HALF HORSE BOOK 1 "SIERRA"
CHAPTER 1... ARRIVAL
“Spaceships, rockets and all that sort of thing will become part of the past,” declared John Grainer as he hovered over his latest alteration. “Once this is finished it will be a simple matter of one step from here to any part of the universe.”
“Destination unknown,” said his young assistant without looking up from a dog-eared science journal. “Thrilling experience, if you survive.”
John scowled. Jeff's scepticism was beginning to irritate him. “It'll work,” he insisted.
The young man made a good-natured laugh as he pointed out a row of unfinished inventions. “Sure it will,” he said. “Like the insect screen and the protein synthesiser and the molecular re-arranger whatchamacallem.”
“They only need slight adjustments to make them operational,” John said peevishly and went back to work.
The equipment needed to create John's proposed 'space hole' resembled a concentration camp in miniature at one end of the laboratory. Rolls of fine wire in concentric circles lay snarled around the floor, surrounding a circular, metal mat below what looked like a bottomless bird cage, attached to which was a tangle of ropes, wires and insulated cables. Jeff cursed it every time he had to sweep. He had once believed John Grainer to be the most brilliant mind of the century; but now after having worked with him for almost a year and after some of the things he'd seen, he was not so sure. There was no denying that John was a genius but he was also a dreamer who preferred to fiddle with ideas that took his fancy rather than complete anything.
He was growing bored with John's talk of the worlds they could visit when the space hole was finished. He talked as if it was certain the crazy mess of wires would actually work; that they would be able to step from the laboratory to some other part of space, and there would be worlds there- other worlds waiting to be explored. He wondered if it would be a wise idea to look for another job before the mad dreamer turned into a mad scientist with frankensteinish tendencies.
Several times before, Jeff had thought about leaving, but each time decided against it. The pay was good, the work was easy, he had a room of his own and John was the only person in the world who cared anything about him. His parents were dead and the aunt who had raised him had married and gone to England.
He finished rearranging the cupboard he'd started cleaning before being sidetracked by the journal, gave the bench top above it a wipe with a cloth then strolled outside to look at the sky. It was clear and blue. Sunshine came down in a shower to soak his skin. It was a beautiful day, unusually mild for February. He took off his dustcoat, sat on the back step and stretched in cat like contentment.
It had been a very tame Summer so far this year with rains lingering on a month after they normally ceased and none of the prolonged spells of blistering weather this part of the country usually got in January. The grass was high all round and still green in many places though no doubt it would soon turn yellow then bleach to white as the year progressed. It would be a fire hazard. He made a mental note to warn John to do something about getting the worst of it cleared away from the house. He glanced sideways at the walls. It was a rugged old place that had survived many a storm and many a fire, but its dry, ancient timbers would go up like a bonfire if a spark got into them.
Thoughts of fire caused his mind to turn to thoughts of fighting fire and to mentally check the level of water in each of the big tanks about the place. There was plenty of water in all of them but they'd be a bit embarrassed if a fire did sweep through, because one of the first things to go up would be the old pump shed, all overgrown with a rampaging morning glory vine as it was. Without the pump they wouldn't be able to get water to the fire. He made another mental note to himself, to have something done about cleaning up the pump shed.
His eyes wandered in the direction his thoughts lay. Their big, ginger cat, Matilda, was moving among the wealth of dry leaves below the vine. He wondered if she'd produced another litter of kittens. He hoped not. He hadn't the heart to kill unwanted kittens and it had taken forever to find homes for the last lot. The nearby town of Teringah was small, it could take just so many new felines before the market was saturated. He'd saturated the market with Matilda's last effort at procreation. John had vowed to cart her off to the vet the instant the last infant was weaned and found a home, but she'd heard him and gone bush, not to be seen again for several weeks. She had looked slim and unpregnant when she returned, but he didn't trust her.
With a grunt Jeff got to his feet and wandered over to the pump shed to see what the cat was doing. When he got there he did more than merely look; he gave a cry and pounced on the object of the cat's attention. Matilda lashed her tail and yowled around his feet, doing her level best to trip him up as he carried her stunned victim across to the house. Back in the laboratory he showed his find to John. The man wasn’t impressed by the sight of the tiny creature.
“Matilda caught a mouse- so what? She does it all the time.” He was more interested in the delicate adjustments he was making than anything the cat dragged in.
“It’s not a mouse. Not an ordinary one. It’s a yellow footed mouse,” Jeff explained, “Marsupial. It probably came in from the desert, though I can't imagine why with all the food there must be out there at the moment. Do we have something I could keep it in?”
“Bound to be something around,” John said, taking his attention off his notes for a moment to peer over the top of a panel at the boy. “Don't you have to have special permission to keep a native animal?”
“I'm only going to keep it a while... just to see if it's all right. Then I'll let it go.”
John's eyes returned to his much scribbled on notepad. “Go look in the shed... should be the old aquarium in there somewhere.”
“That’ll do.” Jeff turned to go. As he did, the mouse recovered from the fright and indignities inflicted on it by the cat and decided to fight back, sinking its full complement of sharp little teeth into the nearest bit of encircling finger and thumb. Jeff let out a yelp, the mouse flipped toward the ceiling, did a double somersault through the air and landed on the floor. Recovering its wits and breath with remarkable speed it scuttled into the rolls of wire. Unthinking, Jeff charged in to recapture it. Mouse and boy arrived together on the metal mat. John gave a shout, there was a loud crack and the floor fell in.
Jeff was sure the floor had given way; that was what it had felt like; a crash, the sensation of falling, a thump as he hit the ground, and now, warm darkness. But as his eyes adjusted to the sudden dark he began to see things not usually found under houses or in cellars. There were rocks all about- grass, bushes, even trees. And there were no walls about him, no foundation posts, no splintered wood, no broken floor above with John anxiously peering through. Instead there was a sky, blue-black and studded with unfamiliar stars. Above the treetops was a moon. It was larger than the moon he knew, almost full and glowing with a delicate apricot colour against a sky tinged pink with the lingering colours of sunset. He assumed it was a sunset; the air and ground felt warm as if in the wake of a fine day.
John's mess of wires had actually worked. He'd fallen through space to somewhere else. An alien world. Jeff got to his feet and shivered as he realised he was really on an alien world. More... he was stranded on an alien world. There was no space hole at this end of the journey; no way back.
Loose rock crunched under his shoes as he took a few shaky steps and tried to calm his pounding heart. He had just succeeded in establishing a bit of serenity within his chest when a thud behind sent him jumping nearly out of his skin. He spun on the gravel to find one half of John's walkie-talkie set lying on the ground in the same place he'd landed. It occurred to him, as he pounced on it, that if he hadn't moved those few steps forward, it would have hit him on the head. Closing his hands desperately about this one, material chunk of home, he pulled the antenna out to its fullest extent, pressed the transmit button and spoke rapidly:
“SK one to SK two. SK one to SK two, do you read me? Over.” The instant he released the button John's voice crackled from the speaker.
“Jeff. Thank heaven you're alive. Where are you?”
“Sitting on a hilltop somewhere. You tell me. What happened? Over.”
“You activated the space hole with your mad charge, that's what happened. You've been transported... somewhere.”
Jeff didn't like the uncertain tone in his friend's voice. “Somewhere... yeah, but where? And how do I get back?” There was silence for a while when he released the button.
“You can't,” John said eventually. “Not just yet anyway. But it's looking good. The space tunnel is permanently established. Unfortunately it's more of a funnel than a tunnel at the moment. I can poke fairly large objects through from this side but I doubt you'd be able to send anything back much above the size of a pebble. Radio waves are no problem; we can keep in contact at least. Don't worry, I'll keep you going till I work out a way to get you back.”
“How long will that take?”
“Hard to say. I'll need to build a complete section... a few months.”
“Months!” Jeff exclaimed as soon as he had control of the airwaves. “Oh that's marvellous. What am I supposed to do in the meantime? Sit here and play tiddlywinks?” Tiddlywinks being the most outrageously useless game he could think of on the spur of the moment.
