Still he did not seek to take up my feet or touch my legs, and when at last he did I hardly noticed it, and felt a fool. He worked his way so gradually to it, at every pause and rest brushing a little further down my legs and touching a little more with his hand, that the first time he took up my hoof I made no struggle at all, and only a moment later, as his fingers brushed over the sole in search of stones or bruises, did I realize what he had done. I was uneasy, and he did not hold me long; as my ears fell back he put the hoof down, but not hastily, snatching his hands away, as one might expect from a frightened man. He set it down gently and stroked the pastern as he squatted, looking up at me. He risked much in doing that; he put himself in reach of my rear hoof, and I might easily have done him an injury he would not have risen from. Yet he squatted there, touching my leg gently, and rose without hurry, his eyes on mine. It troubled me, and I walked off to graze and think on it alone. He let me go. Yet at the next stop he took up another hoof, and I let him.
As we walked he talked to me, his voice rambling quietly as we trod the trail together. His name was Will; he told me that early. Soon he named me as well, I think the more easily to speak to me as we went. He had had no name from the man who owned me, and my own people have no words, nor names to give. So he put one upon me, and I was called Shanglan. He called me that, he said, for a horse that was famous in bravery and strength, and black like me. Then he told me of Black Shanglan, a horse that served a great warrior of men, and fought by him in battle. He liked to tell tales, I could see; how else was it that he told them to me, whom he thought dumb and witless like all others of my breed? He told them to himself in telling them to me, and little thought that he had an audience. Yet it soothed me; soothed and troubled me, like his touch upon my hooves.
He was a pleasant companion, and that was a thing I was unused to in man or even in my own race. It was good to hear his quiet talk and feel his hands soothe my hurts and tend my needs. But I could make nothing of his goals, and this troubled me. Whenever I began to feel at peace, ambling along beside him, this rose again to my mind, and I was uneasy. I knew from his words that we sought a camp some two weeks' travel distant; I saw, curiously, that he sought to avoid notice, for we would rest by a village in the evening and he would enter it swiftly in the early morning, buying supplies at some farmhouse or inn and departing 'ere the sun was well up. He would tie me, then, to a tree, and each time I felt that hot rage begin to seethe in my belly as he leashed me like a hound. But it was the only time he sought to bind me; when we walked he let the lead-rope hang loose and gave me my head to set our pace, only drawing it taut to guide me past a fork in the road or to lead me to water or pasture.
I could not make out what he sought to do with me. He fed me, tended my wounds, and handled my feet gently each day, searching for stones or bruises as I shivered under his odd, stroking touch. I could not see why he did this, other than to guess that at the end of it, ill or well, I would face again the same old enemies: the bridle, the bit, and the saddle. There were times when I felt my heart soften toward him – when he brought a soothing salve to rub into my wounds and covered each lash-mark with a gentle hand, or when he walked with me smiling and sharing out a bunch of new carrots. But then I would think of the bridle, the bit, and the saddle, and my heart would harden once more.
My mind was much upon this as the days passed – and so I did not mark when he first began to suspect me. I had lived too long amongst men who saw only what they willed; I did not think how my actions marked me to one who thought deeply and was with me every hour. There were signs, when I thought upon it later. He began to hesitate, some evenings, in grooming me, looking at me long before he would start, and when he must guide me with the rope his manner grew strange and diffident. It was not a great change; I do not think that he said the thing outright to himself, or truly asked what it was that he suspected. But there was doubt in his heart, and some trouble. Still, he did not say it, and I did not see it, and so I did not realize that I had begun to betray myself.
At last, early one morning, I was awakened to my error. We stood on the crest of a hill, looking down at a little village below. I had seen how little bread remained in Will's pack the evening before and knew that he must stop here to refresh his provisions. With a sigh, I turned to a tree near at hand. I hated to be tethered, but if I must resign myself to it, I would have it over with swiftly. I faced the trunk and waited irritably for him to tie the rope.
