The Windrunner snorted. Probably Salanoa returning to her small cottage in the Gray Hills. He glanced down at the herd, most dozing still in the cool of the early dawn, and stifled a sigh as young Elin charged up to him.
Skidding to a halt, the gray and white spotted colt dropped a hasty bow. "Permission to escort the wizard, sir," he said eagerly. At his Elder's assent, he made an even sketchier head bob and raced away.
He runs well, the Windrunner thought as Elin quickly disappeared over the horizon. A proper Son of the Wind. He shook his head, amused at the twist his thoughts had taken. That one? A proper Son of the Wind? When he wasted every possible moment chatting with wizards, elves, and even those mischievous fairies rather than assuming those adult responsibilities as befitted his age? When he continually perturbed the oldsters by demanding to know the whys and wherefores of what-had-always-been?
Something would have to be done about young Elin. Even his own age-herd was beginning to murmur against him.
The black stallion sighed and hoped that the youngling would not badger the wizard too much with his questions.
Elin felt as if he could soar with delight. Excitement and anticipation lent wings to his hooves and he fairly flew across the long grass.
Salanoa was coming! Was here in Windgard at last!
Of all the wizards in the Free Lands, Salanoa was his favorite. What cared he that the oldsters whispered that she had been a human--one of the ancient and now-vanished enemies of the People of the Wind--before becoming a wizard? She was less abrupt than the silver-garbed wanderer Graylod and did not speak in riddles as did the flame-haired Guardian. Best of all, she lived not far from Windgard and did not mind his numerous visits.
The reddish sun was directly overhead before he caught sight of a slowly moving brown dot on the horizon. Soon he was close enough to whinny a greeting.
"Ah, Elin! Rightly the elves named your people the Fleogende, the Winged Ones!" She prodded his gently heaving side. "Where was the herd today? The southern border by the Low Peaks? You took all morning to reach me!"
Elin snorted in answer to her teasings, ruffling her hair with his breath. He studied the wizard, wondering as always how humans could ever have been such a threat to the People. She was tall, yes, taller than the Highland elves, but he, Elin, was taller still. Her long brown hair framed her face, highlighting her grass-green eyes. Only the gold of her pendant with its magical brown stone relieved the brown of her garb.
He nuzzled her backpack. "I can carry that," he offered.
Salanoa smiled, starting off again with her easy stride. "Not this time, my young friend. Kelan would have my stone if I let his precious scrolls out of my care."
"Scrolls? What are those?" Following, he sniffed carefully at the pack. It smelled magical, with the nose-tickling scent of age and the dry tang of parchment. "Smells like that 'book' you had, filled with those black markings like sparklewing tracks." He snorted and tossed his mane at the memory. "My eyes kept crossing."
The wizard laughed. "Few of the Folk have your people's total recall."
"Not even you?" Elin was surprised. Salanoa's memory went back several ages, and she was one of the youngest of the wizards.
She smiled. "Even Kelan, our Lore-Master, forgets occasionally. That is why he has so many records and books of lore in his castle." She adjusted her pack. "Even I must consult the Lore-Master when my memory fails. Or when my knowledge is incomplete. I should teach you to read someday," she mused, "and turn you loose in Kelan's castle. Stored there are answers to questions you have yet to ask." She laughed. "If that is possible. What new questions have you saved to ask me, my curious friend?"
They walked across the plains and through the scattered forests of Windgard, heading southeasterly toward the Gray Hills. The journey took five times as long as it would have taken Elin to run it, but he did not mind keeping to the wizard's pace. Salanoa was an excellent traveling companion. She told him stories of the past ages when he ran out of questions and drilled him in the elvish and dwarvish tongues. He had once been surprised to learn that there were languages other than the Common Tongue that all the Free Folk used. Salanoa still teased him about his thick Windkin accent. "Practically another language," was her usual comment.
Elin's ears twitched at memories of his first attempts to talk with travelers. "How many languages do you know, Salanoa?"
The wizard touched the brown stone of her pendant with a distant look in her young-old eyes. "More than are used today."
