By Tiah Marie Beautement
Equss Caballus was originally published by New Myths in September 2019. Sadly, New Myths closed during the pandemic.
Amaia knew Izán was coming before his pickup could be seen or before it could be heard by human ears. This was the way of her, always had been.
“You will have a long life, mi cielito,” Papa had often said.
Maybe she would, maybe she wouldn’t; time would tell, as it always did. But for now, the instinct gave her the mental space she needed to prepare for her uninvited visitor.
She stepped out onto the front porch, scanning the dirt road that threaded its way through Corriendo Con Caballos. The horses grazing nearby merely flicked their ears as they continued eating. They knew that if she was calm there was no reason to fear.
She scanned the scrubby grounds of the Southern Oregon ranch, before stepping off the porch onto the rocky soil. A colt skipped over, under the watchful eye of his mother. His tale was still short and bushy, looking more suited to the hind end of a fox.
Amaia gazed fondly at the little one as she reached out a hand. The colt dipped his head, bringing his nose under her palm. The warm nose was softer than a human baby’s bottom. He cocked his head, while flicking his chin up, trying to drive her hand closer to the ears, waiting for a scratch. A smile ghosted her lips as she obliged before returning her eyes to the road, where the mountains towered in the backdrop.
Shortly, a dull yellow pickup came into view. Enough time remained to grab a shotgun, if she so required, which she didn’t. The horses, however, had raised their heads. Still working on the last mouthfuls of scrub, unhurried, but their ears were alert.
“Shhh,” she said. The sound was soft, but it easily rode along the arid landscape.
The colt stayed where he was, but his mother took a few steps closer. All the horses were crowding in. Watching. Waiting. Trusting Amaia to give them warning if something more was needed.
But she stayed clam. Muscles loose. No fear. The pickup made it up the final rise before coming to a stop in front of the main house. She said nothing as Izán popped the driver’s side open, even as the colt startled. Nor did she come closer.
“Buenas tardes,” he said.
She looked over his shoulder, into the distance, as if gazing at the mountains, but nodded.
He rubbed the back of his neck, shifting his weight on his battered cowboy boots. “Look, I know I should have called first, and I’m happy to sleep with the ranch hands, if you’d prefer, I just thought you could use some help after––”
“Mi casa es su casa,” she said.
Izán waited. It had a been a long time, too long. Still, he found himself hoping she’d look him in the eye. Not that she ever did it much, with anyone; although, once upon a time, she would have done so for him. But her gaze remained averted. Not that he had a doubt she knew exactly where he stood.
“Maybe we could go for a run, you know, to––”
“Storm coming.” She turned, stepping up onto the porch and into the house, leaving the screen door to bounce on the frame.
Gritting his teeth, Izán turned to his rig, reached into the back, hauling out a duffle bag covered in fine sand that he slung over his shoulder. With a deep breath, he ascended the steps.
The horses flicked their ears, returning their attention to the scrub.
Before the age of three, Amaia had tried to count the hailstones as they fell. She screamed in frustration, as the pellets swiftly descended in numbers too great for her eyes to track.
“Start smaller, mi cielito,” Papa had said. “Consider counting what is dropping into the bucket, there.”
Amaia had continued to scream, refusing to be consoled. If she was going to do something, she wanted to do all of it, and exactly right.
But tonight, as Amaia stood at the window watching the storm, she ignored the hailstones. Instead she counted the seconds between Izán opening his mouth and shutting it, without a word. As a child, this behavior would have confused her. But years of watching people interact had taught her to understand this curious action. He was uncomfortable. A different person may have tried to put him at ease. But the comfort of humans had never been high amongst her concerns.
Izán wandered over to the kitchen and opened up the fridge. A solitary jar of salsa stared back. Disgusted, Izán slammed it shut, and began pawing through the pantry, finding nothing much of substance: a half a bag of tortilla chips, six boxes of breakfast bars, and a case of generic meal replacement drinks.
He wandered back into the living room, prepared to lecture her on proper nutrition. But seeing her still at the window, jaw set, stubborn nose titled in the air, what he said was, “Were you going to try to lead them on your own?”
