The message flickers once and disappears, leaving us all in a stunned silence. My heart is in my horseshoes. I look sideways at B. C. and see sweat break out on his neck with stress. Skye is stiff and motionless on my back. What now?
Behind me, Rain’s ear-splitting neigh of indignation breaks the silence. What?! How dare they kidnap our parents?! THEY SHALL DIE!!
“Rain! Stay calm for twenty seconds and listen to me!” Skye snaps. “We have to stay calm. We have to think. I appreciate this may be a new skill for you,” she adds acidly.
My horse is being mean, so she must be worried. Skye’s never worried. About anything. I shiver.
Okay, okay, let’s think about this. B. C. closes his eyes and sighs. We need to get out of here, but we can’t just leave Firn’s ‘rents here. There’s no knowing… He shudders. Well, I know what they will do. And it’s not pretty.
What… what will they do, B. C.? I ask.
B. C. turns to me, but his eyes are clouded with pain. They want to turn us into centaurs.
Centaurs? Immediately, an image of Glenstorm the Centaur from Narnia flashes across my mind. Well, that doesn’t sound too bad… being a creature with a human’s torso and a horse’s body and legs. Except…
What happens to the horse’s head? I whisper.
Exactly. B. C. tosses his head, fear lending urgency to his gestures. To become a centaur or any beast of man’s alteration, not God’s creation, would be to be half an animal. Living on the loss of another’s death. He adds, quietly, We horses would be the first to die. But I doubt mankind would last much longer.
“It’s like a nightmare,” says Skye.
It’s like a horror movie, says B. C., and we both shudder.
And that’s what they’re going to do to my ‘rents, I whisper.
“Not on my watch.” I hear the click as Skye cocks her pistol.
But Skye, they’re hostages. How can we stop them from being killed?
“Simple,” says my horse. “We turn ourselves in.”
Skye leans down and speaks under her breath, far too quietly for security cameras to pick up, but easily audible for a horse’s ears. “I’d speak in horse language, but we don’t have a word for deceit. We pretend to turn ourselves in. If we work together, we can overcome all these guards, machine guns and all, with the element of surprise. I’m guessing none of them understand horse?”
B. C. snorts. No, or by now they’d know every swearword in the equine language.
There are swearwords in the equine language? I ask.
Firn, you know that look Siobhan used to give you every time you rode out one of her bucking fits instead of falling?
Well… there are swearwords in the equine language.
“Guys!” hisses Skye. “Listen to me! We have to speak to the herd. But that’s our only option if we’re going to save the lead mare and stallion of Firn’s herd. We have to turn ourselves in and, when they least expect it, all strike at once. Unity. We have to work as a herd.”
Will the herd accept it? asks B. C.
Skye shrugs. “I don’t know. But we have to try. You tell them, chestnut pony.”
Pony? Speak for yourself! I’m all of sixteen-three hands, thank you! B. C. turns towards the other herd members and neighs loudly to get their attention. Then he speaks in horse language, simply. We have everything to lose. Freedom, dignity, life, each other. But we can’t just walk out here and leave two of our kind to suffer. We have a plan, but it’s risky, and will only succeed if we work together. And none of us can pretend to be able to force you to go through with it.
The silence is deathly, and my heart stops. Then Rain steps forward, swishing her long blonde tail with way too much attitude.
You know the laws of the horses, she says. Only fight when you must; this looks like a must to me. And always stay with the herd. That means when your herd’s in trouble, you fight for it. She raises her head and neighs deafeningly. Who’s with me?
The resultant chorus of neighs and shouts coming from every horse and person standing beside us almost repeats the Jericho sequence, but not quite. It’s still enough to send tremors of sound and hope into the deepest fabric of my soul.
Skye turns to the nearest security camera and speaks calmly into it. “We surrender,” she says, drawing her 9mm and the machine gun at her hip and dropping them both on the ground. Arwen and Magic copy her. Thunder, who was busy chewing on the end of his machine gun to see if it was edible, looks puzzled. “Why are you dropping those, mommy? They’re shiny,” he points out. “And interesting to chew.”
“Put that down, sweetheart,” says Skye. “It’s not wise to put guns in your mouth.”
“Yes, mom.” Thunder drops the gun, to my intense relief.
Almost immediately, a swarm of guards in unitards, heavily armed, appears and surrounds us. One of them lays a hand flat on my shoulder and gives me a shove back down the corridor. “Move along, pony.”
B. C. flattens his ears until his skull and bares his teeth. Don’t hurt her! He jostles between the guard and me and we trot nervously back down the corridor, a cacophony of hoofbeats, some humans riding, some running between us.
Skye runs. It helps her think.
