This excerpt is from Desert Song, Rivera Sun’s newest novel. You can get a copy by supporting the Community Publishing Campaign. Thank you!
A stunning view spread before them. The city’s dwellings ended abruptly at a chest-high stone wall. Cliffs plummeted down a hundred feet to a narrow lake fed by the river that cascaded over the precipice in a thunderous waterfall. A strip of green meadow followed the lakeside. Beyond that, a sea of white sand dunes rose and fell to the western horizon. Ari Ara and Emir leaned over the stone wall that ran the length of the cliffs. At the bottom were the horses.
Chestnut, roan, dappled grey, shining blacks: they dotted the green meadow as far as the eye could see. Fillies and colts gamboled beside nursing mares. A pair of stallions raced along the edge of the white sands. Untethered, fenceless, they grazed on the grass and gathered by the edge of the lake, magnificent, tall, and proud.
“Do all these horses belong to people in the city?” Ari Ara stammered, awestruck by the sheer number of animals.
“There is a centuries-old debate on who belongs to whom: horse or rider?” Tahkan replied. “I would guess that a third of the horses down below look to someone in the city. Another third will travel with a human when they feel like it. The rest would never deign to carry a human about.”
He led them to a hidden staircase carved into the cliff. The steps zigzagged down a chute, opening onto railed landings that overlooked the plain. Toward the bottom, narrow balconies served as viewing platforms during horse races – and defensive balustrades in times of siege. The staircase ended beside the lake. A line of storage rooms had been carved into the base of the cliffs to provide space for tack and grooming tools.
Ari Ara and Emir stared in awe at the horses. The creatures rose even taller than they had looked from atop the cliffs. These were not the shaggy ponies, placid and patient, that Ari Ara had seen the High Mountain villagers using to pull carts and plow fields. Long-legged and powerful, the desert horses rippled with strength. They crowded around the humans, curious and massive. The shortest one stood as high as Tahkan’s shoulder – and he was not a small man. The rest towered over Ari Ara, bumping their flanks up against her and narrowly missing her feet with their stamping hooves. The horses’ manes rippled with hints of fire and wind. Under the familiar grassy aroma, the scent of heat and dust clung to their hides. Their black eyes reflected the blue of the sky. Mahteni whistled through her fingers. A mare with a jet black mane and a misty coat shoved through the pack to reach her, head bobbing in delight.
“Good to see you, too, old friend,” the desert woman murmured.
Mahteni’s farewells were brief. She hung her saddlebags over the horse’s back, slung her waterskin over her shoulders, urged her niece to avoid trouble, and repeated back Tahkan’s last instructions. He sang a safe journeying song to bless her travels. Then she sprang to the back of the grey horse with a leap Ari Ara couldn’t follow. As she rode away, she swiveled and called back to her brother.
“She needs a horse, you know.”
Tahkan blinked in surprise.
“I thought it was too late,” he murmured.
Mahteni’s laugh rang out.
“It’s tradition,” she reminded him. Then she waved her arm in one last farewell and cantered off.
“What tradition?” Ari Ara asked.
Tahkan’s slow smile grew.
“Harraken custom holds that a father chooses his daughter’s first horse. I thought I had missed my chance, finding you so late in life, but Mahteni thinks you’ve never had a horse?”
Ari Ara tossed him a wild-eyed look and gulped, muttering under her breath as she flushed red as an apple.
“What was that?” Tahkan asked.
She shook her head and wouldn’t answer.
Emir leaned close and murmured an explanation to Tahkan: she’d never ridden a horse – not once in her entire life. The older man threw an askance look back at the youth.
Well, she’ll have to learn, Tahkan thought. The daughter of the Harrak-Mettahl must be able to ride. It was a matter of harrak, a point of honor and pride.
He whistled. A tall, black mare by the river lifted her head. Her ears flicked toward the figures by the high cliff. She shook her dark mane and paced over.
“She is annoyed at me for leaving her for so long,” Tahkan chuckled.
Tahkan’s mare sniffed Ari Ara from foot to head, sneezed twice, and turned her fine-boned head in Tahkan’s direction with a long-suffering expression.
“Stop that,” Tahkan chided. “This is my daughter – of course she’s a rival for my affection. Go find a good friend for her among your four-legged relatives, would you? And this is Emir Miresh, a great young warrior from the riverlands. If Tekli is about, tell him I request a favor.”
