The winter before
The snow kept on falling. The gray mare felt cold, so cold, her bones felt like the brittle trees around them. Hunger made a pit somewhere in her stomach; she could feel it, the gnawing hole, growing inside of her. Her desperation was so great, she would’ve eaten anything, even meat.
She was not the only one. The herd, all six of them, was in pain. Their leader, the beautiful black mare, was lost. The gray mare could see it, in her eyes, the way she bore herself. There was a defeat the gray never saw before, in her. The way her head was low, her tail swishing even though, this deep into the cold, there were no bugs to harass them.
It made them restless, all of them.
The black mare was their leader, the one they trusted to take them to safety, to watering spots, to greener grasses. Yet there were no green grasses to be found, not anymore. No trees, no flowers, no sign of spring yet to come. They pawed at the ground, but nothing but dark earth stared back at them.
They’d already lost a few. Some of the yearlings left; one died. Even the red stallion, their mate and companion, looked in pain. His hips showed under his once glossy coat, and there was a rip on his left heel. He was in pain, but also nervous; she could feel his restlessness in her bones, curled around the cold and the wincing pain she, too, felt.
If they did not find food, they were going to die. All six of them -- and their yet unborn foals, too.
The gray mare looked once again at her black friend. She, too, lost weight, her black coat dull and too thin for winter -- though, for all purposes, other than the desperation around her, she still looked fine. Or, as fine as they all looked.
Their leader, like the gray mare, was pregnant. So was the beautiful, golden-and-white mare huddling close to their dark leader’s side. The other two were yearlings still, daughters of the red stallion, too hesitant to leave just now.
She watched as the dark and the gold conferred, heads together. They were sisters, born from different mothers to a different male. They’d been the first and longest companions of the red stallion. The gray, a late comer to the herd, never quite fit in with them; or with him, really. Yet, it was better to be with them than to be alone. While she did not quite fit, they did not outright reject her, either. So she stuck close, but not too close, lest the black mare feel crowded and kick her away.
The yearlings, outsiders just as she was, stuck by her side. She liked their company well enough, but it would not take long until they, too, left, and the gray mare was alone with her herd-mates.
Horses do not quite have a sense of time as humans do. She would not be able to say how long the three horses stuck together, looking absently into the distance.
They had to find a way. They had to.
Being still made it worse, though, and before she knew it, the gray mare wandered. Out, out and far she went, nose to the ground, searching for -- food, for a way, an answer, she may never know. The thoughts of horses are not as those of humans, either.
Still, she sought.
The shadow of a crow crossed the snow. She shuddered; she knew what it meant. There was always food for crows, in this time. The wolf fared worse, but what wolves did was no concern for the mare. The crows, on the other hand, followed them. She knew. They knew.
It would not be long, now.
They had to find a way...
They say the memories of horses are long. That they can recall certain things, events, details, much as other animals, much as humans do. Horses do forget; but then, anything with a memory can forget. The gray mare would never quite remember how it happened, or when, or where her feet took her, that day. She could feel them, her herd, looming behind -- close, close, but never too close.
She would remember the red stallion’s breath on her skin, the way he nosed at her hips. She would remember the black mare’s whinny. She would not, could not, remember where her legs took her. She would not have found her way back to where they were, not really.
Then again, she had no reason to.
Humans say horses know things, things other animals, or humans themselves, may not. In that, they are like birds, gliding effortlessly through worlds humans can only dream of.
The gray mare’s coat was dark, rich with dapples, although winter made it dull and flaky. Had she looked, she would see the trail she left behind, in tree branches and dried shrubs.
Had she looked, she would see her footsteps vanishing with each new snowfall, prints gliding soundless from a reality to another; but no, there was no such magic in the gray mare, or in the mares following her, or in the red stallion’s nose as it slid over her back, in greeting and recognition.
No, it was not that worked.
It was night before she knew it, and day before any of them did, when her feet stopped. The yearling mares curled into her side, quiet. Even the gold-and-white mare was quiet, pressed to the red stallion’s side.
The black mare’s whinny broke the silence for them.
Beneath them there was a sharp drop, leading into a valley, and through the valley ran a river, frozen solid by winter. The valley seemed empty, too empty -- and that would be worrisome, but somehow, they knew it was not.
Careful, ever so careful, they took step after step, down the steep side of the hill she did not remember climbing.
It was only at the bottom that she dared strike the ground, once again, peel back the snow and the ice to reveal grass -- dried, almost dead, but still pulsing. Still living, somehow. Enough, to carry them through the dying winter.
They’d found their way.