I do not know how many I threw from me that day. The breaker took to beating me between riders, first with the lash of his whip, then with the heavy butt, and then with a cudgel after one of his men was carried off unable to stand. The pain and the brutality of him were terrifying, but I matched his savagery with my own, and lashed out at every man who came within my reach. By the time the sun was setting, blood dropped to the dust wherever I stood. My hide stung from the cuts of the whip, and I ached with the bruising their leader had given me. At last he glared at me long and hard, then spoke to his men.
"Tie her by the posts. No food for the cunt, nor water either. We'll see how she minds in the morning."
They did as he bid them, tying my head so tightly that I could not move nor lay, but must stand miserably and think of the thirst that I had worked into while fighting them. My body was wet with lather and ached in every part, and my heart pounded with rage and frustration as I tore at the ropes that held me.
I stood alone that night, watching my poor brethren graze and doze in the pasture nearby. What it would have meant to me to have one gesture, some sign that they knew my suffering, I cannot say. But no. When my torment had ceased to be an active event, they went back to their grass with as little thought of me as of the church steeple that rose over the trees a mile or more behind us. I was alone, and felt it more than I ever had.
The two days that followed are hazy in my memory. They gave me no water, so that the trough in the corral became a constant torment to me, a promise of relief just beyond my reach. They set more men to ride me. I threw some, though I was weakening, and bit or kicked whatever I could reach. I went for their leader when I saw him, but by the evening of the second day I was too battered and exhausted to try the fence he stood behind. They beat me, off and on, all through that day, and the next as well, until the pain grew faint and distant from constant use. By the morning of the third day my tongue hung from my head, and I scarcely had the heart to resist their will. Yet something in me would not yield – some spark of defiance, some deep insistence that I was not meant to live as they would have me. I had no means to tell them what I was. I do not think they would have cared if they had known. But that core of me, that part that saw and knew more than others of my kind – that would not die, although my body began to fail.
At last I could only lay down, or roll on my side. They kicked and whipped me, but I refused to rise. If I could not throw them from me, then I would give them no joy in keeping their seats, but let them sit upon a thing dead to their entreaties. They brought spurs, digging into my flanks until the blood came, but they had undone their own work there. Through hunger, thirst, and the savagery they had shown me, I cared nothing for the pricking of spurs, not even when they slashed at me with an angry vengeance. I lay and let them do as they would. At last, late in the third day, their leader came to crouch by me, looking into my eyes as I lay in the dust.
"You're over-canny, you little whore. And it's an evil eye you had from the first. But we'll see if you'll kick goin' down a dog's throat."
Then he spat in the dust and nodded to his man.
"Send her on t' knacker's in the morning."
The man nodded, and I heard my sentence spoken.
Death seemed good to me. I lay in the dust, feeling it raw in my throat as I lay too beaten even to lift my head. They tied me to the post and left water in my reach, but I scorned it. I was beyond all care. They only looked to have me walk to my death and not be forced to drag me from the corral. I would not oblige them. I looked long at them, then lay my head down in a last gesture of defiance. My body ached and trembled with pain, near death with suffering and deprivation. Yet my heart rejoiced. I died no slave to them.
The first I knew of him was his voice. It was faint and far away, up over me as he spoke to my captors. I drifted between life and death, all my will intent upon the latter. I would escape them. But the voice droned like a bluebottle, catching my ear when I would have lain lifeless.
"I'll have her. What did you pay for her, five pounds? I'll give two. It's more than you'll get from the knacker."
"You'll not want this 'un. I've some beauties back at the stables, broke and unbroke just as you like. This 'un's a bad lot, worst I've seen. There's a witchin' on her."
"I'll pay as you will. Only let her up, and give her water."
Their voices buzzed overhead as my mind drifted. The man with the whip argued; the one with the softer voice spoke back. The words swung back and forth, fading as the world grew darker. Then I felt a cool trickle on my mouth, and with some effort opened my eyes.
