Copyright 2002 by Xaltatun of Acheron (A Pseudonym). All rights reserved. This may be posted on any free access web site, provided this notice and all identification is retained. For purposes of this notice, any site requring registration of any form, or employing any form of tracking customers is not a free access site. Any other use will require written permission, including payment.
All persons, places and events in this story are completely fictitious. No resemblance to any people, places or events is intended, except for purposes of parody.
This story is part of a series, which currently contains two stories:
1. The Sacrifice.
2. The Contest.
This contains adult themes, including nudity and ponygirl bondage. If you are under the age of consent in your community, or if such things bother you, please go elsewhere. This isnt for you.
Its time to start training them for Polo, said Coral, smiling sweetly. What do you have in mind?
Start out with something simpler, for one. Lets get the ponies, and Ill show you. Bushytail grinned. Was Coral going to be in for a surprise!
Coral was a fairly young elf maiden, only about ten thousand years old and emotionally still in very late adolescence. She wore her usual outfit, which was a snakeskin tunic whose scales shimmered in the sunlight. The tunic itself had a pattern of red diamonds, trimmed with blue and green. It covered her from the top of her breasts to mid thigh, and molded itself to every curve and every movement. The only way to tell that it wasnt, in fact, her skin was that it stretched between her breasts rather than molding them completely.
She also wore a pair of high heeled mid calf length snakeskin boots, a snakeskin belt and a snakeskin headband. She had a quirt and a pouch hanging from the belt, whose buckle was a very realistic snake head swallowing its own tail. Her headband, on the other hand, also had a snake head, but this one was rearing as if to strike, its beady red eyes apparently glowing with an inner fire.
Bushytail, on the other hand, was a mortal woman in her early 20s. She wore an identical snakeskin tunic, but there the resemblance ended. Instead of normal feet, her legs were covered with horsehair from the knee down, and ended with hooves, competently shod with bronze horseshoes. A long cats tail, or maybe a monkeys tail came from the back of her tunic. At the moment, it was held erect, curled slightly like a question mark.
Her belt was flat bronze chain links, so carefully crafted that there were no joins: every piece was a unit. It didnt have a buckle: when she wanted to take it off, she simply removed one of the links, when she put it on again, she reformed the bronze. Rather than a headband, her luxurious black hair was held back by a spell, so it apparently floated in the breeze, but never got into her face.
Her only other decoration was a bronze collar, an exactly circular piece of thin metal that also had no seam, hinge or latch. It was a single, unitary construction that had been put on by a mage smith, and could only be taken off by power tools or a mage smith.
I think Black Beauty and Redtail are ready, Bushytail continued.
You take Beauty, Coral said. You know I dont get on well with stallions.
Bushytail said nothing. Coral had almost killed Black Beauty by overworking him in their first session. They walked from the stablemasters office into the stable proper, with the rows of stalls each holding a magnificent horse. At the end of the row, eight stalls held mortals: six ponygirls and two ponyboys. Some of them were lying on the straw, dozing, but most of them were standing.
Like Bushytail, their legs were covered with horsehair, and ended in bronze shod hooves rather than feet. They also wore the bronze collars, however each of these had a post and ring in the front. The light bronze chain that fastened their collars to a ringbolt in their stalls shimmered as they moved. Two of the mares hastily quit talking and moved apart as they saw the two trainers approach.
Bushytail had originally been one of them, the first one, in fact. The first evening in her stall, she had figured out how to unlock the bronze chains. There wasnt much to it, in fact: the chains were attached by simple snap hooks that would yield to a well-motivated finger. On the other end, the chains attached to the ringbolts with a simple knot. The stall doors had an equally simple sliding bolt. However, her hands, like the hands of all of the ponies in the stalls, had been spelled so that they couldnt manipulate any of the devices that kept them there. It had been intensely frustrating until she discovered that she could disassemble the knot on the ringbolt with a bundle of straw manipulated by her tail. Once it unraveled, she found she could unhitch the snap hook, but she still couldnt manage the bolt on the stall door.
Some experimentation with the bells on her nipple rings showed her how the spell worked, and some more experimentation showed that she could manipulate the spell as well as the elves. Actually, that wasnt quite true. Shed been a computer programmer before shed been kidnapped, and her approach to spells was, from the elves viewpoint, very innovative. They had the weight of millennia of experience, but very little system. She had the system, but not the experience. Her spells looked strange to her captors, and their spells needed a lot of careful analysis before she could work with them.
Which was why she still had horses legs instead of her own. Elves were still incomprehensible a lot of the time. They knew she intended to escape, and while they could have made certain she couldnt with a languid wave of a well-manicured hand, they hadnt bothered. Actually, it was more positive than that. They wanted to see if she could actually manage it. As far as they were concerned, she was a strange new animal, and they were hard up for excitement.
She was still a long way from being able to manage most of the major transformations that had been forced on her. Shed learned some of the more minor ones from watching Kapardinov, the elf who did most of the transformations, and shed learned somewhat of healing by watching Coral, her current companion. She made minor adjustments to the herd all the time, while Coral watched in mild amusement. She could work bronze with her bare hands readily, but with neither the ease nor the finesse of the smith who had done the collars, bits and horseshoes.
Shed been promoted to groom and trainer when Karp had brought back two more mortals to be trained as ponies. One of the more incomprehensible things about the elves was that they had very strict rules about dealing with mortals, set by someone called the High King. It seemed that she had crossed some kind of line by what she had done, and more importantly had not done, with her budding sorcery. The High Kings laws tended to enforce themselves. So when Karp had brought two more mortals back, the other elves had refused to act as grooms and trainers, and Coral had refused to manage three of them.
So she had been promoted to act as the groom and trainer for one of the others. Once that had been resolved, other elves had stepped forward to act as grooms and trainers for more of the unfortunate mortals. It was all very strange, and Bushytail was still mildly confused about what it all meant.
Black Beauty was on one end of the row of stalls; the other stallion was on the other end to keep them apart. Bushytail walked up to his stall and leaned on the door. He whinnied, walked up and nuzzled her. She scratched him behind the ears and then held out a candy that shed had in her pouch. He took it from her hand delicately with his tongue, chewed and then swallowed.
She took his saddle off the opposite wall, and opened the gate. He backed up. Beauty! she said, scolding him. He snorted, but walked up and bent over to allow her to place the tack in the small of his back. She reached under, buckled the strap and pulled it tight. Then she held out the bridle. He snorted again, but obediently held his head forward as she pulled the assemblage of leather straps around and tightened the buckles so it wouldnt move. Then she held out the bit. He snorted again, but opened his mouth as she inserted the bronze device, settling it in the space where a pair of teeth had been removed on each side. She fastened the ends to the rings in the bridle, and then attached the reins.
Come on, boy! she said as she tugged the reins. Black Beauty walked out of the stall after her, holding his arms vertically against his chest, elbows down and hands up. As he walked, he brought his legs up, thighs horizontal and calves vertical as he had been trained. She gestured, and the stall door swung closed after them.
Coral joined her in the yard before the stable a moment later, leading Redtail.
Bushytail put a hand on her mounts shoulders and pushed forward. He bent over, his head coming back so he was still looking forward. She put her foot into the stirrup and swung into the saddle, her snakeskin tunic conforming smoothly to the movement as if it was really a second skin. Her stallion settled slightly as his balance shifted. His torso bent forward at about a 45 degree angle, leaving his head level with her chest. The saddle was canted so it provided a level seat. Unlike a horse, his head was easy for her to reach. She stroked his head briefly. He snorted and pawed the ground, rolling his hips slightly to shift the weight onto the other foot and then back. She shifted with him to compensate, the entire motion so smooth it was almost unconscious.
She took the reins in her left hand, pulling on them until they were taut. Once Black Beauty had gotten it through his head that he was going to be treated as a horse, hed decided to see what he could get away with. He needed tight control on the reins, or hed take it into his head to go somewhere else. Bushytail had no idea if he thought he was getting away with something, or irritating his owners, or what. It wasnt that the ponies were forbidden to talk, but there were strict rules about what could be said verbally and what couldnt.
Essentially, if something could be communicated the way a horse would, they were required to do it that way. If it couldnt, they were allowed to talk, but only the way a horse with speech would talk. Anything else required special permission, and Bushytail wasnt at all lenient about it. Her attitude was that they were going to be human ponies for the rest of their lives, so the sooner they got used to the idea, the easier it would be for them.
On the other hand, the Dukes orders were explicit: he wanted his ponygirls and ponyboys to be spirited, not broken to mindless lumps, and if that meant she had to keep a tight rein on him rather than breaking him to where he needed a kick to move, so be it. Neither Coral nor Karp had kept quite as tight a rein on her when she had been a ponygirl, but so what.
She reached forward and ran his luxurious black mane through her fingers. That mane, like all the ponies, grew from where his hairline would normally be in an inch wide strip all the way down his back, ending just below his shoulder blades.
She let up the pressure on the reins slightly, pressed her knees into his flanks, and said Giddup! He moved forward at a sedate walk. She twitched the reins again, and he sped up to a trot. They rounded the stable and went on one of the many paths into the forest, Coral following on Redtail.
Today, the paths had decided to cooperate, so it was a short trot to the meadow she had selected for practice. As Coral and Redtail emerged, Bushytail pulled something out of the air and threw it at them.
Redtail shied back, and Coral had to spend a moment getting her back under control. Then she waved her hand, and the plastic disk jumped from the ground into it. What is this? she asked, mild accusation in her voice.
Its a Frisbee, Bushytail said. Redtail snorted. I figured the first thing we need to do is to train our mounts in sudden maneuvers. You may know polo, but I dont, and I doubt that most of our ponies have ever heard of it, much less know what it is. These things are common on our side. Toss it at me.
Coral tossed it back. Bushytail shifted the reins, and Black Beauty took off after the disk. She reached up to get it, overbalancing her mount, and they both went flying. The incredible thing is that they bounced!
Now what did you do! Coral said, sitting on her mare.
I put up some protections. I dont want to deal with bruises, let alone broken bones at this point.
Good thought. I notice you rolled?
I used to do martial arts. Falling properly is the first thing were taught.
So are we. Except that gentle maidens are not supposed to fight. Coral had a note of chagrin in her voice.
So you never got taught.
Too right. Lets split the time. Half on falling properly, half on whatever this game is; Frisbee? Coral swung out of her saddle. Redtail staggered slightly, shed been watching Bushytail and had forgotten to pay attention to her rider.
First thing. Forward fall. Bushytail fell, tucked her arm under her and rolled, finishing standing.
Watch what I did with my head and shoulder. You too! she rounded on the ponies. Your rider goes down, youre going too. Its going to be worse, because youve got that saddle tied to you. Understand? They whinnied back at her, suddenly serious.
Two hours later, thoroughly sweaty and pleasantly tired, Coral lead the procession out of the glen, back to the stable.
They put the two ponies up side by side at the grooming stand. The ponies stood, feet braced wide apart and hands likewise on an overhead beam as the two trainers stripped off their tack and then lathered them up with soap and warm water. Then they got rinsed off with cold water. Coral and Bushytail passed their hands over their charges heads and mane, pressing the water out and leaving the tresses glossy and straight. Then they combed out the horsehair on their legs with a currycomb.
The put simple rope halters on them and led them back to their stalls. Both ponies fell to the straw on the floor as soon as the girls snicked the bronze chain onto their collars; they were fast asleep before they closed the stall door.
We need to talk, said Coral.
Oh, absolutely. That went better than I expected for a first time.
I didnt know what to expect, Coral riposted. It was certainly different. Redtail seemed to pick up on what to do quickly, but I had a hard time staying on when she took off after that silly disk.
Beauty tried that. Its going to take some more work getting it through his head that he isnt supposed to move until I tell him where.
Are you sure thats how to do it? I thought the horse was supposed to take off so I could concentrate on where to bat the ball?
Truthfully, I dont know? I take it youve never played Polo either.
Another thing that gentle elf maidens arent supposed to do, Corals mouth twisted. That game is actually recent, just in the last couple of millenia, and I didnt get interested enough to push the point.
So, which one of the riders should we talk to? Bushytail asked.
Coral thought a moment. None of the riders, actually. Ill approach Lord Maxkrinv. Hes the expert on how Polo should be played. Hes got that horse of his trained so well I almost dont believe it.
The next morning, Lord Maxkrinv showed up at the stable as they were preparing for their next practice session. He was tall and willowy, like all the elves. He walked into the stables with them.
