The Summer Job
by I. Binder

Jen looked to the gate on Abby's stall wondering if she should attempt to rescue her. She could see the heavy bolt closed and dropped over a hasp. There was nothing locking the bolt down, but she would not be able to slide it back to open the stall gate without first lifting it free of the hasp. "Abby, are you awake?" she whispered.

"What just happened?" Abby asked. "It sounded awful."

"It was pretty bad, but she forgot to lock the gate and I am out. I am going to get you out too." With that Jen tried to use her tongue to get under the bolt and lift it up. It was too awkward and heavy for her tongue. She would raise it just a little and then it would slip off and fall back over the hasp. She knew she needed to get it into her mouth, but she could not seem to get a grip on it. Just then she heard sounds near the barn at the end of the stable. Someone was coming.

"Forget me. Just get out of here and get help," Abby directed.

Jen quickly looked toward the sound. She still did not see anyone. She gave up her efforts to move the bolt and quickly ran the two stall distance to the far end of the stable. As she went through the open doorway she turned toward the jungle and away from the buildings and the track. She had to pass by another stable before she got to the jungle area. She peeked around the corner looking down the corridor, there was still no sign of movement, she dashed across. Crossing about fifty yards of open field took her to the edge of the jungle. She had thought she would disappear into the heavy foliage and then work her way toward the ocean, but the jungle was far too thick. She was able to gain some cover in the edge but could not penetrate more than about ten feet before the tangle of vines and bushes and trees became impenetrable. If she kept this up she would become entangled and be stuck.

She had as much cover as she was going to get, and it was getting much lighter. Things would start happening very quickly and part of that is that her groom would come to her stall and find she was gone. What would happen then she did not know, but she was sure they would come looking for her. She was an expensive piece of property. She had to get away quickly. But where was she going to go? This entire town seemed to accept the concept of ponies as property. If found she was not likely to be rescued. She would either be returned to her owner or taken by her finder. Without her arms almost anyone, even a child, could control her. A simple tether to her collar and she was theirs. She could picture herself pulling a plow through some farmer's field. Her only chance was to free her arms. As long as they were encased behind her she was clearly marked as a pony and most importantly clearly marked as property. But before she could work on that she needed to put some space between her and the stables. As the day brightened she would become more and more visible in the fringe of the jungle.

She started to work her way toward the beach. Maybe if she got to the beach she could follow it away from the town. Could there be other towns or villages on the island? What would their attitude be toward these things? Certainly someone must believe that what was going on here was wrong.

Then to Jen's right she saw a path heading into the jungle. It was very narrow, but it must led somewhere. She was a little fearful of the jungle. She knew there were things in the jungle that she did not want to meet. She was terribly afraid of snakes for example and jungles were great places for snakes. She would have to be very careful where she stepped. At that moment she bumped a tree and a cloud of something fell. She looked at her body and saw that there were hundreds, maybe thousands of ants running all over her. The tree had obviously been a nest of some sort and even this slight bump had caused a large cloud of ants to fall. Even worse the ants were in a state of alarm and they began to bite and/or sting her. She wasn't really sure which and did not care about the technicalities. It seemed like pin pricks were assaulting every part of her body. She tried to twist and shake them off, but that was not working. She tried to rub against the bushes and brush, but the biting or stinging continued. She bumped against another tree. This time she felt a stinging pain in her right shoulder where she had hit. When she looked back at the tree she saw that its trunk was covered with black quill-like thorns about an inch and a half long. Looking at her shoulder she could see half a dozen or more quill ends protruding from her flesh. This place must have been designed by Dante.

She twisted in the opposite direction watching any tree, but noticed that the ground was starting to descend. She could hear the sound of a stream nearby. She started to lose her footing. She fell back onto her seat and then she was sliding. She tried to dig her heals into the soft dirt, but she there are no heels on a horse shoe and she could not seem to make contact with the metal part on her hoof. Fortunately it was not far, only about twenty feet before she came to a stop in a small swift running stream. Closest to her was a pool that slowly swirled, a side eddy to the main stream. The ants were still stinging and biting so she jumped in. She hadn't even thought about how deep it might be, but as it turned out it was only about four feet. She was able to stand up in the pool. Then she was able to push her body into the fast moving stream. She welcomed the quick water as it washed away the ants. When the biting and stinging finally stopped she rolled back through the pool, managed to leverage her body onto the bank and roll out of the water.

She lay there to catch her breath and give some thought to what to do next. She looked up the slope she had slipped down. It was only about twenty feet, but it was very steep. On the opposite side of the stream another similar slope, except heavily vegetated, greeted her. She was in a small clearing area no more than four feet across. Upstream was nothing but a tangle of vines and tree trunks so interwoven as to make almost a solid wall. Downstream was not much better. A person with a machete could probably hack their way through. A small sleek cat could probably wind through the small openings. But to a pony it might as well have been a stone wall.

At least she might be hard to find down here. She looked around for a large rock that she might be able to use to break off her arm bindings. There were rocks in the stream, but she did not see how she could angle herself to use any of them to knock against the epoxy/fiberglass case that enclosed her arms. She did find an old tree stump. With her back to the stump she tried to throw herself backwards so that her arm case would hit the wood of the trunk. After several tries, each of which jarred her back at the point where her arms crossed, she tried to wiggle or move her arms – nothing. Then she tried hitting the edges of the case, where the metal loop extended from her elbow, against the trunk. She chipped out large chunks of wood from the trunk and left brown marks on the case, but nothing cracked, nothing loosened, it did not even chip and she could still not even move her fingers. It was pretty clear that she alone was never going to be able to free her arms.

As she leaned down next to the stump she noticed several dark colored things about an inch and a half long on her upper legs. They were alive and slimy. She knocked her leg against the trunk smashing one. As it squashed against her leg blood ran out. It was her blood. She had picked up leaches in the pool. Jungles were formidable places. They were more than formidable for someone without arms. She was no match for this place. She needed to get out of the jungle.

Jen started to climb back up the bank, her eyes focused on the spot she had slid from. The dirt was soft and she was wet and as she attempted to climb it turned to mud and slipped out from under her. A normal person would have to use their hands to grasp the vegetation, or even the dirt, in order to pull themselves out of this place. She had no hands so that was not an option. Instead when she lost her balance she fell forward into the hill and then slid face down back to the bottom. Three times she tried to dig footholds one after another to move up the slope. The metal horseshoes on the bottom of her boots were good at carving out the earth, but not very good at trying to get traction on the soft muddy hillside. Her efforts would work for five or six feet and then a foothold would start to give way and she would once again fall forward and slip to the bottom. She was not even able to reuse the footholds previously made as the action of her body slipping through them would obliterate any useful purpose. In addition, the repeated attempts only made the slope more slippery as she often ended up in the water at the end of her slide. She tried to plot a path using vegetation but although the slope was heavily vegetated there was always a spot where she had to move over nothing but muddy dirt and it proved impossible to keep her balance; the result was always a slow slide to the bottom and usually into the pool. She was so caked in mud she could not even see the leaches anymore.

Jen thought of getting into the stream and trying to work her way down the stream. But the tangle of fallen trees and brush left only a slight clearance above the water. In order to even try she would have to fully immerse herself in the stream and wiggle below the many branches. If she became ensnared, which was likely, she would have no way out. Jen could also tell from the water marks on the trees at the bank that the water could raise a couple of feet higher than its present level. Jen assumed this might happen during the afternoon when the rain came. If she were trapped in the streambed as it presently existed she would be below water and would drown.

