"I don't get it," Shenti said, pausing in her labours to lean on her broom and gaze across the stable-yard to where the Nursery Paddock could be glimpsed between buildings. "He's a gorgeous animal, but what's all the fuss about?"
"Don't you know anything?" Kessi asked, incredulous that her friend could possibly profess ignorance on something this incredible cool. "He's a Cerran: a real, genuine Cerran."
"Which are rare, I know, but why is Miss Tieburn so put out? I'd be over the moon to own a stallion like that."
"Cerrans don't just turn up in the hands of a seedy gypsy horse-trader," Kessi said. "They just don't. Traders might turn up with some prettied-up grey and try to con you, or they might claim a horse has got a bit of Cerran blood in him, but to actually get their hands on a pureblood stallion? Not possible. And then sell it to a small town riding school? The king would give half his treasury to own one, they're that rare."
"You mean he must be stolen?" Shenti asked, frowning. "Damn, that's too bad."
"Miss Tieburn's gone to the proctors to report it. Likely the gypsy was a fey of some kind. Only someone with magic could likely steal one."
"Why's that?" Shenti asked.
"They're traditionally wizard steeds," Kessi confided. "Not just for any wizards either. I'm talking about Third Circle or higher."
"I saw a Second Circle once," Shenti mused. "When I was very young..."
"They say Cerrans have a little unicorn blood in them," Kessi told her. "That once a great Unicorn lord fell in love with a common saddle mare, and that her foal was the first Cerran. Or he fell in love with a milk maid and transformed her into a compatible form. Something like that."
Shenti pulled a face. "A Unicorn wouldn't mate with a horse!"
Kessi shrugged. "It's a faerie tale. There are stranger crosses in nature. Have you ever asked Vorda where centaurs come from?"
"Yeah, well, that's Vorda. He just tells that one 'cos he fancies Arrissa and he's trying to con her that centaurs and humans together are perfectly natural."
"Hah," said Kessi spitefully. "Arrissa's got the morals of a mare anyway. His seed'll fall on fertile ground there. Or maybe somewhere else!"
"Kess!" exclaimed Shenti, shocked. "Come on, we'd better get this yard swept or Miss Tieburn'll go spare."
"What'll she do? Turn me into a frog?"
"Well, she is a practising witch..."
Kessi considered for a moment. "You might have a point..."
The afternoon passed uneventfully. Mid-weeks were slow and most of the day's work got done in the morning. Miss Tieburn returned from the proctor's office with the news that, although no-one had reported a Cerran stallion missing, they agreed it was highly suspicious. "They took my description of the gypsy," Miss Tieburn said, "But they agree with me it was probably a coltpixie or a malorigan. Might even have been a shillsholt, though goodness knows we don't usually get them in this neighbourhood." She sniffed. "Right then. Stalls done? Yard swept?"
"Yes, Miss Tieburn," Kessi said.
"Tack cleaned? Water bowls filled?"
"Yes, Miss Tieburn," Shenti said.
"Good. Take Cloud and Folly then and give them a good ride."
The two girls enthusiastically complied, saddling the two mares quickly and heading out toward the protected bridle-paths. Horses tended to be especially vulnerable to faerie mischief, and though protection was widely available, it was wisest not to push one's luck.
Returning after an uneventful but enjoyable hack, the two girls returned to the yard by the path that ran past the Nursery Paddock. The Cerran was still there and when the two mares halted to look at him, their riders didn't argue.
He was not like any other horse they had ever seen. He was tall and obviously powerful, but incredibly slender, so that one might believe there was a hint of swan in his lineage. He carried himself with a lordly arrogance: head high , delicate nostrils quivering as he obviously scented the two mares. He didn't react though. He stood in the centre of the paddock, perfectly still, as if waiting for something. There was little wind but his fine mane and tail floated weightless as if two languid air elementals had made the stallion their home.
And his colour! Truly one could believe that his ultimate grandsire had been a Unicorn, for only those fabled creatures had ever possessed such a glowing white coat. It was a colour that glowed and shone, and no smear of mud or grass or wisp of straw marred it anywhere.
"He's so beautiful," sighed Shenti.
Kessi, who could usually be relied upon to pass some ribald comment on the size of a stallion's genitals at this point, could only agree mutely.
The mares pranced and displayed, but the stallion did not deign to acknowledge them. His eyes, a lurid amaranthine violet, with large circular pupils that were quite unlike a normal horse's, followed them but he maintained his stately vigil in the centre of the field.
The girls urged the frustrated mares on and put them away. Miss Tieburn was not in sight, and so they seized the opportunity to sneak back to the stallion. While they had not been precisely forbidden to visit the paddock, both girls instinctively knew Miss Tieburn would not approve of it, so they kept out of view of the house and the office, and spoke in low tones.