Ive never looked over these ponies of yours, Coral, he said, studiously ignoring Bushytail. I dont agree we should be doing this, but the Duke wants it, so… he shrugged. Its up to us to make our side look good.
He spent some time looking at the stock. That stallion must be Black Beauty. Its certainly appropriate, but I doubt if it liked the name all that much, eh, Bushytail?
No, my lord, he certainly didnt at first. Now that he understands what he is, he likes it, dont you, Beauty? The stallion whinnied at her and stuck his head out for her to scratch his ears.
Youve certainly got it well trained, I must say. Lets see what it looks like under a saddle.
Bushytail pulled the tack off the wall, and saddled Beauty. For a wonder, the stallion didnt tease her at all. She led him out into the corridor and then swung into the saddle, although the space was a bit cramped.
Maxkrinv studied them for a long moment. I see. Balance is going to be a real problem. He looked again. Those balance spells feel like Kapardinov did them.
That he did, my lord, Bushytail added.
Coral just shook her head. I thought I knew everything he did to them!
No matter, Maxkrinv said. Ill just tune them up a bit. He raised his hands and then lowered them. I take it youve been playing with them, he looked at Bushytail. Theres a strangeness at the center that I doubt Kapardinov could do. He looked at the spell again. Now I know what theyve been talking about. Very interesting approach. I havent seen anything like it since old Qxvrgmph died. I want to talk to you about it. Later.
Beautys clearly your pony. Saddle up the other stallion for me. Bushytail made to dismount, but the older elf stopped her with a gesture. Coral picked Windys tack off the wall and made to enter his stall. He backed up, snorting.
Maxkrinv snorted. I forgot your antipathy to anything male, he said. Youd best get over it, lass. The Duke will not be pleased if you ruin any of his pets. Its not like you have to get in bed with any of them. Gentle it down and get it saddled.
Coral walked toward the stallion, who snorted again. Then she reached out and stroked his face with the back of her hand, gently. After a few strokes, he settled down and let her put the bridle on him. Then he bent over while she cinched the saddle. She added the bit and reins without any more trouble, and then led him out of the stall.
Hold the reins for me, lass, the elf lord said as he walked around to the stallions left and put his foot into the stirrup. Windy shifted his weight. As quick as thought, the elf lords hand buried itself in the stallions mane and twisted. Windy stiffened and then relaxed; the lord swung his weight into the saddle.
This ones got good spirit, he said as she handed him the reins. Saddle yours, and lets get going.
Bushytail lead the group to the meadow, through the ever-changing paths of the forest, as the elf lord watched her closely. He nodded in thought. This one was very clever. She not only had found the threads that allowed one to find which paths led where at any given time, she had done something so the forest accepted her as one of its own. He smiled to himself. This might be the first escapee since… Then he chuckled. Of course. She could probably escape any time she wanted, but showing up in her own world with horses hooves was probably not on. This one didnt seem to do anything without a plan, either.
Start your practice, and let me watch for a while, he told them. Bushytail plucked the Frisbee from the space where she had stored it and tossed it underhand in Corals direction. This time, Redtail stood still, and let Coral pluck it out of the air and return it with a snap. Bushytail tugged on her mounts reins, and he bounded over to where it was sailing, leaning away so she could lean over and scoop it out of the air. She tossed it back, and the game continued for a few more tosses until Redtail stumbled and tossed Coral into the air. The elf maiden managed to land on her shoulder and roll.
Enough! said the elf lord, holding up his hand. Id been wondering why you werent using the stirrups, but if you take that kind of tumble, theyd only be in the way. Now, gather round, and well go through how you should be doing it. How much time have you been spending on taking falls?
We spent an hour yesterday, Coral said. Half the practice session.
The ponies also, he asked. Then: obviously you did, or your pony would have broken a leg, even with the cushions youve got here.
Yes, my lord.
I take it mine hasnt learned yet?
Yes, my lord. It hasnt. Coral responded. Weve only been training with these two.
Very good. Well do falls next. He swung out of the saddle. I take it you were doing the training? he asked Bushytail.
Yes, my lord. I had martial arts training before I came here.
Good. Start with Windy. He walked over to the side of the meadow and stood, arms crossed. A minute later, he stamped his foot. No! Heres how you do it!
Then he smiled. Not your fault. Being a good student does not make you a master. He shrugged. You work with what youve got. He walked in front of them.
When you lose your balance, you need to go in the direction youre already going. Like this. He fell forward, rolled once and came back up standing, turned around in a slight crouch, hands out. Then he chuckled. Fighters reflexes. You dont need to do all that, you just need to avoid getting hurt or trampled.
An hour later, they were all panting. Lets take ten, and then pass that platter around for a while.
A very subdued group trotted back to the stables, the elf lord in the lead. This time, the journey was quite short, since the forest paths smoothed themselves out before the older elf.
He swung out of the saddle smoothly, and summoned several of the stable hands with an imperious wave of his hand. Groom them and get them back into their stalls, he ordered as the two trainers swung off of their mounts. He gestured at the two women. We need to talk, as he stalked toward the spare office.
Sit, He gestured. Coral sat in a supple twist that made her look very like her namesake. Bushytail sat primly on her hooves. The elf lord took a deep breath.
Its not quite as bad as I believed, but its a good deal worse than the Duke thinks it is. This is not your problem, and Im not looking for fault. Im going to have to approach the Duke with this, and hes going to want a solution.
First. Falling practice. Im going to approach the arms master and ask him to take that over. All of the ponies, both of you and the other two elf maidens that have asked to be part of this fiasco. Expect two hours a day until youve learned.
Second. Were going to assign riders, and Im going to take over some of the training. You cant do that kind of game unless the pony and its rider have practiced together. It takes both, and I dont care how good one or the other is. It takes time.
Third. I like that game with the disk. Itll get everyone warmed up until theyve got their ponies properly trained. Then were going to have to start on Polo for real, and weve got two novices.
Avernolom and Vertagola. Coral said.
Exactly. I doubt they will make the final team, but they have to be trained.
Fourth. The Duke wants to win our match, but he also wants the other team to make a good showing. From what Ive seen, theres no possible way. Bushytail?
I believe so, my lord. Without Kapardinovs enhancements, its almost impossible to ride us without causing our backs to collapse.
And certainly not doing anything strenuous, the elf lord continued smoothly. As I thought. Were going to have to address that quickly. Theres also a training issue that Im going to have to discuss with the Duke.
That, I think, covers what we needed to discuss, he said. Bushytail, hold yourself in readiness to discuss your approach to sorcery with me in a few days. He stood and walked out.
The first thing Im interested in, the elf lord said, is this: how did you ever learn sorcery?
Well, that happened the first day I was here, Bushytail said. Kapardinov put a spell on my hands so I couldnt work any of the things keeping me in my stall. I found out that I could use my tail to untie the knot on the ring first. Then the next day, Coral hung bells on my breast rings, and I couldnt get them off either. I felt something with those spells, though, so I played around with them until I found where I ended and the spell began.
I see. You have the talent, and when we used sorcery on you, you followed up on it. Very good. What did you do next?
I worked that spell until I found out how it worked. It was very, well, odd. More like it had grown than designed.
Grown rather than designed?
Im a computer programmer. Programs that just grow have a certain feel. The bad ones are very chaotic, the good ones are, well, organic. Things that have been designed have a very different feel.
I think I understand. Our way is to work on a spell until its perfect. Everything fits together smoothly.
Which is exactly what this spell felt like, my lord. Youve got that time to work on it. We dont, so we had to come up with methods that would get something that works, even if it isnt exactly optimum. In fact, she smiled, a lot of our methods are very far from optimum. They simply work all the time, and we can put them together like bricks to build something bigger.
Which is what I never understood about Qxvrgmph. He was working on something quite similar. Why he wanted those big, clumsy spells was a complete mystery, which youve thankfully explained. He did have a way of doing some things quite swiftly, but he messed up just as often. Im going to have to review his notes.
If he was working by himself, I can understand the difficulty, my lord. Everyone doesnt have the cast of mind to do this, and of those that do, only a few really appreciate how to make parts that work together in different ways.
Obviously, the elf lord said, waving his hand. The issue right now is that we need to bring the mortals ponies up to speed quickly, and the Duke does not want to send Kapardinov. So youre going to have to learn how to do transformations. How far have you gotten?
Bushytail stared at him a moment. Im going to be doing it? Oh, my! Well, Ive got the security program. I can do the mane and the horsehair on the legs, and I can do some adjustments to the jaw.
Adjust the jaw. Oh, right, so the bit fits.
I do that directly to the bronze, my lord. Its a matter that sometimes its just easier on the pony to fix her jaw so the bit doesnt jerk it too much.
Interesting. So you havent gotten very far with the hooves or back?
Or the neck adjustments. I can do the breasts, and I picked up Corals trick of implanting the breast, ear and nose rings. I also picked up some of the things she does to heal.
He waved his hand again. Healing is important, but right now we need to concentrate on the transformations. Whats the difficulty?
Well, the spell doesnt stay around. I can see the final result, and I can compare it with what it was like before, but the spell itself isnt there after its done its work.
Unlike the security spell, which stays around.
And the balance spell, and a couple of others.
So, lets see how well you do. He stood up and waved his hands. A shimmer built up around them, and then wafted into the air between them and appeared to hover. She studied it for a while as the old elf waited patiently.
This piece seems to match the skin, and this changes the hair cells so they produce horsehair. This seems to create horsehair so we dont have to wait for it to grow.
Very good! Continue.
She went on describing parts of the spell as he nodded and occasionally corrected her. Finally: So how would you change it?
She thought a moment. Well, first Id probably replace this section that does the horsehair with this. She took out the section and replaced it. Thats part of the spell I use to adjust manes, beards and body hair.
He looked at it. I see. If I change this, he made a small adjustment, it changes the length, and this changes the thickness… he mused a moment. You seem to have put everything into one spell.
Instead of hand crafting each one individually.
That would certainly make it easier to use, he said. What about the ankle and hooves?
Id need to study that. I dont have a component for bones yet. This looks like a good start.
Until tomorrow, then. He got up and walked out.
Bushytail, Kapardinov and Lord Maxkrinv rode out of the stables, riding Black Beauty, Redtail and Windy, respectively. Beauty had a bundle tied behind the saddle, lying on his rump. Bushytail lead them to the meadow with the gate to the mortals place. She paused, and a golden mist slowly gathered in the center of the meadow. When it had thickened, they rode their mortal ponies into it. On the other side, they came out in another meadow, surrounded by a different woods. Bushytail lead the way again to the road and around the bend, past the fields to the plantation buildings. The three of them dismounted in front of the stable, and tethered their mounts to the hitching rack.
The owner of this place, Lord Howard, hurried up. Weve got another shipment of slaves in for you, he said.
Thats good, said Lord Maxkrinv dryly. Lets look at them. The prospective ponygirls and ponyboys stood, one to a stall. They had their arms bound behind them, and their mouths gagged with red balls. Each was bound with a heavy link chain, padlocked around the neck at one end and to a post at the other.
They finally settled on two heavily built mares that seemed to be more alert than the rest of the captives. Karp forced their heads into halters, unlocked the chains with a gesture and pulled them stumbling behind him to the hitching rack where they had left their own ponies.
You do the honors, he told Bushytail.
She looked at the first mare and nodded slowly. She raised her hands, and a shimmer formed, and then wafted slowly in the breeze until it wrapped itself around the unfortunate womans legs. When the shimmer cleared, the mares legs now had thick horsehair from the knee down to the ankle, mostly of the same mouse brown as her hair, but with a white stocking on the left leg. Hooves had replaced her feet. Bushytail raised her hands again. This time the heat wave wrapped the newly minted ponygirls hips and lower torso. When it cleared, her hips were somewhat wider and solider, and her back had been strengthened. She also sported a horse tail. She raised her hands a third time. The shimmer covered the womans head, shoulders and torso. When it cleared, she had a mane, and her breasts were firmer, without any sag. Something was subtly different about her neck, and she had lost four teeth, although that wasnt exactly obvious. Bushytail raised her hands a final time, and the shimmer covered the womans hands and sank in. Karp took off the arm restraints and threw them over the rail.
Very good, the elf lord said. I like the touch with the stocking. Pity you cant put a diamond on her face.
I dont see why not, Bushytail said, and raised her hands again. When the shimmer cleared from the mares head, she had a coat of very fine horsehair covering her face and neck, with a white diamond shaped splotch on her forehead, the bottom resting just above her nose.
