I wandered leisurely down the main street of Earl's Ford, looking for nothing in particular but simply enjoying the feel of morning sunlight, idly perusing the various market stalls. That little job as bodyguard to the Tolser Hills caravan had been easy work and quite profitable. A little dull though. Apart from a couple of simple bandit ambushes, nothing had happened.
I bought a couple of apples and slowly circled back to the inn where Ronin was stabled. Doubtless he'd be missing me already, anxious to get back on the open road where I didn't spend so much time apart from him. I know: it's frowned upon for a Phouka girl to go around with a stallion, but I'm not a child, and Ronin's good company. In the two years since I "acquired" him, I've never known a better stallion. Take that how you will.
I stopped and turned suddenly. The air was noisy with stall holders calling their wares, customers chatting and arguing, animals bawling, but one sound cut through all this: a cry of pain. I could no more ignore that pitiful sound than stop my own breathing. I waited, anxious for a repeat of the sound, and when it came, I moved quickly in that direction.
In a yard recessed from and open to the main street, several horses and mules were picketed. Behind were dingy stables and a rickety office. In two filthy pens, more animals were crowded; far too many for such tiny spaces. A weathered board was crudely painted with the words "Lon's. Horses, Donkeys, & Mules for Sale or Hire."
The cry of pain came again, and my eyes narrowed at the sight of a big, barrel-chested man beating a yellow-dun gelding with a wooden stave. The horse cowered at the end of a rope, utterly submissive, but the man was laying into him with the stave as if he meant to kill the poor creature. "Lazy brute!" he was yelling. "Driving my customers away with your stumbling and your pathetic looks!"
I could scarcely believe what I was seeing. The animal -indeed many of the animals here- was plainly half starved: his coat stared, and his ribs were visible.
The stave fell once more before I reached the pair: it struck the gelding's flanks with a sickening thud. The gelding cried out weakly. The man raised the wooden bar again, but this time I caught it and twisted it from his grasp.
"I think he gets the message, don't you?" I said coldly. "Are you trying to kill him?"
He evidently didn't like being taken down by a girl. "It's my horse, and I'll treat it as I like," he said bluntly, "And this lazy bag of bones is good for nothing but the knackers anyhow."
I forced the words passed me, side-stepping the horror and disgust I feel whenever I hear a human talking that way. "Let me judge that, for I've a mind to buy him from you."
"What, this?" he demanded. "I've much better."
That more than anything convinced me he was a thug who genuinely enjoyed causing his animals pain: turn down the sale of an unwanted animal? "I've a liking for his colour," I said. "How much?"
"Four gold," he said.
I just looked at him.
"Three then," he said sullenly, having the grace to drop his gaze.
"One, and I won't report you to the clerics of Sheyla," I told him.
He started at that. "There's no centaur temple in Earl's Ford," he said uncertainly.
"Their clerics are wide ranging. I imagine they'd be somewhat angry at the way you treat their cousins," I said. I didn't mention how angry I was myself. He'd find that out soon enough.
He grudgingly accepted the offer. Stripping the gelding's tether from the picket line he gave the horse a brutal yank forwards and roughly shoved the end of the rope into my hands. "Now take him and go," he said.
I was incredulous. "Is this how you treat all your customers?" I couldn't refrain from asking.
"Just the smart-ass girls who don't know their place," he said bluntly. "Go on. You wanted him: now take him."
I left, coaxing the bruised and stumbling gelding to accompany me. I felt slightly sick at the way he flinched from any sudden move or sound. Gently, I extended my mind to him, reassuring him that the nightmare was ended and he was with friends now. His head came up, eyes suddenly clearing. He looked at me in astonishment. I laughed, partly at his expression, and partly with relief. Good: he hadn't slipped too far down the road of despair. If he had, even I could not have reached him.
I was suddenly aware of a stirring in the crowded street, and people moving aside. Soothing the gelding, I eased him to one side and turned to see who was coming.