"He doesn't look quite real, does he?" Kessi said.
"No, that's not it," Shenti said thoughtfully. "It's more like nothing else is as real as he is. Here boy! Come on!"
The stallion's ears flicked but otherwise he showed no inclination to come and be petted.
"It must be you," giggled Shenti. "Didn't you say he was descended from Unicorns? He'll only come to a pure virgin maiden."
Kessi started to object to this then recalled that she had recently boasted of spending a night with a certain handsome youth who occasionally rode here. Not true, but she had a reputation to maintain. So instead she said, "Huh. Pure? You? Virgin, maybe." They both laughed, but their laughter seemed somehow irreverent, and they both quieted to whispers again.
"Poor Cloud," Kessi sighed. "To be so slighted. I feel rather sorry for her. Looking at her almost makes me wish I were a horse."
Shenti merely nodded her agreement. They were both seventeen, and neither had yet outgrown their girlhood infatuation for anything that trod the earth on hooves and neighed. There was something almost elemental about the perfect white stallion that called out to both girls' souls.
"You know, Cerran are supposed to be quite magical," Kessi whispered.
"Really?" asked Shenti without her eyes leaving the stallion.
"Beth once told me that if you can get one to kiss you, you'll see an image of the man you are destined to marry."
"Get him to kiss you?" Shenti repeated. "Yuck!"
"Oh, right, like I've never seen you kiss Firemane when you groom him."
"That's different," Shenti protested.
"Besides, it's no big deal: you just put a lump of sugar between your lips," Kessi said. "You've seen me do that."
"I don't think he's the kind of horse that takes sugar-lumps."
"I bet he would. Dare you."
Shenti looked at the tall stallion longingly. It would be quite a coup to have him come and nuzzle her, but he was no amicable pony with a sweet-tooth. "Darers go first," she said.
Kessi hesitated and then nodded. "All right then. Got any sugar?"
"Hmph. Neither have I. So much for that then." Then Kessi giggled and called out in a sugary sing-song, "La, my lord! Won't you come hither and bestow two admiring maidens with your sweet kisses? For we have yearned and saved ourselves for the touch of lips such as yours!"
"Oh, blech!" Shenti said, but couldn't help laughing at her friends antics. But then she stopped abruptly and said, "Hey! Look!"
For the Cerran stallion was approaching them. He strutted in a graceful curve that brought him alongside the fence next to them, showing off almost. When he stood before the two girls he bent his head over the rails and looked from one to the other.
Suddenly nervous, Kessi whispered, "You first!"
Shenti bit back a retort, determined to prove herself in front of her friend. She inclined her head forward as she fancied one might do if soliciting a kiss from a suitor. The stallion turned to her and to her amazement, dipped his muzzle to deliver a lingering kiss on her lips.
It wasn't like kissing a horse at all! The Cerran had a long delicate muzzle, and his lips were dainty: almost human in scale. And though she caught just the faintest tang of sweet grass, he hardly smelled like a horse at all. In fact if she closed her eyes, she could imagine she was kissing a man. Not, she admitted, that she ever had, but this was what she felt it ought to feel like.
They parted, and for a few seconds she stood there feeling slightly breathless. "Wow. Oh, wow."
Kessi, emboldened and slightly envious that her friend should have taken the initiative, proffered her face, and again the stallion dipped his head and delivered a long, loving kiss. It was no mere nuzzling gesture: there was the faintest smack of lips as they drew apart.
Then, with a deep whicker that was almost a chuckle, the stallion turned and strode gracefully back the middle of the paddock.
Both girls stared after him, rendered temporarily speechless by the encounter. Shenti fingered her lips, smiling foolishly. She felt dizzy, light-headed, and slightly euphoric. She recalled the time Kessi had stolen some Fire-ghost wine and shared it with her. This felt somewhat the same, and she wondered if she had eaten something she shouldn't.
Her toes pinched, as if her boots were a little too small. She wriggled her toes, but the feeling persisted despite the fact that the boots were fairly new and if anything, a little on the large size. In fact they were becoming downright uncomfortable. She slipped the right one off and stooped to massage her toes.
Her cry of surprise cut through Kessi's own preoccupation. She was also feeling dizzily breathless. Also she was finding her jodhpurs to be rather uncomfortably tight about the seat and crotch. "What is it?"
