Publication is still a few months away, but here’s a preview of She Who Rides Horses: A Saga of the Ancient Steppe

Chapter One

Naya rose to her feet, blue eyes intent on the horizon. It didn’t matter that she might be seen – the herd was too far away to take flight. She could just make out their individual shapes, moving slowly, partially obscured by the tall waving grasses. A small dun-colored stallion and four dun-colored mares foraged, making gradual progress in a westerly direction toward a low line of hills. Three of the mares were accompanied by foals, all of them born several moons earlier, just after the steppe winds changed to the south and the weather warmed. The fourth mare was shadowed by a two-year old filly. Looking into the setting sun, the horses were hard for the girl to distinguish against the pale gold of the drying grasses. All except the filly. Her red-gold coat, lit by the sun’s last rays, stood out like a flame against the predominating brown and yellow tones of the surrounding landscape. Naya reached up to rub a lock of her own coarse hair between thumb and finger. It was almost exactly the same startling shade of copper as the filly. Turning to go back the way she had come, the girl cast one last glance at the disappearing herd. Tomorrow she would be back, with a rope.

To everyone else in Naya’s world, wild horses represented a valuable resource, providing her people with meat, bones, hide, and sinew. More abundant than the bison, deer and saiga antelope who also roamed the vast grasslands, they were the hunters’ preferred quarry, easier to herd into confined spaces where they made prime targets for the hunters’ spears. But Naya had a different thought, a desire that came from deep within the center of her being. She wanted to touch the red filly. She wanted to run her hands through the unusual coat, so similar to her own head of flaming hair – and she wanted to do this thing with the consent of the warm and breathing animal, not just handle a lifeless pelt. Absently she passed a palm down the front of her garment, a piece of tanned horse hide with the soft cream-colored belly hair left on. It was shorter than the typical dress worn by other girls her age, but still long enough to reach almost to her knees. Underneath, she wore boy’s leather leggings, held up beneath her tunic with a thong at her waist, and with the bottoms tucked into tall lace-up hide boots. In this androgynous outfit she could run as swiftly as any of her cousins, boy or girl, but not offend anyone’s sense of decency.

Now as Naya hurried along, mind absorbed with thoughts of the red filly, the clan’s summer encampment came into view, tents outlined against a purple sky, cooking fires beginning to glow in the gathering dark. Cattle, sheep, and goats, not yet settled for the night, made plaintive noises. Dogs barked as women called to children to hurry with their evening chores. Picking up her pace, Naya fairly flew down the trail, sure-footed despite the gloom. Even so, she would be late, again.

Looking up from the coarse-haired flank of the goat she was milking and noticing the sun had slipped beyond the horizon, Naya’s grandmother marked the girl’s return to camp and wondered where she’d been all afternoon. If Awija had known what Naya had been up to, and of the plan beginning to take shape in the girl’s mind, the old woman would likely have approved, just as she approved of most of her favorite granddaughter’s unusual undertakings. Awija recognized that Naya was different from her cousins, not only because of her blue eyes and red hair. Bolder and more active than many of the other girls, she was prone to getting into physical scrapes, as if she were one of the boys. At the same time, she was exceedingly tender-hearted, especially when it came to the other creatures who shared the open grasslands where her people ventured during the summer season with their small herds of cattle, sheep, and goats. Although she could track as well as any of her cousins, and set snares for small game, she was more inclined to bring home an injured rabbit for Awija to nurse back to health than contribute it to the family’s cooking pot. The boys especially often teased her for being more interested in spending time with animals than people. When she was younger, Naya’s behavior had been tolerated, but she was no longer a child. Like her peers, she was expected to begin taking on more adult responsibilities, not wander off, doing whatever she pleased. After each of her transgressions, her father spoke sternly of duty, while her mother sighed and shook her head.

