When Professor Hebbes entered the clutter of the office, Poldra roared at him from the top of the cabinet. He stared at her for a moment, noticing that she was sporting a ring through her nose, as well as the tattoos on her face. Perched high, she was yipping excitedly at him. He could barely hear her over the music. Poldra was now working her way through the classics, and had developed a fondness for Bob Marley. Miz Iz charged into the room behind him, late again.
"What's she saying?" Professor Hebbes asked, as Miz Iz hit the volume control, and Poldra jumped down onto her head.
"She's trying to convince us she can drive." Miz Iz said, stoically. "I've been trying to tell her she's too short, but she won't believe me."
Professor Hebbes sighed. Life was never dull at Bel/Mal Tech, he had to give it that. Pushing piles of debris out of the way, he sat on the battered couch.
"What happened in here?" he asked, looking at the devastation. It was worse than usual, with chunks of plaster broken out of the wall.
"Mini mosh pit. Belding gave Poldra a Green Day CD he'd confiscated, and the minis went nuts. Don't worry, I've got a contractor coming in." She shook her head. "Can you believe someone thought Mandorallen would sing "Boulevard of Broken Dreams"?" Poldra started cheeping happily, and Professor Hebbes looked at her in astonishment.
"I didn't know you could sing, Poldra!" he told her. She looked at him in contentment, and hopped from Miz Iz's head to the desk. Taking a coffee cup, she leapt to the floor, and headed out of the room. They watched her go with amusement.
"It's nice to have her in a good mood again, Tiny," Professor Hebbes said, looking through the clutter for a clean cup. Miz Iz found one and handed it to him.
"For now," she replied. "I have a feeling round two with the Goddess is coming up." She leaned back in her chair and put her boots on the desk. "So are you ready to ride herd to the Stronghold?"
Tiffany and Zandara looked at the small herd of horses before them. Neither had ridden before, although they had featured horses quite prominently in their stories. Judging from the comments around them, none of the other students had either.
"This is going to be fun." Polamber said, coming up behind them. "I love horses."
"You know how to ride?" Tiffany asked her, hoping for some pointers.
"Well, no, but I had a boyfriend with a motorcycle once. How hard can it be? You hop on, the horse walks, you go with it."
"Why do we ask you for advice?" Zandara asked, shaking her head. "You have the most bizarre attitude to this whole place. Have you learned anything yet?"
"Sure I have. I've learned to go with my instincts. How about you?"
Zandara's reply was interrupted by Xynthie coming up to them. Her wild red curls were bundled up in a head scarf, and she had stout hiking boots on. Her backpack was bright red and she wore dark sunglasses.
"What's with you?" Polamber asked.
"Not riding. I'm going to walk."
"You can't get out of this one, Xynthie. The rules say we are all to ride to the Stronghold, with an overnight camp. No exceptions."
Xynthie sighed and looked at them over the rim of her glasses. "Follow me, I want to show you something." She led them closer to the milling horses. Finding one she liked the look of, she slowly went up to it, holding out a lump of sugar in her hand. The grey beast accepted the gift, lowering it's head so she could stroke it's nose.
"What's the problem?" Zandara asked. "He likes you."
"That's not the issue. Use your eyes! I come up to his knee. How am I supposed to even get up on him? My feet won't reach the stirrups. I've thought about this, and I'm walking."
"You do seem to have a point." Tiffany told her. "I always seem to forget how small you are."
"I don't," Xynthie said ruefully.
Professor Hebbes came up to them. "We're all gathering by Hettar," he told them. "He'll being giving you instructions before we get started."
"Who are the others with him?" Polamber asked him.
"You know Vella, of course," Professor Hebbes explained, "and Mandorallen. The seedy looking fellow is a friend of Silk's, Yarblek." Zandara stared at him.
"Not the Yarblek? Hard drinking, cursing, womanizing Yarblek?" she asked. The others looked at her.
"Yes, that's him."
Following the professor, they walked over to where Hettar was looking at the group with a scornful expression on his face. He seemed especially put out by the Algars, Ram-Dorn among them. Yarblek was leering at Vella, who was very slowly sharpening one of her knives.
