Valley of the Wind Riders by John Beechem

This is a preview of an upcoming young adult (YA) fantasy novel by John Beechem, Valley of the Wind Riders. These three chapters introduce Petyr and Bianca, Wind Riders, small, magical people who have bonded with birds and ride on their backs. During their initiation, a powerful artifact is stolen from their village. Together, they embark on a quest to recover this artifact and learn its truth. Along the way, they encounter tall giants, wicked wizards, terrifying monsters and all kinds of adventure...

Chapter 1 Featherhead

Petyr followed the dirt path that led from his home in the trunk of an old maple tree to the center of his village. It was sometimes a dusty old path, sometimes muddy and full of puddles, but at this time of day, it was always crowded. Mouse-carts pulled wagons full of goods to be sold at market, weighed down by fresh berries and pots of honey. Crafters carried their tools and wares, eager to sell their goods and earn a tidy profit. A pack of younglings rushed past him, racing to the school-yard to beat the morning bell. Petyr smiled, and remembered his own days running alongside his friends to his morning lessons, and squirming in his seat for hours once he got there.

Those days were many moons behind him now. Petyr was an apprentice in the aviary, and had been for a couple of years. He worked under the stable-master, a white-haired old one named Griff. The aviary was hard work: mucking out bird droppings, removing fallen feathers, clearing mites and other pests, and keeping clear of the beaks and talons of any grumpy old birds who did not want to be touched by anyone aside from their bonded partner, especially not some pesky apprentice like him. Petyr often went home covered in scratches and feather fluff, the sound of chirps and screeching still in his ears. But all of this abuse was worth it to him, because being an apprentice in the aviary meant he might someday become a Wind Rider himself and soar above the clouds, perched atop a bird of his own. Of course, he would belong to the bird as well, but that’s what it meant to be bonded.

Petyr reached the aviary in time to see a flight of robins leave for the dawn patrol, a fai perched upon each one of their backs. Their shadows flashed over him as they circled higher into the sky. He shaded his eyes from the morning sun, and wondered What will they find today? Then Griff handed him a push-broom and ordered him to “Get to work, kid. You’ll be in the sky soon enough.”

“You really think so?” Petyr asked, his eyes lit by a smile.

“Only if I’m lucky,” Griff grunted. He shuffled away as Petyr pushed a clump of down feathers into a small pile.

Petyr’s Rites of Initiation were only a few days away. If he succeeded, that meant he would become a Wind Rider himself, and spend his days soaring above the Urth. He would fight enemies of the fai, hunt for food, and search the realm for treasure and adventure. But if he failed, the village would not accept him as a true warrior, and his elders would find another role for him to fill. Something much more mundane. One that would involve a broom, pick or shovel instead of a sword and shield.

That won’t happen, Petyr told himself. I’ll earn my feathers one way or another. He’d been preparing for his rites ever since he was a little boy. Petyr knew the names of every bird that lived near his village, knew how they flew, the kinds of food they liked, where they put their nests, and when they were active. He knew what their eggs looked like. Even the names of all the great Riders were etched into his mind, since he’d begged the Story Master to tell him their legends over and over until he knew them all by heart.

What still formed a doubt inside his mind was that for all his knowledge, if he wasn’t fast enough, clever enough, and tough enough to show at least one bird that he was worthy, he’d have his feet stuck to the ground until the end of his days. It was enough to make him feel sick.

“Hey, featherhead,” a voice spoke, interrupting Petyr's thoughts. “This is for your boss.”

Petyr looked up to see a girl about his age holding a scroll out to him. It was a piece of parchment, rolled up and sealed with a red wax stamp. “My name's Petyr,” he told her, taking the scroll in his hand. He leaned his broom against one of the thick wooden posts that held up the roof of the aviary. “I'm going to be a Wind Rider soon, so you ought to speak to me with some respect.”

“I'm a courier,” the girl said, picking out a fluffy down-feather that had gotten caught in Petyr's scruffy brown mane. “I'm paid to be efficient, not courteous.” She blew the small white feather from the palm  of her hand and it landed on the tip of Petyr's nose. “And I have other deliveries to make.” With these words, she turned on her heel and walked away from him, a canvas messenger bag swaying from her shoulder as she did.