Awija, however, just smiled to herself. After all, her granddaughter’s way with the wild creatures, although remarkable, was not inexplicable. Her son Potis, Naya’s father, had the same gift for communing with animals. As for the independent streak that set her granddaughter apart, the old woman liked to think that her granddaughter got that from her, but she had to concede that some aspect of it came as well from the girl’s mother. Awija and her daughter-in-law often clashed as a result, more often than not over Naya herself. Awija understood why Sata sought to curb Naya’s wandering; she was concerned not only for the safety of her only child but for the reputation and status of her husband. Awija had different priorities. Knowing her granddaughter must spend time by herself out on the steppe if she were to develop her special gifts, she did what she could to channel the girl’s resistance to being confined while still abetting her exploits. Yet even Awija had to admit such freedom could not last forever.

After squeezing a final spurt from the goat’s teat into the wooden bowl she held between her knees, the old woman gave the animal an affectionate pat, then rose stiffly to her feet and surveyed the settlement’s tents, still visible against the darkening evening sky. For her granddaughter, time was running out.

Long after noon the next day, Naya was at last able to slip away. This time she was better prepared. In a deer skin bag slung over one shoulder she carried flint tools and kindling for making fire, a flint knife and enough food to last a day, as well as a full water skin. Over the other shoulder was coiled a long length of braided rawhide, strong enough, she hoped, to restrain the filly. The rope had been fashioned by her mother. No one else could twist and weave the strands of sinew together with such expert skill. Naya herself lacked the patience. Glancing at the height of the sun, now well on its way toward the western horizon, she set off at a jog in the direction where she’d seen the herd the day before. Horses could cover a lot of territory in a day.

 Still, Naya wasn’t too concerned. As soon as the sun sank behind the western hills, she knew that the yellow disk of a full moon would appear on the eastern horizon behind her, giving her ample light to track, even after sunset. And because of the lunar phase, if she did not appear for the evening meal or to join her family to sleep, her mother and father would both assume she had retreated to the women’s tent along with her other unmarried female cousins. Yet because this moon cycle would be only the second time for her to seclude herself with them, the other young women were unlikely to remark on her absence. If they did, she’d asked Melit, the only one of her cousins with whom she felt a close bond, to cover for her. Her mother would most likely wait until at least midday tomorrow to check on her, and even then, she would hesitate to raise an alarm over Naya’s disappearance unless it became prolonged, for fear of attracting more attention to her daughter’s unorthodox behavior. Neither large predators nor unknown hunting parties had been reported in the area for several weeks, meaning ranging alone on the steppe was relatively safe for the time being, and Naya fully intended to return by the following day. Adopting the relaxed, ground-covering lope she copied from her male cousins, she headed northwest.

She found the little band at dusk, when the sun’s afterglow cast blackening shadows across the landscape. She had just gained the top of a small rise and could see for some distance, despite the gathering darkness. There they were – blurred shapes silhouetted against the next range of hills. Succeeding ridges gained in height, verdant meadows giving way to forested slopes, behind which the sun had disappeared. The horses had led her to the edge of the grasslands. Another day’s journey and she would be surrounded by the thickly wooded hillsides bordering her clan’s more open territory. These forest-steppes extended for a long way to the west and north. Had she turned instead to the east and travelled for an entire moon, she would have reached her clan’s winter refuge along the banks of the great river, . From there, heading south, she would eventually encounter actual mountains – the mountains bordering her mother’s homeland. Naya didn’t ever intend to go there again, at least not by herself.

She had been to these mountains almost exactly two years ago, when the clan spent the summer season at the southern-most reach of their territory along the great river and her father had not yet decreed she must try harder to behave more responsibly. Despite his bluster, Potis was partly responsible for his daughter’s penchant for going off on her own and getting into trouble. He had actively encouraged Naya when she was younger to learn the skills necessary for tracking, hunting and otherwise surviving outside the protective circle of the settlement. More than once, he’d even allowed her to go along on longer foraging expeditions, including the trip into the mountains where one of their party had been savaged by a great bear whom they had surprised just outside a cave.

