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"Mud is a dirty word," growled Bob Stein as the bolt once more slipped from his grasp.
Matthew (aka Destrier) grinned sympathetically. "Want me to try? I've got thinner fingers."
Bob glowered at the up-turned mountain bike and its recalcitrant derailleur gear. "I'm really sorry about this," he said.
"What for?" asked Matthew, delicately probing inside the derailleur arm. "Can I borrow that screwdriver? Thanks. Can you think of a nicer place to stop?"
"I guess not." Bob took a step back to look around.
The two were cycling through England's New Forest; two hundred square miles of beautiful ancient woodland and open common land. In its own right it was a wonderful place, but what made it particularly attractive to both men were the ubiquitous New Forest ponies that roamed everywhere. They grazed among the gorse bushes and the village greens, waded through the many streams and pools, and strolled with complete lack of concern along every road, apparently quite oblivious to the motor traffic. Though every pony had an owner, they were allowed to roam free for most of the year, according to ancient Common Laws going back to the time of William the Conqueror.
The two were actually making for the Dorset Heavy Horse Centre, but it had turned out to be rather further away than anticipated. Neither was particularly disappointed however as the ride itself had turned out to more than justify the day out. Bob had discovered on the first hill however that his gears were playing up. The two had pulled over to have a look at it.
"Got it," Matthew reported. "Artist's fingers, you see. Although if it comes to a choice between having hooves and being able to repair bicycle gears..."
"Oh, well, obviously," Bob agreed. They both grinned at one another. Bob returned his attention to re-attaching the gear cable - the cause of the problem. Matthew looked around. There were no ponies in sight at the moment, but evidence of their proximity was all around: hoof prints at the edges of the road, dried patches of dung on the road itself, and hanks of coarse brown and black hair stuck to trees and the roadside fencing. Beyond the road's border, the forest pressed close, green and inviting.
"I think a Unicorn could live very happily here," he commented,
"A Clydesdale wouldn't suffer too much either," Bob acknowledged. "I forgot to bring any vials of Martian Flu though. Did you bring the Hag Halter?"
"Left it in the cupboard. I'm fresh out of Instant Polymorph too."
"Darn. Oh well."
They shared another grin. Bob gave a final twist of the spanner. "There. That should be a bit better." He righted the bike once more, then looked at his hands in disgust. Both were covered with black grease.
"We should have brought some tissues or something."
Bob took a quick look around. "I'll use that stream over there," he suggested.
"Don't fall in," Matthew cautioned. "It rained hard last night: the banks will be slippery, and you're a long way from any dry clothing."
Bob made his way to where a small streamlet made its way through a culvert under the road. Ducking under the wooden railing, he made his way down to the edge. It was indeed very slippery, both banks covered in moss. The actual stream was only a foot across but fast flowing and awkward to reach. He looked around. About twenty yards away, hidden from the road, there seemed to be a clearing, and the stream looked as though it widened into a small pool there.
Bob cautiously moved in that direction, cursing as wet bracken quickly soaked through his trouser legs. His efforts were rewarded however: the stream did indeed become a pool, and one bank had collapsed to form a gravelly beach. Bob gave relieved sigh and knelt down to rinse his hands.
The water was icy cold, numbing his fingers in a few seconds, but he didn't mind. The water was incredibly clear - not at all like some of the other swollen, mud-laden torrents they had crossed or forded already that morning. With his fingers now reasonably clean, he couldn't resist it: cupping his hands, he lifted a handful of water to his lips. It was beautiful: so cold he could feel it all the way to his stomach and incredibly refreshing. He took another mouthful. he was reaching for a third when he saw the pony.
He was startled - had it been there the whole time? He hadn't seen it standing there on the opposite bank, and yet how could it have approached so silently? Well, its black coat did merge with the shadows somewhat. Bob straitened slowly, anxious not to spook the animal. He held out a hand across the pool. "Come on," he murmured, softly, "Come on."
The black pony didn't respond. It stood there, regarding him out of liquid eyes. Its mane was one great tangle and its forelock lay twisted in a single spiral strand that ran down its face in an almost comical way. The velvet nostrils flared once, twice, and then the pony wheeled gracefully and cantered off through the bracken, moving amazing quietly for all that. It was soon lost to sight and sound. Bob watched where it had gone for a moment, then turned and made his way back to the road.
"I was beginning to think you'd fallen in," Matthew said.
"I met a pony," Bob explained.
"Ah," said Matthew, satisfied.
They continued on their way, making slightly better time now, but not hurrying. There were frequent stops to admire each new group of equines. The spring crop of foals were well grown now, and their post-birth timidity had long since become bold curiosity. New Forest ponies know no fear of traffic and it was strange - and sometimes a little hair-raising - to see them stroll blithely along the middle of a main road, quite oblivious to the traffic jam they were causing.
In the early afternoon, the two cyclists stopped for lunch. While it was tempting to stop somewhere where they could watch the horses at the same time, both of them were horse-wise enough to know it wouldn't be sensible. As the artist Thelwell had shrewdly commented: the New Forest Pony is the only native breed known to feed exclusively on tuna, tomato, and cucumber sandwiches. Instead, they utilised a bench in the high street of the little village of Burley.
"How are we doing?" asked Bob.
"Not too badly," Matthew answered, looking at his Ordnance Survey map, "But it's a lot further than I originally thought."
"Not to worry," Bob said. "I'm enjoying the ride." He rubbed his fingers.
"Are you okay?" Matthew asked. "You keep doing that."
"I didn't bring my cycling gloves. I get bad circulation in my fingers," Bob explained.
"Maybe they're turning into hooves?" Matthew suggested.
