Hooves pound the floor of a deep valley, raising dust and flurries of echoes that drum in the red shadows like a heart that is proud, proud, proud.
The Black blinks awake in his stall, a steaming shadow folded into the last corner of night. His breath flashes in the air, white like wave spray, and the chill that woke him pinches again at his nostrils. True cold has come slithering from beneath the roots and rocks, he realizes, leaving scales of rime on the last leaves of autumn. He can hear the tall grass and the tops of trees ringing outside, a grim sound like the passage of broken horses trussed in gleaming harness and tassels and bells. He hears captivity. He smells the new brittleness of things that live short lives. It is a startling change from the previous day's timeless, languid warmth, but the Black was once tested by a far more capricious climate in a wasteland a world away. Suns and seasons played certain tricks on each other there. Even under a different sun and among different seasons, he expects the same games, following the same patterns. So he watches for the warm pallor soon to gather in the dusty loft overhead. And he waits.
This is something he has learned from the quiet words and firm hands that have guided him to the curious new shore he now calls home: patience. A shadow that cools him when his blood rises up and threatens to burn him with its surging. Patience is in the ebb of birdsong by day's end, and in the first whisper of wings at dawn. Patience is in the palm that offers him sugar, and it is in the silence before the gates crash open and the long track darts out before him like a rival's tail and at last he runs. But most of all it is in the simple, proud certainty of belonging.
With his senses sharpened by the light chill, the Black reaches out and touches the treasures in his keeping, finds them settled safely in their places despite the gloom — water, food, the wool blanket on his back, pine bedding, tack, the damp clover crushed between the barn doors. It does not take long, so he finds them all again, and again, until he is satisfied that everything surrounding him is utterly his own. It is small, this space allotted to him in the thicket of steel and soot chosen as home by the boy who brings him sugar, but he finds it well-suited to him all the same. Outside, there are lush pastures to graze; beyond, there is that long track where the length of his stride is celebrated by strange herds that whistle, stomp and roar in gatherings of unimaginable size. In this new life of patience he still knows fire and fury, he still runs; and when he does, it is as if his every step commands the storms that once struck out to crush him on the sinking and leaping dunes of the sea. He runs, and the boy who brings him sugar laughs in his ear, sleek as wind, moments away from guiding them both into flight.
Long after leaving that track, lightness will often linger in the Black's gait, a readiness to his strength that trembles through him like sunlight seething on sand. It pleases him to face down his challengers on strange terrain, knowing that the comforts of his own lands await him as his secret reward. He breathes deeply in the trailer jouncing homeward after each race, carefully scenting fields and machinery surrounding the pen where he is led through his cooling paces. He breathes evenly as the barn doors are bolted against sundown, mind still racing with the memory of that laughter as his muscles finally take their well-earned rest.
Left untethered each night, the Black is free to lower his head and drink from the dark current of sleep at his ease — but even in his own lands something often waits for him there in the low shadows, something that skulks and rattles and will not let ease come close to him. Something that lurches like the deck of a ship on rolling, quicksilver waves. Something that drags at his jaw like scarred hands on a coarse rope halter, and drives at him like the burning hiss and spit of whips. They took him at ease, the bearers of ropes. It was once, and it was long ago, but the Black will not forget it. He keeps his neck long through the night, his ears lifted. Even the boy who laughs in his ear knows to come carefully if he opens those heavy wooden doors before the sun is high enough to flood through them. Only the sun can truly banish the deepest knots of darkness that would tie him to a post of terrors long past.
"Hey, boy," Alec whispers. He slips inside the silent barn and pads to the empty stall that serves as a tack room, listening for the first shift of the great stallion’s weight, for the stomp and paw of his hooves. His movements are like words, greetings and grumblings and all sorts of hints toward his daily humour. Alec runs his hands over brass hooks in the dark until he finds a worn old hackamore and draws it down, rings chiming as quietly as wings in a fairytale. At the sound, the Black leans on his stall door, whistling low, and Alec smiles.
The boy who comes carefully before dawn is a facet of the Black’s morning, his visits as sure as the sunrise itself. Time has changed his height and his stance but not the fact of his presence. It is that permanence about him that the Black trusts most in the world. Great dunes might scatter on the whim of a fierce storm but the herd stallion may always turn his head to the mountains where they weigh constant against the sky. Through all the strange things the Black has seen and lived since he was taken from the desert, the boy has stayed with him. The Black knows now that they will be together for all their time still to come. He knows it with the simple, proud certainty of belonging.