“I am on my own.”
He flinched. Guilt gnawed at him like a beaver taking down a tree. He came over to stand beside her, careful to keep his eyes focused on the window. Even so, he couldn’t help glancing out of the corner of his eye. Her gaze didn’t waver, at least as best he could tell. She had her long hair dark hair swept over her shoulder, the white streak gleaming in the pale light, exposing her long smooth neck. He felt an urge to nuzzle that soft skin, but instead he asked, “Any sign of your parents?”
She shook her head. “Mama disappeared after my brother drove Papá out of the herd. You know how it goes, el perdido age faster. Once stuck, the mágico fades, and nature takes over.” She shrugged. “He couldn’t hold his position any longer.”
The way she said it, it would be easy to assume it didn’t bother her, that she didn’t care. But unlike him, she had stayed, still living on the ranch, guarding the ones who lived on the lands and keeping tabs on those that roamed in the wider territory. The guilt bit harder. He swallowed carefully before asking, “They still follow you when you run with them?”
Izán woke at dawn to a neigh ripping through the air, and the herd answering. Damn it, Amaia. He sprung from the bed, shedding his boxers as he tore through the house and leapt off the porch. His body shifted mid-air, stretching, extending, filling out. By the time he hit the ground, his reddish dun body was at its full 15.2 hands high, weighing in well over 500 pounds. A prominent dorsal stripe ran down his back, gleaming in the early sun.
He galloped to catch up with the ranch’s biggest herd, which followed the lead mare, a grulla, 14.4 hands high, with a wide streak of white running through her mane. The lead stallion acknowledged Izán’s approach, baring his teeth. For a moment Izán wondered if he would be challenged. But his mágico radiated outward, and the stallion ceded without a fight––an unnatural dynamic outside of the supernatural.
Izán’s legs ate up the ground, as he rediscovered the land. It welcomed him home, as if he’d never left. Savoring the crisp air, the feel of the morning sun, he shook out his mane and called out to the lead mare. She answered, unapologetic confidence radiating outwards. No explanation was offered as she drove the herd on.
She had always left it to Izán to interpret her actions. That had always been the way of her with anyone she came across: keep up or get out. To this day it struck him as hypocritical, given her constant struggle to interpret human interactions, from facial expressions to figures of speech. Horses, however, she understood just fine.
Then again, when you got right down to it, it was Izán who had made the colossal blunder of all time. He was the one who had allowed social stereotypes of the neurodivergent to worm into his brain, creating a Doubting Thomas. So that when she’d said, “Te amo,” he’d blurted, “Are you sure you understand what love means?”
It was as if a glass door had slid between them, as her face went blank. Flatly, she said, “Sounds like a question you need to ask yourself.”
She’d opened the door. He’d walked through it, right out onto the rocky drive.
He’d looked back.
But lead mares don’t chase. It is the stallion who is supposed to lead from behind.
Not a single ranch hand blinked as Amaia walked by and into the house, naked as the day she was born. Nonetheless, emotions seared through Izán, ones he didn’t want to examine, not here, not now. It was far easier to turn to the stallion, whose head rested on Izán’s shoulder. Searching the animal’s eyes for recognition, he said, “Hola, mi hermano.’
The stallion released a soft snort.
Izán scratched behind the horse’s ears, feeling the familiar temptation to anthropomorphize. To believe his brother had remained on the ranch to keep an eye on Amaia in Izán’s absence. Shunning the open wilds for the ranch was an unusual choice for el perdido, those who had become stuck. Then again, perhaps his brother had only stayed because he had won a place in this herd.
It was impossible to know if el perdido could remember a time when they had worn human skin. Nor could Izán decide which answer he would prefer: to simply embrace life in a single form, or to remember the time when one could dance between hoof and feet.
Some things only the gods know.
“They’re lying about the date,” Amaia said, as Izán walked through the door. She strode over with two mugs of coffee, her long hair spilling out in tangled waves that curled around her bare breasts. She pushed a mug into his hands, “Drink up, we’re going to need to leave earlier than I thought if we want to beat the roundup.”
