I’m an idiot, I thought, as I dragged myself out from under the heavy blankets and animal skins. You could be asleep like everyone else. But no! You decide to wake up before the sun rises and freeze your toes off so you can go and climb on a beast that will promptly throw you off and try to stomp you to death. I finished dressing, What an excellent way to start the morning. I thought glumly as I trudged out into the darkness. It was a bit brighter outside the hut. The edges of the west horizon tinged with blue as if the sun was just thinking about rising. I looked out at the other mud and stick huts that were scattered around the valley. Distantly, I heard a baby crying, but that seemed to be only a sign of human life. I was alone this morning. It was just the world and me: no one to judge me, no one to see me breaking my promise.
I blinked hard, trying to clear the sleep from my eyes. Setting my gaze on the spot where the horses stood, I took a step back and then ran. As my feet pounded against the ground, I couldn’t help but smile from the exhilaration.
I arrived at the side of the fence, taking deep breaths in and out. I could see my breath in front of me, but I wasn’t cold anymore. The running had gotten my blood flowing. I spotted Stormshine standing near the fence and took a step closer.
I stared at the stallion as he stirred at my presence. He felt bigger today, much bigger. A silhouette in the morning light. His long wild head with the large grating teeth and intelligent eyes. The neck that arched down with a black mane into a back rippled with muscle. Each of his legs were thick and powerful, ending in massive hooves that normally drove the great beast along at admirable speed and sometimes could deliver a dangerous and painful kick. I was reminded of how this beast was half-wild, how its father had been caught by mine. I guess idiocy runs in the family, I thought, taking a couple of steps over to Stormshine. He flicked his head nervously.
“Oh, hey, hey, Stormshine. It’s just me.” I rested my hand on the horse’s muzzle and let him rub it. I felt a rising panic in my lower stomach as if bubbles were forming and popping. You half-witted bone-skull, you complete manure brain. You’re going to die. I thought as I approached the horse. My hands tingling and sweating with nervousness as I shakily set them on Stromshine’s back. I thought of the hunt. Sometimes you have to keep chasing. I promptly turned off the thinking part of my brain and jumped.
Mid-jump, he kicked, and I collapsed back, a direct blow to the ribs. I sat in the dirt, clenching my fists and banging them against the ground. I bit my tongue and trying not to scream in pain, but let out an accidental groan. Stormshine was just standing there looking at me as the pain faded. “Even you think I’m insane,” I laughed as I got up, walking towards him for another try.
As I deepen the hole, I think of the ineffective weeks I spent with Stormshine. Sometimes, I changed how I tried to get on him. But no matter what I did, I would end up on my rump or back in the dirt. I smile as I think of the bruises and constant exhaustion that came from getting kicked by a horse every day before sunrise. It’s a miracle it took me so long to quit.
It was rainy that morning, so I arrived in the field, soaked and frigid. All I wanted was to curl up beneath my blankets again. Sleep is all that seems to matter. I shook my head as if that would clear it of the ever-present fog and then looked at Stormshine. “Okay, you big oaf! Will you let me ride you this time?” I said, coming near Stormshine, but he pranced away from me. Sometimes he liked to play little games of keep-away. “I’m not in the mood. Get over here!” I yelled. I charged after him, an ineffective strategy on many levels, but mainly because my feet slipped out from under me as I hit a puddle. I landed on my elbow and hard. Clenching my teeth, I groaned in rage. Then, shaking from a mix of anger, pain, and shivers, I got to my feet. I pushed the dirty, wet hair out of my face and tried to wipe the coating of mud off my side. “Look what you did!” I marched over to him, but he pranced away again.
Eventually, though, he got bored and allowed me to approach. Why did I choose this horse? Out of all of them, I choose the half-wild imbecile. I grabbed onto his mane and tried to drag myself on.
He bucked slightly, and I fell next to him. This was to be expected. What was not expected was Stormshine turning quickly, causing his hind legs to be eye level with me. Before I could react, a whirlwind of hooves flew at my face. I threw up my hands, but too late. I saw a bright flash of stars and found myself on my back in the mud, the stars clearing.
