Vibrant splashes of color spilled across the dark inky sky, a bright ball of flame encompassed by cotton wool clouds. I watched as tired stars twinkled sleepily below the horizon and for a split second the sun and moon stared at each other from across the sky. I inhaled slowly, but was brought back to reality by the sharp scent of smoldering coals and burning flesh. I groaned and shook my head to clear it of weariness. Sleeping on the battle field was always painful, with a cold hard ground the closest thing to home. Sometimes, the cocktail of pitiful screams, pleas for mercy and cries of agony mixed with a hint of vengeance wouldn't stop ricocheting around my brain for days. Although, this time I was as lucky. It had taken hours to get to sleep and the snores of a hundred other soldiers hadn't helped, but eventually I had drifted in and out of nightmares long enough for my body to cramp up. I tried to move my neck but was almost paralyzed by stiffness. I groaned again and hurled myself off the ground, stretching and yawning. I grabbed my armour and slung my boots over my shoulder. The ground was worn hard by hundreds of thousands of feet and hooves passing through here in the last few days. The attack on Ra Sesh had been successful, the town obliterated and reduced to rubble. The Dam had been secured and the people were either dead, dying or captive, which meant they wished they were dead. I looked around to get a better survey of my surroundings. The night before, when we had entered the plateau, it had been a moonless night and, being a soldier, I had just followed directions and not worried about scenery or the impact we would make. Now that I could see, it was quite a beautiful place. Mountains reaching for the sky, a forest over in the distance, the glittering lake leading away from the dam in the middle. It was quite the scene, and for some reason I almost felt bad about all the shrubs and bushes that were trampled underfoot. I shook myself and found that I was making my way towards the horses, and that I wasn't being very gentle about it. I had left a trail of grumbling half-asleep soldiers in my wake, and decided to be a bit more careful next time. I breathed in the deep horsey scent of hay and manure, but it was still spiked by the unpleasantries of thousands of unwashed bodies. I weaved my way through the rows of tied up horses, until I found a tall, dark Arabian thoroughbred that whinnied when she saw me. I could see the remnants of foam at her bit and the raw skin left under her saddle. "Ohhh, what have they done to you girl?" I crooned. Kar nuzzled my shoulder and looked down at the quiver tied around my waist. I smiled. "Never one to miss a treat were you?" I pushed aside the few arrows remaining and reached to the bottom. I felt around, until I felt the rough feel of hessian under my fingertips. I looked around to make sure nobody was watching, before drawing out my hand. Kar looked at me and snuffled at my fist, trying to shove her warm tongue between my fingers. When I didn't open my hand immediately, she turned her head away and snorted. "Oh come on. Don't you want to play? I thought I would take you for a ride, maybe check out the forest. See what's happening over there." Kar turned back and looked at me, as if to say 'you really think I would believe you? Because GUESS WHAT? I'm a HORSE. And we are SUPERIOR... can we really?' I smiled. She had such expressive eyes, the brown layered over greens and yellows shot through with a spark of attitude, emotion and loyalty. I opened my hand and as she munched quietly on the slices of apple and carrot, I studied her face. Long eyelashes. Soft muzzle. Defined cheekbones. Beautiful horse. In fact, she was the best horse I had ever known. The best friend, too, because when I was 8 my village had been burnt to the ground. Just like Ra Sesh. I winced, thinking about how many lives we had destroyed and how many children had been taken, just like me. An old memory came floating up from the depths of my mind. "Sakir. Be strong. Do what you’re told. Follow orders. Make your family proud. I love you, son. Make me proud." My father's gentle face wavered before my eyes, clouding up my vision. Or maybe they were tears. I wiped them away angrily. My father was dead. This was my home now. This army, they were my family. We fought side by side. We trained side by side. And yet, I still couldn't help the crushing feeling of guilt that spilled over me whenever I tried to think about it. I didn’t even know most of their names. Sure, there were some, like Tanin, son of the dragon, or Qata, brother of the panther, who were well known and well feared by all those who knew their names, including their fellow soldiers, because of their unnatural strength and stealth. I was brought out of my thoughts by the tickling feeling of Kar's breath on my neck. She was looking me in the eyes, full of concern. I smiled sadly. "Hey, it’s ok. I'm ok. Let's go for a ride before everyone wakes up." I grabbed her saddle and flung it over her back, tightening the girth, and grabbed the reins. I led her through the tangle of bodies to a clearing, and suddenly stopped. If there were any more people out there, they might be looking for somewhere, or something, to aim all the available sharp, pointy things at. I turned and jogged back to the shed near where the horses were kept, and came back with my arms full of Kar's armour. All soldiers had their own unique armour, so it never got mixed up. Qata's was smooth and sleek like a panther and Tanin's was layered, like scales. But I had chosen something a little different, something a little out of the ordinary. Our horses armour matched our