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Episode 006
Unconditional Bond


Unconditional Bond


By Wendy Snow


3843 BC

“My horse speaks her emotions with every move she makes. I read her, she reads me, and in our emotional contact, our everlasting bond begins.”

Lessons from my grandparents had passed through my parents, and now I got to teach them to my son. The air was still cool, and the smell of grass and fresh flowers was enticing. Today was a perfect morning for horse riding.

“How do I know I’ve made emotional eye contact with my horse?” my son asked.

“You won’t know it, Bran; you will feel it.”

I walked through the village with my son, passing the ladies with silver hair as they knitted next to a fire as they shared stories from their childhood. Even though there was a slight chill in the morning air, they wore sleeveless tops. We smiled at them, but they were so invested in each other’s stories that they barely looked at us.

After passing through the village, we saw the stables, and Bran ran ahead. I could have chased after him, but I stood back, enjoying the sight of my son interacting with the world. He was growing up so fast that I felt the need to cherish every moment.

The stables were relatively new to Kurhass; I remembered when they were first built. The builders had made sure it was fit for the horses as well as the sheep and aurochs. The only way to build a stable that large was to make the entire roof lean to one side. The stable’s back wall leaned forward and acted as both wall and roof, while three large posts supported the entire structure.

As I walked up to the stables, the sound of the animals grew louder, along with the soft ring of women’s voices.

“Bran, what are you doing here?”

When I walked up to the edge of the stable, I looked over the fence and saw my son petting the horses and my wife, daughter, and sister-in-law milking the aurochs with a few other villagers. We had over a dozen horses that slept in the stables, but most of them had been taken by the hunters searching for elk.

“Arthur.” My wife looked up at me and smiled. “Are you taking Bran out to ride?”

“I am, and he is going to be one of the best riders in Kurhass by the end of the day.”

Bran ran to his favorite horse and untied her from the post.­­­­­­ The floor was covered in dried grass from the fields, which the horses ate all day.

“Why don’t you go with your father today, Willow?”

I looked over at my daughter, who sat next to her friend, milking the sheep. She didn’t even stop to look up at me. The conversation about learning to ride a horse with her brother had come up before, but she never seemed interested.


Willow looked up at my wife, Selfie, and she did not look pleased. The young girls milking the sheep next to my daughter giggled and whispered to Willow.

“Only boys ride horses,” said my daughter as she looked me straight in the eyes.

“That’s not true. Some of the first—and best—riders from Kurhass were young girls like yourself.”

“Those are just campfire stories.”

Bran stood at the back of the stables, holding the reins of two horses. “Should I untie another horse?”

“No, I’m not going,” Willow said.

“That’s enough,” said Selfie. “You’re going with your father.”

I was happy Willow was coming, but it made me sad that it was against her will. I knew my daughter could be one of the best riders in Kurhass if she only applied herself. Bran dropped the reins of the first two horses and went back to untie a third. Even though he was still a young man without the slightest trace of facial hair, he stood taller than our horses.

The women in the stables grew quiet, their gazes on the udders they were milking.

“Come on, Willow,” said Bran as he walked up to her, holding the reins of the horse. “This one’s for you.”

Willow stood up from her seat and took the reins from Bran. She wouldn’t look me in the eye.

“Be safe out there,” said Selfie. “Take care of our children, Arthur.”

“Don’t worry, my honey, we’ll be back before high noon. We’re not doing anything risky today.”

Bran walked eagerly ahead, lifted the stable fence, and waited for me and Willow to walk through. We led our horses by the reins, but Willow dragged her feet. Bran was patient, but he stormed ahead as soon as the gate was back in place.

I was caught between my son racing ahead and my daughter falling behind. I couldn’t punish Bran for Willow’s reluctance, so I picked up the pace until I trailed right behind him.

“Why does she have to come, Father? She doesn’t even want to ride horses.”

“Sometimes, for the betterment of the village, we must do things we don’t want to do. Its my job to teach you children how to ride a horse. That is my duty, whether you want to learn or not. What if Willow grows up and regrets that she never learned to ride a horse? She will blame me for it.”

“But Father,” repeated Bran, “can’t you teach her tomorrow or another day? Why does it have to be today?”

