If I clicked the reins, it was news to me, but suddenly we were moving fast. The crowd of horses in front sucked through the gate like water through a drain and then we were in the open field. The pack spread out instantly and the horses started hitting their stride. It was all I could do to stay in the saddle. The wind kept getting knocked out of me just from the bouncing up and down. The sound was overwhelming, the pounding converging from all directions. Two kids who couldn’t have been more than thirteen went flying by me on horses as big as mine. I collected myself just enough to watch what they were doing and tried to imitate. I leaned forward a bit and let my ass bounce up and down with the horse. This didn’t require much work—all I did was relax and lean and it happened.
The field was a complex mess. One hoof would hit rock while the other sank into moss that gave as though there was an air pocket beneath. The horses ahead of us were tearing up the ground wherever they ran, sod and dirt flying everywhere. It was barely controlled chaos like Malcolm had said and pretty damn thrilling, once I stopped worrying about being thrown.
The riders at the front of the pack rippled upward now and dropped out of sight. A four-foot-high stone wall appeared just ahead, ancient and unyielding and coming on at an alarming speed. The riders right in front of us tensed and jumped and then it was our turn.
It wasn’t as though I couldn’t think—it was as though I didn’t know how. That might seem like a petty distinction to you but I spent several crucial moments pondering it instead of the fact that I was about to become a pile of meat against a stone wall.
And then Roddy (a ridiculous name for something the size of my kitchen) heaved mightily and launched into the air. All the ferocious churning and pounding and the barrage of sound turned to eerie silence and stillness—and a moment later, we were on the other side, pounding up the hill again and I was still on the son-0f-a-bitch. It was a miracle but I gave myself credit as though I had something to do with it.
After that, I let the scene run away with me: the air rushing past my ears, the thrumming hooves, the cries of the riders and the yelping of the hounds, the pounding and bouncing and careening from side to side as the pack turned first one direction and then the other. I leaned over Roddy’s neck and flicked the reins, making clucking noises like Em and Malcolm but faster, more insistent and urgent.
Suddenly, I wanted to move up but even more than that, I wanted to go. Everything was about going, going faster, more speed, more wind in the face and more power over the ground, the power of movement itself. Roddy quickened his pace, hunkered down, strides lengthening. We came to another broken wall and actually gained in the jump, making up space between us and the pack ahead. I could see Em up towards the front. I had no idea where Malcolm was but I didn’t care at the moment. Everything was about going.
The pack turned wildly to the right, scrambling up and down a gulley between thick bushes. I could see the hounds suddenly off in the next field—like Malcolm had said, the fox didn’t know from property lines. It was strange to even think of the fox now. The fox was just an excuse.
As we came upon the next wall, higher and more formidable than the others, I could see frantic movement on the other side. Apparently some of the protestors had found their way down to the field with whatever mischief in mind and were now caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I panicked, not from anything having to do with the hunt but simply because I started thinking, all of a sudden, like Jill. I didn’t see her in the little group frantically scrambling away from the onrushing horses, but surely she was there. And I knew what was inside her head because she was inside mine—she was inside my head all the time now. This is what it is to be a bomber pilot, her voice warned. You don’t have to hate the fox. You just need to forget about him.
I wanted to follow the group but Roddy wasn’t listening. Or maybe he was but not the way I wanted and my attempts to control him threw us both out of whack. I lost the rhythm; suddenly I was banging against the saddle again, out of synch, my hands gone clammy, sweating like a pig, no time to think and no way to stop. I was a non-functioning extension of an instinctively-reacting horse chasing brainless hounds after a symbolic fox. That was too many damn layers removed from reality. When that thought hit me, the whole thing got real and all I could think of was getting out of that field alive and in one piece. The front pack went over the wall just ahead and disappeared down the bank on the other side. I clutched the reins and banged against the saddle and held my breath.
Roddy’s jump was awkward, off-stride. I felt us wobble in the air and heard stones flying behind—he must have clipped the wall with his rear legs going over. He stumbled a bit on one leg as we landed and I was leaning for an endless moment over the wrong side of him but then he regained the downhill bank and we burst across the stream bed upright and at a gallop, flashing past another horse trying to scramble, frantically, to its feet in the riverbed. A riderless horse. A charcoal horse, stirrups flailing.
We were halfway up the hill in half a second before I realized it was the grey. I pulled the reins over hard, harder than I probably should have but we burst out of the pack and I was able to look back down the hill. Where was Emily?
She was already in Malcolm’s arms. He was bent over her in the water, cradling her head and carrying her away, out of the path of the next pack of riders. The grey stood idly a few feet away, drinking stupidly from the stream like nothing had happened. Em’s eyes weren’t open. I don’t remember riding back down the hill or getting off my horse.
“Hopefully it’s just a concussion,” Malcolm said. A couple of riders were standing by now, apparently out of the next group. Malcolm told them to fetch the doctor and a stretcher and within minutes Emily was being carried through the field to a hospital van. Malcolm was a whirlwind of instruction, first with the doctors and then me. “Go in the ambulance,” he said. “I’ll meet you at hospital.”