Naya shivered at the memory, then grasped the bear’s tooth, tied with a thong at her neck. It was she who had first spotted the creature’s hulking, shaggy shape, hidden within a grove of close-growing spruce, and given the warning. Without her sharp eyes, more of the men could have been lost. Instead, they had been able to kill the huge female before she could harm anyone else, despite her frenzied determination to protect the cubs waiting in the cave.  Her father had given Naya the bear-tooth necklace in recognition of her bravery. Shortly afterward, however, he stopped allowing her to accompany him on trips away from the clan’s summer encampment.

This year was no different, despite her pleading. Bitterly disappointed, she wandered as far as she dared by herself. Even had she wanted company, she did not have much choice but to go alone. The boys wouldn’t include her in their explorations and the other girls seemed to have little interest in venturing beyond sight of their tent dwellings. No one shunned her outright – her family was too powerful for that – but more often than not, she found herself on her own. Most of the time she didn’t mind, but even she was neither courageous nor foolhardy enough to travel too far from the safety of the encampment, especially not in the direction of the southern mountains. Still, she often thought with sadness and a little regret of the great mother bear who had died defending her cubs.

Shivering again in the rapidly cooling air, Naya brought her attention back to the horses. They appeared to have stopped for the evening. The mares’ heads hung low, muzzles almost touching the ground in deep relaxation and she could make out several darker shapes that must be the foals, lying in the grass at their feet. Only the stallion stood alert, scenting the air for danger before dropping his head to grab a few mouthfuls of grass. Moments later, his head lifted again, keen eyes scanning the landscape.

Naya settled herself in the deep grass and rested her folded arms atop her knees. From her vantage on the rise downwind from the small band, she could sit and keep watch without arousing suspicion while she decided what to do.  She wasn’t sure she could see the red filly. Was she laying on the ground with the other foals? How could she get close enough to catch her? Should she use her rope to set a snare to trap a foreleg? Quickly Naya rejected this idea as likely to cripple the animal. Her best chance was to somehow get the rope around the filly’s neck. To have any hope of doing this, she’d have to separate the two-year-old from the rest of the herd. The stallion and adult mares would never allow her to get close enough otherwise. Often hunters chased bands of horses into the ravines along the streams and smaller tributaries that flowed into one of the rivers bisecting the steppe, trapping them and making them easy targets for their flint spears. Naya was not after meat, but if she could get the filly into one of those ravines by herself, she might be able to throw the rope and capture the young horse. She’d have to be quick and accurate. She would likely have only one chance before the filly rushed past her to rejoin her family. Satisfied that she had at least the beginnings of a plan, Naya rested her cheek on her crossed forearms, closed her eyes and slept.

At some point later in the night, she thought she awoke. Her first instinct was to check the herd. Lifting her head from her folded arms, she saw them, as they’d been before, dozing in the lee of the hillside across from the rise where she sat. Even the stallion had relaxed his vigilance and stood with his head lowered. The full moon now rode high in the sky, bright enough to cast faint shadows. As Naya’s eyes adjusted to the night, the moon’s light seemed to grow even more luminous. Oddly, it appeared to shine particularly brightly along a faint track leading down the rise at an angle from where the horses rested. She hadn’t noticed it before.

Rising, she moved as silently as she could, following the path in the moonlight. Soon, Naya found herself ascending another small rise, then descending, then rising again, until at last she stood at the edge of one of the ravines that cut into the earth along the tributary of the nearest river. Below, she could see the stream itself, shining in the moonlight, gurgling quietly as it flowed over its rocky bed. Beneath her feet, the path was just visible, leading down the steep-sided ravine to what must be a smaller creek that drained into the stream.

Slipping and sliding, Naya made her way down, scratching her skin against sharp rocks and thorny underbrush. At last she reached the bottom and looked around her. The stream lay at her back, moving past the mouth of the ravine. Along the ravine’s floor ran the creek, seeking to join the larger water course. Smooth white stones marked its course. Large boulders, interspersed with prickly bushes and gnarled birch thickets, covered both sides of the ravine. Looking back up the way she had come, Naya could not discern the trail that had brought her into the little gorge.  Ahead of her, a few larger oaks, roots fed by the creek, hid its source. On the ravine floor, the moon’s glow, reflected by the white stones of the water course, seemed to suggest a path. Drawn onward, Naya followed it into the grove of trees.