“Because tomorrow might not come. One day I will not be here, but today is a perfect day to ride.”

We walked past the last stables and huts of Kurhass to the open field. A few men were chopping wood on the edge of the village, and the pile was now more than twice the height of a man. They looked up at me for a minute before returning to chopping. The men were sweating with each chop, even though the sun was still low enough to cast very long shadows behind the trees.

“Where are we going, Father?” asked Bran.

“Out into the field, my son. To the lone tree.”

As we walked out into the grass, we passed a man carrying a log from the forest. The small tree was stripped of branches and slung over his shoulder. He looked at us as we walked past him, our horses behind us.

“Careful out there,” said the young man carrying the log. “We saw fresh bear scat while we were cutting down the trees.”

“Thank you for the warning, brother,” I said as we walked past.

I looked over my shoulder, and Willow was still behind me, but she was picking up the pace now that we were out of the village. Since we knew where we were going, I slowed down to let Willow catch up to me. Bran could take care of himself.

“Father, I don’t want to ride today.”

“I know, but today the wind is calm, and the air is warm.”

“I’d rather sew garments with the grandmothers or pound felt with the boys than ride a horse with you.”

“Willow, your attitude is not going to get your out of this lesson. I promise you will learn to love horse riding.”

“You don’t understand me, Father. Only Mother gets me.”

“And I understand your mother. You are so much like her when she was young.”

“Father,” called Bran. He had already made it to the tree and was waiting for us to catch up.

In a few moments, we were all standing underneath the lone tree. The trunk was glowing in the morning sunlight and casting its shadow long across the field. The leaves were thick and green.

“If I look my horse in the eye, does that mean she will trust me?” Bran asked.

I wanted to answer him right away, but my eyes wandered to Willow. Maybe this had been a mistake; Bran was eager to learn, and here I was, focusing on my daughter, who wanted nothing to do with me at the moment.

“First, my boy, you must approach your horse from the side or the front. If you approach her from the rear, she will get spooked and kick you straight to the ground.”

“Like this?” Bran shouted as he raced to his horse, and the young beast jerked its head back.

“No, Bran,” I said as I raced forward, grabbing the reins from my son and calming the horse with a soft pet and cooing noises. “You mustn’t spook your horse. Until it’s bonded with you, the slightest sound or movement will frighten the animal.”

“Nice job, little brother,” said Willow in a condescending manner.

“Your approach was good, Bran,” I said calmly. “But you have to do it slower and never raise your voice. These horses are very sensitive.”

I left my horse unattended as I tied both my children’s horses to the post mounted under the tree. This post had been used to train new riders for generations; my father had taught me how to ride under this very tree. I thought it would be a wonderful day to pass his lessons on to my children. Never did I think I would have this much resistance.

“Now that your horses are tethered, I want you two to step back. Willow, why don’t you go first? Approach the horse and pet her softly.”

“I don’t want to go first. Let Bran do it again.”

Bran slowly approached his horse and reached out, petting the horse on the side of its head. The horse remained calm and looked back at my son. He was doing well, but I didn’t want to say anything. Willow was standing there with a smirk on her face. It was apparent she didn’t want to be here, but I had to stay patient.

“Good job, Bran. Now gently grab some of her mane just above her withers, put your inside leg forward, and skip with your outside leg. Then throw your outer leg up and over her back.”

I made sure to demonstrate the leg positions slowly before jumping onto my horse's back to show them how it was done. My son awkwardly grabbed a chunk of mane, hopped, and stumbled before falling to the ground. The horse kicked and nearly stepped on my boy. Luckily Bran was quick and rolled out of the way. Unfortunately, my daughter started laughing.

“If you think it’s so easy, why don’t you give it a try?” said Bran.

“Watch, little brother,” said Willow as she walked up to her horse.

“Careful, Willow. Let her smell you first, and speak to her softly.”

“I know, Father,” she interrupted. Her horse didn’t like her tone and backed up until the tether was taut.

“You must speak softly. Your horse understands your emotions and will react in kind.”