The soft-speaking man was crouched by my head, pouring water from a bucket over my muzzle. As it touched my parched tongue the relief was terrible; though I ached to die, I licked at the stream that fell on my lips. The man touched my neck, stroking my mane. My angry resentment rose up, but when I sought to move I was shocked with the weakness of my body. I hardly had strength to rouse to hatred, and could not struggle upward enough even to bite him. I lay numb with suffering and exhaustion, drinking in the water. Even as I drank, I rued it; it would only prolong my torment. Yet I could not resist the sweet coolness that soothed my lips and tongue.
His hands found the buckle of the bridle. My heart was so hot with rage, my spirit so bent and tortured with their use, that I knew nothing of his actions. I only wished that I had the strength to fight him. But he loosened the buckle, and a moment later I tasted blood and metal as the bit slid over my tongue. He drew it gently from my mouth and pulled the bridle from my head.
"There, girl. Shhh. I'll do you no harm," he murmured as he cast the tangled bonds aside. The others cried out to him to mind himself, and the leader stepped forward sharply, laying a hand on his arm.
"Here now! You've paid nowt for the beast, whatever your fine words, and I'll not have her loose amongst my men. You've a fine soft heart in you, but this 'uns a devil when she's up. I'll not have your death on my hands."
The man threw him money, and the bridle with it. When he spoke his voice was quiet, but there was a bitterness behind his words.
"I'll preserve you from this dangerous beast. That's more than another would give you for as sorry a wreck as you've made of her."
The leader scowled but said nothing more. The money must have been enough, I thought hazily, letting my head fall down upon the man's lap as he knelt by me in the dust. My heart was still hard against him, but he'd taken the tormenting bit from my mouth, and he poured cool water again, washing the taste of blood and dust from my tongue. As he did, he touched my nose, a soft, gentle touch. My mind drifted back to a day when I was very young, standing shy by my mother in the green near pasture. A man brought his children to see the horses. They touched my nose softly, and they fed me apples.
"Take the saddle off." The breaker scowled, but the man met his eye unflinching. He was dressed as roughly as they, though his words were softer, and he looked fit to stand against them, though his hands worked gently on my body.
"You put it on her; you can take it from her."
The men did not like this, but they did his bidding. They yanked the girth cruelly hard at first, but they did loosen it and a moment later lifted the hot, aching weight from my back. I trembled with relief, though the sweat stung where the leather had galled my hide. The man poured more water into my mouth, then filled the bucket at the trough and poured it slowly over my body. The feel of it was beautiful; I closed my eyes and shivered under it.
"We're shutting up for the day. Take your knacker's meat elsewhere. I've no mind to have my yard used for a shambles."
The leader grinned at that, while the man who crouched by me gave him a dark look. He put his hands under my jaw and urged me up with gentle motions.
"Come, girl. Can you rise? Shh, easy now … would that I need not move you, but see if you can hobble some little way."
He spoke soothingly, his voice soft. No doubt that was all he thought I heard, the soft tones that lulled my comrades. But I knew the sense of his words, and what had been said to him. I lay there a long moment, hope and despair warring in my heart. It seemed easier to die than to live and fight again the battle that had laid me in the dust. But life does not go easily. At last I raised my head, and with more effort than I could have dreamed it would cost me, I struggled to my knees, and finally to my feet.
The man held my halter, stroking again along my nose. His hands were gentle, though I flinched, in truth, at any touch. He looked over me, then began slowly to walk with me out through the corral gate. The breaker sneered as he called after him.
"Knacker's is down hill, more luck to you. You'll need it to walk your dogs'-meat that far!"
The gate swung shut, and we walked into the lane.
I was in no shape to go far. Mercifully, I did not need to. The man walked by me, as slowly as I willed, and led me to a field where I sank down gratefully. The breaker's yard was near the edge of the village, and there in a field of wild thyme and clover we might rest undriven. I lay down, half-falling, but faintly glad of the cool, soft green and the scent of thyme in the breeze. The man came to sit beside me.