He did, but he looked strangely at me, and I saw in that moment how odd it must appear. It was no secret to him that I hated to be tied. Indeed, he was mindful of it; he had taken to bringing me some coaxing favor, a lettuce or a piece of bread or a handful of barley, each time he came to untie me, as if to make amends. The food I resented, although I took it; his crude bribery only reminded me how little he weighed my wit, and how much he thought me a dumb slave like all the rest of my race. But his words and manner won more sympathy from me, for he never tied me, nor released me from the bondage I endured with a raging heart and restive body, without stroking my mane or my nose or my shoulder, and telling me that he was sorry to do it. Of course, he thought mostly to soothe me with the sound of his voice; yet he chose the words himself, and might have said any he liked if he meant nothing by them. Each time he begged my pardon in gentle and earnest tones.
Still, he knew how I hated it, and how I glared balefully as the rope was tied off. Now he paused to look at me, surprise and dawning suspicion on his glance. I saw my error and stood as ill-tempered as I might, giving him a dull look of stupid dislike while my heart pounded in fear. He looked hard at me, standing there with the rope in his hand. Then he shook his head as if to clear it and tied me, murmuring as he did.
"Ah, you're a clever girl, to come so well to it. 'Twill be but a moment, and I will have you free again and upon the road."
He tried to talk himself into an ease with my actions, but his voice was troubled and doubtful, and as he went down the road into the village he paused and glanced back at me.
That day I found his eye on me in many quiet moments. It was hard to meet it, for it is difficult to act naturally once one begins to question one's behavior. I thought at first to manifest some notable piece of stupidity such as my witless cousins might perform – to tread upon his pack, or startle badly at some simple distraction, or balk in the crossing of a stream or a fallen tree. Yet I saw quickly both how foolish I had been not to do such things from the first, and how it was of no use to do them now. He had marked already where my actions differed from those of my brethren; his quick brown eyes were shrewd though kind, and I saw that day, as I watched him more carefully, just how lively they were, and how bright with wit. To make clumsy errors now would only draw attention to their absence in the past; he would grow more suspicious rather than less.
Instead I made the best of what I thought he might believe – that I was more intelligent than was common in my breed, but only as one cow or pig is more intelligent than another, not the great gulf that in truth existed. I struggled to hold myself neither more meek than I had been, nor more stupid, nor more clever, nor more rebellious, and by the day's end I was worn to exhaustion with watching and questioning my every movement.
That evening we came to rest by a stream bordered in clumps of willows. I grazed near its verge and he walked with me, chewing a stalk of grass and pacing by my head. He was quiet, and seemed thoughtful. When he ate he gave me pieces of bread from his hand, and his eyes met mine so searchingly that I was loathe even to take the food. Later, when I lay down to rest, he came to me, crouched down by my side, and put his hand to my shoulder. He looked long into my eyes, and it was all I could do to lay still; my heart beat hard, so loud that I thought the sound alone would betray me. He held my gaze for a long while, crouching there with his hand warm against my coat. His look was a question – but I dared not answer.
At last he turned and lay down by my flank, very slowly and with his eyes on mine, barely touching me at first and then gradually letting his weight come to rest against my body. He seemed to ask, as if he half-guessed – or guessed, but only half believed. He looked into my eyes until I could meet his no longer, and I lay my head down upon the grass.
I could not sleep, for sleep itself troubled me. It is the habit of my people to doze lightly, not in great lengthy slumber like men. Nor do we often sleep the night through in one place upon the ground, but shift about and spend much of our lives on our feet. When Will and I had begun our journey, I had been glad enough to lay all the night in a field of soft clover or young grass; my body was sore and broken, and I more weary than I had ever thought mere walking could make me. But as I threw off the exhaustion and weakness of my torment, I came back to a more natural sleep, drowsing and waking to test the air and listen to the wild cries of owls in the darkness. Yet for several nights together now, I had lain down with the man, and had not risen until he woke with the dawn. Though once I had resented his weight against my body, now I would not gladly wake him while he slept, nor move from him while he lay, warm and soft, against my side. There was a comfort in him. This troubled me – yet I lay quiet, and did not rise.