Ari Ara and Emir raised their eyebrows over the man’s conversation with the horse . . . but when the mare trotted away and returned with two other horses in tow, their mouths fell open.
“She understood you?” Emir blurted out in disbelief. “What magic is this?”
“Only our language,” Tahkan answered simply. “Or perhaps her intelligence.”
He shrugged. It was difficult to interpret whether a stubborn horse couldn’t or wouldn’t understand your requests. Who was he to judge? He welcomed a short, piebald horse with a black mane and tail, and introduced him to Emir.
“You are both from the riverlands. Tekli will know your Marianan words for stop and go, and respond to your style of riding. He has run with our horses for years since we rescued him from Marianan merchants.”
He left Emir and Tekli to get acquainted and turned to the second horse with a skeptical look. The black mare had chosen a golden blonde stallion with a distinctive white mane.
“Are you mad? He’ll kill her,” he objected in a low hiss to his mare.
The mare stared steadily back at her human, nostrils puffing, lips curling back from her teeth in what Ari Ara suspected was a horse-laugh. Then the mare quieted and nudged Tahkan with her forehead.
“You’re certain?” he asked her, eyeing the golden horse with a father’s worried disapproval.
Desert children grew up on horses, riding behind or in front of their parents or older siblings, taking turns riding solo on the more tolerant horses. When they grew old enough, the mothers chose their sons’ first horse and the fathers chose their daughters’. The friendship might last only a season or two, though insightful parents tried to find horses that would make lasting bonds with their humans. Tradition held to pairing complementary qualities: a headstrong boy was given a cautious horse; a shy girl was offered a confident one. The pair learned from one another and the two grew into balanced members of the desert society. Even so, Tahkan had known many protective fathers who selected the sweetest, most even-tempered old mares for their daughters.
This was not what the black mare had in mind for Tahkan Shirar’s daughter.
“What’s his name?” Ari Ara asked.
“Zyrh,” he answered, reluctant to pair his daughter with this horse.
Zyrh meant trickster. He was the pride and horror of the desert, infamous for his pranks. He would flirt with a dignified warrior until he had the proud man on his back. Then he’d fling him off. Zyrh would let vain young women climb up. Then he’d dump them in the mud. He’d do the opposite of whatever the young men ordered, turning them into the laughing stock of their village. On the other hand, Zyrh had carried village matriarchs with a gentleness that eased their old joints. He had pulled a drowning child from a river. He had freed a pen of horses rounded up by foreign merchants who wanted to sell them in Mariana. For all his faults, Zyrh had a sense of justice and an intelligence unmatched among the desert horses.
“I make no promises,” Tahkan warned, “but we could give it a try.”
Zyrh nickered and pointed his ears. Ari Ara ducked as he swatted his tail in her face. She grabbed it and held it still.
“Stop that!” she chided, shaking her finger at his nose.
Zyrh replied with a horse-laugh and yanked his tail – still gripped in her hand – hard enough to tug her off balance. The golden horse spun around and bit her shirtsleeve.
“That’s gross,” she told him. “Do you know how much you slobber?”
His rear flank bunched. His hoof lifted. Ari Ara darted backwards in case he kicked.
“This horse is trying to kill me,” she hollered as Zyrh spun to face her, legs wide like a dog playing a game.
Tahkan broke into laughter. He looked at the mare. She bobbed her head.
“You’re right,” he answered. “They deserve each other.”
“What?!” Ari Ara yelped.
Tahkan hid a smile. This might work, after all. The girl had gone from an orphan shepherdess to a royal heir in one short year. She needed someone to keep her humble, to stop the whirling dizziness of her life. She stood on the cusp of adolescence, exiled from one country, a stranger to the other. If Zyrh would let her ride him, he would keep her sane, even if she hated every minute of the horse’s mischievous lessons.
“I’m not getting on this thing,” Ari Ara protested.
“I will have a talk with him,” Tahkan promised, stepping forward to hold his hand under the golden stallion’s velvety nose. Zyrh fidgeted as the Harrak-Mettahl pinned him with a stern gaze. Tahkan began to sing in a low murmur of a chant. Zyrh’s head dropped. He chuffed his breath through his nostrils. His long lashes blinked slowly. When Tahkan’s song ended, the horse shook his mane as if breaking free of a spell.
