Mike was running for the tangled mares when their combined strength snapped the 4x4 they were tied to like a matchstick. The heavy post hit one of them in the chest, causing her to jerk back. Already skittish, the Clydesdales started tugging frantically to free themselves, bouncing the jagged post dangerously between them.
With courage born of stupidity, Mike dodged the swinging wood and prancing hooves to get between the horses. He looped an arm around each of the thick, dark-furred necks and pulled their heads down over his shoulders as he spoke in soothing tones. "It's OK. Calm down. Calm down." He was almost hanging from the huge animals, and realized belatedly that the next toss of an equine head would probably slam the post into his back.
Fortunately, both of the Clydes calmed down immediately. Though their eyes were still showing whites, he felt bristled chins press against him as they relaxed tense neck muscles.
“Keep holding them.” A woman’s voice, firm but low-key, came from behind him. “I’ll get the leads free of this damned fencing.” After a moment, the weight on the leads vanished and he heard the thud of wood as it was dropped on the ground. “Just a second. I’ll untangle the leads.”
With the threat of injury removed, he allowed himself to enjoy the sensation of horsehide against his cheeks. The mares had a warm, slightly sweaty scent that was actually quite pleasant, and he was disappointed when the woman finally freed the harnesses and led the larger mare a few feet away. However, this freed him to turn around and see his rescuer.
Lean and weathered, the woman looked to be about ten years older than Mike, certainly no more than fifty. Dressed in jeans, flannel shirt, and boots, there was no doubt she was one of the participants in the Draft and Mule Show surrounding them. She was inspecting the spot where the post had hit. After rubbing the mare’s chest gently with her hand, she stood and gave him a warm smile.
“That was tremendously brave of you. One of them could have been badly hurt.” She patted the Clyde next to her, and nodded towards the other as it pressed against him. “You’ve certainly made a friend out of Lucy.”
"Are they yours?" He wasn't quite able to keep the disapproval from his voice. The Clydes had been unattended for more than an hour, tied with short leads that confined movement to a few feet. He’d been watching them, coming over occasionally to rub a jaw or scratch an ear.
The woman flushed slightly. "A young man who works for me was supposed to be looking after them. I had to run back to the farm to take care of some business." She squatted down for a moment, and had a look of disgust on her face when she stood. "Lucy is bagged! No wonder she was fidgety."
"Bagged?" He wasn't familiar with the term.
She looked a bit surprised. "Full of milk. She has a foal back at the barn. I'd expected to show the team earlier, but the schedule is all screwed up. Now I'll have to take her home. Are you showing today?"
Mike shook his head, still rubbing the mare's neck. "I'm just a spectator. Can't afford to own one, so I watch."
"But you have owned horses before, right? Or worked around them?"
He grinned sheepishly. "No. Never really had much contact with them, except for occasional visits to stables and shows like this one. I like horses, and they seem to like me."
"Obviously. Lucy and Sarah certainly approve." Her face suddenly darkened as she looked past him. "Rob!"
A course-featured young man in coveralls and a red bill cap was approaching them. A flicker of puzzlement crossed his face as he slowed, replaced by concern as he saw the splintered stump sticking out of the ground. “What happened?”
“They got tangled up, and broke off the fence post trying to get free. Where were you? How long have they been standing around? Lucy is bagged, and really uncomfortable.”
“They weren’t hurt, were they?”
“No. But only because this man jumped between them and calmed them down.”
The kid sagged in obvious relief. Then he flushed and looked down. “It’s all my fault. There are a bunch of booths on the other side of the field, and I wanted to take a quick look. I didn’t think it would be a problem.” He glanced at Mike nervously, probably hoping that the actual length of abandonment wouldn’t be known. “Guess I lost track of time.”
The kid did seem truly sorry, and no harm had been done. Besides, Mike had been able to play the hero and spend some quality time with a couple of beautiful mares. “A couple of trucks went by them a few minutes ago. One of them was pretty noisy. “ Completely true, if irrelevant. However, the woman made the obvious assumption.
“There aren’t supposed to be any vehicles allowed on the horse field!” She stroked Sarah’s muzzle. “Poor girl. Probably one of those damned hot rods they use in the tractor pulls. Well, the Hell with this! Let’s get these two home. Lucy needs her foal.”
