Pony Exchange

By Olga Godim

Originally published in Lorelei Signal in 2012

Eriale dismounted in front of a large inn. In the dusk, the shop signs around the square squeaked and swayed in the quickening breeze. A storm was coming, and her magic was stirring. The damn magic always reacted to a storm as if it was an invitation to a party. Eriale strengthened her inner shields. No party tonight. She looped the reins of her palomino mare around a post, and the mare neighed softly. Her mane rippled under the wind.

"We'll find you a stable soon, Rani," Eriale promised. "I know you're tired."

The mare's soft lips tugged at Eriale's bangs.

Eriale laughed. She was fond of the beautiful creature, a gift from her half-sister, the queen. She patted the mare's cheek before entering the inn.

"I don't have a free room, lass," the innkeeper said regretfully. His eyes flickered outside, taking measure of her mare. "There're a couple spots left in the common room, but they're not good for you. Are you by yourself?" He regarded her with a puzzled expression.

Eriale grinned. Obviously, he failed to place her on the social ladder. Her mare, fit for the royal stables, marked her as aristocracy, and she was one, albeit she was traveling incognito. Other girls from aristocratic families never traveled alone. Only merchants, minstrels, and mages did. She was a mage, almost an Adept, but she didn't look it. She had just turned sixteen, and her small, skinny frame and long black braids made her appear even younger. And she hated the magicians' robes; never wore one. She preferred britches.

"I suppose I could sleep in the common room." She eyed the filthy floor dubiously. The last time she had stayed in such a place, back in the beginning of her journey, it had taken really strong magic in the morning to get rid of all the insects she and her saddlebags had acquired during the night. And she couldn't eat anything they cooked. She had suspected fried bugs in every pie and roll, but it was impossible to be sure. Fried insects were invisible to magic; it could only detect living ones. But where else could she go? Her destination, her relatives' manor near the capital, was another day's riding. Camping in the rain didn't appeal to her, and she hadn't seen another inn in this tiny town.

The innkeeper leered, reeking of garlic. "Not a good idea, lass. A lone young female…" His small black eyes sharpened. "You can spend the night with me. I don't have a partner." His big fat hand reached for her. Before she could pull away, his stubby fingers squeezed her arm.

He thought her a whore? It was so ridiculous, she wasn't even angry. "I'm a mage," she said coldly. She didn't mention her royal connections.

He jerked his hand away as if burned. "Why didn't you say so?"

She shrugged. "Is your inn always so full?"

"Nah. We have pony races in two days. Every house in town is full." He glanced at his hand, wriggling the fingers to make sure she hadn't turned it into a pig's tail or worse.

"Could you recommend a place?"

The innkeeper's wary gaze turned calculative. "Go to Trog's house. He can use a magician. His racing pony was stolen." He pointed across the market square to a narrow two-storey building. "He lives above his shop. See the blue sign? He has a place for your mare too."

"Thank you." Eriale hurried outside. Twilight had already converged, and the first plump raindrops landed on her head. She hastily grabbed the reins and erected a magical umbrella over Rani and herself. By the time they reached Trog's shop, it was pouring.

She pounded on the door, until a dour female servant opened a crack.

"What do you want?"

"Hi," Eriale said. "The inn is full. The innkeeper said your master needs a mage. I'm a Journeyman and I need a place to stay for the night."

The woman regarded her with suspicion. "You a magician?"

"See, I'm dry in the rain."

"Oh. Come in then. Paul, take the horse to the barn."

A ragged boy in a tattered shirt darted outside, while Eriale stepped into a small, dim anteroom. A sturdy wooden staircase led to the second floor. A niche under the stairs looked like a sleeping nook, with two pallets and a curtain. The unsmiling servant probably slept there. To the right, a gloomy corridor ended in darkness. This was not a welcoming household, she thought with foreboding as she followed the maid upstairs.

The servant curtsied to a man and a woman in a long and narrow sitting room. "Master. Mistress. This one says she's a magician. Asks to stay the night." She turned and stomped down the stairs, leaving Eriale alone with her hosts.

The tall gaunt man looked desiccated, like a mummy in Eriale's father's workshop. His wife resembled a chubby, shifty mouse. Both wore drab clothing and even drabber expressions.

