Authors: Mary H. Herbert
The meara raised his head, his shapely ears pricked forward, and he turned his nose into the night wind. His nostrils flared wide at the chilled smells on the breeze. The winter camp of the clan lay close by in its sheltering basin between two tall, easy hills. Its heavy odours of leather, smoke, dogs, and humans were clear in every detail to the sensitive nose of the stallion. The humans peacefully slept, except for the outriders who rode guard duty around the scattered herds and the large cluster of tents, pens, small outbuildings, and the chieftain’s timbered hall that marked the treld, or winter camp. The outrider near the meara’s herd seemed to be dozing, too, for his head drooped over his chest and his horse stood relaxed.
The big stallion snorted irritably, his sides rippling like molten bronze from a tension he could not identify.
He had been chosen to be the meara, or king stallion, not only for his conformation, beauty, and speed, but also because of his fierce desire to protect his mares. Some unidentified sense in his mind whispered something was wrong. He could not understand what it was yet, and that disturbed him enough to set him trotting up a gentle slope and away from the treld to a spot from which he could survey the meadows.
Up on a rise, he lifted his head to the cold wind. Spring had come in name only, and the frost hung thick in the air. On the eastern horizon, a pale gold band of light heralded the coming day. The breeze stirred again, riffling the meara’s heavy mane.
He breathed deeply of the biting cold and caught a taste of something new on the edge of the wind. There was a hint of softness, a faint wisp of warmth that hadn’t been there before. The wind had swung around from the south, and its swirling tide bore the spicy scent of the Turic deserts far beyond the Altai River and the Ruad el Brashir grasslands. The stallion felt the coming change in the weather as surely as the cold that tingled in his nostrils.
But he realized the wind was not the object of his unease. Wind was a natural part of his existence; something else out there in the night was not. He inhaled again, and this time he caught another scent. It was faint and south of the treld, but it was unmistakable now: horses, many of them, and all strangers. A low sound rumbled deep in his chest.
His neck arched like a strung bow, he pranced along the edge of the meadow where his herd grazed to another hilltop south of the camp. He stopped there, for the scent was stronger and coming closer. He could smell other things, too: leather, metal, and the heavy scent of humans. Not clanspeople. These men smelled different, spicy like the desert.
The meara could hear them now. The strange horses’
pace abruptly broke into a gallop, and their hoofbeats pounded closer. In the dawning light, the stallion saw the horses rise over a distant slope in a long line and charge down the incline toward the sleeping treld. The soft light gleamed on the blades of many swords and on the polished tips of spears.
Wheeling, the meara bellowed a warning to his mares. He galloped back toward his herd while the strange horses thundered over the frozen grass. Somewhere in the camp, a guard shouted. Then another. A horn blew a frantic high note. More cries rang in the chilled dawn air, and men began to appear among the tents.
All the horses in the meadows were alert now, their heads raised to watch the unknown horsemen approach. The newcomers gave a great shout as their mounts reached the first tents on the southern end of the camp. Suddenly there were screams, and the wind became tainted with the smell of blood. The horses grew frightened. The meara alone paid no heed. His only thought was for his herd. Like a tornado he roared across the pasture, bellowing and snapping at the mares to get them moving.
They needed little urging. Neighing with fear, they cantered ahead of their king, away from the blood and the panic and toward the open grassland. No outrider tried to stop them, for the guards were galloping frantically back toward the treld.
Another horn blast cut across the gathering din of shouts, screams, and the clash of weapons. The meara hesitated, stirred by a faint memory from his younger years when he had been trained for battle. The song of the chieftain’s horn had once been an important signal to his mind. His steps slowed, and he turned once to look back. In the brightening day he saw the treld consumed in chaos. The strangers were everywhere, their swords rising and falling among the struggling clanspeople. Women and children scattered everywhere, and the people fought fiercely to defend their homes. Already smoke and flames rose from the chieftain’s hall.
The stallion trumpeted a challenge. He waited for the chieftain’s horn to call again, unaware that the horn lay broken in the bleeding hand of the dying chief. The wait became unbearable, the fear for his mares too great. The stallion turned away from the killing and galloped after the fleeing horses, driving them toward safety on the open sweeps of the Ramtharin Plains.
The wind blew from the south for three days, roaring with the first fanfare of spring across the frozen plains. It was a tossing, tumbling, tumultuous wind, a great warm ocean of air that tossed the trees, swirled the winter-cured grass, and swept in an irresistible current over the far-flung hills. Its warmth erased the last of the snow and filled the valleys with the rippling sheen of water.
In the winter trelds of the eleven clans of Valorian, the clanspeople shook out their rugs and bedding, aired their tents, and rejoiced in the change of the seasons. The clans’ horses lifted their muzzles to the rushing wind and filled their nostrils with the warm, dry breath of the deserts far to the south. The mares waited patiently, knowing the Birthing was coming soon, but the youngsters kicked up their heels to race the wild wind.
In the brilliant blue sky above the high plateau of Moy Tura, one horse did more than lift her heels to the wind. A Hunnuli mare, as black as obsidian, raced to the abrupt edge of the highland and launched herself into the skirts of the wind. For a moment she tucked her front legs and dropped toward the rocky base several hundred feet below. Her rider, a young woman with hair as black as her Hunnuli’s tail, gave a sharp cry of elation; then the horse spread her wings and rose high into the currents.