Willow turned her head away and ignored me, but she didn’t shy away from the horse. She whispered something to him before grabbing his mane, putting her left foot forward, and hopping right up and over the back of the beast—all with more grace than any other rider in Kurhass. She mounted the horse flawlessly and left me speechless.

“You did it,” I said, sounding more shocked than I’d intended.

“It’s your turn, Bran,” said Willow. “Try not to take too long.”

Bran tried a couple more times, growing more frustrated each time. He was about ready to give up when he finally got his step right and leapt over the back of his horse. With both my children sitting on the back of their horses, I felt a sense of accomplishment. Even if we ended right now, it would be a productive day.

“Father, can we untie the horses?” asked Bran. “I want to ride.”

I was about to say no when my daughter added, “Please, Father. Let us ride in the fields. We won’t go far.”

There was a moment when I thought better of it. What would their mother say to this? But the looks on their faces made the decision easy. I slid off my horse and untied both horses from the post.

“Before we go riding, understand these instructions. Remain calm the entire ride. Always support your horse. The more confident you are, the comfortable your horse will be.”

“Yes, Father,” they answered in unison.

I looked out at the field and the forest in the distance. Another man was walking out of the woods, dragging a tree trunk over his shoulder.

“Promise me you will stay in the field and not go near the forest. I don’t want you going over any hills either.”

“I promise, Father,” said Bran. Willow, of course, did not answer.

“Willow, Bran, there is one more important instruction we must discuss before riding. Do you know what to do if you encounter a bear or a wolf?”

“Yes, Father,” said Willow. “You’ve told us so many times around the fire.”

“It’s important that you listen. This is a life-or-death situation, especially if you get caught between a mother and her cub. You must remain calm and reassure your horse with soft and gentle words. No matter how terrified you might be, you cannot relay that to your horse. You must never ride toward a wolf or bear. And no matter what, you must never get off your horse.”

But by this point, both my children had their eyes on the field and forest and weren’t paying attention to me anymore.

“Do you understand?” I asked again.

“Yes, Father,” answered Willow, and without a moment’s pause, she took off riding the horse into the open field, picking up more speed with every heartbeat.

“Where is she going?”

“I’m not sure if she made her horse gallop away or if it decided to take off on its own.”

“Should we go after her?”

“That’s probably a good idea.” I squeezed my thighs, bringing the horse into a slow trot.

Not my son, though—he took off riding just as fast as his older sister. I could see from my vantage point that she was far ahead of him, but he was riding faster. Instead of chasing after them, I trotted through the open field. I could hear my children laughing as they rode through the grass. They were darting left and right and chasing each other in circles. As they rode over the hills, I followed behind. Why was it so hard for them to listen to me?

But when they went over the grass hill, I picked up my pace, eager to catch up and watch them race around the fields. When I rode over the grassy knoll, I saw them in the lower field next to the forest. I could hear their laughter clearly as they rode side by side. I was overcome with the joy at the sight of my children riding with such grace and with so little training. It had me imagining all the rides and hunts and adventures they were going to get themselves into, and before I knew it, I was reminiscing about my first time riding a horse through the very same field.

Just them, my horse startled. Her front hooves angrily stomped into the ground, and she kicked.

“What is it, girl?” I whispered to my horse.

Her ears perked backward, and she stared at my children in the distance.

“Is something wrong?”

I was leaning forward to look in my horse’s eyes when my daughter’s scream rang out. My eyes scanned the area around my children. They appeared to be fine, standing side by side at the edge of the forest. But I wasn’t going to sit around and wait.

I dug my heels into the side of the horse and galloped down the hill. The grass was waist high, and rocks and tree stumps covered the ground this close to the forest.

Trusting my horse to dodge everything in the way, I kept my eyes on my children.

“Why did I let them get so far ahead?” I said out loud. “Faster, girl. Run faster.”

As I approached, everything seemed normal, but they were both frozen, sitting perfectly still on the backs of their horses. My horse slowed as we got closer, as the grass was tall and thick and the ground covered in tree stumps from clearing the forest over the years. The bushes were thickest along the edge of the trees, and my horse sensed something that made her uneasy.

“Are you kids all right?” I called.