Finally, she once more rolled up out of the pool onto the small area near the bottom of the hill and just lay there. It seemed that there was nothing else to do. She would either be found or rescued nee recaptured, or she would be prey for some other formidable creature that might be able to negotiate this jungle, or she would stay here growing weaker and weaker until she died. She did not even know if she could drink this water without becoming sick.

She thought of home and wondered if anybody had noticed that she was gone. Everyone expected her to leave and not be back until the start of school next fall. Some of her friends had certainly tried to call her or to text her in the time she had been gone. They would be surprised that she had not contacted them back. Some of them may even be a little peeved with her for not responding, but she could think of no one who would be alarmed. If anyone would be missing her it would be her parents. She was reasonably close with her parents, but it was not at all strange for a week or two to go by without any contact. It was now quite a bit longer than that. They would be at least concerned, maybe not yet in panic, but concerned. But where would they look? The timing had been such that there was no specific place that she was suppose to be that she was not. School was done; she had checked out of the dorms; she had not found a job. And even if they were looking for her now how would they ever find her here? They may find the plane tickets to Long Beach for her and Abby, but from there the trail would get very cold very fast. They would puzzle over why the girls had gone to Long Beach, but there would be no answer. They would have left the airport and vanished into thin air.

And now, she was stuck in the jungle with little or no prospect for escape or rescue. She would resist drinking from the stream until thirst drove her near crazy, and then she would drink the water, probably get sick, dehydrate and die. Her body would be consumed by the predators and scavengers of the jungle. They would, of course, start on her even before she died. Her bones would sink into the mud or be washed into the sea. In a few months there would be no sign that she ever existed.

Even though the jungle created a complete canopy above; the position of the sun could be estimated based the brightest place in the green roof above. Jen estimated that it was close to mid day. Had she really been stuck here that long? No wonder she was so tired. And the jungle seemed to be adjusting to her. She could hear birds almost everywhere. She could not see very many, but she could tell from the sounds that some of them were very close. That was ok, birds she was all right with, and maybe the sound of the birds meant that there were no big predators nearby. She pictured herself being swallowed by an anaconda, or ripped to pieces by a panther. She was already serving as lunch for a bunch of leaches. She had tried to scrape a few off by rubbing against the tree stump and then given up. She could make out at least three on her breasts; she did not want to be the main course for something larger.

Then there were sounds above. "Here she is. The GPS was correct." Said a voice. There was a man in the standard khaki shirt and shorts standing at the top of the slop looking down at her.

"Bring a line; we are going to have to pull her up. What a mess."

Two of them came down the hill. They came down the sides staying well clear of the area in the center that Jen had turned into a mud slide. One of them had one end of a rope. The other end was being held by someone standing at the top of the slope. The rope was quickly tied to her collar. The two who had come down hoisted her to her feet and the slack on the rope from above was taken up. Then the two individuals standing near her each connected a line to the rings at the ends of her elbows. They moved off to the side and the rope from above started to be taken up. As they started to pull her up from above the other two moved to the side and started up the slope. They would move up pulling on the vegetation until they reached a point they could plant their feet and then use the guide ropes to help move her up the slope.

After two steps up, as she had on so many prior tries, she pitched forward, but this time she did not slide down the hill, she was held by the three ropes. She thought they would let her down and try again, but they did not. Instead, she was hauled up the slope like a bag of goods. As they pulled her toward the top she tried time and again to get her knees down under her, but there was no traction and she was back on her stomach as soon as she was up at all. Branches and rocks scrapped her shoulders, breasts, stomach and legs. Her breasts, now purple from having been tightly constricted for so long, stung with every contact with anything.

When they finally pulled her onto the top of the slope she was even more of a mess than when they found her. From her forehead to her boots she was coated in a layer of tan sticky mud. She hoped they would wash her off, but instead she was led by the three ropes attached to her collar in front and her arms on each side out of the jungle and across the field toward the training area and the stables. It was quickly obvious that she was not even going to be led around the training area, but paraded right through the middle for all to see. She wondered what was next. Would she be punished? She remembered that back at the warehouse punishment was supposed to be very severe. But she already felt punished. She was battered and bruised. She had leaches connected to her thighs, sides, stomach, and breasts, a condition she could do nothing to mitigate, although, as she looked down at her body she saw one, now engorged with her blood, drop from her lower abdomen to the ground. In its wake was a line of flesh showing through the mud leading to a bright red circle with a bubble of blood in the center marking the previous location of its mouth.

Other ponies took some notice as she was led across the training area toward the stable, but at least they did not stop and put her on display. Jen did her best to avoid eye contact keeping her eyes cast down as she walked slowly across the field. There was no pop or crispness to her step as she usually executed when walking. Instead, she stumbled along on the end of the lines connected to her at three points.

Jen did notice Abby trotting near the rest area. Abby gave her a long look, but then had to turn her head forward as she passed by. Abby looked sad, but communicated no other sign or emotion. But, Jen's condition must have conveyed to Abby, as it now did to Jen, that there was no escape. Jen had made it less than a half mile. Then she had become trapped by the surrounding jungle. And what had they said. They found her by GPS. Somewhere on her body they had placed a GPS device. She was on an island, the people all seemed to support the local system that meant she was nothing more than property, she had no arms or hands to aid herself in any way, and even if she managed to get away they had a tracking device connected to her someplace so that all they needed to do was follow its signal. She was too upset to even cry. All of her tears had been expended back in the jungle. All she could do now is to hang her head and take whatever it was they were going to 'dish out'.

Jen was led into the stable. She had noticed the frames in the first two stalls. She now saw a figure with her back to them strapped over one of the frames. The figure was bent over a bar at the waist with her arms connected together by her wrist cuffs and then suspended behind her back forcing her head down below the bar. Her legs were spread and each ankle was held by chains from the ankle cuff to the side bars of the frame. A light line ran from the front of her collar back to between her legs. Jen could not see the connect point from her line of sight, but the knot in her stomach told her it was connected to the ring in the clitoris. As Jen was brought around to the side her supposition was confirmed. She could then also see that a large ring gag filled the victim's mouth.

It was Jen's new groom. Her face was streaked with tears and she was trying to beg and probably protest her innocence, but the words were indistinguishable. For some reason Jen believed that she had been held this way for a long time. Probably from the time Jen was discovered to be missing. It was pretty clear that the groom was being blamed for leaving Jen's stall door open.

Jen started to say: "It's not her fault." But before she could even finish a riding crop slashed painfully onto her right buttock replacing a large glob of now dried mud with a red welt. Jen would have shut up anyway, but a wedge gag similar to the one used on her the night before was pressed into her mouth and secured behind her head. There was not room for two of them on this frame, but there was another frame in the stall across the way. Jen assumed after being shown what was happening here she would be taken and secured there, but she was not. Instead the line from the front of her collar was connected to the end of the frame so that she was forced to look at the poor groom secured before her. Securing the lines from her elbows to either wall made sure she would not turn away. Jen's ankles were then hobbled, except the hobble line was run through a ring set in the floor. This not only kept her ankles within eight inches of each other but kept them positioned with very little movement.

After Jen was secured the three individuals who had brought her from the jungle left; closing and latching the stall gate behind them. Jen looked at the groom and tried to say: "I know you didn't do anything wrong." Jen could tell that the groom would have been unable to comprehend what she was saying, but she said it more from her own guilt than anything else. The groom gave her a sidewise glance as Jen tried to speak, but even that motion caused her head to bob up just a little and pulled on the line between her legs. She gave a squeal and forced her head back down. The position looked very uncomfortable and Jen could see that the groom's legs were trembling. Whether from the enforced strict posture or fear Jen could not determine.