Rob took Lucy’s reins and waited for Mike to step away. As they passed, the boy whispered “Thanks!” The woman was already heading for a row of horse trailers in the next field, and he followed.
Mike watched them for a minute, and then headed back to the main show. Several of the exhibitors had seen him with the Clydes, and gave him thumbs up as he walked by.
“Mister!” Turning, he saw Rob running up behind him. The kid handed him a scrap of paper. “That’s the address and phone number at the farm. Ms. Parker wants you to come visit.” He hesitated, seeming to search Mike’s face for something. “Are you…?” He caught himself and smiled. “Never mind. Look, thanks a lot for your help. If you come out, I’ll show you all around.” Then he took off back for the trailers.
Pocketing the information, Mike grinned broadly. It was unlikely that he’d ever make use of the invitation, as it was more than an hour’s drive here from the house. Still, he was rather full of himself the rest of the day.
More than a month later, he was admiring massive Clydesdales wandering around large, white-fenced pastures on either side of a long dirt road. The crumpled note had shown up when he washed clothes, though he’d had to open it before he remembered what it was. Surprisingly, the address given was less than ten miles away. It was a nice day, and Parker sounded genuinely happy to have him come out.
The farm was huge. Of course, breeding Clydesdales probably took a lot of space, but it was obvious that these people had money. The fences around the front turnouts probably cost more than he’d paid for his car. The house was a restored Victorian showpiece, covered in white bric-a-brac. However, the real eye-catcher was the stable. Easily the size of a football field, it featured massive skylights and what looked to be banks of solar panels across the roof.
As promised, Rob was waiting for him when he pulled up. He was bigger and a bit homelier than Mike remembered him, but displayed enthusiasm that made him seem younger. “Hi! I knew you’d come out here.” He started for the stable. “Come on! I’ll show you the horses!”
“Rob!” The woman stepped onto the porch and waved. “You can show him around later! Besides, I think I owe him a personal tour.” The boy looked disappointed, but shrugged and continued into the barn alone. She motioned for Mike to join her, and held out her hand. “Amanda Parker. Sorry I didn’t introduce myself back at the show, but I was worried about Lucy.”
“Mike Smith.” He grinned. “You had your hands full at the time, if I remember. I take it Lucy and Sarah survived the ordeal?”
“You remember their names? Well, I think Lucy got a bruise, but that’s all gone now. Rob has been spoiling them ever since, so they’re happy. Of course, I made sure he won’t forget about them again.” She looked out at the stable for a moment and then smiled. “Come on inside, Mr. Smith. I never did have a chance to really thank you for what you did.”
The inside of the house was just as impressive as the exterior. Polished antiques filled every room, and the walls were hung with beautiful artwork and photos of draft horses. He felt a little out of place in his jeans and T-shirt, but Parker was dressed just as casually. Still, it was a relief when she led him into a large, somewhat cluttered family room in the back. The back wall was glass, and looked out over rolling pasture. Some of the horses were grazing close by, and he stared at them until she touched his arm.
“Make yourself comfortable.” She indicated a worn, overstuffed leather recliner and then plopped down on a matching sofa covered with papers. “Excuse the mess. This is where we live. The rest is all show.”
“It’s beautiful.” He kept looking out at the Clydesdales. One of them looked familiar, and he saw a foal on the ground nearby. “Is that Lucy?”
“Good eye.” Parker grinned. “That’s her colt, Mahogany. He’s four months old. The other mare is expecting in a few months. You interested in getting one for yourself?”
Mike shook his head. “Boarding a horse costs more than my car payment. Besides, I don’t really have the time. Work has been pretty frantic the past few years. I don’t even have a cat, because it wouldn’t be fair to leave it alone all the time.”
“That’s the right attitude. Too many people have animals that they don’t really care for. Horses are great status symbols, and it’s easy to stick them in a stable somewhere and forget about them. Not that boarding a horse is bad, it’s just that even the best stables can’t always give a horse the exercise it needs. It’s the owner’s responsibility to give it a workout.” She paused, and then smiled. “But I’m preaching to the choir. It’s a shame, really. You’d make a horse very happy. Do you think you’ll change your mind about owning one later?”