A tall man in gleaming plate-mail and a white cloak, accompanied by two younger men in similar garb: all three bore the four pointed star of Ikin, god of justice and honour. I watched with interest as they stopped at Lon's place.
"Ho, Lon, attend me!" said the tall man in a proud voice that rang like a herald's trumpet.
"Ah!" said the thug with the stave. "Sir Linden! A pleasure to see you, Sir!"
"Lon," said the tall man. "At noon today, our youngest set out on their proving quests. Some are yet without mounts. You said you had some possible warsteeds."
"Indeed, indeed," Lon said, showing an altogether different side of himself now. "Tekka! Bring out those fine animals we've been holding for the good knights."
A young man emerged from the stables leading three huge horses. Two were legitimate warsteeds, though a little on the old side. One, though handsome and healthy enough, was plainly more used to fields of wheat than of war. Sir Linden was not slow to spot this.
"Do you think me a fool, Lon? Or do you think perhaps in these peaceful times I have taken it into my head to retire for a peaceful life on a farm?"
"Ah, no, indeed not, Sir!" wheedled Lon. "I only thought he might show promise with a little training, warsteeds being so hard to come by in these parts."
"Lon, don't fool with me. I know exactly what you thought. I'll take these two, and you'll be so good as to accept ten gold apiece for them."
"Ten! Fifteen was promised..!"
"For good beasts in their prime! These are looking forward to retiring!"
"Ten then," agreed Lon sulkily,
"And see that the final beast is here by noon."
"What?" demanded Lon, aghast. "Noon! Where am I to find a war-horse so soon?"
"We have a contract, Lon. A considerable sum was paid to you in advance to ensure you had such beasts at the proper time. But I am reasonable. Return the advance and I will seek the final horse at a more reputable dealer's."
Lon paled and it was plain to see he no longer had the advance. "Ah, no! No, a contract is a contract. You come back at noon, and the final horse will be here."
Sir Linden considered for a moment, then nodded. "Very well. Noon it is then. But I warn you, I deal harshly with those who think to cheat me."
He strode off, leaving the other two knights to pay the pale Lon and take charge of the two elderly war-horses.
I turned to the gelding with a smile. "I think I see a way to extract a little payback on your behalf. Come on. Let's see you fixed up first."
I named him Saffron for his unusually bright colouring, and soon had him comfortably ensconced in a loose-box next to Ronin. Stalls are more usual and much cheaper, but with winged horses and other intelligent steeds abroad, something a little less degrading and a bit more comfortable is occasionally called for, and I never stabled my horses in anything less. I spoke to the stable-master and made sure he knew what I wanted and that he was competent. Better, he seemed to genuinely care about his charges, and shared my opinion of Lon and his dubious establishment.
I left enough money to see the two horses through for a week - more than enough - made my apologies to Ronin who was most disgruntled at being left behind again, and set about teaching Lon a lesson. Of course, I could probably have just waited until noon for Justice to take its course - there was no way he could find another war-horse at such notice - but I wanted to cause him more trouble than simply a fine and maybe a short spell of imprisonment.
Near to Lon's premises I located a conveniently dim alley, not too filthy. and slipped into it. There I took equine form.
I can change instantly: so fast that the air around me cracks like a whip and anyone in close proximity is hurled aside. In fact I've used this technique in combat. In close quarters, a slim girl suddenly becoming a seventeen-hand warhorse can be quite devastating.
But I was in no hurry, and changed slowly. There's no way to describe how a transformation feels to anyone who hasn't done it, but I always liken it to the feeling of putting on a set of good clean clothes after a bath: it's a slow, luxurious, relaxing feeling. I let my clothing and sword fade away - I can't explain where they go so don't ask. Wizards have plenty of theories from mass-absorbtion to pockets of netherspace. Then I let myself shift, over the course of about a minute, watching my hands and feet become broad, solid hooves, and all four limbs become stocky legs with their skirts of silky hair. My body broadened and deepened, taking on more and more bulk, while my head and neck likewise filled out and lengthened.
