In the night the herd had moved away. His heart sank as he realized how far they had gone—almost to the edge of the last pillars. He packed his things and slowly moved in their direction.
With each pillar he passed he felt along the stone with one open hand. There had been no repetition in the pillars; each of them was completely different from the last. Where the builders had obtained their stone, he couldn’t imagine. Was it possible for one mountain range to carry so many different types? As he took in the great basin they stood beside, he wondered how long it had been since it was full of water. How long ago the people who had constructed the monuments had lived beside them. It must have been thousands of years, he thought. No trace of a village remained, all long since devoured by the earth’s elements.
As he walked, his tongue stuck like glue to the top of his mouth. He wished that the basin was full, or at least had a trickle of water running through it. But he knew that, though he would’ve stayed much longer, he would only have a day or two to remain here without more water. The weather had cooled compared to the dry heat of the desert, but the breeze only brought him a sliver of relief.
He tried to ignore the sensations in his mouth and throat as he neared the herd. When he was just close enough for them to hear him, the leader’s head jolted upright into the air, alert, but not yet alarmed. Kiron froze, staring. The herd was farther apart from each other now, feeling more comfortable to wander after a night without danger threatening. As the leader slowly lowered his head to graze, Kiron sank to the ground. He didn’t dare move any closer. They could move so much faster than he could, and for all he knew, any unexpected sound might send them flying away to the mountains beyond. And then where would he be?
He took out his notepad. He had intended to take notes and make drawings during his travels, but he had left it untouched before now. The adventure of seeing new things and walking through this new land had made the idea of stopping to record his thoughts ridiculous. He had felt content to simply remember these fantastical sights, to view them in his memory instead of on paper.
But now he had time. Much more time than he had expected at the outset. And, not being able to make it much closer to the herd without frightening them away, he took the opportunity to instead draw all he could see.
He had never been much of an artist, and he doubted that two days worth of time with a pencil would turn him into one. But he tried just the same. He drew the pillars, with the great basin beside, simply as a record of having been to this place. He drew a small figure sitting beside the enormous stones to show their scale.
When it came to drawing the pegasus, though, he was at a loss. He had spent time around horses before, of course. His family had two that they used to help around the farm with planting and harvesting. He had never taken a particular liking to them, at least not like Lissa had. She had a language all her own when it came to animals. Still, he had had a few quiet moments of wonder, staring up into their big, alert eyes, stroking their velvety soft noses.
The greatness he had seen yesterday, though, the old farm horses couldn’t touch. He tried, and failed, to draw the leader’s head, his eyes wide, nostrils flared. It was a crude drawing at best, so much so that when he moved on to attempt the body and the wings, it was practically laughable. It didn’t take him long to give up. He would much rather have the mental images in his mind than to waste his time among them trying to draw. Maybe when he got back home.
He packed up again and moved toward the herd. This time he pressed in, walking until he was twenty feet away before sinking down to the ground. He had all eyes on him then, but the leader, seemingly unconcerned about his renewed presence, merely crunched his grass and lowered his head for more. After several long, tense moments, the rest of the pegasus followed his lead, tucking their wings tightly to their bodies, raising their heads to look at him in between bites.
He lay back in the short grass, using his pack as a pillow. He would only rest for a time, he thought. With each ripping bite of the grass, with each grinding crunch of their teeth, with each low snort of their noses, he was lulled off to sleep.
It was his sweat that awakened him. The sun was baking him in his traveling clothes, and he was thirstier than ever when he sat up again. For a moment, he stared around him, terrified that he had missed the pegasus, that they had somehow fled while he had slept.
Then he heard the sound, a snort, coming from behind. He turned to find that the herd had come around, had passed him by and now grazed just feet from where he had been sleeping.
He watched as two thoughtful eyes regarded him, almost lazily, as the animal chewed. She was so close. He might be able to touch her if he just reached out his hand. He moved to his hands and knees and slowly approached, but he was too quick. The mare startled and backed up, unfolding her magnificent wings as she moved away. The others in the herd did not bolt, but stayed wary as Kiron slowly got to his feet.
He felt dizzy. The day was almost over. There was no chance of making it home without reprimand at this point. But he doubted how much longer he could go without water.
He took a few tiny, careful steps toward the herd. All heads came up. All chewing ceased. The mare he had startled moved farther away until she was at the far reaches of the herd.
He kept moving, suddenly unwilling to stop, the sweat still pouring down his neck as he moved, only slightly relieved from the breeze. He just wanted to touch one. To feel their glistening fur beneath his palm. Just so he could say that he had.
He moved among the animals, and though they stayed alert, none of them fled. The leader had been grazing in the center of the herd, and he approached Kiron now, seeming fearless. Whether it was true or just a show, Kiron couldn’t tell.
The leader pranced before him, just as he had the day before. He unfurled his wings, and seeing them so much closer than yesterday was breathtaking. It seemed that every tiny strand attached to every feather was made of diamond, and they shone in the light like sun shining off the sea.
He flapped the wings, and again the great whoosh of air blew Kiron’s hair out of his face.
Yet he still moved closer.
The pegasus snorted, then whinnied a loud, piercing cry. The others in the herd stretched their wings in unison, ready to take to the air at the first call from their leader.
But he didn’t fly.
Kiron took another step. Then another. He reached out one hand, careful to not make any sudden movements. So close now to the soft muzzle. Just another inch.
The animal reared, kept aloft by his enormous wings.
Kiron stepped backward, then fell, just catching himself with his arms. For the first time, fear flooded through him. He was vulnerable now. What had he been thinking? This was a beast; a beautiful one, yes, but a beast nonetheless.
The great stallion crashed his front hooves to the ground, inches from Kiron’s knees. He lay there, completely still but for the panicked heaving of his chest.
And then he reached out.
The leader again raised up onto his two hind legs, thrashing his wings in the late afternoon air. This time when he landed, it was by Kiron’s head.
His nostrils were tight, blowing great gusts of air into his face and hair. His whiskers touched Kiron’s cheek, and he laughed despite the danger he was in.
He reached out again.
But it was too late. This time when the stallion reared, the rest of his herd followed him. As he took to the air, Kiron sat up, then stood, then ran after the leader, still so desperate to have just one gentle touch.
The herd flew above him, swarming like a flock of birds. They played in the air now that they were free of the threat. The stallion circled around, and they all followed him. He turned and sped toward Kiron, lower and lower.
The leader would hit him. This would be Kiron’s price for getting too close. The animal would crash into him, he was sure. And yet he couldn’t bring himself to run away. All he could do was stare, open mouthed, as the end of his life came closer, closer. If there was another world beyond this one, he would remember it all, every move the animals made, every breath that moved in and out of him as he waited for the end. No picture created by his hand would ever suffice. Only his eyes, wide and clear, would tell the story.
He stood, and only when the pegasus was too close did he waver, falling backward to the ground in the instant before the great animal’s hooves would have thrust him there. Above him, enormous body after body swept past, giant wings beating down in the evening air.
He turned over as the last pegasus passed and watched the herd as it made its way past the last pillar and out of the valley.
He never did touch one, never did get that flesh memory to bring home with him. He didn’t know how their hot skin would feel beneath his palm. Didn’t know how large their deep eyes were up close. Would never remember the feeling of their wings. Were they soft and supple? Hard and absolute? He had known them in none of these ways. Only in one glorious moment did he ever get close, really close, to the majestic beasts of Gedalta.
He had known them in flight.
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