My son remained still on his horse, but my daughter looked slightly to her left, making eye contact with me while keeping her face pointed toward the forest. The terror on her face was recognizable even from this distance.

A loud snap came from the trees, and as I scanned the edge of the forest, the snapping continued until an entire row of bushes shook.

“Father, God of the sky,” I prayed quietly under my breath. “Mother, God of Earth. Protect my children.”

The bushes swayed before parting in the middle, and a big brown bear walked out. I could see its muscles through its thin summer fur, though big chunks of its molting winter coat still clung to its shoulders and back. For a moment, everything slowed down; I couldn’t speak or move. The bear was so close to my children. Even my horse stopped dead in her tracks.

“Bran, Willow,” I called. “Do not move a muscle, and do not look it in the eyes.”

I held the reins tight and squeezed my legs, forcing my horse forward. But she was spooked and moved cautiously.

“Come on, girl,” I whispered as I stroked her neck. “You got this, girl. Keep going.”

Bran was closer to the bear, only a few paces away from the bushes, while Willow stood behind. The distance between the children and the bear was at least the length of three huts in Kurhass. For a moment, everything seemed to be okay. Maybe the bear would lose interest and turn back into the forest. But when it heard my approach, it turned its head to the right and locked its eyes onto mine.

“I’m going to try and lure him away,” I called out to my children. “Do not make any sudden movements, and whatever you do, do not get off your horse.”

I shouted and screamed, and although the bear looked at me, I was spooking my horse, which was the last thing I wanted to do.

“It’s okay, girl,” I whispered.

This wasn’t working. I needed to get the bear to come after me. My children may have looked like they were far enough away from the bear, but I knew how quickly it could sprint. Shouting wasn’t going to work—but there was something else I could do.

“Stay calm, girl,” I said as I slowly slid off my horse, holding tight to the reins.

Several stones lay on the trampled grass at my feet. I knelt down and grabbed the roundest stone I could find, keeping my eyes forward. Once I was back on my horse, I pulled my sling from over my shoulder, loaded the rock, and started to swing. Around and around, the sling picked up speed, and its humming drew the bear’s attention.

I released the sling and sent the stone hurtling through the air. The bear looked right at me and was struck right in the head. Its eyes widened and its tongue lolled out the side of its mouth, but very quickly it shook its head, and its eyes narrowed to slits. The giant beast stood up on its hind legs, opened its mouth, and let out a blood-curdling roar. Its lower lip trembled, and its bright yellow teeth protruded from its jaws like daggers.

My son screamed at the sight, and his horse bucked him off, tossing Bran to the ground. The bear turned to the left and locked its eyes onto my son, who lay on the ground.

“No!” I screamed as I kicked my heels into the side of my horse.

I charged forward, dodging the tree trunks and small bushes.

“Willow, freeze!” I shouted, galloping full speed toward the bear. There was no time to load my sling or throw a rock. The only thing I could think was to keep on riding and get as close to it as I could.

As I approached, the bear took its eyes off Bran. Before I passed between my children and the bear, it sprinted toward me. I got within a few arms’ lengths of the bear before it swiped at me with his giant paw, narrowly missing the rump of my horse.

“Get Bran out of here!” I shouted as I zoomed past. I looked over my shoulder to see if my children were okay. The sight of the bear chasing me scared the literal crap out of me.

I gripped the rein as tight as I could while the horse sprinted through the tall grass and weaved its way around bushes and trees. There was no point in looking over my shoulder. I could hear the bear running behind me. I could hear its snorts and grunts and its giant paws stomping the ground with every step. I kept my body low over the horse to keep the wind from pushing me off.


“Come on, girl, ride faster.”

The pounding of the Bear's feet was so loud I could almost feel the earth shaking.

“Faster, girl. You must go faster.”

Never in my life had I seen my horse ride this fast and this straight. Instead of swerving around large rocks, she jumped right over them, and it wasn’t until she jumped over a series of small stones that I heard the bear grunt behind me. The giant beast was right on the horse’s tail. Its fur shook in the wind as it leaped forward with all four feet at the same time. The grunting and snorting were louder, and the wind blew the foul stench of the bear in my direction.