Lord Maxkrinv looked at it critically. I like the effect, but it isnt balanced. If it was covered in horsehair, now. Bushytail made to raise her hands again, and he waved her down with a laugh. Dont bother. Its easy enough to change later.
The newly transformed ponygirl stood there in a daze, considering her new form.
Now do the other one, Lord Maxkrinv said.
Bushytail lifted her hands again, and in a few moments the other woman had been transformed. This time the color scheme was a light blonde, with black stockings on both legs.
Excellent, Lord Maxkrinv said as the owner looked on glumly. You see how easy it is? he asked the owner.
Weve never figured it out, the man said. It doesnt look like well be able to compete, he admitted unwillingly.
Well, the Duke really wants you to make a credible showing. After all, winning over a pushover is no fun. Not honorable, really, you know.
So, were going to leave Bushytail here with you to help train your team.
Lord Howard stuttered for a moment, before he managed to get out: Thank you, Lord. You are most generous.
Youre quite welcome, Lord Maxkrinv replied. As I said, the Duke does not care to compete against a pushover. Leaving her here was the least we could do. Bushytail managed to avoid laughing at adroit way the elf managed to sail his joke right over Lord Howards head.
He turned to Bushytail. Do whatever you can. If you actually manage to get them to where they can win, well, thats the breaks. You can keep Black Beauty. Dont break anything when you leave. The last said with a straight face, but she caught the underlying meaning clearly enough. They didnt expect her back. She had their permission to return to the world of the mortals, as long as she didnt cause trouble. In fact, they probably didnt want her back, truth be told.
He waved his hand, and Karp hitched the two new mares to his ponygirl. The two elves rode their girls out of the stable yard down the road toward home, leaving one very bewildered mortal behind.
Im Lord Howard, the man finally said to break the silence. I own this place.
At the sufferance of the elf Duke, she responded dryly. I already know you. Youre the moron who tried to sacrifice me to the Devil and got an elf instead. You couldnt even manage a Darwin Award for your stunt.
You… his eyes bugged out.
Keep your pomp, she said caustically. I say yes, sir and my lord as well as anyone. None of the elves complained about my courtesy.
Well, what am I supposed to do with you?
Whatever you want, as long as it involves training your herd of girls so your polo team can give the elves some competition.
You can do that? he exclaimed.
As youve seen, I can transform them so you can ride them. Im a quite competent groom and trainer. You need to provide someone to train on polo, I havent a clue. I havent even seen a game. A martial arts master might not be a bad idea, either. The elves arms master was quite caustic about my ability to train people to take falls, and you will take falls in training, believe me.
Lord Howard finally managed to come to a decision. He waved his stable master over. Arvin, this is … ? he paused as he realized he didnt know his new trainers name.
Tania, she filled in dryly. Ive decided to take my old name back.
Shes going to help us train for the polo match.
Great, Arvin said. And how are we going to ride them? Figured that out yet, genius?
Shell take care of that, too. Lord Howard turned and left. His staff clearly wasnt all that happy with him.
That is one strange dress, Arvin commented.
Like it? One of the elves gave it to me. Its not only waterproof; its spellproof, bulletproof and knifeproof. Its also quite comfortable. She paused. If were going to get anything done, we need a professional relationship. Find me a room above the stable to live, and find my ponyboy a stall. I also need a couple of grooms with something besides sawdust between the ears. Ill take charge of training the polo ponies. Put them in a section by themselves, please.
You actually think we can do it?
Not a chance, guy. All the Duke expects me to do is get you to make a decent showing while they win the game. Of course, upsets happen, and its no skin off my nose if you people actually win.
Well have to be able to ride them to make a decent showing. How do we do that?
Ill do the transformations. Do you just want the polo ponies transformed, or should I do all of them?
Arvin stepped back. Whoa. You can do that?
Yep, she smiled at him. That and lots more. Ill transform them and train them. As I told Lord Howard, I dont know anything about polo, and the elves martial arts master didnt think much of my ability to train to take falls properly.
Itll settle some problems if you can do them all. I imagine that having hooves instead of feet settles them quite well.
That and the security spell.
He arched an eyebrow.
Somehow, they cant seem to get their hands to unclip the chain keeping them in their stall. Thats all we use: a simple snap lock to the collar, and a knot on the ringbolt.
Thatll simplify the work flow around here, he said, leaving the if it works plainly dangling. Ill put all of the polo ponies in section C. Is living upstairs all right with you?
Almost have to do it that way. I doubt that Lord Howard wants horseshoe marks on his floors. She stamped her hoof, emphasizing her point with the clank of bronze on stone.
Too true, he sighed. Lets get you settled and then Ill show you section C. Ill have to move everything around. Been meaning to reorganize the stable for a couple of months anyway.
The living quarters turned out to be on top of the stable. They went up a narrow stairway to a comfortable living room. There was also a mess hall and a kitchen. There were a dozen small rooms for senior staff, some smaller than others. The residence corridor ended with two bunkrooms, one for men and one for women. She noted the ringbolt and chain by each bunk.
I take it most of the grooms are slaves?
Almost all of the workers, most of the grooms and some of the trainers. The rest of the staff has the single rooms. He walked back to the second door. This was for my assistant, whenever I found one. So far… he let the thought dribble off. Its yours now. If I ever get an assistant, shell have to go one farther down.
He pushed the door open, and she looked inside. There was a low bed, a table, chair, some shelves and a cabinet. Ill have our housekeeper move a makeup table in.
Dont bother. I havent used makeup in a while. If I need to, Ill figure something out a little lower maintenance. The few things I accumulated are in the pack with Black Beauty.
My stallion. Hes out there at the hitching rack.
They walked out again. She closed the door and looked at the corridor. Most of the rooms had a name on them. She smiled and pointed at the door. A bright spark appeared in the air. It landed on the wooden door, and a thin coil of smoke rose. It wrote: Tania in the center. Then it went down a line, and wrote Sorceress. The thin coil of smoke from the burned wood drifted away.
Thatll certainly do for a demonstration, Arvin said.
Section C turned out to be a square yard with 18 stalls, six on each of three sides. The other side was open to the main corridor, which in turn had a door to the outside. The two inside corners were tack rooms. She looked around curiously. Ten of the stalls had occupants. Buttercup over there is one of the polo ponies, he said. The rest of them are either carriage ponies or new arrivals were still breaking in. Ill get some grooms over here and move them out and your ponies in. He walked off.
Bring Black Beauty in while youre at it, she said. I want him in the first stall.
She walked over to look at Buttercup. The mare stood in the center of her stall, staring at nothing in particular. She had her arms wrenched behind her, hands clasped together in a single glove so that she couldnt move them to attempt to release herself. She balanced on a pair of five-inch stilt boots that looked like they might have horseshoes on the soles. Other than that, she had a thick, hinged metal collar with a padlock in back and a ringbolt in front. A long chain was padlocked to the collar on one end, and to a bolt in the wall on the other.
Buttercup was well named, she mused. She had what could have been a very nice head of butter blonde hair. However, it had been roached into a mohawk, in an attempt to simulate a mane. She leaned on the stall door. Here, girl, she coaxed, holding out her cupped hand. Buttercups eyes widened slightly as she noticed the candy in Tanias palm. Then they narrowed. What am I supposed to do with that? she snarled softly.
Attitude, chuckled Tania. What would a pony do? she asked rhetorically.
If you think Im gonna… Buttercup replied.
Yes, I think your going to. Tania said, withdrawing her hand and opening the door. The ponygirl backed up. Tania advanced and began stroking her face. After a moment, the girl softened. Tania held out the hand with the candy in front of her again. The girl looked at Tania. Tania looked back steadily. The ponygirl licked her lips and then bent her head, taking the candy neatly in her teeth. Then she sucked it in and began sucking it.
Very good, Tania said, reaching out slowly to scratch the girl behind the ears.
One thing to think about, she added as she backed up, hands on hips. I dont know what the talk rules were around here, and I dont really care if you were out of line or not. The girl tried to back up further into the wall, staring at her wideeyed.
However, the new rules are that if a horse could express it, you will express it the same way a horse would. No exceptions. Any breaks, and well do a bit of training. Understand?
The girl nodded. Wrong answer. Horses dont nod. They whinny. Understand?
She opened her mouth, and then thought better of it. She tried a whinny.
Not bad. Add some vibrato.
She whinnied again. Much better. Now, you disagreed with me earlier. How would a horse do that?
Buttercup stared at her, and then started to open her mouth. Then she shut it and smiled radiantly. She gave a realistic snort and pawed the ground with her left foot.
Great! Tania clapped. Lets get you transformed, she looked around and spotted a halter. The girl backed up as she approached. Tania frowned at her. Suddenly the girl giggled and then snorted, pawing the ground. Tania smiled. Good girl, she crooned, walking closer to where she could stroke the ponygirls face. Once the ponygirl relaxed, she pulled the ropes over her head and tightened them under her chin. Then she tugged on the lead rope, and the ponygirl walked out of her stall after her.
Tania flipped the rope around a convenient beam and walked around her new charge. She walked up behind the mare, and stroked one of her legs. Buttercup obediently lifted it, and she swiftly stripped off the boot. She looked at the sole before tossing it aside. It had a horseshoe, just as she had thought. She took the other boot off, and left the girl standing on her toes, feet arched.
Tania walked back and lifted her hands, projecting the transformation spell into the familiar haze. It left her hands and wrapped the butter blond ponygirl. When it cleared, her legs had blonde horsehair from the knee down, finished by a black sock on one leg and a brown one on the other. Hooves had replaced her feet. Her hair had suddenly grown out again, rippling over her shoulders, and she had a mane of the same blond hair. She also had a tail of luxurious blond hair depending from her tailbone. Her breasts had firmed up as well, and her hips were slightly wider.
There, isnt that better? Tania asked, a smile on her face as she walked around the stunned girl and removed the hand restraints. The girl brought her arms around, and cried out in pain as her shoulders adjusted. Then she smiled craftily, and tried to take off her halter. Her fingers slipped over the knots. She tried again, with the same result. She tried again, and then stamped a hoof in frustration.
So thats the security spell in action, said Arvin from behind her. The ponygirl jerked her head around as he spoke, then her eyes widened as she understood what he said.
Yes, it is. How do you like her?
Pretty, he said. That mane is much better than the barbers did. I assume it doesnt need maintenance?
Brush it out, currycomb for the legs, nothing unusual.
Currycombs we can find, he said, circling the girl, who had stopped fiddling with her halter. Steady there, he said, stroking the line of her jaw and then lifting one full breast. Youve taken the sag out, I see.
Yes, we had to reconstruct them. Theyll bounce nicely while she trots, but they wont sag any more. Shouldnt need maintenance, but then, who knows?
And a real tail. Thats going to make a lot of the owners happy.
Of course. Ponies have tails, why shouldnt she? Even though the Duke left flies out of this place, thank whatever!
How does she ride?
Have you got a bridle and saddle?
The stablemaster walked over to the wall and took a bridle down. This is hers. Tanya stroked the girl along one breast, and then removed the halter, replacing it with the bridle in one smooth motion. She reared back slightly in startlement, and then settled down as Tania tightened the buckles, making certain that it didnt have any play.
Bit? She looked at it and frowned. It was a large, ungainly thing that would jack the poor girls jaw open. I like ours better, Tania said. She held it up. The girl remembered her lessons: she snorted and pulled back. Good girl, just open up now, Tania crooned as she quieted her down. The ponygirl opened her mouth in resignation so Tania could stuff it in and fasten the ends to the bridle.
Tania shook her head. No, this would not do. She took the bit out and looked at it. It seemed to be hard rubber, not the most pleasant of substances to chew on. Bronze was much better. Well. She let her senses play with it until the structure of the rubber came clear, and then twisted. It flowed in her hands until she was satisfied. Open up, girl, she commanded.
This time the pony opened her mouth to accept the bit. Tania stuffed it in and wiggled it to try to seat it properly. It slid into the spaces between the girls teeth and settled there. She clipped it to the bridle and watched as the ponygirl tried it with her tongue. Better? she asked. Buttercup whinnied at her, and then put her face forward for a quick nuzzle.
Now for reins. The stablemaster handed her a set, and she clipped them to the ends of the bit. She let the reins dangle to the ground. Thats a ground tie, girl. You know what a ground tie is? Buttercup whinnied at her.
Lets see what youve got for a saddle. The stablemaster led her over to the wall, where several ornate saddles hung. She looked at them and shook her head. Too complicated, and theyre not pitched right. Lets just use a pad for now. She pulled a pad off the wall and walked back to where the ponygirl waited patiently. She planted a hand in the middle of the girls back and said: Bend forward. As the girl bent forward, her head came up. Tania pulled gently on a lock of her mane when she was halfway and the girl obediently stopped.