Jen heard the gate latch sliding and then the gate opening. It was the woman, followed by her slave. The slave held in front of her a leather case that looked like the kind used to hold pool cues. She opened the latch, lifted the lid and held it out for her mistress. Jen could see that instead of pool cues it contained at least four canes, or switches, they were all about three feet long, but in varying circumference. The woman withdrew a cane with a shaft about the size of Jen's index finger (when she had had one). The woman whipped it through the air two or three times. There was a whistling sound with each movement. Just the sound of the cane cutting through the air was terrifying. The quivering of the groom's legs increased and moved up to her buttocks in a combination of fear and anticipation.

Then the woman looked over to Jen. She smiled and stepped toward her. She tapped the cane across to top of Jen's breasts knocking away large flacks of dried mud. Even under the coat of mud and several still feeding leaches Jen's breasts could be seen to be a dark purple hue from being so tightly constricted. "It seems the breast enhancing bands were not loosened last night either. In fact, they look to have been tightened. They must be VERY tender." She tapped the cane up and down, only arching about four or five inches, but Jen's breasts were swollen and tender enough to make even this light treatment painful. Jen tried to pull back but she could not move her legs and the elbow lines gave her only a couple of inches of maneuvering room, not enough to withdraw the dual targets.

The groom turned her head toward Jen. If there had been any doubt in the groom's mind as to whether she was responsible for leaving the gate open it was gone now. The groom knew she had not forgotten to loosen the pony's breast constrictions, and it was obvious that they had been tightened beyond the normal setting; she certainly would never have tightened them.

The woman stepped away from Jen and swished the cane several more times. Then she wiped the length of it with her hand. The slave girl had not moved. She stood ridged, holding the open case with both hands from below. The woman must not have been satisfied with this cane. She put it back in the case and withdrew another. This cane had a slightly smaller girth. Again the whistling sound as it was cut back and forth through empty air. Then the woman moved around placing herself at the side of the groom. She laid the cane against the naked buttocks measuring its position. The groom whimpered and tried to draw her buttocks forward, but pulled over the center bar with her legs tightly restrained to the bottom of the frame she could move no more than a fraction of an inch. The cane was withdrawn and held in a cocked position behind the woman.

Jen closed her eyes and dropped her head in anticipation of the first blow. The grooms whimper became a sob even though she had not yet been struck. A second went by, then another, nothing had happened. The silence in the room added to the sense of anticipation and dread. Jen opened her eyes to see what was happening just as the cane whistled forward and connected very near to where it had been spotted. In spite of the gag a loud screech erupted from the groom. Her muscles tightened and her buttocks wiggled from side to side. Her head pulled up in spite of the discouragement of the line from her collar. This evoked another screech.

Jen saw the cane re-cocked to the ready position and again held as the full impact of the first blow rippled through the groom's body. Jen once again closed her eyes. Again the seconds ticked by. She could not bring herself to open them. This time she heard the sound of the cane cutting the air followed once again by the horrid shriek from the recipient of its kiss.

Everyone in the room knew that the groom was not guilty of the offense for which she was being punished. This was not really punishment. This was just torture. Jen had thought maybe that the woman was administering the punishment to cover for the fact that it was she who had left the stall open, but if that had been the purpose of this exercise would she have taken such obvious delight in what she was doing? She certainly would have not been so severe. As Jen realized that she looked up and found that she was looking into the eyes of the woman as she held the cane once again cocked and ready. Jen could not look away. She held her stare for what seemed a very long time. The groom, who was now twisting her head from side to side had also caught Jen's look. If the groom had not known before, she knew now, that it was the person who was delivering her torment that was in fact the one who had been responsible for the act for which she was being punished. The woman looked back into Jen's eyes and smiled with a sense of pleasure, power, and satisfaction.

Jen looked the groom in the eyes and then one again dropped her head. It was hopeless. Jen had been beaten. There was no escape. She did not look up as the next two strokes were delivered; she just hung her head in despair. Would she be next? She almost hoped so. At least there was something to punish her for. She was the one who had taken advantage of the error. She was the one who had tried to escape, poorly executed, and with no real chance for success, but she had tried. That certainly was a breach of the rules and something for which she could, maybe should be punished. She would accept it. She wished that this would stop and she could take the place of the sobbing and blubbering groom.

With each new strike, each delivered after what was an intolerable wait, Jen's sense of guilt increased. But there was nothing Jen could do. She was helplessly restrained as a witness to the torment being delivered before her. And no matter how complicit she may have been in the events that led to this action the woman knew well that she was inflicting terror and pain on an innocent person. She hated this woman.

As despair changed to hatred as the needless cruelty continued Willow felt stronger. She could not change what was happening. There was nothing she could do to stop the torment, she knew that if not for this made up defalcation the woman would, and probably did, find reasons to torture other ponies, slaves, and servants. Would Willow be next? Maybe, but she now knew that it would not be enough to break her spirit. The despair was lifting and Willow was feeling renewed strength. Somehow she would find a way to prevail over this sadist. Her head was no longer dropped against her chest. Her body was no longer slumped. In spite of the pain that wracked her she pulled her carriage up. She straightened her posture, held up her head and looked into the face of the tormentor. The buttocks and thighs of the groom were swollen and striped with red and purple welts. Willow's flesh would probably be next, but even if the woman cut her to the bone she knew that she would not succumb. There was even a slight smile on her face.

The woman missed it all, she was not paying attention to Willow. All of her attention was on her cane and the buttocks and thighs of the poor little groom restrained before her. Willow was not sure how many strokes there had been. Nobody had counted. No number of strokes had been announced. It just seemed the woman continued until she was satisfied, until the moans and groans that were now issuing from the victim with each stroke combined with the torturer's heavy breathing finally demonstrated that she was satisfied. Only then did the stroke of the cane against the helpless tender flesh stop.

The woman finally became aware that Willow was looking into her face. Her expression changed to almost one of embarrassment as if she were being caught in some private moment. She turned her back on Willow, wiped down the cane with a soft rag of some kind and replaced the cane and the rag back in the case that had been held at ready the entire time by her slave. Only then did the slave close the case, fasten the latch and lower it.

Without another look at either Willow or the groom, and with no effort to free them from their restraints, the woman left, this time closing the gate behind her and fastening the latch. Willow watched her leave with a mixed feeling of relief and disappointment. She had steeled herself to the challenge of wills that she expected to come. She had prepared herself to show her metal. But her already tortured flesh was not unhappy at being denied further torment. Besides, she had a race to prepare for and to win. She did not know the full extent of her injuries from today's misadventure, but she knew she did not need to add to them.

Willow and the groom were left restrained as they were, the little groom stretched tightly over the bar, the welts on her buttocks and thighs growing darker as time progressed. Several had cut the skin and were oozing bright bubbles and lines of blood. Most of the time her body was limp and she hung in her restraints softly crying. Willow stood at the end of the frame, trying to look as dignified as she could with her hair tangled and matted and her body covered in mud. By now the mud was almost completely dry and she was able to dislodge a great deal of it just with the occasional shake and shiver. She had not learned that movement through conscious effort to remove the mud. It had been developed in response to another need. Without hands to swat or brush away the flying insects of the tropics she had, maybe by imitation of what she saw other ponies do, or maybe even by instinct, learned to make her muscles quiver causing them to fly away.