But my horse was intrepid. As she took me over a small hill, I looked behind me and saw the bear slowing down, still running but much further back. Its long tongue hung out of the side of his mouth as he ran, and after a few moments, the bear stopped entirely and stood up on all fours.

“Slow down, girl.” I pulled back on the reins, and together we turned around to face the bear.

The bear looked at me for a second then turned back to the other side of the hill.

“No, you don’t,” I shouted. I wasn’t about to let it turn back for my children. I shouted at it for several minutes, and it tried to follow me a few times, but eventually it stopped and sat on its hind quarters, staring at me curiously.

“Come on, girl,” I whispered to the horse. “Let’s get out of here.”

I knew not to go back the same way I’d come. The nearby forest wasn’t that big, and I knew if I rode around it, I would end back at Kurhass. It was a long way home, but I couldn’t risk luring the bear back to my children. We galloped around the trees, over a few hills, and into a low valley before we circled the forest and made it back to the fields in front of Kurhass.

“Willow!” I shouted.

My horse trotted through the open fields to the place where my children had first encountered the bear. They were long gone, but I saw the tracks of their horses.

“There you are,” I said as I saw the soft patch of grass and dirt must where Bran had fallen.

The horse tracks were scattered and chaotic, and when I looked carefully, I could see finger marks in the dirt.

“No blood,” I whispered. “Thank the gods.”

I jumped back onto my horse and looked around one more time, scanning the edge of the bushes for any sign of the bear. Once I knew it was safe, I galloped up the hill and looked toward Kurhass.

“Maybe they made it back,” I whispered to myself.

I knew they were safe, but I didn’t know where they were. They had most likely made their way back to Kurhass, so I rode as fast as I could to the lone tree where we had first practiced. Underneath it, protected from the bright sun by the thick canopy of leaves, stood a horse with a couple of children slumped over its back. My horse reacted to seeing my children before I could direct it, and we rode towards them as fast as we could. Her unconditional bond with me was great, and she brought me to my children as fast as she could. I do not doubt that she wanted to make sure they were safe just as much as me.

“Willow, Bran, are you two all right?”

My horse galloped right up to the tree, and I jumped off and ran to my children before it even came to a stop.

“Father,” cried Willow.

“How’s Bran? Is he hurt?” I went straight for Willow and picked her off the horse.

Once Willow was on the ground, I turned to Bran. He was slumped over the back of the horse with his face resting on the horse’s neck.

“How do you feel?” I whispered as I carefully wrapped my arms around him and slid him into my arms. “You’re so much heavier than I remember.”

He was awake, but he wasn’t responding to, or even looking at, me. Something didn’t feel right.

“Willow, take his legs. Help me place him on his back.”

Willow grabbed Bran’s legs, and together we laid him out on the grass. After running my hands over his legs, arms, and ribs, I knew nothing was broken. But it wasn’t his body I was concerned about.

“How’s your head, Bran?” I asked as I felt the side and back of his head.

“It hurts, Pa,” Bran answered. He was looking forward at nothing at all.

“He hit his head bad, Father,” said Willow as she knelt down beside her brother.

I ran my fingers over the back of Bran’s head and felt the lump. But I didn’t see any blood when I pulled my hand out, which was a huge relief.

“Did he hit his head on a rock? Was he able to move? How did you get him back on the horse?”

Bran turned his head and looked right at me. “I don’t feel so good.”

He vomited all over the grass. Then he rolled onto his side and curled up like a baby. Foamy spit and bile dripped down the side of his face and pooled in the grass.

“He seemed fine back there,” said Willow. “I got down to help him, but he jumped on the horse by himself. It wasn’t until we started riding back to the tree that he slumped over and started mumbling.”

“Dizzy,” said Bran. “I feel dizzy.”

“Take your time, Son.” I rubbed my hand on his back. “We don’t have to go until you’re ready.”

“I’ll be okay, Pa,” said Bran. “Just give me a moment.”

Bran lay still on the ground for a few moments before his breathing picked up. Every breath was deeper than the next, and just as I was starting to worry for him, Bran sat up. He looked around, then focused on Willow, then turned around to look at me.

“I think I’m ready to go.”

