Chapter One (revised 7/26/2012)
“If you refuse now, they will say you lacked courage,” Tristan told her.
Lips clenched in response to her barn leader’s words, Nia kicked her horse into motion. Lacked courage? How could he say that to her? It wasn’t Tristan the Oh So Magnificent that was aboard a winged horse suited up for the world’s first aerial joust. Nia kept the lance upright in her right hand as she’d been told, concentrating on balancing the lance so its very length wouldn’t bring it crashing down around her horse’s ears. She’d never played at jousting like the boys she’d grown up with. Riding, yes, and flying, but not jousting. No one in High Meadow jousted! Not until today.
She urged Eira into a canter, the winged horse gathering speed as Nia tested her balance with the extra weight of armor and lance. She could feel the horse’s muscles bunch beneath her legs as the chestnut mare galloped off the edge of the cliff, powerful downstrokes of her huge wings lifting her into the sky as the ground fell away. Her mane, perfectly matching the silky brown of her coat, whipped in the breeze. Nia watched Eira’s ears. They’d go back flat against her head if the mare was overburdened. So far, the horse didn’t seem to notice her rider’s added pounds.
“Madness, madness, madness,” Nia muttered in time with the mare’s wingstrokes.
Inhaling deeply, a breath meant to be calming, Nia leaned forward and patted the mare’s neck, warm but not yet damp with sweat. A few tendrils of mane blew across her face. The gray Welsh skies were empty this morning. Usually they were full of horses by now, stretching their wings and racing above the meadow, but today First Barn’s herd was still in their stalls. Eira stretched her wing feathers to catch the slightest breeze, soaring into the morning. The usual mist clung to the mountains, drifting through the high valleys like a soft caress. The cool air wriggled its way into the unfamiliar helmet, and Nia was glad she hadn’t yet pulled the face shield down.
Below, the village of High Meadow stretched before them. More than the usual number of villagers had gathered in the courtyard of the tavern, their eyes glued to the sky. Nia had Eira tip a wing to them. Her heart lightened, unable to remain heavy aboard this magnificent creature, the envy of all who were grounded.
But maybe they weren’t so envious on this particular morning.
She angled Eira to face her opponent, basking in the response of the mare as she tightened into the turn. Eira was an aerial dancer, known for agility more than speed. Facing them across the meadow was a familiar stallion. Deryn was thickly built, more like the destriers used on the ground. His rider was also familiar.
“He chose Catrin?” Nia whispered, stunned at this proof that Second Barn’s leader may be nearly as mad as her own barn leader. Catrin had lost her first winged mare in an accident almost five years ago that caused them both to fall from the sky. Now she rode Deryn, the stallion that once belonged to her barn leader’s father.
High Meadow’s two barns were thriving, a testament to the leadership of Tristan and Evan. But no one could lead a barn without the patronage of a wealthy lowlander. Lady Margery, of Merioneth, was First Barn’s patroness. Second Barn’s patron remained a mystery to everyone but Evan, the barn leader. Evan and Tristan had worked together to build High Meadow’s herd from almost nothing. Lately though their agreement seemed to be cracking. Tristan had lost his vision. Instead of leading, he followed Evan and sometimes Evan needed to be questioned. Like when he wanted to joust in the air.
There was no use second-guessing Tristan’s decision. Nia reached up with her left hand and clanged the helmet’s face shield into place. She instantly hated the reduced field of vision, even though she only needed to see straight ahead. Grasping the amulet around her neck for a moment, she muttered a hasty invocation to Rhiannon, the horse goddess.
Nia and Eira flew slowly toward the other winged horse and his rider at an angle that would pass the horses left shoulder to left shoulder, close enough for a careless sweep of the wing to unhorse the other rider if the straps weren’t tight. Who needed a lance? Laughter bubbled in her chest. The two horses flew past each other and continued to the opposite ends of the meadow. Eira’s ears flicked, questioning. Even the horse knew something was wrong. Nia murmured something soothing, but the words that managed to escape the helmet were lost in the wind.