“You'll have to survive there for a while,” John said in a reasonable tone, which immediately irritated his young friend. “Think you could?”
“I haven't the faintest idea,” Jeff grumped into the microphone of the instrument in his hand. He didn't feel like being reasonable. He was stuck, God alone knew how many light years from home, on a strange and probably hostile world; he didn't have to be reasonable.
The speaker came to life with John's voice once more.
“Well what does it look like? What's the air like? Do you feel dizzy?”
“No, just scared silly. And I can't see anything; it's night time here.” Realising he was beginning to sound like a petulant child Jeff made an effort to drop his bad humour. He took a deep breath and reported: “The air must be all right; I've been gulping great lung-full’s of it ever since I arrived and I haven't dropped dead yet. It smells fresh... tropical... like rainforest.”
“Good. That's one thing to be thankful for. What about water? No! Don't drink any water you find, it’ll contain micro-organisms that might be harmful to you. I'll send you water and food and some camping gear.” The man began to sound enthusiastic, to Jeff's disgust. “With a tent and cooking gear and a knife you could manage quite well. Perhaps do a bit of exploring and report back to me. It could be the greatest adventure of your life.”
“It could be the end of my life you mean! What if I strike something totally poisonous? What if there are dangerous animals here? What if some air borne bug comes along and gets into my system? Oh... what a mess. What am I going to do?” There was a pause after he released the button. It lingered, causing him to call a reminder. “John, you still there?”
“Yes. I was thinking. You've made a good point about the air borne organisms. They could lay you low quicker than anything. Tell you what... hang on for a while. I'll fix up something that could solve all your problems. Over and out.”
“No, wait. Don't go yet.” Jeff was desperate not to be cut off from the sound of another human voice, but it was too late; John had gone.
With the walkie talkie clutched to his chest, he moved to a nearby rock, sat down and tried hard not to think about man eating plants and great, rubbery alien monsters as he waited. It was quiet without the sound of the radio- lonely. He tried to blank his mind and not think about how alone and far from home he was. At last John's voice crackled into the night.
“Coming through. Keep clear of the place where you think it will materialise.” With a soft thud a small, blanket wrapped parcel hit the ground. Jeff moved towards it, peeled back the blanket and rocked back on his heels in dismay when he recognised the object John had sent. He knew the black and cream, box-like instrument well- he'd seen it sitting on a shelf in the laboratory for a year.
“The gizmo!” he cried. Even over the radio John detected the tone in his voice. His reply had a slight coating of frost about the edges.
“The molecular rearranger whatchamacallem, as you insist on calling it, is the single most useful item a person in your predicament could possess. You should be grateful to have it.”
“If it wasn't for you I wouldn't be in a position to need it. What do I do with it? What good is it to me?”
“When you find some kind of life there, of about your own size and weight, use the MRA to change your body into one that looks the same. It would be best if it were an intelligent being, but that might not be possible.” He paused and Jeff could visualise him running one hand over his orange-red hair, making it ruffle into peaks, like flames. It was a mannerism of John's that had amused him from the day they'd met. He always thought of it as 'John stirring up the fire of his thoughts'. “If the being you pick is intelligent, you should also pick up a working knowledge of the language.”
“Miracle machine,” Jeff muttered sourly, looking at the black and cream box. What a load of old rubbish. And what a time for John to exercise his fantasies. Into the walkie-talkie he said: “How did you manage to fix it so quick?”
“It was always fixed,” John replied. “I just couldn't use it... too far ahead of its time. But you need it so it's yours. Only take care of it because I’d like it back one day. Once you change you'll be able to drink the water and eat the local plant and animal life without upsetting your system.”
“Provided the local plant and animal life doesn't eat me first,” he radioed back. “All right. I'll give it a try. Now how about sending me some of that gear you promised? It's still warm and peaceful here and I'm not hungry yet, but I don't know how long any of it will stay that way.” John said 'Right' and went off to collect the camping equipment.|
While he waited Jeff made a cautious exploration of the area. It was well lit by the glow of the nearly full moon which by then had risen part way up the sky and was gleaming with a silvery light. Unlike the Earth's moon it was unblemished by the dark marks of craters and mares and because of it, reflected more light. He had no trouble seeing rocks, grasses, plants and even small flowers. He'd arrived on a fairly bare patch of ground by a pile of rocks, but a short distance away there were bushes and small trees. He was up somewhere high, on a long ridge that ran into other ridges and hills to the north and south.
To the west where the traces of sunset were still displayed was a very flat horizon, indicating an ocean or a large lake. To the east there was a glimmer of white on snow covered peaks. In the moonlight all was quiet, all was peaceful, but Jeff was not reassured because his imagination insisted on populating the shadows with alarming alien creatures. John's voice, as welcome as it was, gave him a fright when it returned.
“No good boy. I can't get the stuff through to you. I'm afraid this end of the tunnel has collapsed. I just hope it doesn't close completely. I'm going to have to leave you to manage as best you can. I must try to stabilise the thing before we lose it altogether. You be all right?”
Jeff heard the worry in the man's voice and sought to reassure him with a brave reply. “Yeah, sure. I'll manage. Don't worry about me. You get to work on that. I'll do a bit of exploring. I've been thinking, and I reckon I should get under cover somewhere before daylight. It looks quiet enough now but I could wake up tomorrow to find I'm in the middle of someone's firing range or something.”
John's reply was preceded by a chuckle. “You're right. I know the feeling. I once camped in what I thought was a nice, quiet place, near a big town. Woke up next morning to find myself surrounded by traffic and citizens. Keep your spirits up. Keep your sense of humour boy... you'll be fine.”
“Right. Well, don't expect to hear from me too soon. I don't know where I'll be or how far I'll have to go, and if the walkie talkie doesn't work at any distance away from the space hole I might have to trek back here to use it.”
“I understand. I'll expect you when I hear from you. Look after yourself. Good luck.”
“Thanks. Over and out.”
Then he was alone on a strange world. Feelings of self-pity began to stir but he did not let them grow for he knew it would do no good to begin feeling sorry for himself. He had to make the best of what he had. And it wasn't all bad.
He was on a living world, not a dead, dry ball of rock; no doubt there would be water somewhere and food too. He'd just have to experiment till he found out which things upset him and which didn't. He was young and fit and not a bad sort of bushman. John was right, it could turn into the greatest adventure of his life; so long as he kept his head and kept busy doing positive things.
Rather than run the risk of ruining the walkie-talkie in some alien river or swamp he wrapped it in one of the blankets and stowed it in a dry niche in the pile of rocks. Satisfied it was safe he tucked the other blanket and the gizmo under his arm and set off to see what lay beyond the ridge.
His footsteps were light and springy, causing him to walk with a jauntiness he did not feel and it occurred to him he must be on a world where the gravity was slightly less than Earth normal. It certainly made walking effortless. If there were creatures on this world he imagined they'd be great runners, able to cover great distances without tiring.
Within a short distance the rocky ground gave way to a cover of short grass. One side of the ridge sloped steeply down into valleys filled with vegetation that rolled in endless waves toward the horizon of the snowy peaks. There was a glow and some lights in the distance but he couldn't tell if they indicated settlements or a series of small, natural fires. The air was heavy with the smell of lush, damp vegetation and full of nocturnal noises; the rustling of the wind in the trees, the cry of a bird, the full throated chorus of the insect world, and... just on the level of hearing... a deep, throbbing hum. Jeff fancied it was the sound of distant machinery but suspected it was really the pounding of blood in his own ears.
For a while he hesitated on the edge of the ridge, looking down into the shadowy depths of the jungle below. He knew it was not a wise move to go crashing into unknown waters but steeled himself to make the dive all the same because he felt it was something he would have to do eventually and he wanted it over and done with. Putting aside all thoughts on the matter he committed himself to a wild scramble down the slope.
