It was the kind of night they had been waiting for, clear, and with a high wind. A gale roared across a pitch black sky pricked with stars. Bethany was mounted on Peredur. Emma, with eight-year old Ben clinging to her waist, rode Branwyn. As they trotted across the cliff, Bethany checked the wings, made of leather and willow and gull feathers, strapped along her pony’s sides. Wing straps in her left hand, reins in her right, she kept five yards between her pony and Branwyn. They needed to be close but not too close when they soared over the ocean.
Bethany was going on twelve years old, and it was her first wind ride. Her family watched from the edge of the field. They ought to be proud of her. All she had ever wanted was to be important to Mother and Father, but they scolded her instead of applauding when she tried to come in first at everything. They always said that she shouldn’t be paying attention to them but to the other children. Why couldn’t they understand that there was no point in that? They resented her for trying to win all the time. She really didn’t mind when an adult waded into a broil to seize her by the scruff of her neck; she rather enjoyed the attention. Tonight was her night; the whole of Cedar Haven was there with her parents—now they would see what she was made of!
True, she was terrified when the wind woke her and she knew it was time. Now, poised for flight, she felt oddly calm. Emma nodded and leaned forward. They galloped for the cliff. At the precise moment that Peredur’s forefeet left the grass, Bethany tugged a strap sharply until the wings snapped open. Signaling Peredur with the reins, she soared over the void, banking into the wind. The splashing of waves against the shingle faded away, and all she could hear was the roaring of the gale. They would level off when they spotted the first mainland watch fire. Such winds could be unpredictable, perpetually shifting and changing. Wind riders were often driven apart. If need be, Bethany had been trained to find the signal fires and to act for herself.
She spotted a flare winking far below and leveled their flight to an altitude they would hold until they saw the second signal. Then they would bank down to the Singing Sands. Bethany kept glancing from Branwyn’s to Peredur’s wingtips, then to the angle of her pony’s back, then down, searching for the second fire. The most dangerous time of the ride would be then, when crosswinds could blow them off course.
They never wore hoods when aloft, lest their vision be impaired. Bethany felt her face slapped by gust after gust, and her ears felt flattened by the onslaught. Then she saw the tiny prick of a fire far below. They had made it across the ocean, and were over land. Following Emma’s lead, she signaled Peredur to bank, but was suddenly lifted up and sideways. She could hear Emma whistle for danger, but she and Branwyn were blown off course.
Alone in the black sky, Bethany tried to gauge how far they had been moved from their course. The updraft only lasted a second, two at most, though it was forceful. Not more than twenty-five feet, she calculated, banking and then steadying at that altitude. Peredur was trembling beneath her. She stroked his flank, murmuring reassurance, though terror roiled her stomach and her heart pounded. She was as frightened as he was, but if she succumbed to the sour rinse of fear, they would both perish. Besides, she had no intention of failing her first wind ride.
In his own way, Peredur could be as stubborn as Bethany. When she stroked his flank he calmed and became alert to any sign of land below. Signal fires held no interest for him, but the smell of land always got his attention. There were delicious grasses near the sands where they usually landed. When a faint whiff of sweet sea grass rose to his nostrils, he made his own adjustments. Feeling him shift under her, Beth resisted the impulse to show him who was boss. He had been this way before, and she hadn’t. Then she saw the flare, right below them.
Bethany flexed her fingers in the wing straps until she could feel the narrower one. Held close together, the wing feathers enabled them to soar.They must be spread apart as they descended, lest Peredur’s legs be snapped if he came down on the sands too abruptly. Next to the sea, they were packed firm enough for galloping, but soft enough further up the beach to break his bones. They had to come in just right.
As they sped lower, Peredur gave a shrug in his harness as if to say, “let me handle this, now.” He had been flying with his knees bent and his fetlocks slightly curled. When he smelled the sands, still invisible belo, he began to make galloping motions with all four legs, though they were still in the air. Realizing what he was doing, Beth pulled the slender strap until the feathers spread apart, whistling with friction. Then she saw the land. To protect Peredur’s delicate legs, they must gallop for at least half a mile, then canter, then trot, then walk. She was elated to feel the bumping and pounding on her bottom as her pony rolled into a headlong course down the beach. She let out a whoop of triumph at feeling the solid ground.
Where was Emma? Surely such an experienced wind rider would have made it down safely? She must go to the end of the beach, then turn and search every inch coming back. She slowed Peredur to a walk, hoping that the wonderful pony who had saved her in the gale had enough strength left for the search. Listening for hoof beats, she called out every few minutes in the high pitched cry of a sea tern, which was the signal wind riders used when separated from each other.
She smelled wet sand and dead fish, seaweed and sea grasses, and a tang of pine trees, too. She had lived on the island of Cedar Haven since she was three years old, but these scents were familiar. All she had been thinking about was her triumph in being chosen so young for her first wind ride. She hadn’t really cared about why she was going to visit the Fisher folk, first Ben’s family and later her Eastern Fisher folk cousins. Nor had she paid much attention to the stories her parents told about how she had been born in the Piney Wood settlement above these very sands. It must lie just inland, but she was not going there; she was accompanying her best friend Ben. Where were Ben and Emma? Dismounting Peredur to keep him from getting tired, she trudged along the sands, crying the sea tern’s cry.
