Horse and Hare spent the morning chasing each other’s tails. Running after each other around the edge of the lake was the highlight of each day, but these days and years were falling into a repetitive pattern. Horse found comfort in his routine, but between Hare’s large ears was a brain that craved more.
She savored the moment as she lay against her partner’s massive heart, and then she said what she had to say. “The mages told me I’ve learned all I can from them. There are teachers in the mountains who can show me more, but it means I’ll have to leave.”
“It’s a long journey. I can take you there if you want?” Horse responded.
She hopped up and peered into his large brown eyes. “You want to come with me?”
“I’ve lived through enough winters here. If something is waiting for us, let’s go to the mountains and find someplace closer to the sun.”
Hare hopped up and raced through the grass. Horse got up and chased after her. They spent the rest of the day getting final words of wisdom from their families. By evening they were telling their friends they’d all see each other again one day. The next morning, they ate a load of grass before Hare hopped up on Horse’s back, and he trotted west towards the mountains.
It was an easy couple of days traveling through the plains. There was a bit of light rain, but nothing Horse couldn’t sleep through. Hare used a waxy leaf as cover and rested beside Horse’s stomach for warmth. Freshly washed by morning, they continued their trek.
There was a singular path cutting through the trees and bramble, slowly formed by generations of animals wedging their way through. The common threads linking land and beast were so ingrained in Horse and Hare’s upbringing and instinct that they were led to the same entrance as so many others without needing to question why.
“Do you know the way?” Hare asked as the claustrophobia of the trees so close together began to set in.
“Well, there’s only one road, and we didn’t walk into the lake, so I’m pretty sure we’re going the right way,” Horse said while scanning left and right.
“Why do you keep looking to the side like that?”
“My eyes are on the sides of my head. I don’t have much of a choice.”
“You know what I mean.”
“It’s probably nothing, but does it seem quiet to you? I thought the woods were supposed to be crowded. I haven’t heard anything for quite a while.”
“Now that you mention it–”
A rumbling growl from the bushes gave away the pack of wolves lying in wait. Their harsh howling bubbled together as they lunged. Horse galloped forward and ducked his head to avoid the low-hanging branches. He knew he could outrun wolves in an open field, but the odds were reversed here. The path was winding and uneven, and those hunting him knew every hollow and divot along the way.
Hare tumbled along Horse’s back before she found her footing on top of the rump of his backside. With a quick pounce, she sprung forward and clutched onto the tan strands of his billowing mane.
The quick turns were meant for much smaller animals, and the endless branches whipped against Horse’s broad neck and shoulders. Corpses of fallen trees littered the trail and had to be dodged and vaulted at top speed. Every obstacle was a risk. It would only take one mistake to send them to the ground for the wolves to devour.
“You have to jump,” Horse yelled to Hare.
“Absolutely not!” she screamed back.
“I’m the bigger meal. Jump, and they won’t chase you.”
“No.” She buried her face in his mane.
“I’m not asking. Now jump!”
Hare didn’t respond. She turned as the lead wolf leaped forward with blood-red gums and long white teeth that sank into Horse’s hind leg.
Horse tumbled into the coarse thickets growing near the edge of the path. Hare was bucked off and rolled along the forest floor ahead of him. Horse tried to stand, but two wolves jumped on his back and clawed their way to his neck. The wolf who bit his hind leg was still trying to regain her bearings from the shared fall, leaving the fourth wolf free to chase down Hare. As the eyes of the hungry wolf widened, Hare screamed.
Horse reared up on his hind two legs. The pressure of his leaking wounds begged him to stay down, but he pushed past his pain and kept rising. The two wolves nearing his long neck tumbled to the ground as Horse stretched his back to the sky. With all his weight held high above him, he aimed his front hooves over the hungry wolf charging Hare and brought down all the massive weight the wolves so desperately wanted. His hoof crushed through bone as he found solid footing on the ground. The wolf managed a short yelp cut short as his neck broke.