It was not as bad as he expected; he reached the lower level without tripping and without losing either blanket or gizmo. When he got there he was pleased to find there was not too much undergrowth below the big, spreading trees. That was good, but the canopy that kept out sunlight to the plants below also kept out moonlight and that was not so good. He groped about half-blind, blundering once into a patch of thorny bushes. That gave him a fright but he kept going because overall the forest was presenting him with fewer hazards than he'd imagined.
It was smooth floored with soft, spreading plants underfoot, no animals that he could tell, and not too many surprises lurking in the shadows. It was all so quiet, so apparently harmless he revised his idea of finding some place of secure shelter such as a cave and to simply curl for a sleep at the foot of a tree when he grew tired. He really didn't think there were going to be cars or crowds of people rushing by him the next morning. In fact he thought it might be quite a while before he saw either again. He had an awful, sinking feeling that this world was going to prove to be uninhabited.
He was thinking how it would be, to be alone on a world with no-one to talk to, no-one to bother him, no job, no schedules, no shops, houses or television and to wonder how he was going to cope with the loneliness, when he came to a clearing and found a road.
With mixed horror and delight in his breast he stopped and stared. It was a road. It wasn’t a fluke of nature or a trick of the moonlight... it was a solid, genuine road. Made of what looked like pale, smooth slabs of stone, it ran roughly parallel with the ridge, disappearing around a curve to the north and into a tunnel of trees to the south. On either side of it was a stretch of cleared ground bounded by the dark wall of the jungle. He looked up and down the ribbon of stone wondering where it led. To a city? A temple? A ruin? Curiosity forced him to go closer to examine the structure.
The huge, stone slabs gleamed clean and pale in the moonlight showing little signs of wear by traffic. The only marks he could see on them were crescents marked in dry mud, like tiny hoofprints. More of the same marks patterned a patch of ground beside the road. He noticed they were fairly deeply imprinted- about as deep as his own footprints- and of a regular size. The bottom of the imprint was flat showing no trace of the inner structure of a hoof- as though the horse that had made the print had been wearing boots. Jeff laughed softly to himself as he straightened up. Horses in boots? What a thought. He'd be imagining wizards and dragons next.
That was when he heard the sound. It came from somewhere in the trees to his left, a half-laughing, half-neighing sound like the whinny of a miniature horse... exactly the sound he would expect from a horse that wore boots.
Whatever it was, it bore investigating. Clutching the gizmo a little tighter he pushed into the jungle and walked quietly and steadily in the direction he'd heard the sound. It came again, a little lower and softer in tone, more of a chuckle than a laugh and he began to hear voices too- high, clear voices speaking a foreign language. Without alarming the speakers he managed to sneak right to the edge of a moonlit clearing. And there was the horse. But... was it a horse?
It was a being of about the same height and weight as himself, standing upright on hoofed hind legs. The effect should have been one of absurdity but somehow, it was not. The half-horse, half-human creature looked poised, graceful and completely at ease in its upright position. It did not have the awkward stance of a normally four legged creature being made to stand rampant, nor even the crooked grace of the half goat beings he'd seen in old paintings. It looked as if it was naturally able to stand erect on two small hoofs. It had the fur, hoofs, tail, mane and ears of a horse and the arms, hands, chest, face and legs of a human and was dressed in a tight fitting garment of blue with an orange coloured belt and a pair of orange boots. There was a second creature seated on the ground nearby. They were talking to each other in their strange language, laughing every so often with the neighing sound that had originally attracted his attention.
To Jeff it was obvious this was intelligent life. It was about the same physical size as him too, so it would make an ideal subject for the MRA process... if the process actually worked. He doubted it would, but knew he had to give it a try, if only for the knowledge of being able to discount the idea completely. John had once explained to him how the thing was supposed to work and how it should be set up. He repeated the procedure and pressed the activating button, not really expecting anything to happen. Nothing happened. There was no noise, no flash of light, no sensation of any kind except for a tickle on his scalp caused by a breeze ruffling his hair. With a grunt of unhappy acceptance of the failure he put the unit aside.
Then he took a step and his shoe fell off, leaving a half-empty sock dangling on the end of his limb. Thoroughly alarmed he reached down to remove it and fright piled on fright as something dark swept out of the night to brush the side of his face. He whirled, his mind clogged with fear, his eyes feeling as if they would not focus as they darted wildly about the landscape, looking for the source of the sensation. There was nothing- no birds or bats or hanging vines to explain what he had felt. There was nothing but the night, the moonlight sliding silently through the trees and the pounding of his heart. Behind him came the talk and laughter of the half-horse creatures, all undisturbed as they had been before. Once again he reached down to remove the sock, and this time he laughed softly as a chunk of thick, soft hair tumbled over his shoulder to brush the side of his face.
Had he been female, with long hair, he wouldn't have been taken by surprise by the sensation; but Jeff had never had long hair in his life. He'd certainly never had a mane before, nor gleaming black hoofs, nor a tail tickling the backs of his legs inside his jeans. He ran one hand over the soft fur on the side of his face, touched the long mobile ears on top of his head and felt like laughing aloud at the sheer novelty of it all. John's gizmo worked! It worked! It worked! The damn thing actually worked.
Then his attention was caught and drawn to the half horse creatures as recognisable words came to him. His long ears pointed sharply forward in amazement. It was magic; he could understand the language they were speaking- as clear as if they'd been speaking English. He didn't even have to translate it in his mind; he heard the sounds and instantly knew what they meant. John had been right again- the gizmo had given him not only their shape but also an understanding of their language. Forgetting his small discomforts for the moment he moved forward to watch and listen.
The standing creature, whose mane, fur and tail were red-brown in colour, was telling his seated companion- who was either white or grey- about a mix-up he'd been involved in that day at some place called Central Supply. The story concerned a list of goods, another brown horse, something called a 'whap' and an obstinate law horse. At the end of the tale they both laughed, then the light coloured one told about a time he'd been mistaken for a famous horse named Taramel.
'Horse' was not the word they used; but it was one they used to describe themselves and Jeff could not help but think of them as horses.
Before the speaker had a chance to finish his story there was a shout in the distance. He got up. “They're leaving. I've got to go.”
“Yes, me too I guess,” the brown horse replied. “I'll see you tomorrow. What time?”
“The usual. Thoje's taking Jinda to the track first thing tomorrow. They'll be gone before Lyla decides to get up. I'll come over with her.”
Wishing each other pleasant dreams they waved and trotted away in different directions. After they'd gone, Jeff hid the MRA in a hollow log and tottered out across the clearing on unsteady hoofs to inspect the place where the horses had been. He expected to find only their hoofprints, but there was more- a bag made of soft leather with a long strap attached. He picked it up and began to open it to inspect its contents.
He had barely started to probe the interior when a shout caused him to jump in fright and the bag slipped from his fingers to the ground.
“That's mine,” the brown horse said as he came forward to snatch it up. “Tush! Nicoy would kill me if I lost this; it's my third this year.” He picked off a couple of dried leaves. “What were you going to do with it?” He looked casually at Jeff then his ears flicked and his gaze lingered as he seemed to realise that there was something odd about his appearance. He ran a look up and down the length of Jeff’'s body. “Who are you anyway? What kind of clothes are they supposed to be?”
Jeff looked down at his shirt and jeans. “I'm a stranger here,” he said cautiously, using the language for the first time. His thoughts were in English... or he thought they were... but when he spoke the words came out in a language he knew to be called Zammoran. “I imagine my clothes do look odd to you.”
“You speak Zammoran remarkably well for a stranger,” the brown horse remarked, looking suspicious. “I don't think I believe you. You're a runaway aren't you? What stable are you from? Who do you belong to?”
“Belong to?” Jeff echoed.
“Your owner. Who's your owner? You must have one. You don't look like a wildie to me.” He pulled his head back a little, tipped it to one side and said in a gentle tone, “Oh look... don't worry, I'm not going to report you or anything. I can sympathise.” He gave a small snort. “I'll even help you, but it would be useful to know the truth. What's your name?”
