THE gate was set back from the road, a short loanan leading to the old iron work gate that had been there when Susan’s father had still been alive. Curls of black paint clung to it here and there, but for the most part it glistened red with rust. The bar long since lost, the gate was secured to a fence post by a length of blue baler twine. The knot was a solid, sodden mass. No bows or trailing ends that could be exploited into wheedling a way through.
Susan spared Mal a glare, who had tied the gate up yesterday. Water dripped from his blood red Puffa jacket, the material sodden and dripping.
Hollow eyes looked out at her from the shadows of the hood.
“I’m soaking, can I go back to the house?”
“No.” Her fingers numb, Susan picked at the knot, more from habit than any real expectation of success. It held fast. “I need your help with feeding the cattle; I can’t do it all on my own. Besides, I told you not to wear that coat.”
“Yeah well, I don’t care.”
“Aye, sure you don’t. Feck it,” Susan clicked open the small penknife she carried and cut through the twine. It broke with a snap.
“You shouldn’t have cut it, how will we tie it up?” Mal said.
“If somebody,” Susan pointed the pen knife at Mal before folding the blade, “had tied it like they’re supposed to, I wouldn’t have had to cut it.”
She wrenched the gate open and hauled it over the muddy ground, a broken spar jangling and ringing with the movement. She opened it just wide enough to get the barrow through. Mal followed a few grumbling feet behind her, the meal bucket handle gripped in two hands. She swung the gate closed behind them.
“Besides, we have plenty more twine,” she said, feeling like she had to justify herself to the eleven-year-old but not quite knowing why. She cut one of the strands of blue twine from the bale and pulled it clear, tying a neat bow to secure the gate.
The boy sniffed.
“Fine,” Susan said, settling on ignoring him. She manoeuvred the barrow through the mud, the ground thick with hoofprints and cowpats.
Of the cows themselves there was no sign.
Susan lifted the torch and shone it across the face of the hill, looking for the yellow flash of cow’s eyes as the light caught them.
“Damnit.” Visions of the cattle having escaped the field through a gap in the hedge and having to spend hours in the dark and the rain searching for them flashed through her head.
She kept looking, rising the torch until it slipped against the brow of the hill, half the beam falling on yellow grass, the other disappearing into the dark, catching nothing but fleeting reflections from the rain.
“What Mal, what’s wrong now?”
“There’s a horse over there,” he said.
“No, there fecking isn’t,” Susan turned the torch towards Mal. The boy pointed at the hedge that marked the boundary between the field and the road.
White eyes flashed in the light. Susan took a step back but then caught herself. Mal was right. A large, pale horse stood shivering in the rain. It was maybe six feet at the shoulder, an old garland of long faded elder flowers and bluebells plaited in amongst the tangle of its silver-grey mane.
The gate had been tied tight. Susan was too familiar with her son’s attempt at knots to think someone else had done it. So, no one had dumped it here. Maybe it had got in through a gap somewhere. The hawthorn hedge had always been there, as much a part of the McCall’s land as the fairy tree two fields away, but sometimes bits of it died and left behind wounds that leaked sheep and cattle across the valley.
“Must have got in through the hedge,” Susan said.
Mal lifted a handful of meal, holding his fingers flat as he approached the horse.
It edged forward towards his out-stretched hand, an odd whiff of spoiled meat caught in the wind as it moved.
“Don’t go near it, you’ve no idea where it came from or what it could be carrying,” Thoughts of brucellosis hitting the herd where enough to make her tone sharp.
The boy sighed, still a few yards from the horse. He tossed the meal onto the ground near it and stomped back to her through the mud.
“Are those your school shoes?” Susan said, the horse forgotten. Mud covered the leather and up over his jeans.
Mal looked down and nodded, slowly.
Susan gnawed on the inside of her cheek.
“Get up that hill now, you’ll be cleaning them when we get in and if they’re ruined you’ll be paying for a new pair.”
“I couldn’t find my wellies.”
“The ones I told you were in the utility room?”
Susan glared at him until he started walking up the hill. She looked back at the horse, a faint, luminous spectre that kept to the edge of the torchlight.