He was built light, wiry with muscle though his hands touched soft upon me. He carried a pack, and I thought from the first that he went upon some journey, for he took from it food, a blanket, and other such things as are needful to a traveler. His hair was long, brown, and curling, and he had a short, close-cropped beard. He sat down by my head and took an apple from his pack, cut it open with a knife, and offered me the half of it. Weary though I was, and aching through all my body, the scent of it was good, and I took it from his hand as meekly as the dumb, tame creature he thought me.
"There, girl," he said. "We'll see you through. Or God help you, you'll have a kinder death than you would have met in that yard. Will you eat?"
He gave me the rest of the apple, and I ate it. Sleep was coming fast in the wake of suffering and great labor; I felt my eyes drooping and fought to waken. Something in him angered me, something in his gentle manner that left me soft and weak, nosing the apple from his hand like a tame pony. I was wary and bitter that he might so remake me. But he only coaxed me to my feet and brought me to water, a low rill that tasted sweet and clean. I drank thirstily, then lay down in the clover and knew no more.
When I woke he slept by me. The dawn had come. It is not like our race to sleep so soundly or so long, but I had been near to the sleep that has no waking, and was slow even now to rouse. I stirred stiff and painful, the weary numbness of the day before giving way to a hot, bruised ache. I struggled to raise my head and look about me.
The sun was rising over the meadow. The dew was on the clover, and I felt a sudden appetite. I had not eaten in three days, though my stomach did not trouble me for much of it, for I was sick and loathe to the very bone in my torment. Now, though my bruised limbs were agony, my stomach spoke to me. I gathered myself awkwardly to stand.
The man woke as I arose. He did not come to take my halter, as I thought he would, but lay there by me, watching me eat. He seemed pleased as I cropped at the clover, pulling up mouthfuls of fresh cool green.
"You've your strength this morning, aye?" he said, watching me as he lay back at his ease. I eyed him as I kept my head down, grazing. He was an odd man. I expected a whip, a rope – some sign of his ownership. Yet none appeared; he made no move even to take my head. I pondered this as I ate, wondering what to make of him. He lay there easy in the morning sun, watching me, seeming content to leave me my head. After a space he dug in his pack for bread and broke off pieces, eating and tossing hunks of it to me. I ate them, watching him still. He didn't act in any way that I understood, and so he made me nervous.
Finally he stood. He came toward me slowly, looking away from my eye with his body down and gentle, turning half away instead of rushing forward as men are wont to do. That approach was so strange that he had a hand on my halter before I really saw what he was about. He patted my neck, touching lightly on the welts and bruises left from my harsh usage, and spoke to me as he ran his hands over my coat.
"Poor girl. Would I could give them the same themselves. My God, they've made a wreck of you."
He put his hands around the top of my foreleg then, and began to run them down to the hoof. It was a sudden, intimate touch, closer than I liked him, and I jerked back and laid my ears flat. Somehow I disliked him more for that soft, hesitant touch than I would have if he'd picked the foot up roughly to look for stones. A groom's touch I knew – brisk, thorough, pragmatic. This was different, a gentle touch that strove to do more than just look for hurts. He would soothe me with that touch, and I resented it. I would not fawn on him like their idiot dogs, that would take blows and food from the same hand and wag their tails and grin like cowards. I backed away from him, angry though my body still ached with weariness.
He stopped, raising up his hands as if to show me that he would not use them. Then he held out another handful of bread. I struggled with myself. I scorned his bribery, and knew that he only sought to take my head again. But the world is a place of humans. Their towns, their roads, their villages – any of them that I entered was a trap to me. Any man who saw me walking loose would think me his property – a piece of luck, money or servant or slave to his household. Perhaps there was some place farther from men where I could hide myself; I dreamed it, some times. But I had never seen such a place. In the world I knew, if I would not be seized and beaten and pressed into service by any man I met, then I must go with one of them. This one had shown me some mercy. Though he might turn out as badly as any, yet he forbore for now – and now I could not run, not alone. I must try him.
I took his bread. But I shoved his hand away with my nose when he would have taken my halter, and I showed my teeth to him, laying back my ears. He stepped back smartly – no fool, at least. I ate the bread and then suffered him more patiently when, some minutes later, he came again with his slow, cautious approach. With a sigh, I let him take the halter and lead me to the water I knew well enough how to find on my own.