"My foot! My feet!" Shenti cried. She struggled free of her other boot and stood on the soil in her socks. She balanced on one leg while examining the other foot, but Kessi could see there was something wrong with the other as well. Though partially hidden by the sock, the outline of Shenti's foot was subtly wrong. The length of the foot was longer than it should be, like a clown's fake shoes. Also, instead of resting flat on the ground, it seemed more round of cross-section than it should have been and there was something very odd about the toes.
And then she saw that the foot was growing longer as she watched. That was when Shenti freed her sock and revealed the other foot. The limb thus revealed was extremely familiar to them both, but it was not a human foot. Not any more. Instead it was the lower portion of a horse's rear leg, and where five toes had been, now there was only one, swollen huge, with a single great nail rapidly spreading around it to form a definite hoof.
Kessi was distracted from this miracle however, by the increasing tension in her pants. To her dismay, her abdomen was swelling like a balloon. The waist of her jodhpurs and panties became increasingly uncomfortable until zipper and elastic reached breaking point, and snapped. The material held but twanged down to mid-thigh height.
"What's happening to us?" demanded a panicking Shenti. Her lower legs were now completely equine, and her fingers had joined together into fleshy mittens.
The transformations progressed rapidly. Shenti soon found herself standing on four equine legs, while poor Kessi had changed literally arse-first. Both grew long horse's tails at roughly the same moment, then Kessi felt the rest of her torso swell to equine proportions while Shenti's neck and face began to lengthen. They both grew long pointed ears, and then Shenti's body began to alter as Kessi developed equine limbs and head.
There was a shocked pause as the two girls looked at themselves. Though only the size of foals, both were perfect miniature horses. Shenti was a gorgeous pinto colouring with a white face, while Kessi was a glossy black.
Then there was a queasy moment when perspective seemed to perform a double-take, and without seeming to change size in any way, both girls were suddenly much, much larger.
After a few seconds, the paint mare coughed and said in Shenti's voice, "What happened?" She sounded as if she was only holding back tears with extreme difficulty.
"That dung-eating bastard!" spat the black mare. "He did this to us! He must have done!"
"Why?" asked Shenti. "Why would he do this to us?"
"I guess common mares aren't good enough for him," sneered Kessi cynically. Unconsciously, she flattened her ears. One forehoof raked the ground angrily.
"What do you mean?" demanded the Paint. "You don't think that he..?" Her voice trailed away.
"Of course I think it!" Kessi snapped with an angry toss of her head. Her socks were still stretched taut around her hind feet, and though her jodhpurs had at some point split away, the elasticated material of her panties had stretched enormously - the garment stretched around her haunches like an elastic band. Craning her head around and twisting her huge body, she snatched at them with her teeth and managed to rip them off. She spat them away.
Shenti was ducking her head this way and that to look at her new body. The sleeves of her blouse still hung sadly around her forelegs. It was all she now wore. "I'm naked!"
"Of course you're naked," Kessi exclaimed. "We're horses, you idiot."
"I know," Shenti said as a large tear welled out of one eye and trickled over a huge furry cheek "Don't you think I know that? But I feel so exposed!"
Kessi backed down a little, making a conscious effort not to take out her frustration on the nearest target. "My Mum's gonna kill me!" She irritably tore off her left sock, then the right.
"I don't think she can restrict you to your room," Shenti ventured, a feeble attempt at humour. "How long do you suppose we'll be like this?"
"For good if I'm lucky," said a sudden voice from behind them. "Then I might get some value out of you both."
"Miss Tieburn!" Both mares jumped, startled.
The riding school owner looked very severe. "I had supposed that, being seventeen and practically adults, it wouldn't be necessary to warn you aware from the paddock. Give them a little respect, I thought. Credit them with some good old-fashioned horse sense."
Neither mare said a thing. Shenti shuffled her hooves awkwardly.
"Horse sense!" repeated Miss Tieburn. "Well, I see I was right, and there you stand, two horses. Two silly mares enslaved to their dream stallion."
"Hey, hang on now!" Kessi objected. "It wasn't our fault! We didn't ask for this!"
"Did you not?" retorted Miss Tieburn. "Shenti, I credit you with fractionally more presence of mind than your companion. What's your view on this?"
Shenti cast a guilty glance at Kessi then hung her head. "I... I guess this is sort of our fault, but we never expected this!"
"Our fault? What do you mean, our fault?" Kessi demanded.
"We did sort of... call him over," ventured Shenti.
"Oh, and begged him to turn us into willing mates I suppose?" Kessi asked sarcastically.
"Well, yes, you kind of did," Shenti said reluctantly, unable to meet her friend's eyes.
"That bit about admiring maidens and kisses."
"You can't mean..." Kessi's voice trailed away.