“Maybe.” He sighed. “Oh, probably not. It sorta silly to think about it, really.”
“I like horses, but I don’t want to ride one. Or do dressage, or jumping, or shows. I just like being around them.”
Parker looked at him thoughtfully. “Have you thought about getting a job at a stable?”
“Mucking stalls and brushed out manes?” Mike grinned. “If I was a kid, I’d jump at the chance. But I have an apartment, a car, bills to pay. And I don’t always have time on the weekends, even if I wanted to do it part time.”
“So, you risked your life to protect Lucy, but you don’t think you have the commitment it takes to have a horse of your own?” Her blue-gray eyes twinkled. “You’re an interesting man, Mr. Smith. May I call you Mike?” After he nodded, she continued. “Well, Mike. Just how interested in horses are you?”
He gave her a puzzled look. “I don’t understand.”
“If you had the chance to be with my Clydesdales all the time, would you take it? Assuming any money issues were taken care of, of course. Would you be willing to give up your present job and move out here?”
It took a moment before he realized she was serious. He grinned, only to have his answer cut off by her raised hand.
“Don’t say anything now. Let me show you around, introduce you to the herd. This could be the most important decision you ever make. And once you make it, one way or the other, there is no turning back.”
Mike blinked, not knowing what to say.
That turned out to be a good response. Parker grinned and stood up. “Come on with me. Let’s hit the stable, and then go out back to visit with Lucy. I’m sure she’ll be glad to see you again.”
Like the house, Parker’s stables were just as impressive inside as out. Natural wood beams and finished boards made the stalls look more like paneled rooms than animal enclosures, and the skylights gave the place an open, pleasant atmosphere. Despite the chilly weather, a combination of sunlight and solar-powered radiant heat kept the inside fairly comfortable. There was no mistaking the odors of urine, manure, and hay, but they mixed pleasantly with the dusty scent of sawdust.
Rob was busy mucking the first stall, tossing sawdust against the walls to sift out clumps of manure. His shirt was off, displaying an incredibly hairy and well-muscled chest. When he saw them, the kid snatched his T-shirt from the wall and pulled it on. “Sorry. I was getting a little hot.” He stuck out a hand. “Hi! We never introduced ourselves. I’m Rob.”
“Hi, Rob. I’m Mike.” Damn, the guy was like an ox! It wasn’t just the hair and muscles. Mike was sure he hadn’t been this tall a month ago. Maybe he was younger than he looked. Just going through a growth spurt. He had heavy stubble on his face and neck that Mike hadn’t noticed before, and his hand nearly engulfed Mike’s when they shook.
The woman leaned against the stall gate. “I’ve asked Mike about joining us here. Think he would be happy?”
Mike saw a flicker of alarm cross the boy’s face, replaced almost immediately by an artificially bright smile. “Oh, sure! That would be great!” The smile faltered slightly. “Uh, what would you be doing?”
The woman shrugged. “Oh, we haven’t discussed that yet. After we’re done with the tour, maybe you two could chat for a while.”
“Sure!” Rob fidgeted awkwardly, and then grabbed his pitchfork. “Well, guess I’d better get back to work.” He resumed sifting the sawdust as they continued on, but Mike could feel the boy’s eyes on his back. The kid couldn’t think Mike was after his job. Could he? One thing for sure, he wouldn’t want to fight Rob for anything.
Despite the size of the building, there weren’t a lot of stalls. An indoor ring took up more than half of the facility, and the stalls themselves were easily twice the size of any he had seen in other stables. That explained how one stable hand could keep the place clean. Still, he could understand the need for help. As ludicrous as the idea was, Mike actually found himself wondering what it would be like to work here.
He was in pretty good shape, nothing like Rob, but certainly able to handle the chores. But what kind of future could he have? Even if Parker planned to match his current salary, he still had to look at benefits, retirement, and promotional opportunities. And for pretty much anything here, Rob was going to have more experience and better skills, besides being a Hell of a lot cheaper and younger. Too bad the offer hadn’t come when Mike was in high school.