A few days later, after escorting Salanoa to her home, Elin trotted slowly back to the herd. He was in no hurry to return. Herd life seemed more boring than usual after Salanoa's tales, and her comments always required quiet reflection to be fully understood. This time was no exception. Why had she compared Windgard with the long-dead Last Kingdom?
"Elin! ELIN!" A blue-black colt that could only be his best friend Hahle thundered towards him. "Thank the Winds I found you!" Hahle gasped as he pulled up sharply. "You have to get back to the herd!"
Reflex was such that they were galloping before Elin thought to ask, "Why?"
"Why? Why? You know how much Fedrar and Hurdon grumbled the last time you ducked out to 'escort' Salanoa. Now they've gotten the oldsters stirred up. And you should hear the wind those old bags of bones are spinning. 'Escort duty,'" he mimicked in a quavering voice, "'is to be done at a distance, keeping out of sight of the intruder. Not strolling along with them!'" He snorted. "Not that I see why you'd want to talk with elves and wizards, but what's the fuss? And the way they go on about the last time the Lore-Master was here! We were only foals then! You'd think it was a crime to talk to a wizard! I mean, magic _is_ indecent, but if you ignore a wizard, they're liable to take offense and turn you into something unnatural."
"The wizards aren't that sensitive to insult," Elin disagreed.
"Insult? Where's the insult? We leave them alone and they should leave us alone. And most of the Folk do. I've only seen a few elves and just the three wizards--"
"We've isolated ourselves from the Free Lands and you think that's good?"
Hahle swerved aside, shaking his head. "Save your arguments for the herd, huh? No need to twist my tail. You could learn to fly for all I care; it's _them_ you have to convince."
A sparklewing sprang up from the long grass beside them, its wing feathers shimmering like the dwarf jewels its ancestor had stolen in the elfin tale. Elin wondered if the oldsters could prevent him from hearing any more such tales. Let them try! Only the Windrunner could enforce such a restriction, and the Windrunner would not become involved in mere petty jealousy.
The night wind was drawing darkness across the sky as they neared the herd. A black stallion waited as they approached, the herd silent behind their Elder.
Hahle gulped. "I didn't think they were _that_ riled!"
"Stay here, Hahle," Elin said. "I don't want their anger turned against you as well."
"Windspin!" Hahle snorted. "You think I'm afraid of those--Ow!"
"Stay here!" Elin repeated.
Hahle licked the sore spot on his side. "All right! No need to nip a fellow!"
Elin approached the herd and bowed his head to the ground before the Windrunner.
"Elin." The acknowledgment betrayed nothing, yet Elin felt his heart sink. "I have heard distressing reports concerning you."
Elin looked up to meet the Windrunner's neutral gaze. "I--"
"He has neglected his duty to the herd and brings ridicule upon the People!" an oldster snapped. "He--"
The Windrunner looked calmly in the speaker's direction and the oldster lapsed into silence. "Few younglings volunteer for escort duty as often as does Elin. He does not neglect his duty to the herd." The stallion turned back to Elin. "He does, perhaps, take longer than some to return from escort, but his familiarity with Windgard will serve him well when he reaches the age for sweeprunning."
"Escort duty is to be done at a distance," the oldster persisted, "staying--"
"--out of sight of the traveler," the Windrunner concluded. "But when the traveler is a close neighbor, what harm does it cause?"
"Salanoa isn't the only one he talks with." Fedrar pushed through the herd to confront Elin.
The Windrunner eyed the chestnut colt. "You are out of your place, youngling."
"But I've seen him! I've seen how he talks to elves and dwarves!"
"The Winds have informed me of his indiscretions." The ice in the Windrunner's voice chilled Elin and cowed Fedrar. The chestnut colt quickly bowed, backing into the herd.
"What say you, Elin? How do you explain your behavior?"
"I--" Elin stammered. He looked at his hostile audience and despair closed over him like a stormy night. He felt his head droop and with a flash of anger forced himself to look up. He had done nothing shameful! He met the Windrunner's eyes and spoke directly to his Elder, ignoring all others.
