Excerpted from The Winter Pony by Iain Lawrence Copyright © 2011 by Iain Lawrence. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
I was born in the forest, at the foot of the mountains, in a meadow I knew as the grassy place. The first thing I saw was the sun shining red through the trees, and seven shaggy animals grazing on their shadows.
They were ponies. And I was a pony, my legs as weak as saplings. My mother had to nudge me to my feet the first time she fed me. But within a day, our little band was on the move. I skipped along at my mother's side, thinking I was already as fast and strong as any other pony, not knowing that the others had slowed to keep me near.
Our leader was a silvery stallion, as wary as an owl. We never crossed an open slope without him going first, standing dead still at the edge while he watched for wolves and mountain lions. He was always last to drink and last to graze, keeping guard until we'd finished. Except for one dark patch on his chest, his whole body was the color of snow. I loved to see him in the wind and the sun, with his white mane blown into shimmering streamers.
We had a route that took a year to travel, from the snow-filled valleys of winter to summer's high meadows. It brought us back every spring to a stony creek that we crossed single file. Our hooves made a lovely chuckling sound on the rocks as the water gurgled round our ankles. We climbed the bank on the other side, passed through a fringe of forest, and came to the grassy place, which I imagined to be the center of the world.
I thought everything would stay the same forever, that I would always be young and free, that day would follow day and the summers would pass by the thousands.
But even in my first year, I saw the young ponies growing older, and I saw an old one die. She was a big strong mare in the spring. But quite suddenly in the fall, she began to walk very slowly, to lag behind the herd. She didn't complain, and she didn't cry out for the rest of us to wait. She just eased herself away, and one night she wandered off to a watering place, all by herself in the darkness, and she lay down and didn't get up. I saw her in the morning, her nose just touching the frozen water, her legs splayed out like an insect's. I nudged her with my lips and found her cold and stiff, as though her body had become a stone. At that moment, I knew that nothing lived forever, that one day even I would die.
That was hard to understand. What did it mean to die? The grass didn't mind to be eaten, and the water didn't care if I drank it. But rabbits screamed when foxes pounced, and tiny mice shrieked for help as they dangled in eagles' talons. So why did the mare lie down so quietly, with no more grief or struggle than a fallen tree?
It scared me to think about it, and I was glad when the leader called me away. Across the valley, wolves were already howling the news of a fresh meal. So we hurried from there, off at a gallop through the forest. When wolves came hunting, ponies fled. We went on across a hillside, through a valley and up again, and we didn't stop until we reached the grassy place.
The next morning was exactly like my very first on earth. The sun was red again, throwing shafts of light between the branches. The ponies were scattered across the meadow, their shaggy manes hanging round their ears as they grazed on the sweet grass.
When we heard the clatter of hooves in the stream, we all looked up together. My mother had green stems drooping from each side of her mouth. The leader turned his head, his ears twitching.
At the edge of the meadow, a crow suddenly burst from a tree. I stared at the place, wondering what had frightened the bird. And out from the forest, with a shout and a cry, came four black horses with men on their backs. They came at a gallop, bounding across the clearing, hooves making thunderous beats that shook through the ground.
I had never seen a man. I had never seen a horse. I thought each pair was a single animal, a two-headed monster charging toward me.
My mother called out as she bolted. She reached the forest in two long bounds and vanished among the trees, still shrieking for me to follow. But I was too afraid to move, and the other ponies nearly bowled me over in their rush for the forest. Only the stallion stayed. He faced the four horses and reared up on his hind legs, seeming to me as tall as a tree. He flailed with his hooves, ready to take on all of the monsters at once.
They closed around him. The riders shouted. The black horses whinnied and snorted. They pranced through the grass in high, skittish steps, as though trampling foxes. And the stallion towered above them all with his silvery mane tossing this way and that.
Then one of the riders whirled away and came tearing toward me. His horse was running flat out, flinging up mud and grass from its hooves.
I cried for my mother, but she couldn't help me. I raced for the trees faster than I'd ever run before. I left the stallion to his dreadful battle and fled blindly for the forest. I heard the strange shouts of the men, the snorts of their horses, and thought that each monster had two voices. Amid their babble were the shrill cries of the stallion, full of anger and fear, and the frantic calls of my mother fading into the forest.
I followed her cries. I crashed through the bushes and wove between the trees, dashing through a hollow, hurdling a fallen pine. I stumbled, got up, and ran again. I dodged to the left; I dodged to the right, aware all the time that the monster was behind me. I could hear its deep panting and its weird cries, and the crack-crack-crack of a leather whip.
I came to the foot of a long hill. For a moment, I saw the herd of ponies above me, my mother among them, their white shapes galloping ghostly between the trees. And then a loop of rope fell over my head, and it snapped tight around my neck. I tumbled forward, my head wrenched right around until I thought my neck was broken. I lay on the ground, half strangled and breathless, as the monster glared at me with its four eyes.
I couldn't make sense of what I was seeing as the creature seemed to break in two. The man heaved himself up, then down from the saddle, and I realized the horse was much like a pony, just bigger and blacker. Without a word from the man--all by itself--the horse stepped backward to keep the rope taut around my neck. It kept staring right at me with a cold look, unconcerned by my pain. I didn't struggle; it was all I could do to keep breathing. I watched the man come walking toward me, and I wondered what sort of creature he was, that he could turn horse against pony so completely.
From the Hardcover edition.