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Christmas is the loneliest time of year, Sara thought. So much emphasis on peace and good will; being one with your friends and family; joining the party spirit. If you weren't "one of the crowd" then this was the time when your nose got rubbed in it. You could be a loner for the rest of the year and it seemed almost normal, but then the festive season came along and suddenly you were the loneliest person in the world.
And it wasn't that she didn't like people: Sara was as eager to get along as anyone. It was just that... well... she just didn't seem to share quite the same tastes as everyone around her. She really wanted to belong, while at the same time not being quite sure what she wanted to belong to.
In later, happier years, she would come to wonder just how it was that the advert -obscure in the extreme- so caught her attention. She didn't usually read the classified ads, and she wasn't looking for a holiday: Christmas was a busy season at Stefan's and there was usually overtime begging to be earned.
Catch her attention it did though, and her imagination with it.
It was a small boxed ad near the back of The Hudson Area Gazette (known colloquially as the Hag Rag). It read:
Christmas blues? Love horses?
On your own? Give us a call!
We run a friendly, informal lodge where staff and horses are always eager to welcome a new face into the herd.
We'll teach you to ride and care for our beautiful stable of thirty horses and ponies.
We specialise in fulfilling the fantasies of those that love horses and never had a chance to get loved back!
The address was Halifax, MA which was practically the other end of the country, but the price was seductive, as was the italic note,
A riding holiday. Well, it was an appealing idea, for all she'd never ridden before. But she wouldn't get leave this close to Christmas, and surely her money wouldn't stretch to that...
She tried to forget about it. She went to work, cycling as usual. At work she washed dishes, as usual. But cycling and dish-washing both leave time for the mind to wander, and she found herself thinking... horses.
She had always loved them, though for various reasons, had loved them from afar. Never enough time, enough money. Put off by the often lofty, slightly superior air that so many "horsey" people seemed to assume (though she knew this couldn't apply to everyone) and the lurking fear that the horses of reality might not live up to the horses of her dreams.
She returned home, cycling again, too tired to do more than go straight to bed. Sleep did not come as easily as it should have done though, and when it did, it was a feverish, restless thing that left her covered in perspiration and with the bedclothes tangled around her. The dreams were not unpleasant: just relentless. They were filled with horses: heavy draft animals with their lumbering grace and feathered feet; graceful Arabians and Thoroughbreds with slender legs and floating tails; stocky ponies with shaggy coats and endearing, school-boy cheekiness. Hoof-beats drummed in her heart, and long legs pranced in her mind. Her night rang with softly-called whinnies and strident neighs; squeals and snorts and foalish nickers.
She awoke with a violent start, late in the morning. Her rough night had left her with a brooding headache and a strange, nameless yearning. She knew she ought to give some thought to work, but though she conscientiously tried, she couldn't free her thoughts.
"What's wrong with me?" she demanded of her reflection in the mirror, but her reflection looked like it had been partying all night and was disinclined to answer. She ran cold water and splashed her face with it. It helped her feel more awake, but did nothing for her strange mood.
Finally giving up, she 'phoned Stefan's and told them she wasn't feeling well, which was true at that moment. Her head was pounding now. She swallowed two aspirins and sat down. The Hag Rag lay open at the inviting advert. She looked at it. She thought some, then 'phoned her bank and asked what her balance was. Low but enough.
What was she thinking? She could lose her job over this! She snorted: like she would cry over that for very long.
She lifted the receiver again and dialed the number on the ad.
"Wish Fulfillment," answered a pleasantly-accented male voice. Irish? "Seyan MacEnry speaking." Irish. "What may I do you for?"
"Uh, you're advertising riding holidays?" she asked hesitantly.
"To be sure we are," the voice answered jovially. "Might you be interested?"
"Maybe," she allowed. "I read your advert in a local paper. Um, I don't need any experience at all? I've never ridden."
"All you need is yerself and a love for the fair creatures themselves," he told her. "Do you have that?"
"I do, yes," she said, the dream still prancing in her mind with pricked ears and flying tail.
"Then that's fine. When might you be thinking of visiting us? Where are you exactly?"
"Hudson, Florida," she told him. "And I'd like to book over Christmas, if you've still got some places?"
"To be sure, we have, and most welcome you'll be," he assured her.
And before she could have second thoughts, she had booked herself a two-week holiday, starting the next day, flying to Boston that very night.
This wasn't like her, she thought wildly. Conservative, quiet, a little (okay, maybe more than a little) introverted. She could lose her job over this. Probably would: employees didn't just vanish for a fortnight at the busiest season. But she guessed it wouldn't be too hard to find another one. And didn't she owe herself a holiday?
And besides, at long last she was realising a cherished dream: not to admire horses from afar or at the edge of a fenced paddock, but to actually be involved with them: to actually learn to ride them!
The flight north was uneventful: too uneventful; she spent most of the trip in a quiver of excitement. She couldn't force herself to eat anything, and hadn't been able to all day. Her headache had thankfully subsided but she had 'phoned Stefan's again, put on her best "feeble invalid" voice and told them that she was sorry, but she really wasn't well, and was going to convalesce with her parents. She'd call them when she could resume.