"Oh, but she can. You mean to tell me that no one ever told you how Cerrans mate? They're magical creatures with a very high intelligence. They find willing partners from amidst our species and transform them. Our snowy-skinned guest here has you both pegged as prospective consorts. Gods alive, but what do they teach you girls at school these days?"
"But I don't want to be a horse," cried Shenti plaintively. "And I don't want..." She couldn't quite bring herself to say it, but she rolled her eyes expressively in the stallion's direction.
"Now, now, no need for tears," said Miss Tieburn briskly. "You'd better follow me. If this isn't what you truly want then you've nothing to fear. A Cerran's kiss may transform, but only your own will can make it permanent."
"You mean we'll turn back?" Shenti asked eagerly. "When?"
"Oh, tomorrow morning some time, I should think," Miss Tieburn said.
"Tomorrow?" demanded Kessi. "And what do we do until then?"
"I'll put you up in a couple of the empty stalls for the night," Miss Tieburn.
"What?" demanded both girls. Kessi said, "We might look like horses but we're still us! You can't treat us like a pair of ordinary animals!"
"And what do you suggest?" asked Miss Tieburn sarcastically. "You surely don't think you're fit for human habitation in your current form, do you? Be sensible and take what I offer with a little gratitude, or do you want me to charge you livery and dock it from your wages?"
"My parents..." Shenti began.
"Will be told you are staying here for the night, and if they persist, will be told the full truth," Miss Tieburn said, turning away and walking toward the stable yard. The two transformed girls followed automatically.
"What about clothes?" asked Shenti hesitantly. "When we change back, won't we be naked?"
"Good point," Miss Tieburn conceded. "I'll leave you both a couple of sheets to satisfy modesty until you'll fully restored. Can't have the morning girls getting shocked."
"What?" Shenti cried. "You aren't going to let them see us are you? But Arrissa and Beth and Katleen are all on tomorrow morning."
"Then you can explain to them why there are two extra stalls to clean," Miss Tieburn said.
Other than depositing a couple of large towels and some old stable coveralls where they could easily be reached, she showed very little sympathy to the two mares, ushering them into a pair of loose-boxes. They were in the small barn and had it pretty much to themselves, if you didn't count the barn cats and the owl in the rafters. Both horses were rather dismayed though when Miss Tieburn, prior to departing, shot the bolts home on the stall doors and then set the kick bolts too.
"What's that for?" Shenti asked. "You know we won't run away or anything."
"Yes, but this way I know precisely where you are," Miss Tieburn said resolutely. "I'll sleep a lot happier knowing there aren't two intelligent horses loose on my property, thank you very much. All I need is some foolishness like one of you getting into the feed-shed and giving yourself colic, or worse mischief."
"But you can't do this to us!" Kessi snarled. "We're people, whatever we look like right now. We'll tell our parents."
"Be my guest," Miss Tieburn said. "And do tell them also how you got yourselves into this mess. Your mother, Shenti, has worked here too in the past. Do you think she'll be very impressed? Good night, girls. With luck, you should begin to change back around breakfast time." She turned and left, and they heard her footsteps move away.
"What do we do now?" whispered Shenti.
"Precious little," snapped Kessi, circling her stall angrily. Her ears were flat back and her tail swished back and forth in irritation. "Who does she think she is? Well, I'm blowed if she's keeping me locked up for the night!"
She leant over the door and tried to open the catch, but it had a cover over it to protect it from ingenious equines, and in any case, she couldn't reach the kick bolt.
"Well," she said determinedly. "They're only held in place with a few flimsy screws." She lunged heavily at the door, but it didn't even shake. "What the hell?"
"It's spell protected, remember?" Shenti told her. "You couldn't get through that if you had a battering ram and a team of war mammoths. It'll open automatically in a fire, but apart from that..."
"Oh, great. I'll just light a fire then, shall I?" Kesssi snapped sarcastically. "That bitch!" She turned and delivered a swift kick to the door. This had no more effect on it than her previous efforts.
The evening was a study in monotony. The minutes seemed to crawl by and there was nothing to distract them from their situation. Kessi was in a foul mood, and Shenti was miserably certain that she wouldn't ever turn back, convincing herself that Miss Tieburn had lied to them to get them to come quietly, and that during the night, her human thoughts and speech would vanish away.
"I wonder if I'll remember my name?" she thought. "Will they keep me here? God, I might end up giving pony rides. I wonder what it feels like to wear a saddle and bridle?"
Outside it began to rain, pattering on the barn roof. Darkness fell, and small spell-glows cast a dim light over the barn's interior. Shenti, lulled by the rain-sound, dozed off on her feet.
She awoke with a start to the feel of her hair being pulled. It took her a moment to remember where she was and what she was, and to realise that Kessi was leaning over the partition between their stalls and pulling her mane with her teeth. "Hey! What are you doing?"