Thats about right, Tania said as she put the saddle blanket on Buttercups back and cinched the straps tight under her. She said: watch your balance as she planted both hands on the girls back and vaulted into place astride her new mount. The ponygirl staggered at the sudden weight, and then steadied under the load.
Good girl, Tania crooned as she stroked her steeds mane. The stablemaster handed her the reins. She took them in her left hand and adjusted them until they were not quite taut. Walk, she commanded with a twitch of the reins. She tried light pressure first to one side and then to the other, delighting in the way her mount moved with the reins, gaining confidence with each step. Good girl, she praised as she guided the ponygirl into her stall. Steady now. She slid off, paying no attention as her skirt smoothed itself. She swiftly stripped off the saddle blanket and the bridle, taking the reshaped bit out with it. Then she picked up the chain and held it out. The girl eyed it, snorted and then bent her head back, baring the ring on her collar for the lock on the end of the chain.
Then she held out her hand, a candy in the palm. The blond ponygirl whinnied, and bent her head to take the morsel with the tip of her tongue, sucking it into her mouth. Good girl, Tania praised as she scratched her under the jawline and behind the ears.
Youve even got her eating out of your hand, Arvin said. How did you manage that?
She shrugged. Once they get it through their heads that theyre going to spend the rest of their life acting like ponies, most of them get right down to it. She paused a moment. Of course, having hooves and a tail probably helps emphasize the fact a bit.
I suppose so, Arvin said, still looking at Buttercup.
Youre not going to win a polo game riding broken down nags. If you want spirited ponies, you have to treat them well.
That makes entirely too much sense, he replied, scowling. He shrugged. Lets get your crew together and start transferring ponies.
The noise in the staff mess hall assaulted her as she walked in with Arvin, her bronze horseshoes clomping on the flagstone floor. Arvin walked into the center of the hall and waved for silence. When it didnt look like hed get it, he jumped up on a table and waved again. Tania grinned; time for a little demonstration. She waved her hand in a circle above her head, leaving a glowing path behind it. When the path closed, the circle flashed with a loud bang! Every head turned to the disturbance.
Arvin jumped into the silence. Let me introduce our newest staff member. Tania is joining us to train our ponygirls for the polo match with the elves. Tania jumped up on the table and waved. I dont know whether theyve given her to us, loaned her to us, or kicked her out, but shes spent the last few months with the elves working on their team. Weve already got two ponygirls that can be ridden; let me tell you, thats a treat. Or it will be if we can get saddles for them. Tania!
Ill make this short so we can get some food, guys. As far as the arrangement goes, its some of all of the above. Those elves are weirder than you know. What I learned over there was sorcery. Ive already given two of the girls hooves and a tail, and made some other changes so they can be ridden easily. One word of warning folks. Im not going to stand for any mistreatment of our livestock, and you dont want to get on my bad side. Other than that, Im real easy to get along with as long as you do your job right. Make any questions short so we can get back to eating.
Most of the folks in the mess hall just looked at her with a mixture of expressions ranging from admiration to disbelief. One guy was made of sterner stuff.
Im going to do what I damn well please with my girls. And you aint going to do nothing about it, bitch.
Tania smiled and waved her hand in the air. A shimmer gathered around it. Thank you for volunteering for a little object lesson. She cast the shimmer in his direction; it drifted toward him, to the accompaniment of other diners scrambling out of its way. It wrapped him in a fog of distortion for a moment. When it cleared, a four-hoofed animal stood there, large ears flopping as it stared around the hall.
A wave of laughter greeted the sight. He looks better that way! Get that jackass out of here! One of the diners threw a rope around its neck and pulled, leading it out of the mess hall.
As I said, well get along just fine if we all do our jobs. Now, lets get back to eating. Im hungry! She leaped down from the table and joined the serving line.
She reflected on food as she picked up her plastic tray and filled a plate with pasta and a side of salad. The food while she had been a ponygirl had been mostly fresh fruits and vegetables. Not tremendously inspiring, but certainly healthy. Later, the food that the elves served their servants was quite good. Those pointy-eared bastards demanded perfection for themselves, and they didnt deny it to their servants, either. That would have been beneath their dignity. This food wasnt particularly bad, but on the other hand, it certainly wouldnt have earned more than two stars in a restaurant.
Well, she thought, that wasnt her problem, unless it affected her girls. If it did, she could see a quick improvement in morale.
She followed Arvin to a table at the head of the room. Shed already figured out this place had a strict hierarchy, so she wasnt surprised that most of the people at the table were department heads.
Jim, the head farmer, nodded to her as she sat down, neatly curling her tail around her waist. Glad to meet you, Miss…
Tania, she replied. Just Tania. The elves dont use family names, and Ive gotten out of the habit. Besides, they still think of me as Bushytail.
I did notice that tail. Quite as startling as your dress.
Well, yes. Its no secret that I came here as a ponygirl. The first one, in fact. Karp invented the transformations on me. I asked for a cats tail, so he did it. After that, he did horses tails for the rest.
You started out as a ponygirl? Whyd they let you go?
Well, thats rather obscure. The way they tell it, their High King decided that hed had enough with judging disputes with mortals, so he made a law. They have to treat us no worse than we treat others. I understand its actually in the Bible somewhere. Anyway, the High Kings laws enforce themselves. When I learned some sorcery, the laws seem to have decided that my being a ponygirl was somehow wrong, so a situation came up that forced the issue. I got promoted to groom and trainer.
In the Bible? Mary, the head of housekeeping, enquired.
The Golden Rule, I guess, contributed Robin, who was the slave master.
He who has the gold makes the rules? asked Rachel, the head of supply. How does that apply? Jim doubled up choking on a forkful of spaghetti.
Wrong version, Arvin said, mournfully. Look it up sometime.
Its still a good question, though, Jim said, clearing his throat. How does that apply to us? Were not elves.
True. Since this place is Underhill, the High Kings rule prevents you from bringing in anyone who violates that law. What you are is a supply conduit for mortals that the elves can take as slaves and livestock without any repercussions.
So, Jim said between bites, youre going to treat our human livestock as humanely as possible, so the elves cant do something foul to you.
Exactly. One of these days, Im going to leave here. Theres nothing you can do to stop me, but the elves certainly could if they wanted to.
If you leave… Arvin said.
Will I betray you to the authorities? Six months ago, Id have said yes. Today? I dont know. Tomorrow? Who knows?
Actually, that wasnt the question. Youre in too deep for me to worry about you betraying us. If youre anywhere near as good as you look, youre going to be a hard act to follow.
Good point, she nodded. Ill think of something.
Speaking of a tough act to follow, Jim said. Ive got something for you to look into. The ponies Ive got plowing and hauling stuff around arent very efficient. Can you do something about that?
Maybe. Whats needs improving?
They arent strong enough, and theyre stupid.
Sos a horse. Whats your beef?
I need too much manpower supervising them. I cant give the slaves whips.
She shook her head. You shouldnt need whips unless they really are overloaded. Something occurred to her. You know, I really hadnt thought very much about how you were training them. The elves started out with a transformation, and Ive been tweaking the process for the last few months. If its all right with you, Ill do a mass transformation tonight. Most of your problems with them should be over in a week or less. Of course… she let the thought dribble off.
Of course what? asked Arvin.
Well, part of the transformation spell is what you might call a data base of pony behaviors. Once they decide to act like a pony, it starts flowing in, and in a couple of days, its hard to tell the difference until they surprise you by talking. And of course, they do still understand what you say, so you have to be a bit careful of what you dont want them to know.
Why should talking surprise me? Jim asked. We havent done very well breaking them of the habit.
Because the spell trains them to react like a pony when its something that a pony could express. Youd be surprised how much communication really doesnt require words. Youll get used to it. What youll have more problems with is sex. The mares will go into heat for three days a month, and are simply not interested in sex at other times. The times are staggered. The stallions are interested all the time, but only in mares that are in heat.
Why did you do that? Arvin asked. Thats going to be interesting to manage.
We were running into too much trouble around the stable. The elves considered having them all in heat once a year at the same time, like horses, but decided to go with the monthly cycle. Theyre a lot easier to manage that way. When a mare is in heat, we just put her in the same stall with a stallion, and let them work it out. The rest of the herd ignores it. Except for any unmatched stallions.
Also, it tends to reinforce the role. She smiled wickedly.
What does all that sex do to the stallions? For that matter, what does it do to the other people around the stable?
The stallions like it, of course, she said. Part of the transformation: they can run most of the mares into the ground. The other part Ill have to think about. We did tend to keep the mortals away from them when they were rutting. The elves mostly didnt care what their livestock was doing. Maybe a general spell to keep the rest of the staff from getting interested in the ponies? She mused for a moment. Ill do it that way. You wont be able to get sexually interested in anything with hooves and a tail.
Might crimp your sex life, Mary commented.
Hooves and a horses tail, Tania corrected.
Thatll settle a couple of other problems, said Jerry, the general manager. Ive never liked the way some of the people around here take advantage of the livestock.
Pity about that, said Rachel dryly.
So, Jim said, How does that help me?
Oh, theyll be a lot stronger. Once they settle in and accept being ponies, you wont have any problems with them wanting to work. Thats part of the pattern: ponies work at being ridden or pulling things. Or showing off if youve trained them that way. Remember that theyre still humans acting like ponies, so if you tell one of them to haul a load of manure to the dump, theyll get it there without needing a driver. At least, some of them will. Some of them will probably decide that if they have to act like horses, theyre going to make you do your part of the work.
Lets get to the polo match, put in Jerry.
Well, Ive got the transformations and initial retraining well in hand. I need to teach them how to fall. Theres no way youre going to avoid falls, and broken bones are not real good, especially when you dont have a healer on staff. The elfs combat trainer didnt think very much of my ability to teach basic falling.
So you need a martial arts master. I think weve got one.
Then you need someone that knows polo. Im going to use a Frisbee for the initial training. Its a great game to let the ponies and their riders get used to cooperating with each other. I know nothing about polo. The first time I heard it mentioned, I thought the elves were talking about old Marco. Youre going to need a polo coach to teach the moves and strategy.
Ill have to talk to one of the owners for that.
Understood. Then I need to talk to your farrier, your smith and your harness maker. The ponies need to be shod, the bits all need to be replaced, and we need saddles made.
Farrier? asked Jerry.
Guy who shoes horses, said Arvin. We dont have one. We take the animals back when they need new shoes.
Then Im going to need a fair amount of bronze to make horseshoes and bits. The elf smith I worked with allowed that I wasnt totally incompetent.
Why bronze? asked Jerry. We use hard rubber for that.
For horseshoes as well? OK, I can work with that. Im changing the bits around anyway.
Why change the bit?
Youre using one that jams the jaw open and pulls the mouth back quite a bit. Its got to hurt like crazy after a while; Im not surprised your ponies are a mite testy. The ones we used fit across the jaw where we removed teeth, curve around the jaw line slightly, and come out where they dont stretch the lips. Theyre a lot more comfortable, and provide esquisite control.
Section C blazed with light from the two gently glowing globes of mage light floating up near the overhead beams. About a dozen people looked on from the open side of the square. The ten ponygirls and three ponyboys also looked on from their stalls.
Two of the mares, and one of the stallions, had already been transformed. It was easy to tell which was which. The transformed ones had their hands free, and were using them to steady themselves against the stall doors as they watched. The others still had their hands bound behind them, and were casting envious glances at the fortunate trio, at least, when they werent looking at the drifting globes with a fair amount of trepidation.
Tania stepped into the center of the space and raised a hand. Everyone stopped talking as if the volume control had been turned off. She pointed a finger at the floor. A narrow beam of light shot out. She drew a circle, followed by a five pointed star. Various other figures followed in no known language. Some of them might have meant something to some of the onlookers, but then, maybe it was just coincidence. No one could tell for certain.
Finally, she stepped back, raising both hands above her head, her snakeskin tunic following the movement like a second skin. A cloud began to form inside the circle, writhing and twisting in strange ways. It became denser and denser, until suddenly it fragmented in pieces and spilled out of the circle. Ten of the fragments drifted to the sides and back, enveloping the untransformed ponies. The rest oozed toward the front, as the people hastily scattered to give them room. They divided and went to each side as if they had minds, and vanished into the gloom of the other sections of the ponygirl stable.