It was clearly late afternoon, the temperature had become hot, the air was abnormally still, and the stall holding its two helpless occupants was, in spite of the open grill that surrounded the top, very stuffy. From some place flies had found the two helpless occupants. Most of them were just the type of housefly Willow was familiar with from her previous life in another world, irritating with their buzzing sound and creepy little legs as they walked on your flesh, but there was another kind. They were black and large; at least three times the size of the normal fly. But most importantly, they bit. And, without looking it was almost impossible to tell the difference between the feel of one or the other walking across your skin until the pain of the bite clearly identified the unwanted creature. The coating of mud at first provided some protection to Willow, but there was enough exposed flesh for flying antagonists to find a place to land and walk. Willow's developed reaction was to shake them off. This worked, but it also knocked off more mud and exposed more skin which collected more flies.

Willow wondered why she had not been so heavily accosted by these odious creatures before. She could not be sure, but she thought maybe that was part of the purpose behind the oil that was worked across her body every morning by her groom. It probably contained something to discourage the insects. Right now her helpless little groom probably wished she had some of that ointment. The flies seemed particularly attracted to the injured flesh. Willow watched as a particularly large fly probed with its proboscis for bits of blood that oozed from one of the wounds inflicted on this poor girl.

They were both gagged so they could not talk. They could go nowhere, so they did the only thing they could do – wait. It was not until after all the ponies had been returned from training that someone finally came for them. The groom was released from the frame by a trainer. The trainer then turned her attention to Willow. She examined scrapes and bruises and carefully inspected the quills in her shoulder, most broken off to show only black dots on the surface of the skin, but some still protruding a small distance from the surface of the skin. The trainer made no effort to release Willow.

"This mess will take some cleaning." She looked at the groom as she spoke. "Her feet have been soaked most of the day. I don't want to take a chance on jungle rot so pay special attention to cleaning and drying them."

Willow could see that the groom wanted nothing more than to massage and touch her wounded flesh, but she seemed to know that her attention needed to be directed to the requirements of her charge and not to herself. She would sneak a feel now and then, but mostly she just stood, listened, and noted the areas the trainer pointed out as requiring attention. "Yes Mistress, thank you Mistress." Was all the groom could say.

Then the trainer left.

As soon as she was gone the groom went to work. She quickly disconnected Willow from the frame and led her to her own stall. Willow felt a sense of relief just to be back in her stall. Then the groom went to work. She had to leave and retrieve her implements. It also took a number of buckets of water to get the mud removed. Each time the groom left she carefully closed and bolted the stall gate. Willow wanted to tell her that she did not have to worry, she had had enough adventure in the outdoors for today, for the foreseeable future, in fact, forever, but Willow sensed that the only way the groom was holding it together was by focusing on her tasks and anything Willow might say to her could disrupt that focus. She held her tongue.

As directed, Willow was carefully cleaned, her hair was washed, combed and brushed, her boots were removed and her legs and feet were cleaned, dried, oiled, and wrapped in light cloth. The last few persistent leaches that had not voluntarily left their host after feeding until gorged were removed with a needle and a lighter. The groom used a pair of tweezers to remove as many palm quills as she could without having to dig into Willow's flesh. She applied a salve to the abrasions and scratches. Willow knew that infections could be a huge problem in this climate. Special attention was paid to the sores left by the leaches. The groom also carefully inspected every part of Willow's body, even looking into intimate places to insure every wound had been found and treated. Willow for some reason did not find this at all invasive. The soft hands of her groom were somehow soothing.

When the groom was finally finished and left, again carefully bolting Willow's gate, it was quite late. All hint of sunlight was gone and the inside of the stable was quiet save the breathing sounds that were commonly heard as the ponies fell into sleep. Willow wanted to talk to Misty, but she had no energy left. That would have to wait. Right now she needed to sleep.

Her groom was there at first light. Over the night bruises had appeared all over Willow's exposed body. Scratches had become red and visible and insect bite marks rose in red lumps. With only what Willow could see she thought she looks frightful. In addition to the normal morning routine her groom paid special attention to the bruises and scratches to make them less noticeable.

"Can't have you looking like an Appaloosa," she said as she applied more ointment to the sores and cover make-up to the large splotchy bruise marks. She ran her fingers softly and gently over Willow's wounds, the touch was again welcome and soothing. Willow could not help but look down at the buttocks and thighs of her groom so severely marked with deep welts that had turned a purple color. They made Willow's own wounds seem slight. Willow was certain as she examined the young girl's flesh that at least several of these welts would scar. But all the groom seemed to care about was Willow.

Willow had been worried that her groom would resent, even hate, her for the beating. She was sure that is what the woman had wanted. But if anything, the opposite seemed to be true. Willow had not given this groom much thought in the past. She expected her in the morning and she was happy to see her at the end of the day, having come to enjoy her massages. But suddenly there seemed to be a more significant connection between the two. The groom had taken a severe beating. She had taken it because of Willow. Willow depended on her groom. Her groom did everything for her. Willow could not brush her teeth, she could not brush her hair, she could not wash her body, she could not adjust or polish her harness – she needed her groom for all of these things, and much more. Willow could not even touch her own body, but her groom could, and did. The soothing feel of a human hand gently stroking her flesh came from her groom. Willow trusted her groom. She turned her head toward the groom and smiled. Her groom smiled back.

When Willow's reins were finally handed to her trainer Willow could see that the trainer was not happy. In spite of the hard work of the groom bruises, cuts, scratches and bites could be seen all over her body. In addition, she had missed an entire day of training. And she was sore and stiff. She knew she could work through most of that, she certainly had on other days, but it would still slow down the training, basically losing much of another day.

After Willow had been hitched to a single pony sulky and emerged from the barn she saw that Gullfaxi and Sleipnir had been joined as a team to a two pony sulky. No wonder her trainer was unhappy, Willow had put them behind schedule. And Willow had seen the trouble that Misty was having. They really needed to get to team training if they had any chance of winning the yearling race. And now Willow felt it was even more important to win. She didn't know why, but somehow winning the race was her way to beat the woman.

Her trainer recognized the need to loosen her up so they did walks and trots and even a short one mile run. Then they went to work on starts. Willow knew that precious time can be made or lost at the start of a race. The starting system utilized a furlong lead up to the starting line. The ponies or teams would move to a trot and maintain an even line until they crossed the line. Then they could shift to a run (unless it was a trot only race). It would then be important to obtain a position. The further you were kept from the rail the longer the passage through the turn would be.

Over and over again they trotted to the line then broke to a run. They started at the pole and far from the pole. They practiced using a burst of speed to be able to move up and into a better position. There were no other sulkies on the track, but Willow was getting the feel of the start. By the time the day finished and she was returned to her stall she felt satisfied with what she had done. Her trainer seemed to have gotten over being upset with her and once again seemed pleased. That made Willow happy. He had not been there today, or if he had, she had not seen him. For once, she was happy about that; she did not want him to see her days behind all the other ponies. She certainly did not want him to see her body blotched with bruises and sores.

Trainers don't talk with ponies. They may talk to ponies, but they don't talk with them. On the other hand, they don't seem to pay any attention to them when they are standing nearby. Willow had overhead quite a few conversations among the trainers and these conversations answered a great deal of her questions about what was happening. She and Misty would sometimes share what they had heard.

The big race was still about four weeks away. The most important part of this race would be the yearling race. Here a yearling meant a pony in its first year of training. After your arrival year you could not run in that race ever again. They had had individual pony yearling races at one time, but now the only yearling race was the team sulky race. It would be two miles. There would be other races that same day, races with more experienced ponies. She had seen some of them training on the track. Because all races were sulky type the shortest was a mile – one lap of the big main track. The older ponies still had team competition, but on this race day they would all be running individual races. There was a one mile, two mile, and even a four mile run. And true to traditional harness racing there was a two mile trot.