“What did you tell him?” Ari Ara asked, impressed.
“I reminded our friend that he comes from an ancient desert lineage . . . as do you. I told him what we tell all our daughters’ first horses: I expect him to save your life, brave all dangers, fly faster than the wind, alert you to approaching storms, and bite any uncouth boy who dares to insult you.”
Ari Ara laughed. Tahkan grinned and spoke further.
“I told him that if a time comes when he must run like no other horse in the history of the world, he must do it even if it breaks his heart, even if his hooves turn to molten fire from the speed of his gallop, even if time parts and the wind gaspingly surrenders the race.”
Tahkan’s expression was severe. He meant every word.
“Well, that’s not asking much,” Ari Ara replied, rolling her eyes.
He beckoned her closer and laid a hand on the short bristles of the horse’s hide.
“I had thought to begin with saddling your horse,” Tahkan remarked with a grimace, “but there are two ways of riding in the desert, and Zyrh does not surrender to a saddle and bridle.”
“You mean I have to ride bareback?!” Ari Ara exclaimed, eyes wide.
“Zyrh will keep you on . . . or not,” Tahkan added. “No reins or saddle will change that.”
“Can’t you give me another horse?” Ari Ara questioned as Zyrh stamped his hoof and eyed her with devilish anticipation. “A dull Marianan horse?”
“I could,” he replied, reluctantly.
“But what?” Ari Ara wondered, sensing his hesitation. “Will you lose harrak if I won’t ride Zyrh?”
“Er, yes,” Tahkan confessed with an uncomfortable sigh, “though, it’s nothing a Harrak-mettahl cannot spare.”
She caught the unspoken truth, however: a true daughter of the desert would not ride like the river dogs.
“Alright,” she groaned, her pride spurring her into action, “show me how to get on him.”
Tahkan’s grin lit up, delighted at her courage. He eyed her height and pointed to a large boulder. He suggested she climb on top of it until she could leap into the saddle like Mahteni had done.
“Show me,” Ari Ara said. “I bet I can do it.”
He whistled for his mare and demonstrated the three leaping mounts: one from a standing position with hands on the horse’s back, one with no hands, and one from a running start. His horse stood proud and still, showing off her excellent manners. Then he dismounted and held Zyrh by the sides of his head so the horse wouldn’t dodge away as she practiced.
“Be good,” he muttered to the creature. “Let her gain some confidence, at least.”
Ari Ara’s head barely reached Zyrh’s withers, so she stepped back several paces, bolted into pounding strides, and took a hurtling leap. Her hands pushed off his back to give her enough height to swing her leg around and over.
“Like that?” she asked, clutching Zyrh’s neck as he jolted at her sudden weight.
“That will do,” Tahkan answered with a smile.
The two sides of the horse had names, he told her: alshun and saak, courage and trust, the two virtues that guided desert riders. He showed her how to use her legs to signal to Zyrh.
“Excellent,” he encouraged her as the horse began to move like rippling water under her. He could see her knuckles turning white as they clutched the horse’s mane, but a smile broke out on her face.
“We’ll make a desert rider out of you, yet,” he boasted.
Zyrh snorted and sidestepped. She slid off his back with a shocked ‘o’ of consternation hanging on her lips. Tahkan helped her up from the dust.
“Perhaps I spoke too hastily. Let’s try again.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier with reins?” she asked.
“No doubt, but in battle, you’d need to hold a sword in one hand and a shield in the other.”
Ari Ara swiveled to face her father.
“No, I won’t,” she retorted hotly. “I’m not ever fighting in war. Who would I fight for or against? My father’s people or my mother’s? I’m going to use the Way Between to stop wars.”
“Lakash en kelay,” Tahkan vowed softly under his breath, “may it be so.”
He gestured to her to get back on the horse. This time, however, Zyrh bolted away as she leapt, whinnying and shaking his head.
“He’s laughing at me!” Ari Ara protested, landing in the dust.
She tried again. Zyrh dodged her. She stuck her tongue out at Emir as he laughed. The third time, her father held the horse still. Then he put her through her paces, showing her how to ride at a walk, a canter, and a trot. Zyrh taught her how to fall. Fortunately, her training in the Way Between had already taught her how to protect herself from hard landings.