There, a wondrous sight met her eyes. The trees encircled a small pool of water, fed by an underground spring that served as the origin of the little creek. Reflected in the pool’s clear, still surface was the round orb of the moon, casting its light from high above the rocky cliffs which formed the pool’s backdrop. Beside the pool stood the red filly, burnished coat softly aglow. Naya froze, rooted as if she were one of the trees, and stared. The filly, startled by the girl’s approach, stared back. Neither moved. Eventually, Naya remembered to breathe. In the next moment, she realized that she had left her rope, along with everything else she’d brought with her, back on the rise. Still, she and the filly stood motionless, looking at each other.

She must have come searching for water, thought Naya. She must have gotten up in the night and wandered away from the others, looking for a drink.

She continued to study the young horse, considering what to do next. Suddenly, time ceased its normal passage and in that moment, Naya’s senses underwent an almost imperceptible shift; the moonlight became just a little brighter, the stream’s murmur became just a little louder, the slight breeze rustling the leaves in the trees became just a little fresher against her skin. In the next moment, she seemed to feel the filly’s thoughts.

 I will grant your heart’s desire, but only if you are able to grant mine. The musical voice resonated within the core of Naya’s being, even though no sound other than the splash of flowing water and whisper of the wind in the trees disturbed the silence of the grove. What is your heart’s desire?

Awestruck, Naya could only gaze back at the young horse, who now regarded her with luminous dark eyes in which fear had given way to curiosity. Finally, she found her own voice. “I wish to be with you,” she said simply. “I wish to touch your coat.” Then, from deep inside, another longing welled up, a yearning so audacious she almost couldn’t bring herself to speak. Hesitatingly, she uttered the words. “I wish,” she said, “to ride upon your back.”

 Ah, the red filly seemed to reply, if this is indeed your deepest desire, then you must see with the eyes of your heart and create ties without the use of a rope. And when you have succeeded in granting my heart’s desire, then shall yours be granted also.

Before Naya could begin to ponder the meaning of the words, the filly brushed past her in a chestnut blur and was gone, disappearing through the trees toward the mouth of the ravine. Gazing after her, Naya shook her head, as if to clear her senses. With that blink of an eye, the light returned to its usual moonlit dimness. Water still flowed in the creek and a breeze still rustled among the leaves but the moment of utter clarity had vanished, just as suddenly as the young horse. Shaking herself again, as if awakening from a dream, Naya retraced her steps to where the creek joined the stream. There was no sign of the red filly.

The terrain became somewhat more open here, but the ground on either side of the tributary was marshy and impassable. She could only guess that the horse must have gone splashing through the shallow water itself, in which case there would be no tracks to follow. In any event, she needed to retrieve her rope and the bag with all her other tools, not to mention her food. Looking ruefully at the scratches covering her arms and legs and then back up at the steep sides of the brush-choked ravine, Naya decided that locating the path she had originally followed was both unlikely and unappealing. Instead, she would follow the filly’s lead, wading downstream until she could find a place where the ground was dry enough for her to climb back up to the grassy hills of the steppe. From there, she’d have to hope that she could make her way to the featureless rise where she’d left her things.

By the time she was ready to give up, dawn still showed no sign of illuminating the eastern sky. The moon’s pale glow served only to dim the vast field of stars, stretching in a dome above the steppe, without providing sufficient light to distinguish any landmarks. She’d found no evidence of the horses as she traversed up and down the shallow hills, all apparently identical. Fearing she had become completely disoriented and traveled in circles, Naya stopped at the top of a small rise. Better to wait until daylight and get her bearings. Besides, her hide boots were soaked from wading in the stream and needed time to dry. Her feet felt icy as she stripped the boots off and laid them beside her. Making a nest for herself in the tall grass and saying a brief prayer to her guardian spirits for protection, Naya curled herself into a ball and fell into an exhausted sleep.