Mr MacEnry met her himself. She had been worrying that he wouldn't be there or she wouldn't be able to identify him, but a sandy-haired giant of a man in patched jeans and a thick Arran sweater stood at the arrival gate at Logan with a large white card bearing a horse's head and SARA JONES in thick marker pen.
"Miss Jones! ''Tis a pleasure. Seyan MacEnry at your service, but I hopes you'll drop all formality and call me Seyan? And how shall I call you?"
"Just Sara," she said. His easy amiability was quite reassuring this far from home.
A battered Studebaker conveyed them from the airport. Sara was grateful for the heaters. Florida got its share of cool weather but hardly on a par with Massachusetts. The sky was a leaden gray, but somehow that merely made the car feel rather cosy. She felt herself begin to feel drowsy.
As they traveled, leaving Boston on the Southeast Expressway, Seyan asked her seemingly idle questions and as she relaxed more and more, she told him more about herself than she might normally have volunteered. He nodded and agreed and was by turns both serious and amused as appropriate.
Leaving the Expressway for Route 3, Seyan drove for another fifteen miles and then turned onto the Hanover road. They drove through areas of woodland, interspersed by the odd dark-red fields of cranberry plantations, each with a sluice gate to flood it at harvest time. The houses were all wooden, clinker board style, often with wooden roof tiles too. There was much evidence of the approaching festive season with twinkling lights in the windows and banners proclaiming Merry Xmas. The imminent change of the millennium was much vaunted too, just as at home.
Passing through the North Pembroke district, Seyan pulled over outside the post office and honked the car's horn three times. "Shan't be but a moment," he told Sara.
A middle-aged woman emerged from the wooden building and leaned over the porch. "Gathering more wayward foals, are we, Seyan?" she greeted with a grin.
"Ah, 'tis the only decent thing to do," declared Seyan. "I can't stand by and see people sufferin' for not knowing their true path." His eyes twinkled. "Is that not so, young Sara?"
She nodded, seeing as it was obviously expected of her and inclined her head toward the post-woman. "Hi there."
"Hi yourself," The woman returned. "You came at a good time. I think you'll enjoy yourself here."
"How's the Gate?" Seyan asked. "The old mare's been acting kind of twitchy of late. I'm thinking there might be a Choice soon."
"I'm thinking you're right," the woman mimicked his fine brogue. "Fine crop of mistletoe this year, and the wind's stronger than it's been for a while."
"To be sure, to be sure," said Seyan, sounding pleased. "Well, we'll not be holding you longer. Seasons greetings to you, Claireece."
"And to you, Old Gelding," she returned with evident fondness.
"What was that about?" asked Sara as they continued.
"Oh, the Gate's a piece of local folklore," Seyan told her. "Two trees grow together with a low step of rock between them. It's a place where magic blows into the world."
"Magic?" Sara asked curiously. He'd spoken so matter-of-factly that it invited credulity.
"Oh, aye. If you go in for that sort of thing," he shrugged. "Some do, some don't: it's a bit like going to church. Personally, I think a little magic in one's life is a very good thing, don't you think?"
Sara smiled hesitantly and nodded and he laughed heartily and said, "To be sure, it is!"
Ten minutes more driving brought them to a wooden gate off the road that opened onto a dark track between tall pines. A neat white sign proclaimed in large, friendly script, "WISH FULFILMENT FARM. Please close the gate!" and a yellow diamond nearby proclaimed "HORSES".
Seyan stopped, opened the gate, drove through and closed it again behind them. "I'm thinking a motorised gate with a remote control might be a grand thing," he told Sara as they drove into the deep gloom beneath the trees. "'Tis a pain in the rain, to be sure!"
Ahead, the trees came to an end and suddenly there were broad paddocks to either side and horses within them contentedly grazing or leaning over the fence with curious eyes and pricked ears. Seyan wound the window down and hailed several by name. "Ho, Windy! Diamond! Lazy! There'll be treats in a few minutes, heh?"
The farm occupied a shallow valley, surrounded by woodland. A slow moving river meandered through it all, bridged here and forded there. Neat, white-painted wooden fences lined the fields and at the center of it all, a cluster of tidy, cosy-looking wooden buildings.
Seyan drove up to these and parked the car beneath a lean-to. "We'll get you settled in a moment," he promised, "But maybe you'd be liking to meet a few of my four-legged friends first?"
Sara nodded, delighted by her surroundings. It was like a miniature world, safely walled in by trees: in no direction could you see the world beyond. And within this sheltered worldlet, nothing but horses. She followed Seyan to a small shed, where he cast an appraising eye at her feet and said, "Here, these'll help," and handed her a pair of Wellington boots.
They were necessary as she soon found out: the ground around the paddocks had been tromped into sticky black mud by countless hoof-falls, and when Seyan said he was introducing her, he didn't mean a casual lean against a fence. He led her to the center of the first paddock and gave a trilling whistle, almost like a high-pitched neigh.
Immediately they were surrounded by horses: short shaggy ponies; more delicate-looking saddle horses; several heavier-looking beasts all fire and muscle, and a few placid heavy horses with kind brown eyes. At first it was a little intimidating: even the smallest of them was so much more massive than she, and their proximity made them look quite daunting. Soft muzzles lifted or dipped toward her, and steaming breath smelling pleasantly of hay blew over her. Hesitantly she raised a hand to stroke one and Seyan caught her wrist gently.