"I think we are wrong to isolate ourselves from the rest of the Free Lands. We treat our neighbors and those who could be our friends as mistrusted enemies. For what reason? None of the Memory-Keepers can recall and none of the Teaching Chants mention any betrayal by the Folk."
He turned proudly to Fedrar. "Yes, I speak with elves and dwarves and wizards. They are not monsters nor Evil Ones in disguise but people like us. They share the same faults and virtues as we do. And they, too--" he turned back to the Windrunner--"wonder at our treatment of them."
"Magic-users!" old Vyton rumbled as if the word was a curse. "They wonder why we will not allow their foul spells to taint us?"
"We are discussing Elin's speech with them," a bay mare interrupted impatiently, "not their spells."
"Not even those spells Elin teaches the younglings?" Fedrar retorted heatedly.
Before anyone could say or do anything, Hahle charged into Fedrar, knocking the colt off balance. "You take that back," Hahle said through bared teeth. "I was there, too, Fedrar. Elin didn't teach any spells. Take it back or I'll--"
The blue-black colt looked back at the Windrunner. "But, sir, he's lying!"
"I am not!" Fedrar denied.
"Elin, what were you telling the younglings?"
"The tale of Helundar and Taerye," Elin said, feeling sick at heart. Helundar was of the People, but Taerye was his elf friend, who had used a great deal of magic to get the two out of their numerous difficulties.
A Memory-Keeper raised her head in astoundment, and the Windrunner nodded to her. He said nothing, but Elin sensed his disappointment.
Hahle glared at Fedrar. "My grandsire told me that one."
Elin groaned inwardly at the lie. He himself had only heard it from Salanoa. "Hahle--"
"I don't remember that tale," an oldster wondered.
The Windrunner stamped a hoof. "Enough. I have decided."
The herd's murmurs stilled and Hahle moved to stand beside Elin.
"Elin, you are but a youngling, so I will only warn you this time. If you wish to remain a member of the herd, you must follow our ways. The herd has few dealings with magic. You will abide by that."
Elin opened his mouth to protest, but the Windrunner repeated, "As a herd member, you will abide by that tradition, Elin."
Elin's ears lowered and he bowed his head.
"Hahle, you and Elin will begin sweeprun training. At last star you will start for the Highland boarders. Sehsron and Renw will be alerted to watch for you."
The herd murmured at that, and the Windrunner raked them with an icy glance. "That is my decision."
The herd began to disperse, foals tripping sleepy-eyed by their dams, stallions and mares leaving to relieve others on sweepruns. Elin stayed where he was, head bowed. He heard the oldsters mumbling as they ambled toward the stream, felt the breeze accompanying the Windrunner drift away.
Hahle nickered excitedly. "Sweeprun training!" He dashed around Elin, rushed away and then returned to nudge his gray- spotted friend. "We get to learn under Renw!" He tossed his mane proudly. "I'll show him who's still a foal!"
He whirled suddenly and his ears half-lowered. "Well, Fedrar." He bowed mockingly. "Coming to gloat? Or is the punishment too severe for you, Wise One?"
Fedrar snorted in disgust. "Don't walk air. The Windrunner just wants to be rid of you two."
Elin raised his head to meet the colt's angry eyes. "I don't see why you're so envious of me, Fedrar. Everyone knows you avoid escort duty as a troll would sunlight. You could have--"
Fedrar's ears laid back in anger. "Don't talk filthy to me, wizard friend!"
The chestnut colt looked startled at the Windrunner's call. "Sir?"
"You will be on escort duty until I say otherwise."
Hahle chortled gleefully, but subsided at Elin's swift look.
"But-but, sir!" Fedrar gulped at the Windrunner's stern glance.
The black stallion studied the night stars. "Restel is escorting a dwarf to the Low Peaks. Go take over from her, Fedrar."
"Y-yes, sir." The colt bowed low and dashed away.