Finally I was done, bearing no resemblance to my human self. A dark skewbald colour: patches of almost-black on a white coat. My mane and tail were a trifle on the luxuriant side and I reluctantly decided I would have to get both shortened soon. I rose to my feet, far lighter and more graceful than any mortal horse. Being faerie allows you a lot of latitude with the so-called natural laws. I shook myself, and gave my equine body a last quick inspection, then left the alley.
Lon's establishment was a quick trot away, and I pretended to be interested in one of the rather inferior stallions picketed there. In truth, had I not been there for another reason, I might have let the poor beast have his way with me, but Lon was soon on the scene, and he was why I was there. I turned toward him, watching in delight as his expression ran the gamut from outrage to amazement to suspicion to greedy joy.
"Tekka! Tekka! Come here! Didn't I tell you the gods smile on those that make their own way in life? Look who's come to me straight from Lady Infinity herself!"
Lon produced a grimy looking bridle and began to approach me. I wanted to be caught, but I doubt there was any horse that would willingly let this rank-smelling thug near them, so I made a play of it, amusing myself by neatly evading the bridle each time he tried to slip it over my head until he was red in the face and beginning to lose his temper. At this point, I went over to his young assistant, Tekka, and nuzzled at his pockets.
"Don't just stand there, idiot boy! Catch it!" Lom cried, hurling the bridle at him. Tekka obviously had his doubts, but I stood meak as a lamb while he slipped it over my head. A foolish grin slid over his face and I touched his mind, surprised to find the level of pleasure it afforded him to have had me seek him out over his master. Here was a soul that loved horses and hated the way it was forced to look after them here. He hated and feared Lon too.
"Good," grunted Lon, obviously a bit disgruntled at how easily Tekka had taken me. "Now take it inside and groom it ready for noon."
The lightest of touches on the bridle had me ambling easily at Tekka's side. There were several stalls in here, and the horses occupying them were of obviously better quality than those outside. I wondered what Lon was hiding: I was sure he had come by these animals by no honest means!
Tekka gave me an expert and thorough grooming. He clucked when he saw my pristine hooves. "Master, she isn't shod. Shall I take her to Master Jarrod's?"
"Are you joking?" bellowed Lon. "If those tin-plated do-gooders want their nags shod, they can damned well do it themselves, at their expense."
I laid my ears back in disgust. Here Lon stood to make fifteen gold of pure profit, and he couldn't spend the five bronze it would cost to shoe a horse. Oh, but I was going to have fun with him!
"You're a lucky girl," murmured Tekka, combing out my forelock and arranging it neatly between my eyes. "You'll be gone from this place in an hour or so, and the Knights of Ikin take very good care of their animals. I almost wish I could be gone with you." He sighed. Curious, I touched his thoughts again, and felt the overwhelming concern for the other horses here. I saw, through his eyes, the little kindnesses he managed to bestow on those poor horses out front, in spite of Lon's efforts to make this a small slice of equine hell.
Well, well, I thought. Seems to me something could be done about this state of affairs. I revised my plans in light of this new revelation.
At exactly noon, a knight arrived at Lon's. he was tall and burly as all knights are, and his armour was so brilliant it almost hurt the eyes in the bright sunshine. He held himself proudly, but it was apparent that this was an unproved knight, not entirely sure of himself yet. He was very young: perhaps twenty, and obviously eager to join the ranks of hallowed knights who get themselves cut to pieces each year in the name of honour. I snorted. He would be perfect for my needs.
"Master Lon," said the youth. "Sir Linden has told me you are to provide me with a fine horse at this hour."
Lon appeared like magic, all oily satisfaction and false charm. He too read the youth's inexperience in a glance, and I saw his eyes shine. "Indeed, indeed, good Sir Knight. Tekka! Bring forth this bold warrior's steed."