At the blast of a trumpet, Nia turned her mare and again faced the Second Barn horse. With a great gathering of muscles, Eira’s wings beat the air. She raced toward the other pair. Fully committed now, Nia gritted her teeth. On one downsweep, she lowered the lance and couched it against her armor, pointing it across Eira’s neck. Her eyes remained fastened on Catrin, who had completed the same maneuver. The normal whoosh of air from wind and wings was oddly muffled by the jousting helmet, and Nia felt detached from the watching world below.
As if choreographed, the First Barn mare and the Second Barn stallion converged on each other. Eira’s upswept wing hid the other horse, then revealed him on the downbeat. Nia gripped her mare with her legs and leaned forward, anticipating impact. She forced her eyes away from Catrin’s approaching lance, focusing instead on the other rider’s armored torso. The horses’ wings beat in unison, down at the same time. Now! Nia’s lance tapped somewhere near her opponent’s shoulder and slipped off her armor. Meanwhile, Catrin’s lance connected with Nia’s left shoulder, great pain accompanying the sound of the wooden lance thunking against armor. The impact jerked Nia back, the restraining straps tightening against her legs, straining to hold her in place as Nia fought against the weight of her armor to regain her balance in the saddle. Eira’s wingstrokes broke rhythm as the weight on her back shifted. Panic roared inside Nia’s helmet like the most violent storm, to be replaced by fury as she regained her balance. Eira resumed the powerful wingstrokes that kept her aloft, and Nia patted the now-sweaty neck.
Fighting the urge to clap a hand to her injured shoulder, Nia struggled to maintain her hold on the lance, now dipping and swaying above Eira’s head as if it had a mind of its own. The mare flattened her ears against her head, and her neck stretched out straight in front of her. Miraculously, the powerful wings beat cleanly as the mare swept past the other horse, feathers brushing his tail.
Nia got the lance stabilized into its upright holding position and clutched it with her right hand. Left shoulder throbbing, she guided Eira to the ground in front of First Barn. The mare landed harder than usual, no doubt due to the extra weight she carried, and jarred Nia’s shoulder. The pain inflamed her anger. Her left hand, freed of the reins, clasped her amulet. She hoped serenity would flow into her from the necklace.
Catrin circled in to land at Second Barn as Tristan hurried toward Nia. “What happened? You were supposed to go three passes!” he shouted up to her.
He was her barn leader, so tall she had to look up at him from her five foot height when she was on the ground. Seven years older than her own seventeen years, Tristan sometimes seemed younger. His blond hair was always neatly combed, but his dark eyes were charged with emotion. If she ever wanted to know how Tristan felt about something, she read his eyes instead of listening to his words. Right now he was angry. Well, so was she. She let go of the amulet, letting it swing against the bodice of her First Barn tunic.
She dropped the lance on the right side of the horse, the resulting clatter masking her unladylike curse. Incapable of a civil response at the moment, she ignored Tristan and swung her right foot over Eira’s rump, sliding faster than usual off the mare. Her divided riding skirt swung into place once she was on the ground, giving the illusion of a normal skirt. The groom was there immediately to take Eira, so Nia lifted her face shield and turned to Tristan.
“Get this helmet off me,” she ordered, cradling her left arm against her body.
Tristan complied. “You hurt, Nia?” Without looking, he handed the helmet to a groom.
“Shoulder.” Her tone was curt to the point of rudeness, but her anger refused to allow polite conversation.
“The horses converging was a great visual,” Tristan was saying, “but I couldn’t see much of the actual hit. Eira’s body was in the way, and her wings.”
“Maybe we should cut off her wings. That would help,” Nia snapped, words dripping with sarcasm.
“This will be the most unique joust in all of Wales,” Tristan told her. “Spectators will flock to see it, and patrons will pay to support it.”
Nia examined his eyes, which did not show the excitement his words pretended. “Lady Margery provides. No need to risk horse and rider unnecessarily.”
“Jousts are great sport.” His eyes slid away from her.
“Not thirty feet in the air!” she hissed. At least she’d been able to talk him out of the big jousting saddle and other heavy gear. It would have been even less exciting if Eira had been unable to get off the ground at all. “Tell me true, Tristan. Do you support this at all or are you just going along with Evan?”
Tristan hesitated. “I see merit in the joust.” His dark eyes wouldn’t meet hers.
“There is no joust,” Nia said, turning toward the barn. “Any other brilliant breaks with tradition can wait to be discussed tomorrow.”
