I walked for what must have been hours in the general direction of my assigned coordinates. It was dark and the charge on my solar helmet was running low. The light that I counted on to cut through the dense darkness grew dimmer seemingly with each footstep I took. I couldn’t recall the last time I’d had a nap, but the space here was much too open to pitch my tent. The winds and rain would’ve carried it away while I slept, leaving me cold and without shelter. Mother Nature had really worked this place over. Tall brown grass swayed in the wind and in the distance, I could see a jagged tree line. Many of the trees had fallen or were mangled. It was my assumption that at some point a massive wind funnel had moved through the area.
I turned toward a grove of splintered trees hoping to find a safe place to make camp. That’s when I heard it, or at least I thought I heard it. Through the wind, it can be difficult to decipher sound. It constantly crashes into your ears like never-ending ocean waves.
I slowed my step, listening more intently than before by lowering myself to the ground, thinking maybe that it would shield me from the wind long enough to determine if I had heard what I thought I’d heard. Part of me placed a great deal of hope in that sound, as it would have been of great benefit to me if it turned out to be what I expected.
As I gradually advanced, I heard the sound again. A low rumbling, much too close to the ground for thunder. I felt the earth begin to shake beneath me and I spun around awkwardly, the gear in my pack rattling as I turned.
I was barely able to dive out of the way before the herd came crashing through. Wild horses, more than I could count, barreled in the direction of the tree line. Panting on the ground, trying to catch my breath, I watched them run toward the horizon. A bolt of lightning or a strong wind must have spooked them, I thought, knowing that if I were able to catch and ride just one, it would make my journey a whole lot easier. I’d seen them before, though I’d never been able to get close enough to touch one. The general had spoken of riding one when he was young and out on missions. He had said that the horses were sent from the heavens to help us. I wished I could believe him.
Pushing myself off the ground and brushing the dust off with my hands, I began walking in the direction the horses had just run. I hadn’t walked more than a few steps when I felt something hit me from behind with enough force to knock me forward. I quickly drew my weapon fully expecting to have to use it on one of the terrors that walk these plains. Instead, I found myself face to face with a young mare who appeared to have lost her way.
The animals here, the ones who have managed to adapt and can survive the storms, are not afraid of humans. They have no reason to be as there aren’t many who brave the elements Topside. Instead, they’re imbued with a sense of morbid curiosity. If they aren’t trying to eat you and you aren’t trying to eat them, they’ll at least explore you, mostly to figure out if they should eat you. This particular horse didn’t seem to think I would make a good menu item, but she did seem rather interested in using me as her play toy.
She nudged me again with her nose, pushing me backward. “Whoa, girl,” I said, my hand outstretched.
She must have heard me because her ears twitched and she nudged me backward yet again with her nose, letting out a rather loud “Neighhhhh.” She’s laughing at me, I thought to myself. “I’m cold and tired and on a damn suicide mission and this horse is laughing at me.” It was then that I knew she and I, we were going to be the best of friends.
My hand tentatively found the spot between her eyes and I stroked her softly, cautiously to let her see that I was as friendly as she was. Maybe not as forward, but definitely friendly.
Her eyes closed for a second, then she bowed her head and nudged me again.
She’s trying to tell me something I rearranged my pack and tried to make out something, anything in the distance that she may be warning me away from. There, hiding in the dense fog was the outline of what appeared at first glance to be a man. My immediate thought was that it was someone in my unit, perhaps they’d gotten lost and had been wandering aimlessly, but that was quickly dismissed as I knew my men had been better trained than that. The wind was blowing sand and dirt in my face, clouding my view, and the figure was encroaching upon us faster than I would have liked. The closer he grew, the more I realized not only wasn’t he a man, he didn’t appear to be human – and he wasn’t alone.
The horse nudged me again, and I took that as a cue that she wanted to help. Throwing caution out the window, I hoisted myself on her back and said a silent prayer to the void that she wouldn’t buck me off. She didn’t. Instead, she took off running like she had a purpose, and I trusted her far more than the things that were at our rear.
We didn’t stop running until she couldn’t continue on any longer, and I hadn’t risked a glance backward in quite some time, preferring not to know if I was going to be knocked off this intuitive and helpful four-legged beast by some… monster?
My mind had to be playing tricks on me. It was stress, or the sand and the wind, the lighting, something. Right?
As if she’d heard my thoughts, the horse let out a protestful whinny and shook her head. I climbed off her back and walked around to face her.
“Um, so thanks for that back there. You uh, saved my ass.” Oh my god I’m talking to a horse, I’ve lost it. Kai, you are certifiable. What the hell am I doing?
She made that “neiiighhh” sound like before with a glint in her eyes.
“Oh, now I know you’re laughing at me. Well, yuck it up, human whisperer. I’m glad one of us understands the other one.” She nudged my shoulder which caused me to turn slightly and she started sniffing around my pack, finding my canteen.
“You want some water? It’s the least I can do for what you did for me.”
I opened the canteen and she actually opened her mouth for me to pour some liquid onto her parched tongue.
“Well, son of a …”
I took a long swig myself before placing it back and taking a good look around me and checking my device to see how far away from my coordinates I had strayed, and how far the chase had set me back.
I wasn’t too far off course, and for that I was grateful. Furthermore, she had brought me to the mouth of a cave where I could hopefully pitch my tent with both a tiny level of safety and minus the worry of the wind carrying me off.