Tekka clicked his tongue to me and gently led me forward, letting me pick my own pace. Lon saw this and instantly strode up to us, cuffed his assistant about the ears and grabbed my bridle. He yanked forwards, drawing a whinny of protest to my lips as I hastily trotted on to relieve the discomfort. It didn't suit my purpose to kill him then and there so I simply assumed an appropriately terrified mien: all rolling eyes and flaring nostrils.
"Behold the beauty I have found for you, Sir Knight!" Lon crowed. "Is she not wondrous indeed? The horse-god Equus himself would yield to bit and bridle for a chance to be with such a mare!"
The youth blinked, and gave me a dubious look. "I had hoped for a pure grey," he ventured.
"For a knight of Ikin?" asked Lon, apparently incredulous. "Oh so many knights die in their first fight, victim to such folly! Do you not know that a grey will light you up on the fields of battle like a painted target? Not that you would shun a fight, I know, but a knight must know prudence as well as bravery. No! A skewbald will stand you in far better stead. Think of your own master; Sir Linden! Will he think the more of you for turning up on a showy steed picked for her colour, or admire your humility in selecting the modest yet attractive patterns of a coloured horse?"
I had to admit, when motivated by greed, Lon could certainly play the merchant role to the hilt. He went on to point out that the black patch on my near-foreleg was the blessing-mark of Some-unpronouncable-god and assured I would never go lame, while the small black spot on my white forehead was the goddess-mare Jehanna's all-seeing eye and proved that the horse gods looked out for me (and of course anyone who might ride me). It was drivel from start to finish, but even I was starting to wonder by the time Lon finished. You could see the young knight now believed every marking on my body was symbolic of some deity's protection or goodwill.
"Uh, very well, good master Lon," the youth conceded, swallowing his awe. "I see your reputation as a master of equine lore is not undeserved. I will take her gladly, and here is your fifteen pieces of gold."
"Ah, good Sir Knight," said Lon. "It hurts me to have to tell you, but this mare, being so far beyond normal stock, cannot leave my tender care for less than twenty. It did cost me fifteen to purchase her myself, for her prior owner (sadly plagued with the Scringes and no longer able to wield his sword) was much loathe to part with her. Only by promising him faithfully that she would only go to a master worthy of her would he part with her at all. Sadly, I cannot afford to let her go for less than twenty."
"But fifteen is all I have been allowed for a horse," said the youth.
"Have you not some small allowance you might add yourself to meet the price?" asked Lon, "for surely you can see she is worth double the price, yet I hold the figure down out of respect to your noble Order."
I just couldn't resist lifting my tail and farting loudly. Lon and the young knight reddened, the former in anger and the latter in embarrassment. Tekka turned hastily away and I saw his shoulders shaking.
"Five gold is all I have," the youth said.
"Ah, one cannot but admire the wisdom and determination of the soul willing to forgo a few material luxuries for the sake of a companion that will faithfully walk at his side unto the death," Lon sighed.
This obviously had the desired effect, for the youth bit his lip and produced twenty gold pieces. Lon shook his hand warmly, wished him well, and pressed my reins into the knight's trembling hands. I felt quite sorry for the poor lad, especially in view of how I was about to use him, but consoled myself with the knowledge that he would survive unscathed (if the Knights were still as skilled at fighting as they were renouned to be) and would gain much wisdom into the bargain: namely how cruel the world is to an innocent (and this lad was so innocent, Unicorns would beg to kneel before him!).
Probably thanks to my new owner's recent insolvency, I was not caparisoned like a warhorse when we left Earl's Ford. I wore the same plain, barely-adequate bridle that Lon had given Tekka. My saddle, for want of a better word, had obviously been made to match. Fortunately it was a hot day and the youth (who had formally introduced himself to me as soon as we were clear of the town as Tilden Wayrider - the 'sir' was still to be formally bestowed) had swiftly removed his heavy plate mail. I still had to carry it of course, but it was much more comfortable without him inside it.