"Like this," he said softly, and held a hand out to a pretty bay mare, palm uppermost and fingers stretched back. She nuzzled his palm gravely and inhaled, then stood with eyes half-lidded as he gently stroked beneath her chin and across her furry cheeks. "Don't raise your hands in front of their faces," Seyan told her. "They can't see there. If they don't know you, you may startle them. Let them sniff your hand, then stroke them here, or here." He slid his hand further back to stroke the side of the mare's neck. Moving to stand beside her, he moved his fingers up to the crest of her neck and began running fingers through her mane, stopping to lightly pinch at the roots now and again. To Sara's astonished delight, the mare curved her head over Seyan's shoulder and began to nibble at the back of his neck.
"It's how they groom each other. You can try blowing gently into their nostrils too, when they sniff at your face. Then they'll accept you as another member of their herd. This is Princess, and that short shaggy beastie beside you is Angus. He's a Shetland and a toy one at that. They don't come much smaller than him, but don't let his size fool you. He holds his own against anyone here, to be sure!"
Angus' shaggy black head came barely to her waist, but she could see the strength in his stocky body, and those tiny hooves might be small enough to fit in the palm of her hand, but she wouldn't have wanted to be trodden on by them. He had dark, almost black eyes, with a mischievous twinkle to them. Hesitantly she held a palm out to him.
"Curve your fingers back so he can't nip if he's a mind to," Seyan advised. "Not that he will for the main part. He knows when he can and can't and shouldn't. He's alright, our Angus."
The delicate black muzzle tickled her palm with hot, moist breath. She slowly slid her hand down and stroked beneath his chin and felt foolishly delighted when he leant into her caress with evident pleasure.
She almost jumped out of her boots when a hot blast of grassy breath tickled her left ear and she twisted to see a massive head only an inch from her own. The Clydesdale's nostrils were pink caverns, and the proximity of his chisel-like teeth quite intimidating. Cautiously, she blew gently into his nostrils and was startled when he dropped his head and rubbed it against her. The impact almost knocked her off her feet, but it was impossible to regard it as an attack: she braced her herself and let him rub against her side.
"That's Peter. He's a soft touch," said Seyan with evident amusement."
"He's huge," commented an awed Sara, carefully patting his neck. She had to look up to his back.
"Oh, he's not our biggest by any stretch," Seyan said cheerfully. "You'll meet Destiny by and by. Now She's large, to be sure! Come on back to the buildings now, and we'll see you settled. Welcome to Wish Fulfillment."
And it did indeed seem to be wish fulfillment. She met Megan Cross who ran the accommodation side of the farm: a large woman with bun-hair and a similar personality to Seyan: friendly and trusting, and instantly trustable. Megan showed her to her own small room; comfortable and cosy, showed her around and asked what she preferred to eat; generally making her feel right at home.
There were not many other people there, which she fond comforting, and all were single and not so different in circumstance from herself, though they came from all over: one young man who talked with a slight stammer and seemed very nervous when he wasn't with the horses, came from England.
There were four or five staff, and the guests were mainly taught on a one to one basis. They didn't just teach riding: they taught about the horses themselves, and how to care for them. They taught Sara how to feed and groom: how to saddle and bridle and care for the tack. There was always a horse or two in attendance: not all of them were confined to the fields: several seemed to wander about at their own leisure around the farm buildings. Sara loved it and found herself growing slightly apprehensive: the days were flying past, and in another week or so she would have to return home, to make peace with Stefan's or find another job. The prospect was depressing. She felt she could live here for the rest of her life.
She came to know most of the horses by name and all by sight: she made them twenty two in all, of a wide variety of breeds, builds and colour. Almost all were friendly types, eager for a little attention. Right from the start she was encouraged to spend time with the horses and not wait to be escorted.
"It's a little chilly in winter," Megan told her, "But if it takes your fancy we don't care if you eat, sleep, and dream with the horses. That's what we're here for: give people like yourself a chance to really get to know them. And possibly find your way in life, you never know."
Christmas day came and went with remarkably little comment. It seemed somehow irrelevant out here. There were obligatory phone calls to wish friends and relatives well, but apart from that, no one seemed inclined to treat the festival as anything special.
What was special was the day before New Year's Eve, or New Millennium's Eve as everyone was calling it.
Her time was growing short and Sara found herself growing increasingly restless. She had only four more days before she would have to return home. Four more days before this seemingly magical time was over. She felt tied to this place somehow: a bond had been forged that she scarcely understood but that she was eager to preserve. She wanted to stay here, though in what capacity she couldn't imagine. She had come on amazingly in the last fortnight, but was hardly of a level to ask for a job here. They certainly didn't have so many customers that they needed a dishwasher - Megan seemed to have the whole domestic scene tied neatly up.
She rose early that day, and wandered outside before it was even fully light. The yard lights were on though, casting a warm light through the December chill. She was warmly dressed, having in mind to spend as much time as she could among the horses today.
