“Mines are no place for a pony. Even one so brave as Bill.”
Bill snorted slightly as he looked down upon his little master, confused. There was sadness on the warm face he had grown to love. Why was the tall man removing his saddle and tack? He wanted to stay with Sam.
Suddenly, the tall man was pushing him away, and he grunted indignantly.
“Go on, Bill,” he said. “Go on.”
Bill looked at Sam one last time, then turned and began to walk away. He wasn’t the wisest of his kind, but he knew full well when he was being sent away.
“Don’t worry, Sam. He knows the way home.”
Bill wanted to stay, but a deep feeling of dread was starting to overcome him. One of his other little masters was throwing pebbles into the dark water, and he knew something evil lurked underneath the surface. He started back along the shoreline, looking back once to see his former companions heading towards a door that had somehow appeared in the stone. He stopped, turning partway around and pawing at the stony ground.
It was the massive beast that exploded out of the water and reached for the door that finally caused Bill to pivot around and bolt away. Fear lent speed to his aging bones, for he wasn’t as young as he used to be. Flying up the rocky path, he soon left the lake, the monster, and his masters far behind him. He slowed to a walk, shaking as the cool night air caressed his sweaty flanks. He whinnied softly, looking around nervously at the darkness. With his masters gone, the heavy sense of loneliness was settling down on him. He wasn’t safe here. The monster in the lake wasn’t the only threat he could smell on the breeze.
Hesitantly, Bill started traveling along the path, eager to reach the grassy plains that lay beyond the mountain rocks. For the moment, his eagerness to feel soft soil and cool grass underneath his hooves overcame the knowledge that wolves roamed the plains. The night slowly passed, and concentrating on the steady tapping of his hoofbeats kept Bill calm as the hours went by.
By the time the sun breached the horizon, Bill had finally arrived on softer ground. His spirits lifted considerably as he broke into a trot, stretching his tense and sore muscles. The smell of sweet grass filled his nostrils, and he lowered his head, happily grabbing a mouthful and chewing contentedly. He was a simple beast; it didn’t take much to make him happy. That’s why he had liked traveling with Sam. The road was hard and the packs heavy, but Sam had always rewarded him at the end of the day. For a moment, Bill sighed, looking back towards the mountains. He missed them, and knew it was going to be a long and lonely journey back to the pastures in the Valley.
“Well, there really is a first time for everything.”
Bill jerked around, instantly alert. The icy, scratchy voice had come from behind. For a moment, he could not see the source. Then, he spotted the wolf standing on a nearby hilltop. It was bulky and short-snouted, and several young pups stood at its feet, panting hungrily. Bill whinnied in terror, rearing up. The pups weren’t the only ones that looked hungry.
“You all will come to remember this day,” the mother wolf said, looking down at her children. “Never before has a meal wandered into my territory of its own accord.”
“I do not intend to become a meal!” Bill replied, throwing his head and snorting loudly, attempting to scare the hungry predator away. “My masters will kill you before you touch me.”
“Masters?” The she-wolf did not seem concerned. “Even better. The tame ones are so much easier to bring down.”
Terror filled Bill, and he wailed loudly. The way home, unfortunately, happened to be in the direction the she-wolf and her pups blocked. Bill turned and started bolting off towards the mountains, hoping at the very least to lose the wolf in the rocky terrain. However, he underestimated the she-wolf’s speed, and found his way blocked by the snarling creature almost immediately.
Luckily for him, he was agile enough to turn in mid-stride and start galloping towards the pups. The she-wolf roared in anger, but Bill knew the pups were no threat to him. He could pass right by them without fear of being injured.
Bill’s attention was completely focused on the mother wolf; he never saw the father coming. He felt something large and powerful strike his shoulder just as he reached the crest of the hill, sending him tumbling back down the slope again. Heavy paws pressed into his neck and chest, and he kicked out wildly.
“You will pay for threatening my pups,” the wolf snarled.
Bill kicked again, finally managing to strike one of the wolf’s hind legs and knocking it off-balance. Scrambling to his feet, he bucked powerfully, slamming both hind feet into the charging she-wolf’s chest. The female yelped and tumbled away, gasping deeply. Bill knew he had broken something in the wolf’s chest, and he hoped it had been enough to keep her down. His back legs were sore from the force of the impact, but he twisted around anyway, prepared to do the same to the male. However, his blood turned cold when the male wolf reared up on its hind legs, towering over him.