Suddenly, she heard an answering call. She ran with Peredur trotting behind her until she saw Emma on Branwyn, with Ben still clinging to her like a burr.
“Well met! Well met!” they both shouted. Emma threw herself off her pony and ran to hug Bethany, whom thought she had lost her forever when she was lifted away on an updraft.
“I was so worried about you,” she exclaimed. “What did you do when you lost us?”
“I kept banking—down and to the left, you know—until I saw the signal. Peredur knew it was there before I did.”
“Eyes in his stomach, has Peredur,” and they laughed together at Branwyn and Peredur who, with no intention of pleasing anyone but themselves for the rest of the night, dragged them to a stand of sweet grass. They looped their reins over their ponies’ necks and set them loose to graze at their heart’s content.
“They’ve certainly earned it,” said Emma.
“When am I going home? When will I see my mother and father,” Ben asked.
“They should be along in the morning,” answered Emma. “We’ll dig a hollow in the sand and rest until then.”
Fifteen years old and an experienced wind rider, she had been appalled when instructed to accompany Bethany across the strait. The surly child was always in trouble, and so stubborn that Emma wondered if she would follow the necessary procedures; but she certainly had.
“You handled that bad patch very well; you did just the right thing.”
“I was terrified. It was Peredur who brought me in, really.”
She’s not so bad when she gives off boasting, thought Emma.
“They won’t come until daylight. Let’s try to get warm.”
The two girls fetched the blankets from their ponies and huddled together, chattering about their wind ride, while Ben snuggled between them and went straight to sleep.
Tousling his oily black curls, Bethany reflected that was just a little child, after all. He had been her one and only friend on Cedar Haven but she herself could not be considered a child anymore, not when she had ridden the wind so deftly. She had never been close to Emma, but their shared adventure made a bond, she thought, so she confided that she had no idea what to expect now that she was on the mainland.
“Mother and Father seemed anxious to have me off of the island, I don’t know why. Do you know anything about what these Fisher people are like? I’ve only met the two who visited us last winter, and I didn’t like them.”
“I’m glad it’s not me,” said Emma frankly. “I have to deal with them when I come for their infants and I don’t like them either. They’re sly, and mean-spirited.”
o“They are? In what way?”
“They want to get rid of their children. Ben, for example. It happened before I began wind riding, but I heard that his mother and father gave him away because they had seven other children. I don’t think they really care about him but he’s big enough to put to work now. Too, they think there’s something wrong about his having two mothers.”
“What’s wrong with having two mothers?”
Janet and Riven were women partners who brought Ben up together.
“Poor you,” is all I can say, replied Emma enigmatically. “Ben will be all right. They are his folk, after all, and they’ll work him hard, but they treat girls terribly. They think we are completely inferior to boys.”
Bethany considered this novel idea. If she’d known all this about the Western Fisher folk she would have refused to go along with the plan for her to visit them before going on to live with cousins among the Eastern Fisher folk.
“Then why did Mother and Father let me come?”
Emma, a responsible young woman who wore the blemish, hesitated. Every adult at Cedar Haven and among their allies had a little round object resembling a mole attached to the back of their heads. It was filled with a lethal dose of poison. Beset by enemies who wanted to drain the Marshlands and starve and beat everyone on the mainland into submission, the Marshlanders and their allies were preparing for a great uprising. William, Bethany’s father, had invented a way for adults too heavy for wind riding to get off Cedar Haven, and three companies were raised for mainland missions: the Dunlin Company, which would restore the upland farm and thus establish a supply base; The Delta Company, to travel far to the south to alert rebels there to join them; and The Marshland Company, to seek their allies who were scattered all over the wetlands. All of these friends communicated by messenger doves. Everyone who wore the blemish was pledged to commit suicide rather than divulge these plans and secrets under torture.
Emma had been present at the debate about what to do with Bethany.If the child realized what was afoot, she would create a terrible row and demand to join one of the companies. As a skilled wind rider they would be hard put to deny her a place. If they left her behind, she was perfectly capable of preparing a pony and following them in the first galep that came along. Although William, her mother Clare, and her grandmother Margaret all hated to admit it, she was too disobedient to be trusted and would make herself a hazard in their great undertaking. Ben, whose parents wanted him back, could be sent home before the companies departed. They decided to send Bethany on a visit to her Eastern Fisher folk cousins, under the guise of accompanying her friend Ben on his journey home. To help him accustom himself and ease his homesickness, she should stay with his folk for several weeks.
“You heard what they said,” replied Emma. “They thought you were ready to see the world and have some adventures.”
“I’ve changed my mind. I’ll come back with you.”
A cluster of figures appeared high on a dune to the north of them, silhouetted against the dawn.
Emma hugged Bethany.
“Remember your Fisher talk and your Fisher folk manners, and you’ll probably be all right,” she said, reflecting at she wouldn’t want to be in Bethany’s shoes for anything in the whole wide world.
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