Rounding one side of the old wooden barn, she gasped as she almost ran into a large, dark shape. The horse was huge - much larger than Peter - and age-frosted black except for four white socks and a perfect four-point star upon her brow. The massive hooves were thickly skirted with silken hair and the legs, body and neck heavy with muscle. This was a Shire, and could only be the mare Seyan had mentioned but not yet shown her - Destiny. Sara wondered how such a huge animal could have remained out of sight all this time.
Destiny lowered her head until the large muzzle filled Sara's vision. Warm, sweet breath touched her cheek, and the large, dark eyes scrutinised her with piercing intelligence. She felt as if she were being tested or assessed somehow.
"Aha!" boomed a familiar voice from behind her. It was Seyan. "A fine morning to you, young Sara. I see you've made the acquaintance of old Destiny at last. She seems to have a liking for you, to be sure!"
Destiny snorted lightly and tossed her magnificent head.
Seyan said, "Would you care to be riding her? I think she could show you a thing or two."
"Sure!" Sara agreed eagerly. "Shall I get her tack?"
Seyan laughed. "It'd be a fine trick to bridle Destiny, would it not? No, there's no saddle nor reins for her. She takes you or she doesn't by her own choice. But she likes you I can tell. And you: I'm thinking I've seen something in you these last few days. Can it be you find our little haven to your liking?"
"Oh, God, yes," Sara said, and even she could hear the yearning in her voice. Ask me to stay, she begged silently. I'll do anything, but ask me to stay...
"Well now, that's grand," Seyan said, oblivious to this. "Go with Destiny now. She'll care for you, if you trust her to. Knows all the roads and paths, she does."
She was a little doubtful - was he suggesting she ride out of the farm on a horse with no bridle or saddle? But evidently so, and he seemed quite sure of himself. And turning back to Destiny, she was startled to see the huge black mare had gone down upon one knee and had her head gracefully inclined toward her.
Feeling a little odd, as if she had missed something important, but also feeling a strange eagerness she could scarcely control, she took a step toward the kneeling Shire. Seyan bent and offered cupped hands to give her a boost - even on her knees, Destiny was dauntingly tall - and then she was sitting astride.
It wasn't anything like the riding she had done to now. Destiny was very wide to sit astride, and the sheer height: it must be fully six feet to the ground and felt higher. But what hit Sara hardest was the feeling of intimate contact between herself and Destiny. She hadn't realised how much sensation was screened by the protective shock-absorbing of the saddle. The mare had a burning warmth that immediately permeated Sara's inside legs and every tiniest movement was conveyed straight to her. The mare's back was more slippery than she might have guessed to, and she nervously wound her fingers into the thick black mane. "What if I fall?" she asked, feeling like a child. This was a very large pony.
"Destiny won't let you fall," Seyan assured her. "If she lets you on her back to begin with, she'll let you stay there."
"Where shall I go? When shall I come back?"
"Oh," Seyan shrugged. "Let Destiny choose the road. And she'll return you to us in good time, to be sure. Trust in Destiny, Sara. You'll only ever be content if you trust in Destiny."
She couldn't decide if he was speaking literally or figuratively, but had no time for second thoughts as Destiny started off, her huge, deceptively slow stride actually carrying Sara at a speed most horses would have to trot to maintain.
"Luck to you, Sara," Seyan called. "I'll be hoping for you!"
What the hell did he mean by that? Sara wondered nervously, but turned her attention to her predicament. How had she let herself be talked into this? The ground was a worryingly far distance below her and she had no means of control whatsoever. Suppose she met someone? What if she needed to stop?
"Whoa, Destiny," she called, hoping she sounded a little more authoritative to the mare than to her own ears. She was infinitely reassured when Destiny did stop, quite promptly, and turned her massive head about to give a querying look over her shoulder.
"Uh, just testing," Sara said, feeling almost embarrassed. "Walk on!"
Destiny did not head out toward the road, which relieved Sara a little as she did not know how to contend with the gates from horseback. The mare turned onto a path with led through the rear paddocks and into sparse woodland. Though she knew the area to be fairly well frequented and well inhabited, there were no actual signs of humanity around and she shivered slightly.
A growing sense of exultation filled her though, swelling as her confidence grew. Destiny strode along steadily, her back firm and warm and oddly secure. Sara delighted at the thought of being out, alone on a horse, without even any tack! This was the stuff of fantasy! A state of euphoria overcame her, and she found herself grinning uncontrollably.
Destiny was indeed following her own path. The track petered out until Sara could see no kind of way ahead at all. The trees grew closer together and it seemed impossible that any animal of Destiny's size could squeeze though. She did though, never breaking her mile-swallowing pace. Sara could almost fancy the trees making way for her.
It must be marvelous to be that big: that strong, she mused. Not even necessarily as large as the Shire: all the horses had an impressive muscular Power about them: an implacable weight and presence she could only envy.
Speed too, she thought. She had done a little cantering and even though Seyan had assured her a horse could carry her much faster than she could achieve in the school, it had been a thrilling experience. She knew it had only been twenty or thirty miles an hour, but somehow that speed was so much more potent, more vital, than any velocity achieved by a car or a plane. That sudden burst of speed with the wind in her face and the three-beat thudding of the horse's hooves on the sand track. Something had awoken in her then.