The impracticality of working here wavered a bit when they went outside to meet the horses. They were all chocolate-brown Clydesdales, with white feathering, manes and tails, and some of the most perfect animals Mike had ever seen. All of them trotted over to investigate the humans, snuffling for carrots and allowing themselves to be petted and scratched. There were eleven mares, two with foals and three in various stages of pregnancy. The only male was Mahogany, Lucy’s colt.
He was amazed at the big mare’s reaction when they approached her paddock. She squealed and galloped to the fence, stopping directly in front of them. At first, he thought the horse was coming to Parker. But she ignored her owner to nuzzle Mike’s head and shoulders, snuffling him all over. He rubbed her neck, pressing his face against her. God, this was wonderful. Something about the contact reached deep within his soul, supremely satisfying in a way he couldn’t explain even to himself. And then the sensation suddenly intensified beyond anything he had ever experienced.
It was as if their minds had physically linked, become one. The equine thoughts were simple, direct, and incredible powerful. Affection, a need to protect, to nurture, mixed with confusion over his shape, his scent. And under it all, an overwhelming sense of belonging. That last was confusing, for it came from his own thoughts. As if they were equals, as if he was a… horse?
Mike jerked away and stepped back, bewildered. The mix of thoughts faded slowly, and he found himself trembling. The woman was watching him, a knowing smile on her face. Though there was nothing shameful in his heart, his cheeks burned for secret desires, long-held dreams that she couldn’t know, couldn’t understand. Or could she?
“You belong here, Mike.” She touched his arm gently. "Believe me, I know. Maybe not the details, but I could see it in your eyes when you merged with Lucy just now. I saw it a month ago at the show. Stay here with us. I can't explain any more, or give you any other reasons. They will come if you accept my offer."
"Yes." He blinked, hearing his voice speak the word. It was ridiculous. Give up his job to shovel horse shit? Yet he did not retract the simple acceptance. Even when she gripped his hand in hers and led him back to the stable, he followed in silence. Inside, however, his mind was in turmoil. He didn't even know what kind of pay he'd get. Hell, the woman might think he was some five-dollar-an-hour clerk, not a fifty thousand dollar-a year manager. He couldn't give up everything he'd worked for because he thought he'd touched some horse's thoughts.
And yet the memory of that contact lingered, an intoxicating mix of raw sensation and gentle acceptance. Maybe he didn't have to give everything up. He had at least a month of vacation built up, and almost two weeks. The project was running steady. He could tell them he had some family emergency. That would explain his absence. If he still wanted to stay here after that? Well, he'd cross that bridge when he got to it.
As they entered the back of the stable, Parker stopped and looked at him. " It won't be easy. Rob is in charge of everything concerning the stable and the horses. You'll be under his total control. Can you live with that?"
He hesitated. The prospect of taking orders from some kid was hard to swallow, but his escape clause was always there. If things didn't work out, he could leave any time he wanted. The worst that could happen was he'd waste some of his vacation. "Sure. If that's what it takes."
"You have to be sure." She frowned. "Once you start, there is no turning back. No quitting. Rob calls the shots, and you are here for good."
What kind of person would put a breeding operation like this in the hands of a teenager? The same kind who would offer a permanent job to a stranger just because he stopped to help a horse. It made him a little nervous, despite the knowledge that no contract would really be that binding. A soft whicker drew his attention back to the paddock, where Lucy watched him with liquid brown eyes. His throat tightened, and he knew he couldn't stop now. Not without trying. Taking a deep breath, he nodded. "I'm sure."
"Rob?" She called out without turning around, looking deep into Mike's eyes. As the young man approached, she whispered. "You don't believe, do you?" A sad smile. "You will." Then she brushed past him and hurried outside.
Mike watched her go, feeling nervous and apprehensive. What did she mean by that?
"So, you ready to start?" Rob came up behind him and placed a hand on his shoulder. Mike nodded without looking, still looking at the woman. "OK. Welcome to my herd, little brother."