Jeff thought furiously. The least he could do would be to give his name to this apparently friendly creature, but what name could he give? His own- Jeff Greene- sounded odd in the new language inside his head. The sounds it made translated roughly as 'fat wise kick' which didn't sound like any sort of a name to him, much less one he wanted to be known by. He had to find out what the horse would accept as a name. “What's your name?” he asked.
“Rignoh,” the horse replied and stood waiting with his head still tipped to one side.
Jeff's brain seethed. Rignoh... Pigno. No! That was no good. What was that other name they'd mentioned? Taramar... Taramel... caramel... chocolate... Choko. No! That was awful. Oh John, help me now. You got me into this. SK one to SK two. SK one to SK two. SK... what was that in words? Sierra kilo. Sierra kilo. Sierra...
“Don't you know your own name?” Rignoh asked, interrupting Jeff's frantic rush of thought.
“Of course I do!” he blurted. “It's Sierra.”
The horse looked doubtful. “Si-erra. Sweet flow. What does that mean? Is that your Rama named translated? It sounds odd.”
“Does it? Well it's... You see...” Jeff could feel himself slipping on the edge of a pit of lies. He took a deep breath and decided to risk the truth. “Rignoh, please listen to me. You seem friendly and helpful, and I hope you are because I really need help. I'm a complete stranger here. I don't have an owner and I haven't run away from anywhere. I'm here because there was an accident. I didn't want to come, but I'm here now and I can't get back for a while. I know some of your language but I don't know anything about your land, your customs, your people, or anything. Please, will you help me?”
“Um,” Rignoh said and stood biting his bottom lip. “I'll try. Where were you going just now? I mean... which way were you heading?”
Jeff lifted his shoulders in a shrug. Something in his mind told him it would be recognised as meaning indecision. “Nowhere in particular. I was just looking around when I came across you and your friend. Can you suggest somewhere I could go? Where does that road lead to?”
“To Rynn City, but I wouldn't go there if I were you. You haven't got a headstrap. You'd be grabbed off the streets and rushed to oku before you could twitch an ear.”
“What's oku?” He heard the word but couldn't find an exact translation for it in his mind. It came across as a confused jumble of sensations of confinement and anxiety, images of walls, large doors and crowds. Rignoh pulled his face into a grimace. He had a nice face, soft and smooth with large, bright eyes, a small nose and well shaped mouth. To human eyes he looked almost girlish, but looking through the eyes of this new being he'd become, Jeff found himself looking at someone quite distinctly male.
“Oku's a place they put horses who haven't got homes or owners. It's not nice there. You wouldn't like it.” He said “Um,” again and resumed biting his lip.
“Do I have to have an owner?”
“If you want to stay around here you do. Of course you could always take your clothes off and go and join a Rama herd.”
“Wild ones of our kind.” His face screwed up in yet another grimace. “They're not very nice either. You might be lucky enough to be accepted into a herd, but it's more likely they'll kill you.”
Newly named Sierra shivered in what was really a warm night as he realised there was more danger abroad than he had lulled himself into believing. It looked like secure shelter might be a priority after all. But where to find it?
“What do you suggest? What would you do in my position?”
The brown horse gave a long sigh. “I don't know,” he said and it began to occur to Sierra that his new friend was not over-blessed with brains. “I've never struck a problem like this. If it were me... I think I'd find an owner rather than risk the wildies. But if no-one wants you, you could end up in oku, and then I think I'd rather risk the wildies.” Jeff let his eyebrows lift and fall at hearing this.
“How does one go about finding an owner?”
“Don't know,” Rignoh said with a shrug. “I've never had to do it myself. Look, it's late... I mean, I'm late. I should have been back inside ages ago. Why don't you come with me to see Nicoy. We'll tell her your story and see what she suggests. She'll know what to do.”
“My owner,” the brown horse said as he began to walk from the clearing, apparently taking it for granted that Sierra would go along with his suggestion.
“What's she like?”
“She's very nice. So are the others at Tara Hi... well, except for Zaras, but nobody likes her.”
“Is Nicoy... you know... like you?” He waved a hand up and down to indicate the ears, mane, tail and hoofs of the little two legged horse.
Rignoh laughed. “Ponnie head! Of course not. She's Zammoran.”
In his mind Sierra tried to find a translation for the word 'Zammoran'. He knew the country was called Zammar, and Zammorans were therefore the denizens of the country, but they were not like Rignoh. He got strong feelings of size and power in association with them and a distinct feeling of them being 'not horse'. Zammorans, whoever or whatever they were, were different to the friendly half horse creature he had just met. Rignoh chattered on:
“You'd like Tara Hi too. Maybe you could even stay with us. What can you do?”
“Do? What do you mean?”
“I mean... what have you been trained for? What job do you do, normally? I presume you haven't spent the whole of your life till now wandering up and down the foot of Red Ridge?”
“No, of course not,” Jeff said as he wobbled after the brown horse, his body still unused to the knack of walking on two hoofs instead of feet. “I'm a laboratory assistant...” The words came out in English so he knew he would have to hunt for substitutes. “Ah... a cleaner and arranger of materials... a helper. Someone who sorts and stores chemicals and materials.”
“Oh, a work horse,” Rignoh said, making it sound menial. “That's a pity; we don't really need another one of those. I don't suppose you can run fast can you?” Sierra shrugged, wondering what the question had to do with what they'd been discussing. “If you can, Nicoy might keep you. Tara Hi is a racing stable you see. She trains and runs racehorses.”
“Racehorses!” Sierra exclaimed and followed it with an involuntary and slightly hysterical laugh. It was all so fantastic, so unreal and alien, yet at the same time so familiar. For a moment he found the contrast amusing, then fear of the unknown took over again and he stopped walking as he tried to decide what he should do.
Going blindly and willingly along with the brown horse might not be the wisest decision he could make. Rignoh paused and turned back. Standing in a patch of moonlight with his head tipped to one side, his ears pricked forward like copper horns and his mane hanging down beside his face he asked:
“Well, what will you do? Will you come and see Nicoy? She might sell you or she might keep you, but whichever happens, she'll see you get a good home.”
After a while of thought Sierra came to the conclusion that he didn't really have a lot of choice. He had to go somewhere and Rignoh's offer seemed as good as any. It was clear there was more than one intelligent life form on this planet and he'd picked one of the slave types. But there was little he could do about it for the moment, so he decided to go along with his new friend's plans and see what eventuated. “All right,” he said at last, “we'll go and see your owner.”
Rignoh resumed walking. “Good. I think you've made the right decision. Now let's hurry. Nicoy will have my ears for belt tassels if I'm late again this week.”
Wondering what would really happen to the brown horse if he were caught coming in late, Sierra followed along behind, pleased to find his walking ability improving with every step. As he walked his mind filled with questions. What was he walking into? What were these Zammorans like and what would it be like to be owned by one of them? Would he have a chance to come back for the MRA and walkie-talkie and should he tell the complete truth or not?
He could answer only one of his self-generated questions with any certainty: he knew he did not want to try and tell the truth about where he had really come from. If Zammorans were anything like the people of his own world they wouldn't believe him anyway. It would be better and simpler to tell them a story they would accept. He stopped his companion as he stepped out of the trees and was about to cross the road.
“Rignoh, I'm sorry to make you late, but there's something else I want to ask. I don't want to tell your owner, or anyone else, where I really came from, it'd be too awkward to explain. Could we tell her something else... make up a story of some kind?”
“If you like,” Rignoh agreed amiably. “We can say you're from a southern herd. You decided to try city life and you were making your way to Rynn because you'd heard it was good living there. You ran into me and I invited you to come and see my owner.”
“Will she believe it?”
“I think so. Wildies sometimes do things like that. You can say you learned Zammoran from a tame horse who turned wild and joined your herd. He told you about stable life and you thought you might like to try it. Er... are you branded?”
