Tales are told of the mysterious, powerful Mountain where the gods—powerful beings in the form of white horses—live. But Valeria knows no woman has ever been called to the Mountain. Until she feels a strange pull and answers the call—as a boy
When her secret is discovered Valeria loses all that she's won. Her anger and frustration with the Empire might be enough to give the barbarians a way into the Mountain. And so the Empire now depends on the will, the strength and the loyalty of one Rider. A Rider who has been rejected by all but the gods
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The Mountain floated over the long roll of field and forest. Even in summer its peak was white with snow. In early spring, when the grass had begun to grow green in the valleys, its summit was locked in winter.
There was a fire of magic in its heart, welling up from the deep roots of the earth. It bubbled like a spring from the white fang of the peak, and rippled in waves through the vault of heaven. The tides of time began to swirl and shift.
In the citadel on the Mountain's knees, the master of the Schools of Peace and War woke from a stranger dream than most. He stumbled from bed, flung open the shutters and peered up at the glow of dawn on the snowbound slopes.
Every spring the power rose; every spring the Mountain's Call went out, summoning young men to the testing. Every spring and summer they came, straggling in from the far reaches of Aurelia's empire, coming to claim the magic that they hoped was theirs. White magic, stallion magic. Magic of time and the gods.
This year's Call was different. How it was different, or what it portended, the master could not tell. The gods in their pastures, cropping the new green grass, would not answer when he asked. The Ladies in the high valleys, greater than gods, chose not to acknowledge him at all.
This was a mystery, that silence said. Even the master of the school must wait and see, and hope that when the answer came, it would be one that he could accept.
Valeria had been walking in a fog for days. Sometimes she wondered if she was ill. Other times, she was sure that she was losing her mind.
There was a voice in her head. It called to her with the sound of wind through pines. It whispered in the hollows of her skull. Come. Come to me.
She staggered on the path to the widow Rufo's house. Her mother's hand gripped her wrist and wrenched her upright.
The pain helped Valeria to focus. It was harder every day. Sometimes now she could barely see. She had to struggle to hear what people said to her. She thought she might be losing her mind altogether, except that there was a deep sense of rightness to it. She was meant to hear this call. She was meant to go—
"Valeria!" Her mother's voice cut through the fog of confusion. She blinked half-wittedly. She was standing in the widow Rufo's cottage. Her head just missed brushing the roofbeam.
"Valeria," Morag said. "Start brewing the tea." Valeria's hands knew what to do even when her wits were drifting away toward gods knew where. She dipped water from the barrel by the door and poured it into the kettle, then set it to boil on the hearth. The fire had burned too low. She whispered a Word. The banked logs burst into flame.
The widow Rufo's breath rattled. Morag spread a paste of pungent herbs over the bony chest and covered it with soft cloths. Herbs just as pungent steeped in the boiling water, brewing into tea. When it was strong enough, Morag coaxed it into her sip by sip.
Valeria squatted by the fire. It was full of visions. White mountains. White clouds. The toss of a white mane, and a noble head on a proud arched neck, turning to fix her with an eye as dark as deep water. The depths of it were full of stars. Come, said the white god. Come to me.
"She's getting worse."
Valeria lay in the wide bed with her three younger sisters. She was the innermost, with Caia's warmth on one side and the chill of the wall on the other. Her sisters were snoring on three different notes. They almost drowned out the murmur of their mother's voice on the other side of the wall.
"She can barely keep her mind on her work," Morag went on. "She started to say a birthing spell over Edwy's burned hand this morning—thanks to Sun and Moon I caught her in time, or he'd have sprouted a crop of new fingers."
Her father's laughter rumbled through the wall. Morag slapped him. He grunted. "There now," he said in his deep voice, roughened from years of bellowing orders on battlefields. "What was that for?"
"You know perfectly well what for," Morag said sharply. "Our daughter is losing her mind."
"If she were a boy," Titus said, "I'd be thinking it was the Call. I saw it a time or two when I was in the legion. One of the youngest recruits would get up one fine spring morning with his eyes all strange, pick up his kit and walk out of the barracks, and no one with any sense would try to stop him. Our girl's just about the same age as they were, and gods know she has a way with animals. Horses follow her like puppies. The way she taught the goat to dance—"
"She is not a boy," said Morag. "This is a spring sickness. There's magic in it, she stinks of it, but it is not—"
"What if it is?"