By late afternoon, her temper was as sharp as her hunger. Tahkan was pulled away by a huddle of anxious-faced men requesting his intervention in a brewing conflict. He told Ari Ara and Emir to brush their horses down and then come up for dinner. At the first balcony, he leaned over the rail, cupped his hands around his mouth, and called back to them.
“Stay out of trouble!”
They waved to show they’d heard. He nodded and trudged up the steps behind the men. At first, Zyrh stood still and let her brush him down with a currycomb. Then the devilish beast shot a stream of piss at her feet. She jumped back and threw the brush at his flank. He raced away and promptly rolled in the dust.
“Fine!” she hollered. “See if I ever brush you again!”
“He’s just doing it because he knows you’ll react,” Emir told her, picking up the brush.
Ari Ara made a face and let him use the brush on Tekli.
“I should use it on you,” he teased, picking bits of dried grass out of her hair. “You look like you spent the day rolling in the dust like Zyrh.”
“I did,” she reminded him grumpily, slapping his hand away.
A burst of laughter rang out from behind them. They whirled. A group of desert youths drew close, led by the young warrior Gorlion.
“A real Harraken would know how to ride that horse.”
The sneering comment struck her like an arrow. She tensed, trying to hide the hurt his words caused her. Her face flushed red. She knew she wasn’t a true Harraken, but he didn’t have to rub it in! She glared back at Gorlion as he leaned against the rough-cracked trunk of a nearby tree, his arms crossed over his chest. Beside him, a handful of young warriors and skinny younger brothers imitated his posture.
“Ignore him,” Emir advised her in an undertone.
“I bet you can’t even make it down to the end of the lake without falling off,” he scoffed.
“I can, too,” she shot back, indignant. “I’d even beat you there.”
“Ari Ara,” Emir began in a warning tone.
“What’s the matter, river dog? Worried she’ll lose harrak?” another youth jibed. He flung his head back and woofed like a dog, mocking Emir and setting off a chorus of howls from the others.
Zyrh came dancing over, skin quivering and nostrils flaring. He snapped at the warrior youths and hung his head over Ari Ara’s shoulder in a surprising show of solidarity.
“Let’s race then, riverlands girl,” Gorlion challenged. “Harrak to the winner.”
The others repeated the last phrase in a chant. Ari Ara set her chin. She may not be a skilled rider, but she’d seen Zyrh galloping. He was fast. She waved aside Emir’s protests and took a running leap to the golden horse’s back. He let her land – which she took as a sign that he wanted to race as much as she did.
Gorlion’s stallion pranced and paced, pawing the ground impatiently. Zyrh held stark still, except for the twitching ripple of tension that shivered in his flank. One of the youths drew a line in the sand. Another held up his scarf. A third counted down.
“Three . . . two . . . one . . . go!”
The two horses burst into motion. Ari Ara clutched fistfuls of Zyrh’s ivory mane. The horse morphed into a mass of muscle and thundering energy. He moved in long, leaping strides. The ground beneath her blurred. Gorlion’s stallion sprinted, lithe and swift. The desert youth rode well, tucked low to his horse’s back. As they pulled ahead and left her in the dust, he ducked his head under his elbow and laughed mockingly.
“Go,” Ari Ara urged her horse, refusing to give up.
Zyrh bolted forward, doubling the length of his stride. Ari Ara clutched the band of muscle at the arch of his neck and clenched her legs tight around the horse’s torso. His legs stretched forever as they flew across the sand. The shore of the lake sped past. Despite her white-knuckled grip, a surge of thrilled excitement whipped through her. She let out a whoop of exhilaration. Zyrh sensed her enthusiasm, lengthened his neck, and exploded. Ari Ara’s eyes widened. The golden horse galloped as if he was made of wind. They gained on Gorlion. They caught up to the stallion. Then they passed the other horse and pulled ahead. The sound of the competing racer’s hoof beats fell back. Ari Ara cheered as Zyrh reached the end of the lake yards ahead of the other horse.
And then he kept on running.
This excerpt is from Desert Song, Rivera Sun’s newest novel. You can get a copy by supporting the Community Publishing Campaign. Thank you!