On a Wing and a Dare

Here’s the whole first chapter, revised September 2011:

Chapter 1: Fanfare
Emma stroked the winged mare’s nose and talked to her, watching the ears twist to catch the words. “This is going to go well, Wynne. I know it is.” She knew the mare, but had never been alone with her. She knew how to ride, but had never done so alone. Taking a deep breath, she murmured, “My father won’t ever know. It’s not your fault, Wynne, del. Da just doesn’t understand how I long for the sky, or how much I want to be a real part of the barn. He wants a serf, not a daughter.” Continuing to pet the horse, Emma moved around her, admiring the snowy mane and silver-tipped wings in a soothing tone. Wynne ignored her. “We can do this, girl, together.”

With part of her protesting that this was a very bad idea, Emma fastened the strap on the riding helmet. “Davyd has been my friend forever,” she murmured to Wynne. “I’m doing this for him.” Her other part insisted she was doing it for herself just as much.

Cheers from the exterior courtyard told Emma time was running out. Morgan’s barn was preparing to take flight. Down the lane, her father’s barn would be doing the same. She didn’t have time to worry about what would happen if anyone was looking for her.

Emma took a deep breath, muttered a hasty invocation to Rhiannon, and led Wynne from the stall. Ten winged horses in various stages of being mounted milled about the yard. It was easy to find her place and swing up into the saddle like she’d done it a thousand times. Trying not to draw Morgan’s gaze, she kept her head down and fiddled with the reins.

“Cutting it pretty close, Elen. Everything all right?” a rider asked.

Emma grinned. He’d mistaken her for Wynne’s regular rider! She nodded and waved to him, pretending to adjust something on the saddle so that she could turn her back instead of answering.

More to herself than to the mare, Emma muttered, “This has to work. I can do this.”

A trumpet sounded, and the horse beneath her tensed. Emma gathered the reins and gripped Wynne with her legs. For an instant her heart fluttered, then they were galloping to liftoff. With an immense gathering of muscles, the mare leaped into the sky, stroking powerful wings to gain altitude. As they glided into a turn, Emma’s heart sang. The clear spring sky and towering mountains provided a perfect backdrop for the Aerial Games. Below, spectators thronged the cobblestone streets, their eyes on winged horses leaping skyward from Tremirson’s nine barns. Black and gold and brown horses soared to the familiar trumpet fanfare that announced the opening of each year’s Games.

Emma spotted the blue-and-silver-clad horses of her father’s barn, aloft not far from Morgan’s green and gold. Sitting between the massive feathered pinions, legs tucked behind, the riders were completely hidden on every upstroke. Likewise hidden, Emma relaxed, enjoying the sun that highlighted the darker horsehide colors and made the lighter feathered wings sparkle. Wynne flew well. The stranger on her back didn’t seem to affect her ability to execute the maneuvers she’d been taught.

When she’d flown before, Emma had always been strapped behind her father, protected by his broad back and the stallion’s wings. Now her face greeted the wind, and her eyes scanned the horizon. How was she ever going to wait until summer to become rider of her own winged horse?

Wynne circled past the other horses, evenly spaced above Morgan’s barn. Five of them veered as one, diving under and between the other five in a graceful swirl. Emma held on, keeping her face turned away from Morgan. She hoped the pattern Wynne flew would keep the mare as far away as possible from Davyd’s father. He would know, without a doubt, that it wasn’t his wife aboard the mare.

A shadow distracted her. On the outside of the formation, a black horse flew perilously close. She recognized a stallion from her father’s barn a split second before her eyes met the dark familiar eyes of the rider.

“Tristan! What in Rhiannon’s name are you doing?” Emma knew he couldn’t hear her shout.

Wynne shied away from the big black stallion. The unexpected movement startled Emma, and she clutched at the reins. Wynne threw her head up and flapped her wings, driving her away from Morgan’s grouping. The other riders in Morgan’s formation jerked their mounts up short, transforming the elegant Dance of Welcome into a chaotic scramble to stay airborne.

A shrill whinny made Emma lurch to one side. She paled when she realized it was Wynne who was screaming. Emma leaned forward over the mare’s neck, desperate to see past the upswept wings. On the downstroke, her breath caught. A bay horse from her father’s barn appeared just off Wynne’s wingtip. This was an unpredictable mare, beautiful and talented, but capricious. Emma tensed as the bay flew right into Wynne’s shoulder, colliding with a dull thud. The world spun as Wynne plummeted from the sky.