The wolf opened its wide jaws, snarling loudly as he extended the claws on his heavy paws. Bill immediately realized that the flesh on his flank and haunches were vulnerable to those horrible weapons.
A loud screech startled both horse and wolf, and Bill looked up just in time to see a large brown eagle swoop down and sink its talons into the wolf’s muzzle. The wolf roared angrily, stumbling backwards and shaking its head. Bill quickly cantered out of range, then turned and watched as the eagle continued to fight against the furious male wolf, pecking at its eyes. Finally, the wolf lowered itself to all fours, snarling viciously and swinging its head around. The eagle released it, quickly soaring around and settling on Bill’s shoulders. Bill would have been startled, but he was too stunned to notice right away. Both wolves were retreating, and the pups were yelping pitifully, scared for the sake of their wounded parents. One of the male’s eyes had been destroyed, and the female had blood dripping from her mouth, but both had soon disappeared, with their pups, into the distance. Now Bill spared a moment to react to the eagle’s presence.
“Be careful with your talons,” he said, trying to turn his head to glimpse the bird.
“I do not wish to harm you, my friend,” the eagle replied, opening his wings and flying around to settle upon the slope of the hill.
Bill studied the eagle. It was a handsome creature, its feathers of rich brown and black. Its wingtips were golden, as was a patch on its chest. The eagle studied him right back, then nodded.
“I need your help, my brother,” the eagle said. “Those whom I serve have asked me to guide you on a journey.”
Bill snorted, laying his ears back.
“The only journey I want to take is the journey home,” Bill replied.
Bill turned around and started walking away, but stopped. He didn’t want to go on a journey, but he had become curious. The eagle had, after all, saved his life. He turned around.
“What kind of journey?” he asked.
The eagle lifted its wing and beckoned to the south.
“It will be long, though not too treacherous if you trust my guidance,” the eagle replied. “The wolves, at least, will not harm you.”
“And what is my purpose?” Bill asked, intrigued by the thought of safety from the wolves.
“A friend of those whom I serve awaits you,” the eagle replied. “She has suffered for many years, and will need your help.”
Bill looked to the south, seeing sunlight shimmering off the yellow grasses, which bent and swayed gracefully under the soft breezes coming off the mountains.
“Why me?” Bill asked, looking back at the eagle.
“You have proven yourself,” the eagle replied. “Your former masters are on a quest destined to change the lives of all who exist in this world. You followed them loyally through many dangers, and now your part in that tale has come to an end.” The eagle flapped its wings. “The choice is yours, my brother. You can try to go north, and face the wolves on your own, or you can go south with me.”
The eagle spread its wings and flew into the air, circling high above. Bill watched him for a long while, thinking. He wanted to go back to the safety of the Valley, but he did not want to face the wolves again. However, he wasn’t too eager to wander into lands he didn’t recognize, either.
But, he was a kind-hearted beast. If what the eagle claimed was true, then someone out there needed his help, and he didn’t want to leave the unfortunate soul to suffer.
The eagle had started flying out of sight. Bill took a step forward, hesitating. He looked towards the mountains, then took a deep breath.
“Wait for me, brother eagle!” he cried, starting off towards the south at a rapid canter. “I am coming with you.”
* * * * * *
And so, Bill followed the eagle. The days were long, often uncomfortably warm, and the nights were filled with the sounds of predators that lurked just out of sight. However, the eagle kept to his vow. No predator tried to attack, though more than once Bill spotted them stalking. Most of the time, the eagle glided before him, sometimes just enough to shade Bill’s face from the midday sun. But at other times, the eagle perched on his shoulders. At first, Bill was nervous with having the eagle’s talons pressing against his skin, but he soon realized that the eagle was careful enough not to hurt him. A casual acquaintance soon became a close friendship, and soon Bill was quite willing to give his new friend a ride.
Time passed, but Bill would never know exactly how long. The weather and terrain changed, flat grasslands turning to hilly plains, then vast expanses of forest. Rain fell more frequently, and soon Bill forgot what it felt like to be dry for longer than a few days.
“How far?” Bill had once asked after the eagle informed him that the range of mountains looming ahead would have to be crossed.
“We’re halfway,” the eagle had replied.
The moon had changed shape several times since that day. The mountains were behind them, and more frequently Bill was starting to cross paths with men. Many had been quite gentle, offering him food and fresh water, warm shelter, gentle caresses and groomings. These people seemed to realize he had a special purpose, and allowed him to leave after he had rested for a time.