“Wait! What's your name?” Petyr asked as she walked away.

“Bianca,” she spoke as she turned her back to him and kept walking. “Now be a good featherhead and get back to your chores, Petyr. And don't forget to give that scroll to your master!”

Petyr watched for a few moments as she went on her way. He could see her blonde braided hair bounce with each step. In his mind, he could still see her green eyes sparkling with mischief as she teased him, her face as round and pink as a peach. What a strange girl, Petyr thought as he ran a finger along the scroll that he still held in his hand. He examined the red seal holding it closed, and saw a capital letter 'A' for Aderyn, the name of his village. It's from the elders, Petyr realized. It must be about the Rites of Initiation.

He knew Griff would scold him harshly if he gave him an unsealed scroll, so he walked over to where his master was standing, making marks with a quill on a parchment he held. “Excuse me, Griff,” Petyr said, “but this came for you.”

“Yes? What is it?” Griff peered over half-moon spectacles, put down his parchment, and snatched the scroll from Petyr's hand. He broke the seal with a flick of his thumbnail, and flattened the scroll as he read.

“What does it say?” Petyr asked, his curiosity piqued by Griff's knitted brow, white beard twitching as he mouthed the words on the scroll.

“Village business,” Griff growled, tucking the scroll into a pocket inside his shirt. “Preparations for tomorrow. Nothing you need to concern yourself with. Now get back to work.”

Petyr nodded, and finished sweeping all the feathers and fluff that fell to the ground. He carried them over to the hearth that led to a chimney rising out of the center of the aviary, and put them in the fire to be burned. It made an awful stink, but it was the easiest way for them to rid themselves of this kind of waste. Then he had to clean up the bird droppings, an even messier job. It was placed into barrels for the farmers outside the village to use for their crops. As disgusting as this job could be, Petyr was so used to it, it no longer bothered him. Better to have a full belly than let all that treasure go to waste, was how Griff put it to him, and he often heard the stable-master’s voice in his mind as he completed this task. It seemed strange to Petyr that the plants ate bird droppings for food, but also quite interesting. He loved to learn new facts like this. Sometimes, they came to him quite by surprise. These facts were much easier for him to remember than where he had put his hat, for example.

The rest of the day passed slowly. Petyr’s mind was full of thoughts about his Rites of Initiation, and he had a strange feeling in his belly. It was hard to figure out if it was a good feeling or a bad feeling. Finally, he decided it was a bit of both. He was nervous and excited at the same time. Petyr still felt this way when he got home, and climbed the rope ladder up into his family’s space in the maple tree.

Petyr’s family shared this tree with a few other fai families, not to mention all of the birds, squirrels and other animals that lived in it too. Parts of the tree had been hollowed out to make room for them, but the tree did not mind. Its spirit had spoken to one of the village priests many generations ago, and had given the fai permission. Most fais lived in trees like this, or in other plants instead. Inside, it was very dark, but fai are able to see even where there isn’t any light. In darkness, people, animals and other things all give off a very dim glow, at least to the eyes of the fai. Fai were very comfortable living in trees, especially Petyr’s family. They loved their maple tree very much.

“Hello, Mom. Hello, Dad. Hey, June,” Petyr greeted his family. June was his little sister. Right now, she was drawing on parchment with a piece of coal.

“Petyr’s home. Does that mean we can eat?” June asked, putting down her drawing.

“Yes, June,” their Dad spoke. “Petyr, come on over and take a seat once you’ve put away your things.” Petyr’s dad was named Walt. He put out dishes of acorn butter and berries for everyone. There was also a plate of cicada meat on the table for all of them to share.

“I’m starved,” Petyr scooped up a bit of acorn butter.

“Not until we’re all seated, Petyr,” Petyr’s mom reminded him. Her name was Beth. “I know you’re hungry, but that’s no reason to forget your manners.” Walt and June sat down too, and Beth nodded at Petyr letting him know he could begin. Beth worked at a general store in the village. She mostly sold food and groceries, but you could get other things there too.