He was a fair enough rider, though plainly inexperienced and stiff in the saddle. I was a little embarrassed when he started telling me his life story and his plans for the two of us, but a lot of riders do confide in their mounts. I undertand being a knight involves bottling up your hardships so I was probably his pressure valve.
For my part, I played the perfect steed, hiding my intelligence and doing all the things that horses do: jumping at waving branches, grabbing at opportune greenery; that sort of thing.
And presently, the sun began to lower over the western mountains, and Tilden guided me off the road to make camp for the night. Having far fewer possessions than he had intended, this wasn't a long process: he hobbled me, removed his pack with its armour, stripped me of my saddle and gave me a good rubdown, which in truth I needed: it had been a long, sweaty afternoon.
And then he removed my bridle.
I reared up, screaming and pawing the air. After my quietness all afternoon, this so surprised Tilden that he fell back with a cry and watched in horror as his newly acquired warhorse began to shrink and dwindle. Mane and tail vanished, and hooves became fingers and toes, while the brown and white coat faded into smooth, pale human skin.
"Wha..?" stammered poor Tilden, ashen faced. "Wha..?
I helped him out by bursting into very convincing tears, and cowering down to cover my nudity. Yes, I know I was dressed when I became a mare. It's magic: don't worry about it. It suited my purpose to appear as pitiful and vulnerable as I could right now.
Tilden had obviously been well-drilled in galantry, for he was quickly on his feet and sweeping his riding cloak about my shoulders. Then again, that could have been for his comfort too: I was pretty sure he'd never seen a naked woman before, and the sudden appearance of one had given him quite a shock.
I huddled into the cloak as if cold, and sobbed, "Oh, sir, you are my saviour! How can I ever repay you?"
"Lady," Tilden stammered, only barely able to speak. "I did nothing! What is happening here? Where is my horse?"
"I am your horse," I cried. "Cruelly transformed into a witless beast of burden by that dreadful man!"
"The man you bought me from!"
"Lon?" he exclaimed. "Lon did this to you?"
"Not just me," I wept. "Countless others. He tricks the unwary and the helpless, changing us into horses and donkeys, body and soul, then selling us into slavery at that wretched lot."
"But how is it no-one knows of this?" Tilden demanded. "Have not other victims of this monster returned to human form? Why have they not denounced the villain?"
"Sir, the transformation is worked through that bridle. When placed about the head of a man or woman, they are soon transformed into beasts. Only if the first person to remove it is a soul truly pure of heart and devoid of selfish intent will the victim return to their own shape. And in these dark days, how many may truly claim to be so pure?"
"Indeed," he scowled. "I should have realised myself. We must return at once! Return and bring justice to that filthy villain who dares to so degrade decent folk! And I will set free all those others he has so changed."
"Alas," I said, choking, "'Tis too late for them. Did you not observe their state? They can never be restored now."
"But if I remove their bridles..."
"Did you not hear me say it? Only the first time the bridles are removed can the victim be restored. If not, then they are lost: doomed to spend their lives treading the earth on four legs..."
Tilden was fairly frothing at mouth by now, intent on bestowing some form of painful justice upon Lon. I think he would have leapt up and run off into the deepening darkness had I not fained weariness. So he instead built a fire. He said very little all night, but instead stared coldly into the flames, full of healthily righteous wrath. I slept very well.
Came morning, we set off back toward Earl's Ford. We both had cause to be grateful that he had only asked me to walk yesterday. Had I gone at a faster pace, it would have taken all day to return, but we arrived a little after midday.
"Wait here," Tilden said grimly, loosening his sword. It suddenly occurred to me that I might have caused Lon more than a mere lesson.
"Are you going to kill him?" I asked.
"Not unless my own life or others are in danger," he said.
"Then I'm coming too," I said. "I have the right to see the man responsible for my humiliation brought to justice."
"So be it," said Tilden, firmly into his part now.
It was good. Tilden strode to the horse lot and called in a loud voice, "Lon! Villain! Come out and face Ikin's justice, for your foul scheme is out now, and you shall cause the suffering of no more innocents!"
