Wind Rider's Oath David Weber

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Chapter Three

The herd stallion was magnificent.

He was coal black, but for a white star on his forehead, and his conformation was perfect. At just over twenty-one hands, he was huge for any horse, and looked even bigger than he actually was, with his still-shaggy coat of winter. But despite that, he was actually of less than average size for a courser stallion, and he lacked the heaviness of build which characterized any breed of horse which even approached his own, massive stature. Indeed, he looked almost exactly like a Sothōii warhorse, with the same powerful quarters, well-sloped shoulders, and deep girth, but for the fact that he was very nearly half again the size of any warhorse ever born. Yet for all his size and magnificent presence, he moved with a delicate precision and grace which had to be seen to be believed.

At the moment, however, that silken-gaited precision was in abeyance. He stood almost motionless on a slight rise, under gray skies and gauzy, drifting curtains of rainy wind, only his head stirring as he gazed out over his slowly moving herd. He ignored the rain, but his gaze was intent, and his ears shifted uneasily. It was still early spring here atop the Wind Plain, and the herd had only recently left its winter pastures. He ought to have been busy sorting out the myriad details of its transition back to full independence, but something else occupied his attention. He didn't know precisely what it was, but he knew it was a threat.

It shouldn't have been. There were very few creatures in the world which could—or would dare to—threaten a single Sothōii courser, much less an entire herd of them. Despite how lightly he moved, the herd stallion weighed over three thousand pounds, with blue-horn hooves the size of dinner plates. He was powerful enough to drop a direcat, or even one of the great white bears of the eternally frozen north, with one well-placed hoof, and unlike lesser breeds, he could place that hoof with human intelligence and forethought.

And he and his kind were equally well bred for flight, at need. For all their mass, they could move like the wind itself, and they could keep it up literally for hours on end. According to Sothōii legend, the coursers had been created by Toragan and Tomanāk themselves, gifted with the impossible speed and endurance to match their incomparable intelligence and courage. According to others—like Wencit of Rūm—they owed their existence to somewhat less divine intervention, yet that made them no less wondrous. They couldn't match the acceleration of the smaller warhorses, but they were (quite literally) magically agile, and their wizardry-modified ancestry let them sustain a pace no mere horse could equal for periods which would have killed that same horse in short order. The only things they lacked were hands and the gift of speech, and those the Sothōii were honored to provide.

The stallion's herd (or most of it, at any rate) had spent the hard, snowy months of winter as guests at the Warm Springs stud farm. Lord Edinghas of Warm Springs was one of Baron Tellian's vassals, and the Warm Springs courser herd had been wintering with his family for generations. Although no Sothōii would ever mistake a courser for a horse, many of a courser's needs matched those of lesser breeds. They could have survived the winter on their own, though they would undoubtedly have lost some of their foals, but the grain and shelter provided by their human friends had brought the entire herd through without a single loss. Now it was time they returned to their summer range.

Under normal circumstances, they would have been accompanied by at least one wind rider, one of the humans who had formed a bond with a particular courser. It was hard to say whether the courser half of such a bond became half human, or its rider became half courser, and it didn't matter which it was. Every spring, wind riders and their coursers returned to the farms and pastures where courser herds had wintered to escort them to their summer ranges. No Sothōii would have dreamed of impeding those yearly migrations, but there were still times when it helped immensely to have a wind rider along to provide the human voice the herd stallions could not.

But this spring, the herd had been impatient, because three of their younger stallions and two youthful mares had elected to remain behind over the winter months. The herd stallion had been opposed, but courser herds weren't like those of normal horses. Courser herd stallions didn't win their positions simply by being stronger and faster and thrashing all competitors, and those stallions who never rose to lead the herd seldom left because they hadn't. Coursers were too intelligent, their society too sophisticated and intricate, for that. Herd stallions couldn't rely on their ability to defeat challengers—they had to be able to convince the rest of the herd to accept their wisdom. And the other stallions were too valuable to the herd, for their minds, as well as their strength and courage, to simply wander or be driven away. Besides, unlike horses, coursers mated for life, and mated pairs normally remained with the mare's herd.