A blood-smeared snout snarled as the lead wolf approached. The other two began circling him. Horse neighed and backed away to keep the foes ahead of him. The blood-stained wolf lunged for Horse’s eyes, but he caught her in his mouth and bit down hard on her shoulder.
She whined as she fell on her side. The other two wolves came to her aide as she stumbled back. Horse ignored the tearing pain in his back leg as he reared up. The wolves barked back and leaped out of the way. The blood-stained wolf barked an order of retreat, and the predators fled together.
Horse yelled after them, “I’m keeping your friend!”
He turned back to Hare, who lay crouched low to the ground in the same spot she’d rolled to. With a flood of relief, the debilitating pain he had ignored returned, and he collapsed.
“Horse!” She jumped to his side and looked over the bite and claw marks pulsating blood and leaking onto the trail. “This is bad. You can’t trot on this.”
“It’s better than it looks.” Horse tried to stand and fell back to the ground with a heavy thud. “I haven’t actually looked, so maybe you’re right. Don’t worry. We’re safe here. For now, at least.”
“No, no, no, no. You have to get up. We have to move. They’ll come back.”
“Not while he’s here.” Horse nodded to the dead wolf with a stamped-in neck a few feet from them. “They’re afraid of the smell of their blood. As they should be.”
Hare let her busy mind assess the damage as she searched her education for an answer. “I can fix this. I just need the right herbs. I’ll be right back.”
“Don’t go. Please. Just stay here where I can look out for you,” Horse whined.
“We treat this now, or it will get worse by morning. Besides, you promised me a ride.”
Hare sniffed the air and caught a hint of the herbs she sought. She passed near the dead wolf and shivered from the morbid presence before darting through the bushes.
Horse held his head high while searching the brush for Hare’s return. He worried over every sound. Any rustling could be the final approach of the wolves he fought off once but didn’t think he had the strength to meet again. When he heard a familiar rustling from low to the ground, he was relieved to see Hare emerge onto the path wearing a necklace of leaves.
“Wrawry rit wrook re sro rong,” Hare responded through a mouthful of herbs before spitting the green wad to the ground.
“Whatcha get me?” he asked.
Hare explained, but like usual, her experiments went right over Horse’s head. She looked beautiful as she discussed what she loved, so he nodded at the appropriate moments as he appreciated the opportunity to watch her at her best.
Hare finished her explanation by saying, “…Now hold still. This is probably going to hurt.”
She scooped up a mouthful of what she had taken the past few minutes describing and jumped up along his prone body. Her wide feet gingerly stepped around his injuries as she spat the green gooey paste into his jagged wounds.
“That didn’t hurt at all,” Horse said.
“That wasn’t the part I was talking about.”
Hare lifted one foot up and rapidly hammered the green paste into the deep crevices of his injuries. Horse neighed and held himself from bucking in pain. Once Hare finished torturing him, she delicately bandaged his wounds with the leaves draped around her neck.
“Your technique could use some work. Thank the gods you’re getting more schooling,” Horse said, chuckling through tears.
They ate a little grass from their surroundings. Horse couldn’t move far and needed more food than Hare could gather, so he went hungry that night. As hoots from unseen owls rang through the upper branches of the forest, Hare feared leaving Horse’s side. Even while wounded, Horse was still big enough to scare off plenty of creatures, but that wouldn’t hold off the wolves forever. Once the hounds rested and rallied their courage, they would come for Horse again.
Horse awoke to find that his wounds had scabbed enough for him to stand, although the effort still made him sore. He looked around for Hare and found her struggling to tie a strand of tall grass around a hollowed-out chunk of wood.
“Whatcha got there?” Horse asked.
Hare continued her work with her contraption. “The mages at the lake taught me how to make bowls using logs I hollow out with my teeth. I covered it with a strip of bark as a lid. Normally one of my professors would help me tie the knot, but…” she sighed and let her sentence trail off in an exhale of exhaustion.