I rolled about in pure agony, growling meaningless curses through clenched teeth. As the stun of the first blow faded, I felt a wave of nausea and a great big lump of dull pain in my shoulder, and my hand felt like it had been ground beneath a boulder. I sat up and looked down at myself.
My hand was aching, and my fingers were swelling, but nothing was broken. My shoulder was deeply bruised where the hoof had hit, and the skin was sloughing off, but worst of all, I noticed that I was quickly becoming covered in blood. I had taken a grazing blow to the forehead, which was now causing the dark red liquid to run down my face and mix with the mud that covered me. If Mother saw me in this state, she would never allow me to get near a horse again.
But that would be a mercy, I realized. I put my head and my hands as if I hid from my pain, it would go away. I did not realize I was crying until I felt it in my throat and my shaking shoulders.
I hadn’t broken the horse. It had broken me. I had been endurance hunting, but I had gotten tired first, and my prey had mauled me.
I cried there. I might have kept crying until all the blood had run out of me, and I sunk deep into the mud, never to be found again. But then I felt a presence beside me.
A sniffing muzzle rubbed against my hand. I opened my eyes and looked up, Stormshine was standing there, dripping as well, rubbing his nose against one of the hands that covered my face.
He was just confused, I realized, he hadn’t been doing this in defense, he just didn't understand what was going on. He wasn’t trying to hurt me. I reached up and stroked his nose. Maybe if I could make him understand what I wanted… And with a distant strike of lightning, I had an idea.
The hole is now almost deep enough, but it still has to be widened. I grab my rock and slam it against the edges, taking the handfuls of dirt out of the bottom and throwing it onto the pile next to me. I look at my old, scarred hands. That day had not been the last of the injuries, but I probably would have never made it into adulthood if I had continued on like that. After that morning, I began a gentler strategy. I would feed Stormshine by hand, get him to feel safe around me. Lean against him, and hang off his back. I got him used to a rope around his neck, and eventually, I was able to lead him around. Every day was similar to the last, to the point where if you weren’t paying attention, you might not notice any progress. But there were little days of success.
“Okay.” I patted Stormshine, “It’s been a while, but we are going to try again today.” The sun was rising, filling the valley with red. It was a warmer morning, so I was in naturally good spirits. I climbed up on the fence Stormshine was tied to and looked at him for a moment. I threw a leg over his side and slid on, bracing myself for the inevitable buck. But I just sat there, and sat there, and kept sitting. He turned his head so one eye could see me. He seemed unshaken. A smile so big it hurt broke across my face, and I looked around. I was only a couple of extra feet above the ground, but I felt like I was on a great throne. The world was mine to conquer- once I trained him to let me guide him from his back.
I sat on his back for quite some time, feeling giddy, and looking around at the uninterested horses. I stayed so long that many of the tribe started their morning work, and some spotted me. A small crowd began to gather. In it, I saw a confused Naran, a disappointed aunt, a surprised Muuto, and a smiling father.
I take the last handful of dirt from the hole. The fall wind blows across me and makes my nose numb, but it’s nice against my sweaty back. I straighten up from the hole, and glance over at the large form in the grass. A gray speckled stallion with a black mane and tail, at one point a large and powerful beast. A group of men from the village had helped bring him here. I think of the three decades between me and that first day I had sat on him. He and I had shared years, where he had freed me. We were faster than any person had ever been. We flew over hilltops, through trees, to lands that had never been seen. I had felt the rush of speed, the wind against my face, the world ahead of me. I step around him and place my hands on his large back. As I lean down and push with all my might he slides slightly towards the hole. My back compresses and muscles strain. It is slow work, but I want to do this myself, like I had learned to ride him myself. It takes thirty muscle straining minutes to slide him the couple feet into the hole - thirty years his muscles strained for me. I lean down into the grave and place my hands on him, feeling his bony side. “Stormshine,” I mutter as I stroke him. “We had a good run, didn’t we?”