"Hi, Master Trog." Eriale smiled brightly, trying to project competence. "I'm a mage. The innkeeper across the square said you need one."

"Did he? A mage?" The man eyed her with disdain. "Are you a guild member?" He grimaced, obviously not expecting a positive answer.

Her smile faded. "Not yet," she said truthfully. She had one more year of studies left, so officially she was an apprentice. Unofficially, she was closer to an Adept, but this sour man didn't need to know the details. He didn't even invite her to sit down. Was this how itinerant mages were habitually treated: with scarcely-veiled scorn or utter indifference? She could turn these two into mushrooms, and they regarded her as if she was a bug. Well, she wanted to experience life the way ordinary people lived it. Here was her glimpse, and she wasn't sure she liked it.

"The innkeeper told me someone stole your pony. I can find it," she said calmly. "Just give me something that was in contact with it. A comb would do."

The couple stared at her. What did they expect: that she would bow or genuflect? She lifted her chin higher and stared back.

"How do I know you didn't spirit it away yourself?" the man demanded at last.

"Um?" Eriale's lips drew open, but no words escaped. The absurdness of the accusation rendered her mute. She didn't have any adequate words in her vocabulary. Her half-sister was a queen, and this plebeian was accusing her of stealing a pony? Her palomino mare Rani was worth at least six ponies, and the platinum combs in her hair, with their mother-of-pearl encrustations, were probably worth more than this petty man's house and shop put together.

"Really, Trog," his wife murmured. "She wouldn't have risked coming here if she were a thief. Right, girl?"

"Right." Eriale exhaled. What else could she say?

"See, you've scared the poor wench. Come with me, dear. It's too late now and raining hard. You can sleep in the kitchen. You'll find our pony tomorrow."

The woman stood up. As she brushed past, Eriale sensed coldness, sly and negative, in the woman's mind, although her words had been kind. What was she up to? Eriale sent a tiny feeler into the woman's head. As a rule, she avoided eavesdropping on the others' thoughts; it was never pleasant and frowned upon by other mages, but she had to know what this woman planned.

She was right to eavesdrop. The woman's schemes involved petty thievery. Unlike her husband, who had hardly glanced at Eriale, her hostess had noticed the bejeweled combs. She tossed a furtive glance at Eriale's saddlebags, already in the kitchen, while unlocking a cupboard with one of the keys on her impressive chatelaine. "A candle for you." She took out a short candle stub and locked the cupboard again. Eriale glimpsed a half loaf of bread inside. Every other cupboard was locked too.

"Unfortunately, we've already dined," the woman said with false regret. Her thoughts revolved around the possible contents of Eriale's saddlebags.

Disgusted, Eriale pursed her lips. "That's all right, mistress." She sent a small magical light towards the ceiling. "I'm fine. I don't need a candle. Thank you for your hospitality. If you just give me a pallet to sleep on, I'll be most grateful." She felt dirty just being too close to such greed, but she didn't wish to go back outside into the pelting rain.

The woman goggled at Eriale's light. "Of course," she whispered. "Ayva." Her voice cracked. She bent to the servant's tiny room below the stairs.

A few minutes later, the sullen maid dragged one pallet from her nook to the kitchen. She threw it down in front of the cold fireplace and stomped back without a word.

What an inhospitable place, Eriale thought sadly. Time to work some magic. She built the Don't Touch Mine spell in her palm. It swirled above her hand like an insatiable turquoise cub, eager to bite. It would snap at anyone who attempted to touch her stuff. She doused her saddlebags with the spell.

Then she washed her hands and face and pulled the leftovers from her previous meal out of her saddlebag: a couple boiled eggs, cheese, a chunk of stale bread, and a carrot. Although her hosts had already dined, she was famished.

During the night, someone triggered her safeguard spell. Even fast asleep, she sensed the spell sizzling, its sharp caustic tentacles reaching towards the interloper. The thief screamed. Eriale pulled her cocoon of warm magic tighter, ignored the scream, and burrowed deeper into sleep under the staccato of rain on the shutters.