Lon appeared at a door, scowling widely, but making some attempt to be civil. "Good Sir Knight! What troubles you? What has become of the horse I sold you?" This last in a slightly worried tone.
"You claim ignorance, villain? She is there!" Tilden gestured at me, dressed in his cloak and a spare tunic.
Lon recognised me instantly. "You!" he exclaimed.
"I see you recognise her, villain! She has told me all about you, and I mean to ensure you trap no more innocents in this foul business of yours!"
"If this is about the twenty gold pieces..." Lon began, but Tilden gave a shout of rage, apparently drunk with righteousness. His blade sang as the flat of it caught Lon's thigh. Lon gave a shout of rage and jumped back with surprising swiftness, grabbing up the same stave I had deprived him of yesterday. Battle was joined.
Tilden should have triumphed with ease: certainly a good many of his blows connected, and the skill with which he always scored with only the flat of the blade was undeniable. And in case you think that was a soft option, we're talking about a hand-and-a-half broad sword here: some four feet of solid steel: being hit with even the flat is liable to leave severe bruising and probably a broken bone or two.
But Lon fought with vicious brute strength and a fine rage that deadened the pain of most of the blows he received. Repeatedly his stave clanged off Tilden's armour, and more than one blow sent the young knight staggering.
The fight went on for some time and began to draw quite a crowd. I found myself standing next to Tekka. He glanced at me, face lighting in recognition. "You're the one who bought Buttercup yesterday, aren't you?"
"Saffron," I said. "His name's Saffron now."
He nodded. "Well, I'm really glad you intervened when you did. Lon had it in for him: decided he wasn't worth keeping and was taking out his aggressions on him. But how could Lon expect him to look his best when he hasn't had a square meal for a week?"
"You really care for these animals," I said, wincing as Tilden was smacked around the head with the stave. He shook himself then launched a vicious attack of his own that soon had Lon backed up against the horse trough. "Why do you put up with Lon? You know what he's doing here. These horses are just marketable goods to be sold for the highest profit. You can hear it when he refers to a horse as 'it' all the time."
"What choice have I got?" Tekka retorted. "Sure, I could find work somewhere else. Probably be a lot happier. And what happens to these horses then? Maybe I'm only prolonging their suffering, but I like to imagine I'm improving their lot. Butter... Saffron would have been killed days ago if not for my intervention, and now look: you've bought him and he's safe."
"You're an unusual person, Tekka," I said. "I like you."
"Who told you my name?" he asked.
"Oh, I overheard it a dozen times yesterday."
"While you were grooming me for instance."
"While I was..?"
"I appreciated your attempt to get me shod, though in my case it really isn't necessary."
He wasn't slow. "That was you yesterday? The piebald mare? You're some kind of magic user!"
"Some kind," I agreed. "A kind with a very specific interest in horses, and a very specific desire to see you in Lon's shoes."
"Yuck," Tekka made a face. "I'd rather walk barefoot in the midden."
I laughed. "I meant in charge of the stables rather than Lon. Oh, look! Speak of the devil..."
The fight ended pretty much as I had hoped it would, although Tilden gave me a few worrying moments when I thought I might have to intervene. But a final resounding whack with the sword flat saw Lon sitting on the ground, shaking his head stupidly, and a rapidly growing goose-egg above his brow. This seemed to be universally popular amongst the audience who all cheered. Tilden lowered his sword and gave a foolish grin. "Lady, it is done. What shall be done with the villain?"
"Let him leave the town and never return," I said.
He nodded, "You are the soul of mercy, my lady. I had thought to have him imprisoned for his deeds. Villain! You have a single hour to gather what is rightfully yours and leave Earl's Ford forever. I will return in an hour, and if you are not gone then I shall help you hence with my sword, and not the flat this time."
With this he sheathed his sword, saluted snappily, and marched off toward the temple of Ikin. The audience moved on as Lon groggily struggled to his feet. He spat a tooth out.
