nervous because my eldest child becomes an adult today, and that makes Echo and me feel very old.”

  As if on cue, the Lead Mare’s head pushed aside the curtained doorway and she blew through her nose impatiently.

  “I know!” River laughed, wiping away the last of her tears. “Tell Mother. She took forever with my hair.”

  River’s mother went to the mare and stroked her wide forehead. River thought the mare looked particularly beautiful today with the specially decorated purple ribbons braided into her silver mane, which fell in graceful drapes over the mare’s spotless coat—a coat so perfectly white the Herd often described it as silver. Her muzzle, a velvet charcoal gray, lifted and lipped her Rider’s shoulder. Finding the strap of her heavily decorated purple tunic, Echo tugged.

  “Okay! We’re ready!” Dawn laughed at her mare.

  River followed her mother from their tent and her stomach fluttered as she glanced around at the empty tents.

  “My precious daughter, do not look so nervous. Remember who you are and what you represent. Hold your head high. You carry within you the blood of a famous line of Lead Mare Riders—something no one can deny.”

  “I’ll remember,” River said solemnly, shaking off as much of her nerves as possible.

  “Echo, my beauty, let us show the Herds how the daughter of Magenti’s Lead Mare Rider is Presented.” Echo went to her knee and Dawn turned to her daughter. “Go ahead—mount her.” She gestured to the silver mare.

  “But, um, aren’t you…” River stared at the magickal mare. It was a rare thing for Echo to be ridden by anyone except her mother, and even rarer for her to be ridden in front of the other Herds by anyone except her mother.

  “Oh, I’ll be right beside you, but today is your day, and Echo and I wish to honor you.”

  “Thank you, Mother. Thank you, Echo. I—I just hope I don’t let you down.”

  Echo snorted at River and swished her tail.

  “I agree,” her mother said. “Echo and I have no time for that kind of negativity. Daughter, you need to remember that you are enough—just as you are at this moment. Anything else is simply extra blessings from the Great Mother Mare. Now, hurry and mount. You’re going to be late!” she finished with a teasing smile.

  “That’s what I’ve been saying,” River grumbled as she approached Echo, fisted a handful of shining white mane entwined with purple ribbons, and easily mounted.

  Echo stood and her mother moved up to the mare’s head. When she began walking, Echo did too. Heads held high, the Lead Mare Rider and the Lead Mare for
Herd Magenti radiated beauty and strength. Automatically, River straightened her spine even as she sat deep, lightly gripping the mare’s sides with her thighs—her bare skin dark against Echo’s silver-white coat—River knew she and the mare looked striking together. Even walking Echo had an undeniable grace and River’s heart swelled with pride as they entered the path that led to the huge outdoor Choosing Theater and then paused at the opening as first River’s aunt caught sight of them.

  “It’s River on Echo! Herd Magenti!”

  “Herd Magenti!”

  “River and our Echo! Herd Magenti!”

  The cheers lifted around them and Echo arched her neck, prancing in place.

  “Go ahead, my beauty—take River to her spot,” Dawn said, stroking her mare’s neck. She looked up at her daughter, pride shining in her eyes. “Hold tight. Echo likes to show off. Sit tall and proud so that all the Herds might see the pride she and I have in you. Echo and I wish you a mare’s luck, Daughter.”

  River started to thank her mother, but Echo had decided she was finished with waiting. Tail lifted, the exquisite mare shot onto the flat, grassy field, galloping around the circle already formed by those being Presented as all of Herd Magenti, and several of the other Herds as well, cheered her on. River felt as if she were flying. She could see that the rows of stone seats that rose tier after tier up from the floor of the theater were completely filled with people, all dressed in their finest, draped in ribbons and beads and jewelry in their Herd’s color. All around the rear circumference of the theater horses stood, ears pricked forward—waiting and watching with such joyful anticipation that River could swear she could taste its sweetness on the breeze.

  Echo slid to a stop before the group of Candidates decorated in Magenti purple and River quickly dismounted, hugged the silver mare, and then took her place with the others from her Herd.

  “Finally! We thought something had happened and you were going to miss it,” said her Herdmate, Skye, as she moved to make room for River.