The guards drive us back through creepy door 13 and into the freaky lab, where they have managed to get the electricity going. We trot across the mangled bridge and down a long staircase, stumbling – it wasn’t designed for hooves – until we get to the main floor of the lab. Lit with the eerie blue electric lights, tiled in white, it’s a typical lab. Rats in cages, some with grossly disfigured faces, missing tails and hands like humans, squeak piteously. Machines beep, whir and spin. Things go gloop in long glass tubes and I’m sure there’s a pickled eyeball floating around in a jar on one table.
Then I spot them. My parents. Confined in a strange glass cage, they stand close together, sheltering each other. They couldn’t be more different; Dad is a massive bay draft horse with a neck that looks like it was carved from bronze and hooves the size of cake tins, while Mom is a pretty dappled pony, little taller – but much more delicate – than me.
Mom! Dad! Rain’s neigh shatters the silence. She lunges forward, but B. C. slams his weight into her, restraining her. Shhh! Remember the plan! he snorts.
I wanna kill some guards! Rain whines.
Later, Rain, I say.
Awwww, okay, Rain sighs.
Standing in front of the glass cage is a tall man in a lab coat. He wears half-moon glasses and has the typical slanted eyebrows, thin white hands and weird pointy beard of The Arch Villain. I wonder if he had plastic surgery to look like that. He looks like Voldemort. He probably did.
“Ah, so you have joined us,” he purrs as we clatter to a halt. “Kind of you.”
“Don’t patronise me, human,” spits Skye, folding her arms. “Set them free. You have us now.”
“Oh, I never said I’d let them go, mare,” says The Arch Villain, his smile curving like a scimitar. “I only said I’d let them live.” He chuckles. “As legs and body for a new generation of species.”
I go cold. What if this doesn’t work? I quaver.
It’ll work, Firn. It has to work, says B. C., not taking his eyes off Skye. She will give the signal.
Rain nudges me. Hey, Firn. See that? she gestures at a tall urn full of green fluid. It’s marked “Antidote.”
Maybe we can get hold of that somehow, I say.
Skye snorts at the Arch Villain. “I should have expected it from a slimy double-crossing man like you. Men! They never were trustworthy.”
Hey! squawks B. C.
“You’re not a man, B. C., you’re a colt so you don’t count,” says Skye smoothly.
Hey!!!! squawks B. C., even more indignant.
She doesn’t mean it, I say soothingly.
“Maybe, maybe not,” says the Arch Villain, twiddling with the knobs on one of his machines. “I know I’m not trustworthy.” He laughs. “What a wonderful creature a horse is… Trusting. Gentle. Patient. They can’t lie, they cannot deceive… Perfectly splendid, don’t you think? And that is what sets them so far below humans.” He smiles at her. “You signed your own death warrant by trusting me, little pony. They say there is no secret so close as that between a horse and rider. Maybe we’ll see just how close that secret can get.” He snaps his fingers. “The audacious lady and the little bay pony, immediately,” he orders.
A horde of guards step forward, surrounding me, rough hands grabbing at my mane and tail. I squeal briefly in shock and kick out, but they effortlessly grab my hindlegs and lift me off the ground. I hear B. C. roar like a stallion and a guard screams in pain; but Skye yells, “B. C.! Stop!” and Rain neighs, The plan! and it’s without further opposition that the guards manhandle me up onto a platform just like my parents’ glass cage. The Arch Villain pressed a button and a glass dome slides down over me, trapping me. I’m too scared to move, quaking where I stand.
“And this one?” the guards ask, holding Skye by her arms. She doesn’t resist, but quivers with rage.
“Put her in there,” says the Arch Villain, pushing another button that lifts the glass dome over my parents. They jump aside as the guards wave machine guns at them and throw Skye onto the platform. At that moment, she waves a hand in a sweeping, slicing gesture and the herd goes mad. As one, they turn on their guards, taking them down with kicks and bites too fast for machine guns to counter; the Arch Villain yells, alarms blare and I throw myself against the glass, fighting to break out, terrified, lost. Then a familiar voice neighs, Stand back! and I stagger backwards as B. C. rears and brings both forefeet smashing onto the glass. It shatters, raining splinters everywhere, and we both gallop into the fray, but we have everything to fight for and the guards have nothing. It’s over in minutes. They flee – all but the Arch Villain, who snags a machine gun and aims it at my head.
“Not so fast, pony,” he sneers.
My mom and dad kick simultaneously. He probably never even knew what hit him, but I did: The devastating power of parental love. Skye steps over to the body and nudges it aside. “I’m sorry that had to happen to you,” she says. “But that’s what you get for it when you mess with God’s creation.”
Mom! Dad! I whinny, running up to my parents, who immediately start to nibble-groom me with their teeth. It’s like a horsy hug, and it’s the best hug I’ve had in a looong, long time.