The headlong rush for the ground streamed tears out of Emma’s eyes and back toward her ears. Somehow the bay mare’s black wings tangled around Wynne’s white ones. The two horses spiraled out of control. The green grass became sky and the blue sky stretched under Wynne’s hooves. Emma’s stomach clenched in fear then roiled with dizziness. Black and white wings rasped as they scraped each other and tangled with slashing legs.

Wynne stretched her neck toward the bay, teeth bared and ears back. The other horse panicked, thrashing wings and legs and head as if she was drowning in the air. The whites of both horses’ eyes flashed amongst tossing heads. The other rider sawed frantically on the bay’s reins. Wynne struggled to stay aloft, with Emma desperate to avoid entangling the other horse.

After what seemed like hours, but was surely mere seconds, Wynne extended her massive white wings and with a powerful beat flew clear. Once more gliding upright, Emma fought to control her shaking hands. The bay tried to gain altitude only to shy violently away from the black stallion that had caused the chaos. With wings held too tightly for the powerful strokes needed to save herself, the bay mare fell to earth, horse and rider both screaming.

Emma shut her eyes until the screaming stopped. The shaking continued, and spread to her arms, then her legs. When she opened her eyes, it was as if the floodgates were loosed. Tears flowed down her face. She gulped air and turned Wynne back toward Morgan’s barn. Some riders had landed, but others struggled to control crazed horses still in the air. Emma felt all eyes on her as Wynne landed in Morgan’s courtyard.

For a long moment Emma sat atop the horse, not trusting her limbs to support her if she dismounted. She forced her thoughts away from the falling red horse and rider she’d known her entire life. Odd, she couldn’t even recall their names at this moment. Dazed, Emma realized people were running toward her from all directions. Their arms waved and their mouths moved, but she couldn’t hear anything but her screaming thoughts. She shook her head and noise rushed in. It took another minute to make sense of it.

Weakly, she stood up in the left stirrup and swung her right leg over the mare’s back. Sliding along the horse’s body next to the folded wing, Emma managed to get both feet on the ground. She took a shaky step away from the horse and waited for chaos to swallow her.

Davyd was there first. “Are you okay?”

She’d never seen his face so white. His mouth set in a grim line, he helped her remove the green and gold helmet. Emma’s first impression was of cool breeze across her sweaty head as her chestnut hair fell free to her waist.

Morgan stood with his legs apart, shoulders squared, eyes drilling Emma as grooms and riders and spectators swarmed toward them. He waved one arm above his head. “Evan, get those patrons out of here,” he snapped. Davyd’s brother hurried to oblige.

“Barn Leader Morgan,” Emma said in a shaky voice. She tried to smooth her divided riding skirt to give her hands something to do besides tremble.

“Emma verch Hoel. Where’s my wife?”

Of course he was angry. She took a deep breath and locked her knees so she wouldn’t crumple to the ground.  Before she could answer, Davyd spoke.

“Mum hurt her back but she wanted Wynne to fly today.” His voice was rushed and anxious, but he was on her side.

“So she asked Emma to ride?” Morgan’s glare never left her face.

“Not exactly. . .” Davyd lowered his eyes to the ground.

“It’s my fault, sir,” Emma interrupted. “Davyd was going to ride Wynne, but I begged him to let me do it. I’m sorry.”

The grooms arrived and led the horses to their stalls. Wynne pranced, clearly recovered, and nosed her groom’s pockets for a molasses treat.

A rider wearing her father’s blue and silver approached. Emma gritted her teeth as she recognized Tristan, the rider of the black horse and Da’s favorite. She wanted to ask after the bay mare and her rider, but she was in too much trouble herself.

“Were you out of your mind up there, Tristan?” Davyd’s brother returned in time to challenge the rider.

“Evan, stop.” Morgan’s glare turned from his son to the other young man. “Return to your barn, Tristan.”

“I thought Wynne’s rider seemed familiar. She looked good up there.” Tristan nodded at her, and Emma blushed, embarrassed and furious.

“Until you tried to tie her in knots,” Evan spat.

Before Morgan could say anything, another man stormed up and Emma swallowed nervously. Her father was taller than Morgan, but had grayed early, and long hours in the sun had weathered his skin to leather. His dark eyes burned with anger.