But there were times this herd stallion wished his kind were just a little more like the smaller, frailer horses from which they had been bred so long ago. He would have preferred nothing more than to have been able to drive his quintet of stay-behinds into accompanying the rest of the herd last autumn with a display of bared teeth and flattened ears, or possibly a few sharp, disciplinary nips. Unfortunately, such simple and direct remedies had been denied him.

He remained unable to understand what had inspired the others to stay behind. Occasionally—very -occasionally—bachelor stallions might choose to remain on the open range for at least part of a winter. It was unheard of for a group to linger there, though, and none of the truants had been able to explain their reasoning. It was simply something they'd felt they had to do. Which (unfortunately, from the herd stallion's perspective) was a perfectly adequate explanation for almost anything a courser might choose to do. The herd stallion understood that the Races of Man found that frustrating and perplexing, but he couldn't really understand why they did, because coursers didn't belong to the Races of Man. Their minds worked differently. For all of the countless things which set them apart from ordinary horses, they were herd--oriented in a way none of the Races of Man was prepared to understand, and they trusted and followed their instincts in a way very few of the Races of Man, with their fixed habitations, were prepared to accept.

Still, the herd stallion had remained uneasy all winter, fretting about the safety of those who had been left behind and wondering what could possibly have possessed them to stay. Nor was he alone in that. Whatever their motivations, the five absentees were members of the herd, and their absence left an aching, uncomfortable void. The other coursers missed them, and the pressure to make an early start back to their range, whether or not a wind rider was available to go with them, had been overpowering.

But now . . .

The herd stallion stamped one rear hoof on the soggy grass, and his nostrils flared. The sense of threat grew stronger, and he threw up his head with a high, shrill whistle. The herd slowed, and other heads rose, looking back in his direction. The other stallions, and the childless mares, drifted towards the outer edges of the herd, -prepared to place themselves between the foals and nursing mares and any potential threat. Thoughts flickered back and forth, in flashing patterns and without anything any member of any Race of Man—except, perhaps, those telepathic magi gifted with the ability to communicate with animals—would have recognized as words.

The herd stallion's uneasiness communicated itself to the rest of the herd, and every head turned, facing into the fine, misty billows of rain sweeping down out of the northeast. There was nothing to scent, nothing to see, yet those same instincts the coursers trusted so implicitly warned more strongly than ever of approaching threat.

And then, with the suddenness of a lightning bolt forged of arctic fury, the steady wind which had pushed rain into the herd's faces all morning turned into a shrieking hurricane, and the misty raindrops turned into stinging, biting darts of ice. The herd stallion reared, trumpeting his challenge as the vile smell of something long dead swept over him on the teeth of the howling wind. He heard other shrill screams of outrage and defiance, yet he knew the true threat wasn't the wind, or the ice. It was whatever came behind the wind. Whatever drove the wind before it like the outrider of its fury . . . and its hunger.

The herd stallion galloped down from the hillock on which he had stood. He thundered into the teeth of the wind, mane and tail streaming magnificently behind him, mud and spray exploding under the war hammer beat of his hooves. The herd's other stallions fell into formation with him, converging from every direction to follow him in an earth-shaking drumbeat of hooves. Courser mares were among the deadliest creatures in Norfressa, but even so, they were smaller and lighter than the males of their species. And coursers were less fertile than horses. Potential mothers were not to be lightly risked, and so the childless mares closed up behind the stallions, forming the inner line of defense for the herd, rather than charging to meet the threat with them.

The stallions slowed their headlong pace as they spread out into battle formation, each making certain he had the space he needed to fight effectively, yet stayed close enough to his companions to cover one another's flanks. The herd stallion didn't need to look back to check their positioning. Unlike horses, coursers relied as much on training as instinct at times like this, and his stallions were a well-drilled, disciplined team. They knew exactly where they were supposed to be, and he knew they did. Besides, one of the things which made him herd stallion was the inborn ability to know the precise location of every member of his herd, and despite the instinct-driven fury pounding through him and the terrifying unnaturalness of the sudden, shrieking wind, he felt the confidence of the herd's defenders. And his own. His was not the largest of the courser herds, by any stretch of the imagination, yet there were seventeen stallions behind him, prepared to trample any possible enemies into the Wind Plain's mud in broken ruin.

