“This is just my luck!”
My scream comes out as an extremely loud and indignant whinny, or at least, as loud and indignant a whinny as it is possible for a pony of my size to admit. I have loved horses all of my life, and as a little(r) girl, I often imagined being a horse. Perhaps a splendid palomino mare, or a gorgeous black Arab as fast as the wind. But I had all but forgotten the whole idea when that bunch of mad scientists released species-changing toxins into the water to see if it would work. One sip of water and foom! I am a human by day and a horse by night.
Well, I say “horse”. In disgust, I look down at the ground, which, it has to be said, is not very far away. I am not a splendid palomino or a gorgeous black Arab. Instead, I’m pretty much the horse version of my human self: Small, skinny, rather timid and possessing hair of a depressing shade of muddy brown. Because it’s winter, I have the added disadvantage of being fluffy.
I snort loudly.
“Hello you,” says a beautiful rich voice behind me, and all disgust vanishes. I turn around with my ears pricked and give a soft, loving nicker. My horse, Skye, is stunning as a horse, but she doesn’t make a bad-looking human either. A tall blonde with smooth buff skin and a strong, athlete’s build, her Roman nose only serves to make her profile look sharp and noble, like an eagle’s. She buttons up a borrowed jacket and looks distastefully at the long jeans I put out for her. Spotting my flattened ears, she shakes a lock of silver-blonde hair out of her face.
“No, I’m not getting cold,” she says. It’s winter, but she’s only wearing a knee-length pair of cutoff jeans – cut off with my pocketknife two nights ago and hidden somewhre in a hay bale where I can’t find and confiscate them since. “You know I hate stuff on my legs.”
I snort again. I know this only too well; when we were still the right shapes, we almost crushed my trainer when Skye felt the touch of a piece of wire on her hindlegs.
“These are good though.” Skye all but purrs with glee as she pulls on a pair of thick socks and boots. I give her a happy nudge with my muzzle. Skye’s soft soles have been a problem for ages.
Fully dressed, Skye gets up. Most of the human-animals I’ve met so far move awkwardly in their new shapes, unused to the extra or missing pair of legs, but Skye moves with liquid grace – she always does.
Come on, I say in horse speak, which is basically body language of a depth no human could fully understand. Saddle up. Let’s get back to work.
A grim shadow falls across Skye’s face. She pulls her saddle off the side of the lungeing ring and plops it on my back. “Yes. It’s been too long. This ends tonight.”
I stand silently as Skye saddles me up. The two horse paddocks are silent and empty in the full moonlight. For years I’ve kept horses here; my dad and I built the lungeing ring, the two field shelters, put in the troughs. I’ve ridden here for hours, wearing a path around the grass arena, and fallen a good many times too. Even more hours were spent feeding hay and cleaning hooves and grooming horses.
It was just another of those beautiful, ordinary days; I had saddled Skye for a ride and took her out on the farm, galloping up hills and trotting through forests, enjoying ourselves as we always did. In the summer heat we soon grew thirsty and I drew rein at a stream. We both drank our fill.
When we got back, just before dark, we found my house empty of people and the paddocks empty of horses. That was when we transformed.
In the weeks that have passed since, Skye and I have spent all our time searching for our lost family. We have always been close, so close that her herd and my family fused into one family group: she considered my bearded father her own dad, and her tall grey friend, Magic, was my brother. And now they are gone. My father, mother, and sister have vanished; so have Skye’s herdmates, Arwen, Thunder, Siobhan, and Magic.
“It ends tonight,” says Skye, as if reading my thoughts. I open my mouth and she slips the bit in, folding my ears down gently to settle the headpiece on my mane.
Yes, I said. Tonight we’ll find them. We picked up a lead earlier in the day, whilst hunting around in town. One of the mad scientists’ much-abused lab workers (we found out a lot in the past few weeks) skulked out of an alley and into my waiting grip this morning. He tried to escape, but only until he realised that he was not only up against a furious (and pants-wettingly terrified) 5′ 4″ human, but also a livid (and utterly fearless) 500kg horse.
Then he spilt the beans pretty well. We finally know the location of the secret lab where our family is being held, have directions to the cells where they’re kept, and even know the combination on the lock. We’re pretty sure it’s the right one, because I had a bottle of the toxic water in my hand and was threatening severely to feed it to him if we got back and found out that he’d lied.
Now, with the lab worker safely tied up and stowed in my cupboard for the moment, it is time for action. Skye leads me out onto the drive, runs the stirrups down and lengthens them four holes before gathering the reins and leaping on, or kind of stepping over and sitting down.
“Now I know why you complain about riding little ponies,” she says.
Now I know why you buck when I pull the girth up too tight.
She laughs and strokes my neck. “Let’s do this. C’mon, Firn.”
I break into a trot and we’re off. Heading north out of the farm and onto the gravel road, I swing into a canter. I may be slow, but my canter is smooth, allowing Skye to switch on her high-tech spy watch. Inserted inside it is the file we got from the lab worker, which gives us a map to the secret lab. I hear the beeps as Skye connects the GPS.
“I still can’t believe this,” she says, slowing me to a walk to catch my breath as we turn onto the tar road. I stretch my neck and breathe deeply, feeling sweat break out underneath my girth. Me neither. It was right under our noses! Why couldn’t we find it?