"Look!" hissed Kessi, gesturing with a sharp thrust of her head.
Shenti looked, and leapt back. "Oh my god! How did he get in here?"
The Cerran stallion stood in the doorway, his white coat almost glowing in the dim light.
"Sssh!" hissed Kessi.
"Oh my god!" moaned Shenti. "He's here to finish what he started!" She backed her hind-quarters firmly into the far corner of the stall.
"I don't think he's like that," Kessi whispered, thoughtfully. "Hey, can you let us out? Sir?" she added.
"Sir?" Shenti repeated.
"I thought a little respect might help," Kessi shot back.
"Respect? From you?"
"Hey, there's a first time for everything."
It seemed to work, for the white stallion nodded, and came up to the door of Kessi's stall. A hoof neatly tapped the kick-bolt out, then the stallion lowered his muzzle to the top latch. Neither mare saw quite what he did, but the supposedly horse-proof latch was suddenly undone, and the door swung free. Then the tall Cerran did the same thing to Shenti's..
There was a moment of silence. The stallion turned and walked back to the door, then looked back over his shoulder, saying very clearly, Are you coming?
Kessi looked over at Shenti then started forwards out of the stall.
"What are you doing?" demanded Shenti. "Where are you going?"
"I want out of this stall," Kessi said. "She's got no right to lock us up like that, and I want to stretch my legs a bit."
"Yeah, but with him?" asked Shenti, nervously. "Kess, I don't think you should. I really don't."
"I think I'll be safe," Kessi said. "I really do. I don't think this is just any old stallion that will try to jump on any mare available. And besides, we're not in season."
"Kess!" exclaimed Shenti."
"Well, we're not," insisted Kessi. "And a stallion won't mate with a mare unless she's in season, right? So what's the problem?"
"I just don't like it," Shenti said unhappily. Couldn't her friend see that this horse didn't follow the normal rules. Kessi obviously hadn't given any thought to the fact that though they were physically both horses, they still thought as normal humans and had retained their human voices. They even sounded the same. That didn't ride entirely happily with Shenti.
"Are you coming or not?" Kessi asked, leaving the stall and going to stand beside the white stallion.
"No, I'm gonna wait here," Shenti said stubbornly.
"Well, I'm going out or a bit. Don't wait up." And with that, the black mare followed the white horse out of the door. Shenti listened to the sound of her friend's hooves as the diminished into the distance - the Cerran was totally silent.
Shenti tried to get back to sleep, but found it quite impossible. When faerie abduction is a fact of life and your best friend walks out with a magical animal, you can't help but worry. Shenti tried to keep a rein -so to speak- on her imagination, but she could picture any number of dire fates for an unwary human in a mare's body. This ran from the stallion being an equine rapist to the Cerran being some sort of Kelpie who would suddenly turn on Kessi and devour her, to her being abducted by faeries to spend a live of enslavement, pulling the carriage of some faerie lord. It did happen: you read about it in the papers and saw it on TV: "After months of negotiation, King Oberon today released the party of students he claimed had trespassed on his Kingdom. Doctor Thadeus Quarp (Third Circle) predicts they will all return to full humanity in a matter of weeks, though two of them required physical surgery to remove their bovine tails." One heard of vanishments, then someone nearby would mysteriously acquire a new pet or find some farm animal in their garden, munching on the chrysanthemums. Suppose the Cerran finished the job on Kessi: made her a full mare in mind and body? Shenti found herself trying to imagine what it might be like to muck out the stall of someone you could remember going to a concert with only a few weeks before.
There was no way to measure time. A subjective eternity passed. Shenti endlessly debated whether to go look for her friend, or even fetch Miss Tieburn (not a light-hearted option). She was immeasurably relieved when a familiar dark form made its way back into the barn and into the stall next to her. "Kessi!"
"Were you worried?" the black mare asked. "Hey, you were!"
"Of course I was worried! Where have you been."
"Oh, here and there," her friend responded, just a little too casually and evasively for Shenti's liking. "Exploring. Everything looks so different at night, and I thought it might be kind of fun to like, try this body out a bit. It isn't every day you get to find out what it's like to be your favourite animal! I didn't plan all this, I swear, but in a way, it's kind of fun, don't you think?"
Shenti allowed that, though she wasn't personally thrilled by this situation, she guessed she could see Kessi's point of view.
"Anyway, I tried the jumps in the school, and then I went and had a go at the cross-country course."
Shenti almost reared up. "What! Are you crazy! You went out of the grounds, at night? As a horse?"
"Supposing some faerie had caught you! That's wild land out there!"