“The last thing we bloody needed,” she said and started up the hill.
At the top, Susan stopped again. Breathing hard from pushing the barrow, she hefted the torch and shone it across the field. Occasionally she called out for the cows with cries of “C’mon, che!” An ancient call handed down through generations of McCalls. Most of the time it worked, helped by the lure of fresh hay. Today, it didn’t. The ground in front of Sarah remained resolutely bovine free.
There. A flash of reflected eyes in the corner, about as far from the gate as it was possible. Sarah flicked the switch on the lamp from I to II. The beam of light went from a wide arc to an intense laser that cut across the distance and settled on the haunches of the herd. They were standing in a tight clutch, pressed against the hedge. Some of them faced outwards, staring into the field.
Others pushed against the spikes and branches of the hawthorns, trying to force a way through.
“Ah come on,” Mal dropped the bucket in the mud.
“At least they’re not through the hedge,” Susan said and trudged on, following the slope down towards the damp end of the field, reeds growing alongside thick darts of grass that even the cattle avoided eating until they had no other choice.
The herd stopped their attempt to escape when they saw her, hunger driving them towards her. They spread around in a wide circle, the calves pushed to the centre.
Susan drew her penknife and cut the last strand of twine, the bale collapsing into neat sections. She lifted one and tossed half one way and half the other.
“Should I drag over the trough?” Mal asked.
Susan looked down at his sodden shoes and sopping coat.
“No, I don’t want you to catch pneumonia. Just walk it around in a circle, they can eat the meal off the ground.”
The cows started to shift. Those closest to the hill turned, putting their haunches to Susan and facing the hillside. The horse was there. Watching. The cattle ignored the meal and the hay.
“Why are they acting weird?”
Susan looked at the horse, its shoulders shivering in the cold and remembered the hot smell of rotten meat that had seemed to rise from it. She shone the torch on it, the beam still on full and washing out detail in its all-consuming brightness. It was just a horse.
A cow charged towards it. The horse didn’t move, the heifer stopping yards from it and retreating back into the safety of the herd.
“Maybe it’s hungry,” Mal said, “I gave it some meal so it probably wants more.”
Susan sighed, embarrassed by her own worrying. It was a horse. Dumped in the field, in the dark and the rain. The cows didn’t like it as it wasn’t part of the herd. It was just a horse.
Despite her logic, she wasn’t reassured.
“That’s probably it,” she lied, and tossed a section of hay towards the animal. The hay hit its flank and burst into yellow strands. Some clung to the mane, joining the half rotten flowers, the rest tumbling into the mud.
The horse glanced down at the hay, bared its teeth and turned its empty gaze back to Susan and Mal.
There was something there. Something wrong. Susan flicked the torch back, dropping the beam down to the softer setting. She moved the light past its head, until just a fragment remained on it. It wasn’t a true white. It’s hide was yellow in places, discoloured patches that looked like water damage on an old ceiling tile. Muscles twisted below the surface as if something waited beneath.
In the light, its eyes stared at her, the pupils to wide, dilated until they glinted back at her like a starless winter’s night.
Maybe it was normal. Susan hadn’t spent much time around horses, they were too big and expensive and lacked the dull predictability of cows. It was dark and she was tired. It was probably just the way the light fell on the animal.
“I’m soaked,” Mal said, squeezing water from the arm of his coat, “Can we go home now?”
“Aye,” she said, glad of the excuse to get out of the field and away from the horse. They could deal with it later, in the light. “Let’s go.”
She hastily tossed the rest of the bale around the circle and walked to the wall of cows. Susan shoved the haunch of the grey and white matriarch of the herd who mooed in protest, pushing back against Susan. She shoved harder. Domesticated for too long and too used to doing what Susan told her, the cow edged reluctantly out of the way.
“Get the barrow Mal,” said Susan, putting her back against the haunch of the cow, keeping the gap open.
Mal dashed forward, the barrow hoping from one furrow to another, mud splashing to either side. Susan led him away from the horse to cut across the bottom of the hill.