"I don't know how you fixed that, girl," he said thickly, "But you've made a bad enemy."
"Don't be a fool," I told him bluntly. "If you've an ounce of sense in your thick skull, you'll cut your losses and leave while the opportunity is still open to you."
"Cut my losses?" he repeated with an ugly grin. A wicked-looking curved knife appeared from beneath his grimy tunic. "Yes, I'll cut my losses! Across their throats!"
I didn't wait to see if he had my life in mind or the horses. Lon cried out and dropped the knife, holding both hands to his chest as if they pained him. You see, my powers aren't limited to simply transforming myself. Lon's eyes bulged as he stared at his new hooves. Beside me, Tekka gasped.
"You bitch!" Lon screamed, his voice oddly shrill.
"Actually, I'm more mare," I corrected as Lon lurched toward me, only to fall on all fours, "And I gave you a chance. Now you can learn what it's like to be on the other end of the reins, though I doubt your new master has a cruel enough bone in his body to put you through what you deserve."
Lon cried out again, but the meaning of his words was lost. His tunic and trousers burst open, tumbling to the ground to reveal a shaggy, black equine body. His neck lengthened and thickened, and his face thrust out a stubby equine muzzle. When he cried out the third time it was an unmistakable whinny. His mane and tail filled out, thick, and shaggy, and Lon stood before us as a small black pony.
Tekka's expression was somewhere between horror and delight. His eyes flicked from me to the transformed Lon and back to me again. "You're, ah, not going to... that is, I..."
"No, I'm not going to transform you," I assured him. "Unless you want to be a horse. In which case I could make you something rather more flattering than Lon here." I took up a bridle and put it over Lon's head. He rolled his eyes but didn't fight me. He was still in shock for one thing - sudden transformations tend to have that effect on you monoforms.
"No, thank you," Tekka said, "Um..."
"Tekka, relax. Smile! You have just inherited this shabby but not entirely worthless stables and all the animals in it. Including this rather poor example of equine manhood here" I joggled Lon's bridle "The proprietor, last you heard, was leaving the town at the orders of one Sir Tilden Wayrider, knight of Ikin."
Tekka regarded the stables with a bemused grin. Plainly it would take some time for it to sink in,
"Lon here," I continued, "Is sensible enough to realise that you are the only person here who knows what he truly is, and if he wants your protection, he'd better be a good little pony."
Lon looked at me out of frightened eyes.
"What shall I do with him?" Tekka asked,
"Whatever you like. If you're worried, I've put a geise on him which will prevent him from causing harm to anyone. He'll be a bit grumpy and uncooperative I expect, but that's what whips are for."
Lon laid his ears back.
"He's not really the sort of animal you'll want to breed to other mares," I added. "But he's a sturdy looking beast. I suggest you put him to a few good donkey mares: should be some good mules from him. And if he behaves himself, well maybe I'll be back this way in a few months and reconsider..."
I left Earl's Ford about an hour later, riding Ronin, and with Saffron contentedly walking beside us- the two boys had hit it off. Tekka had rapidly adjusted to his change in fortunes. I wasn't sure about Lon, but his cowed expression suggested he knew what he could expect. A lot better than he might expect under any other master, I was sure. Still, I had no intention of returning. Not to restore Lon at any rate. In much less than a few months he would have forgotten he was ever human. Still, I had a nagging doubt: transformation isn't something to be inflicted lightly, even though I felt Lon deserved it if anyone did.
"Come on, Lazy," I said to Ronin. "A little run will trim that fat you've been putting on over the last couple of days. It won't do Saffron any harm either."
Ronin snorted and bucked playfully. His mind graphically portrayed exertion of a different kind and a hopeful query.
"Don't get cocky," I chided. "You know I hate being taken for granted."
I got a mindful of equine amusement. I laughed. "You win, five-legs." I ran a hand down his arched neck. I forgot my doubts over Lon. I was sure he'd adapt as well as Ronin had...