She awoke to the sounds of strong teeth rhythmically cropping the grass on the hillside just below her resting place. With a start, she opened her eyes and sat up. In that instant, the small band of horses took flight, streaming down the slope and up the next shallow incline, where they wheeled abruptly and came to a halt, eyes intent on the creature who had materialized so unexpectedly out of the grass.  Still close enough for her to distinguish quite clearly, next to one of the dun-colored mares stood the red filly.

Without thinking, Naya rose to her feet. Her precipitous movement sent the small herd fleeing once again and within moments, they had been swallowed by the vastness of the steppe.  The wild excitement which had surged through Naya was immediately replaced with bitter disappointment, followed by concern as she remembered her predicament. Where were her things?Only then did she take stock of her surroundings. There, partially concealed by the grass at her feet, lay her deerskin bag and her rawhide rope. Somehow, miraculously, she’d found her way in the dark back to where she’d started.

Relieved, and suddenly famished, Naya seated herself again on the ground and opened her bag, taking out strips of preserved meat mixed with dried berries and roasted goosefoot seeds. Her people were primarily hunters, fishermen and herders, not farmers, but they did forage for greens and root vegetables and harvest wild grains and fruits. More recently they’d begun to supplement this diet with milk and cheese from the clan’s goats, who were not native to the area but rather descended from the herd which had accompanied Naya’s mother when she traveled from her homeland in the mountains of the south to marry Naya’s father. She had also brought with her a flock of domesticated sheep of a type most useful for their wool. The fibers of their coats grew longer than the hair of wild sheep, so that the fleece could be beaten into felt or spun into yarn and then woven into various textiles. Naya had watched her mother teach these skills to the other women since she was a little girl, but although she’d managed to learn the basics, she lacked her mother’s gift for inventing new techniques and uses for the raw wool. The clan’s cattle, the most valuable of their livestock, were reserved for feasting and sacrifice on important ritual occasions or for exchange in order to secure the allegiance of allies.  For daily survival, Naya’s people still hunted and fished for most of their meat. Wild boar and aurochs inhabited the wooded river valleys, tributaries teamed with fish, and bison, deer and antelope roamed the open steppe – but the humans’ favorite prey were the herds of wild horses.

After finishing her breakfast and taking a long drink from her water skin, Naya reached thoughtfully for her rope, intending to contemplate her next steps. Only then did her glance fall on her own arms and legs. Instead of being covered in scratches, her limbs were completely unblemished, except for the bruise on her right knee which she’d gotten two nights before when she tripped in the dark over a pile of hides carelessly left at the entrance of her family’s dwelling. Something wasn’t right.

Concentrating, she tried to remember exactly what had happened the day before, from the time she’d finally sighted the horses around dusk and stopped to rest and keep watch on the rise where she now sat. She remembered deciding on a plan to capture the filly and then she must have fallen asleep. After that, her memories were somewhat hazy, but not as elusive as a dream. She thought she recalled waking again later in the night and following a moonlit path down into a ravine where she found trees surrounding a mirrored pool… and the filly. They had made contact, her own incredulous eyes staring into fathomless dark brown depths. She saw again the curiosity and intelligence of the young horse’s gaze. Something had passed between them. What was it? Naya made an effort to conjure the scene, but the details eluded her. Try as she might, she could remember nothing more, other than wandering the steppe in the dark, hoping to find her way back to where she’d left her belongings. Somehow, she thought with another wave of relief, she’d managed to stumble on the right place. Or had she? Maybe she’d never left her watching post on the rise and all the rest was a dream, or some kind of waking vision. Such experiences were known to occur. She’d have to ask her mother, or better yet her grandmother. Absently, still preoccupied by what may or may not have happened the night before, she reached to put on her boots which lay on the grass beside her, drying in the morning sun.

3 Comments

  1. Katherine

    Love it, can’t wait to read more!

  2. Amanda

    Also love it and can’t wait to read more! Congratulations, Sarah!

  3. Kim Esteran

    Captivating!

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