No sooner had he sat up than he vomited again. This time it was dry heaving, with only a little dribble coming out of his mouth. But the convulsions looked painful, and his face turned dark red.

“Lie back down, my son,” I whispered, but Bran fought me.

“No. I want to get up.”

Willow and I each grabbed an arm and helped Bran stand up. He looked dazed and dizzy and leaned against me for support. He closed his eyes for a moment before looking off to the field.

“I’m so sorry, Bran,” cried Willow. “This is all my fault. I shouldn’t have ridden off like that.”

“Are you out of your mind?” laughed Bran, drooling. “That was incredible. I’ve never ridden a horse so fast. And you saw how close we got to that bear. This is the most exciting day of my life. I’m sorry I fell off the horse and ended our fun.”

“I’m glad someone had fun today,” I said. “But I’m glad you’re okay. Now let’s get you back home. Your mother will be able to take care of you.”

“What about my horse?” asked Bran. “He ran away after I fell off.”

“Don’t worry about the horse. He will take care of himself. He knows the way back home.”

“Father?” Bran turned and looked me straight in the eyes. The blank stare was gone. “Can we walk back to Kurhass? I don’t feel like riding anymore today.”

“Of course, my son. Take your time. We’ll take the horses.”

Willow took the reins of her horse while I took mine, and together the three of us walked across the field to the edge of Kurhass village. As we got closer, the men chopping wood out front waved to us. When they saw Bran limping and walking without a horse, they looked concerned.

“Is everything all right, Arthur?” one of the men called to me.

“It’s all good. Just a little fall. Nothing a good night’s sleep and some stew won’t help.”

“Stew,” Bran whispered under his breath. “I could sure go for some rabbit stew.”

“I’ll make sure that’s what your mother makes for dinner tonight.”

I knew there weren’t any rabbits at home to turn into a stew, but I couldn’t say no to my son. I just wanted to get him home.

Before we made it to the edge of the village, a riderless horse galloped in from the field full speed, but he stopped suddenly in front of the village. He looked right at us before dipping his head taking a mouthful of grass.

“You see, Bran? He knew how to find his way home.”

One of the men put his ax down, and escorted the horse to the stables ahead. We walked slowly to cater to Bran, and when we finally made it there, we found the place empty.

“Where’s Mother?” asked Bran as he leaned up against the wall.

Willow and I took our horses inside, where they joined the other animals and ate from the bundles of dried grass. The place was deserted, and the pails of milk were gone.

“She’ll be in the hut turning the milk into cheese,” said Willow.

Willow took Bran’s hand and walked him out of the stables. Even though he appeared to have his balance back, I was still worried about his well-being. Many men and women who fell off horses thought they were fine until they went to sleep, never to wake up again. But everything with Bran seemed to be okay.

After passing through the village and crossing the open square, where people gathered firewood and prepared the evening fire, we made it to the small hut on the opposite side of the village. The sound of the river Kur echoed in the distance. When we walked inside, the women were all lined up on the side with their buckets of milk. Some were already churning the heavy cream, while others poured the fresh milk into gourds to be used later.

“Willow, Bran,” my wife called out. “How was your first ride outside of the village?”

“It was exciting, Mother,” said Willow. “Bran and I rode all over the open fields, and Father was the best teacher.”

I was waiting for my kids to betray me to Selfie and tell them all about the danger with the bear. To my surprise, neither of them said a word.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Bran. His smile was barely visible, and he still looked a little sick.

“Is everything okay?” my wife asked.

“There was a little incident,” I admitted. “A bear spooked the kids, and Bran took a fall off his horse.”

My wife left her bucket of cream and ran up to Bran. Her hands scoured his head, looking for any sign of trauma, and she found the lump on the back of Bran’s head.

“We have to get you back to the hut right away,” said Selfie. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“I’m fine, Mother,” said Bran. “Honestly, I feel fine.”

“Nonetheless,” said Selfie, “you need rest.”

“They did well today,” I said, trying to break the tension.

“Father’s right,” said Willow. “We had a lot of fun.”

“I want to go riding again tomorrow,” said Bran.

“We’ll see how you are after a good night’s sleep,” said Selfie.

“I can barely wait,” I said, before letting out a small chuckle.




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