In the morning, the maid plied Eriale with good food: warm buttered rolls, thick sweet gruel with berries, and surprisingly flavorful hot chocolate. Eriale glimpsed gratitude in the woman's eyes, but the maid said very little. After breakfast, she indicated Eriale should go upstairs.

Only Master Trog sat in the drawing room, his thieving mistress absent, probably nursing her smarting hands. The Don't Touch Mine spell could pack quite a sting. Eriale couldn't feel sorry, even if she had overdone it a tad last night.

"Someone stole my racing pony," Trog said, pointing at the table.

Eriale picked up an old wooden comb. It had several vibrations: it had been used for more than one animal. She separated the strands in her mind, while her fingers caressed the worn tool. One strand had the unmistakable feel of her mare. To be sure, she traced the line behind the house, to the barn.

"Don't you need to say incantations or something?" Trog demanded.

"No," she replied absently. There was one more strand that ended beside her mare but felt unfamiliar. "You have another pony in the stables?" she asked.

"A gelding."

"Right." She didn't look at the man, her eyes half-closed, as she untangled the cat-cradle of magical strings. Most of them were aged, dangling aimlessly, but one other was amazingly strong and taut. It led in the opposite direction. And it was tinged with rose color—a thumbprint of magic. The pony was en-spelled somehow.

She raised her eyebrows. "Your pony seems under a spell."

"What spell?"

Eriale shrugged. "I don't know what spell, but there is a magical connotation there. You bought it from a magician?" It wasn't a surprise, not really. Elven pony nurseries were scattered throughout this area of the kingdom, and many elves had at least a dash of magic.

"Damn elves," he growled, confirming her guess. "They sure asked a lot of money for this pony. Where is it? Is it alive? Is it far?"

"Definitely alive." Eriale nodded. No matter how much she disliked her hosts, she had spent the night in their house. She should start paying her debt. With her mind, she followed the thin rose-pink thread to the pony. The thread spun faintly and didn't go far; she should be able to find the pony in less than a candlemark. She started down the stairs.

"Where are you going?" Trog sprang to his feet.

"To find your pony."

"I'll go with you."

Eriale shrugged. "All right." What a disobliging man. No matter. As soon as she found his pony, she would be gone.

The rain had stopped during the night. The cobblestones of the market square still harbored some puddles, but most of the water ran in the narrow ditches. The gray overcast sky presided over the gray day, but the market swirled with colors and noise. Farmers' carts offered vegetables and meats, cheeses and sweets. After she found the pony she would treat herself to a sumptuous meal. She was getting hungry again, and her stomach greeted the prospect of more food with fluttery appreciation. She was always hungry when she worked magic.

The pink magical line to the pony pointed east, but Eriale couldn't walk in a straight line through the town. She had to follow the streets, which wove their way around houses like drunken drovers. In ominous silence, Trog trudged a couple steps behind her.

What would he do to the thief? Should she care? Her quarry was close. Perhaps she should see where the rose-colored line led before she subjected the poor thief to her host's rage. Trog's life-force pulsed erratically, its edges tinted with black, betraying his murderous mood.

"What are you going to do to the thief?" Eriale asked, pretending nonchalance.

"Drag him to the city guards. They'll flog him bloody, so he'll remember not to steal next time." Trog's savage thoughts leaked through: break a couple of the bastard's bones first.

Eriale winced. Perhaps she shouldn't lead this cruel man to the thief after all. The pink line of her search, invisible to Trog, twanged. Surreptitiously, she glanced towards her magical hook and glimpsed a silvery-gray tail of an elven pony and a terrified face of an elven teenager. Passing the alley entrance without stopping, she turned in the opposite direction. After a few more random turns, she stopped, so abruptly, Trog bumped into her. She could see the town wall to her right as she stood, surrounded by slums. A woman in a tattered dress on one of the doorsteps eyed them both with disfavor.

"What?" Trog snarled. "Here?"

"I lost it," she lied, trying to sound contrite. She had never managed contrite before, but maybe this time she succeeded? "Master, you distract me. I must retrace my steps." She started back towards the town centre.

He followed, swearing profusely.

