Fern dreams of riding on a wild horse's back, as fleet as the wind. She makes pets of small animals and watches the bison herds as they pound over the endless grasses of the steppe. Chafing at the inequality of being female, she longs for the freedom her twin brother enjoys to run free in the wilderness. One day in early spring, Fern secretly rescues a young horse mired in the bog, names her Thunder, and tames her enough to ride. But the people of her tribe are distrustful of her bond with nature. Is she a witch? Fern's future looks bleak until a silent man in a rival tribe, known only as The Nameless One, teaches her about patience—and love.
Susan Williams's lyrical prose makes this journey to prehistoric western Asia at once inspiring and heart wrenching.
About the Author
Susan Williams writes stories for young readers because "when I was a kid, books meant everything to me." She loves visiting schools and libraries to talk about writing and to run writers' workshops. Susan Williams lives with her husband, two daughters, and many pets in the wilds of western New York.
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By Susan Williams
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Susan Williams
All right reserved.
"Where are you going, Fern?" Grandmother croaked in her dried-up-spider voice. "You fed that bird twice this afternoon already."
I sighed and rolled my eyes. Sometimes I could sneak away without Grandmother knowing, but other times she seemed to feel with her spirit the empty place where I had been. Old and blind she might be, but she was still one of the best workers in our ahne. Even as she asked the question, she cleaned and hung yet another fish, ignoring the stink and the smoke that made my throat close up and my eyes water. She moved like a branch that dips, bends, and dips again in the endless current of the river.
"Xj'i sah," I answered crossly. I did not really need to return my body's water to Earth Mother, but I had to get away. I paused a moment at our shelter to stroke the neck feathers of my baby crow, who was perched in the shady nest I had made for him between the cross poles. I had found him a few days before, under a tree, with his mouth wide open, showing me his red, hungry insides. My mother wanted to put him in the stewpot, but instead I fed him scraps of fish and named him Black.
It felt bad to lie to Grandmother, but not as bad as being stuck cleaning fish while my brother played in the river. I was supposed to be splitting fish--thumbing their guts into a heap, and sticking them on racks to cure in the sunand the smoke from our fires. After the snow melts, the first warm rains bring suckers swarming up the rivers in slippery herds. It is not such a large run as that of the salmon in the fall, or as tasty, but it is food. The five families of our ahne would be busy for several days.
Ahne means hand. I like to think about that. We move over the steppe, gathering what we can to feed our own life. When winter storms would swallow us, we go into the Earth herself, to the shelter of our pit houses. So ahne also means a group of families that travel together during the warm months, joined together like the fingers of a gathering hand.
It is strange how I remember everything about that afternoon. My mother, Moss, and her friend Rain sat talking together in the shade of our hut, each nursing a baby. Our Little Brother was teething. "Hush now, or the Night People will hear and steal you away," Rain scolded him. "They might be hiding in the bushes this very moment."
"Do not say such a thing!" my mother answered sharply. I saw her glance over her shoulder. The Night People live beyond the place where the sun sets. They are horrible. When Moss was a girl, a group of hunters from our ahne found her. She was hiding under the burned skins of her family's shelter--a bundle of bones with staring eyes. Everyone else was dead or stolen. For many days she could not even tell them her name.
Over in the river, some boys splashed beside the men who were catching fish in hemp nets. I could see my brother Young Flint looking into the water behind each rock, trying to spear a fish. It was too cold this early to wade very long, but boys want to spear something alive instead of an old skin target.
In many ways Flint and I are as different as the sun and the earth, yet like them as connected. He is not just my brother but my twin. We were the only twins in all the ahnes. Sometimes people whispered about us.
Choices, excitement, and honor lay ahead for Flint. I, on the other hand, would no sooner find blood running between my legs than I would be packed off to begin growing babies, tending pots, and scraping skins for some young man as reckless and stupid as my brother, who, like him, would not listen to anything I had to say. It was a black thought, yet when Flint yelled, raising his spear with a flopping fish on the end of it, I could not help grinning and calling out, "Good--it is a big one!"
I might have gone to the river's edge to laugh at my brother slipping and falling like a person who has drunk from a skin of fermented berry juice, but I was sick from fish stink, and I was sure I had hung enough suckers for ten summers' use. Besides, I told myself, they will forgive me when I bring home a basketful of fern sprouts.
Snatching an empty gathering basket from behind the tent, I started off. I heard my dog, Bark, get up and pad softly along behind me. Once away from the camp, Bark and I raced across the grassland to the clump of willows that marked the edge of the bog. We stopped in their cool shade, panting.
The bog lies where the river once curved like the print of a horse's hoof. When my father, Old Flint, was a boy, a great storm led the river to find a shorter path, where it runs today. The ferns for which I am named can be found in the wet place that was left behind. Later in the season they would grow almost as high as my head, but now, all the way to the edges of the world, the steppe was barely touched with green. Earth Mother seemed to yawn and stretch, like a girl just waking up. Toads trilled and these same ferns were curled tight, like a baby's fist.
With the stench of fish behind me, my stomach growled at the thought of fern sprouts. I love them best boiled with a bit of fat melting over them. They are my favorite springtime food. When the land is frozen white and hard, and we wonder if it will ever be warm again, my mouth waters just thinking about them. In the season's first bellyful, I can almost feel the spirit of the plants uncurling inside me, green with life.
Excerpted from Wind Rider by Susan Williams Copyright © 2006 by Susan Williams. Excerpted by permission.
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