She started, as if waking from a doze or a trance. Destiny was trotting now, but a smoother trot than any of the other horses she had ridden. She wouldn't have enjoyed riding bareback on one of them at anything faster than a walk. This was easy to sit though: the enormous horse's stride was so long and slow that the movement was smooth and comfortable. The mare's ears were angled back at her, and Sara had the sudden, slightly unnerving feeling that the Shire was somehow listening to her: reading her thoughts.
"Well, it's true," she said to the horse, somewhat defensively. "I would like to be a horse. You think it's so great being human? Hey! WOAH!" For Destiny had suddenly broken into a ground-shaking canter.
Sara wound her fingers deeper into Destiny's mane, leaning forward and low, for tree branches like prickly brooms were trying to pluck her from the mare's back. At first she was terrified, fearing she would fall or be dashed against a tree trunk at any moment. Then she began to ride to the rhythm and her immediate panic gave was, first to anxiety about where this crazy horse might be taking her, and then dawning delight at their speed and the power beneath her. Her heart seemed to be hammering in time to the cadence of the Shire's pounding hooves.
Destiny broke out of the thicker woods, skirting the edge of what looked like another riding school, though somewhat dilapidated and not at all like Wish Fulfillment. An old, once-magnificent barn sagged ominously and the buildings were patched with sheets of age-grey ply and bits of signboard. Skirting this property, she once again entered woodland, but sparser here. She slowed suddenly, and in the sudden silence and stillness, Sara heard the mare's breath puffing through flared nostrils, and felt the immense lungs swelling like bellows beneath her. And then she forgot the mare.
She could never afterwards describe exactly what she saw and felt, except superficially. A forest path of no particular note ran up a slight rise where a ridge of low rock poked a few inches above the soft soil. Framing it were two trees, slender but ancient looking, whose branches twined together to make a natural gateway over the path. Destiny approached this slowly and stopped before it.
Sara could feel wind blowing through the gate, but there was no sign of it in the forest. All was still and silent. No breeze ruffled Destiny's full mane, and yet when Sara held a bare hand up, she could feel a tingling rush of something against her palm.
Something twinkled in her peripheral vision and she turned quickly, but missed it. Again it happened, but to the right this time. Then the air was full of pale motes of light, very faint, appearing in the air of the gate.
Sara stared, uncertain what to make of this strange phenomenon. She thought she ought to be scared, or at least worried, but instead she felt a compelling need to see this thing closer: a pull that she could resist, but didn't want to.
"What is this?" she demanded aloud, a little angry at the confusion she felt.
Destiny shifted, slowly lowering herself to her knees, and Sara took the hint and slid off the mare to one side. The Shire stood again, a comfortingly solid presence by her side, and Sara raised a hand to the mare's neck. Destiny ducked her head and softly nuzzled Sara's shoulder. There was no fear or tension in the big horse.
She took a cautious step toward the gate. The light brightened and coalesced, forming a shimmering globe no bigger than an orange. It sparkled and hummed with a soft, ethereal song, glowing with softly shifting rainbow hues, hovering at chest height.
Sara stepped closer, and Destiny followed her which was something of a relief. The orb was beautiful, almost hypnotic, and Sara could willingly have spent hours simply contemplating it, but she felt a strong sense of impatience from an outside source, as if something were expected of her. Destiny tossed her head and snorted at her.
Wondering if she was making some dangerous mistake, and completely bewildered, Sara reached out and tentatively probed at the light with a finger. There was the softest of chiming sounds, and she felt a slight resistance: there was more to the globe than merely light.
She gave a startled cry as something softly but firmly shoved her in the middle of the back. She stumbled forwards and into the glowing sphere; into the gate.
The world twisted and changed. The woodland behind her and the woodland before her receded, leaving her standing, trembling, in a short corridor of darkness. She stood upon a solid surface, and when she reached out, could feel a solid wall, but what either might be made of, she couldn't say. It was cool but not cold. She could feel some deep, throbbing vibration, slow and regular like a huge heart.
The voice was in her head; not her ears. Low, and gentle, but with hidden depths and strengths. Even as her human-conditioned intellect argued that this was impossible, she knew who the voice belonged to.
"Is that you?" she asked. She was mildly astonished to hear her voice sounding fairly calm, with only a very slight quaver to it.
The mare was beside her, a looming yet comforting shadow, almost invisible except that now and again, a ripple of violet light like tame lightning would outline the giant horse.
I am Destiny, the voice acknowledged, and the mare nodded in an almost human fashion, and you stand in the Pembroke Gate, one of the few remaining Gates between the world of Humans and the Elder World.
"You mean, this is like a passage to..." she struggled for the concept. "Another dimension?" God, that sounded so Star Trek!
No, the mare said. The difference is more subtle than that. They are the same world. They are, if you like, different perceptions of the true world. You stand at a nexus point. You are an open choice: one of the Misplaced Ones, somehow mislaid by fate. Your soul is restless, unable to find contentment.
"Yes," Sara admitted.