Once they were all settled in, Petyr’s family began speaking around the dinner table. “What kind of bird are you going to chase tomorrow?” June asked.

“You’re not supposed to think like that,” Petyr explained. “If you get your hopes up for a pigeon, but end up riding a sparrow, you might be disappointed. I’ll be happy if I can get any bird at all. Not everyone participating in the Rites will be able to.”

“There’s plenty of work for everyone in the village,” Walt spoke. “If you find a bird, we’ll be very happy for you. If you don’t, Mother Gaia will find other work for you to do.” Just then, Petyr imagined himself with a lined face and white beard pushing his broom around the aviary. It was not an image that he liked.

“Gaia bless us, I just hope that everyone is safe tomorrow. You’ll make us very proud, Petyr,” his mother told him, “no matter what happens.”

“Is Griff ready?” Walt asked.

“Oh yeah,” Petyr spoke through a mouthful of acorn butter, and then drank some water to speak more clearly. “He’s been through the Rites of Initiation so many times, I can’t even tell if he gets excited for it anymore.”

Beth grinned. “I’m sure he does. He might not show it. But I bet he’s almost as excited as you.”

Petyr chuckled, then remembered something. “A girl came to the aviary today to deliver a message. It was for Griff, and had the village seal on it. She was a rather rude girl, but she told me she was in a rush, and didn’t have time to be polite. Her name was…”it took Petyr a moment to remember, “Bianca! That’s it. Bianca. She had her hair in a long blonde braid. And she called me ‘featherhead’.

June giggled, and that made Petyr laugh too. “I know Bianca,” June told him. “Her little sister is in my class. She’s funny. And tough. Her sister, Kate, told me Bianca used to get in trouble at school.”

“Hmm,” Walt rumbled. “Well, I’m glad you both know how to behave yourselves. Most of the time.” Then he winked at his wife, and they began laughing too.

The family ate the rest of their meal together, and Petyr tried to relax and enjoy himself. He knew that if he got his wings, he might not be able to spend as much time at home as he was used to. When he climbed into bed that night, he still had that nervous feeling in his stomach. So he said a short prayer to Gaia, and that helped a little. Then he heard an owl hoot from somewhere outside the tree. Petyr sighed and fell asleep.

Chapter 2 Beak and Blade

The next morning was cold and rainy. Petyr could hear the rain-drops from outside the tree, fat globs of water hitting the leaves and trickling all the way down to the ground. He held a warm bowl of oatmeal his mom had made him, seasoned with honey and cinnamon, full of chopped, dried raisins and little bits of acorn to give him energy. Steam rose from the bowl in lazy curls. Petyr grasped it and breathed in the steam as if he could store its warmth inside of him. He ate by himself, and focused his mind on the Rites of Initiation, the trial he was finally ready to face now that the sun had dawned on his twelfth year

Once he'd finished his meal, Petyr said goodbye to his family and they all wished him luck. He climbed down the rope ladder, its wet fibers squeezing into his fingerless gloves. Petyr wore a red cloak over a blue tunic, and both were nearly soaked by the time he reached the ground. It’s no matter, Petyr told himself. If all goes right, I’ll be warm and dry tonight, dancing around a bonfire and singing songs. He would not let his mind consider any other possibilities as he trudged through the woods

He soon found a few of the other initiates already at their meeting place, a small round hill in the forest near Aderyn. Petyr recognized them. They were other boys and girls his age, and had grown up in the village together. Their breath came out in clouds of steam, chilled by the wet morning air. Drops of rain fell from their cloaks and puddled at their feet. Petyr’s eyes met those of another boy, Andrew, and they nodded at each other. He was too nervous to want to speak to anyone else. It felt strange. Instead, he rubbed some small wooden beads his mother had given him last year for his birthday. The beads hung off his belt, and had runes carved into them. They were meant to calm him, but perhaps the magic in the runes had worn off, because right now his guts felt warm and tingly. It's alright, he told himself, still rubbing the beads. I need my senses sharp.