One of the globes of lambent light suddenly fragmented with a loud pop! Everyone jumped back another foot.
Well, folks, thats the show for tonight, Tanya said. Lets just see how it worked, shall we? She waved her hand at the figure, which vanished from the stone floor like it had never existed, picked a halter off of a peg and walked over to one of the stall doors. This was the girl shed noticed watching the shimmering cloud with single-minded intensity.
She held out the halter in front of the girl. Come here, Goldilocks, she crooned as the girl backpedaled in her cell. The mare snorted slightly. Tania fixed her with her eye. Youre going to show the nice people what happened to you, one way or the other, she said quietly. She swung open the stall door and walked in. The mare tried to ooze through the back of the stall, failing signally. Tania reached out and stroked her face lightly, until suddenly the mare came forward and buried her head in Tanias arm. Tania stroked her luxurious mane for a moment, and then brought the ropes of the bridle up over her head and stepped back, tightening it with a simple twist. She tossed the lead around one of the posts. Turn around, pet. The mare turned obediently, and Tania stripped off the restraints that held her hands uselessly in the small of her back. She took the lead and tugged gently, leading the mare out of the stall into the center of the section. Then she threw the lead rope up to where it wrapped itself over one of the beams, safely out of harms way. The mare stood there, shaking slightly as the onlookers crowded around to see.
Gold was well worth looking at. Her light brown hair showed its golden highlights to advantage in the mage light. It hung loosely over her shoulders. Her mane, of the same light brown hair with golden highlights, continued down her back to just above the bottom of her rib cage, overlaying her spine. She was still sufficiently scared over her transformation and all the people looking at her that she didnt notice that her tail twitched from side to side. It was a slightly lighter golden brown, almost as if it had been toasted. The tip of her tail just brushed the back of her calves, contrasting with the thick coat of dark brown horsehair on her legs. To top it off, or rather, to bottom it out, she had two white stockings just above her hooves.
Tania held one of her breasts. Gold made to move her hands to protect herself, and then thought better of it, standing still in resignation. Notice that her breasts are firmer than they were. Theyve been restructured so trotting and galloping wont make them sag. Theyll bounce just enough so you can hang bells on them if you want. She reached into her pouch and took out a small bronze ring and held it up to the breast in her other hand. The ring sank into the skin just under the aureole, dangling freely. She took a small golden bell from her pouch, and hung it on the ring.
Show them how it rings, Gold, she commanded. The mare looked at her in confusion. Like this, Tania reached out and touched her forehead. The breast twitched up and down, the bell ringing. The girl looked at her. Then her breast twitched again, and the bell rang again.
Now we do the other one, Tania said as she brought out another ring and bell. Notice that she can wiggle her breasts independently. The girl rang one of the bells, then the other, and suddenly giggled. Having fun? Tania inquired. The mare whinnied.
All right. Try to take your bridle off. The mare stepped back a pace, and then put her hands up to her bridle. She tried to find the slipknot that held it on under her jaw, but her hands didnt find any purchase.
Thats the security part of the spell. She cant unlock or untie anything that keeps her in her stall, or in her harness, or harnessed to wherever you want to leave her. Otherwise, her hands will work perfectly well.
Now, lets do her collar. Tanias hands reached up to the hinged collar around the mares neck. The metal seemed to gleam in the mage light, and suddenly appeared to turn liquid. It settled into an almost featureless flat, circular band around the girls throat, without any sign of a seam or closure. The D ring hanging from the front was the only thing that marred its circular perfection.
She twitched at the lead rope, and it obediently untied itself from the overhead beam and fell into her hand. Back to your stall, pet, she said as she gave it a gentle tug. The mare followed her into the stall.
One final thing, Tania said as she held up the end of the restraining chain. We dont really need these locks. She pinched the lock off the end of the chain and tossed it out, where Arvin caught it neatly. Then she attached a simple snap hook from her pouch to the end of the chain and held it out. The girl, now completely mesmerized by the process, held her head back slightly, baring the D ring in her collar. Tania attached the chain with an audible snick as the spring caught, and then stepped back.
She unwrapped a small candy from her pouch and held it out. Gold looked at it and then bent her head, taking it between her tongue and upper teeth. Tania scratched her under the chin, stroked her mane once, and then walked out of the stall, closing the door behind her.
Well, folks. Shows over for tonight. The mage light moved from the center of the enclosure to the door, showing the way out. She made a quick gesture at the grooms to stay behind.
Once the onlookers had vanished, she told the grooms to go around and release all of the ponies hands from their restraints. Then she headed toward the stairs and her new quarters.
She bolted the door behind her and looked at the bundle sitting in the middle of the bed. She undid it, and then exclaimed in delight. Coral, bless you! There in the bundle of her few belongings was a pair of the same snakeskin boots Coral wore. She looked at the boots and then at her hooves. Then her shoulders straightened in decision. She bent over and took off the bronze horseshoes, and then drew in a deep breath. The space around her legs shimmered. When the shimmer cleared, she had her own legs and feet back, minus a few minor imperfections. She slipped her feet into the boots and tried to stand. Coral, how can you stand these heels? she muttered. Then she chuckled. Of course. The space around the boots shimmered as she adjusted her feet to be comfortable with the cruel arch imposed by the bronze foundation they had been built around. She shimmied out of the tunic and boots, put on a robe and padded down the hall to the womens showers, tail peaking out from under the robe.
The alarm sounded gently, bringing Tania instantly awake. She swung herself upright on the bed, and summoned up a visual of which of the magical monitors were complaining. Then she chuckled. The visual showed that Goldilocks had managed to open her stall door, and was cautiously prowling around the stable, trying to get out without being seen.
She slithered into her snakeskin tunic and boots, and magically tapped Black Beauty, causing the stallion to wake, without quite knowing why. She picked up a device with three balls joined by leather straps, and hung it on her belt. As soon as Goldilocks left the stable, she padded softly downstairs and went to her favorite stallions stall. He wuffled gently as she came in, eyes dancing in excitement. She pulled his bridle and bit off the rail and held them out. He stuck his head in the bridle, allowing her to buckle it tightly, and then opened his mouth for the bit. She slid it in and settled it against his teeth, then fastened it to the bridle. She clipped on the reins, and then opened the stall door and unclipped the security chain from his collar. He pranced out, hard rubber shoes making quiet thumps on the flagstones.
She pushed his back gently, and he bent over. Then she put the saddle pad and saddle on him, and swung into the saddle, taking the reins in her left hand, as usual. She picked Goldilocks halter off the post on the way out.
A quick check showed that Gold had headed into the woods. She shook her head. The silly creature was headed for trouble, big time, and didnt realize it. She wasnt going for either gate: the one to the outside world, or the one to the elves holding.
She deftly guided Black Beauty into the woods, listening to the night noises continue around her unabated, as the stars wheeled overhead, undimmed by any lights. She twitched the reins, and Beauty shifted up from a trot to a canter. Unlike a horse, there wasnt any difference in which leg went when. The difference between a trot and a canter was subtler: it was a matter of timing and when the legs were released to allow a free swing. More important, it was faster than a trot. It took more out of the pony, too, but that was relatively unimportant.
A few minutes later, she heard the woods go quiet in front of her, and knew that her quarry was not very far ahead. Then Goldilocks flashed into sight crossing a meadow. Tania picked up the three balls and cords from where they were swinging on her belt, twirled them around her head, and let fly. The device spread out in flight, and then wrapped itself around her quarrys legs. Goldilocks went right down, but managed to tuck herself into a ball and roll.
Good save, girl! Tania called, breaking the silence. What in heck do you think you were doing?
The ponygirl rolled over and looked at her captor. Then she unwrapped the leather thongs from her legs and stood up, brushing herself off before she answered.
Trying to escape. Wasnt it obvious? she said, scornfully.
Somehow, I really didnt think you were sleepwalking, Tania chuckled. The real question is: Why in that direction?
The other directions I knew about. They didnt offer any opportunity.
So you decided to throw the dice. Goldilocks nodded.
Well, let me show you something, Tania held out the halter.
Goldilocks looked at it. Youre not taking me back!
How are you going to stop me? Tania asked reasonably.
Goldilocks stood still, arms crossed. Tania shook her head sadly. Didnt it ever occur to you that escape was a bit too easy?
Easy? the ponygirl spat. If you knew what I had to go through to unravel that damned spell…
As it happens, I know exactly what you had to go through. I did it myself less than a year ago.
The ponygirl stared at her as Tania shook her head again. That security spell exists the way it is for only one reason: to allow budding mages something to work on. If I wanted to prevent you from escaping, I could do that, and nothing an amateur mage could do would matter in the slightest.
Then… the girls shoulders shook. It was all for nothing.
Hardly, Tania swung down from her stallion, leaving the reins grounded, and took the girl into her arms. Goldilocks broke into a flood of tears as Tania held her, stroking her mane and back. Finally, she finished.
Tania swung back into the saddle and gathered the reins back, looping them about the pommel. Lets go, she said, holding out the halter. Goldilocks sighed, and put her head into the cradle of ropes. Tania tightened the slipknot and fastened it to the back of her saddle. Then she picked up the reins and squeezed her mount. He obediently started into a trot. They headed into the woods on the far side of the meadow, the captured ponygirl trotting behind, arms crossed behind her, hands on elbows.
A few miles later, they came out of the woods onto a hill overlooking a cliff. Take a good look down there, Tania said.
It was worth a look. Whatever was down there wasnt ground in any normal sense of the word. It writhed. Patterns formed and dissolved. Occasionally something formed that was recognizable. Through it all, things moved. She could see some of them clearly, and wished she hadnt. They were the stuff of nightmares. One drifted up on the wind, and hovered just outside of the cliff.
Mortal, most stupid, it moaned. Come to your destiny. Goldilocks cowered back. It really did look horrid.
Not today, laughed Tania. Not ever, actually. However, thank you for the view, and begone! She waved her hand, and the apparition backed away adroitly, moaning softly.
She rubbed her mount between the neck and shoulders, and then pulled the reins, turning him around. Goldilocks followed her back through the woods, until they reached the meadow where Tania had caught the runaway. She stopped, swung off of Beauty and stood looking at her captive.
What do you think that was? she asked.
I dont know, Goldilocks gasped.
Chaos. Pure, unformed chaos. Youre missing some background to know exactly how stupid that break was. Were Underhill. Do you know what that means?
Uh… Thats where elves live?
Exactly. This entire area is owned by an elf Duke. Its a small part of his territory, actually, that has been created specifically for Lord Howard and his games. What makes an elf Duke is the ability to carve out a portion of Chaos, and impose his will on it. The only way out is through one of the two gates. One leads back to our world, and the other leads to the elves part of the Dukes demesne. Nothing goes through either gate unless the Duke allows it.
Then theres no way home, she sighed.
Nonsense! said Tania. Things here work according to the elves rules, and they are very strange according to our way of thinking. The High King set one of those rules, many, many millennia ago. The way the story goes; he simply got tired of judging disputes between his people and mortals, so he made a law. The elves are not allowed to treat us any worse than we treat those around us. That rule is built into the fabric of Underhill; it enforces itself. The gate back to the mortal world will work for you when you reform your personality to treat others better than is the norm around here.
Her eyes widened. I havent done anything to deserve this!
Tania shrugged. Im not your confessor, girl. The gate would not have allowed you to come through this way if you were a plaster saint. Do you want to know what you have to do?
The girl nodded decisively. Whatever it takes.
Thats the spirit. Look into my eyes. Tania touched the girl on the forehead. She started a moment. But, thats the way the world works!
I can only show you what piece of you the gate will recognize. Its up to you to accept it and do something about it.
But me no buts, girl. Let me tell you something. When I came here, I was under that law too. In fact, Ive been here the longest: the Duke took me right out of the Satanic Ritual that Lord Howard botched. He got the Duke instead. I was the highly unwilling virgin sacrifice. I spent several months as a ponygirl. I learned how to disassemble the security spell the second day. Apparently, I was pure hearted enough, or whatever, that they promoted me to groom when they got the next pair of human ponies. Ive worked on integrity ever since I got here. Theres only one thing standing between me and walking out of here, and it hasnt been easy getting that far.
Whats that? she asked, wide-eyed.
My word. I gave my word that Id train this sides polo team so they would make a reasonable showing. I cant leave until the game is over. And there are a couple of other considerations.