amour, and mine was made of sheets of the strongest metal I could find stacked on top each other, so that there was room to move, yet it still flashed in the sun. I had added tusks to the side of my helmet, like an elephant, signifying strength and wisdom, but I had a point on top like the mythological beast cassowary, which was known for its ferocity but also knowledge. Kar's armour was less intense, and was just the folds of metal, which allowed her free movement, which was also a luxury. I didn't understand the use of armour as a thing to show off rather than something to protect yourself with. After I had finished helping Kar get on her armour, I slipped on mine and slung a bow over my shoulder, just in case. I also strapped a wooden pole that would serve as a good enough short range weapon if we got ambushed or surprised. I checked and re-checked that everything was secure before placing my foot in the stirrup and slinging myself into the saddle. "Ok, girl. Let's start with a slow trot." I said and clicked my tongue, squeezing my legs slightly, and Kar responded immediately. Once we were a fair distance away from the camp, I sighed and leaned back. The saddle was where I belonged. I was practically born in the saddle. I never got a sore backside from the weatherworn leather, and some people called me insane for it. I never got stiff from being in the same position, and Kar and I acted as one. It was really something to be jealous of. I sighed. I loved the exhilarating feeling of riding through the cool morning air, leaving all your worries behind and just being one with Kar. She was just so... I couldn't find a word strong enough to describe how much I loved her and felt connected to her. I guided her slightly towards the river and clicked my tongue. She increased her strides to that of a canter, and the wind blew back in my face as I rose and fell with the movements of her back. The riverside was cleared of trees and I urged her on faster, faster, till we could go no more. She was panting but smiling, and I was gasping from the adrenaline. I swung down from the saddle and threw off my armour, stripping down to my undergarments, before diving into the river. She whinnied and shuffled her hooves nervously before my head broke the surface and I watched her dance around the small waves I made as they washed ashore. She looked longingly at the cool water as the sun’s rays began to heat up the cracked earth, and my pity for her crashed. I reached up and slipped off the saddle and armour. She neighed with joy and splashed in beside me, dunking her head under multiple times before shaking it off on me. She smiled a toothy smile and her eyes flashed gold in the sunlight. Then it hit me. Out of nowhere, a sharp pain in my chest. Kar cried out in fear as she was dragged away from me. Or, was I sinking? I could no longer tell. It seemed like the sky had gone dark again, but I could still see the sun. It was the cloud of blood surrounding me in the water. Kars hooves churned up the bottom as she panicked and tried to get ashore. The water was too deep. I looked down and saw a branch protruding from my chest. I tilted my head. That hadn’t been there before...? I realised that was what was causing the pain in my chest so I tried to rip it out. It was now growing numb, so I left it. My thoughts were muddled and slow, my breath coming in short watery gasps. I felt a current catch my body but was too weak to fight it. Why was there a tree branch in the river? We are near a forest... but, what is this current? Why is there a current if this river is dammed up? Because, I realised, it is no longer dammed up. The wall itself had branches and logs slipping out all along its face, creating small spills that amounted up to quite a large amount when it splashed into the river. A deep rumbling shook the earth and Kar bayed in fear. The whites of her eyes were showing, and my head was starting to dip below the surface. I watched as the bubbles around me popped, and the great dam wall started to snap and splinter. Debris churned up the river and I clutched at the branch in my chest as the end was snapped off. I cried out for Kar. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. The looming wave of water grew above, blotting out the sun. Water spilled across the plain, sweeping up the camp of soldiers and tossing about the remains of Ra Sesh. I had lost sight of Kar and in all the chaos my fluttering heart yearned to be with her. I reached out, but was thrown back under the water again by the force of the current. Above the roar of the water, I heard a whinny of fear and felt hooves pound my legs. I reached out and wrapped my arms around Kar's neck, burying my face in the wet fur. As the wave crashed over our heads and I slipped from consciousness, I looked into Kar's eyes. They were panicked and I felt guilty that I couldn't do more. "Hey, it’s ok girl." I tried to say, but my mouth filled with water. It rushed down my throat and I choked. The current was trying its hardest to rip us apart, but I hugged her tighter. As the grains of life slipped away with the current, the corners of my vision clouded with darkness and slowly closed in, but the light was centered on her beautiful face. The furry, wild, terrified, absolutely beautiful face of nature. Kar. The only thing I loved.
I turn towards the campfire. “So, there we have it folks. The story of my life.” The others glance in my general direction and yawn. In the light of the blue fire, I could tell some of them had fallen asleep. I sighed. We have all eternity, but they still choose to sleep. Whatever. I turn to the dark shape behind me. “Come on Kar. Time for bed.”