“Because it was right under our noses,” says Skye. “Right where we don’t expect it to be.” I feel the shift in balance as she looks up; I’m still amazed at how sensitive my sense of touch and balance is as a horse. “Right there.”
The stacks of hay bales in front of us seem utterly nonthreatening. Excessive, perhaps – hundreds of stacks, each consisting of hundreds of big round bales – but they lie peacefully in the moonlit field, crystal clear in my equine night vision. I take a deep breath and that’s when I smell it. An undertone to the mouthwatering scents of hay and grass, I catch a whiff of something acrid and chemical. It smells like Skye’s spy watch and my cellphone.
Skye presses the left rein against my neck. I swing away from the pressure, turning through a rusty old farm gate, and slink – as far as a horse can slink – behind one of the stacks. Skye slips off and sits on the grass beside me.
“Your senses are pathetic,” she whispers. “I can barely – achoo!”
It’s the hay, I tell her, shoving her hard with my nose as she doubles over coughing. Get away from the hay. You know you’re allergic!
“Yeah yeah,” Skye rasps, wiping her nose. “I know, human. Relax. And tell me what you smell.”
Hay. I drool a bit and try to pretend I’m just chewing my bit. Grass. The tar road. The cows across the road. The –
What? I’m still fascinated by how excellent your sense of smell is.
“Let’s not be fascinated for twenty seconds, okay? What do you smell that’s out of the ordinary?”
With difficulty, I drag my thoughts away from the intriguing medley of smells and sounds around me. Technology, I tell her.
“I hate that smell.” Skye snorts. “So perhaps the guy wasn’t fibbing.”
I don’t think so. But where is the opening he talked about?
Skye checks her spy watch. “Behind that stack of bales, if I’m not mistaken,” she says, pointing.
Looks like all the others to me, I say.
“Exactly,” says Skye.
She’s not listening. Crouched low in the overgrown grass, she breaks into a slow, smooth jog; I can’t help thinking of the slow Western gait she uses as a horse. “Come on!” she whispers.
I can’t hide! Worried, I give a short, muffled whinny and flatten my ears.
I bolt across the distance between the two stacks of bales, skid to a halt, and almost fall over in my panic. I pin myself against the bales, shaking like a leaf. Skye appears seconds later and her expression softens at the sight of her quivering human.
“Hey!” she says gruffly, giving me a rough shove with her hand. “You’re okay, girl. Trust me.”
I take a deep breath, feeling the sweat running down my muzzle. I do trust you.
“You’re doing fine. I’m here.” Skye grabs my mane and gives it an affectionate shake. “I won’t leave you.”
I know, I say, and I mean it. Once, on an outride in our proper shapes – years ago – Skye tripped in an aardvark hole and we both crashed to the ground. Terrified, she leapt to her feet and took off, only to hit the brakes and return to stand over her shocked but unhurt human.* She has never left me.
“Okay,” Skye says, giving my neck a last pat. “He said it would be next to the thirteenth bale on the east side.” With a wary glance around in case of guards, Skye starts to walk down the stack, counting. “One, two, three, four, six – ”
You missed a number, I say.
I snort with frustration. Horses have no words for numbers. Shaking my ears until they flap audibly, I use my front hoof to scratch an awkward 5 in the dust.
“Five,” says Skye, rolling her eyes. She wipes her running nose again. “Look, you do the counting.”
I trot down the stack, touching each bale with my nose as I count in English in my head. I stop beside the thirteenth bale and take a bite of it for good measure because the smell is driving me crazy. My teeth snap shut on something that kicks me in the mouth like an angry carthorse, making me leap back, slip and sit down on my haunches like a dog.
“Firn! What’s wrong?” Skye runs to me, dark brown eyes wide with concern. “Are you all right?”
I can only quiver in reply.
“That sounded like electricity.” Skye peers cautiously into the bale and sneezes loudly. “Ugh,” she mutters, mopping her nose on her sleeve again. She never could get the hang of tissues. “There’s a wire in there. Let’s hope you didn’t break it or the door might not work.”
Sorry, I say, hanging my head and letting my ears flop to the sides.
“It’s okay. Now get off your butt, you look like a disgrace to horsekind.”
I get up and peer over Skye’s shoulder as she kneels in the grass, feeling cautiously through it with her hands. “I’m looking for the lock,” she whispers. “It should be here somewhere.”
Can I help?
“Yeah, you start over there, feel with your nose. And for goodness’ sake don’t bite any more wires.”
The ringing in my head makes me extremely adverse to biting anything very much, but I feel through the grass, trying to resist its amazing scent. I nearly jump out of my skin when Skye gives a strangely whinnying yelp of pleasure.
“I’ve got it!” Still on her hands and knees, she grips something in the grass. I see her pause thoughtfully for a moment as she remembers the combination that has to be tapped into the lock in Morse code. It’s a complicated one, but my horse is smart. Especially when she’s human. I tip an ear and listen to the tapping, my equine senses easily picking up the faint sound of Skye’s fingernail on the touch screen of the lock. I can hear everything. I can hear Skye’s breathing, the rustle of a mouse family in the hay, even the buzz of a tiny midge flitting around my legs.
And then, deep in the earth, I hear the loud, grinding noise of something moving. Something artificial. Something huge.
*True story, by the way.
In response to WordPress’s Creative Writing Challenge, I wrote this. It’s more of a character study than a story, but I am absolutely loving it! Expect more soon! 😀