Shaking his head at the students, Hettar began to speak. "We are going to take quite a long ride. The Stronghold is two days away. Before we begin, I must inform you that these are horses. They are not cars, bikes or trains. They tire, they get hungry, and they have their own thoughts. They need to rest. And if any of you think that you can bully one into submission, think again." The Sha-Dar looked at them sternly. "They will be informing me of any abuse."
"Can they talk?" someone yelled from the back of the group. Vella chuckled under her breath, making long strokes with her whetstone.
Another voice rang out "They can to him, he's a horse lord."
"Very good." Hettar nodded. "They can indeed. Now, I want you to think of the horse you ride as a partner, not a pet. The horse is intelligent, but will require instruction from you. You just can't point it at the Stronghold and say 'go'. To begin with, everyone choose a horse. Approach it gently, speak softly." The group broke up and nervous students went gingerly towards the animals.
"Excuse me!" Xynthie said, heading towards the instructors. "I have a problem." She outlined her dilemma to Hettar, who regarded her seriously for a moment.
"You can ride," he told her. "Ce'Nedra's done it for years, and she's no bigger than you are."
"And how exactly did she get up there? A rope ladder?" Xynthie said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
"You're afraid," Vella said simply, putting her knife back into her boot.
Xynthie took her sunglasses off and looked at the Nadrak woman. "Of course I'm afraid!" she retorted in a harsh whisper. "What if I fall off? I'm tiny, can I control a horse? I have a great dane at home named Noodles. What if I just ride him?"
Vella looked at her for a long moment, and then laughed. "How tall are you really?" she asked.
"I'm five foot eight inches. I've never been small!" She dropped her voice even lower, causing Vella to lean in to hear her. "I feel very vulnerable around creatures this big, Vella. I'm scared."
Vella laughed and straightened up. "Okay, girl. I'll look after you. Come with me, and we'll see if Hettar has any small horses in this collection." Xynthie looked startled for a moment, and then sighing, followed Vella.
Tiffany and the other girls were having size issues of their own. "I didn't know that horses were so, well, big," she told her friends.
Polamber had chosen a light bay mare, and was speaking quietly to it.
"I don't believe it," Zandara said in a whisper to Tiffany, "Polamber choose a horse to match her hair."
Ram-Dorn was patting the nose of an enormous grey beast. Gil and Cyralan were near their horses, and Tiffany gingerly approached a light brown animal. Reaching up to pat it, she snatched her hand away when the horse snorted at her. Steeling herself, she spoke softly as she reached out her hand to the tossing head. After a moment, the horse settled down, and Tiffany was surprised to see the intelligence in the animal's eye.
Zandara found her own horse, and soon the group was paired off. Hettar looked around the group, switching riders every so often. He looked at a Cherek boy, who had chosen an animal much to small for him.
"You'll end up carrying her halfway there," he told the boy, signaling for another rider to take his place. When he was satisfied, he demonstrated how to mount. This led to mass confusion among the students.
"Left leg!" Hettar yelled at a Polamber, who had managed to get up the first time, but was now sitting backwards.
The horses conveyed their amusement to Hettar. They had been well chosen and told what to expect from this group.
After the third try, Tiffany got up, and settled herself. She looked around and saw the dryads being assisted by Vella and Professor Hebbes. Xynthie looked nervous, her black horse little bigger than a pony. Zandara looked over at her, and said something. Tiffany couldn't hear her over the noise of the class.
After a quick check by the instructors, stirrups were adjusted, and Hettar demonstrated the proper way to hold the reins and the signals to guide the horse. An Algar, looking wild around the eyes, fell off as his horse reared up.
"And that's what happens if you pull the horse's head back." Hettar continued, as the boy got back up on his mount. "Thank you for the demonstration," he called.
They slowly began to walk. The horses kept up a steady stream of complaints to Hettar, who moved around the group, advising as necessary.
At the first step the horse took, Tiffany felt frozen with fear. How could she control this animal, so much bigger than she was? What if it decided to run off? Her hands clenched the reins tightly. She bounced about in the saddle, and realized she didn't know how to move with the horse.
Professor Hebbes rode up beside her, his white animal almost as big as Mandorallen's charger.
"You need to relax," he called to her. "You're too stiff. Feel how the horse moves. Get used to it." She tried to follow his instructions and inadvertently looked down. The ground seemed a long way off.
