The early spring air, chilled by the remnant of winter, rushed past Neste’s cheeks and teased her chestnut hair out from under her leather helmet. A shiver of tension ran through the muscles of the winged horse beneath her, and Neste murmured soothing words. “Easy, Llawen, just like we practiced now. Easy, girl.” She masked her own anxiety as best she could.
The mare was not fooled. She tossed her head, causing her silver wings missing a beat. Neste hoped Hoel’s eagle eye hadn’t caught the movement. An unplanned motion on the part of horse or rider could ruin the visual impact from the ground. She knew Hoel was determined to make this routine a winner for his father’s barn, and that meant beating Morgan.
Neste clenched her lips and focused on Llawen’s gray ears. They swiveled, alert to the other four horses in formation nearby. Hoel, aboard his glossy brown stallion, led with confidence that bordered on recklessness. Neste suspected that some depth of his mind believed he was the only one who could master this routine therefore all others were beneath him.
The swish of Llawen’s powerful wings added to the breeze, and the usual delight of soaring aboard such a beautiful creature filled Neste’s heart. Llawen’s charcoal-colored mane rippled, the occasional silver strands catching the sunlight and sparkling. The mare’s dappled gray neck gleamed with sweat as the most difficult part of the routine came upon them and Neste’s delight evaporated in concentration. Take out some of the choreography
“Hover like a hummingbird.” She muttered Hoel’s ridiculous words under her breath as she signaled the mare. The great silver wings angled slightly so that the downstrokes would not carry horse and rider forward. Neste patted the damp gray neck. “Best hummingbird in Tremeirchson.”
Llawen was valiant and well trained. She flew whatever crazy pattern Neste directed. Flying in formation it was difficult to visualize the dance from the ground, but the overall effect was an important part of judging aerial dances. It was more than the precision of horse wings and body placement, more than just flying from one spot to another. The aerial team had to work together to create a vision of effortless grace and beauty. Done correctly, spectators would gasp at the incongruity of winged horses seeming to float like wisps of cloud.
The first minutes of Hoel’s new routine were basic, including sweeping circles intended to show off wingspan. The five horses’ circles overlapped so flight speed needed to be monitored to avoid crashes. That was easy. The next set of swoops and dashes looked impressive, but again it was just a matter of timing. Experienced aerial dancers just needed a bit of practice to master the pattern. It was the third set of movements that had Neste’s stomach in knots. She simply didn’t agree that her unswerving belief in Llawen’s ability to hover would make it happen. Horses weren’t meant to hover. Was her doubt making it harder for Llawen?
On Neste’s right, a bay horse with black wings rose to a position slightly above them. A sorrel on their left matched the movement. That left Hoel and Adam to top the formation. Neste winced, trying to concentrate on holding Llawen in position and watch the horses above her at the same time. Hoel’s brown stallion slipped into place effortlessly, but Adam struggled as Adam always did. His brown mare seemed confused, and Neste shook her head. Even if Adam wasn’t signaling her correctly surely the mare knew what she was supposed to do by now? Willing Adam to hurry before Hoel exploded or Llawen’s wing strength gave out, Neste fastened her eyes on the awkward mare.
Both Hoel’s stallion and Adam’s mare were brown, but such a difference! Hoel’s Lleu was everything a stallion should be—powerful and gleaming with good health. In contrast, the wiry Mallt looked more like a reject from a gypsy caravan. The mare’s coat was a softer brown than Lleu, brushed no less, but it was patchy with dull tufts that caused Hoel to berate Adam on a regular basis. Neste wondered if something was missing from Mallt’s diet.
But twenty feet above the ground was not the time to be concerned with another rider’s horse. Llawen’s wingstroke faltered then resumed. Neste patted her neck and murmured soft words intended to calm them both. Above them, two pairs of horses finally formed the vertical V. They were completely out of rhythm, but it was done. The bay mare on their right was positioned such that Llawen’s wings would have tickled her tummy had they been directly above. The sorrel was a bit low on the left, but just as Neste frowned, the rider corrected the height.
Hold. Synchronize wingstrokes. Neste held her breath, as if that would help the five horses hover. Finally, it was time for her to drop away from the formation and sweep into a wide turn. The other four would follow her at careful intervals until they circled for the next part of the dance. Neste could feel the tremor in Llawen’s tired shoulders as she directed the mare’s next movement.