But then he threw up his head again, eyes flaring wide as that same ability to place the members of his herd shrieked in warning horror.

Screaming whistles of anger and confusion rose behind him, audible even above the howling wind, as the rest of the herd tasted his confusion and revulsion through the intricately fused net of their minds. It was impossible. He couldn't be sensing the members of his own herd who had remained behind—not as the threat beyond the barrier of the icy gale!

Yet he did. And he sensed something else with them, some transcendent horror. It had no name, yet it rode them more cruelly than any spur or whip, for it was part of them. Or they had become part of it.

They were dead, he realized. And yet they weren't. He reached out to them, despite his revulsion, but nothing answered. The stallions and mares he had known, watched grow from foals, were no more, yet some splinter of them—some tortured, broken and defiled fragment—remained. It was part of whatever hid behind the wind, sweeping down upon the rest of his herd.

It was . . . recognition. It was the diametric opposite of his own sense of the herd, for his was the sense of a leader, a shepherd and protector, but this was the sense of a predator. A hunter. It was as if the monstrous danger hidden in the hurricane had devoured those he had known and taken their herd sense, their existence as part of the corporate whole, to use as a hound master might use a human's discarded clothing to give his hounds the scent of his prey.

And then the icy clouds of frozen rain pellets parted, and the herd stallion faced a horror which daunted even his mighty heart.

The plain before him was alive. Not with grass, or trees, but with wolves. A huge, seething sea of wolves. Not one or two, or a dozen, but scores of them, all of them racing towards his herd in a deadly, profoundly unnatural silence.

No wolf was foolish enough to attack a courser, and no pack of wolves was sufficiently insane to attack a herd of them. They didn't even take down foals who'd strayed, or the sick or the lame, because they'd learned over the centuries that the rest of the herd could and would hunt them down and trample them into ruin.

But this onrushing comber of wolves was unlike anything any courser had ever seen, and that stench of long-ago death clung to them like a curse from an open grave. Eyes blazed with a sickly, crawling green fire; green venom dripped from the fangs bared by their silent, savage snarls; and no wolf pack born of nature had ever been so vast. The herd stallion shook off the momentary paralysis of that incredible sight, rallying the rest of the stallions, who had been just as stunned and shaken as he, and they charged to meet the threat.

The herd stallion reared, bringing his hooves down like flails, and a sound came from the wolves at last—a shriek of hatred-cored agony as he smashed a wolf the size of a small cart pony into splintered bone and torn flesh. His head darted down, and teeth like cleavers, despite his herbivorous diet, bit deep. He caught the second wolf just behind its shoulders, crushing its spine, and gagged at the taste of something which was both dead and alive at once. He snapped his head around, worrying it as a normal wolf might worry a rabbit, until even its unnatural vitality failed, and then threw it from him with a final flip of his head. He sensed another wolf, flowing around him, coming from behind in the ancient hamstringing attack of its kind, and a rear hoof smashed out, catching it on its way in. It flew away from him, dead or crippled—it mattered not which—and he trumpeted his war cry as pounding hooves and tearing teeth harvested his enemies.

Yet there were too many of them. No one of them, no two, or even three, could have been a threat to him. But they came not in twos or threes—they came in dozens, all larger than any natural wolf, and all with that same uncanny, not-dead vitality. However many he crippled, however many he killed—assuming that he truly was killing them—there were always more behind them. They swept down on his stallions like a sea crashing against a cliff, but this sea was alive. It knew to look for weaknesses and exploit them, and coursers needed space to fight effectively. Even their closest formation offered openings wolves could wedge their way into, and the herd stallion could not avoid the fangs of them all.