Then the first thin rays of sunlight spread through the morning fog. As if parting a curtain, the high priest and priestess of Aderyn appeared, each bearing a wooden staff carved at the top to show a bird's talon clutching an apple. Beneath cloaks of gleaming green mallard feathers, they wore white robes. Each carried a lit torch, hissing steam and smoke in the drizzling rain.

Petyr and the other initiates knelt in the muck on one soggy knee and bowed their heads.

“Greetings to the young and brave,” the high priest spoke.

“Rise, initiates,” the high priestess called to them.

Their white robes make them look like ghosts in the fog, Petyr thought. He heard them begin to chant, each word breathed out in steam.

                                                            On wind and wing
                                                            Ye each may soar
                                                            Together sing
                                                            On every shore
                                                           

                                                            Above every tree
                                                            And mountain tall
                                                           Your eyes shall see
                                                           And take in all   

                                                           May beak and blade
                                                           Flesh and feather
                                                           In sun and shade
                                                           Be strong together

                                                            Let both your souls
                                                           Your minds and deeds
                                                           Burn like hot coals
                                                           The fire feeds

                                                            And when your lives
                                                            Have run their course
                                                            Return together
                                                            To Spirit’s Source

When the blessing was finished, the priest and priestess lowered their torches into a silver censer. The censer was a shallow bowl that they used to burn sacred objects. For this ceremony, it contained charcoal dust, a small pile of feathers, and a few drops of sweet-smelling oil. This way, the prayers offered in their chant could rise high enough to reach Mother Gaia, and the other gods, goddesses, and spirits that the Fai held sacred. To Petyr, the smoke smelled strange and gave him the urge to rub his nose, but he resisted.

Instead, he rose and joined the line of other initiates who approached the high priest and high priestess for their final blessing of the ceremony. Each initiate stood and bowed their heads as the priest and priestess dipped their thumbs into the warm but no longer burning coal ash. One by one, the initiates received their blessing, the ash rubbed on their forehead in the shape of a feather. Then they stood to the side with their heads bowed until they all had ash smudged between their eyes.

Petyr sensed that the rain had stopped. He felt a strong breeze, and then then the clouds parted, revealing a red and purple sunrise that had finally come. The high priest and high priestess joined their voices and cried, “FLY!”

The initiates scattered into the woods, each running in a different direction. In the weeks leading up to their Rites of Initiation, every one of them had spoken to each other and decided which course to pursue. It would do nobody any good to be stumbling over each other as they searched for a bird to bond with. Instead, they would spread throughout the forest, improving their chances for success. Gaia, give me wings Petyr prayed as he sped North. In a few minutes, his lungs burned and his legs ached, but he would not slow. Not until he reached his destination.

And suddenly, there it was, towering above him: a great, big holly tree. Its pointed leaves drooped to the ground as if inviting him up into its branches. Petyr leapt and grabbed onto one of these branches, pulling it down a little with his weight. He wriggled himself on top of the thin branch and walked toward the trunk as if on a balance beam. Some of the leaves scratched at his face, but he ignored them, pushing himself past their needled edges. Finally, he reached its knobby trunk and began to pull himself up. His fingers found holds in each little groove. His feet and legs pushed him higher and higher.

As he climbed, Petyr caught a bright streak of red out of the corner of his eye. A cardinal had landed in the holly tree a few branches above him. The bird had not noticed Petyr, so he pulled himself around to the other side of the trunk. The challenge, Petyr knew, was to move slowly enough that the cardinal did not see him. If he was too slow, the cardinal might fly away before Petyr got his chance. A male, Petyr reminded himself. Females have brown bodies but red crests and tail feathers. He scanned his eyes for a female cardinal, but couldn’t find any. Good, he thought and kept climbing.

The cardinal minded its own business, eating small seeds from old holly berries still connected to the tree. They must have been hidden by the snow when most of the other berries had been eaten. These weren’t quite as tasty as fresh berries, but would still fill the birds belly. This was one of the cardinal’s favorite holly trees. It grew some of the winter’s best berries. The tree was glad to have this cardinal and the other birds like it eat the berries. Old berries needed to be removed so new buds could grow more easily. Seeds from fresh berries would be carried from the tree each winter, and a few of these would even grow into saplings. The cardinal only knew that he was hungry. Then his meal was rudely interrupted.