"Oh, come on! I know there are some dangerous spots, but no one's come to any trouble round this neck of the woods for a couple of decades!"
"And you're determined to be the first?" Shenti sighed. "My best friend has a death wish."
"Oh, come on, Shen. Lighten up a little. Every one's gone out at night at some time in their life."
"Not on unprotected land," Shenti insisted.
"Shows what you know. Oh, Shenti, it was great! This body is so strong: so fast. I could have run all night."
Shenti wrinkled her nostrils. "You smell like a real horse now. You're perspiring all over."
"Sweating," corrected Kessi. "Horses sweat." She giggled and Shenti couldn't help but giggle with her: Miss Tieburn was a great proponent of the old saying, "Men perspire, horses sweat, ladies glow" (to which the standard response was "well, I'm glowing buckets then.").
"Okay, so spill. I'm listening." Shenti admitted to herself that half her ire was because she'd stayed in the barn worrying while her friend had had such a good time.
The two transformed girls talked for a good few hours until tiredness eventually claimed them and they both fell asleep standing.
When the morning girls arrived, it wasn't quite as humiliating as either mare had expected. Both had discussed and prepared the right approach to take, and managed to put over the impression that getting yourself transformed into a horse and spending the night out was really _cool_. All the morning girls were impressed by Kessi's tale of how she had run the cross-country-course, even though Arrissa tried very hard to play it down by claiming loudly that of course this was what happened if a Cerran kissed you, and she wouldn't have been so stupid.
The night paled and dawn arrived, and both mares began to anticipate changing back into their human selves. Both had appropriated the clothes and towels left to them and piled them at the back of the stalls: stealing them would be a very obvious trick to any of the girls.
It was nearly seven when Miss Tieburn appeared, and she wasn't alone. Both mares stared in awe and then bowed their heads at the sight of the tall stranger who accompanied her. He wore black robes trimmed with gold, and he bore a long staff of yew, tickly gnarled at one end and deeply carved with symbols of Power. His eyes were an unsettling mauve, like the stallion's. This was no lesser being than a mage of the First Circle, and they did not often lower themselves to attend upon lesser mortals, especially mortals working for a country riding school.
"I am Aphreal of the First Circle," he said, and his voice was so deep and resonant, it seemed to contain distant thunder. "I am informed that you have made the acquaintance of my steed and familiar, Shavree. Your employer tells me you did not understand or anticipate the consequences of your... frivolities yesterday evening. Is this true?"
Both mares nodded. "Yes, sir."
"And you intended no liaison or dalliance with him?"
He nodded, seeming satisfied. "Very well then. I apologise for the inconvenience and discomfort caused to you. Be assured that you should soon return to your human forms." He turned then and left the stable, leaving the two mares to stare after him.
"Wow!" whispered Kessi, awed. "A first circle mage! and he said sorry to us! Wow!"
"So he should if his stallion goes around doing this to people!" said Shenti.
"Oh, I don't know," returned Kessi in a curiously self-conscious tone.
"What do you mean?" demanded the Paint.
"Weeell," Kessi said. "I didn't tell you everything about last night."
"Didn't tell me what?" Shenti demanded. Then her eyes widened. "Kess! You didn't! You... You couldn't have!"
Kessi looked a little embarrassed, but also smug. "Well, he was obviously interested, and to tell you the truth, so was I. And he wasn't being pushy or anything, like a normal stallion."
"I don't believe this!" Shenti said, incredulously. "You're kidding me, right?"
"Nope," Kessi insisted. "Him and me. We did it. Uh, twice actually."
"But you couldn't have done! I mean, everything else aside, you're not even in season! Are you?"
"I guess that isn't too important to Cerrans," Kessi suggested.
"I don't believe I'm hearing this," Shenti said. "My best and closest friend has gone and done it, and with an animal!"
"Oh, come on Shen!" objected Kessi. "It wasn't like that at all. He's not like an animal. He really was courteous, gentle… I'm seventeen, for goodness sake!"
"Okay, okay," Shenti would have thrown up her hands if she'd been physically able. "So tell: what was it like?"
Kessi laughed. "Oh, Shen! WOW! Incredible. Better than the best thing ever. And you know what? Forget that 'wham, bang, thank you, ma'am' bit. When Cerrans mate, it goes on and on. He must have been on top of me for twenty minutes or more…"
"Kess!" exclaimed Shenti, shocked at her friend's blunt disclosure, but she had to admit she was intrigued too. "You never went near the cross-country course, did you? That wasn't how you worked up a sweat at all."
"Guilty as charged," admitted Kessi smugly.
