I knew, upon first seeing him, that he was like no other creature I'd ever encountered before.
I didn't need the eagle wheeling high above him, the eagle that had guided me to him, to tell me that. He had the appearance of a two-legger, but he was different. His smell, his very presence... I couldn't even begin to describe it. He was human and earth and animal all at once, and something else that no knowledge of beast could ever identify. I was sure that even the wise eagle above us had no way to truly explain what this man-who-was-not-a-man was, only felt the same powerful attraction that I did - the draw that made me think he must be some manifestation of my land itself.
It was strange, being both pulled and repulsed. I couldn't help but balk at the sight of him; part of me identified him as an intruder, and my past experiences with humans made strong the instinct to run back to my herd and lead them far away. There was also the matter of the dead horse he knelt beside - one of my kind, and for all I knew, it could have been killed at his hands.
I could never fully understand why I didn't turn and run. Perhaps it was the fact that the eagle had brought me to this strange human or maybe it was the deep and sudden hold his presence had over me. All I knew was that I remained where I was, a safe distance away... observing, hesitating.
It was then that I saw the way he hunched over the dead horse, cradling its head in his arms. It was a position of love and possibly grief; I'd seen it in the dark-skinned humans before. But this was a light-skinned human, and I'd only ever known cruelty at their hands. My confusion grew, but I took a few hesitant steps forward.
The eagle whirled above me, encouraging.
My steps grew bolder, and my approach across the grassy plain drew the human's attention. He raised his head, and eyes the color of the sky above us met my own. I halted, struck by the feeling that overcame me as our gazes locked.
And then I continued - moving towards him, coming closer than I'd ever willingly approached a stranger before.
The mustang was a beautiful dun bay, so proud and strong that a deep admiration filled him just at the sight of it. That admiration was bittersweet, however; his hand still rested on his mare's neck, though it had been too long since he'd felt life beneath it. He remained perfectly still, watching as the mustang drew closer. He saw true wildness in its eyes, its very posture, yet it came near him so easily. He could only hold his breath and marvel at the intelligence he saw in its gaze, which never once strayed from his own.
"You aren't afraid," he said softly, wonderingly, and the creature did not flinch at his voice. It halted within his reach and gave him the strangest look he'd ever seen on an animal's face.
He smiled. "You know it, too, then," he said. "Just like him up there." He could still see that same eagle above him, the one who'd appeared when his mare had collapsed.
Poor Diana. She hadn't stopped even when she'd sustained wounds from the remnant Confederate bastards pursuing them, had driven herself into the ground in order to protect him. He could never repay that loyalty now that she was dead, and a keen sense of loss filled him. His poor, beautiful mare, dead from his own idiocy. He'd been warned not to ride out so soon, but he'd thought that his own people wouldn't attack him now that the war was over. How wrong he'd been.
The nearest safe haven was a military fort still several miles distant. His only options were to walk there... or to ride.
He looked at the magnificent creature before him and slowly raised a hand up to its snout, hesitating inches from it. "Will you carry me, mustang?"
The horse moved forward of its own accord and pressed its nose against his palm. He sucked in a breath and held it, hardly daring to breathe.
Did I know what I was doing? Not really.
I knew what the strange human wanted, though I couldn't understand the words of his language. As I touched his raised hand, a thrill went through me, both appealing and disgusting. This creature before me represented the slow but steady invasion of my land, the winds of change that grew stronger with every passing day. And yet this man-who-was-not-a-man was also something deeper. He was as rooted in the land and in its fading heritage as I was, perhaps more. He and I had similar roots, even. I knew this in my bones, and I knew that even as part of me wanted to run or to pound him into the dust for his invasion, a stronger part was humbled, held in awe.
I turned and offered my back, and the strange human smiled.
He had been right - this was no ordinary horse. Just as Diana had been, he knew a special creature when he met one. He looked back at his faithful mare and bent low, touching his forehead to her still body. "Thank you, sweetheart," he murmured, and the words almost choked in his throat. "I didn't deserve a girl like you."