He heard one of his stallions scream in agony as a wolf got beneath him, fastening its teeth in the other courser's belly. Other wolves swarmed over the wounded stallion, ripping and tearing while their companion's grim grip crippled and hampered him, and he screamed again as they dragged him down into the sea of teeth waiting to devour him while he shrieked and thrashed in his death agony.

Other teeth scored the herd stallion's right foreleg, just above the chestnut, and he screamed in anguish of his own. It wasn't just the white bone of fangs rending his flesh. That green venom seared like fire, filling his veins with an ice-cold blaze of anguish. He rose, exposing his own belly dangerously, and arched his spine to bring both forehooves smashing down on the wolf who'd bitten him. He crushed it into tattered hide and broken bones, but that shattered body continued to twitch and jerk. Even as he turned to another foe, the broken wolf continued to move, and its movements were becoming stronger, more purposeful. Slow and clumsy compared to its original lethal speed, yet lurching its way back upright. It staggered towards him, broken bone flowing back into wholeness, hide recovering muscle and sinew, and he lashed out again. He smashed it yet again, and even as he did, another hurled itself through the air, springing up onto his back, despite his height, to bite viciously at his neck.

His attacker got a mouthful of mane, and before it could try again, the stallion covering his right side leaned over the herd stallion's withers. Jaws like axes crunched down on the wolf, tearing it away . . . and two more wolves seized the moment of the second stallion's distraction to tear out his throat in a steaming geyser of blood.

He went down, and the herd stallion smashed his killers, but it wasn't enough. The wolves paid an extortionate price—one no natural pack of wolves would ever have paid—for every courser they dragged down. But it was a price these creatures were willing to pay, and the snarling tide of possessed wolves swept forward as inexorably as any glacier.

He should have fled, not stood to fight, he thought as he turned two more wolves into bags of broken bones and a third opened another bleeding wound just above his left stifle. But he hadn't known then. Hadn't suspected the true nature of the threat he faced. And because he hadn't, he and all of the other stallions were doomed. But he might still save the rest of the herd.

The order flashed out from him even as he continued to kick and tear at the endless waves, and the herd obeyed. Mares with foals turned and ran, while the childless mares formed a rearguard, and the remaining stallions prepared to cover their retreat.

Not one of them tried to escape. They stood their ground in a holocaust of blood and terror and death, building a breastwork of broken, crushed wolf bodies that died and yet refused to become—quite—dead. They fought like hoofed demons to defend their mates and children, shrieking and thundering their rage until the inevitable moment when their own bodies joined the wreckage.

The herd stallion was one of the last to die.

He had become a thing of horror, a slashed and bleeding ruin of his beauty and grace. Bone showed in the deepest wounds, and venom pulsed through his body on the broken stutter of his pulse. The remaining wolves closed in upon him, and he made himself turn in a staggering heave to face them. He dimly sensed still more of them sweeping past him, and even through his agony and exhaustion, he felt a fresh, dull horror as more of the "dead" lurched back to their feet and staggered grotesquely by him. They were slow and clumsy, those wolfish revenants, but they joined the others of their cursed kind, flowing around him like a river flowing around a lump of stone, and a fresh and different horror choked him as he saw the missing members of his own herd loom out of the rain.

They moved like puppets with tangled strings, following the wolves—with the wolves—and their eyes blazed with the same green sickness, and fiery green froth hung from their jaws. They ignored him, moving past him with the wolves, and torment filled him as his fading herd sense felt the agonized death of the first of his childless mares. The wolves he and the other stallions had "slain" were too crippled, too clumsy, despite their resurrection, to overtake the herd . . . but their undamaged fellows were another matter entirely. Sorrow and grief twisted him with the despairing knowledge that not even the fabled speed and endurance of the coursers would save many of the herd's foals from the unnatural wave of death racing after them like the tide across a mud bank.

The wolves he still faced came at him. He had no idea how many of them there were. It didn't matter. He brought a leaden forehoof down one last time, crushing one more wolf, crippling one more foe who would not murder one of his foals.

And then they foamed over him in a final wave of rending, tearing agony, and there was only darkness.

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