Monday, February 2, 2015
Mirabella sprawled naked in the meadow’s tall grass and let the sun warm her long limbs. She had no fears of discovery here in the mountain solitude, not by humans, shifters or anything else. Here she could relax and be her other self.
A short distance away the band of saddle horses grazed, equally unconcerned. They’d been wary of her when she’d first approached them, a horse that moved just a fraction off true and smelled of shifter to boot. At first she’d simply trailed the herd and used them for camouflage. In time their boss mare, Ripley, had accepted her—perhaps not fully as one of them, but at least as a guest. At any rate, the mare hadn’t driven her off, and Mirabella had been able to hide herself with the herd.
There’d been some tense moments when Merry, the dude ranch owner, had ridden up to the mountain pasture to collect fresh horses for her guests and found the strange roan mare among her stock. Mirabella stood still and held her breath and let Merry check her over for a brand or inner-lip tattoo or implanted ID chips. Of course she knew Merry wasn’t going to find any, let alone an owner. Those intent on recovering Mirabella were looking for a runaway woman, not a missing horse. Thank Epona she’d never disclosed her shifter nature to Wells!
The roan mare had a fiery temper but took kindly to inexperienced riders, especially young, nervous girls. For them she demonstrated unexpected patience. When an owner didn’t turn up, Merry shrugged and added the new saddle horse to her herd and put her to work. She was just what a rider with little confidence needed, a feisty but affectionate mount that would do as told and not try to buck them off. Merry had named the “mare” Vasquez. Mirabella had no idea why. Merry was a big film fan, so Mirabella assumed it must be some kind of movie reference.
Since then neither Wells nor any of his men had ever come to the ranch. She’d reached the point where she felt free enough to shift back to her human form, but only here in the isolated hills. The band, even vigilant Ripley and her stallion partner Hicks, were used to her now and didn’t even spook when a human suddenly appeared in their midst from time to time.
Only one threat to her safety remained: Merry’s boyfriend, Dash. He was also a horse shifter. Dash knew the difference between a real horse and one trying to pass. So far he hadn’t betrayed her. Was he looking for the perfect moment to strike? Or waiting for her to make her own choice to come clean?
If the latter, he had a long wait ahead of him. What had begun of necessity had turned into a pleasant existence for Mirabella. Rich grass, open skies, the protection of others who were sort of her kind and, above all, freedom. If it meant giving up her human self for long stretches, she was willing to live with the cost. Being a woman hadn’t paid off for her nearly as well as being a horse.
She rolled over onto her stomach and kicked her legs lazily in the air. The rest of the herd had drifted downslope, all but the Duke. The big, blaze-faced Clydesdale had gotten too old to pull hay wagons, so Merry turned him loose to enjoy retirement in the hills. Seeing she was in human form, he stomped over to her and bumped her with his nose for a petting. Mirabella grinned and obliged, scratching behind his ears right at the spot where he liked it. The gelding sighed into her hair. “This is the life,” she agreed.
If only it could last. But she knew better.
She rose easily to her feet and folded her arms on the Duke’s broad back while he grazed. For now she had it good. However, there was still Dash, hoarding her secret for whatever reason, and Wells, after the secrets her human self carried. Keeping track of Dash was easy; she had only to look for Merry. Wells and his agents could be anywhere.
Something moved in the grass.
Mirabella stiffened, instantly alert. Sensing her alarm, the Duke raised his head with a puzzled huhn. She pressed a hand to his nose to quiet him. The invader might not yet know he’d been spotted.
He was stealthy, whatever he was. He moved like a snake, a sinuous ribbon in the tawny meadow grass. Wolf? Too fluid. Coyote, perhaps, or a puma. Whatever he was, he bypassed the Duke and instead zeroed in on the herd. Hicks, on watch, hadn’t noticed the invader yet. Nor had the stalker noticed her, she was certain.
Using the Duke’s bulky body to hide herself, Mirabella shifted.
In the blink of an eye Mirabella the woman became Vasquez the mare. She loosed a piercing neigh, to both warn her companions and to startle the intruder. If this was a normal predator, he would realize his ambush had been ruined and run. If he wasn’t, she would deal with him.
Had he noticed her in her human form? She dared not take that chance.
The first part of her plan worked perfectly. The horses turned toward the sound of her neigh and instantly realized their danger. Phase Two didn’t go so well. Instead of retreating, the intruder attacked. He charged at the band in a shocking burst of speed. That was no wolf or local cat. She had no idea what it was.
She knew one thing for certain: he was not going to harm her companions.
The herd stallion leaped to intercept. The attacker zigged around him as if the horse were moving in slow motion. However, his forced change in course brought him up against Mirabella, pounding in from behind. He dodged her also, lost his footing, and skidded through the grass. Mirabella and Hicks came at him from opposing sides. The Duke stomped a huge hoof and whinnied.
Mirabella reached the invader first. An equine snort escaped her. What in Epona’s name was this doing in the wilds of Montana?