Murmuring in the dark, the boy who stays with him smoothes the Black’s nose and brow with strange briskness. An intriguing detail, matched to his unusually early arrival. He scrambles up the rough wooden slats and sits atop the stall front, holding out his chosen bridle in his hand so that it might be inspected and deemed familiar. As soon as the Black has blown a breath of approval, the old leather is being slipped onto his head, the door unlatched, bags and straps gathered and donned. And then the boy’s slight weight eases down behind his shoulders, unhindered by any saddle over the soft night blanket. There is a flash in the Black’s mind — of sunset on fathomless waters, of salt stinging his nose as he thunders down the shining length of a beach with that slight weight on his back, half-forgotten, until the boy gathers up the Black’s mane in his hands and for the first time he laughs and laughs — and he darts through the narrow spaces between the half-opened doors to the stall and barn before the boy can rein him back and soothe his excitement.
In fact, it is not the tugging on the hackamore or the soft words in his ear that bring the Black up short from a jubilant gallop. Where he thought to see ocean waves and smell salt breezes, there are instead miles and miles of frosted fields rippling out to fill the gloomy limits of his sight. Wind threads his legs and he becomes freshly aware of the hollow scent of cold, of the gloves and moccasin boots muffling the boy’s smaller gestures. This world is not the one he expected to face. Rather than an island thick with lurid brilliance and the thrilling danger of deep hunger, he has emerged into a place leached of colour, all strewn with shadows lying in a motionless coil. And there is a stirring inside them, a presence unseen. Old, old memories. He hems, breath pouring silver, and sees gusts of desert sand billowing before him despite the damp, lingering chill.
“Sorry, Black,” Alec says sheepishly, patting the stallion’s stiff neck. “I know it’s hard to take this kindly but if there’s anyone who can catch a runaway on the first few steps, it’s you. Henry just called a few minutes ago and he seemed to think the neighbours wanted permission to come poking around your fields before they actually tried it. That means they expect she’ll still be around here somewhere,” he adds. A reassurance to the Black, he wonders, or himself? “But look at you. I think the real trick will be making sure we don’t spook her!”
The boy’s voice is steady. It draws the Black’s mind away from a high summit of uncertainty and allows him a quiet moment to collect himself, to watch. To wait. When he finally steps forward, icy grass crunches like sand crusted by a flash flood. But the boy whose voice is steady sits on his back, and his weight is real in a way that the desert is not; not here, not now. The Black begins to walk. Then, at the boy’s urging, they canter down the thin lane worn beside the fence enclosing his pens and pastures. They pause at the gate just long enough for the boy to slip down and open it. Then they are loose in the dark hills beyond, noses turned to low land where precious water might gather in the black gut of a ravine.
When he was young, the Black lived in the low land of another world. It was golden and it was grey; it was fire and it was ice. There, the Black ran loose among things he saw and sensed but could not own: a whispering oasis, a cracked black tree, a clutch of tents protected by fierce inhabitants, dunes in a lone strand winding silver under cold stars. It was always a place of emptiness, the desert. Like bare skin patching through fur, bald with wounds or disease. And there, the Black ran loose and lost and free. He could rush through dry scrub and snakeback dunes with only the movements of the fierce sun overhead to break his journey down into pieces. He traveled free, but nowhere. He ran, but felt the distances escaping him, sliding smooth and insubstantial from his flanks. No silhouettes reared on the horizon to challenge him save the mountains themselves, and mountains cannot be moved by living passions. Only fallen bones and old branches stood fast before him, all their flesh and foreboding devoured by the sands long ago.