“Eh? No, of course not.”
“Good. The Rama aren't... naturally. They don't wear clothes either so you'll have to get rid of that lot.” His scowl indicated he thought it might not be a bad idea in any case.
“How long have you been tame?” Sierra asked as he stripped off his Earth style clothes. It was good to get his tail out of the confines of his jeans, and the night was warm so he didn’t feel cool without his shirt. Rignoh laughed at his question.
“All my life. I was born in Rynn. So was my mother and her mother and hers and so on. I come from a long line of tame horses.”
“Oh, I see. I thought perhaps Zammorans went out and captured wildies then tamed them.”
“Sometimes they do, especially if there's a special horse in a herd, such as a creamy or a two colour or a black...” Rignoh stopped talking and stood looking hard at Sierra. Bright moonlight lit the open space beside the road allowing him to see his new companion properly for the first time. It gleamed on the dark fur of his back, buttocks and thighs and in the waves of his thick mane and tail. “You're awfully dark,” the brown horse said. “What colour are you?”
Jeff quickly realised he meant hair colour not skin, but was not so quick to decide on an answer. His own hair had been black, the same as his mother’s. 'As black as a raven's wing, your mother's hair, bless her' his aunt had often said. Probably he had retained his natural hair colour when he changed form.
“Black, I guess. Why?”
Rignoh gasped, clapped his hands and laughed. “Black! A black! I've found a black horse!” He grew suddenly serious. “Is it natural?”
“Natural? Yes of course it's natural. What's all the fuss?”
“True blacks are about the rarest horses in the world, that's all! Zammorans adore them and Cantellans would practically kill to own one. Oh, all the gods must love me! I've found a true black. Nicoy's going to be delirious when she sees you.”
“Oh,” Sierra said, because there wasn't anything else he could think of to say. “What shall I do with these?” He held out his clothes. Rignoh looked round, spotted a bush and advised him to stash them there for now. He added that he would collect them and hide them more securely the next day.
They walked along the moonlit road for a while till the trees gave way to a wall then walked beside it till they came to an arch. On the arch, in fancy Zammoran script, was the name 'Tara Hi'. Sierra knew it meant 'hard won land'. He detected a note of pride in Rignoh's voice as they passed under the arch and he declared: “This is Tara Hi, one of Rynn's newest and best racing stables.”
They walked along a paved path to a two-storied house. Warm, yellow light glowed from two top windows and from a side door and window. It all looked friendly and harmless enough, but Sierra worried about what he might find inside. To get his mind off the butterflies in his stomach he asked Rignoh what his job was.
“I'm a work horse, I run messages, help round the house, weed the garden, help in the kitchen, pull the whap...”
“What in tarnation is a whap?” Sierra asked in a horrible mixture of English and Zammoran. Rignoh understood enough of the question to reply lamely:
“A whap is a thing you pull... you know... with wheels.” Passing by the side of the house and several large doors that looked as if they might lead to a garage of some sort, Sierra almost tripped over a small, lightweight cart. His companion gave an embarrassed laugh. “That's a whap. I... er... forgot to put it away this afternoon.”
Going in through an open side door they crossed a small entrance hall to enter a door to their right. It led to a large, stone walled room lit by the glow of several gas lamps. There was a long, low bench against the left-hand wall, a high bench on the opposite side beneath a window and various cupboards and racks arrayed around the other wall space. In the centre of the floor stood a three legged stool with a seat big enough to fit the backside of a giant. Beside it was a small table piled with rags, brushes, bottles and jars. It was not the only surface so adorned; almost everywhere he looked, Sierra could see a jumble of brushes, bottles and rags, with strips of leather, magazines and other, unidentifiable objects mixed in. Rignoh didn't seem worried by the mess; he swiped a pile of papers off the wall bench and sat down, inviting the black horse to do the same.
Sierra gingerly moved aside a box of empty glass jars and wriggled his bottom into a space on the cluttered bench. He had to admit to feelings of dismay as he wondered if the rest of the house was going to look like this. Being a tidy person by nature he wasn't sure he wanted to get to know beings who lived in such disarray.
“This is the grooming room,” Rignoh said waving a hand at the chaos, then frowning at it. “Cotha, what a mess. They must have all decided to go out tonight. Pobey must be feeling tired or he wouldn't have left it like this.”
“You mean it's not always like this?” Sierra asked with some relief. There was indignation in the tone of Rignoh's reply.
“No of course not. Pobey usually keeps it very clean, but when all the horses decide to go out in a bunch, he has so much to do in such a short time, he can't be neat. And some of the horses are messy animals. I won't mention any names.” Pobey, Sierra assumed, was the stable groom. When he asked Rignoh if he was waiting to be groomed the brown horse laughed. “Not likely! Once a day is enough. I've come to get my headstrap taken off. If I take you to see Nicoy with it on, she'll know I've just come in and she might be annoyed. I was told to get myself in early tonight.”
Sierra studied the halter like arrangement of leather and buckles on Rignoh's head, guessing it to be the headstrap he was talking about. “What's it for?” he asked. On a real horse, a halter was a useful tool for catching, holding and tethering the animal, but it couldn't, he reasoned, be used for the same purpose on a rational, speaking creature with two hands.
“For people to catch hold of I suppose,” Rignoh said, putting paid to Sierra's logical reasoning. “And also for identification. All horses away from their home stable have to wear one. See...” He drew back his coppery forelock to reveal a metal plate on the browband, “it has my name on it, and Nicoy's and my stable name and my registration number. If I were to get lost the law would know who I am and who I belong to. It also tells other people that I have a home and an owner and that if they take me home and keep me there, it would be theft.” He laughed. “Not that anyone would want to steal me.”
“Why? Aren't you valuable?” Rignoh laughed louder.
“Me? Great hills, no. I'm a very ordinary work horse. People wouldn't give me a second look. Not like you. You'll have people falling all over you.” He gave Sierra a long, slow look then shook his head. “Amazing. You really are black. I've never been this close to a true black before... though I have seen one or two. I saw Kia Lin one day when I was over at Jon's house, before he went away.”
“Uh huh,” Sierra said, because it didn't really make much sense to him, other than to tell him there were a few black horses about.
Rignoh suddenly jumped up and paced, almost tripping over rags and discarded jars.
“Come on Pobey, where are you?” He looked back through the doorway to the entrance hall. “I wonder if he's gone to bed already?” He pointed a finger upwards and told Sierra that the groom had a set of rooms above the garage. “I wonder if I should go up and have a look.”
Before he could decide, Sierra asked: “Is Pobey a horse... like us?”
“A quinolan? No, he's Zammoran.”
Sierra's butterflies grew hob nailed boots and began marching in step up and down his diaphragm as he waited for the groom to appear. What would he look like? What would he say? Was he making a mistake just giving up his freedom like this? What if Zammorans were cruel, inhuman monsters? No, they couldn't be; Rignoh had said his owner was nice. “These Zammorans...” he began nervously. “What do they look like?”
Rignoh scratched behind one ear. “I don't know... like Zammorans. You must have seen one or two before.”
“No, I told you; I've just come here.”
“But they must have some where you come from; of some variety: Cantellans, Takars, Mollets...?”
Sierra shook his head. “None of those. What do they look like?”
“They're all a bit different. Zammorans have red hair, just on the tops of their heads. They're taller than we are with round ears that don't move... useless items if you ask me. Hands the same as ours, but instead of nice, neat hoofs they have to get around on flat things like hands. That's why they can't run as fast as we can. Although...” he mused, “Nicoy once managed to run fast enough to catch me when I said something unflattering to her.” He gave a little giggle in memory of the incident. “I was so sure I'd be able to outrun her. I'd never seen her run and it gave me an awful fright when she took off after me.”