"No, I'm afraid not," Bob sighed. They both laughed.
Around three o'clock, no more than four or five miles from their destination, they ran into some bad luck. From Ringwood they had to take a dual carriageway: six lanes of fast-moving traffic that neither of them fancied much. By mutual agreement, they decided to call off their attempt to reach the Heavy Horse Centre. Bob suggested they head back toward the station at Brockenhurst and see what they could photograph along the way. Earlier in the day he had spotted a very photogenic site where some young ponies were wading in a shallow brook. He wanted to see if they were still there.
Truth to tell he wasn't too disappointed. True, the New Forest ponies were a far cry from the magnificent Shires and Clydesdales he'd been hoping to see, but they were an attractive and intelligent breed, full of character and mischief, and he had a suspicion he wouldn't have gotten half as close to the heavy horses at the center as he could to the semi-wild animals of the Forest.
He was also feeling slightly light-headed, and hoped he wasn't coming down with anything. His fingers itched and tingled, and he was beginning to worry if that streamlet had been quite as pure as it looked. But the symptoms, though persistent, did not become unpleasant.
When they returned to the bridge he remembered, he was disappointed to see the ponies had moved on, but he was still determined to takes some photographs. The bridge itself, framed by oak and sycamore, made an attractive composition. Matthew held his bike while he made his way down to the water, and hopped out onto a convenient stone.
Having taken the picture, he turned about, peering along the water-course until it meandered out of sight amongst the trees. The Forest grew enticingly thick here, and it was impossible to see what might lie around the next curve. Grinning to himself, he hopped back to the bank. "I'm just going to walk upstream a little way," he called. "I won't be long."
"Okay," Matthew called. He grinned. "Just keep an eye out for spriggan and stay clear of old oaks!"
"And toadstool rings. Yeah, I know. Back in a minute!"
Bob made his way along the bank, where generations of ponies had left a broad path. He needed it: elsewhere the trees grew thickly, and despite the fact that there was still five hours of daylight left, it was quite dark here. A pity - it somewhat reduced his chances of any good photographs. He was about to turn back when movement caught his eye. A mare and her six-month foal, bay and chestnut, were watching him curiously from the far side of another pool. Smiling, Bob turned to see if he could entice them to come to him. He clicked his tongue and held a hand out. No doubt that they were interested, but as he had seen several times already today, they seldom came all the way up to him unless they thought he might have something worth eating.
With the width of the pool between them, both parties stopped to regard one another. It was a shallow pool, gravel-bottomed, fed from a shallow fall at one side, wandering away as a brook on the other.
Something behind him - not so much a sound as a sense of presence. Before he could turn, something soft shoved against his back. Turning as he stumbled forward, he saw a large black pony - the same black pony as before, with its twist of mane between deep dark eyes.
He tripped and ended up on his hands and knees in the cold water. It was as cold and clear as the streamlet. In fact, he realised, this probably was the same stream, further down. Recoiling from the icy sensation, he tried to stand, but managed only a crouch. Further effort was abandoned at the sight of two neat cream-coloured hooves protruding from his jacket sleeves.
Funny, he thought vaguely, staring at them. All those years of wishing for this...
He tried to stand again, and couldn't manage it. He soon realised why. From mid-thigh downwards, his legs were now equine. Wherever the water had touched in fact. Off balance, he fell to one side, catching himself on his left elbow, and seeing the arm shift beneath his sleeve: growing and thickening in a matter of a second or so. Astounded, he worked the sleeve up with his right hoof and saw his left arm became an equine foreleg at the elbow. Dark brown, he noticed, with a white sock.
There was a quiet splash behind him. He spun, seeing the big black pony standing almost over him.
"Are you doing this?" Bob demanded, and was startled to hear his voice sound much higher than he was used to, with an oddly nasal quality.
The black reached out with its muzzle, gently nuzzling Bob's shoulder, and then without warning, giving him a hard shove that pushed him over onto his back, briefly submerging him.
His senses reeled briefly. His clothing became dismaying tight, then there was a tearing sound and sudden relief. He coughed on a mouthful of water and realised he had somehow surfaced without moving.
As if he had... grown out of the water.
He rolled over, very conscious of there being much more of him to roll over than he was accustomed to. He waited for his senses to improve - for his eyesight to clear and his ears to stop hissing. Then he realised that both were working correctly - just differently. In awe, he slowly braced what had recently been his arms, and carefully rose to his feet. All four of them. As the water stilled beneath him, his reflection steadied and he stared at the inverted bay stallion looking back at him. Its nostrils were flaring wildly, and the eye was showing a lot of white.
There was a satisfied snort, and he turned, feeling his ears automatically turn ahead of him, to see the black watching him with an expression that could only be called satisfaction. He tried to demand an explanation and heard himself utter a bewildered whinny. The mare answered him, and in the brief time it took him to glance around at that sound, the black vanished, soundlessly, utterly.
The new-formed pony looked down, seeing a few fragments of coloured cloth tumble slowly in the current and fade from sight. He looked back to the mare, and rumbled, deep in his throat.
Matthew leant both bikes against the bridge parapet, and made his way down to the stream edge. There he sat and waited for nearly an hour. Finally he heard footsteps behind him.
"That took you long enough," he complained.
"I didn't realise we were in a hurry."
"Well, no, but I was beginning to worry."
"What could have gone wrong?"
Matthew stood and turned to face the black pony as its form shivered and grew taller, more slender, and the twisted forelock rose erect and hardened into a horn like spiralled mica.
"Nothing, I guess. I thought he might be trying to talk you into making him a Clydesdale."
"He looked happy enough to me," the Unicorn said smugly.