At length the moon came up, and I turned to look at him. He lay against my flank, soft in sleep. He had begun his slumber on his back with my body propping his head, but now he had turned his cheek to my side as he curled against me. I reached my muzzle toward him, breathing in his scent. He smelled of leather, of hard work and long walking, of wood smoke and leaves and grass. Beneath was the scent of his hair, his lips, his breath and his body. It was a warm, strong smell, and it was good to have him laid there against me, relaxed in sleep and gentle as a man can seem when all the fight and arrogance and cruelty are out of him. I breathed him in deeper, and when his eyes opened – as it seemed I knew they must – I met them. He touched my muzzle, and when I did not draw away, he pressed his lips to the tender velvet. It was a gentle touch, but it sent a shiver through me. We lay there, how long I could not say, while Will stroked my jaw and my nose, and kissed now and again the soft skin of my muzzle. As he did, he murmured low, gentle words – "Good Shanglan. Trust me. I'll do you no harm."
His touch moved me strangely. It was a simple thing, no different to the caresses that children had given me when I was a foal. And yet it was different. I lay long with a troubled mind. But last I slept, and as peacefully as I ever had – with Will curled warm against my flank.
When I woke, all of my misgivings came back to me. At night and under the moonlight, the world seemed different. But the dawn rose cold and real. I rose, shaking off Will who slept against me, and went to drink at the rill and then go to graze. As I fed, I eyed him to see how he carried himself this morning.
He looked at me long as he rose and stretched himself, and sat a while watching me graze. He was quiet, and I could not read his expression. Then he went to wash and drink, and then came to walk by me as I grazed, as was his way when he was thoughtful and wished for company. Usually he would speak, but now he waited so long that I thought he would stay silent. At last he held out his hand with the brush in it, and met my eyes.
"Will you have me brush you, Shanglan?"
His voice was level, but his face was troubled. He made no step toward me but simply stood, his hands outspread, waiting for his answer.
I dropped my head as indifferently as I could and tore at the thick grass, though my legs trembled. He guessed. He guessed, and more; he asked. I saw again the moonlight, and felt the touch of his lips on my muzzle. It was gentle; it soothed, and asked nothing in return. But what man had ever shown me pity? What mercy could I hope for from him? And how much worse would it be if he knew what I was? Would he fear me, or seek to master me – destroy me, or make me utterly his slave?
I cropped fiercely at the grass. It was wrong that he would do this – that he would stand there waiting my will when he knew that I could have none and coaxing me to betray myself when there was no safety for me in this world. It angered me that he could ask this – and that he could call up, from deep within, a voice that answered, a longing to reveal myself. At last I could not eat but only stared down at the grass and earth. I could see nothing but the shape of him, even when I would not look.
The brush touched me. I shuddered, so that it betrayed me in every way, but it was beyond my power to stop. He brought the brush to my shoulder, gently, and then drew it in a long sweep along my body. I felt his eyes upon me, but I could not meet them, and only stood with my head down, closing my eyes as he drew the brush along my flank, over my hip and down my leg. When he brought it back to my shoulder, he touched his other hand to my chest, steadying me, and I felt his warm palm rest there as he slid the brush down my barrel.
"Shanglan," he said softly. He was close to me now, his body brushing all along my leg and shoulder as he reached up to brush my back and my far flank. "Will you trust me?"
How could he ask it? I closed my eyes, for I could not meet his now without giving him my secret. I clung to the hope that he might think himself deceived. Humans do not easily believe what they wish not to be true; his fear of what I might be could yet persuade him to think me only a horse. I must show him no sign that I was anything else.
Yet I trembled under his touch. He had touched me before; he took my hooves in his hands every day now. But this touch ... there was knowledge in it. As he slid the brush down again, slow and strong, over my shoulder and along my flank, I swayed on my feet. The stroke of the brush and the press of his hand on my chest lulled me and roused me at once, until I knew nothing but the rhythm of his movement. I leaned into it with a release like a band bursting from around my heart, and groaned as he stroked with a long, stirring touch. Then the brush fell from his hand and he touched my barrel, warm but shaking. He bowed his head and pressed it to my shoulder. Then he murmured, not lifting his face to speak.
"What are you?"