Wheeling, soaring, hearts high with release, horse and rider flew with the spring wind in the bright, clear light of the morning sun. They headed south on the tides of the air for several hours, until the mare was drenched in sweat and the rugged Himachal Mountains rose like a fortress wall to their right. Southward, where the wind continued to roar, the rolling grasslands faded away into the grey-blue horizon.
The young woman, Kelene, realized it was time to return home, but for a while longer she stared south into the wind. To the south lay Dangari Treld and the Isin River, and farther still lay the winter treld of the Khulinin Clan, the home of her parents, Lord Athlone and Lady Gabria.
Kelene shrugged her shoulders somewhat irritably. She had never imagined three or four years ago that she would move so far from home and miss her parents so deeply. As a girl she had avoided her parents’ love and concern, much as a stubborn child would refuse a sour draught. It wasn’t until she married and moved two hundred leagues away to Moy Tura that she realized how much of her mother and father’s time and wisdom she missed.
“It would be nice,” she said, unaware that she had spoken her wistful thought aloud.
The Hunnuli mare, a horse descended from an ancient and revered breed, cocked her ears back.
What would be nice?
she asked in the silent, telepathic communication that linked all Hunnuli to their riders.
Kelene started out of her reverie and laughed at her own musings. “To see my parents again. It has been so long; I was just thinking how nice it would be to keep flying south and surprise them with a visit.”
The mare, Demira, snorted.
That would be a surprise. Especially to Rafnir. He’s expecting you to help with the wells this afternoon.
The reminder brought a grimace to Kelene’s tanned face. Unexpectedly the delight in the morning dwindled, and she muttered between her teeth, “I am getting just a little tired of that ruin.”
As if the words had opened a dam, her frustrations welled up uncontrollably, like gall in her throat. Kelene shook her head fiercely, trying to deny them. What did she have to be angry about? She had the most wonderful horse in the world, a winged mare who could fly her to any place she chose to go. She had a husband who adored her, parents who loved her, and a rare and gifted talent to heal that made her one of the most respected women in the clans. The weather was glorious, spring was on the way, and this flying ride was everything she had ever dreamed.
Kelene asked herself,
why do I feel so dissatisfied?
She pondered that question while Demira winged her way home on the northern track of the wind. Truth to tell, Kelene decided, her frustration hadn’t been a sudden thing brought on by the thought of her parents or the reminder of unpleasant work. It had been building, layer by thin, brittle layer, for quite some time, and that bothered her.
After all, she knew frustration and setbacks all too well. As a girl she had been crippled and wilful, afraid of her own power and too stubborn to ask for help. Then three years ago during the clans’ annual summer gathering, an old evil escaped and a virulent plague struck the clanspeople. In a desperate attempt to help, Kelene, her brother Savaron, his friend Rafnir, and several other magic-wielders journeyed with the sorcerer, Sayyed, to the forbidden ruins of Moy Tura to look for old healing records that could help save the clans.
Through the midst of the monumental tragedy, Kelene grew to become a competent, caring woman. She learned to accept her strengths and weaknesses and to use her gift of empathy and magic to her utmost. With Rafnir’s help, she gave wings to Demira; she befriended the Korg, the sorcerer in the shape of a stone lion who guarded Moy Tura; and she learned to use the healing stones that helped cure her dying people.
When the dead were buried and clan life began to return to some semblance of normal, Kelene and Rafnir took her parents to Moy Tura and made a startling proposal: they wanted to rebuild the city. Kelene still remembered the exhilarating excitement and anticipation of their hopes and dreams. It would be a monumental task, but they had been empowered by their own optimism and newfound maturity.
That had been three years ago.
Demira’s light thought teasingly interrupted her reverie.
Do you mean
Kelene glanced down and saw they had already reached the huge plateau that bore the ruins of Moy Tura on its flat crown. “Don’t land yet,” she said.
Obligingly the mare stretched out her wings to catch a rising draft and lazily circled the city.
Kelene sighed. From this bird’s-eye view there certainly wasn’t much to see. There wasn’t much to see from the ground, either, even after three years of unending work. Moy Tura had proved to be a tougher problem to crack than either she or Rafnir had imagined.
At one time Moy Tura had been the jewel of the clans’ realm and the centre of wisdom and learning.
Magic-wielders, those people descended from the hero-warrior Valorian and born with the talent to wield the unseen, gods-given power of magic, built the city.
But over the years the clans grew fearful and suspicious of the sorcerers’ powers. In one bloody, violent summer, the clanspeople turned against their magic-wielders and slaughtered every one they could find. A few fled into hiding, but Moy Tura was razed to the ground and magic was forbidden on pain of death. So it had remained for over two hundred years.
Until Mother came along,
Kelene thought with a sudden grin. She still wasn’t certain how Lady Gabria had done it. Gabria had faced incredible odds, including the massacre of her entire clan and the opposition of a clan chieftain turned sorcerer, and somehow returned magic to clan acceptance. It was her determination, strength, and courage that made it possible for Kelene to be where she was.