"You're doing fine," the professor called. Slowly he talked her through, how to balance her weight, to place her feet in the stirrups. She felt the horse sigh under her. Wonderful, she thought, my horse is a comedian.
As she got used to riding, adjusting her weight, moving with the animal, she felt better. Professor Hebbes smiled at her and moved off, giving suggestions to other students.
For a while Tiffany stayed by herself, becoming more comfortable with the animal. She found herself talking to the beast. "I'm going to call you Eddie," she told it. "After Eddie Murphy". It seemed fitting to her.
Her confidence building, she guided Eddie to walk beside Polamber. She was riding easily. Tiffany shook her head in amusement at Polamber. Zandara joined them after a few moments. Eddie shook his head, and Tiffany reached down to pat his neck.
"It's not like riding the pony at the supermarket, is it?" Zandara said. Polamber looked at her and laughed.
"Sure it is. Only you don't have to keep putting in quarters."
Zandara muttered something under her breath.
When they finally stopped to make camp, Tiffany realized that her muscles were screaming at her. It had been an interesting day. A few of the Algars had decided that walking was too tame for them and had gone full gallop up a hill. Two had fallen off and one had been thrown when his horse stopped. Xynthie had stayed close to Vella, and had talked extensively with the Nadrak woman. Ram-Dorn had followed Mandorallen about, his great grey beast obviously taken with the Mimbrate's mount.
The students fell off their mounts in bunches. Before they could set up camp, Hettar had them check the horses, unsaddle them, and then sent them off. The horses, glad to be relieved of their burdens milled about happily. Tiffany gave Eddie's neck a few hard pats. Eddie, nuzzling her hair, let loose a stream of urine that splashed up on her shoes.
"Eddie, you, you, son of a ..." she started. Zandara stopped her.
"Eddie?" she asked, eyeing the horse critically.
"I just call him that. And now he's peed all over my feet!" Tiffany wailed. "I was getting the hang of this horse thing, and now this!"
"You need more practice at this horse thing," Zandara told her. "Eddie's a girl."
By the time they got their camp set up and their meal cooked, the students were dropping like flies. Groans and moans filled the air as tired and aching muscles protested at any movement.
Xynthie, however, seemed more mobile than the rest. She walked up to the others who were lying on their blankets, complaining of the pain.
"How come you can walk?" Polamber asked crossly. Xynthie sat down between her and Tiffany.
"What's that smell?" Zandara asked.
"My shoes," Tiffany told her wearily.
"No, that other smell." She looked at Xynthie. The dryad smiled, and pulled a tube out of her backpack.
"Ben-Gay," she told them. "I thought I was walking, remember." She handed the cream to the others, who gratefully slathered themselves with it.
"My ass will never be the same," Polamber moaned, shifting her weight and trying to get comfortable on her blanket.
"And it's such a nice ass, too," a masculine voice interrupted her. She rolled over to see a tall and seedy Nadrak looking at her.
"Thank you, I think," Polamber replied. Zandara looked up in alarm.
"I can help you out with that, y'know," he told Polamber. She stared at him, puzzled. He laughed at her and pulled a small flask out of the pocket of his ratty overcoat.
"No, thank you, Yarblek," Zandara said, pulling herself to her feet. "We'll be fine. I think I hear Vella calling for you."
"Another time then," he said, winking at Polamber, who giggled, to Zandara's consternation. He gave them a mock bow and ambled off. Zandara glared at Polamber.
"Why'd you send him off, Zandara? He seemed nice." Polamber said. She stretched and then winced as her sore muscles rebelled.
"That's Yarblek!" Zandara hissed. "He's not a nice man, by any stretch of the imagination. The last thing you need is to get mixed up with him!"
"You worry too much," the Drasnian girl told her, rolling back over. "It was only for a drink. I can take care of myself."
"Not with him," Xynthie told her. "He'd end up owning you in about twelve seconds."
"Owning her?" Tiffany asked, confused.
"Nadrak's own their women. No self respecting female would be caught without an owner. She's not a slave or anything like that. It's just a peculiarity of their culture. Vella was telling me about it while we were riding." Xynthie sighed and stretched out. "Now if you don't mind, I'm going to get some sleep. Wake me up when it's my turn to stand watch."