A light touch of the reins guides the Black left in the fading dark, a string of whispers helps him navigate the hidden ditches cut into the earth by tractors all summer long. He trusts the boy who opens gates to keep him on a sure path, trusts his muscles to carry them swift and safe over fields broken into pale sand by starlight. Pleasure reaches him through the fitful images racing alongside him, an immediate love for the streaking of icy air across his flanks and the pounding of his hooves and the black space that goes on and on before him. Still, he wonders at some of the things he sees, the valleys and shapes that loom in his mind but not his eye. A valley walled in red rock and filled with the bright tents of a desert men and women whose horses would sometimes catch his scent and call out as if to hail him. The shapes of clever horsemasters who could be led in a chase across the hard flats, drawn after the Black's speed and agility. That was a brief, joyful time, when his flight seemed to have meaning, a test not for survival but for sport. Then came the day during a time of long drought when the tents were rolled up tight and the valley was left still and silent. The Black had watched those men and women guide their horses to the crest of a high ridge, all their belongings packed safe and cherished for a hard journey, shoulders hard and somber against the sky. He called to them once but they slipped from his sight, descending on the opposite side without answer. A fire had been born in him then, but it flared cold. That was the first lesson taught to him by men and women: their kind did not understand that the rarest loyalty springs first from hardship.
A pale smear in the dark catches Alec's eye and excitement warms him against the numbing cold. Slapping the Black on the shoulder, he leans forward and points at the lip of ravine where a nimble form weaves along its playful path like a firefly. "Look over there, that's our girl!"
Searching the dark with all his senses, the Black hears the fall of delicate steps and smells traces of a thick young coat long before he sees her. The filly is long-limbed and grey, her sides shining silver in the thin threads of light finally glowing on the horizon. She tosses her head, runs left and runs right — and then vanishes merrily down the long slope leading into the ravine. Driven to sudden urgency by a press of padded heels and his own surprise, the Black dashes across the wet grass and sidles up to the hill, stomping at its edge thoughtfully. The wet earth shifts too easily for his comfort and the sharp drop is muddy and cut with deep rivulets. It is an obstacle that clearly poses no threat to the youthful and reckless; the filly skids and gambols down to the gleam of shallow water with an idle, confused sort of control. She squeals only after she has placed a little hoof in the black brook awaiting her and discovered the shock of cold. After a moment of milling about on the bank, she looks up at the boy's shout and seems to notice her observers for the first time. The Black snorts, thinks dismissively of bones half-swallowed by sand.
With a sigh, Alec dismounts, looking about himself with the reins in his hand. Nothing nearby serves as an ideal post so he reluctantly chooses a stout, broken tree and ties the Black securely. "They did say she was precocious. I thought that word meant shy but... well, this might take me a while. You just wait for me, Black. Right here. I'll be back before you know it."
A press of firm hands against the Black's neck; quiet words in his ear. He knows what is being counseled: watch, wait. Though the shivering trees and the great mouth of the ravine trouble him, he is willing to trust that voice. And then, as the boy with the trustworthy voice leaves his side, the Black sees it for the first time: a thick circle of rope hanging from the crook of his arm. He stretches to smell it but the boy who holds the rope has gone beyond his reach, still murmuring reassurances that clash with the thing he carries and the tight knot he has tied in the reins. Slowly, he begins his uncertain descent on the slope of the ravine, an anonymous shape moving toward the distant sounds of a trapped animal.
It is a strange moment. Melted frost drips and pools at the Black's hooves and damp warmth itches between his ears. In the strengthening light he can see more clearly — but what he sees lacks the weight of anything real. He sees a valley and a shrunken oasis. He sees a man bearing rope over the small body of a young, prancing horse. In his mind the desert moves closer; it pours and shuffles from the edges of his vision and the sun is high and his muscles are hard. It should anger him. His hooves should flash and the man with rope should fall beneath them. There have been too many hard hands, clutching hands, hands that close on whips and knives, hands that hold him back when he would run. He watches, ready for the man to take his rope up in cruel, scarred hands, ready to break from his unsteady post and plunge down upon him. But instead the man crouches, gesturing carefully to the little foal with hands that seem soft and sure. And instead the Black waits, remembering that the desert is far away. When the man turns his face up to the sky with a smile, he is no bearer of ropes. He is the boy who set the Black free, and he leads the gray filly with his eyes and his kind words more than the halter knotted carefully around her head. Side by side, they climb the more gradual slope of the bank on its far side and then stand on the rise, their forms lost against the morning sky.
Ears pointed high, the Black whistles for them, once, but the boy who stays with him is already moving closer, leading a dancing filly and the first blush of morning light.