Willow had learned that later in the year there would be a twenty mile race that started off in the farm area (wherever that was) encircled the entire town then returned and ended at the stadium. She wondered if she would ever be able to run that race. She enjoyed the thought of her streaking through the countryside with her sulky flashing in the sun behind.

But for now the big race was the yearlings. It only happened once a year and only one team from each stable could run in the yearling race. Willow had seen other ponies training from her stable, but she did not know if any of them were yearlings. She would have to look carefully today. Since the only two-pony races would be yearlings she would pay attention to the two pony teams. She did not know how many stables there were but she had only seen ponies and trainers from three of them in this training area. She knew that there were other training areas but did not know where these areas were. She knew that her owner was not one of the wealthiest on the island. She pictured huge plantations with large fields and their own private stables and training areas. That didn't matter. She didn't care that he was not the wealthiest of the stable owners. He was her owner and she was going to make him proud.

She had almost screwed things up by taking off, Willow tried to recapture what she was thinking when she ran but found she was unable to manifest the feeling. "Why did she do that?" It made no sense to her at all. She shouldn't be afraid. She could win this. The greatest competition she had seen so far were Sleipnir and Gullfaxi from the Sun stables. Those pompous twits probably thought they couldn't lose. Well, they could, and Willow was going to show them how. Maybe it was a good thing there were gates on the stalls, although she could not picture herself leaving her stall again without her groom or trainer.

For several days Willow worked individually with her trainer. She felt back to where she was before her ill-fated escapade. She was sure that she and Misty would be back together the next day. Now their training for the big race could really begin. As she was led back to her stall that night she felt very good.

Willow and Misty had not talked since Willow's return. Willow had been just too tired and Misty had not tried to initiate any conversation, but this night when the evening ritual was finished Willow snuggled up next to the wall that separated her stall from Misty's and called out softly.

"Are you awake?"

"Yes. Are you ok?"

"I am fine. It was a good day. I think we can win this."

"What? I don't care about some damn race. I saw them bring you back covered from head to toe with mud. I saw you covered in bruises and scrapes. What on earth did they do to you? Do you have any ideas on how we are going to get out of here?"

"I was stupid to leave. The jungle is no place for a pony alone. Here we are protected, fed, groomed and cared for. I am very good at this, I am sure you are as well. We will be a great team and win many races together." Willow began to drift into visions of them standing proudly in the winner's circle draped in garlands of flowers. She did not even notice that the conversation had stopped and there was just a slight sniffling sound coming from the other side of the wall.

The next day as she expected Willow found herself being hitched to the two pony sulky as a team with Misty. Willow gave Misty a confident smile. The look she got in return could only be described as confused, even incredulous.

It had been a long time since they had operated in tandem. And the earlier team training had only been over a couple of days at the very beginning of their training. But Willow was sure she remembered the rhythm and they would quickly find it again.

They started in a walk. Willow did not think Misty was lifting very well. It could be a lot cleaner, but right now she wasn't worried about parade showing. They were racing ponies and what really mattered was their ability to work together as a team and perform on the track. When they moved to a trot Willow found that their timing was terrible. With the accentuated movements of the trot it was vital that each step be in perfect sequence. They were not. Willow's form and step was better, Misty should follow her lead, but she did not. Willow tried to adjust her pace to Misty's even though it was a slower pace. She thought if she could get them matched then she could ease them up to a better pace, but Misty was not maintaining a steady pace. Willow remembered the first day with the sulky pitching and yawing – this was actually worse. Willow was afraid they were going to tip it over.

Finally Willow gave up trying to match Misty. She found a pace near the fastest pace Misty had maintained and she held it. Misty kept dragging her back, but at least at this pace there were no forward lurches where Misty was pushing faster. The trainer seemed to recognize Willows action. She kept them at a trot and used her whip to snap Misty whenever she slowed below the pace; it was the sound of leather on skin, not popping the air. The extra encouragement helped and the movement became smoother. The trainer seemed satisfied. The snaps of the whip came less frequently. The trainer held them in a trot for two complete laps of the large track. Willow felt like she could keep this pace all day but Misty was beginning to drag again. Willow looked over and saw that she was breathing deeply through her mouth, her shoulders were forward and her head was down. She was tiring, from this she was tiring? That was ridiculous.

Willow could see that Misty was almost begging to walk, but their trainer had a different idea. She signaled a shift to the run. Willow was afraid that Misty might collapse and drag her down with her. She moved into a run, but held the pace back well below what she knew she could have done on her own. Misty dragged a little, but she did find the pace. Misty was breathing hard, but she was keeping the pace. It was not a pace that would win any races, but at least she was keeping the pace. After they had run about a quarter of the track Misty tried to ease off even this slow pace. Willow would have none of it and she actually picked the pace up just a bit. This caused the sulky to yaw as Willow's action dragged her partner forward. The trainer encouraged Misty and she found the pace. She was breathing very hard now.

After another quarter of the track Misty once again tried to slow the pace. Willow again answered with an increase in speed. There was now a lot more encouragement from the trainer before Misty decided that Willow was not going to slow for her and that she had to somehow get to the new pace. Now Misty seemed to know that she could not slow down. She was caught between Willow forcing her forward and the trainer applying the buggy whip if she did not do as Willow required. She tried glaring at her former best friend but Willow just smiled at her. Willow could tell she was furious with her right now, but she would thank her later. Winning required hard work.

As they came to the end of the mile run Willow wanted to open up the speed, but this time the trainer held her back with pressure on the reins. Maybe they were going to run a second mile. That sounded good to Willow but Misty's eyes were almost pleading as she looked back and forth. There was not a second mile. At least not then. They were brought to a trot and quickly to a walk for a lap. Then they were rested while the trainers talked. Misty was still breathing heavily. When they were watered she had trouble keeping her breath under enough control to take the water.

Willow did not understand. Misty had always been athletic. They had been training at the same pace. Misty had even had an additional day due to Willows silly adventure. She should be in better condition than this. But, on the other hand, Misty had not fallen, she had not actually stopped, she had been able to make pace when the trainer provided encouragement. It was not a matter of training. It was not a matter of conditioning. It was simply a matter of motivation.

The trainers were standing only about eight feet away. Close enough for them to hear part of the conversation, not close enough to hear fully and clearly. Willow listed to what she could:

"I don't know, they have better potential, but the other team is still faster." So there was another team from their stable.

"Only one team will be kept, the non-qualifying team will be transferred to the domestic stable or sold. It would be a shame to see this team hitched to a delivery cart."

Willow gasped. She could never imagine herself hitched to a delivery cart. She was not exactly sure what it meant, but she knew she did not like it. She had seen the cart that delivered the bags filled with their food. It looked like something from a Renaissance Fair with large wheels and wooden staked sides. It would be just right for transporting chained prisoners to their doom in the town square. The brute hitched to the cart was large with good muscle definition. His arms, like the work horse at the dock, were not contained in a casing like hers, they did not exist. He wore no bit in his mouth, but she had also assumed from the sounds that he made and the scar on this throat that his voice box had been removed or cut in such a way to remove any speech capability.

Her thoughts had taken her away from the conversation. She refocused. "We still have a week before we have to designate a team."

"But we need to put all our resources behind the team we are submitting."