He adverted his eyes, focusing on the coffee. “Yeah, give me a minute to throw on some clothes, and then we can talk about that.”
He made to move towards the spare room, but she stepped in front of him. “Are you cold?”
He took a step to the left, but she moved with him. “Are you uncomfortable?”
He pulled his eyes upwards, looking her directly in the face. To his surprise, she stared right back. “Sí,” he said.
She blinked. He could practically see her brain working, as she turned the situation this way and that, examining all possibilities. She exhaled, long and low. “Do you want me to get dressed, too?”
He almost said, “If it’s no trouble,” but then remembered how easily that could lead to a discussion about “trouble” and what it really meant versus what people intend for it to mean. All of which would be done while naked, and he really wanted them both dressed as soon as possible. So he kept it simple, replying, “Sí.”
“No me importa,” she said, turning on her heel. “But okay.”
He shook his head in relief, before hustling over to the bedroom to grab his jeans and shirt. Not that he blamed her for being confused. He was feeling a good chunk of that, himself. Nudity, was, after all, a normal part of life amongst shifters. He’d not had a single problem with it amongst the herds in Arizona, where he’d been living for the past five years as a freelance cowboy. But back here, it was only the two of them left, same breed, although from different bloodlines. He needed the numbers to make it feel less intimate. Yeah, like it has nothing to do with the fact you miss being intimate with her.
He had no idea why the Kiger Mustang shifters were nearly extinct. Admittedly, numbers were down in all the wild horse breeds, even in Arizona. Many blamed pollution; too many contaminants got into the shifter’s body and eventually they became stuck in a single form. Others blamed mental health, theorizing that the further human beings lived removed from nature, the harder it was for shifters to reconcile their dual natures, so eventually they settled into a single form, most often the horse.
“I guess it’s because it is the simplest choice,” he’d once said.
“Why do you say that?” Amaia had asked.
He’d spread out his arms wide, “How wouldn’t it be? Humans have taxes, jobs, responsibilities, where horses just eat, sleep, run, and mate.”
“And get chased by helicopters, torn away from their herd, and have no say what happens to their land.”
“Okay then,” he’d said, “what would you choose?”
“It’s a theoretical question, you’re supposed to pretend you have to pick between being a horse or a human.”
She’d shaken her head. “No, because to eliminate half of who I am would mean I would no longer be me.”
He’d barked a laugh. “Guess you are a fan of the pollution theory, then.”
“No,” she said. The word had come out firmly, sharp. “Just because I know myself doesn’t mean everyone else is the same.”
She never asked what he’d pick, if he was ever forced to choose. Which he was grateful for, because he had to believe it wasn’t a choice. Otherwise it meant that everyone had separated themselves from him on purpose. Then again, was that what he’d done to Amaia five years ago? And I didn’t even have to become one of el perdido to do it.
It was nearly nightfall when Amaia and Izán tracked down the first herd. “Just fantastic,” Izán said, slamming the pickup door. “We could wake up late and have to hunt them down all over again.”
But Amaia wasn’t listening, as she shucked off her boots and began pulling down her jeans.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Going to sleep with the herd,” she’d said.
“Are you ‘effing kidding me!”
She turned her head and stared at him right in the eye for the second time that day. “I don’t understand why you are angry. This is the best way for me to keep tabs on them. I can start leading them to the ranch first thing in the morning.”
“Unless that damn stallion has other things on his mind. Listen to me, running with non-shifters is one thing, but it is dangerous for a woman to graze with them when she’s in full mare form. He isn’t going to remember he’s your brother.”
She snorted. “I can take care of myself.”
“Madre mía,” he grumbled, as he pulled his shirt over his head. “At least wait until I’ve hidden the truck.”
It took Izán over half an hour to get Amaia’s brother, the lead stallion, to back off and understand that Amaia was Izán’s and he was staying. By contrast, the lead mare didn’t seem bothered at all by Amaia. But the mare had never been a shifter, and Amaia’s mágico was smoother than Izán’s. His was dominance, power, and fight. While her’s allowed her to slip gently into a herd, only taking the lead once they began to run.
