Light was slipping away from the world. From the top of the hill, Joe could see lights coming on down at the stables. He probably shouldn't have stayed out so long, but it was his first ride on Stepper this spring, and he hadn't wanted it to end. He shifted in the saddle, and Stepper stepped out on the winding downward trail.
As they turned at the end of the first curve, the underbrush exploded. Joe had an impression of feathers, and something flying straight at his face.
Stepper was an old horse, and solid. He hardly shied at the commotion, but it was enough. Flailing at the beating wings, Joe ducked sideways and felt the saddle slip from under him. He knew an instant of disorientation, and then he was falling.
He found himself blinking up at Stepper's nose. Bird, he thought stupidly. Turkey? Duck? He closed his eyes again. The ground seeped its chill into him.
Stepper snorted in his face. Joe groaned and sat up, holding his head. The earth spun slowly and sickeningly. When he raised his eyes to Stepper's back, it seemed a very long way off the ground.
Stirrup first. He grasped it. Stepper stood patiently as Joe worked his way up the saddle.
Mounting was the hard part. In the end, Joe simply heaved himself up, then buried his face in Stepper's rusty mane while the world tilted in ways it wasn't supposed to. He took deep breaths, and the familiar horsey smell kept him from throwing up.
Once Stepper started forward, Joe didn't have to do any more than cling to his back. He doubted he could manage much else anyway. The sun had set completely, and shadows loomed around him, darkness rising and falling. As the trail turned, the lights of the stables came into view. They were still far below, but getting closer.
Stepper knew the way home.