"Let's give them four days of training and then run a race. The winner goes on." This plan seemed to get agreement from all of the trainers.

Willow hoped Misty had heard. She hoped that Misty would now show the proper motivation. They had four more days and they still had the afternoon workout. Afternoons were always more difficult. At first it would be very hot, the hottest time of the day. Then in mid-afternoon it would normally cloud up, the temperature would cool and for about an hour it would be quite comfortable, but then the rain would come. And when it rained here it really rained. Sometimes the trainers would put them under the shelter until the rain stopped. Sometimes the trainers would go under the shelter and leave the ponies standing in the rain. Still other times they would be worked through the storm. The rain never lasted long, usually ten minutes to half an hour. If it lasted longer than half an hour the ground became so puddled and muddy that it was very difficult to move through. The sulky was so well balanced that in normal conditions it could be easily pulled, but when the track was muddy it became a real struggle – walking was hard, trotting was nearly impossible because a proper pace could not be maintained, and running felt like slow motion. On most days the ground and the ponies dried in about half an hour. That usually left some good training time before the end of the day. It was the end of the day when their grooms would clean and care for the ponies after the day's work.

But, if Misty had heard what the trainers were saying it had obviously not registered. Her afternoon performance was no better than the morning. Willow continued to push her by setting a faster pace; Misty continued to lag until she received the encouragement of the trainer. Misty's thighs and buttocks were red and marked with the evidence of frequent encouragement. Willow would try to give Misty an encouraging look, but all she saw in Misty's face was anger, maybe even rage. 'Why is she mad at me? Willow thought. 'I am trying to help her.'

To make matters worse the rain this afternoon was longer than normal and they were made to train through it. Their trainer encouraged both of them to keep pace even though the mud made lifting their feet more difficult and dragged at the wheels of the sulky. Willow had forgotten how the buggy whip could bite. It didn't sound or look that bad when applied to Misty's buttocks, but it hurt a lot on her own.

As the day drew to a close Willow fought to resist becoming depressed. She needed to maintain her positive attitude and she needed to find a way to get Misty 'with the program'. She didn't know how she was going to do that, obviously right now Misty saw her not as her friend, but as one of her tormentors. If Willow had held to a slower pace Misty would have received a lot less punishment. Maybe after grooming she could explain to her why she had done what she did. Maybe she could make Misty see. She could only hope.

Willow worried through evening grooming. Usually this was the highlight of her day. Liniment would be rubbed into her body. Her muscles would be massaged, and she would be fed. She had come to enjoy the touch of her groom, and her groom seemed to enjoy the task as well. They did not talk, Willow knew better, but Willow would nuzzle her from time to time and this act was always rewarded with a smile and stroking to her head.

But tonight the massage did not seem to work out the knots and kinks. Her groom even said "I don't understand why you are so tight tonight." Willow knew. She was going over in her mind what she could say to Misty. She had to make her understand that their future was at stake. There was going to be a race in just a few days and they desperately needed to win. The losers would be sold. They were prime ponies right now, but that could all change. They might even be broken up. Willow did not want to be without Misty. She needed them to remain a team.

It seemed like the grooming took so much longer than normal. And Misty's groom had finished first because Willow could hear Misty at her food and water troughs. She prayed that Misty did not fall asleep before they could talk. Then, finally the grooms were gone. Willow heard the last steps echo up the corridor and then the quiet of the night time stable.

But before Willow could start any of her rehearsed (in her mind) speeches there was a voice from the other side of the wall.

"I thought you were my friend, Jen."

"I am!"

"I don't know what has happened to you. Weren't you the one who said 'we will never give in'? Weren't you the one that said 'we will never lose hope and we will find a way to escape'? What happened to that Jennifer?"

Jennifer heard that. But Jennifer had learned something. Jennifer now knew that there was no hope. She now knew that there was no escape. They would stay prisoners on this island for the rest of their lives, which would be very short if they got into the jungle. Jennifer was done. All that was left was to give in. She felt the bile in her throat. "I was naοve and stupid to think we could get away. When was the last time you even felt your arms or hands? How long before they atrophy into nothing. They clip reins to our bridle and lead us wherever they wish. If they just wrap the reins around something we are stuck there until they return. You can stand and look over the gate to your stall, but you can't open the door, not without hands you can't. And do you want to know what is out there if your do get out? Almost certain death, I was stuck in the jungle being eaten by bugs, my blood sucked by leaches, and I couldn't go anywhere, I was sure I was going to die, except for the fact that someplace in our outfits they have GPS trackers so they can always find us. We are what we are. We are not college girls anymore. We are ponies. It does not matter that we did not willingly choose it. But from some of what I have seen we could be a lot worse off, and if we don't succeed in the next few days we will be. The choice is simple – there is no fucking choice!"

Jen turned and slumped against the wall dividing the stalls. She was immediately sorry for what she had said. But she didn't know how to make it better. Back in college they had only fought a couple of times. In the end they had hugged each other. In fact, when one of them was feeling really down the other would often take her in her arms and hold her. There had been several difficult nights when they clung to each other through the entire night. It had never become sexual, but it was as close as it could get without taking the last step. Jen found herself drifting into wonderment as to why it had not gone further. They clearly loved each other deeply. She was pretty sure she would have responded positively to such overtures. Maybe Abby was waiting for her to take the lead. She wished she had done something. At least she should have tested the chemistry. Now she would never know. She could not comfort her friend. She could not hold her friend. She could not even see her; only hear her quietly sobbing, only inches away. Jen cried back and then she slept.

It was morning. Willow tried to embrace the beauty of the morning, but there was something dark holding on deep within her. She knew what and who it was. Willow had lost control last night and Jen had tried to ruin everything. Her plan, no, the necessity of their situation, required that she encourage Misty not beat her down. She needed to instill some life in her. Acceptance might help, but she was not sure last night's diatribe was right for that either. It was too full of self doubt and defeatism. What if Misty just gave up? There was a huge difference between acceptance and just resignation. And even acceptance was not enough. Somehow Misty had to embrace her new life and the opportunities that it presented.

But first, Willow needed to get rid of her own demons. She took a deep drink of water from her trough; she lifted her head high and shook her mane; she actually jumped around the inside of her stall feeling the blood start to flow through her body; anticipating the crisp morning air on the track. Her groom smiled and stroked her head. She smiled back and nuzzled. She was so lucky to have such a wonderful groom who cared so much for her. She could feel the energy building in her and with it, she could feel the darkness retreating. It may not be completely gone, but she knew what it was, she knew where it lived, and she was determined to keep in locked away in dark recesses of her being.

Finally they were out on the track. Misty did not look good at all. Willow smiled at her. She tried to nuzzle her, but Misty turned away. Willow followed her around keeping her cheek against Misty's, or at least as best she could with their bits bumping. Misty stopped turning. She turned slightly back toward Willow as their bodies made contact. Their breasts touched and there was a spark of electricity – not actual, but Willow felt it through her entire body. And so did Misty. Misty turned her face to Willow. They stood nose to nose. Finally Misty returned the smile and leaned into Willow feeling the soft warmth of her body. The trainers seemed to know that something important was happening and did not interfere. They let the two ponies finish the handless caresses before finally, but gently, moving them to the two-pony sulky.

To Willows delight they were also belled today. She had not worn the bells in a long time. She loved the bells and it should be very helpful for their workout. It was. After only a brief rough start their timing started to pull together. The bells also helped concentration. Willow was not dragging Misty forward by the yoke. She did not have to; Misty was feeling the pace, matching the bells and, she was having no trouble keeping up. Willow was not even sure who was setting the pace. They trotted with precision and beauty. Then it was time to run. They ran three miles pulling in close to the rail, even making the turns without the bells chiming out of synch.