You have survived so far, looking for a purpose: a direction, certain that there is one for you, but unable to realise it, the mare continued. Think now! The realm of normal possibilities no longer constrains you! If your heart and soul were free to choose a life on this Earth, what would they ask?
It was there, hovering before her, but she hesitated. "You will think me an idiot," she said.
I doubt it. You are letting human perceptions colour your desire. This is not, quite, a wish: I am asking your soul where it would feel most content. There is a difference. Choose.
"Who are you?" demanded Sara desperately, "What are you?"
What do you see? asked the mare, sounding mildly amused.
"You're not a horse," Sara accused.
Yes, I am, Destiny disagreed. Not a normal one, I'll grant you. Bare of Time's saddle, free of Age's reins, and possessed of rather more knowledge than is generally good for one creature, but I am a horse. I am named for my unique role in the mortal world: overseer of the fates of all creatures of the race of Equus.
"Then why are you showing an interest in me?" demanded Sara.
Ah, Destrier said with a satisfied air. You tell me.
Sara felt herself flushing in a sudden heat. Her heart began hammering. A wish was on the tip of her tongue: a yearning desire that convention ruthlessly tripped and floored, leaving her tongue-tied and stuttering.
You need not say anything, the black mare told her gently. Just choose. Go forward or go back. That's all you need do, then we'll return to the stables.
"What will happen?" Sara asked nervously.
Nothing you don't want to.
Sara looked back and then forward. Each way showed perfectly innocent-looking Massachusetts woodland. Massachusetts. Boston with its choked traffic, crowded shopping malls, colleges, the airport, the Amtrak yard... It didn't conjure feelings of magic, anymore than Hudson did, or any other city she'd spent much time in. They said fairy tales come true in New York but who really believed that?
Backwards or forwards. Here in this strange, magical passage with a horse who spoke like a goddess - who might even be a goddess for all Sara knew of such things - she couldn't bring herself not to take it seriously. It was too vital: too real to be a dream. Her stomach roiled and her pulse was racing, and she wasn't entirely sure why.
"Why am I hesitating?" she asked aloud.
Destiny merely looked at her patiently.
Back was back to the life she had lived. Existing really: not living: going from day to day with no real aim or intention. But it was safe! No threats: no great unknowns. Forwards frightened her: it could be an immense mistake she would have no way to remedy.
"My friends... my family..?" she asked hesitantly.
All that will change with you, Destiny told her. All record of your previous existence will change. Only you and I and the few folk who know about the Gate will ever know and remember who and what you were. Someone must remember, or what was will never have been, and no past should be so lightly destroyed. Choose, Sara. Choose now.
It seemed like her mind was still in turmoil: that she still hadn't chosen, but some deep, nameless part of her had: her legs moved; her feet began to step forwards. Yes, she decided, and moved with more confidence.
Only once did she look back, and saw the wood behind her turning misty and indistinct: a grey oblivion rolling in. She turned forward again and continued to walk forwards, until suddenly she was standing in bright, woodland daylight again, and Destiny stood beside her. Sara looked at the mare's saddle and bridle, only now realising that the Shire had not been wearing them in the Gate.
The Gate. She turned round and looked at it. The lights and the dark tunnel were not to be seen. Just two trees, and a low threshold of rock.
"Nothing's changed!" she exclaimed.
Actually, a good deal has changed, Destiny informed her with an amused whinny.
Sara froze in the act of turning back to the mare. Trembling hands rose and felt the sides of her head. Her ears had moved! They had swiveled toward Destiny! And now... the sounds around seemed to have a deeper feel to them: a depth and clarity she wasn't accustomed to. She could hear birds and small scurrying things in the undergrowth. She could hear dry, unfallen leaves rustling together where they hadn't yet fallen. The deep, soft voice of the river came from somewhere off to her left, and again she felt her ears move.
Then, beneath her fingers, she felt something else. Here ears were growing! The lobes drew in and up, the tips off her ears growing pointed and pricked and growing much, much larger until she feared her dream was going awry and she feared she was undergoing a Pinocchio-like transformation into an ass.
No, Destiny reassured her, apparently reading her mind. You aren't becoming a donkey. A horse's ears are merely somewhat oversized for a human head! Be patient.
"Why is the change so slow?" Sara asked, feeling her huge, mobile ears in awe. They were furry, she noted, and long enough, when she bent one forward, to see the tip in the corner of her vision. Or was her field of vision just a little wider now? The ear was white, covered in short, felt-like hair.
Your former life has a certain momentum, Destiny told her. If you wish to remain yourself and not blank your mind and your past like a newborn's, it is necessary that the change is a gradual one. Get on my back: we'll head back to Wish Fulfillment.
"I can't go like this!" Sara exclaimed, blushing. "Supposing someone sees me?" She could feel her ears brushing the outside of her riding hat.
They will see nothing unusual, Destiny said. Your past is changing with you. They will see nothing out of the ordinary. Only those who know of the Gate will see you changing, and they will understand. You are not the first.
"I'm not?" Sara asked, startled. Was there a slight squeal in her voice?
All the animals at Wish Fulfillment started off as you. The Gate admits one every year. It is likely that the nervous young man staying with you will join us next year but he is not as ready as you yet. Come: mount. Your change will be easier at the stables. Seyan is well versed in helping people through the more awkward stages of transition.