Shenti didn't know what to say, caught between shock and something she wouldn't admit might be envy. The physical attraction of the Cerran stallion was hard to deny, especially when she wore a similar form. Maybe tonight..? she caught herself wishing, before telling herself firmly that by this evening the bizarre events of the previous night would be but a memory.
So she contented herself with pumping Kessi for the details, and the two mares descended into a level of intimately ribald conversation that only teenage stable-hands seem to be able to reach. Half an hour passed, and then in mid sentence, Shenti suddenly uttered an exclamation. "Oh!"
"What is it?" Kessi asked.
"I feel… Oh! I think this is it," said Shenti breathlessly. "Agh!" The feeling wasn't painful, but an unsettling tingling which peaked and ebbed in waves.
"You're shrinking!" Kessi said.
It was true. Her shape remained thus-far unchanged, but she began to diminish in size, until she was no larger than a miniature pony, or, she supposed, a large human being. Then she began to change physically. Her tail shortened and vanished. It did not retract inside her as she had half feared, and for this she was grateful.
Her torso began to lose bulk, flattening and losing its barrel shape. Her human breasts grew back in. Her neck shortened and narrowed, and her muzzle began to retract. Her coat thinned and began to yield a growing pinkness of bare human flesh.
Her legs altered proportion, causing her to overbalance and fall on her side, then her hands and feet grew back in. She tried not to look: somehow it hadn't looked nearly as disturbing in reverse. Her hooves retracted into outsized nails, looking quite grotesque. Four small buds appeared around each foot, and rapidly lengthened into toes and fingers.
Finally she lay on the straw, panting, cautiously feeling herself all over to be sure she was her human self again.
"I should cover up if I were you," Kessi advised, leaning over the partition between the stalls. Shenti belatedly realised she was stark naked and grabbed the coveralls Miss Tieburn had left them.
"Thanks!" she exclaimed. "Having spent all night with nothing on, I almost forgot!" Then she looked at Kessi. "Hey, you haven't changed! Why aren't you changing back?"
"No reason why we should both change back at the same moment," Kessi pointed out reasonably. "It's probably like catching a cold or getting drunk. It doesn't affect everyone exactly the same way."
As an explanation, it sounded plausible, and was marred only by the slight nervousness in the black mare's voice. Shenti found it a little unnerving, now she was human again, to look at the big black mare, and hear her friend's voice issuing from that mouth. She chuckled. "Hey, we could do the cross-country now," she suggested. "Want me to get you a saddle?"
"Very funny," Kessi said. "Remind me to get the Cerran to kiss you again, then I'll lock you in a loosebox with Kerrix." Kerrix was Miss Tieburn's pureblood Tasland stallion. A beautiful horse, but a decidedly normal one where being a stallion was concerned.
"I'll pass on that, thanks," Shenti said. "We'll save that pleasure for Arrissa."
"Nah, she'd enjoy it too much," Kessi laughed in an oddly high-pitched voice. She coughed. "I wish this thing would hurry up," she said, in the same tone.
"What's up?" Shenti asked. "You sound a bit funny."
"I feel a bit funny," Kessi said. Her voice had risen further, and developed an oddly nasal sound. The black mare tossed her head nervously. "Um, Shenti, is that may-ay-age around? I think… uh…" Then she shuddered convulsively, and the next sound she uttered was a completely equine neigh. Her eyes went wide in shock, and she neighed again. Rapidly, she backed clumsily into the corner of the stall while her friend stared at her in fright.
"Kess? Are you all right? Come on, this isn't funny! You're clowning, right?"
The mare frantically shook her head and whinnied. Hearing her own sounds, she winced visibly.
"Hang on! Wait here! I'll go get that mage!" Shenti bolted out of the barn. First Circle Mages weren't the sort of people one just ran and fetched, but she didn't think of that.
She found him by the paddock, and stopped in surprise. The Cerran stallion stood before him, and the two looked for all the world like they were having a conversation. No sounds were being exchanged, but the stallion would make a shrug and a small head movement, and the mage would nod as if a comment had been made.
Miss Tieburn stood a respectful distance away, and most of the rest of the staff and clientele around the stables were surreptitiously watching from all around. Miss Tieburn noticed Shenti as she dashed toward them.
"Shenti! Welcome back. But what's wrong, girl?"
Remembering in whose presence she was, Shenti skidded to a stop and addressed herself to the riding mistress. "Miss Tieburn, I changed back no problem, but Kess..! She's gone all weird! She didn't change back with me, and now she doesn't seem to be able to talk!"
Aphreal turned. "That's most curious. That would only happen if…" he halted in mid-sentence and turned back to the Cerran. Again, nothing audible was spoken, but the stallion answered the silent interrogation with a series of expressive nods, twitches and shrugs. Both mage and horse turned to look at Shenti.