Fortunately, once the other stallion understood Izán wasn’t here to mate with the other mares, the horse relaxed. Mostly. The stallion’s alpha mare still put Izán on first watch, which, he supposed, was fine. Easier to keep an eye on Amaia, after all. Wasn’t like any of them would sleep for more than twenty-minute snatches, anyhow. But despite all his misgivings, it felt good to be with herd. Or more honestly, it felt good to be back with her.
Come dawn, Amaia was impatient. Despite her intentions, the herd had shifted twice in the night in the opposite direction of Corriendo Con Caballos where the ranch hands hid near the “accidentally” downed fence line. Which was legal. A rancher couldn’t be faulted if wild horses crossed their land. It was illegal, however, to have the ranch hands actually help drive the herd towards the ranch on four wheelers and in pickup trucks. It had to be done incognito, which meant Amaia had to take command. Soon.
She waited, allowing the herd to graze a bit longer, knowing they’d need the calories, until the lead mare geared up to move again. This time Amaia stomped her hoof and neighed, unleashing the full force of her mágico. Her authority wrapped around the herd like unbreakable silk, and she could feel Izán taking command from behind.
The run felt good, but harder than when she ran with the herd on the ranch. Every herd had its own personalities and quirks, and despite mostly being descendants of her family’s bloodline, she no longer knew them as well. Not that new blood wasn’t introduced by those who meddled, and only the gods knew how many now lived in captivity. Although her life would be much easier if the two main herds would live on her ranch.
Not that she’d ever try to keep them there after the danger of the roundup had passed. It wouldn’t be fair, would go against their entire nature. That’s why she hadn’t ever begged Izán to return. Horses should be free to roam wherever their hearts took them, even if that meant they left you behind.
“Tonto del culo,” Izán muttered, looking out at the final herd. “My bloodline was always too wild for their own good.”
“Watch your mouth,” Amaia said. “The spirit of your mother might be listening.”
He rubbed the back of his neck, glancing her way. “Since when did you get religious?”
“If there is mágico then it is logical to believe there may be some truth to other myths,” she said.
“Then you better start praying, because with them this far away from the ranch, it is going to take a miracle to get them hidden before the roundup begins.”
“We do what we can, as we always have.”
“Which is going to come up short this time. Be easier to rent a chopper and do it ourselves.”
Her eyes blazed in fury. “How dare you suggest such a thing? Do you know how many horses have been injured when––”
“Lo siento!” He threw up his hands. “Hey, figure of speech. Relax.”
Her eyes softened.
He blew out through his nose, the toe of his boot pawing the ground. “Come on, we might as well get it over with.”
She rested a hand on his shoulder. The unexpected gesture caused him to still, even his foot. “It is good to have you here.” Then she kissed him on the cheek.
He was pretty sure he should have said something in reply. But before he had a chance, she was pulling her shirt off, with the bra following, and he wasn’t so stupid as to think it was an invitation. Just Amaia, focused on the job at hand, nothing more or less. Even the kiss, he shouldn’t read too much into it. She’d often done the same with her brothers, seeming to prefer it to a hug. And if she thinks of me as nothing more than a brother, then whose fault is that?
“Ándale, ándale,” Amaia inwardly chanted
They were running out of time. This herd didn’t move as fast nor keep the pace for as long. The chopper would be coming soon. But she tried not to focus on the clock ticking down at the back of her mind. The only other choice would be to allow Izán to leave the weak behind. Abandoned. Alone. A fate she would not force on to anyone. The pain was too much.
“Better to save the strongest than none at all,” Izán had argued earlier that day.
“Imagine if my parents had said that about me,” she’d replied. “The baby that talked late, screamed at strangers—”
“Amaia, this is nothing like that. In the wild it is natural––”
“This is nothing like the wild. A chopper is an unnatural predator.”
He’d backed down. Now she might fail. It happened to them all, often enough. The herd splitting once the chopper bore down, instinct too strong for even the mágico to override. As it was, they’d already given up finding the smaller bands, composed of the cast outs, the misfits. It was more than sacrifice enough.
They were too late. There the flying monstrosity was, rising up like a demon, and it was heading right towards the herd.