The other riders and grooms of First Barn hung back. Her mind processed their worried faces, registering concern and desire not to get involved. She knew many of them disapproved of her tone with the barn leader, but she also knew many of them agreed with her.
“What we need is a barn leader who can think for herself,” Nia said to no one in particular, disgusted.
As she neared the barn, Nia heard Tristan say loudly, “Women shouldn’t ride if they can’t handle the task.”
Fuming, she entered the tack room without responding. Just inside the doorway, a massively pregnant woman leaned against the wall. One hand rubbed her belly, but the eyes that found Nia were full of concern.
Nia held up her right hand, forestalling the other woman’s words. “Emma, I don’t need to be mothered.”
“Really? You can’t even move your left arm. Save the prickly attitude for Tristan and come over here.” Emma led her to a stool and pushed her down. Capably running her hands over Nia’s shoulder, she checked for serious injury. “Badly bruised. Doesn’t appear to be broken. I’ll make a sling for you, but it will keep you out of the air for a day or two.”
Nia nodded curtly, but her anger was beginning to dissipate. Emma was a First Barn rider, too, Nia’s mentor, and a friend.
“You know,” Emma ventured, “you were rather harsh with Tristan.” She moved to a shelf and retrieved linen for a sling. Her eyes were on them when she continued. “Oh, you had cause, but remember he doesn’t want to be slashed to bits by his rider in front of the whole barn.”
Nia knew the gently admonishing tone was well meant. She was only three years older than Nia, but Emma carried the welfare of the barn on her shoulders, or in her heart. Nia smiled in spite of herself. “I know, Emma. He really raises my anger quickly. He’s the leader of half the winged horses in the world. Why can’t he take that seriously?”
A shadow darkened Emma’s face and for an instant her brown eyes were far away. Nia watched her cross to the doorway and look off into the distance. She didn’t say anything. Emma was not usually moody. When she returned to Nia and began to tie the sling, the shadow was gone but she was still subdued. “Evan and Tristan led a greatly diminished herd out of Tremeirchson four years ago. They fought to establish a new place where the winged horses could flourish, and the Aerial Games continue.” She put the finishing touches on Nia’s sling and stepped back.
“Iawn, Emma, I know.” Nia stood up. Emma’s bulk, and the fact she was more than a few inches taller than Nia, made it feel like her mum was lecturing her. Her heart twisted. Mum had been gone six months now. “Both Evan and Tristan have done well with their barns,” she continued. “But now it’s time to expand. To let someone else have a chance.”
“It’s important that expansion be well planned to ensure the safety of the herd. Too fast, and we weaken the herd through breeding too close.”
“Are you talking about Third Barn?” Nia knew another barn would someday be built, but didn’t know if any actual planning had begun.
“I know all types of rumors are being circulated,” Emma said, “but a new barn shouldn’t happen for two years yet. First Barn currently has fourteen horses, half of which are too young to breed. Second Barn is in the same situation. Barn Leaders are too possessive of their talent to allow interbreeding between barns, but that only makes the herd weaker. Third Barn will need a leader who can work with both Tristan and Evan to breed horses and develop riders. That will be especially tough as long as those two act like children.”
Her frustration was clear. Nia tentatively flexed her injured shoulder and winced. Instantly Emma was contrite.
“Mae’n ddrwg gen i, cariad!” Emma apologized. “You don’t want to sit here chatting about a faraway future. You probably want some breakfast and some rest! Do you want me to check on Eira for you?”
“Na, she’ll be fine. Pryce will have her pampered and put away.” They both laughed. Nia knew Owain pampered Emma’s horse the same way. “Thanks for wrapping my shoulder, Emma.”
“You’re very welcome, cariad.” Emma gave the shoulder a gentle pat and moved heavily out of the stall.
Sobered by their conversation and the events of the morning, Nia realized Emma would probably have had to ride the joust today except for her advanced pregnancy. Emma and Tristan’s wife would give birth about the same time. Third Barn may be nothing more than an academic discussion of possibilities for Nia, but it would directly affect the livelihood of those First Barn children. Maybe that was why Tristan wanted the joust. Nia frowned. It was a dangerous event. She wasn’t sure the risk was worth the potential income for the barn.