Sierra had begun to construct a queer mental picture of a Zammoran when an elderly but completely human looking man walked in. He had gentle brown eyes, sparse white hair and was dressed in grey trousers with a blue and white fabric shirt and grey suede boots. Those boots came to a stop with a clatter on the stone floor when their owner spotted Sierra.
“Great gods!” he exclaimed. “Where in Rynn did you come from?” Before Sierra could reply, Rignoh explained proudly, if somewhat inaccurately:
“I found him. On the other side of the highway.”
“Of course,” the man replied, straight faced. “True blacks grow on trees on the other side of the highway; you've been waiting for this one to ripen.” Sierra giggled and Rignoh couldn’t help but smile.
“I know how it sounds,” he said. “But it is true. He's a wildie. I'm taking him to see Nicoy. After you take my headstrap off please.”
“All right. Up you get then. Your young legs can stand the strain better than my poor, old back.” The horse bounced to his hoofs, the groom took a key, unlocked the headstrap, removed it from his head and hung it on a rack. As he did so he looked to Sierra. “I notice you laughed; I take it then, you speak Zammoran?”
“Yes I do.”
“And just what are you doing letting this young scruff lead you astray?” Sierra smiled at the horse's squawk of protest and the gentle cuff to the side of the head the man bestowed on him. It seemed there was a friendly war raging between these two.
“As he said; he's taking me to see Nicoy. I hope she may be able to help me find an owner.”
Pobey spluttered a laugh. “I don't think you need much help for that. You'd only have to stand in a square in Rynn and state your intention and you'd have people killing each other for the privilege of owning you.” His brown eyes grew thoughtful. “Would you stand up for me please?” Sierra obliged. “Turn round.” He did so. The man nodded. “Mm, just as I thought. A little small by today's standards but oh my, oh my, oh my.”
“What is it?” Rignoh asked anxiously. “What is it?” The man leaned towards him.
“Rignoh my friend, I think Nicoy is about to get the surprise of her young life. And I don't mean just that you've found her a true black.”
“Why? Why? What is it?”
The groom pushed the horse away with a display of impatience. “For Cotha's sake horse, can't you say anything else? I once had a bird could make better conversation than you. Go on... take your find along to Nicoy. She's in her office. You know where it is.”
When they returned to the entrance hall Rignoh stood for a while running a puzzled eye over his new friend, trying to see what it was the groom had meant. Apart from the black fur and hair he couldn't see anything odd about him. For his part Sierra was looking relieved.
“Zammorans are people,” he said. Rignoh flashed him a quick look of surprise.
“Of course,” he replied. “Zammorans are people, quinolans are us.”
Leaving the entrance hall by way of an internal door he walked along a passage through the middle of the house, passing a door on the left and pausing at the first on the right. “This is Nicoy's study. She always...” He stopped speaking when he realised Sierra wasn't with him. The black horse had paused at the beginning of the passageway to stare up at a row of boxes attached to the wall close to the ceiling. A profusion of green vine spilled out of each one, all covered in flowers that were glowing with a warm, yellow light. They were, he realised, the sole source of light in the passageway.
“Bitwarn vine,” Rignoh said, noting his interest. “Don't you have it where you come from?” He'd heard the other countries did not have the vine and had to rely on mantle lamps like the ones in the grooming room, or even candles or oil lamps.
“No, nothing like it. It's beautiful.”
“You wouldn't think so if you had to water it. I'm always in trouble for splashing water around the house.”
“I guess you would be. It must damage the carpet.” He looked down at the rich, green covering beneath his hoofs. Rignoh gave a scornful snort and dug at the carpet with the tip of one boot.
“Not this stuff; I meant the fur carpets upstairs and in the library. This is carpet moss; I have to water it too.”
“Moss? You mean this stuff is growing?”
The brown horse nodded. “Nicoy had it planted through here about seven seasons ago. It looks nice, but it means we can't run through here anymore because our hoofs dig it up. I think it's a bad mistake in a stable, to put expensive floor coverings between the grooming room and the kitchen.” He grinned at his own humour then suddenly frowned. “Look, I'm late. Can we please go in and see Nicoy now?”
Sierra caught up to the brown horse and followed him into a large room with a heavy curtain across the middle. On this side of the curtain stood a small table, a bookcase and a cabinet containing a few ornaments. It all looked terribly normal. Apart from the bitwarn vine glowing in its boxes he felt he could be in someone's lounge room back on Earth.
“Rignoh?” came a voice from behind the curtain. “Rignoh, is that you I hear? Have you just come in? Where have you been? I told you to get in early tonight. You're no use to me if you can't get yourself out of bed in the morning.”
“I... forgot my shoulder bag. I had to go back for it.”
“Where to? Cantella?” There was obvious sarcasm in the question. Sierra's mind told him that Cantella was another country quite some distance away.
“The other side of the highway. I... er... found a wildie.” There was silence.
“And?” the voice demanded after a while.
“I've brought him home for you.”
Something which Sierra's mind recognised as a curse reached his ears, then the voice again, distinctly pained: “Rignoh, pet, you know how things are at the moment. I don't need a wildie. I can't afford to keep a wildie. And even if I could I haven't the time to spare to spend training one.”
The brown horse grinned hugely but kept his voice meek and pleading as he spoke again to his owner. “You wouldn't have to teach him much. He can already speak Zammoran. Oh come on Nicoy, just have a look at him. I promise you'll like him.”
“I like most horses,” Nicoy said, beginning to sound trapped. “But Rignoh, I can't possibly keep every horse I happen to like.”
“I'll make a bet with you... one week's wage extra for me if you decide I did the right thing to bring this particular Rama home... one week of free work from me if you don't like him.”
There was a sigh. “You will bring home strays. All right. It's a bet. Show him in.”
Rignoh pulled back the curtain and Sierra walked through to stand before a wide, solid desk. The woman seated on the other side sat back
in her chair so fast she almost overbalanced. “A black!” she cried. “Rignoh, you didn't tell me he was black.” She got up from her seat and fairly scrambled around the side of the desk to get close to the new horse. “Beautiful, beautiful,” she breathed, touching him with gentle fingers as if she feared he was a dream that might vanish at any moment.
“You like him then?” Rignoh asked in mock innocence. Nicoy swatted in his direction.
“Of course I do. You knew I would. Talk about safe bets.” Turning Sierra round she looked him up and down. “Look at him will you- look at him,” she said with growing excitement. “Look at the way he's put together. He's a born racer... a natural racer. He's small but he's fast. Oh Rignoh... I think you may have found the horse to beat Dumbray.”
“Really?” the brown horse asked with obvious surprise and delight. “Ah... that’s what Pobey meant.”
While this conversation had been taking place, Sierra had been studying Nicoy. She looked human though she was taller than most people he had ever met, with large, brown eyes set in a light skinned face and long, impossibly red hair. She wore a green gown of simple, elegant design, made of the same slightly shiny material of which Rignoh's garment was made. She asked for his name as she ran cool hands over his back.
“Sierra,” Rignoh volunteered.
“Sierra,” she repeated, pronouncing it with a distinct break between the syllables, in the same way as the horse. “It doesn't sound like a Rama name.”
“It's not,” Sierra said. “I chose it for myself when I decided to seek an owner.”
“I see. And why did you do that... decide to find an owner I mean? Weren't you happy with your herd?”
An expression of panic formed on Rignoh's face. Sierra guessed that he might think that as they had not discussed this, he would not know what to say. Fortunately, he was quick witted and while Rignoh was still panicking, he was saying smoothly: “I wasn't unhappy, but I wanted to see more... to do more... than herd life permitted. A tame horse joined our herd after he ran away. He talked of life in Rynn City and the things he'd seen and done and it made me want to try it for myself.”
“Did you know you'd be valuable?”
“The tame horse said I might be surprised when I reached the city. I didn't know what he meant.”
Nicoy took a breath and in a voice as calm as she could manage, asked, “Are you determined to go on to Rynn or would you consider staying here with me?” Sierra noticed that she seemed to hold her breath as she waited for his reply.
