The lake was round and silent, like a great Cyclops eye, the moon's reflection its attentive pupil. Fronds and blades of foliage hung over the banks like multitudes of emerald eyelashes.
Though it was cold, and frost tipped almost every place, the water had been spared of ice. This was a blessing for the creatures that dwelt in its depths, or the ones that thirsted for it.
This winter was a harsh one. Those animals which hibernated into a dry den where they could wake, refreshed in the spring were lucky. The deer that gathered in the woodlands bunched together in masses to conserve what little warmth they owned. The birds that had not migrated to warmer lands ceased to sing, as if the bitter, clawed wind would snatch their voices away in an instant.
Even the moon seemed to shiver, cowering behind clouds that drifted numbly across the black, star-scattered sky. But at least the moon could still share some of its light with the earth, and it was the ghostly rays it sent downwards that illuminated plumes of icy breath being expelled by an animal that trotted languidly towards the lake.
The animal snorted in distaste, shaking its head to scatter the dampness collecting in its haywire mane. It reached the lake edge, plants lashing at its gangly legs. It lowered its head to drink the water, and the iciness of the liquid hammered down its throat. It recoiled sharply, unused to the cruel temperature. Panting heavily, it stared at the rolling surface of the lake: a bewildered horse face met its gaze. The horse stood there, seeing what it had become. Its eyes were sunken and had lost their stubborn glimmer. The mane that had once swum with elegance in the balmy breeze, like wisps of silk, had turned coarse and stiff. Its ears, once high and pricked, ready to register and evaluate the slightest sound, had sagged low; as if the horse had heard everything it needed to hear and no longer had need of them. Deep welts down its withered face showed the injury of a bridle too tightly strapped.
It was this lonely face that revealed in an instant that the spirit within, once bursting with life, had been beaten down, bruised almost till it shattered. This fiery creature, a bold testimony to the wonders of aliveness, had turned cold with the roughness and cruelty of another race of animals. It was a bitter thing to see, this ruptured spirit.
The horse had finished its powerful, slamming drink. Slowly it paced away a short distance from the bank and collapsed onto the wet, muddy ground. It whinnied softly in self pity, knowing that there was no one to hear it anyway. Despondently it arranged itself as comfortably as possible, resting on its legs. It issued a final, quiet rumble before lowering its head and drifting into a light, peaceful slumber, serenaded by a distant owl's calling, and watched over by a million glowing stars. Once still, the darkness swallowed it up and the figure joined an army of motionless things, alive and lifeless, that froze in the cold wind and might never stir again.
The horse, lulled by numbness, travelled into sleep briskly. Its dreams were far kinder than what reality gave. A world away from the raking wind and the cold, cold atmosphere, the horse was free to gallop with muscled legs that sluiced through long, silken grass and soft air. A thousand times the ground was pounded with hooves that knew how to carry, and in turn the sun pounded down upon the horse's back. The animal, enlivened with the freedom it had lost before, tossed its head proudly, its mane flying. The glint of an unbroken spirit returned to the fiery eyes that burned with passion. New wind swept past its graceful body, but this wind was cool and welcoming. Above all the things that the animal experienced, it was the warmth that was the greatest entity of all: a relentless sun that clouds dared not obscure shared every inch of its rays, and the wind could be like soft, harmless flames as well as brushes of coolness. Yes, this atmosphere was far kinder than the one left behind.
It then ceased its galloping, its body riddled with streams of sweat. Before the horse lay a land untouched by any but its own kind, and indeed there was kin that grazed sedately on the plains, carefree but never taking for granted the wonderful freedom bestowed upon them.
The horse neighed with joy, for it had lost the memory of its old home long ago. Everything, the sights, the smells, the feel of this world was beautiful, and memories, rusty but untainted, rushed back. Swamped with an everlasting glow of happiness, the animal moved to join its family once more on the plains. But suddenly the sight began to melt away, sucked into blackness. And in the next moment, the horse was transported to a later time, the memories of which that could never be erased from the horses mind. Capture, stolen from homeland that was all it had ever known. Days and days of trekking behind creatures that rode on its kind, but had been strangely broken so that they bore the thieves willingly. The horse tried to escape, tried to break free of the leather thongs strapped round its head. The struggling came to no avail, and the animal was all but exhausted by the time the salty tang of the sea reached its nostrils and the ocean, a torrent of white, frothing waves clashing against each other in a ceaseless battle, fought before it. And, as terrified as the horse was by this alien world, it was led by force onto a huge, creaking galleon of wood. For many months the animal lived in a dim, musty stall inside the bowels of this strange edifice that at times rocked violently and produced agonising groaning sounds. It was cold here, and the salty wind always managed to worm through chinks and open trapdoors. Other horses lived, restrained, in the stalls as well, whinnying in fright and panic, issuing sharp braying sounds whenever their calmness left them completely. Sometimes one of them would fall ill, lying in their cramped space and unable to do more, until one of the strange creatures that had brought them here noticed and took the animal away. Those that fell sick were never seen again, and there was a foreboding chill behind that knowledge that made the other horses hope that they could avoid illness.