Are you okay, Firn? Mom asks.
I’m fine, Mom, now that you guys are safe, I say.
Thanks for your help, squirt, says Dad, whose 18hh bulk justifies my nickname.
Help? We saved you all by ourselves, says Rain cockily.
Think so? Dad smiles at her, his dark forelock hiding his eyes. Why do you think the alarms failed, the electricity clashed as catastrophically as it did and the guards were so slow to respond? Computer programmers can be hackers too, you know.
You broke into their systems? squawks B. C.
Yes, says Dad, with pardonable pride. And your mom here only prevented certain people with attitudes from being killed, oh, fifty or sixty times?
I can be convincing when I need to be, says Mom meekly.
What attitudes? chorus B. C. and Rain.
I rest my case, says Dad. Now, let me help that fat brown horse of yours to figure out that antidote.
With Dad doing the thinking and Skye doing the stubbornness, it’s not long before they’ve worked out the dosage for the antidote. Thunder and Magic help to carry the huge urn of green liquid and we all head outside, Dad’s brains and brawn being of invaluable assistance in opening and enlarging the exit hole. At last we’re all back out into the star-studded night with the full moon surfing on silver mares’ tails and the smells of grass and hay bales rising all around us.
B. C., Rain, Skye and I join the ranks of horses and people all standing in readiness as Mom readies the antidote, giving Arwen instructions on drawing up tiny dosages in syringes they pinched from the lab.
“Who’s first?” asks Arwen, holding up the syringe. B. C. groans beside me and buries his face in my mane.
Me, says Mom, calmly.
“What if it doesn’t work?” asks Arwen.
I trust Jon, says Mom. It will work.
Arwen gulps and gently pushes the needle under Mom’s skin. My mother stands still, unflinching, as the quivering Arwen injects the antidote. My heart thumps in my chest. I should have volunteered, I should never have let –
There is a sound like a gumboot being removed from a particularly wet dung heap, and where the pretty grey pony stood, my mom is there; short and kind-faced, but with a wiry strength. (Thankfully, also fully clothed).
MOM! Rain and I squeal.
Is it over? enquires B. C. from the depths of my mane.
Yes! Look! She’s human again! We’ll all be human again!
After that, Mom was in her element, helping everybody as laughing, neighing they transformed back into themselves, injection after injection. The horses ran in laps around the grassy paddock, stuffed their faces with hay or threw themselves down and rolled. Arwen, once again a dish-faced grey mare with a perfect white diamond on her forehead, tore snorting around in circles before attempting to kick anyone in sight. Siobhan, a bay pony, trampled three humans and broke two fences, heading for home. Magic leapt and curvetted, a graceful grey gelding. Thunder, stolid and bay, gave one giant bunny hop into the air before coming to the ground and amiably beginning to lick the nearest person.
Rain, a tall blonde girl, danced in graceful ballet moves that cut swathes through the wavy grass. Dad, once again a bearded man, used a piece of wire, some spit and half of someone’s hanky to fashion a multiple-dose syringe that speeded up the process.
B. C., Skye and I were last. Skye gritted her teeth as Mom injected her shoulder, gasped once and transformed. She was beautiful as a human, but as a horse, she’s dazzling; a collection of sleek chestnut curves that bend and flow like a symphony. She steps over to me and with paralyzing joy, for the first time I experience her as a horse experiences another; her smell, her beauty, her language. We breathe into each other’s nostrils, blowing thoughts at each other, smells, emotions until I would have cried, if I was human.
But I’m not, and then it’s over, and B. C. is standing squished close against me as Mom gently injects me in the neck. The needle pinches slightly, I screw my eyes tight shut and the world spins. My senses blur and fade; smell and hearing all but vanish, touch virtually disappears and the next thing I know I’m lying on the ground, cheek pressed against the grass. Cheek. Wait. I’m lying facedown. I sit up, and realise that I’m human; short and thin and undeniably human.
“That’s it,” says Mom’s voice above me. “It’s all right again.” She hugs me close, then walks away to help Dad doctor the handful of injuries from the fight.
“Being human suits you,” says B. C., and I get up and see that he’s human too – the way he was made to be. I almost break his ribs with one of my epic hugs and sigh deeply.
“I’m glad that’s over!” I say.
“Yeah, it was tough, but it was a pretty cool adventure,” says B. C.
“Yeah…” I watch the horses run laps through the grass, led by their queen, the indomitable Skye who never gave up. “I think I’m going to miss being a horse, though. I know God made me to be human, but it’s weird not to be able to smell and touch and understand the way a horse does. And run. And be strong. I miss that. Humans can’t be powerful and graceful at the same time the way horses can.”
B. C.’s big warm hand engulfs mine, fingers intertwining.
“Horses can’t do this,” he says.