Horse stepped on one end of the tall grass for her. She grabbed the other end, ran the strand over and around the wooden bowl with the bark lid, and pulled the grass into a knot.
“Thanks!” Hare tested the lid to ensure it was secure, then sat back and wiped the sweat from her brow while admiring their achievement.
“What’s in there?” Horse asked.
“A trick for the wolves.”
Hare hopped on Horse’s back with her magic container, and they continued west through the one path through the woods. As much as talking would alleviate their nerves, they stayed quiet, listening to the hushed murmurs of their surroundings while noting the growing absence of sound.
“Hare,” Horse said to get her attention after spending most of the day in silence.
“Things are quieter here,” Hare responded as she continued her scan around them.
“I know. I wanted to say that if the wolves get me–”
She cut him off, “I won’t let that happen.”
He turned his long neck around and faced her. “I’m just saying, if. It’s not like I want it to happen, but if something goes wrong and we get separated, I want you to keep living. Don’t throw yourself at something foolish to be with me. I want you to be happy and alive–”
She interrupted him, “Horse.”
“One second, I’ve thought a lot about this. I know you’ll be sad without me, but you’ll have your magic and a mountain to study at. If there’s a life after this one, I’ll be happy when you find happiness again, whatever that means for you. There, that’s all I wanted to say.”
“The wolves have blocked the path out of the woods.”
Horse turned back around and saw the wolf that bit him. The other wolves they fought off yesterday were beside her with a half dozen pups at their feet. Horse knew the little wolves wouldn’t charge him, but they would chase down Hare for practice.
“Fools!” Hare stood atop Horse’s head, yelling to the wolves blocking their way. “My horse tried to teach you all a lesson yesterday, but you’re all too stupid to listen. Allow me to reinforce the message. You are in our way.”
Horse balanced Hare on his head while peering around as far as his eyes would allow. If he veered off the path, the wolves would be on them in seconds. They had ventured too deep into the woods to turn around, especially knowing how unforgiving the trail behind them was. Horse knew their only way out was through.
Hare continued. “We broke one of yours yesterday, yet you brought your children to face us! Do you not understand? We are not food for you to eat. We are the monsters that hunt you.”
Hare raised her wooden bowl to her teeth and snipped off the tall grass tying it together. She let the bark lid fall to the side as she lifted the bowl and poured its contents over her head. A thick red liquid splashed across her ears and ran down her fur before dripping into one of Horse’s eyes. He felt the salty sting and knew it was blood from the wolf he had killed.
The wolf pups cried out from underneath their parents. One of the adults dry heaved without food to expel while another trickled out a stream of urine running down one leg.
“Move forward,” Hare whispered.
“You cannot be serious,” he whispered back.
His first few steps were timid. As the wolves moved aside, Horse’s strides lengthened. The pups hid in the brush while the three wolves stood over them. Horse and Hare passed, and a low growl bubbled from the throat of the lead wolf. Hare hissed back as Horse sped into a gallop.
Hare walked back along Horse’s wide neck to maintain her glare against the wolves. The lead wolf stared back before turning on her pack and snapping at them. Her compatriots snarled in return while their pups mimicked their parents.
Horse ran hard despite the soreness in his leg. They neared the edge of the woods, and Hare grabbed onto his mane. Free of the tough bramble and root-littered road, Horse ran straight up the mountain’s base towards a peak that rested just under the afternoon sun.
“They’re not following us,” Hare said into his ear.
Horse slowed his gallop to a trot and eased his stressed leg. He said, “That was quite some magic trick back there.”
“It’s actually science. With some knowledge and study, we can change the world.”
Horse nodded along, and at the appropriate moment, he smiled as if he understood.
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Loved this story, Max! Some really cute interplay between them, and just a fun plot... and great science! :)
Thanks, Wendy! I'm happy to hear you liked the story.