Little brother? Grinning, Mike turned to face his new 'boss.' And fell back against the wall. The thing standing there was something between the boy he'd met and a Clydesdale stallion, expanding out as it finished the transformation to horse. Mike's legs gave way, and he sat down hard in the sawdust, mouth hanging open. "Wha-what are you?"
The monster equine towered over him, looking like a perfect mate for the mare outside. Chocolate brown coat, white stockings, mane, and tail. However, none of the mares outside had the deep, glowing red eyes that shone in the skull of this hooved demon. Mike gasped as it fell to all fours, shaking the ground with its mass. "Don't worry, Mike. " The boy's voice sounded in his head, not in his ears. "You will have a wonderful life here. And after a few years of training, you'll be ready to help me in the stables."
"A few years?" Mike huddled against the wall, feeling lost. This couldn't be happening. He stared up at the stallion. "Is that really you, Rob?"
"Rob. Or Robin, as in Robin Goodfellow. Also Puck, Hobgoblin, and Pooka. A horse spirit of Ireland, a faerie of Great Britain. Now a stable boy and stallion for Amanda. I met her when her father came over to buy the first Clydesdale mare for this farm. He disappeared one day, and she was left to fend for herself. So I decided to help her out. Be a good Samaritan, like yourself. She provides the grounds, the name, and legality, and I provide the bloodline. It is a pleasant diversion for now." The glowing eyes flashed, and Mike felt a strange prickling deep within his flesh. "Any other mortal I would transform to a filly foal, another mare to carry my seed. But you showed kindness to my herdmates, and to me. So I will share my mares with you."
Mike's clothes rose around him. He gaped at hands that shrank impossibly, melting away with years. Scrambling up, he kicked free of sagging socks and falling jeans. The legs sticking out from his tent-like T-shirt were sticks, belonging to a young teen. He felt his face, tracing smooth cheeks and protruding teeth. Then his skin turned rough, stubble grating against his tender fingertips.
"You thought to leave us?" Rob laughed in his mind. "I take no offense. How can you believe in magic, when there is so little of it in your world. And yet you have wished so desperately for it all your life." The huge Clydesdale shrank suddenly, collapsing back into the lanky teenager he had first met. He reached out and pulled Mike's T-shirt off, and then squatted down to stare in his eyes. "I wish this to be a reward, Mike. Not a punishment. Tell me to stop, and I will restore you completely to your old life. This shall be but a passing fancy, a waking dream."
Mike swallowed hard, shaking so violently that his teeth chattered. He was no more than ten or twelve, child's body covered with sleek, chocolate-brown hide. The nub of a tail protruded above his butt, and his hands and feet were dark and heavy, already sprouting white hair around the wrists and ankles. Then a velvet nostril brushed his shoulder. Lucy had come in behind him, and nuzzled his dark-furred back. With the touch came renewed contact with her mind, stronger and purer than ever.
He leaned against her, finding comfort in the strength of her limbs, the warmth of her scent. After a moment, he realized his fear was gone. He searched his mind for some trace of alteration, a sign of trickery. This was no deception on Rob's part. Doubt crumbled away, and he looked up at the ancient spirit in sudden wonder. "I want this. More than anything in my life." And he knew it was true.
Rob reached out again, this time cupping his tiny chin in the palm of his hand. "Then welcome to my herd. You will learn the ways of a horse, growing and learning the only way a horse can learn. By experience. In a few years, you will work with me as a human, and when you are old enough, join me as a stallion. But for now? You belong to Lucy."
Mike's face pushed out suddenly, and he fell forward as his arms and legs reshaped themselves in a painless flow of muscle and bone. Confusion and disorientation brought a shrill whinny of fear from his throat, but Lucy, the female, the mother, was there. She touched him with her muzzle and her mind, soothing him, filling him with contentment and hunger. The way he thought was changing, becoming more in tune with the powerful, simple drives of the mare he now nursed from. Long before he was full, all that was left was deep satisfaction, and the unreasoning joy and energy of innocence.
The boy watched his newest charge suckling from Lucy's teats and grinned. One day, perhaps, he would allow the former human to share his mares as a stallion. But not anytime soon. For now, Mike could share Lucy with the other colt. Mahogany would welcome the company. After all, Amanda's father had been without a steady playmate for almost thirty years.