"Will it hurt?" Sara asked nervously as she cautiously climbed back onto the kneeling horse's back. Although subjectively she knew she was changing, it was difficult to accept she would soon look much like the animal she was now riding.
It never has yet.
Even so, Sara felt more than a little nervous as Destiny quickly accelerated into a fast but smooth trot.
Much to her initial alarm, Destiny did not stick to the woods this time, but detoured through the stables they had seen earlier. They ended up on a gravel drive past a paddock, and down to the main road. Turning right, Destiny headed without hesitation along the road toward Halifax, answering Sara's objections only with a This way is quicker.
Not far down the road, they encountered the same post office that Seyan had stopped at on the way from the airport. As if expecting them, there was Claireece, leaning on the balcony rail.
"Hi, Dess!" she greeted them. "And Sara, isn't it? How was the Gate? You'll be fine, you know. Isn't anyone yet who's regretted going through."
Sara stared at the woman. From the waist up, she was just as Sara remembered, but from the waist down...
"You're a centaur?" she managed, gaping at the fine Appaloosa mare that was Claireece below the waist.
"On this side of the Gate I am," grinned Claireece. "Anyone on the other side sees me as a normal middle-aged human woman. You'll find a few things aren't quite as you remember on this side. Just accept things as you find them. That's what I do."
If you'll excuse us, Destiny said, sounding a little brusque, We're in a bit of a hurry. And as they left, Sara heard the mare's voice in her mind mutter, Dess! in a tone of complete disgust.
The only other change Sara noted was a satyr (or was it a fawn?) bent over the open bonnet of a flashy red Pontiac outside in a driveway, it's brown goat legs streaked with oil. There may have been some other anomalies, but Sara didn't notice them much after discovering she had hooves instead of toes.
She thought her boots had been getting uncomfortable, but had been too distracted until the left one split at the toes, closely followed by the right. Beneath, her socks were just barely intact, though grossly stretched.
I'd get rid of them if I were you, Destiny said. They won't be much use to you any more.
The boots, though tough, were easy to tear the rest of the way once started -were her arms just a bit stronger? - and her socks pulled off fairly readily. Just abandoning clothing from horseback seemed strange and somehow liberating. And revealed were the strongest signs of her impending transformation yet: pale hooves of grey-brown horn, perfectly formed. Her feet had changed too: the instep grown longer and covered with a smooth coat of white fur that faded into bare skin at her ankles, but which spread as she watched. Her legs began to subtly change proportion beneath her jeans; her thighs shortening and her insteps continuing to lengthen until she fancied she must look somewhat like the satyr she had seen, but with a horse's legs instead of a goat's. Unlike her over-size ears, her legs were mercifully still of much the same dimensions as they had been: her jeans still fitted, even if her legs now bent in radically different ways.
Her hands began to change next. "Uh, Destiny?" she called, rather breathlessly. "I don't think I'll be able to hang on much longer!"
Just sit back, the black mare advised. You won't fall if I don't want you to.
She felt a little precarious, but realised that a good rider shouldn't be using her hands to balance in any case. It was just that, without a saddle, she felt a little precarious. This distracted her just sufficiently that when she next looked, her fingers had fused into fore-hooves, and white-furred forelegs vanished beneath her sleeves. Her former arms were growing longer, she noticed.
When her pelvis began to rotate, she had to ask Destiny to stop, and the mare obliged, kneeling so that Sara could roll awkwardly off onto the ground. It was no longer possible for her to spread her legs wide enough apart to sit astride the large horse, The trouble was, it was also impossible for her to stand on two legs anymore.
"What am I going to do?" she asked, a little plaintively. There was also, she noticed, a curious resonance in her voice that sounded more than a little horsey. She snorted.
I would say this is an excellent time for you to begin life as a quadruped, Destiny said. We've only half a mile or so to go.
And so they embarked on the strangest -so far- experience in Sara's life. She was still dressed in jeans and jumper, but as Destiny led the way, she followed trotting on four hoofed legs. At first she was a little clumsy, and it was hard to see far ahead: she couldn't lift her head very far. But then her neck began to lengthen and arc, and she grew accustomed to the rhythmic motion, and was soon trotting happily in a state of complete exhilaration. There was some slight embarrassment when a tail began to emerge from the base of her spine, but it soon worked its way out over the waist of her jeans and was soon a full and flowing flag of silky white hair. Trotting along behind Destiny, relying on her for her advice and guidance very much like a child following her mother, Sara could easily imagine herself as Destiny's foal.
In a sense, I guess you are, Destiny admitted, sounding amused.
Seyan met them at the entrance to Wish Fulfillment, and held the gate open for the two to enter: horse and half-horse. He too looked different on this side of the Gate: he still appeared human, but her new senses kept insisting he was a horse.
Phouka, Destiny informed her. He's a shape-shifter.
"And my greatest pleasure it is to be welcoming you to the herd, Miss Sara, to be sure!" he announced, bowing with a flourish. "You'd best come to the barn, I'm thinking, for those clothes will not be fitting you much longer, and you've still quite a bit for human modesties to be want to covering, if you'll take my meaning. Can I send Megan to you?"