"It can't be," Morag said flatly. "Women aren't Called. She has a good deal more magic than she knows what to do with, and it's laid her open to some contagion off the mountains."
Titus grunted the way he did when he was not minded to argue with his wife, but neither was he inclined to agree with her. "You'd better cure her, then, if she's as sick as that."
"I'll cure her," said Morag. Her tone was grim. "You go in the morning, husband, and talk to Aengus. She likes that son of his well enough. There's time to make it a double wedding."
"I'm not sure—" said Titus.
"Do it," Morag said with a snap like a door shutting.
That was all they said that night. Valeria lay very still, trying not to touch either Caia or the wall. Caia would not be pleased at all, not after she had bragged to everyone about being the first of all four sisters to marry. She was a year younger than Valeria and the beauty of the family. Their father had not had to go begging for a husband for that one. Wellin Smith had asked for her.
Aengus' son Donn was unlikely to refuse Titus' eldest daughter. He had been trailing after Valeria since they were both in short tunics. He had an attractive face and decent conversation, and a little magic, which was useful in his father's mill. He could offer his wife a good inheritance and a comfortable living, even a maid if she wanted one.
It was a good match. Valeria should be happy. Her mother would cure her of these dreams and fancies. She would marry a man she rather liked, give him children and continue with her education in herb-healing and earth magic. When the time came, she would inherit her mother's place in the village, and be a wisewoman.
That was the life she was born to. It was better than most young women could hope for.
She was ill, that was all, as her mother had said. Because it was spring and she was coming to her sixteenth summer, and because she had listened hungrily all her life to stories of the Call and the white gods and the school on the Mountain, she had deluded herself into thinking that this bout of brain fever was something more. That was why she was dreaming in broad daylight and stumbling over her own feet, and feeling ever more strongly that she should take whatever she could carry and run away. She could not possibly be hearing the Call that had never come to a woman in all the years that it had been ringing through the planes of the aether.
Valeria slid from doubt and darkness into a dream of white horses galloping in a field under the white teeth of mountains. They were all mares with heavy bellies, and foals running beside them. The young ones were dark, black or brown, with the white of adulthood shining through.
They ran in wide sweeps across the green field.
The swoops and curves made her think of a flock of birds in flight. Augurs could read omens in the passage of birds, but these white horses could shape the future. They could make it happen. They were the moon, and time was the tide.
A voice was speaking. She could not see who spoke, or tell if it was a man's voice or a woman's. It came up out of the earth and down from the air. "Look," it said. "See. Understand. There is a prophecy—remember it. One will come of the pure line, true child of First Stallion and Queen Mare. That one will seal the bond of soul and spirit with a child of man. Together they shall be both the salvation and destruction of the people."
Words welled up, a flood of questions, but there was no one to ask. She could only watch in silence.
The mares and foals circled the field in a graceful arc and leaped into the sky, spinning away like a swirl of snow. Down on the field, a single pale shape stood motionless. The solid quarters and the heavy crest marked him a stallion, even before he turned and she recognized him. She had dreamed him once already.
He was young, dappled with silver like the moon. As massive as he was, he was somewhat soft around the edges. He was beautiful and perfect but still, somehow, unfinished. Come, he said as he had before. Come to me.
She woke in the dark before dawn, with the dream slipping away before she could grasp it. She was standing in the open air. The sky was heavy with rain, but it had not yet begun to fall. She was dressed in her brothers' hand-me-downs. They were faded and much mended, but they were warm. There was a weight on her back.
She remembered as if it had been part of her dream how she had slipped out of bed without disturbing her sisters. She had found the old legionary pack that her eldest brother Rodry had brought home on his last leave, and filled it with food and clothing, enough for a week and more. When she woke, she was filling a water bottle in the stream that ran underneath the dairy house.
Her face was turned toward the Mountain. It was too far away to see, but she could feel it. When she turned in the wrong direction, her skin itched and quivered.
The bottle was full. She thrust the stopper in and hung it from her belt. The sky was lightening just a little. She set off down the path from her father's farm to the northward road.
Her mother was waiting where the path joined the road. Valeria's feet would have carried her on past, but Morag stood in the way. When Valeria sidestepped, Morag was there. "No," said her mother. "You will not."