The horse that missed its home so much, and was so unused to this new place, managed to stave off panic and illness. Its resilience was rewarded after months of living solely in a dim hovel, when the continuous rocking stopped, and finally the horse was led from the galleon and breathed fresh, land air once more. But its journey was not over yet. It was taken, with the others who had survived the sea voyage, away from the place where the galleon was docked and through huge towns of the strange creatures, along both cobble and dirt roads. It was perhaps a month later that they appeared to be stopping at last, at a small settlement. The horse and its companions, exhausted to an even greater extent after the trek, were allowed one blissful night in a stable of dry hay and thick, stone walls that didn't shudder and shake. It was the first decent night the horse had had since all those months before when it'd been captured.
The next morning, when mist clung to the sodden ground and the sun was too weak to provide any warmth, the horse was led to wide expanse of bare ground, the perimeter fenced. It was here that the animal smelt the stench of defeat; spirits that had been wasted and beaten. It saw the whips held in the creatures hands, long canes that it already sensed were for the purpose of forceful discipline. It was here that the horse released the panic and outrage that had built up inside it for all these months, and broke free from the firm grip of a captor. With pumping muscles that fed off final reserves of strength, it jumped the fence and galloped as fast as was allowed after the toils of the treks. Behind it were the shouts of the creatures, enraged by its sudden escape. It was these sounds that fuelled the horse's longing for a freedom it had long forgotten. It galloped for miles across muddy countryside, but as fatigue came as a poison in its limbs, it slowed to a subdued canter. It looked uneasily around the land; it was not used to the clumpy grass, the constant damp smell around the air, and the bare trees that the frail sunlight threaded through. And the cold was as bad as it had been on the sea voyage. Shivers swept along the horse's body, and it had ceased to sweat. Its nostrils continued to expel white steam. Its only consolation was that it had managed to pull off the choking bridle previously strapped round its head. A loose thong had made that possible.
The animal slowly made its way across the countryside, each step carrying it further from the place where its spirit had come so close to breaking. It had two thoughts in its mind, and though one was right, the animal forced itself to trust the other: one was that it would find its way home if it kept walking in one direction, but the other, the right one, recalled the sea voyage and knew that returning home was impossible. Nevertheless, the horse persisted, ignoring the aching of its limbs and the froth round its mouth. The sun began to fall behind the rolling hills that the horse had come upon, and nightfall descended. Darkness crept across the atmosphere and soon the horse used moonlight as a guide.
And so it was, beside the Cyclops lake, that the memories became a dream again, and the horse, motionless in its slumber, continued to dream of distant lands that were mere images in its mind; it could no longer remember the feel of that world.
The frost slunk higher with icy fingers, and dampness began to settle on the horse's back. Nothing, not even the animal itself, could sense the failing, slowing heartbeat. The wind clawed and scratched and raked at it, dragging the cold through its fur. The iciness of the atmosphere weighed down on it, spreading like a chilly blanket that offered no shelter. The final remnants of warmth within the horse's body flickered as a dying flame would, and gradually the heat was sucked away. It was here, in the damp grass, beside an icy lake, that the horse's body gently convulsed once, and the heartbeat that had been beating ever since the animal came into the world halted for a final time. Peacefully, the horse slipped into an eternal oblivion far from coldness. And it remained still and rigid till the morning, when a farmer's boy, rubbing his hands together to generate heat, approached the lake and found the body with a shock. He paced cautiously up to it, wary of sudden movement, but the motionlessness stayed. As he knelt on the wet grass to peer at the frozen horse's face, he felt his own tears forming. The expression the animal wore was a one of calmness and a distant joy. The fiery soul had left its glassy eyes, but it was clear where it had gone. The horse was in a far away land, where once more it raced the wind and tossed its head, eyes seeking the bright orb of the sun that gazed down proudly on it. It galloped across the hills with undying energy, and alongside it were others of its kind. The herd pounded across the plains, their manes flaming with sunlight, and the horse that had endured so much pain, so much exhaustion, and so much coldness led them. It led them on a never ending journey across plains of silken grass, soft wind that stroked their glossy fur and a sun as their God that spread the warmth of the world around them. The horse was free, like a bursting flame of light and heat that would never, ever die.