“What’s the meaning of this?” he demanded.

“Barn Leader Hoel,” Morgan began.

“Da. . .” Emma blurted out at the same time.

Hoel was not to be put off. “Why is my daughter riding in your wing?”

“I didn’t give permission,” Morgan stated. “But that’s not the issue here. Wynne would’ve been fine if your rider hadn’t strayed. So would your rider.”

Hoel and Morgan glared at each other.

“Da, mae’n ddrwg gen i.” Emma whispered, hoping the apology sounded better in Welsh.

“It was an accident,” Davyd said to Morgan.

“My horse and rider both have broken legs,” Hoel snarled. “The mare’s being put down, and the rider will be out of commission for weeks.”

“Although I am sorry for the loss of a fine animal, I can’t condone a barn where riders don’t take responsibility for their mistakes,” Morgan said.

“And I can’t respect a barn leader who lets an untried girl fly someone else’s horse,” Hoel responded.

“Da, I’m fine,” Emma said, grabbing his arm. She tried to pull him away, toward their barn, but he resisted.

An imposing woman barreled toward them from the main street of Tremirson. Dressed in a green and gold gown, and surrounded by fluttering stewards dressed in silk and velvet, she had to be Morgan’s patroness. Emma allowed herself a deep calming breath since the focus would now shift from her to this woman.

“Morgan. How is the mare?” The woman’s tone commanded. She was used to respect.

Davyd’s father nodded his head. “Lady Margery. Wynne appears to be fine. Her groom is checking her over now.”

The ice queen raked Emma with cold eyes. “And you are?”

Hoel stepped in front of his daughter. “My daughter.”

Lady Margery did not step back. “And you are?” she repeated.

The Barn Leader flushed. “Barn Leader Hoel. This is my daughter, Emma.”

“I see,” Lady Margery said thoughtfully. “Then the horse and rider that caused this incident are yours. As are the pair that fell.”

Hoel reached to rub the back of his neck with his right hand. Davyd grimaced at Emma. Morgan stood respectfully at Lady Margery’s side, his face impassive. Evan, two years older than Davyd and Emma, paced angrily in back of the patroness, his boots stamping his fury into the cobblestones. Tristan shot furious glares at Evan. Emma suddenly remembered the rider’s name. Catrin. And her red mare was Bronwyn. What had her father said? Bronwyn was being destroyed? An anguished moan escaped her.

Her father gave her a quizzical glance before answering the patroness. “The champion Bronwyn has broken a leg and been put down.”

He said nothing about Catrin to the patroness, nor about Tristan, the rider who caused it all. Lady Margery would be concerned with the bloodstock, not the people.

“It’s hard to lose a champion,” Lady Margery said, but her tone held no compassion.

Morgan stepped forward. “I think we’re done here, Hoel.”

“Come on, Da.” Emma pulled harder on her father’s arm. This time, he followed. To Emma’s dismay, Tristan did too.

Her breathing had returned to normal, but she was unable to block out images of Catrin and Bronwyn falling from the sky.

“So whatever possessed you to ride Wynne, really?” Tristan sneered.

She ground her teeth and made an effort to stand up straighter before answering. “Davyd needed my help.”

Her father snorted in disbelief as the trio walked down a dirt lane between barns. “This accident will have repercussions, Emma,” he said. “You are responsible for the loss of a champion. Our patron will be irate.”

“Me?” Emma glared at Tristan, who smirked back at her.

The golden boy could do no wrong, and the daughter could do no right.

10 thoughts on “On a Wing and a Dare”

  1. Great first chapter, but one thing: I don’t really know if everyone would want to read something that starts with a mom throwing up. Just saying. The rest of the chapter is good with a lot of interesting content.

  2. Very good observation, Stephen! I just read an article about beginnings that agents and editors HATE to read. One of them was ‘anything to do with bodily functions, like throwing up.’ Oops! So yes, I DO have to change this. Don’t hold back on your input–you obviously have great ideas!

    1. So, I asked my sister if it sounded right with the old beginning, and she thought it was a bit weird too.

  3. Okay, so what do you and your sister think? I need a way to get Kamila on the horse. Sickness echoes the later sickness that kills horses and people, so that’s a bad idea anyway. Should Mom hurt her back? She wouldn’t be able to ride. Is that better?

  4. I think that is much better. You can describe it better. But with the throw up it will probably ruin my appetite and other peoples appetite.

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