Title: Race Day
Author: Amy B. R. Mead
Genre: Thriller

Summary: They've trained for years, and it's finally their day. His father doesn't approve, but Riyin knows that his horse is ready. A companion piece to Dragon Marked.

Race Day

Harbinger is four years old.

The horse than Riyin brought in from the wild three years ago has healed and grown stronger for it. He still bears the scars, stark white against his jet black coat, but they don't pain him. He is seventeen hands of muscle and sinew, the fastest in King Alarain's stable by a long shot.

But today is the test. Alarain's horses are not bred for speed, but for endurance and surefootedness. They are no true challenge for a horse like Harbinger. Two or three have racing blood, but it's far back and not made for a race like this.

There are few places in the Arolan Forest where a true horse race can be run. This five-mile track in the heart of the forest was carved out centuries ago by Riyin's ancestors, and the trees are still thick around it. There is no infield, only a small forest within a forest.

Most of the races will use only half of the track, some even less. But the true test of speed and endurance will take the full five miles over the brushwood fences.

Harbinger is ready.

Riyin is ready.

Liren gives his brother a boost onto Harbinger's bare back as the race caller yells "Riders up!" The black-haired twin is struck by how light Riyin is, how fragile he seems. It surprises him sometimes, how such a small figure can hold in this giant of a horse. He's seen how Riyin's slender arms tremble after a race from the weight of Harbinger in his hands. And Liren can't even hold the stallion from the ground unless Riyin is aboard.

It's time to line them up, and Liren has to let go. He stays watchful on the sidelines, though he knows he won't be able to see Harbinger for nearly half of the race while they're behind the trees. He's nervous. People have died in the races before. It's Riyin's first attempt, and most of the horses and riders have more experience than he does. Harbinger is young, inexperienced and still wild in his own way. Some horses never do tame.

Eleven horses form a line at the start. Harbinger is boxed between a lanky gray and a short, compact chestnut. Riyin knows most of the riders, but not all of their mounts. The gray is Icefall, the chestnut a stranger. Both riders are native Arolans, tall and lean with yellow eyes and tawny skin. Icefall's sends a thumbs-up Riyin's way. He is welcome here, the prince among the commoners, sharing in the wild glee of horses.

The flag drops, and Harbinger surges forward alongside the gray, leaving the chestnut off-guard and flat-footed at the start. It's a lightning break, but Riyin doesn't want to take the lead from the start. He's never raced other horses at so long a distance, and though they've practiced on their own, these competitors are far swifter than he had expected.

Harbinger fights Riyin's hold on the reins. He wants to run, chase down the leaders and fly free of the pack. But Riyin whispers to him, curved gracefully over the stallion's back. He whispers for patience, for trust. And Harbinger listens, for now.

They settle into fourth place. A hard-running bay has taken the lead on the inside, but she tires fast as they hit the mile mark, and skids to a halt at the next fence, pitching her rider over it. Riyin and Harbinger take third, running easy at Icefall's flank. Harbinger sails over the brush, a smoother ride than Riyin has ever known.

Some begin to slow, but others make moves. Riyin holds Harbinger steady as one nearly runs up his tail before swerving to the outside. The challenger pins his ears and snorts with displeasure at Harbinger's scream. Riyin starts to whisper again. One of Harbinger's ears flicks toward him, and he stops trying to bite the roan.

They are at the half-way point, and this is where the race truly begins. Those not fit to be here have dropped out by now, defeated by the fences or incomplete conditioning of their horses. Two have fallen, and at least one horse is injured, which pains Riyin to consider. He loves them all.

Icefall has taken the lead now, and the short little chestnut has come out of nowhere to match Harbinger stride for stride. Riyin lets out a loop of rein, and Harbinger nearly leaps for joy at his new freedom. He flies. Riyin feels the ache in his arms from holding in his horse. He can't let go yet. He can't ask for everything. Harbinger fights him for more, but he must wait.

They round the final turn, and here Riyin buries his hands in Harbinger's thick black mane and gives the horse his head.

Riyin has never felt everything that Harbinger has, and he still doesn't believe he's found the bottom of the stallion's reserves. And that's good, because they have to hold off the late-runners, like Samiver's big white mare and Kirstana's long-limbed red stallion.

They move, their strides eating up ground and throwing it behind them. The other horses drop back, and the red reaches Harbinger's shoulder. The black stallion's ears flatten against his skull, and Riyin doesn't bother to whisper. He tells his horse, "Go."

The red horse is missing from their side. Riyin knows that this is everything – he can feel Harbinger's heart pounding against his ribs, almost in time with Riyin's own. He looks back, just for a moment, to see white and red fighting for second, over two lengths behind.

Harbinger takes off over the final fence, and it is over in another four strides. Riyin beams from ear to ear; triumphant laughter bursts from him.

This day is theirs, and damn his father's disapproval.