“You said I was a natural racer... does that mean you think I'll be fast?”
“Then I could find a place here as a racehorse in your stable?”
“It would be a rare privilege to train you.” He made a small nod and said that he would like to stay. Nicoy closed her eyes for a moment in what looked like intense relief then clapped her hands. “Rignoh, run and tell Pobey I want him.”
Grinning, the brown horse turned to make an exit but ran into the groom in the doorway.
“No need. No need,” the man said, stopping the horse's outward rush. “I heard it all. I hope you'll forgive my eavesdropping, Nicoy, but I couldn't resist witnessing your reaction. I knew you'd be delighted. Isn't he just perfect?” He placed a hand on Sierra's shoulder.
“He’s perfect Pobey. Absolutely perfect. I can hardly believe it. What have I done the gods should favour me so? To have a true black... true champion... unblemished and unbranded, walk in like this, out of the night... it's like... like...” She suddenly frowned. “It's like a gift from the gods. Sierra,” she asked, turning a serious face to him, “have you come from Cotha?”
Cotha, he knew, was the name of the home of the gods in Zammoran religion. He grinned at the thought of himself as a gift from heaven, then shook his head, causing his mane to swish pleasantly around his neck and shoulders. “No, I'm not from Cotha. I come from a herd in the southern jungles.”
“Good. I feel more comfortable with that. Tara Hi,” she announced, “has a new gold harnesser tonight. Pobey, what do you think, have we got one to fit him? He's rather small.”
“The one Noki wore as a colt should fit.”
“Do we still have it? Sweet Mith, it'll be a double favour from the gods if it does. I think I should have gone to the track tonight and placed a few bets, everything seems to be going right for me.” She clapped her hands together again and looked very pleased. “My own gold harnesser. At last I'll be able to stop worrying that Dumbray might get it.” She giggled. “A black, gold harness racer... that will make Rynn sit up and take notice.” Grabbing Rignoh she danced around the room with him. Pobey shook his head and Sierra laughed.
He laughed at the woman's delight, Rignoh's spluttering indignation and at his own fears of less than an hour before. He remembered being on the path to the house, looking at it and wondering what horrors lurked inside. 'Horror' like this he could take in abundance. These people were warm, friendly and gentle with as much a sense of humour as any he'd met. He was not sorry he'd decided to go along with Rignoh and knew that even if John took months to find a way to recall him home, it would probably seem too soon. Unless all this was a hallucination caused by concussion, he thought his life might be very interesting in the weeks ahead.
Nicoy let Rignoh escape and turned to her groom. “Get the gold harness. Give Sierra a trim and a groom and a fitting and also see if you can find a set of harness for him. I'll log some details for the protection tag and bring it along in a dewel.”
Pobey nodded, turned to leave and collided with another woman in the doorway. Rignoh's ears went flat against his head as soon as he saw her.
“Don't you flatten your ears at me you bad tempered piece of rubbish,” she warned. The groom sidled around her and escaped as Nicoy interposed herself between the newcomer and the brown horse.
“That's enough of that,” she said to Rignoh, stroking his mane smooth with one hand and at the same time giving him a gentle push toward the door. “Take Sierra down to the grooming room now. Pobey will be with you shortly.”
Rignoh led Sierra from the room, but paused in the passageway with his ears turned back. Sierra cocked an ear that way as well. “Who is that?” they heard the woman ask. What's he doing here?”
“His name is Sierra. He's mine,” Nicoy said, obvious satisfaction in her tone.
“Yours? A true black?” There came the sound of a short laugh. “Who is he really? Shar Nor?”
“Shar Nor is little more than a foal This is not Shar Nor. He's none of Zammar's known true blacks. He's new; fresh from the jungle... a wildie, and he's mine. He came here tonight and has decided to stay.”
“A true black horse just happened to wander in out of the night to give himself to you? Do you expect me to believe that?”
“I don't really care what you believe Zaras. He's mine, he'll be living here from now on and I've made him the gold harnesser for my stable.”
“Sheb's bitten you!”
“No I'm not joking. I've made my decision. From tonight, Sierra will be gold harnesser for Tara Hi.”
“You can't! It's not fair! Dumbray should have had that harness long ago. You've deliberately held it back. What has that puny animal done to deserve it?”
“Nothing,” Nicoy admitted, “but he's black.”
“I'll protest to the Control Board. I'll see he doesn't keep it long.”
“Protest as much as you like; it won't do you any good. I'm quite within my rights in all that I've done. Now, what did you want when you came in here? I presume it wasn't to wish me good night.”
The eavesdropping horses heard a sound of scorn from the other woman then her shrill voice again. “I came to warn you to take more notice of what your animals are doing around the place. That creature you call a work horse has almost caused me to break a leg...”
Rignoh was pretty sure he knew how Zaras had come to nearly break a leg. He decided he'd heard enough. Grabbing Sierra's arm he towed him the rest of the way down the passage to the grooming room. Pobey had not returned. While he waited the brown horse decided to make a start on tidying the room. Instructing Sierra to gather a scatter of brushes and combs, he picked up a tangle of leather and began to sort it. As they worked, they talked. Sierra asked about the other woman they'd seen. He was still smarting from having been described by her as a ‘puny animal’.
“That was Zaras, the trainer.”
“The one you said no-one liked.” He could understand why. From the little he'd seen and heard of her, he didn't like her much either. Rignoh nodded. “Why doesn't Nicoy tell her to leave if no-one likes having her here?”
“She'd like to but can't, because of Dumbray.” The brown horse hung the leather straps and harness pieces on a rack then picked up a small pot of hoof polish and began looking for its missing lid.
“I heard that name. Who's Dumbray?” Even as he asked, he thought to himself that it was odd how the MRA had transferred some knowledge from Rignoh to himself, but not all.
“A racer- a good one. He belongs to Zaras. Nicoy made a bet with Zaras over the outcome of a certain race. Nicoy lost and now she has to employ Zaras as a trainer here at Tara Hi until she can find a horse fast enough to beat Dumbray.”
“That sounds like an odd sort of bet.”
“It sounds like a safe sort of bet. Zaras knew Nicoy didn't have anything faster than Dumbray. Not many people have; he's almost the best in the country. So she thought she'd have a nice, safe job here and a place to use to train Dumbray for the Big Race, which she hopes he'll win.”
“But Nicoy thinks I might actually be faster than Dumbray?” Sierra picked up a lid and offered it to the brown horse. He took it, but it was too small and fell into the jar. After that he couldn't get it out.
“Thanks very much,” he said, inverting the jar to try to shake the lid out. It stayed inside firmly stuck to the polish. Sierra shrugged his apology and began to look around for something thin and flexible enough to prise a lid out of a jar.
“What was all that about the gold harness? And what's a protection tag?”
“A protection tag is sort of like a brand for horses people don't want to brand.” With a quick frown at his own words, Rignoh expanded his explanation. “You're unbranded. Nicoy wouldn't want to brand you and ruin your flawless black hide, but she has to have some sort of reasonably permanent marking on you... other than a headstrap, so you'll be tagged.”
“Does it hurt?”
“No of course not. The tag's just a bit of metal with writing on it. It'll be sealed around your neck. It'll put you under the special protection of the law force. All your particulars will be sent to a central register... the same as if you'd been branded in the normal way, so everyone will know that such and such a true black horse of this size and that age and sex belongs to Nicoy of Tara Hi.”
Sierra wanted to ask about branding, how it was done and if it hurt, but Rignoh went on to tell him about the gold harness.
“Actually, it's not a harness at all,” he said, as he picked up rags and stuffed them into a bin. “I mean... not like this.” He touched the belt he wore, and the boots and wristbands that matched it. “This is a normal set of harness. A gold harness is a gold coloured sirat. This a sirat.” He pointed to the blue garment he wore. “Some special sirats are called harnesses. I don't know why... they just are. They're usually worn by the best or most valuable horse in a stable. Each stable of sporting horses is supposed to have one gold harnesser. We haven't had one since Gwana was killed and Nicoy's been afraid she'd have to give it to Dumbray because he is the most qualified to wear it. But of course she didn't want to do that because it would make it even harder to get rid of Zaras.”