Come on, follow me, ignore it.
But the horses shifted, instinct driving them to turn around. Izán charged, nipping flanks, trying to get them to follow Amaia’s lead.
But the chopper was closing in and the herd’s original lead mare and stallion were regaining control, as they fled in terror.
“No.” Determination flood through her. Rising up on her hind legs, Amaia released a battle cry, and, fighting her form’s instinct, she charged the chopper.
“AMAIA!” she could hear over the roar. Izán had clearly shifted forms, but she didn’t slow down or spare a glance back. There wasn’t time to do anything more than run.
The chopper tilted, its blades throwing up dust, trying to drive her back. She kept going, galloping straight for the machine. As the cloud of grit enveloped her, she could just make out the skids. Altering her angle, she came at the chopper from the side, the pilot oblivious, held position, low to the ground. She leaped, shifting midair, her hands reaching out and, grasping hold of the skids, she pulled herself up.
The pilot’s eyes widened at the sight of a naked woman pulling open the door. “What the––”
She had his sidearm pointed right at his head. “Land it, or crash it, I don’t care.”
After a beat, he decided to comply: any woman crazy enough to hijack a helicopter buck naked might not care if she lost her life along with his.
“Turn it off.”
“Now get out.”
Izán tackled the pilot the moment he stepped down.
“You’re going to pay––”
Amaia tossed back her head and cackled as Izán sneered in his ear, “Like anyone would believe you, hombré.”
Neither Izán or Amaia said much the following week. They were too tired, and, in his case, too nervous. Not that there had been anything in the news or on the scanners that the ranch hands kept in their bunks. But at some point, they were going to have to release the herds. The ranch was large, but wild blood didn’t like to be confined, no matter how large the cage.
Needing a distraction, Izán spent what energy he had trying to reintroduce non-processed food into Amaia’s diet. This morning he set to making pancakes, his mother’s recipe. He was cracking the eggs when Amaia wandered in.
“They’ve called it off.”
She set the phone down at his elbow, leaving it for him to pick up. As if she were afraid that their fingers might accidentally brush against each other. She’d been acting like that all week, watching him closely, while steering away from his touch. Something she’d done before, once upon a time, shortly before their first kiss.
But he kept himself loose, natural, as he plucked up the phone and scanned the article. It was an official government announcement that the roundup this year had been called off due to budget restraints. He snorted, as he put the phone down. “Guess we can release the herds, soon.”
“I’m going to give it a few more days, then let one go before the other.”
He nodded as he picked up the whisk.
She moved over to the coffee maker and poured herself a cup, wrinkling her nose. “I preferred the instant.”
He grinned. “Not telling you where I hid it. In fact, I’m thinking I’ll buy a grinder next. The fresher, the better.”
She shook her head. “Waste of money. The moment you leave, I’ll be back to doing it the easier way.”
He set down the whisk and turned around. For the first time that week, he caught her eye. “I’ve been thinking about that.”
She averted her gaze. “Don’t. I’ve kept you from your life long enough. The ranch hands and I can handle releasing the herds on our own. There is no need to stay.”
“What if I didn’t want to go?”
She took a slug of coffee, as her eyes lifted, settling somewhere over his right shoulder. “I don’t need you to take care of me. Those doctors were liars, I’m totally capable of living on my own.”
“Never thought you needed help to survive.” He took a small step closer, as if approaching a nervous filly, which in a manner of speaking, perhaps he was. “See, the thing is, I’ve missed you.”
She raised the mug higher, so it practically obscured her entire face. But she didn’t drink any. “I’ve missed you too.”
He nodded, taking another step. “We could take it slow, see how it goes.”
She lowered the mug a tad. “Maybe.”
“No pressure.” He took another small step. “I could even move into the bunk house if it would make you more comfortable.”
She lowered the mug, setting it on the counter. Then her eyes finally met his. “Mi casa es su casa.”
He slid his feet closer, so they were standing toe to toe.
She dropped her gaze as she leaned in.
He met her halfway.
They stood there, foreheads touching, hands finding one another’s, interlinked. Nothing more.
At least, not yet.