"Did you spend the entire night in the barn, Miss Shenti?" enquired Aphreal.
"Yes," she answered, telling herself it was the truth, even if it wasn't the whole truth.
"Hmm," he said. "I think we'd better go see your friend. "Come along, Shavree."
There was a concerted gasp of awe as the mage strode away, for without any run-up or apparent effort, the big white stallion jumped the fence and strode after him. No more effort was expressed than someone casually vaulting a low fence.
Shenti and Miss Tieburn followed along in their wake, and a crowd of curious onlookers cautiously followed at a circumspect distance.
Kessi looked up and whinnied plaintively as they entered. Catching sight of Aphreal she lowered her head respectfully, but her eyes followed him anxiously and were ringed with white.
Then the Cerran moved to stand beside his master and she raised her head and whickered to him. The stallion rumbled a reply, to which she tossed her head and neighed again. The stallion whickered softly, and Shenti saw her friend's whole stance drop dejectedly.
"Well, Miss Kessi," Aphreal said softly. Reaching out, he gently cupped the mares chin in his hand and lifted her head so that her great dark eyes met his own violet ones. "I don't think you were entirely candid with me earlier, were you?"
Kessi heaved a deep sigh and shook her head.
"Lying to a mage of the First Circle usually carries a severe penalty," Aphreal continued gently, "but in your case, I think you've already paid it. And I am well aware that your predicament arose through nothing more malign than teenage bravado. But you see, this is how the Cerran breed perpetuates itself. They aren't entirely horses. They are a magical species all of their own. They're intelligent, but to retain that intelligence in their children, they must seek an intelligent mate. A thousand years ago, a Cerran stallion brought about the downfall of a great Demon from the Outer Planes, and before the Demon was destroyed, it cursed the entire Cerran line for all eternity. From that moment, no child would ever be born from the union of a Cerran mare and stallion. We magii facilitated a different means of propagation. If a human should ask it, and be fully consenting, a Cerran may transform that human into a compatible mate, able to bear or bestow a Cerran child."
Aphreal paused to lay an affectionate arm across Shavree's withers. He looked at Kessi and sighed. "Cerran aren't too common, for obvious reasons. We try to ensure that as many people as possible know the full truth, but some unfortunates, such as yourself, fail to appreciate the implications. Kessi, you did, entirely of your own volition, in a clear voice, ask Shavree to favour you?"
The black mare nodded slowly.
"And having transformed into this shape, you then consented quite willingly to lie with him?"
Kessi hesitated, and her eyes fell on Shenti. The girl gave a helpless shrug and shook her head. The mare sighed, hung her head, and nodded.
"Then, Kessi, I am afraid that the body you now wear shall be yours for the rest of your days," Aphreal said gently. "You are not fully Cerran, but you share some of their power and a large part of that power is a strong immunity to magic. This is why Cerrans make such invaluable mage-steeds. No magic I possess may transform you further. You are doomed to forever tread this earth on four hooves, Kessi."
The mage paused to let the implications of this dire verdict sink in. The mare showed no particular shock at the announcement - Shenti guessed Shavree had told her as he entered just now.
"I am truly sorry," Aphreal said, and sounded sincere. "I do not think your teenaged prank merited such a profound price, but I can offer a little comfort. You are not an ordinary horse and never will be. You will retain your human mind and sense of self. In time, if you wish, you might even learn to speak again - it has happened. Cerrans enjoy supernatural good health. They are the strongest and fastest of all horses and your lifespan might even exceed what you might have expected as a human."
Then the mage drew closer to the black mare and said softly, so that she alone could hear, "I will not lie to you. I sent Shavree out with a likely-looking sprite in the form of a gypsy so that he might seek a likely mate, but Shavree had no intention of trapping you. Cerran are not like that. He genuinely likes you, and would see that liking grow beyond mere friendship, if you would give him the chance. You do not yet carry his foal, and that choice is still yours. If you wish to accompany us now, I offer you my hospitality, for as long as you wish it. Shavree has born me faithfully for many years and has saved my life on more than one occasion. I owe him this and more. Will you consider this?"
Kessi raised her head, and drew herself erect. She sighed deeply and looked down at herself, then around at the rest of her new body, as if looking at it for the first time. She tried to say something, cleared her throat in a human fashion, and then turned her head to Shavree and whickered.
The white stallion answered with a whinny from deep in his chest, and he stepped forward and stretched his muzzle toward the transformed human.
Kessi looked at him for a long moment, then sighed again. Stepping forward, she lifted her muzzle to meet his.
The second kiss was better than the first.