“Changes” by Meagan Miller

   Moonlight gleamed upon the snow engulfed forest. The trees seemed to throb with tension as though fearfully awaiting a fiery explosion that would incinerate them in its path. Dark rumors circulated among this part of the woods, rumors of a shadowy figure, half animal, half monster, with eyes that shone eerily through the darkness.

   “Mama! Mama! I saw something!”

   A dappled mare’s ears perked up as the shrill sound of her foal’s voice wafted towards her. She trotted over to where he was standing at the edge of the meadow. A breeze carried a strange scent her direction, and nostrils flaring, she placed her body between her foal’s exposed side and the forest, nudging him back to the safety of the herd. The mare remembered hearing the older horses tell stories about one of their own who had loved unwisely, and had ended up paying a horrific price.

   “You wandered too far,” his mother told him disapprovingly. “We need to leave this place. Otherwise, she will get you.”

   “She?” the foal’s voice rose in pitch as he repeated his question. “She? Who’s She? Mama? MAMA!”

   She had always been a loner. After her mother had disappeared alongside the lead stallion, the Alpha mare who took charge bullied the orphan tirelessly. To escape, she would wander off by herself and spend hours in isolation. She grew up an outcast and when surrounded by the herd, she seemed to disappear into the background. With her austere, apathetic demeanor, the others found it difficult to relate to her. So they let her alone. Her eyes, an unusual pale icy blue seemed to reach into their being, revealing their secrets to her. The others began to fear her. No one tried to include her in conversations and when she came near, the others started whispering and would turn their backs. Even the foals, with their exuberance and willingness to befriend everyone, stayed away. Her existence was defined by the rising and setting of the sun.

   One evening, when the whispers grew too loud, she wandered beyond the herd’s normal territory. The silence seemed to call her, and longing to feel some solace, she answered. The call took her far from the safety of the herd and led to the silent, expansive wilderness beyond. For many nights thereafter she would leave the herd to explore. The moon added an aura of mystery to the landscape, turning leaves silver, and transforming steam rising from small ponds into swirling, undulating forms. One particularly cold evening, she heard faint snuffling sounds coming from inside a cave. Venturing into its farthest recesses, she stumbled across the body of a gray wolf. Burrowed against the body in a vain attempt to find warmth, a pair of pups lay shivering. Their snarls, rather than scaring her, instead seemed to melt a piece of her frigid interior. Realizing that without food they’d die, she left the cave, coming back minutes later with the remains of an unfortunate beaver who had succumbed to the slumbering death of winter. Every evening she would leave the herd and for many months repeated this procedure.

   This nightly recurrence soon captured the attention of the Alpha mare, and calling her most trusted adviser to her side, she had the outcast followed. Watching from the shadows, the adviser stared in horror as out of a cave came two pups who welcomed her with undisguised delight. She gamboled and cavorted with the pups without her normal reserve. The adviser’s horror quickly ballooned, turning to repulsion when she left them, returning later dragging behind her a carcass. It bore a striking resemblance to a member of the neighboring herd who had gone missing days before. As the pups tore into their meal, the adviser, trying not to faint with revulsion, chaotic visions of blood on her muzzle swirling through their mind, rushed back to the leader relaying all that had been witnessed.

   When she returned home, the Alpha called a meeting. All members of the herd circled round and the unsuspecting mare was called into the center. With a contemptuous curl of her lip, the Alpha started speaking of a creature that fraternized with the enemy, one who willingly chose to sympathize with cold blooded killers. Elaborating on the fevered visions of the adviser, adding bloodshed that had never occurred, the Alpha banished the mare from the herd. As the circle closed its collective shoulder, this time forever, the tension she felt melted away leaving relief in its wake.

   Returning to the cave, she almost didn’t notice the giant paw prints in the snow surrounding the entrance. She almost didn’t hear the tormented squeals of her pups. Almost. When she did, all the instincts she never felt toward the foals in the herd she had lived with came to the fore. Charging into the dark inkiness of the cave, eyes scorching with anger, she attacked the huge wolves that were lifting their bloodstained muzzles to stare at her. Before their having time to react, her ruthless hooves crashed into one wolf’s head, killing him instantly. Turning toward the other, she looked at him with loathing. The shallow breaths of the remaining pup’s death rattle enraged her further and with the sound ringing in her ears, she stalked toward the remaining wolf. His enormous body seemed unnatural, as though some unearthly being had twisted it to suit their own depraved needs. He stood almost as tall as she and instead of walking on all fours, stood on his hind legs. His claws came to wicked points and his teeth were sharpened blades, but she paid them no heed. As she advanced ever closer, he snarled, spittle flying. Blood dripped from his muzzle and, as though to provoke her, he licked at it and sneered.

   Boiling with grief and rage, her blood coursed violently through her. As the ground stained dark with blood over the spot he was standing, she could only stare. When the realization struck that the only creatures she had ever loved would never greet her again, and that the monster standing before her exulted in their deaths, the emotions she felt overwhelmed her. She charged him, death in her heart.

   The close confines of the cave, the bodies ripped asunder and lying under hoof and paw, made fighting difficult. Forcing the wolf into a clearing just beyond the mouth of the cave, her rage amplified and she found a new level of resolve. As the battle waged long and hard, the two combatants were starting to show wear. Pieces of her hide were hanging in fragments from her side. The wolf was missing an ear; a bloody stump where it should have been, his front paws dangling limply. Not wanting to admit defeat, but quickly being drained of energy, his remaining ear perked forward as though a voice had whispered to him. Seeing her falter, he bared his teeth, growled, and made to bite at her vulnerable throat. At the last minute he feinted to the right and sank his teeth into her shoulder. Unable to strike with her hooves, she dropped to her side and rolled. Regaining her feet, she reared to stomp the wolf’s head into the hard ground, only to discover he had mysteriously vanished. Stumbling into the cave to be near the bodies of those who first filled her heart with love, a burning sensation started where his fangs had sunk deep. Fire raced through her veins and uncontrollable tremors wracked her body. As the pain swelled, as blood loss and the will to live suddenly left her, the world went black.

   The question voiced by the foal seemed to hang on the tree branches. As the moonlight shone down on the forest floor, a shadow fell upon the snow. Mist swirled around the figure who had stepped out of the trees, as though to hide her from prying eyes. Her eyes, now seeming even more icy and otherworldly, followed the retreating figures. Her raspy, whispered reply caught a gentle breeze and disappeared into the trees as quickly as she did.

   “My name…is Timber.”

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