"Maybe you should go home?" she suggested. "It might take more time than I thought. Don't you have to open the shop?" She didn't turn; she didn't want him to see her eyes. He might guess she was trying to get rid of him. "I'll find the pony and bring it to you."

"If you don't, I'll keep your stuff," he threatened and stomped away.

Good luck, she thought smugly. He couldn't touch her things anyway. Suddenly, her Don't Touch Mine spell flared anew. Obviously, the mistress of the house decided to give it another go. Would she ever learn that it was stupid to steal from a mage? Now the woman wouldn't be able to use her hands until tomorrow. Such extreme greed saddened Eriale. She shouldn't have stayed in their house, but hindsight was useless.

She concentrated on Trog's angry life-force. It was receding rapidly. She waited a bit longer, to be sure he was truly gone, before she followed the pink line back to the pony.

They huddled behind the blackened remains of a half-burned shed, blocked from the lane by a heap of refuse. The girl, a half-blood elf by the look of her wilting ears, was hugging the pony's neck. The pony, dappled gray with a long ash-colored mane, wavy and thick, resembled an overgrown toy with curious eyes. Its tail swished in joy, as it mouthed its mistress's short blond hair. The bushy fringes over its hooves sported a darker shade; each leg seemed entrenched in a clamp of charcoal-gray ferns.

"Cute." Eriale grinned. She couldn't stay serious at the sight of an elven pony, especially such a charming one. She wouldn't mind such a pet too. The rose-pink magical connection between the girl and the pony twined about itself like a thick and elaborate chain of ribbons. The girl's tiny core of magic shimmered with the same pinkish hue, glinting weakly. Not even an apprentice.

The girl's slanted blue eyes flashed with hostility. "Get lost."

"I was hired to find this pony," Eriale said. "Trog said it was stolen."

"I didn't steal her." The elf girl pulled herself upright. "She found me."

Eriale nodded. "You're connected by a magical bond."

The girl's eyes widened. She lifted her hand from the pony's neck and looked at the animal in surprise. "Magical bond?" she murmured.

"Rose-pink," Eriale elaborated.

"You're a magician." The girl shook her head, dislodging the pony's hold on her hair.

Eriale nodded again, watching the pony. Deprived of its favorite treat, it looked bewildered, and she suddenly wanted to comfort it, to kiss its woes away. When the elven girl took another step away, carrying her hair out of the pony's reach, it neighed in distress and followed, aiming its lips for the blond locks.

"Stop chewing my hair, Periwinkle." The girl batted the pony's mouth away. "See? I didn't want any of this. I raised her but I was okay when my uncle decided to sell her. And then I just couldn't stay home. It hurt to be away from her. I thought I was just missing her, dreadfully, but then she found me here. I didn't know about the bond. I'm not a mage-apprentice."

Her words tumbled out uncontrollably. "I work at my uncle's pony nursery. I'm good with ponies, but my uncle will kill me for this. What am I to do?" Absently, she reached for the pony, seeking comfort. She buried her hand in the gray mane. The pony leaned into the caress.

"I can sever the bond," Eriale said. "If you're willing. What's your name?"

"Suliko. Of course I'm willing. Do it. I don't need this trouble. I can't part from her otherwise. She follows me. I thought to take her back to that horrible man, but he'd probably get me flogged. I thought he tracked me just now." She cocked her head. "What's your name?"

"Eriale. I tracked you," Eriale said. "I followed the bond. He didn't see you or he would've definitely had you arrested. I got rid of him."

"Thanks. What are you waiting for? Cut it."

"I'm studying the bond. I can't just plunge in and cut it. It might hurt you or the pony."

"Oh." Suliko leaned on the only remaining wall of the old shed, her expression thoughtful. "What do you see?"

Eriale didn't like what she saw. The bond's cords intertwined in a convoluted way, although they had already started unraveling on Suliko's end. The elven girl obviously wanted to be rid of this complication. On the pony's end however, the bond looped around the animal's core, threading through its life-force. The brown of the pony's tiny life-force was almost obscured by the pink of the bond.

"Periwinkle is your familiar," Eriale said, surprised. "I've never heard about a pony familiar. Those are usually cats or sometimes birds. I heard about a squirrel once but not a pony."

Suliko burst into a startled laughter. "A squirrel familiar?"