Willow was elated as they came around the back turn on the third lap, but then she almost missed a step. He was there. He was watching from just behind the training area. 'It doesn't get any better than this,' she thought as she held her head high, glancing approvingly at Misty. She didn't think anything could darken the moment, but then she saw the woman walk up and take a position next to him. The woman reached out and put her hand on his arm. Willow had to look away to keep from letting the woman's presence upset her. Everything had been so perfect, and then there she was. She knew the woman wanted her to be afraid of her, but she was not. She hated her, but she was not afraid. Willow wished she could bite and kick her. Willow didn't know it was possible to feel such deep hatred.

As the trainer brought Willow and Misty in for the noon break Willow could see the woman still talking to him. She also got a good look at the woman's surrey and the two ponies attached to it. It had a single bench that would comfortably hold two people. Behind the back of the seat there was a small cargo area maybe two feet deep. A V shaped strut from each side held a cover to shade the seat from the hot tropical sun. The ponies were a near matching pair of pretty sorrels. They could not have been more than a few years older than Willow. They stood with their heads lowered, but they were occasionally twitching. Willow took a better look at them as she and Misty came up the straightaway within only a few feet of where these ponies stood hobbled.

First Willow noticed that the rein arrangement was quite different than for the racing ponies. A short chain ran from the edge of the bit on each side of the pony's head down to her nipple ring on that side. If the pony raised her head it would pull up on her nipple. There was a ring in the center of this short chain and it was to this ring that each rein was attached. That meant that a pull on the rein would not just pull the bit to one side or the other but would pull both the bit and the breast. Willow could not help but turn her head to get a better view of the ponies as they passed. This is a move the bit arrangement on these ponies would not have allowed.

There was something else. Willow could see something protruding slightly from the vaginal channel of both ponies. She could not tell exactly what it was but it was clearly clipped onto the rings in the labia. The clitoris ring rested on the top of the object base and Willow could see it bouncing up and down. 'Oh my God,' thought Willow. 'They are being vibrated.' Neither pony looked like they were enjoying it at all. Their heads were down and they were squirming. It appeared to have been set on a very low vibration, just enough to be very frustrating, not enough to provide any real pleasure or relief.

When they moved in and stopped at the training area Willow could no longer see the sorrels and the surrey, but she could not get the image out of her head. She did not want to be those ponies. Why did the PPA let this woman get away with the things that she did?

To make matters worse although he was there the entire time they were on break He never came over to Willow. He did look at her a couple of times and she did her best to smile. She even tossed her mane and pawed at the ground. But he seemed very busy.

The woman was not as busy and she did come over. "Miss me?" She said as her hands, not unexpectedly went to Willow's breasts. Willow noticed that the woman was careful to stand to the side and slightly behind so that Willow could not aim a kick at her even if she wanted to. Well, she really did want to, but she also knew better.

"What a fine pair of bays." Misty was now looking at her with horror in her eyes. "I can't wait for you two to be brought down from your lofty perch and become a part of a real working stable . . . like mine. You will really learn what it means to serve. From what I hear it should not be long now." She tweaked Willow's nipple then leaned over and gave her a kiss on the side of her cheek. If Willow had hands she would be wiping her face right now. Instead she could only pull her head back and away from the wet assault. The woman laughed and walked back to him. Willow was thrilled when their trainer finally returned and they were able to get back to work.

The rest of the training day went well. Willow tried to put the woman out of her mind, but she would creep back in and when she appeared she could feel the door to the dark place being pried open. She was not going to let that happen. Any day now would be the qualifier and if they ran like they did today they would win for sure. She would not let the woman ruin that. The woman was trying to get into her head. She wanted to see Willow fail. Willow's stomach lurched with the thought of not just losing her position in the racing stable but belonging to the woman. It was clear that the woman had no respect for fine animals. Willow would show her.

Back in her stall with her groom Willow was enjoying the feeling as the adrenaline was massaged out of her limbs. But there was something wrong. Her groom was more reserved than usual. It was as if she was turning something in her mind and that she was not quite sure what to do with it.

Finally, when everything else was done, the groom walked up in front of Willow and looked her in the eye. She held up an 8" leather hobble with clips on both ends. "She has instructed that you be hobbled." She looked up into Willows face as she spoke. Then she held up the hobble and with an end in each hand turned it from a straight line to a U shape. Willow could see in the center it had been cut almost all the way through. Only a few strands of leather held it together. "She will come for you tonight. Be ready. But don't move too fast."

The groom fastened the hobble, stood and gave Willow a kiss on the lips. Willow almost lost her balance in surprise. Then the groom was gone, latching the gate behind her.

What was she going to do? The woman would think she was hobbled. That would give the element of surprise, but once it was used she would have to deal with the disadvantage of not having arms or hands. Sometimes she really hated that part of her existence. The woman was mean and sadistic. If Willow made her mad she could really hurt her. But given her nature she would really hurt her even if Willow was compliant. She remembered being helplessly strapped in her stall with her legs spread while the woman used her riding crop on her. She remembered watching the woman cane the groom, at least several steps of severity above what had been done to Willow. She did not know what was coming tonight, she did not know how it would end, but she did know she was not going to go quietly.

Willow had had to be very careful not to prematurely break the hobble. It needed to look intact when the woman came in. She also needed to be able to react quickly, but she could not lay awake all night. She had a race to win and now she was sure it would be in the morning. That is why the woman was coming now. She wanted to make Willow lose the race. Willow sat at the back of her stall with her legs in front of her and her back against the wall. Then she tried to sleep.

She may have slept, but she didn't think she had. She heard the sound of the gate opening. She sat quietly watching. It was dark enough that the woman would not be able to tell if her eyes were open or closed. The woman stood in the open door of the stall. She appeared to be alone. That was a relief. Willow had been concerned that she would have help overpowering her. Even her wimpy looking little slave could be a problem. The woman had one of her precious canes in her hand. She was quietly slapping it into the palm of the other hand. But that hand also held several coils of line. She intended to secure Willow and thrash her. That was clear. This was going to be tricky. Willow knew how easy it was to clip a line on the many anchor points on her person. A leash to anything on her could easily be secured restricting her movement severely. But the woman thought she had the element of surprise and she thought the dangerous legs were hobbled.

Willow continued to feign sleep. The moonlight was playing off the woman's face and Willow could see the smile. The woman took a line with a clip in her right hand and started to stoop down toward Willow. This line was meant for Willow's collar. A simple click and the contest would be all but over. But before the woman could reach her with the clip end of the line Willow, using both feet together, kicked the woman just below the waist. She howled in pain as she was propelled backwards only catching her balance with the sides of the gate.

Willow jumped to her feet. She kept them close together so the woman would believe she was hobbled. "You are going to really regret that." The woman spit. "Nice of you to stand for me. Too bad you are hobbled. I bet you would really like to kick me now." She smirked as she stepped forward and started to thrash with the cane. Willow was not quite ready for this. Blows rained down on her shoulders and her arms. She turned slightly to the side for protection, but that opened her back, buttocks and breasts. The woman thought she was secured by the hobble so she was busy attacking instead of attempting to further secure her prey. Willow knew that could change at any second, and if she clipped a line to her all would be lost.