Trick of the light or not, Susan had been around animals long enough to know there was something not right with the horse, like the red heifer they had years ago, that would kick you any chance it got.
She’d probably have to get the herd tested for TB or Brucellosis. Or God forbid MCD. Dead calves and insane cows, that’d be all they need.
Through the rain, Susan could hear the slow clop of hooves in mud.
She turned. The horse was behind them, trailing twenty yards back. It’d be almost like having a dog following you about if it wasn’t a head taller than her and creepy as fuck.
“Stupid horse,” Mal said.
“Must be looking for company,” Susan said, trying her best to sound confident. “Ignore it,” she nudged him out of the way and grasped the handles of the barrow. “Right, up the hill.”
A faint path ran along the hedge, generations of McCall’s having walked this route checking for gaps, lost calves or just trying to stay out of the rain.
The horse kept pace with them, trailing behind, never more than ten yards away.
The barrow wheel stopped dead against something. A thick clump of grass or an exposed chunk of rock, its soil covering washed away by the rain. Susan pushed harder. The wheel resisted for a moment and then ran up over the top, bumping and shuddering as it went.
Her foot clipped a hoof.
She dropped the handles and snatched up the torch, pointing the beam at the brown and white lump the barrow sat on.
“Don’t look Mal,” she passed the torch over the body. It was one of the yearling calves, its tongue lolling from its month, eyes wide and dull. Chunks had been ripped from its side, wet red bites that were filled with rainwater and blood, the mud around it sodden.
“What happened to it?”
“Sometimes they just die,” she said, stooping down to get a closer look, “They have something wrong with them that we haven’t spotted or isn’t obvious and they drop. Then the foxes and crows get at them.”
But that didn’t seem right. She ran her hand along its neck, pausing when she got to a wound. It was shallow, a square bite that grew deep in the middle. The bones around it were shattered, jagged ends protruding from its hide.
There were no delicate fox prints or trident steps of a grey crow (besides, its eyes were still there).
But there were tracks, clear as anything. They were large, bigger than a cow’s hoof print, a broken circle with an undashed A at its centre. They surrounded the body and were stained with the calf’s blood.
The gentle squelch of hooves in mud came from behind her.
The horse moved closer, its muzzle to the ground as it snuffled at the bloody puddles. A long pale tongue trailed from its mouth as it licked up the blood that had pooled from the corpse. It shifted its leg and Susan saw it was unshod.
“Mal, start walking.” Susan kept the torch on the horse, its pale eyes flickering from her to the boy. She reached out and took Mal’s hand.
She spoke, voice low and calm.
“We’re going to walk, slowly, up the hill and towards the gate, ok sweetie? Don’t run, don’t shout, just move nice and calmly, you first.”
Mal nodded, his grip tightening on hers for a moment before he let go, his fingers trailing reluctantly from hers.
“Good boy, let’s go.” Susan took a deep breath and stepped around the barrow and the body, leading Mal towards the hilltop.
The rain continued to beat down, the torch picking out the heavy drops as they fell and plinked into the cratered field.
She counted three more dead calves littering the hill side.
There was a wet crunch. Susan turned.
The horse stood over the body, its muzzle wet with blood, chewing on a piece of meat torn from the calf.
Mal screamed. The horse’s head snapped up. Its mouth hung open, the meat falling clear, stained yellow teeth dripping red.
Susan walked faster, shoving Mal ahead of her. The slow thump of the horse’s hooves was louder than the rain.
“Run,” she said.
He looked back, eyes wide, feet stumbling forward.
Mal spared her one more glance and scrambled on, his feet slipping in the mud. Susan ran at his heels, the torch moving madly in her grip, roiling side to side with her gait.
She risked a look behind her. The horse watched them, steam furling from its nostrils. It thumped the ground with a hoof, empty eyes fixed on her. It charged.
“Shit!” Susan gave up all pretence of being brave and ran as fast as she could. She slipped across the brow of the hill, Mal already halfway down, the old farm gate twenty yards away. He’d be over it in a minute.
The thunder of hooves came from behind her.
Once, Susan had read somewhere that humans are faster on foot over long distances than horses. Humans evolved for distance running and if you were quick enough and strong enough, you could beat them in a race.