Petyr lunged from his perch in the holly tree and wrapped his arms around the cardinal’s chest. The cardinal cried a loud, “SQEAAAAAK!” and flew from the branch to escape what he feared was a predator. Petyr reached out to the birds heart, sending him a feeling through his mind. Calm. Friend. Petyr. This was very hard to do, since Petyr was nervous too. He felt the cardinal give a jolt at his words, and then they flapped clumsily all the way way down the holly tree. Twigs and feathers flew everywhere. Petyr didn’t let go. When they got to the bottom of the tree, neither he nor the bird could move

Please. Bond. Petyr thought to the bird. The bird examined Petyr, but did not attack.

Daig, he heard a strange voice in his mind. It sounded like the word “die”. Then he realized it was coming from the cardinal.

Daig? Petyr asked. Of course, he wasn’t using words spoken with his mouth. Fai can sometimes communicate with plants and animals through their minds. Bonded partners, fai and bird, would need to develop a very strong connection this way. That was exactly what Petyr was trying to do.

Daig. Name. Flame. He felt these words from the bird. Daig is your name? Petyr thought.

Yes, Daig told him. Then he bowed his head and back. He wants me to climb on! Petyr realized.

Petyr climbed on Daig’s back as quickly as he could. Only a moment afterward, the smile left his face.

A cat’s eyes glowed yellow between tall blades of grass. Before Petyr could even think of what to do, the cat pounced at him and Daig. Her claws reached out, but Daig ran out of the way with Petyr still on his back. Daig lost the tip of one of his tail feathers. as Petyr pulled his blade, a small dagger tied to his belt. Then Daig ran even faster. He needed go gain enough momentum to fly with the extra weight on his back. Petyr felt the ground slowly fall below him, inch by inch. The cat pursued, hissing and screeching. A chase began.

Chapter 3 The Battle of Nine Lives

Petyr and Daig crashed through twigs, leaves, roots and even a few spider webs. The cat they had stumbled upon was still right on their heels. She’d pounced almost without any warning, and wouldn’t give up. Foolish cat, Petyr thought. He knew that he and Daig weren’t easy prey, but cats didn’t always make sense. The chase. The kill. That’s all they think about sometimes. All he could do was hold onto Daig’s chest, grip the bird’s body between his legs, and hope he wasn’t hurting him.

Friend of yours? Petyr heard Daig’s voice in his mind. Already it was getting easier to communicate.

Never met her before in my life. Petyr sent the thought back to Daig. Why are we still so close to the ground? Can’t we fly away? 

Behind them, Petyr heard the cat growl and spit as it jumped over a fallen log behind them. She seemed to be getting closer. Three razor sharp claws flashed behind them, but Daig dropped lower to the ground and the claws flew over their heads.

I’d love to fly. Daig explained. I’m not used to the extra weight on my back. It’s hard to get any space to pick up the speed I need to go any higher.

Well, think of something! If a thought could be yelled, this is the force Petyr used to send his message to Daig.

I have an idea, the bird told him. Then Petyr felt his weight shift to the left and knew he was about to fall from Daig’s back. He said a prayer to Gaia to keep him safe, and then felt both his arms clutched in Daig’s back talons.

What’s going on? Petyr asked. Are you going to take me back to your nest and eat me? He looked back at the cat behind them. Now she looked a little lower and further away.

Don’t tempt me, Daig sent back. They were pulling further away from the cat, but she wasn’t giving up.

Wait! I know this path! You’re leading her back to the village! Petyr warned.

Don’t you want to stay alive? Daig asked. We don’t have any other choice. This path has the most space for me to fly. And don’t be fooled by the cat. I think she’s toying with us.

What do you mean? Petyr asked.