Hahle's ears twitched with suppressed mirth as the Windrunner walked toward the stream. Once the Elder was out of earshot, Hahle squealed with laughter and raced in a wide circle. "That settles the insult!" He stopped and nudged Elin. "Aw, cheer up. You haven't lost your real friends. You can't run a race with an elf. Or a dwarf." His ears perked. "Somebody's coming."
A red roan hurtled out of the night and jerked to a stop before them. "Hahle!" Renw gasped, breathing hard. "Elin! Sehsron said one of you was in trouble. What happened?"
"Sweeprunning," Hahle crowed. "Elin and I get to sweeprun with you."
Renw snorted. "You foals are sweeprunning? Then why does Elin look as if--" He broke off, spotting the whispering cluster of oldsters glancing their way. "Oh. Oh, Elin. Did they finally decide to stop you?"
He tugged at Elin's mane. "You're too friendly for your own good, youngling. But don't worry, a few sweepruns and you'll find a new interest."
Elin lifted his head in surprise. How could Renw think that? How could they both think that he could forget his outsider friends so easily? He had thought Renw, of all his friends, would understand. Or did he? His hide twitched at a sudden breeze as he followed Renw's gaze to see the Windrunner watching them.
"Quit calling us younglings," Hahle grumbled. "You're only a few seasons older."
"Old enough to run you into the dust, foal."
Hahle danced a few steps. "I can outrun you any day, oldster."
Elin ignored his friends. He looked at the herd, saw their eyes furtively flicking toward him and away. Did they expect him to change shape? He remembered the murmurs, could hear them even now. Magic-user. Elf-friend. 'He speaks with that wizard constantly. Not even the Winds know what they are plotting.'
'I hear she's going to change him, turn him into an elf.'
'Corrupting the young, he is, with all his talk about magic. And he was such a fine foal until that Lore-Master came around.'
Elin shook his head angrily. "I'm leaving for the border now," he announced.
Hahle looked baffled. "Now? Why? We have until last star. And Renw just got here."
Elin reared. "I'm leaving now!" He dashed off into the night, heading north for the Highlands.
Hahle and Renw exchanged glances. "Off again," Renw groaned. "Let him run alone for a bit, Hahle. He'll calm down. You know Elin never stays angry long."
Elin raced faster and faster, letting the wind of his passage swept his mind clear of hurt and anger. But questions raced on swifter hooves. Why did the People dislike outsiders? Why? What was the harm in talking? And sweeprunning. Why was Windgard so protected? What did they fear?
Tradition, the oldsters said. Elin snorted in disgust. The be-all and end-all of everything. Tradition. Memory mocked him. 'If you wish to remain a member of the herd, you will follow our traditions.' Well, he didn't have to be a herd member. He could always leave the herd.
His pace faltered at the rebellious thought. Leave the herd? Leave Windgard? Where would he go? He couldn't go to Salanoa. Her cottage would be the first place any searcher would look, and he didn't want to cause trouble for the wizard. But he couldn't give up his ways! Herd life was so limited. He sighed. There were so many things he didn't know, so much he wanted to learn that he never would in Windgard. And if he stayed, he would be restricted from meeting any outsiders. Even Salanoa!
Somehow that decided him. He glanced back at Renw and Hahle and stopped, waiting for them to catch up. Let the herd believe he followed their narrow-minded traditions and watched their border against nonexistent enemies. He was no foal to be frightened by tales of evil magic-users lurking beyond the borders. He couldn't seek sanctuary with Salanoa, but, thanks to her, he knew of the lands outside. Far north of the Highlands, through which none of the Free Folk ventured, was Dewin Heights and the castle of the Lore-Master. There he might find the answers he sought.
He glanced up at the winking stars. Tomorrow, he vowed, they would guide him even farther north than Windgard's borders.
The black stallion watched as the three younglings raced northward. "Watch over him, O Winds," he whispered, "and guide him to his destiny."
A light breeze whispered about the Windrunner and swirled up into the sky.
Kathryn Sullivan is a librarian in Minnesota where she is owned by two birds. She has had stories published in print zines Minnesota Fantasy Review and Fury, and she writes reviews for The Friends of Doctor Who newsletter.
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