But she was sure that wasn’t in a field, in the dark, and the rain, whilst wearing a pair of leaky wellies that slipped and slid under your feet.
She ran and waited for the snap of long, narrow teeth into her shoulder.
It hit her. Susan spun and tumbled into the mud, pain filled roots spiralling through her shoulder and into her ribcage. Her breath was lost, her chest aching.
The horse ran on. After the boy.
Mal moaned as he ran, one long wail of fear that ripped at Susan.
Susan clawed at the mud, breaths short and useless. Tufts of grass caught in her nails and she stumbled to her knees, the flickering torch-light catching the horse’s charge at Mal.
He threw himself at the gate. His feet slipped on the thin rungs, heaving himself over it and onto the ground beyond. The horse planted its feet and slid into the gate with a mighty crash.
It shrieked, dancing back as if it had been burned.
Bucking, it dashed along the hedge, snapping its teeth and tossing its mane.
Mal waved at Susan from the ground.
The horse was gone, its hollow screeches growing distant. Susan grabbed the torch and hobbled towards Mal, one arm clasped across her chest, the pain a tight band across her chest and shoulder.
“Come on Mam.” Mal stood at the gate, fingers clasping the bars, desperately urging her on, his gaze moving from her to the direction the horse had gone in.
She passed him the torch through the rails, her fingers grazing his for a moment. She smiled, trying to reassure him.
Mal’s eyes were wide and his teeth chattered. A puff of wool fountained through the sodden red nylon of his jacket.
“It’s ok,” Susan said. “We’re nearly home.”
A new sound joined the rush of falling rain. The clop of bone on tarmac.
Susan lifted her gaze from Mal to the road. The horse was there, rain falling around it, a searing burn across its pale hide, blisters bubbling on its flesh.
It surged forward and hammered Mal against the gate. The breath burst from him, spittle joining the rain. His eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed, his leg kicking in the mud.
The horse gazed at Susan for a moment then gently clasped Mal’s jacket in its teeth, dragging him backwards into the road.
It nuzzled at him, teeth ripping at his jacket and tearing away clumps of wool.
Susan roared at the sight. She scrambled over the gate and hammered the case of the torch into the horse’s head.
The thin metal cracked, the shock of the blow running up Susan’s arms. The horse stumbled back for a moment. It grunted and kicked out, its hoof driving into Susan and knocking her to the ground.
It went back to the boy.
Mal woke up and began to scream, pinned to the ground by one of the horse’s great hooves. It bit and gnawed at him, tufts of white down caught in its teeth.
Winded, pain spread across her body and her leg screaming in pain as she put weight on it, Susan had nothing left. But still she tried. Stumbling forward she pulled the knife from her pocket and stabbed the horse in the neck. The blade barely broke the skin, the short steel blade caught in its tough hide. The horse ignored her.
She looked for something, anything that could help.
Her eyes fell on the broken spar on the gate. Susan grasped it and pulled. Sharp edges tore her skin as she jerked it back and forth. It broke free, a two-foot length of rusted iron.
Susan ran at the horse and speared the bar into its shoulder. The metal sheared through the skin, through flesh and meat and bone, sliding easily into it and through its breast, as if it was some old, rotten thing that had haunted the hills for millennia, long after its kind had gone elsewhere.
It screamed, the flesh around the wound rising in boils that exploded with pus and blood in seconds. The horse reared, bucking and twisting.
Susan dashed forward and grabbed Mal’s arms and dragged him into the shelter of the gate.
The horse was a thing gone mad with pain, the stout solidness of its form rippling and shifting revealing a creature of diseased skin, sharp edges and wicked intelligence.
It spared Susan one, final hate filled glance and dashed off into the dark, its screams dull as it fled towards the hills.
Susan held Mal close, the boy weeping. She checked his chest. His stupid jacket was mortally wounded but he himself hadn’t been touched.
“Thank Christ,” she let out a long slow breath and pulled Mal to his feet.
“Let’s get out of the rain,” she said, “then I’m going to get you a new one of those coats.”