Now, she continued. Lets talk about your future. Im not going to tell you to be a good little girl and everything will be all right. Thats bunk. Right now, youre on the polo team. Theres really only one thing you need to know. Attitude. A winning polo team depends on its ponies just as much as it does its riders. That rider isnt going anywhere without a ponygirl under him, and hes still not going anywhere unless shes got a streak of pure competitiveness. Theres a difference between showing lots of spirit, and being unmanageable.
As far as your magic goes, keep on. The more effort you put into it, the more likely I am to help you over the rough spots. The big difference is that youre in a bit of a catch-22 there. If youve got enough magic to make a difference, youll be ineligible for the polo games. If you do well enough at the magic, Ill probably swap you for Black Beauty. Im going to be one of the umpires, and I need a mount. Black Beauty wants to be one of the polo ponies, so Ill loan him to one of the riders. Understand?
She whinnied, and then looked confused. After a momentary struggle, she asked: What just happened?
I quit suspending one of the rules, girl. Youre back to being a ponygirl. And I want to get some sleep tonight. Tania swung into the saddle and gave the reins a tug. Black Beauty trotted toward the woods, the captive following on her lead.
Tania sighed, stripped off her tunic and boots and plopped onto the bed shed quit two hours before. She waved the mage light off, and then called up an image of her erstwhile captive. Goldilocks was standing in the center of her stall, deep in thought. She reached out, unlatched the stall door and opened it. Then she unclipped the chain from her collar and stared at the center of the room. After a long moment, she swung the door closed, shot the bolt, and clipped the chain back on her collar. She shook her head, golden tresses moving softly over her bare shoulders, and then dropped to the straw and went to sleep.
Tania rode her ponyboy into the glen, and nodded approvingly. The tall oaks provided just the right amount of shade dappling the grass in the afternoon sunlight. The sound of the brook babbling over rocks provided a soothing undertone, which was just what she needed after the last couple of hectic weeks. Butterflies and wildflowers added their touch of color. She dismounted and stretched, snakeskin tunic making her look like one more exotic wildflower in the meadow.
She dropped the pack onto the ground, where it unrolled to provide a blanket. She moved the picnic basket off the blanket, and picked up the bronze auger / stake shed brought along, with its ten feet of light bronze chain.
Good boy, she scratched Black Beauty behind his ears. Then she stripped off the saddle, and led him to the brook. He dropped onto his hands and knees and plunged his head into the water, sucking greedily. Trust the elves to come up with a usable bit, she thought to herself. This bit stuck to the top of the mouth, where the teeth had been removed from the jaw, and didnt prevent drinking. It didnt even prevent talking, although speech came out garbled with the metal bar blocking the tongues full range of movement. Beauty didnt talk much anyway, not that any of the ponies did, so he didnt have much opportunity to practice.
Not that he was going to get it today, either. Once hed drunk his fill, she led him back to the center of the meadow and dropped his reins, effectively ground tying him. Beauty would only stay ground tied for so long, and then only if it suited him, but today he wasnt going anywhere. She took the auger and twisted it into the ground, and then snicked the snap lock on the end of the chain to the ring in his collar. She took out his bit and then stripped off the bridle and saddle, dropping them to the side.
The hamper provided a hot lunch of wildfowl sandwiches with a salad, and an assortment of roots, vegetables and fruits. She put the latter on a plate and put it on one end of the blanket. Sit and eat, she waved at the pile of vegetation.
Black Beauty relaxed his pose, dropped to sit on his hooves, and dug in, picking the various fruits and vegetables up with his hands and eating delicately. She dug into her own lunch voraciously. After a while, she looked at her pony and said: Well, do you thing its going to work?
The ponyboy choked on his carrot. Youre… talking to me? he asked, a bit surprised.
Of course. I did ask you a question, and its going to take more than a whinny to answer. You know whats going on from under the saddle. So, is it going to work?
He wiped his lips with the back of his hand. I think so. Most of my stablemates are excited about the game. When theres no one around, thats all theyre talking about. Well, that and what the stallions did to them last night, although thats died down. He looked a bit aggrieved about that.
She chuckled. You like that, dont you. Why do you think theyve quit talking about it?
Theyre not in heat, of course. Im not certain theyve figured that out, though. He chuckled and then tilted his head, looking at her. Are you in heat?
What do you think?
He reached over tentatively, and touched her leg. She sighed as he stroked her inner thigh. Then she got up, cleared the remains of lunch off the blanket and slithered out of her dress.
The sun had moved appreciably when she sighed again and sat up. You do know how to pleasure a mare, she said languidly as she stroked his mane. Ive missed that since we moved here. Im going to catch some sun. Wake me in an hour or so, love.
He snorted and fingered his chain.
Youd like to roam? she asked.
He whinnied. She reached into the pack for a length of rope, and tied it around his ankles, leaving about a one and a half foot spread. Then she unclipped the chain from his collar. He snorted again.
You should know better, she told him crossly. We dont leave ponies loose. Its either the chain or hobbles. He snorted again and pawed the ground in displeasure, and then drifted off toward a blackberry bush at the edge of the woods. She smiled fondly after him, and then lay back on the blanket, soaking up the afternoon sun.
Two hours later, she woke up and stretched. Boy, did I ever need that, she thought to herself. She looked around; Beauty was stretched out on the ground on the other end of the meadow, sleeping. She slithered into her dress, gathered up the remains of the meal and packed them neatly for disposal, and then whistled. Beauty roused himself, and hobbled over to her. She gave him a big hug, and then swiftly saddled him. Another moment, and the ponyboy and his rider were on the path back to the settlement.
Tania looked out over the training ground from her spot at the sideline. The martial arts master theyd gotten had been reasonably good, she thought critically. Nowhere as good as the elves martial arts master, but better than she was as a trainer. Theyd had a couple of sparring matches, and shed had to work to score any hits against him. Hopefully, they wouldnt have to put those lessons into practice too frequently.
On the other hand, they hadnt been able to find a polo trainer willing to come and work with them. She shrugged. The reward for good work was always more work. So it was, so it is, and so it will always be. She had managed to snag a copy of the current US rules, as well as the European and International rules, and enough background to know what she was seeing. Most of the riders didnt seem to know even that much.
Well, folks, its time to begin training in earnest. Up to now, weve just been practicing tumbling, pony control, quick stops and fast turns. You seem to have most of that down. Which of you has actually seen a polo game?
None of the hands went up. Just as shed thought.
Well, which of you has seen an ice hockey game?
All the hands went up, and the ponies whinnied.
Well, polo is a lot like hockey. Once the period starts, you dont stop unless you get a goal, the umpire calls a foul, or the period ends. If you think about it a moment, it has to be that way. Polo originated as a game for training light cavalry. Men on horses with bows, swords and spears. You dont stop a real fight for minor infractions. One side or the other is going to be carried off on stretchers.
In polo, they try to make the warfare as realistic as possible without getting too many casualties. Friendly fire isnt friendly if youre the one on the ground bleeding. So there are strict limits to what you can do. Ill talk about them, but remember that Im just as new to this as the rest of you.
Periods are seven minutes each. Breaks between periods are four minutes. A full game is six periods, plus overtime if necessary. In real polo, the riders change mounts between periods. Theres no way a horse can go all out for seven minutes and then be good for much until its had time to recover. I havent got a clue whether our ponygirls have that kind of limit, but well find out shortly.
Were going to start out with the Frisbees, but otherwise play as close as we can get to reality. One of the biggest differences is that the disks are not going to go as fast as a hit ball, but they wont hit as hard either. Once we get to practicing with a real ball and mallets, were going to want armor for both the riders and the ponies, or were going to have real injuries.
The other difference is that you wont be able to get one of the disks if its on the ground or too low. Ive got a fix for that. These wristbands will allow you to call a Frisbee into your hand, within limits. Theyre set for the polo rules, so they will only do it if the disk is on your right, below your hips, and within reach of a mallet. If you try to call one thats only a little way out of the zone, nothing is going to happen. If you try to call one thats too far out, its a foul for unsportsmanlike conduct. Also, you cant hold on to the thing, youve got to toss it to someone else within two paces. Once we get to the balls and mallets, youll be able to do ball control the same way hockey players try to do puck control, but that isnt for now.
Teams are four players. Number 1 is offense, Number 4 is defense, Numbers 2 and 3 shift back and forth as the situation changes. Number 3 is the team captain. Hes the only one that can talk to the umpires or the referee.
Theres a series of right of way rules. For the moment, assume that you can cut in front of someone else only if theyve got the maneuverability to avoid you. You can bump into someone else to shove them off course, but you cant do it so hard theyll overbalance. Once we get to real mallets, you can hook their mallet with yours.
All right. Choose up sides and put on the jerseys and wristbands. Red team on my right, blue team on my left. The initial position is a T. Three riders in front, rider 4 in back. You need to be crossing the 20-yard lines at a canter when I toss the disk out in between your teams. Im the umpire and referee. Lets get to it, people.
She watched, sitting with Black Beauty tense between her legs, as the eight riders sorted themselves out into two teams. Finally, they were ready. She blew her whistle to start, and watched them run toward each other. As the crossed the chalk lines that marked 20 yards from the midline, she tossed the Frisbee across the field, curving gently over the chalk line that marked the center. She almost fell off Beauty choking down a laugh as the field dissolved into chaos. Beauty snorted under her. It looked like the Red team had discussed strategy; their number one cut out immediately after the disk. All three riders on the Blue team cut out after it. Two of them managed to foul each other, one of them falling from his ponygirl. The Red team offensive rider grabbed the disk out of the air, narrowly missing the remaining Blue team rider, and tossed it at one of his teammates who had been hurrying downfield. The Blue team defenseman showed enough presence to get to the sailing disk in front of the Red team rider, pluck it out of the air and look around for a receiver. His teammate was still getting back on his ponygirl, and the other two were out of position, so he flung a Hail Mary in their general direction, and headed toward the goal.
Seven minutes later, she blew her whistle to end the period. The players managed to stop, and rode slowly back to midfield.
Well, that was somewhere between awful and very good. I think it was good for a first attempt. If we expect to win, its got to improve drastically.
Weve answered one question. Most of your girls are exhausted. Theres no way theyd be ready for a second period. I dont know how quickly theyll recover. Real horses need to rest for three periods before theyre ready for another one. Ill try to increase their stamina, but I dont know if I can increase it to allow one pony to play the complete game. Figure on having to have a string of at least three ponies, and possibly six. That means were going to have to get more ponies quickly. Figure were going to need a herd of at least fifty trained ponies to field two teams, and we need at least two teams to send one to compete against the elves.
The woods were quieter today, almost pregnant with the lowering silence as she rode Goldilocks down the path to the rendezvous. The summons had come yesterday. The elves wanted to see her about something. The fairy that had delivered the summons hadnt known what it was about, other than that she wasnt in any trouble. That, she reflected, was quite obvious anyway. They wouldnt bother summoning her if she was in trouble, theyd simply do whatever they had in mind to do.
So, they wanted to talk. Tania could only imagine one topic they might want to talk about, although with the elves, who knew what they might have in mind. At least, the fairy had given that high, tinkling laugh of hers, and told her to pack a lunch.
Tania could feel the slight side-to-side sway as the ponygirls powerful legs carried her along in a ground-eating trot, her bronze-shod hooves thudding on the ground. There was, she thought as she gazed at the ponygirls torso jutting out from the front of the saddle between her thighs, something a bit eager in that posture. Goldilocks was clearly enjoying herself. She didnt get to trot in the forest that much.
The golden brown of her mane rippled in the breeze, not yet matted from the drops of sweat that had begun to dimple the expanse of her back.
Today, as on most days, shed put her ponygirls head hair up in a fountain effect, rising from the top of her head in a tight column for a few inches, and then falling in a glorious cascade from its high perch. The spell that kept the column of hair together was part of the permanent spell that kept her hair free of snarls, debris, dirt and oil. It had a number of options. All she had to do was apply a brush, and it would fall down around her head, held back from her face but otherwise free to fall as the wind and Goldis head and movements dictated. Another touch of the brush, and it would fall into a ponytail, either held high and proud, or bound at the base of her scalp, or into angel wings, or into a pair of braids, or a single French braid, or the waterfall effect it was currently showing.
The spell was one of her better efforts. Minor, compared to some of the others, but it had its place in the scheme of things. Her mares still had their vanity, and some of her stallions had joined them. Being able to wake up in the morning after a night on the straw in their stalls, with their hair and mane falling gloriously free was a boost to morale. Besides, it saved the grooms the trouble of brushing it out every morning.