Eriale didn't laugh. She couldn't cut the familiar bond. It would kill Periwinkle. The only way to get rid of the bond was to transfer it to someone else. But who? When she finished her explanations, the elven girl shivered.

"You can transfer the bond? To whom?" she echoed Eriale's troubled thoughts. "Don't transfer it to that man we sold Peri to. He's bad."

"I know. I spent the night in his house. I can't transfer the bond to a non-gifted anyway."

Suliko deflated. She rubbed behind the pony's ear, and it lipped her palm in delight. She grabbed the gray mane with both hands. "What are we to do, Peri?" She lifted pleading eyes to Eriale's face. "Can't you transfer the bond to yourself? I don't want Peri dead."

"I don't need a pony familiar."

"If you don't, what will happen to us?"

"Nothing good," Eriale muttered. She was trapped. She couldn't leave the elven girl in this lurch. Neither could she be responsible for Periwinkle's death. And however she solved this pickle, Trog was going to be livid.

Suliko's expression turned mutinous. She kissed the pony's gray fuzzy muzzle and whispered something unflattering to humans under her nose.

"I suppose," Eriale said finally. "But it wouldn't be easy to explain the magical bond to Trog. He wouldn't understand. I can try to buy the pony from him; I have the money, but I don't think he would take my money. He's already accused me of stealing his blasted pony. I might have to exchange my mare for this creature, or he would get me in trouble." She loathed the idea. She really loathed losing her beautiful mare. "Gosh, I hate it," she said. "Is Peri good for riding?"

"She's perfect for mountains and forests," Suliko said fiercely. "And she's fast, the fastest racing pony of this year's crop. Besides, she's just the right size for you. How do you climb atop a regular mare? It's probably twice your height." Her face was straight, no hint of a smile.

"Yeah." Eriale tossed her a sour glance. Suliko was a head taller than herself and shapely too. Everyone was taller and shapelier than she was. "You're the one to mock me."

"Come on. Peri is really good and very sweet. She'll carry you everywhere and she'll eat anything. Do it." Suliko sighed pitifully. "If you can."

"I can." Eriale didn't really have much choice. This girl needed her help. The magical guild's guidelines postulated she should provide it. As a future member of the guild, she had to comply with the guidelines.

She sighed, grabbed the pink bond, and injected a little bit of her turquoise magic into it, blending it with the pink, plaiting the tones like a braid. The color of the bond started changing, coalescing towards lavender. Suliko's end, leached of color, grayed out and then snapped off. The vacant end flapped for a moment, fluctuating madly, looking for a terminus. The pony moaned, and its front legs folded.

"Peri!" Suliko screamed. "What have you done, idiot? You've hurt her." She hugged the pony, trying to keep it upright, murmuring endearments in one floppy ear.

Eriale caught the fluttering appendix. It attached itself to her magical core with a loud, happy smack. Periwinkle struggled to her feet and shook her head to dislodge Suliko's caressing hands. Disregarding her former mistress, the pony trotted to Eriale and stretched her soft lips towards Eriale's long black braid.

"Right." Eriale giggled and patted the silky mane. She already loved the silly little creature, even though she knew the love was artificial, infused by the bond. Grinning wider, she kissed the woolly nose. Periwinkle smelled of manure, reminding her where she was. Bemused, Eriale lifted her eyes.

"Traitor," Suliko mumbled, her gaze following the pony. She seemed bereft for a moment, until her eyes filled with admiration. "You did it, magician. She doesn't love me anymore. Thank you, thank you."

"Yeah. Goodbye." Eriale shrugged and marched towards the market square without a backward glance. The bond felt natural, warming and comforting, as if it had always connected them. They suited nicely, she mused, she and Periwinkle; both on the short side, both with more hair than wit. When she arrived at her aristocratic relatives riding a pony, her cousins would never stop laughing.

Would Trog accept her mare in exchange for the pony? Would he demand extra money? He might even make Eriale beg for the exchange, obnoxious as he was, although the mare was much more valuable. Eriale felt like a fool and she didn't anticipate a pleasant conversation.

Periwinkle followed two steps behind Eriale, lipping her braid as if it was sugared.