Then he stood and, with movements that approached reverence, swung onto the mustang's back. He could feel the power of the west beneath him, a creature of muscle and strength, and he knew that with one swing the mustang could unseat him. But it didn't. Instead, its head swung back once more, looking past him.
He could feel it, too. His pursuers, who had originally been left far behind, were catching up.
He let his hand rest on the mustang's neck. "Let's outrun them," he said simply.
When the creature took off, it was all he could do to hold on.
Somehow, I knew that other humans with ill intent chased this strange human on my back, and for reasons I couldn't fathom, that angered me. I ran such as I had not run since those fateful days during my first encounters with humans. I was power itself, and my hooves pounded on the grassland with the strength of the untamed wild.
What was I doing? I was allowing a human to ride me like a tame beast. I had done that only once, and only because of the kinship I had felt towards the last boy. And yet... there was kinship here as well. I knew this strange human, as surely as I knew myself.
The knowledge spurred me on even faster, and my speed reached that which has rarely ever been rivaled. What a sight we must have been - a gold streak on the already golden grasslands, a man-who-was-not-a-man on a wild mustang, a contradiction of power and mystery. The sun shone upon us, the man's head as golden as my hide. We burned with a fierce swiftness, as powerful and proud as the eagle that followed us in the sky.
The human on my back let loose the strange human laugh of exhilaration. He was as caught up in the moment as I was, and he leaned forward into the wind we created, his laughter triumphant and wild and free. I could feel his presence burning now, burning with that same paradox that had drawn me to him.
He was no human. Of that, I was certain.
He had never ridden a creature like this before.
His pursuers couldn't even hope to catch up. The wild mustang that had so graciously consented to carry him took the challenge to heart and flew across the plain with speed unparalleled. It needed little guidance from him; all it took was a thought, and the horse followed his intention, crossing the plain and angling past the forests, making for the fort at the forest edge a few miles away.
He couldn't help but laugh as they rode - a bittersweet sound, for losing Diana was only one in a series of painful losses and wounds. He had been torn apart too recently. His country had split, and another him had almost literally ripped itself from his body. That half had returned with the end of the war and the reunion of both sides, but the pain did not end with that. So many were dead, so many of his people gone, brothers killed by brothers. He was often torn between peoples as well, even before the war - the people who had come and the people who had always been. It was a wonder he could laugh at all.
But he did, and the exhilaration of the ride eased the pain in his body and mind. He felt wildness creeping into his being, a side of him that had not surfaced in too long a time, and he welcomed it gladly. He leaned low over the mustang's neck, whispered for it to release everything and match the eagle above them, and it did.
He closed his eyes and forgot everything, too - forgot manifest destiny, forgot westward expansion, forgot what he had been consumed with as of late, war and anger and death and hate. He let it all go and let himself revel in this one moment, this one moment he knew he would never have again.
He held onto that moment for as long as possible, clung to it, until at last he knew they were approaching the fort. With a thought and a gentle touch, the mustang eased to a halt. Feeling a sense of regret, he slid off and faced the creature, awe in his eyes.
"Thank you," he said and hesitantly stroked the horse's nose. "You are an amazing creature. I... feel lucky to know you."
The creature once again met his gaze with intelligence that would have unnerved anyone else. He only found it remarkable and, as everything he'd managed to forget came crawling back, remarkably painful.
Here I was, letting the human-who-was-not touch me again, hold my very gaze. It seemed a small thing after the ride I had given him, but I still wondered at the fact that I felt no shame. In fact, I was in awe... as much as he seemed to be in awe of me.
When his hand dropped to his side, I did the only thing that seemed appropriate, and to my surprise, never once did I question myself - I dipped my head in submission and respect.
He did likewise, a smile lingering on his face. And without another sound, he turned and began walking towards the human encampment in the distance, tall and proud and back held straight and rigid.
I watched him for a moment, then spun around with a snort and galloped up the slope. When I reached the top, I hesitated and turned back... and saw that he had done the same. The eagle had swooped low and was circling him, screeching in gladness. As it completed its final arc and swept away, following me, the human-who-was-not raised a hand in farewell to both of us.
I arched on hind legs and bellowed back an answer.