However, Bill knew that there were also cruel people; he had lived his younger years under such a master. Some of the men he came across attempted to catch him with ropes, or coaxed him with food and then refused to let him go. Most of the time, Bill could escape on his own, but when he could not, the eagle assisted him. Even now, Bill remembered when he had been locked in a fenced paddock, and the eagle had come and pecked through the ropes that secured the gate.
Of course, Bill also lent assistance to the eagle from time to time. Once, a hunter had tried to claim the bird as a prize. Noticing the danger, Bill had turned upon the man and driven him away. He considered the eagle the closest friend he had ever known, and after so much time together, he wasn’t about to let any hunter claim the majestic bird.
This day, however, seemed different from the others. Bill stood on the crest of a hill overlooking a wide field, breathing in the scents of tilled soil. There were people down there, some doing the work of plow mules, but all slaving under the warm rays of the sun. The eagle settled on a rotting fence post, looking at him.
“What is this place?” Bill asked
“A farm, like many others in this area of the world,” the eagle replied. “The difference here is what you see before you now.”
“I didn’t know men were strong enough to pull plows,” Bill commented, swishing his tail thoughtfully.
“They are not,” the eagle replied, ruffling his feathers. “But they are forced to do it anyway.”
Bill knew there was a word for such torture, but he could not think of it. He snorted, scanning the workers carefully. There was one that soon caught his attention. Unlike the others, this human pulled a plow alone, and had two overseers snapping whips nearby. In the heavy harness, the human seemed little more than skin, bone, and a mane of tangled black hair. Bill twitched.
“Is that her?” he asked.
The eagle nodded solemnly, and for the first time, Bill saw pain in his friend’s eyes.
“Trouble will soon erupt here,” he said after a long moment of silence. “Those who own these lands will pay for enslaving these innocent people. But she has been a prisoner for much longer than the others.” He turned his gaze to Bill. “Help me set her free.”
Bill looked back at the struggling woman, watching as she threw her weight into the harness to keep the plow moving, all the while suffering lashes from the merciless whips. Determined to see the end of his journey, Bill threw his head and reared up proudly.
“I will see this to the end,” he declared. “Come, my friend.”
The eagle took flight, soaring down towards the fields. Bill broke into a hard gallop, feeling his spirits soar. The wind billowed his mane and tail, and the strength of youth seemed to flow through his muscles. He knew then that this was his purpose. This was why he had been born into this world. He knew the overseers had seen him, for they were turning towards him, but he did not slow down. His speed was carrying him over the difficult muddy terrain with almost no effort, and the eagle kept perfect pace with him.
There were more men approaching, alerted by the surprised shouts of the overseers, but none were close enough to stop Bill. He leapt the plow and drove his body into the overseers, sending them flying backwards. He slowed his pace, turning in a wide arc before coming back, twisting around, and slamming both hind feet into the wood frame of the plow. The eagle had landed next to the woman, and was pulling on the leather that bound the harness to her body. The overseers were starting to get up, and the others had almost arrived. Bill kicked the plow again, hearing wood snap and sending it onto its side. The woman was struggling fiercely against the harness, clawing at the ground frantically. Bill was surprised to notice that she seemed to have something wrong with her hands. Didn’t humans normally have five fingers?
Whips cracked, and Bill felt one sting his flank. He jumped, stumbling out of the range of the infuriated overseer. Several other men were approaching him with ropes, and he soon felt one loop around his neck. He reared wildly, struggling as three men grasped the end of the offending rope and pulled on it. Still on his hind legs, Bill could not resist the sudden force, and he fell hard on his side. He heard the eagle squawk, but could not see. He had suddenly found himself surrounded by men. Bill heard shouting around him, the screeches of the eagle and thunderous roars.
Wait. . .thunderous roars?
The men were shouting again, but not at him. They had turned their attention to the woman. Bill struggled to his feet, turning and searching for the eagle. His friend perched on the side of the destroyed plow, screeching angrily and flapping his wings. The woman crouched before it, bits of leather and harness hanging from her body, and a wild bloodlust in her eyes. Bill felt fear fill his heart. This woman was no human. She was a predator, the most dangerous he had ever sensed, a killer of mankind. And she was free.
And she was hungry.
——to be concluded——