While I drank, he dug in his pack and took out a cloak. He tore a long strip from the bottom and soaked it in the stream, then slowly came up by my shoulder and began to daub at the dust and blood that were matted in my coat. I turned to watch him and he eyed my teeth warily, but his touch was gentle and I saw the sense in it. My poor witless cousins might hide their wounds and let them run to bad, but I knew that cleaning helped, and in that, at least, I have never been slow in seeking a human hand. I stood quiet, and he began to stroke my mane and speak to me as he worked.
My injuries were many and his task tedious, but he stuck to it with a patience that surprised me. At length I lay down by the stream, tired from much standing, and he sat by me, tending my wounds and speaking to me all the while. He had a low, soft voice that ran on like the sound of a brook, quiet, lulling, soothing even while my heart rebelled against being soothed. He talked of all manner of things – horses he had known, what he thought of the men who had beaten me, where he lived and how long a road we had to go there. I let it run over me. The tone was what he sought, the low, soothing tone that no doubt worked its charms on duller beasts. The words, he thought, were nothing. I marked them as well I might, but my eyes began to droop. At last I dozed as he talked on, washing away the dust and dried blood and cleaning each mark the lash had left on my body.
When I woke he had finished and sat on the grass by the stream, his back mostly to me. He smiled to himself as he stirred the water with a reed, watching the swallows dip and wheel above the meadow and the little fish glimmer in the water. He seemed harmless enough, though I had seen how quickly a man might turn from idle to dangerous. There was something about this one – a repose, a simple pleasure in what he saw – that struck me. He did not know that I woke; he had no reason to deceive me, or knowledge that he could. If I judged rightly, I saw the man as he was, and he seemed … different. I was wary of him still. But when he stirred and rose, I let him take my halter, and I rose with him.
We began walking that day, gently and with many rests. I doubt we covered more than a few miles, just enough to take us from the breaker's village to a little hamlet further down the valley. Before we left, the man stopped in the village and bought a rope, and this he fastened to my halter. I did not like it, but I thought carefully on what he had done. He had bought food and this rope, but nothing else – no saddle, no bridle, no bit. I held my peace and let well enough alone. I would bide my time and gather my strength, so that when he showed me those signs of servitude, I might resist him better. As we walked he held the rope in his hand, but he held it lightly, walking by my head and letting me choose my own pace. I kept close enough by him that he had no need to tug at me, and he did not, but walked steadily by my side.
The days that followed passed with a peaceful slowness. As my strength returned I walked longer, my muscles losing their ache with gentle use, good rest and fresh clean grass. The man bought other food as we went, oats or beans or corn where he found them, and gave them to me in handfuls throughout the day. He was wise in this; my poor dumb brethren would glut themselves on rich food, and I had seen the agony in which one of them died after slipping the gate and gorging in a field of young corn. I knew better, but the man could not know this; so he guarded my health for me, and I found a respect for him in his care of my safety.
He was cautious of my weakened strength as well, and we stopped often to rest or to doze through the hot noonday in green meadows or shaded woods. One day when I woke I found him lying up against my body, his head on my flank. I got quickly up and left to graze, and dozed on my feet when we stopped next. Yet that night when the weather grew cool I lay down again, and it was pleasant when he came to lay his warmth against me.
He bought a brush, as well, and began to groom me. This at first I did not trust; I remembered his soft, coaxing touch on my leg, and I did not like him or the strange yielding that touch stirred in me. But he spoke so gently, and would slip out the brush so easily, ever and anon, whenever we stopped to rest or drink, that at last he began to persuade me. He would slide it into his tunic when I was grazing or drinking, and then when he came by me I would feel it, a soft stroke or two, no more. Then he would stand with the brush in his hand, showing it to me and letting me smell it. I knew his purpose; he thought me a frightened, witless creature, and sought to accustom me to the touch of the brush. But it was his manner that won me, for he was patient and did not seek to force my will. Soon he brushed me longer, and I found that it was good. I could not resent it.