Tania held the reins loosely in her left hand. Shed learned the one-handed grip practicing with the polo team. Goldilocks needed a looser rein than Beauty. That stallion wanted a firm grip on his reins, or he tended to misbehave. Goldilocks had a much more sensitive mouth. The light tension as the reins drooped told her that her rider had the reins well in hand.
Tania twisted her hand to the right, tightening the right rein. The ponygirl obediently took the right fork in the path as it came up. A moment later, they entered a small meadow. Tania pulled back sharply, and the ponygirl halted, standing among the tall grass and wildflowers that carpeted the place.
A mist formed in the center of the meadow and gradually thickened until it was impossible to see through it. Goldilocks snorted. Tania took a firmer grip on the reins. She would have wagered that her mount was rolling her eyes.
Come on, girl, forward, Tania crooned as she patted the girl on the shoulder while squeezing the ponys torso with her thighs. Thats a good girl. Goldilocks walked cautiously forward into the magical mist. A moment later, they came out the other side, into another meadow surrounded by a wilder looking forest. Goldilocks snorted again, but answered the reins as her rider pulled her left toward a tall elf sitting on a blanket at the side of the glen.
Lord Maxkrinv, Tania hailed as she recognized the elf. I thought it might be you. Goldilocks tried to pull to the right as she spotted the elf lords steed. Tania corrected the motion almost without thinking, and then reined her to a stop. Whats the occasion?
The Duke wanted to know how training was going on your side. Theres also a lot to discuss, and he didnt think that Lord Howard was quite up to the details.
Youre being polite, as always, my Lord Elf. Lord Howard likes to run things, but as you well know, he doesnt know his ass from a hole in the ground.
Temper, the elf chided. Still irritated with him for that little incident where you first met us?
Irritated is a polite way of putting it. Unfortunately, hes the one with the agreement with your Duke, and I misdoubt that Id like the response if I gave the twerp whats coming to him.
The elf laughed. Well, the Duke really has gotten interested in mortals behaving as ponies, so I expect that Lord Howard is here to stay. He smiled, showing his canines. Unless, of course, a suitable replacement was found. Mortals do tend to be a bit … shall we say … disposable.
Which is my concern. If I got rid of the, let us say, irritation, I dont know what the Duke is likely to do. I have a very high regard for my skin, not least because its nicely displayed by Corals gift. Theres also the possibility that hed lose interest in maintaining the island in Chaos that houses us, without bothering to evacuate us first. I might survive, but the rest wouldnt, and I simply dont want to take that chance.
He shifted tone. In any case, take care of your pony, and then well talk like two civilized beings.
She sketched a curtsey, which wasnt at all easy with the snakeskin tunic she wore like a second skin. Then she swiftly stripped the saddle, bit and bridle off of Goldilocks. Tether or hobble? she asked.
Tether, her steed replied. When Tania raised an eyebrow, she added I want that stallion, and a hobble might get in the way when he mounts me. Tania swatted her on the ass playfully, and took the bronze auger and chain out of her pack. A moment later, the ponygirl was tethered on the other end of the meadow. Tania added a pile of fruits and vegetables near her, and then went back to the elf lord.
Being away for a while, Ive almost forgotten what good food is like, she commented as they ate.
We do try. Before getting down to business, youve got me curious. Have you been practicing with Chaos?
A little, Lord Elf. I can keep myself safe, although I have no idea if I can handle some of the denizens that are sure to exist. The biggest island of order Ive ever created was about 50 yards in diameter, for about ten minutes before it came apart.
The elf looked at her with new respect. Indeed.
It was a most interesting experience.
Im sure it was. Mortal wizards that can keep themselves safe in Chaos are not entirely unknown, but ones who can impose order on it are as rare as … Well, Im not certain Ive ever heard a verified instance of one, although Merlin was said to … He shrugged. No matter. Lets to business. How is the training coming?
Weve only gotten down to it seriously. Weve had a few scrimmages so far. Were still tossing the disk around. We havent gotten to the mallets and ball yet. Im still thinking about suitable armor for the girls. Maybe something magical? she said, reflectively.
Thats an interesting thought, but we might not have to go there. Weve noticed that the ponies simply cant run as fast as a hit ball. It seems rather … unbalanced.
Of course, youd look for balance in the game, wouldnt you?
You should know us well enough for that by now, he chided amusedly. We wanted to sound you out about staying with the disks.
Id have to ask Lord Howard, my lord. I certainly have no objection, and I doubt that any of the riders do. It would simplify things enormously. Now that I think on it, Ive only got one concern.
The ponies occasionally grab the disk as it goes past. Its a discipline problem, but when they really get into the flow of the game, old habits come out, and some of them have played with the disks before.
Why prohibit them? the elf said. If were designing a new game, we should take advantage of what the players can do, whether theyre on top of the saddle or under it. He said that as if he didnt see that much difference, at least on the mortals side.
This will have to be thought on, my Lord. The ponies will agree, of course, not that Im about to take any objections very seriously. Most of the riders? It would solve one problem: what to do when the disk is too low to catch without overbalancing. So far, Ive been using a magical device to let the riders pick it up without dismounting.
Lets experiment with it, and talk when we meet next. Now, one other point. 300 yards by 160 yards is much too big. Were thinking of reducing the field to 100 yards by 60 yards. How think you?
I agree. Lets experiment around that size, and talk about it. Theres still time. Our ponies are pretty well exhausted at the end of a period, so were recruiting heavily. Im working on stamina, but I doubt that well ever get to the point of having the same pony throughout an entire game.
Thats our experience also. Tell Lord Howard that we will be wanting more properly spirited ponies.
I certainly will, my Lord. And watch his face while I tell him, she thought to herself.
They talked about magic for a while, discussing Tanyas innovations. The older elf showed her several spells that he felt would advance her study. Finally he said: Well, it sounds like theyve finished rutting. This has been most productive and pleasant. I will meet you here a ten-day from now.
Tania rose and curtsied again, It has indeed been a pleasure, my Lord. They gathered up their respective gear, and got their ponies saddled. Tania summoned up the gate, and rode Goldilocks into it as the elf Lord watched.
The trot back to the holding was uneventful. On the way to the stables, she snagged a household servant, and told her: Tell Lord Howard that my discussion with the elves was most interesting, and I have a number of things to discuss with him at his convenience. The girl curtsied and ran off.
Well, Tania said the next morning in preparation for the practice match. I trust youve noticed that the field is considerably smaller. She got several nods, and a few whinnies. Two riders hastily looked around.
There are some other changes. First, were not going to use the mallets and ball. The elves proposed that we stick with the disks, and were agreeing. Thats going to simplify things all around. She got a number of nods.
The really major thing, however, is that were going to allow the ponies to use their hands. That got a number of excited whinnies. Thats going to be, um, interesting. Since the ponies will be able to catch the disks, we wont be using the catcher spells. Remember that you have to throw the disk within two steps. Im going to rule that if the pony passes the disk up to her rider, she gets two steps and he gets two steps. Dont count on that! It may change once we get some experience and I compare notes with the elves delegate. Also, two steps may be too short. Well experiment.
She paused. Well, folks. Lets get to it. The teams went downfield, turned and trotted toward each other. She was pleased to see that the formations were becoming much more precise. Both teams hit the 20-yard line at a canter as she threw the disk down the center line.
The first period went without incident. Her magical monitors showed that the ponies were substantially less exhausted than after the first days practice. They certainly werent fresh, but at least none of them staggered on the way off the field.
The riders pitched off their ponies, vaulted into the saddles of their next pony and trotted onto the field in good order, ready to start the second period. She threw out the disk and watched the game surge back and forth between the posts. This, she thought, was going to work. Finally, the timing spell blew the 30 second horn, and then she brought the period to a close. She called the riders in.
Well folks, that was pretty good for a first shot at the new rules. I doubt if I need to point out that youre going to have to train your ponies a lot better on where to throw the platter. The first set of ponies is not recovered yet, so were not going to do a third period. Fifteen minutes doesnt seem to be enough. Weve got more ponies on order, but theyre going to take a while to get here, and the elves are going to take their pick of the input anyway. They want another fifty! There were groans all around. More ponies are going to take some work absorbing, but thats not your problem.
You do have an assignment. Figure out a handicapping system. Use the polo system. Each player is rated in terms of how many goals he is worth per game, from zero to 10. That doesnt mean goals scored, it means how many goals his presence on the team is worth. Its perfectly possible for a defenseman to not score any goals, but be the most valuable player because of intercepting passes and getting them to where one of the offensive players can score.
The reason is that were going to shift our players around between the teams to find our strongest team. We need a handicap system so that we can do some kind of meaningful scoring.
Also, make sure you rate the ponies. I saw several of them make real key plays out there, and were going to want our strongest ponies in the competition team.
The reward for good work is always more work, she mused, but which god had she pissed off to get this? She looked at the new slaves with a critical eye. They looked back at her with a mixture of fright and abject misery. A couple seemed to have a calculating gleam in their eye; she marked them for later.
This lot had been marched, or more properly, shambled, in half an hour earlier. They were chained neck to neck with long lengths of chain, padlocked on one side of the neck. They also wore a motley collection of hand bondage, ranging from fairly standard handcuffs to rope, with a few of the waist chain and cuffs arrangements that police forces seemed to prefer for prisoners. Foot bondage was mostly absent, but what there was of it was equally varied.
She patted Goldilocks gently on the shoulder as the ponygirl bore her up the line. At least the sight seemed to have jerked most of them out of their fugue. What had they gotten for her? Street sweepings? How any of them were going to be able to play anything was beyond her. The elves were not going to be pleased. She suspected that Lord Howard might not be pleased either, but they were his contractors that had collected this bunch. The twit.
One of the emaciated young women was suddenly, noisily sick. Tania looked at her curiously, and then looked closer. That looked like needle marks on her arms. She shook her head. They needed healthy specimens, and they had street sweepings. She sighed, and then looked inside the woman. The intricate tracery of energies that composed a normal body was seriously deranged. The nausea was obvious enough, but what had caused it? Her attention was drawn to an imbalance in the brain, and a slow feedback loop in one of the chemical signaling systems. She looked further. So that was what an addiction looked like.
Look at me, girl, she commanded. The sick woman looked up at her, just in time to see a barely visible shimmer, like a heat wave, envelop her head. A moment later, she took a deep breath, misery forgotten, as her brain started functioning properly. Who addicted you? she asked. In a moment, the story tumbled out: the woman had run away, and a pimp had collected her and addicted her as a cheap way of maintaining control. So youve got AIDS and a dozen other diseases, eh? The woman shook her head, yes, reminded of her misery.
Well, maybe you lucked out. Im going to fix that for you. Of course, you just might consider dying of AIDS to be preferable, but thats for later. She chuckled at her grim humor, and then set to work.
An hour later, shed thought shed gotten most of the immediate problems. At least, the gaggle of slaves was awake and interested in their immediate plight, which hadnt been true before.
An insect that looked somewhat like a cross between a dragonfly and a butterfly circled her head briefly, and then came in to a four point landing on her shoulder. That looks much better, the fairy caroled in her high, tinkling voice. Earlier, they looked like all theyd be good for was target practice.
Most likely the after poster, small stuff, said Tania.
So, what you do? the fairy asked.
The fairy launched itself into the air, and buzzed down the line briefly, then it came back. They still dont look any too good.
Give them some food and exercise, and most of them will survive. I hope. Some of them might even be usable – for something other than compost. Tania said. Im tempted to send them back and ask for a refund.
Bill them for the healing, the fairy suggested.
Tania chuckled. Lord Howard would have a cat if I did that! Serve him right for foisting this lot off on me. Tell the elves that Ill know in a couple of days if theres anything worthwhile in this lot. Add the usual pleasantries, obeisances and obsequities while youre at it.
The fairy laughed and launched itself into the air and buzzed off. It seemed to vanish in a bright spot of sunlight.
She looked back at the slaves. Well, food and water was coming up shortly. The kitchen staff had reportedly sworn at the messenger when he told them what was coming, but they would manage something. The messenger had gotten her as a last resort; it seemed that all the department heads had taken one look and found urgent business elsewhere. So, what else was new?
All right, listen up, she bellowed at them, trying to imitate the drill sergeants shed seen in the movies. Half of them swung around at her, the other half turned curiously, and then turned back to what they had been doing, which was mostly staring at nothing. How many of you can understand what Im saying? she asked. Half of them still kept staring at nothing. The same half. Shit she said to herself. They didnt even get all English speakers. Not that should have surprised her. Street sweepings came from all kinds of backgrounds.