How close I came to showing myself, the shuddering of my body betrayed. But terror stopped me. To lay myself bare to him, more helpless than the foal that was born yesterday, was more than I could do. It frightened me that I wanted to – that a soft, traitorous voice murmured that I wished for him to touch me, to give me the softness of his lips on my muzzle and make an end to my hiding. But I knew men meant: the yard, the posts, and the whip. This must come, either at his hands or another's, and I could not trust him and live.
I let my breath out. I opened my eyes but kept them to ground and made him no answer.
"Shanglan." His hands closed in my mane. When he spoke, his voice was rough and breaking. "I beg you. Give me some sign that this is not madness."
My heart moved for him. He was so troubled and bewildered that for a moment I forgot that he was a man and saw only that he was in sorrow. His body pressed to mine in a plea, and he cried out for comfort.
I could not leave him. I stood there long with his body close against mine. I could not speak; I would not give him what he asked. Though my heart went out to him, he was too much my enemy, even in that moment. But I stood with him, and I took his warmth pressed to my own.
When he drew from me, he turned swiftly and went to the stream. He looked ashamed, but I felt more so. Though I knew he could not be trusted, I felt how wrong it was to leave him without comfort, who had been as kind to me as he knew how. At last I forced myself to return to grazing, and when he returned, wet from washing, I was able to pretend disinterest. For his part, he struggled to put it from him. His voice rang false, but he tried to jest.
"Aye, Shanglan, you're a match for your namesake in strange canny ways. You had me half-thinking you a witch. You're a clever girl, aren't you, eh?"
Normally I would have resented this. The idiot tones used for dogs and children had always rankled with me. But I saw how little his heart was in it, and it shamed me that I should leave him so unhappy and confused. I was glad when we took to the trail for the day's journey and I might trudge by him like any dull, stupid mare, never meeting his eye.
It troubled me. He was kinder than any human I had met, and my heart went out to him. But who knew what other purpose drove him, or what tricks he might play if he thought himself in possession of me? Now, of all times, was no time for confidences. From his words that day and in days before, I knew that we were near the end of our journey. Another day, perhaps, after this one would bring us to his land and his people – and then there would be tools and time to break me. He would sell me, perhaps, or give me to some other man to break; I could not see him take up the whip and spurs himself. But men will have their will done, one way or another.
These were my thoughts as we trudged along the path. Will was nearly silent, and as sunk in thought as I. As the day wore on he grew restless, and watched up and down the road. Near noon we turned from it to rest and take food, and when we had done we did not return, but struck out away from the trail. We came to more open country now, wider and freer than I had seen. Great rolling hills and meadows were broken and shadowed by deep woods to which we took ourselves as we traveled on. The land was so broad, and the men and homes so few, that I began to think again of what I had dreamed in weeks past – a land where I might hide myself and live without fear of men and their bonds. I turned it over in my mind as we went, fording streams and picking our way through thickets as we kept to the forest some distance from the road. It was slow work, and gave me ample time for thought.
I did not wish to leave him. That was what I must confess as I looked out from the edge of the wood to an open meadow of rich green grass. Red-brown shapes, fleet and graceful, sprang and darted from the glade. My heart surged and I stirred through all my body, and I took a swift step to join them. I felt the rope, then – not jerked hard by a mastering hand, but simply held by Will, who stood smiling at the bounding shapes of the deer. When he looked up to me my heart was torn strangely, and I stood there, trying to understand. His hand was loose on the lead rope. I could have pulled it from his grip in a moment; indeed, with my strength now returned to me, I could have made my way from him had he clung to it with all his might. But I did not, and as I turned back from the glade to follow him into the wood, I did not know why.
Nor did he. He grew silent, glancing at me from the corners of his eyes as we walked. It was, I told myself, that there were still men about, still homes and houses and low stone walls. There were yet other hands to capture a horse running loose, and I could not be so fortunate as to find again a man who for even a short time would forbear from tormenting me and allow me to gather strength to resist his will. Though Will might end as badly as any other man, yet he had begun well, and shown me mercy when I was laid low and near to my death. I would not find such luck again, and so it was wisdom to keep with it until it had truly run its course. Or so I told myself. In my heart, I knew it for a lie.