An exclusive excerpt of Wind Rider...
“And now it begins. Candidates, may a mare’s luck be with you. Release the weanlings!”
River drew in a deep breath as her hand automatically reached up to rest on the amethyst crystal that hung from the center of her grandmother’s necklace. I am calm. I am composed. I am ready. My thoughts are clear and I am open to whatever will happen next.
The familiar thunder of horses’ hooves vibrated up through the ground, joining the staccato beating of River’s heart. All eyes were focused on the entrance of the amphitheater — and then the weanling herd burst onto the field at a full gallop. The Candidates sat very still as the young horses wove between them to come to a milling halt in the center of their circle.
River stared at them, trying to contain her excitement. They were so magnificent! They represented the best weanlings each herd had to offer. Born one year ago, each had been raised with care and compassion. They remained with their dams for the entire year, and had only been separated from their mothers two days before. Though the weanlings understood what was happening, and that it was time for them to leave their mothers’ sides to begin the road to adulthood, they were visibly anxious.
River understood. They were lonely — missing their mothers and missing the attention that had been lavished on them by a doting herd for an entire year. But the young horses also knew that when they left this circle they would be permanently bonded to their Riders — and neither horse nor human would ever be lonely again.
The elder and her ancient mare entered the circle as well, moving amongst the weanlings and speaking soothingly to them — calming them — readying them for the Choosing.
River’s gaze searched the weanlings looking for Herd Magenti’s youngsters. Magenti was one of the largest herds — with three nomadic branches of several hundred humans and about half as many horses per branch, they had brought a combined offering of thirty weanlings to the Rendezvous, though only twelve of those came from River’s branch of Herd Magenti.
She knew which colt she was looking for — though she had never admitted her favoritism, nor had she shown it — at least not in public.
There he is! River finally caught sight of him — the gorgeous palomino colt that so many of the Magenti were talking about. His coloring was the first thing people tended to notice about him as his coat was so brilliantly blond it looked almost gold, and his mane was and tail were almost perfectly white. He was standing a little off by himself, pawing the ground restlessly. He had no name — none of them did until their Rider spoke it upon Choosing — so to herself River called him Ghost, because of his speed and his ability to move almost silently. He was larger than the other colts, that was easy to see, but his size didn’t make him awkward or gangly. Unlike most yearlings this colt handled himself with confidence. In the past year that River had helped tend the herd, working with the colts and fillies on a daily basis, she had never seen Ghost so much as misstep.
As if he could sense her attention, the colt turned his head and met River’s gaze. Within his dark eye she saw intelligence and something else — something that looked a lot like sadness. Before River could fully process that, the old woman was speaking again.
“Remember, Candidates, do not leave the circle until the last weanling has Chosen.” Then she turned her horse to face the weanlings. The old mare arched her neck, tossed her head, and trumpeted a called that all of the watching horses echoed — signaling the beginning of the Choosing.
River’s world narrowed to the spot directly in front of her. She breathed deeply, grounding herself as her hand went from the amethyst crystal necklace to her pocket and the finger-shaped quartz phantom that rested quietly there. Her heartbeat slowed. Her nerves washed from her, absorbing into the ground and dissipating.
There was a shout from her left. River looked in time to see a sorrel filly halt before a girl wearing the blood red ribbons of Herd Cinnabar. The filly reached her muzzle to the girl and without hesitation she raised to her knees, cupped the filly’s delicate face, and then blew gently into her velvet muzzle — bonding the two of them for life. Herd Cinnabar erupted into cheers as the new Rider stood to wrap her arms around her Companion. Then, side-by-side, the girl and her filly left the circle to join their herd. Cinnabar’s cheers were followed swiftly by joyous shouts from Herd Indigo and Herd Virides as more and more weanlings Chose their Riders.
It seemed a long time passed, but later her mother told River that the entire Choosing took mere minutes. The weanling herd had thinned down to a couple dozen horses. Those youngsters were standing in the center of the circle, ears pricked as they studied the seated Candidates. They moved in a slow clockwise fashion so that they could look at each of the Presented humans. Then a weanling would snort, toss his or her head, and move toward a Candidate, and another cheer would lift from the anxiously watching crowd.
Suddenly the palomino colt River called Ghost reared and squealed, parting the group of weanlings. He broke from them, galloping full speed around the circle of Candidates, throwing grass and dirt up behind him. To her right, River saw her herdmate, Skye, cringe back, shriek and sputter as she wiped a hoof-sized clump of dirt and muck from her face. River started to lean toward her to encourage Skye to stay strong when a dappled gray filly she easily recognized as one of Herd Magenti’s weanlings trotted up to Skye, looking obviously upset. She offered her muzzle, and Skye hastily finished wiping the dirt and grass from her face before she leaned eagerly forward and gently blew into her soft nose before throwing her arms around the filly’s neck.
“I’m okay! Don’t worry, Scout. Nothing could be wrong now that I’m your Rider!” River heard Skye croon to her newly bonded weanling.
Then gasps from the crowd drew River’s attention from Skye and Scout. The palomino colt was acting more and more distressed. He’d stopped galloping around the circle and was thundering from one side of the huge area to the other, scattering the weanlings as he tore through them. The elder and her mare tried to stay with him — tried to calm his increasing agitation — but it wasn’t working. The colt’s eyes were showing white and he was neighing in loud, panicked bursts — as if he were looking for someone he couldn’t find. And then the colt did something truly odd. He slowed and made one more pass around the circle. This time he wasn’t galloping in panic. He trotted slowly, obviously looking at each Candidate carefully. When he reached River she looked up and met his dark, intelligent eye.
What she saw there made her heart ache.
The colt was weeping. Tears rolled down his golden face.