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Thursday 10 November 2022


 Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

     Grim hazel eyes roved the sky. The iron bars cast black lines over the dark, bleak landscape, but the storm's shadow at least concealed the worst of the barren scrubland. The valley's grass was completely dead. The river dry as bone. The mountains themselves stood like the teeth of a huge dead beast, its final, cold breath raging out through the crevice, shifting the rain itself.
     But whatever beast she could imagine it had once been, it held nothing at all to him.
     Her bitter gaze drifted through the other side of the cage. He was out there, her 'master', staring into the sky, oblivious to the rain hammering into his face and the gale snatching his breath away. He was too busy absorbing a sun of his own creation. How very like him to ignore what was really there.
     The aurochs' lip curled scathingly, and she turned her stare back to the distance. She could no longer stomach more than a few seconds of his face before her rage got the better of her. And her heart was already racing.
     Calm. Clarity. That was what she needed.
     She closed her eyes and breathed deeply to steady herself, and the fresh smell of the long-awaited storm provided it. Even the faint smell of burning redirected her enthusiasm - though still, she couldn't help smiling. Minutely. Undetectably.
     Her eyes calmly opened. She rose to her haunches.
     The time, at last, had come.
     Lightning split the ominous clouds. The deafening crash of thunder came a moment later.
     The instant it erupted, she threw herself against the cage.
     The wind stole the clattering sound away even beneath the cover of thunder. But, as expected, it hadn't been enough.
     The aurochs pulled herself back, shaking off the pain that shuddered through her ragged bones, and watched the sky again.
     Flash. Wait. Crack.
     She threw herself again.
     For months, she'd been grinding down the lock and hinges whenever 'Master' had been away. Her horns were no longer just blunted, but cracked and scratched from the effort, and the carvings that had once been so proudly etched into them had been worn away.
     But they could be re-etched. Her identity could be reclaimed.
     Flash. Crack. Thump.
     Her heart was in her throat now, and creeping higher with every strike.
     Flash. Crack. Thump.
     She'd bided her time for months, and finally the opportunity had come. And she was as ready as she would ever be.
     Her heart hit the back of her teeth. She threw herself again.
     The storm was no ally. She knew this. It would destroy her as readily as it helped her - and if she didn't get out of that cage soon, she would feel its punishment directly for daring to take advantage of it.
     Again, she threw herself against the weakening bars, timing it as best she could before the storm could reveal her, and barely bit back the yelp of fright as lightning struck the ground just paces from the cage.
     'Master' barely reacted. 'Master' didn't notice.
     She grit her teeth and returned focus to the sky while the fire erupted, growing from a candle to a pyre in moments despite the thrashing wind and rain. When the storm deigned to strike again, she gathered herself and threw both her strength and panic at the bars. And finally, it gave way.
     The aurochs stumbled out of the cage while a flash of disbelief numbed her senses, wrenching herself free of her rotten shackles in the same instant. But she didn't dare to waste a moment in shock. Rain soaked her bare skin, wind chilled her already frozen bones, and she could barely find her legs from years spent kneeling. But she couldn't afford to wait.
     Because this, she discovered with a glance through the flames, he had noticed. And his eyes were wild.
     She staggered backwards immediately, vanishing in between streaks of spreading fire while his poisoned bark competed with the howl, crack and roar of Nature. In the noxious smoke, she fought for control over herself, and though she was oblivious in that moment to her lack of fear, adrenaline still tried to overwhelm her.
     His toxic voice swirled through the flames, teased like the fire by the wind. Ahead of her. Behind her. To her left, then behind again. The smoke, too, whipped around her, diffusing the chaos into a single sheet of raging light. She could barely even make out his silhouette.
     And there was no time to look. Her lungs were already burning.
     Covering her mouth and nose with her arm, the aurochs stifled her chokes and fought the confusion of noise, picking a direction to move without the taunt of his disembodied demands to confuse her. But as she steeled, turned and started away, he appeared. Of course he appeared.
     Her stomach sank as he stormed through the fire, his clothes and skin both soaked and smoking, rusted knife in hand, deranged look in his eye. It took every mote of energy she had to stand her ground. But it dawned in that moment, as she watched him move wildly, just how much stronger than him she was.
     She grounded herself. She lowered her horns. And though she could feel her weakness, the waver of her legs, the dizziness of lost sleep, she charged.
     It was survive chained, or thrive free.
     There was only one choice. She would gain her freedom, by force or by death.

     Hornsong rose beyond the fire.
     Hooves shuddered across the earth.
     The sky flashed and bellowed.
     Something knocked her aside before her horn could rip its way beneath his sternum. Instead, she pierced him between the ribs and shattered several more on her way out.
     She cursed and turned to charge again while he spun on the spot, watching something beyond the fire with eyes wide and haunted. She didn't glance to find out what. She stole the opportunity instead.
     Until four enormous, glinting shapes clattered and rumbled across her path.
     She barely missed spearing one, and again she was pushed back from her target. But this time, as lightning split the sky, shock seized her tightly.
     Knights. Four of them. Huge beings in powerful armour stained orange by the flames, steering four equally powerful horses. And though her heart leapt and mind blazed with questions, she knew she wasn't their quarry.
     The path between her and 'Master' had been cut off by these circling figures, and the foetid wretch was pushed backwards into the flames. Neither horse nor rider seemed troubled by the heat, nor the thick smoke, ripping wind or smell of burning skin. And she, too, barely gave it another moment's thought before leaping onto this newest opportunity.
     She turned from the chaos, fighting for breath, and began snatching up food, blankets and anything else that could be useful, every piece soaked, seared and spoiled, but crucial.
     She barely avoided being trampled several times as the horses steered around, bringing 'Master' back in check the few moments he managed to steal an opening. But the riders were adept. She would never have been trampled. And while they passed, they, too, began slinging things over the backs of their horses. Including the pieces she'd gathered.
     Smoke was filling her lungs. She had slowed down. She stumbled, she dropped things. And when her head began to spin, the ground fell away from her feet and the world began to jolt.
     "I have you," a voice said from in front of her while she struggled to find her balance. She looked hard through the haze behind her eyes. A knight. She looked down: a horse. And ahead: the end of the valley.
     Her heart leapt, sending another crashing wave of adrenaline through her blood, and held onto him just long enough to reclaim her senses before she heard the others gallop up behind.
     But she didn't look back. She had no desire to. No compulsion. No need.
     Fire and smoke hid their path, and the howl of Nature drowned out the wretch's begging in the distance. And a laugh, musical and unchained, rose from her own shredded throat.
     A cheer erupted around her as she grinned, and bellowing hornsong followed it. Adrenaline coursed through her. Excitement. Enthusiasm. Hope.
     She leaned up as close as she could get to the giant knight's helmet. "Thank you," she said, and he bowed his head without turning.
     Then she leapt from the back of the horse, her eyes blinded by tears, cheeks aching from grinning, shoulders round with relief, and she ran. She stampeded ahead, yielded the lead by the knights who reined in just enough to follow behind her. And though she had only a vague idea of where she was going, there was so much clear, star-studded sky ahead. And she knew, come morning, she would be facing into the sun.
     Enthusiasm. Hope.
     She roared ferociously into her freedom.
     This was the beginning of everything.

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission. 
Copyright © 2022 Kim Wedlock


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