Sara felt suddenly nervous, as if she were about to undergo an operation, or give birth. Seyan's easy manner and gentle smile were suddenly very reassuring. "If you don't mind," she said hesitantly, "I'd like for both you and Destiny to be with me."
Seyan smiled then. "I'll be honoured, and so it shall be. This way then."
Sara was somewhat amused when she was told that the large loosebox was actually a foaling box: it was kind of appropriate. Seyan ushered her in and advised her to lie down as best she could. Destiny stood outside and craned her huge head over the partition. Seyan vanished for a moment or two, but returned with a barrow from which he produced a blanket, a large pair of scissors, five large loaves of freshly baked bread, and a bucket of what Sara recognised as pelleted horse feed. The scent of both the bread and the feed made her feel hungry, and Seyan nodded. "You'll begin growing very shortly," he said, "And you'll soon be feeling a hunger such as you've never known before. Eat! Start with the bread, and when it takes your fancy, switch to the bucket. You'll know when. But to more delicate things first. I'm afraid I'll have to be removing your clothes now."
Sara was astonished to see Seyan blushing a deep red. He's more embarrassed at the idea than I am, she realised. She looked down at herself. With her greatly altered limbs, she could hardly undress herself, and doubted if jumper or blouse could actually be coaxed off any more: her arms no longer folded the way they had this morning. She guessed the role of the scissors then.
It was a strange experience. She felt very vulnerable, even as she trusted Seyan implicitly. She couldn't help giggling as he simultaneously tired to keep a close eye on the scissors and avert his gaze from her exposed body. Despite herself, she was mildly aroused by the experience. She was soon lying naked on the straw, the blanket loosely spread over her. Seyan looked quite relieved when that was done.
She was indeed growing remarkably hungry now, and Seyan took one of the loaves. It was a large loaf, freshly baked by Megan no doubt, and Sara didn't see how, hungry as she was, she could even it half of it, but he broke a chunk off and she ate it with relish, quickly following it with another, and another. She couldn't seem to get enough of it, and was embarrassed at her gluttony. The first loaf was finished in dismaying short time, and she began on the second.
As she ate, the changes in her body continued. Her torso began to swell: her ribs expanding into a barrel-like shape quite unlike the flattish profile of a human. Most disconcerting was when her breasts migrated with a sinuous crawl to become a modest set of mare's udders, almost hidden between her hind legs. Her neck filled out too, and she felt her head and face begin to change. Her eyes drifted apart, altering her vision, and in her new peripheral site, she saw her nose begin to project, and her jaw expand to meet it in a blunt but growing muzzle.
"How do you feel?" Seyan asked.
Sara neighed, and was so surprised at the sound that she stopped eating to stare at him and Destiny in astonishment. She tried to speak again and managed only a squealing whinny.
Seyan fed her more bread, and it vanished more quickly as her jaws grew: she felt her teeth change, running her tongue over the curious hard palette behind the upper incisors, and the massive molars that had grown in. I can eat grass! she thought in sudden novelty.
It was automatic, past a certain point in the proceedings: she finished the fifth loaf, and rising to all four legs, lowered her muzzle to the bucket of feed, eating greedily. Her body seemed to fizz with the sensations of change: she could feel her coat growing, and her torso expanding. Her humanity was long gone now, and all that remained was to attain equine stature. She felt like a balloon being inflated. She could sense the loosebox and the feed bucket beginning to seem much smaller than they had done. Destiny was still much larger than she, but not quite so dauntingly so.
She finished the bucket of cereal cubes, and Seyan replaced it with a bucket of water, into which she gratefully plunger her muzzle. Taking great, gulping draughts, she was amazed at how quickly the water level went down, and felt the swallows of cold water passing through her long throat and settling into her equine belly.
And when she lifted her dripping muzzle, it was done! She shook herself so that the blanket fell to the straw and looked back at herself in amazement and awe.
"Just a moment," Seyan said, and he vanished momentarily to return with a mirror. "We've done this before," he answered her querying look.
She stared at her reflection: she was beautiful! A slender grey mare looked back at her with dark, intelligent eyes and delicately shaped ears that actually looked quite neat now that they were in proportion. Her legs were long and her hooves neat and sharp, and her mane and tail were twinned cascades of white silk. Her quarters, she saw, were spangled with flecks of darker grey.
"A Thoroughbred filly, no less, and a beauty at that, to be sure!" beamed Seyan. "Do you like your new self?"
Sara was entranced by her reflection. She lifted a dainty fore hoof and inspected it, swished her tail and felt the new muscles respond as if she had always known them.
It struck her then that this amazing new form did feel... not exactly familiar, for every movement she made was a brand new sensation, but possessed of a rightness: a feeling that this was how things should be.
Your soul knows when it's home, Destiny told her. Welcome to the herd.
Yes, she realised, raising her head. I am home. She could sense the other horses around her: detect their individual scents through her fluttering nostrils: hear their distinctive sounds through her pricked ears as they darted back and forth. It was a comforting feeling: a feeling of belonging. She drew a deep breath and let it out in a long, contented sigh.
Welcome to the herd!