She sighed and then brightened a bit. The elves had given her some language spells. Probably useless, but… She took them out of the place where she cached spells and looked at them. One was for learning Elvish. Not completely useless, but as far as she was concerned, the fewer people who knew Elvish, the better. She suspected the elves would agree with her. The second was to allow an elf to learn English. Not a whole lot better. From what she had seen, elves didnt think the same way. The third was to create a language learning spell from someone who knew a language, for either elves or mortals.
If she remembered correctly, it needed quite a while. However. She looked at the spells closer, and smiled. It looked like old Unpronounceable had worked on these. Not only were they modular, but it also looked very much like hed finessed the difference between elvish and human brains somehow. In that case…
She quickly assembled a composite spell. Now for a quick test. She saw one of the slaves with a crafty look who hadnt responded. Good. This time he responded by holding his head and moaning. Well, her mentor had said it would cause a slight headache. That didnt look very slight to her, but then, elves were elves. She aimed a quick healing spell at him, and he looked up at her.
Well? she asked him.
What did you do? he asked in perfect English.
I taught you English the fast way. It does seem to have worked. Or did you know English before and were just faking it?
No, no, I didnt know English. He was almost babbling.
Good. She straightened and waved her hands in the air. Blobs of heat shimmers fell off and raced hither and yon. About half of the slaves fell over clutching their heads and moaning. She waved her hands again, and they fell silent.
In a moment, they were all looking at her.
Well, people, I suppose youre wondering whats going on. Frankly, so am I. We ordered fifty young, healthy slaves, and we got you. Granted, most of you are young, but healthy? If you were healthy when you arrived, Id hate to see what sickness looks like. The weak joke elicited a correspondingly weak laugh.
The next usual question is: where am I? The answer is: youre Underhill. I see a lot of blank looks. Most cultures have legends of the tall, fair people with pointed ears, who live under hills. If you wander into their domain by mistake, all kinds of strange things happen. As far as I know, theres only one such race, and youll be seeing some of them in the next few days.
Underhill is not in our universe. Its somewhere else. This part of it was created out of primal chaos by an elf Duke so we could have a ponygirl ranch. Most of the eyes suddenly switched to Goldilocks.
Before we get to Goldilocks here, theres one more thing you need to know about Underhill. This particular place is maybe five miles across. Its bounded on all sides by chaos. If you go there, you wont live long enough to encounter the things that make your worst nightmares feel like a lovers embrace. However, you wont die quickly, either.
There are two gates out of here, one to the elves place, and one back to the world youve left. Nothing passes either gate without the elf Dukes permission. Think all you want, but theres no escape.
After youve eaten, youll be inspected by some of the department heads. Weve got openings for slaves in most of the usual departments: housekeeping, grounds and maintenance, stables and agriculture. There are always openings for sex slaves, and valets and maids as well. However, most of the openings are for our human pony herd. Which brings us to Goldilocks, here.
Tania swung back into the saddle, and rode the ponygirl slowly down the line, just out of reach, giving them a chance to get a good look at her. Then she rode back to the center.
I said that the Duke created this place as a ponygirl ranch. Well, ponyboys too, although I normally think of them as mares and stallions. As you can see, Goldilocks has been extensively modified. Those are real hooves, real horsehair and a real mane. Shes also got internal modifications so that the saddle and rider is no strain. Shes capable of trotting for hours at a time. Theres no way shes as powerful as a horse, but shes got a lot more stamina.
We use our ponies for a number of things. On one side, work ponies haul things for the agricultural teams and also for the grounds and maintenance teams. On the other side, riding ponies are used for riding, but also for racing and for a game that is similar to polo with a Frisbee. The modifications go quite deep. Once I change you, or the elves change you, youll start acting like a pony quite naturally. I started out here as a ponygirl, and I can tell you that theres nothing quite like the feel of a saddle and rider on your hips, with a firm hand on your reins. Its almost sexual.
There are a couple of interesting advantages to being a riding pony. One is that you get to object whenever you want, although your owner will probably get quite strict if you do it too often. Work ponies are supposed to be dutiful, but riding ponies need a lot of spirit, especially if your owner intends to race you or ride you in one of the games.
As I mentioned, the game is played with a flying plastic disk, and if it gets too low, its the ponys job to intercept the disk and return it, or pass it to her rider. So if you like competitive sports, theres your chance.
Well, I see the food has arrived. Im going to take off your bondage so you can move around. Id suggest that you not think about making trouble – all it will do is mark who the troublemakers are for my personal attention. On the other hand, making trouble could be quite educational – for you.
She waved her hand in the air. All of the locks unlocked with a tremendous clatter. A purple mist descended, with gold sparkles. When the mist cleared, she and Goldilocks had vanished.
There wasnt any trouble.
The day dawned bright, as all days did in the elf-created enclave. Tania told herself to quit jittering. Their first team still seemed to be climbing their learning curve; she hoped the same was true of the elves, but Lord Maxkrinv had been blandly uninformative. She had tried to return the honor, but doubted that shed been very successful.
The procession of elves came out of the woodland path, headed by the elf Duke and his Lady, Lord Maxkrinv and his Lady, and two elves she didnt know, very obviously a Lord and a Lady. Their aura assaulted her senses to the point that she almost couldnt sense the familiar dominance of the elf Duke; Lord Maxkrinvs aura was wholly lost within it. Her brows furrowed slightly. This pair wasnt simply more powerful; there was a difference in kind.
Lord Howard rode out to meet them, obsequiousness in every move. She frowned. That had never impressed the Duke, and she was sure that it wasnt going to impress the two unknown nobles. From their obvious power, and from the Dukes body language, she suspected that nobody was supposed to know who they were. Which meant that they were most likely to be the High King and the High Queen, known to her legends as Oberon and Titania.
Well, if they didnt want people to know who they were, she certainly wasnt going to gainsay them.
The nobles were followed by the elves that would be riding the game, each riding on his first period mount and leading a string of six spare ponygirls. She looked at them with a practiced eye. They were all in good condition. More important, she didnt see any unfamiliar spells or body structures. At least, she didnt see anything obvious. If anything, her ponies were probably more highly tuned for the match. She didnt think that any of the players would need more than three for all six periods, although they had another two for depth, and hoped they didnt have to use them.
The rest of the entourage followed the riders: grooms, servants and other elves that simply wanted to be there for the excitement. Now that the two nobles were out of the way, her magical senses picked out a number that seemed to have a different flavor from the Dukes household. Apparently, the Duke had invited guests from several other duchies. She noted them for future reference. The wave of elves, ponies and horses headed for the playing field.
She smiled as she noted Coral. Coral waved at her, and cut out of the procession, guiding Redtail over to stand beside Tania. The two of them attracted startled glances from both elves and mortals alike. Coral and Tania were dressed alike, both wearing snakeskin tunics with the same pattern of red diamonds bordered by blue and green. Beyond that, it wasnt too difficult to tell them apart, but only if you were expecting to see two tall women in what looked like a coral snake costume standing next to each other.
Its been a while, Bushytail, Coral hailed her as she rode up.
So it has, Coral, Tania replied with a flip of her tail. Im going by Tania over here, though. She smiled. She was certain that Coral knew that, and was subtly putting her in her place. She didnt mind at all; she knew that Coral thought of her as an intelligent and amusing pet that had shown a surprising and likewise amusing talent for sorcery.
What do you think of the chances? Coral asked.
Hard to tell. I take it youre to make sure I dont know who those two are? Tania commented dryly.
Coral laughed. I told them youd probably figure it out. They said it didnt really matter, as long as you kept your mouth shut.
Meaning that Lord Howard is not to know. That makes sense, I think. I do think I need to make certain that the serving staff realizes that they are extremely important people, and also that they treat the guests from other duchies properly.
Oh, good. You spotted them. That was one of my jobs, to make certain that the guests were treated properly.
I hope I got all of them, but this is the first time Ive ever seen elves from other duchies. Lets go talk to Mary. Shes head of the serving staff.
The game went off without a difficulty. The elves won, ten goals to eight.
Oh, shit! Coral said, quietly when it was over.
Tania looked at her curiously.
Oberon is motioning us over. Hes the last person I ever want to deal with, she continued.
In a moment, a small party had gathered. Oberon and Titania, the elf Duke, Lord Maxkrinv and Coral on one side, with Coral trying to melt into the ambiance and not succeeding, partially due to the way her garment made her the center of a certain amount of attention. Lord Howard and Tania were on the other. Lord Howard was sweating like a stuck pig; he had just realized exactly who his exalted guest was.
I take it you are responsible for the spells on the ponies, Oberon started immediately.
Only partially, lord King, Tania replied. The original transformation spells were supplied by the elves. I enhanced them and added others later as I learned sorcery.
Do you know why? Oberon asked her, clearly meaning the elf-supplied spells.
I believe the first one was because I hurt my feet walking from the meadow where the Duke fetched me to the stables. Kapardinov decided to transform my feet into hooves, and added in some very nice cosmetic touches. Then we found that it was impossible to ride one of us, so he strengthened my back, and added the tail, at my request I might add. He also removed several teeth so I could wear a bit comfortable, and added the mane. He made a few other, minor adjustments, but most of the rest of the spells are mine. I also restructured the transformation spells.
I see, Oberon said. The structure of the spells seemed to be quite foreign to the way we normally do things. Very well done, I must say. The detail work in some of the spells is quite remarkable.
Thank you, my lord King, Tania said, curtsying.
I like your style, Titania said in a rich soprano. Bold, yet polite. Youll go far – assuming you survive the next few minutes. Lord Howard broke out in another sweat.
Oberon completely ignored him. Where did you find this sewage, he asked the Duke. The Duke recounted the original encounter, adding details that Tania wasnt aware of. Of course, she reflected, she couldnt have been aware of a number of them; she was the sacrifice, not the planners of that fiasco.
Why didnt you escape? Oberon asked. You certainly seem to have enough power to do so.
At the time, I didnt have that power, she replied readily. I only learned magic after I came here, and that only because the spell intended to keep me in my stall was accessible.
So youve learned everything you know in the time youve been here. Remarkable, Oberon said. You had no background at all?
Not in magic, lord. I did have a background in building programs, and that transferred over to the spells. Thats what your subjects are finding foreign.
And that undoubtedly took you time to learn.
True. Several years, including working with people who are much better than I.
So it is somewhat more understandable. Still, it is remarkable. I have not seen anything like you since Merlin.
Which brings us to the present. I find the entire enterprise offensive. Not, he held up his hand, that the game wasnt interesting. The players on both sides were skilled, and played well, taking advantage of what they could.
You mortals manage to get into enough trouble yourselves, without us encouraging you. This enterprise is at an end. The Duke will withdraw his support for this enclave once we have withdrawn. He will not immediately destroy it. You will have an opportunity to withdraw. The Duke will retain the livestock he has. It seemed completely unnecessary for Oberon to add anything else.
What… stuttered Lord Howard. Oberon studiously ignored him.
Shut up, fool, Tania told him. Before I shut you up permanently. Lord Howard took a step backwards; Tania saw the hint of a smile curve Titanias mouth. She stepped across and hugged Coral.
Some day, I may see you again, she said.
I would not be adverse to that, Coral said. Thats as it may be. You have much to do if you are to survive.
She grabbed Lord Howard and walked away. That was always a possibility. I laid in contingency plans. Fortunately, the High King gave us some time, but Im not going to waste it on your foolishness.
She released a carefully prepared spell.
A toneless voice began talking. Attention. Attention. All personnel not assisting our guests will gather by the pony stable for evacuation instructions. This area is about to become unstable. All personnel not assisting our guests will gather by the pony stable for evacuation instructions. This area is about to become unstable.
Whew, Tania said, somewhat anticlimactically as Goldilocks trotted out of the gold streaked patch of white mist. Mountain ranges rose majestically on all sides. The parts of the meadow into which they had emerged, which had not been trampled by the escaping people, were covered with grass and wildflowers. We got out just in time.
She let her sorcerous senses expand. All the spells she had so clandestinely installed in this hidden valley were in place. Whatever happened here was effectively invisible to the outside, whether the observer was a casual explorer or a modern, military spy satellite. She rested her free hand on Goldilocks back, idly twining a lock of the ponygirls mane in her fingers, as she saw Black Beauty among the pony herd.
She twitched her mounts reins and squeezed her thighs. Goldilocks walked down the path, bearing her toward her people. Some of them would stay, some of them would leave. Some of them she would ask, and some would simply be told their disposition.
Tania smiled to herself. In her wildest nightmares, she had never imagined that she would be the owner of a ponygirl herd.