“But Nicoy owns this stable doesn't she? At least, that's the impression I got.” Rignoh nodded. “So how can Dumbray take its gold harness when he belongs to Zaras?”
“He races for Tara Hi and that's what counts.” He turned at the sound of footsteps. Pobey walked in, carrying the two halves of a gleaming, gold sirat, a red belt and a pair of red boots. His gaze swept round the passably tidy room.
“Very nice. Thank you. There are times when I can almost believe Nicoy did the right thing to take you on.” Rignoh gave a small snort, but seemed more amused than upset by the man's words. “While I’m doing this I think it would be a good idea for you to go and make up a bed for Sierra.”
Rignoh grinned and said to Sierra. “What he means is... get out of here and leave me alone so that I can play with the new horse in peace.” He gave a yelp as Pobey swung the red belt at him. “I’m going. I’m going. What bed should I make up?”
“The one in the middle of the racetrack,” the man replied with exasperation in his tone. “Where do you think? You've got a double room, haven't you? Well I assume you won't mind sharing it with this poor wildie you thought fit to drag home?” Rignoh laughed and began to saunter slowly toward the door. Pobey grabbed a brush and waved it at him. “If you aren't out of here in a lee, I'll groom you too.” The horse yelped and fled.
Pobey chuckled as he put aside the sirat and harness, took a different, softer brush than the one he'd used to threaten Rignoh and started running it down Sierra's mane. After a while of brushing in silence, he remarked, “So you're to be our new gold harnesser. Quite a surprise for you I imagine.”
“Everything has been a surprise to me... a pleasant surprise,” Sierra said and grinned to think of what John would say if he could see him at that moment.
Sierra had been trimmed, groomed and dressed in the gold harness, and Pobey was pleased. The horse had been beautiful enough in his wild state, but now polished to perfection and clad in the gold harness, he looked stunning.
Nicoy must have thought so too, because when she walked in she gasped and said, “A gift from the gods.”
The old man nodded. “He certainly looks as if he is. Noki’s sirat fits him well, as you see and I’ve been able to adjust the belt to make it fit. The boots are a bit sloppy unfortunately. And the wrist bands are a disaster.” He nodded to where the red wrist bands were sliding comically over the horse’s slender hands.
Nicoy smiled and nodded. “We can forget the wrist bands, they’re not essential, only fashion. At least he’ll have boots.” She looked at Sierra. “I know they’re a bit big, but please wear them. I will not have your beautiful hoofs scratched by careless climbing and clattering over loose stones.” She shook her head, setting her red hair swinging. “It still amazes me to see a wildie with hoofs so unblemished.” She sighed and sat back on a bench to admire him from a distance. “Perfect, quite perfect. Don't you think so Pobey?”
“Yes Nicoy, he is,” the old man said indulgently. He'd known Nicoy a good number of years now and had come to love her like a daughter. It pleased him very much to see her so happy and he offered a silent prayer of thanks to the gods for sending her this stroke of good fortune after so much worry and trouble in the past few years. He had an idea he thought might also please her. “He is something quite special, a natural racer, as you said; and I've been thinking... what is there to stop us from running him in the Big Race?”
Nicoy looked startled. “The Race of the Year? I don't know. There's still time to enter him... but is there time to train him?”
“He's quiet and sensible; you'd have no trouble getting him to accept training, and if he's as fast as you and I both suspect...” He raised his eyebrows meaningfully. “I say, give it a try, and train him in secret.”
“To beat the popularity poll and give Zaras a surprise she'll never forget.”
The woman's eyes lit up and a smile spread across her face, then she laughed. “Oh yes, yes. I'd love to see that. For this 'puny animal' to beat her precious Dumbray in the Big Race; it would be wonderful. Here...” She handed something to the man. “Tag him then we'll go to my study and work out a strategy. Did Rignoh...?”
“Yes Rignoh did,” the brown horse said as he came in. “Sierra's bed is all ready.”
The chain, with the tag on it, was fastened around Sierra's neck and the clasp crimped shut with a hand tool, then the horses said goodnight to the man and woman and went out of a back door. It opened onto a wide, paved courtyard gleaming like ice in the moonlight. Sierra glanced up. The moon was now riding high in a clear sky, obliterating the light of all but a few very bright stars.
“The stable's over this way,” Rignoh said, leading him across the court to a set of three steps leading up to a path which wound away over a rise and then down a slope through a garden. Just ahead, above the trees, he could see the shape of a large, two storied building with a flat roof and windows like sheets of silver in the moonlight. He imagined it must be another part of the house complex and thought they would bypass it. In his imagination he could see the stable as a long, low building with a row of tiny rooms, one beside the other.
He was therefore surprised when Rignoh led him in through the front door of the gracious building and across a beautiful foyer with a polished stone floor and high ceiling to an elegant, curved staircase.
“Is this the stable?”
“Yes. Nice, isn't it?” Rignoh gave a soft laugh. “Silly thing to ask. How would you know? I don't suppose you've ever been in a stable before.”
“Not one like this, I haven't,” Sierra confirmed.
At the top of the stairs they found a wide passage with wall to wall matting and walked along it to a door. Rignoh showed him into a large room lit by the gentle glow of two tubs of bitwarn vine. For a large room it contained little furniture, Sierra thought. Below a long shelf attached to the left-hand wall were two beds with a small cupboard between them. On its top were a few books. These, a couple of ornaments and a mat were the only personal items in evidence. But for them the room might have looked unoccupied.
In the centre of the room a single large, white column rose from floor to ceiling. It struck Sierra as odd, but he said nothing. On the right-hand wall were four doors. The white, stone floor swept in pristine splendour from the front wall out to a complete wall of glass and beyond to a balcony, beyond which he could see nothing but darkness.
“That can be your bed,” Rignoh said, pointing to one nearest the window wall. “And you can have this side of the wardrobe.” Walking to the single, fat column, he slid back a slim door to reveal an empty, semi-circular cupboard. “I know you haven't got much to put in it at the moment; but you will have.” He grinned. “And by the way, thank you for earning me a bonus.”
“My pleasure... not that I did anything.” He looked round. “Is there a toilet I could use?”
Rignoh directed him to one at the end of the passage. He found it, used it, washed his hands and face in a nearby basin and returned to the room. By the time he got there the brown horse had fully stripped, ready for bed and was giving his back a good scratch with one hand as he stood beside a bitwarn vine planter.
“Do you prefer to sleep in the light or dark?”
“Dark, if it's all the same to you,” Sierra said, wondering how he planned to switch off a glowing, growing plant. Rignoh tossed a heavy drape over the framework surrounding the planter. When he covered the second tub the room was plunged into darkness. Sierra noticed a glow on the horizon. When he first arrived and saw lights in the distance he had suspected they might be bushfires, but now that he knew the world to be inhabited he was inclined to think in terms of houses and towns.
“What's that?” he asked with a nod toward the glow.
“It must be pretty big.”
“Big enough. We can go there tomorrow if you like... unless Nicoy has other plans for you.” He climbed into bed, slid down beneath the light fabric covering and sighed.
“She was saying something about training me for a race...”
Sierra stopped speaking and pressed his lips together. Perhaps he should not have said that. Nicoy and Pobey might not want this horse to know about their secret plans. He was just wondering how he could retract his words when a soft snore sounded through the darkness. The horse hadn’t heard what he’d said. He must have fallen asleep the moment his head hit the pillow. Sierra let a small laugh escape then he groped for the edge of his own bed and pulled back the blankets.
He stripped off the belt, boots and golden harness and slid beneath the coverings. So far he had experienced an adventure like no other in his life before and it looked like there might be exciting times to come. With a final shake of his new, silky mane he settled down to sleep.
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