Aster Wood The Lost Tales: Larissa's Gold

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She swung herself over and gripped the colt’s white main in her hands, ready, wrapping her legs around his middle. The heat of the day made his coat itch against her bare skin, and she hoped it would help her hold on. But he stayed surprisingly still as she tightened her legs, seemingly unconcerned by her sudden appearance on his back.

She had found the palomino on the edge of the meadow near the homestead. His thick neck made little circles as his muzzle hovered over the grass, teeth taking delicate bite after bite. 

She had thought he would run with her on his back. He trusted her, yes, but he was still so young. Last time it had been all she could do to keep herself astride. Now, he focused all his attention on his meal, like an old hag with nothing better in the world to do. Had he become so docile already?

She relaxed her fingers and let her arms slide down his neck. The fur was soft and smooth, and the animal gave off heat like a giant rock that had been sitting in the sun all afternoon. She pressed her cheek to the side of his neck, listening to the crunching of his teeth through his skin like a baby listening to its mother’s heartbeat. She breathed slow and calm, aware of his movements, but more relaxed with each passing moment.

Suddenly, his head was up. She stiffened, surprised, and only just managed to catch hold of his mane again as he bolted. She clung to him with everything she had as he took off through the meadow, stumbling to get his footing among the gopher holes.

After a few dicey strides, she started laughing. What a sight she must have been, surprised as she was. She got her balance under her and wrapped the mane through her fingers like knitting yarn. Then she squeezed with her calves, and the world became a blur.

He barreled across the grass. What had it been to spook him? A bird? A fox? Sometimes even an unexpected boulder was enough to surprise a horse, silly as they were. 

But when the sweat started breaking out all over his body, too much and too soon, her laughter died on her lips. His nostrils flared as though he were running for his life. She turned her head, certain that a predator must be in pursuit. It wouldn’t be the first time she had encountered wild ones in this place. But when she looked back, the meadow was clear. Nothing followed.

“Whoa,” she said, trying to sound soothing while ignoring the pang of fear in her own chest. “Easy. Take it easy.”

The horse ignored her and sped up. They were approaching the other side of the clearing now, and thick forest rolled out before them. 

“It’s okay,” she said, partly to him and partly to herself. But the horse paid her no attention.

He bounded over the edge where the trees met the grass and crashed into the wood. She ducked down at the sight of branches, too low, coming at her head. This stupid horse! He’d have her killed! She stole a look behind them again, intending to determine an easy way out of the brush. 

A deep shadow, misty and without clear form, crossed the opening they had just jumped through.

Her heart stopped. 

Suddenly, she had no desire for the horse to slow. He thundered through the wood, and she knew it would be painful for her in the end, but she urged him forward. 

What was that thing? 

She looked back again, just as a stray branch brushed against her cheek, cutting her skin. Searing pain ripped through her head and she automatically released one handful of mane and brought it to her face. 

Then he jumped.

Over a log or a stream, she didn’t know. But she was flying through the air, the world upside down, the sound of panicked hooves and her own breath squeezing out of her in a loud whoosh as she hit the ground.

Above, the sky was white through the lattice of branches. The sound of the colt’s escape quickly faded as he stormed away through the trees, his rider forgotten on the forest floor. 

She opened her mouth, needing air, but none came. Her chest felt flattened, and in her panic she wondered if she would ever taste the sweetness of air again.