Before Daig could answer, the cat made another lunge at them. Daig escaped her claws, but was hit by one of the cat’s forearms. He lost his balance in the air and went tumbling to the ground. Petyr rolled alongside him. The ground was more open here, and he realized they were on the edge of Aderyn.

The cat came out into the open. Her fur spiked on her back. Her hackles, Petyr remembered the word.

Nancy, Petyr heard Daig’s voice in his mind. Her name is Nancy. She is well-feared in woods of Aderyn. It was good to bond with you, Petyr. I’m sad our time together will be so short. 

No, wait! Petyr called back in his mind. He stood before Daig with his dagger pointed at the cat. Nancy flexed her claws and poised to strike.

At that exact moment, Petyr felt a burst of wind and saw a yellow blur move in front of him. He heard wood shatter as Bianca swung a long wooden staff in the path of Nancy’s paw. The cat reared back her paw and licked a spot of blood that had formed where Bianca struck her.

“Run, both of you!” Bianca told him.

“What about you?” Petyr asked as he climbed onto Daig’s back. “We can’t leave you behind!”

“I can take care of myself, featherhead,” Bianca told him, and then turned back to face Nancy. She had picked up a stick that had fallen on the ground and was holding it up in front of her.

Daig took a few steps and launched himself into the air, Petyr holding tight onto his back. He tried circling around and diving at Nancy. The cat ducked her head and in that moment a different bird swooped in and picked up Bianca. This bird was a blue jay with a white breast and black crest. He was bigger than Daig.

“Let me go!” Bianca cried. Then the bird dropped her and swooped down to catch Bianca on his back.

“Hang on!” Petyr called. It was hard to be heard in the wind. “She wants to bond with you! Let him.”

Bianca nodded, and held onto the blue jay’s back. Now two birds and two riders were circling Nancy.

A group of villagers had formed on the edge of Aderyn. Petyr could see them whenever Daig turned in their direction. They carried pitchforks, hammers, staffs, and other objects that could be used as weapons. A pair of guards led them, their swords drawn. None of them rushed to their aid. The towns-people preferred to watch this spectacle rather than be involved.

Let them cower, he heard Daig’s voice in his mind. They can’t help us. If they tried, one of them would become cat food after Nancy dragged them into the woods.

What can we do? Petyr asked. How can I help you?

I need you to focus, Daig told him. Focus all your mental energy on Nancy. Look at that patch of white fur on her chest. When I tell you, imagine a ball of fire leaving the space between your eyes and hitting her right there. Are you ready? 

Ready? Petyr asked.

NOW! Daig screamed in his mind, and Petyr felt a rush of energy come from his body. It happened in less than a second, but for Petyr, it felt much longer. He watched a small ball of fire erupt from Daig’s mouth. It flew right at the white patch of fur on Nancy’s chest. Petyr saw the flame spread for a moment after it struck, and then the fire went out. A patch of pink skin was now visible beneath her fur.

“UH-REA-REARGH!” Nancy howled. She sped at both of them and reached out her claws. Daig rolled all the way over in the air and dodged her attack. Petyr felt like he could fall off his bird at any moment, and held on to Daig even tighter. He even held his breath.

Now it was Bianca’s turn. She and the blue jay were flying around Nancy and staying just out of her reach. Then Petyr saw something that amazed him. A sharp icicle flew from the blue jay’s mouth and struck Nancy in the chest, right where her skin was now bare. Nancy swiped her paw at the icicle and it landed on the ground.

But she’s not even a wind rider! Petyr exclaimed.

She is now, Daig told him.

She raised her hackles again all the way down to the tip of her tail, which now appeared twice its usual size. Nancy howled and spat, but then turned and fled into the woods to lick her woods.

Many years from now, the people of Aderyn would speak about the “Battle of Nine Lives” that had happened that morning during the Rites of Initiation. But that was still a long time away. On that day, the towns-people cheered for Petyr, Bianca and their birds. Their cheers sounded like a gentle roar.

Daig and Petyr ended their flight. Bianca and her blue jay landed next to them. Somehow, she still looked calm. Petyr dropped to the urth, his legs still wobbly. He had never been so happy to stand on solid ground in all his life.