As the woman pursued her to the back of the stall Willow ducked slightly, pulled her feet apart breaking the hobble line and then drove her shoulder into the solar plexus of the woman. The woman had been in mid stroke when this happened and her cane snapped in half. She dropped the half she had been holding and grabbed for her stomach. Willow then delivered raking kicks to the woman's shins. She had been looking for a knee, but the effect of the metal horse shoe on the unprotected flesh was still catastrophic. The woman fell backwards into the corridor and wrapped both her arms around her severely injured shins.

Willow moved forward and started to measure a kick to the face. With the power in her legs and the horseshoe on her foot it would at least break a jaw if not kill her. Willow cocked her leg and then stopped. The woman had not taken any effort to protect herself. She looked up at Willow. Willow could see the fear in her eyes as Willow contemplated delivering the coup de grace. But then she did not. The fight in the woman was gone. She rolled slowly to her side, crawled and then clambered to her feet and limping on both legs did her best to run from the stable.

Willow followed her for about three stalls, then she stopped, snorted loudly and pawed the floor three or four times with her right hoof. The commotion had awakened the other ponies and they had come to their gates to see what was going on. As the woman had disappeared into the night there was snorting and whinnying and stomping of hoofs from all around. Willow held her head high. She flipped her mane and slowly walked back into her stall. The door remained open, but she had no intention of going anywhere else. It felt strange seeing the door hanging open. She used her chin to pull it closed; but without the latch it didn't stay closed, although it only remained opened by several inches those several inches were very bothersome. Her door was not as it should be. But it was mostly closed. That at least felt better and Willow was able to lie down and sleep. She did not expect the woman to be back tonight.

Willow could tell that her groom was worried as she very slowly opened the gate. Did she expect to find her dead? Maybe she thought she would be gone again. But the sound woke her and she sat up and smiled. The groom's eyes were wide and her mouth was open. "Oh my god." Was all she said.

Willow looked down at her body. There were huge red welts everywhere. On her stomach, on her chest, on her breasts, even her sides and legs. That was funny; she did not remember that many strokes and they did not hurt. At least they did not hurt yet. Willow knew she was not supposed to talk to her groom, but she looked her in the eyes and whispered, "Don't touch anything. Go get my trainer."

The groom ran from the stall. She didn't even take time to close the gate. In only minutes she was back with Willow's trainer. The trainer urged Willow to stand with a finger through the ring in her collar. Then, still holding the ring she turned her to one side and then the other observing the damage to her charge. Then she looked around the stall. She saw the two broken pieces of the cane. She stooped and picked them up. She held the fat end of the handle up to her face examining the markings. It appeared these canes were monogrammed.

The trainer gave some directions to the groom and left with the cane pieces in hand. Willow's groom looked very concerned, but Willow gave her a big smile and then a nuzzle. The groom then gently stroked her face and hair. She then spent several hours carefully cleaning and applying ointment to her many wounds. She was surprised to feel the sting now with the tender touch, but the salve felt very good. She wondered how this was going to affect her ability to pull the sulky. After all, she did have a race to win.

When her groom finally fit her bridle and bit and led her from the stall Willow knew that all the other ponies had already left the stable. As she left the stable she could see that it was a very bright sunny day. The warmth of the sun with a gentle breeze from the ocean felt good on her skin. She should not be feeling so happy. She had numerous stripes from the application of the cane. Some of them showed the intense rage of the woman, having cut through the skin. She had injured the woman and she felt like she had prevailed, but she had not finished the job when she had the opportunity. Would she later regret that? It did not matter, as angry as she had been at the woman, and even though she had been defending herself, she could not find it in herself to deliver a potentially fatal blow. She would just have to face up to whatever came from the confrontation. She was sure next time the woman would bring help. But right now she was not going to worry about that. Right now she just felt good. She felt victorious and she planned on using that feeling to triumph.

Misty stood, reins wrapped to a post near the trainers' paddock. She looked at Willow with concern as her trainer led her over. Misty was one of the ponies that had seen Willow drive the woman from their stable, but she would not have seen, or then known, the extent of Willow's injuries. She would not know if Willow could still run. Her expression changed the minute Willow looked at her and they made eye contact. Willow's smile jumped to Misty's face. They were able to rub cheeks before the trainers guided them apart.

Even though Willow looked frightful with red stripes all over her body the trainer hitched her to the sulky along with Misty and quickly took them out onto the training track. Today they worked mostly on a small track practicing starts and stops and pace changes. Precious time could be lost if the pace change was not closely coordinated between the ponies. They ended the day with a good four mile run on the large practice track followed by a mile trot and about a fifteen minute walk. Although the woman had delivered many slashes to Willow's skin with her cane most were evidenced only by surface marks. As the day had begun Willow had felt some sensitivity in a few muscles, but the as they worked she felt all the knots work out. Willow thought she was ready for the race, but she was happy that it had not happened that day. She wondered if it had been delayed because of what had happened.

Even though it had been a good day on the track Willow was happy to be back in her stall with her groom. She was carefully washed and her skin oiled. Her boots were removed and her leg muscles massaged before being treated with liniment. The groom's touch was soft and caring. Willow could not resist pushing her head against the groom to encourage her to stroke her head and neck. Willow had prevailed the night before, but it was because her groom had warned her and had sabotaged the hobble. If the groom had followed the woman's instructions Willow would have been helpless and at the mercy of that evil woman. Willow wondered how many others had been so mistreated at the hands of that person. Maybe she should have finished her off when she had the chance. She doubted she would get another chance.

It was a sleepless night. She had not been hobbled, but she half expected the woman to return with help in order to exact her revenge. Willow sat against the back wall of her stall much as she had on the night she was attacked. She drifted in and out of sleep, but any noise, (and there were many in the stable), any movement (again not an uncommon thing) jerked her back to consciousness. Thankfully the woman never came. In the end there was just morning and the return of her groom.

The next day the training schedule returned to normal. Willow had trouble concentrating and she was tired from lack of rest. It was not a good day and the trainer laid the whip on her far more than normal. The marks on her skin from the attack had turned dark in color making the new marks easy to distinguish. Misty glanced at Willow from time to time betraying a worried look. Willow had been fine the day before, why was she now, a day later, so off her game? Willow remembered the groom strapped tightly over the frame while the woman worked her legs and buttocks with her cane. The woman could bring plenty of help and would have little difficulty rendering Willow helpless. Then she would be able to exact her revenge. She had given the groom over fifteen strokes of the cane just for being the fall guy when the woman left the gate open. What would she want to get even for the injuries that Willow had inflicted on her, not to mention the humiliation? If Willow closed her eyes images of her strapped over the bar and being beaten flashed into her mind. She could not keep pace, she could not change pace, and she kept missing steps.

After a very frustrating morning for the entire team the trainer took them to the break area and tied them near the rail. Willow could see that he was here. Now she felt even worse. He had seen her terrible performance. He would have to be very disappointed with her. Maybe there wouldn't even be a run off race. Maybe she and Misty would just be sold off. Willow looked over at the pony attached to the hansom cab nearby. The pony stood quietly looking straight ahead. Her bridle was equipped with blinkers that kept her focus to the front. He posture was straight, but not really erect. She did not look mistreated, but she did look docile, just a gentle work pony. Her life would be simple. It might even be easy, certainly not as challenging as the life of a racing pony. But where was the reward? Where was the recognition? Willow did not want to be that pony. She was a racing pony and she needed to prove it. She needed to put the woman out of her head and get back to work. If she failed and was then sold the woman won. She was not going to have that.

Willow could tell that the trainer was talking to him. "How is she?"

"Physically she is fine. But mentally, that is altogether another question. You saw her this morning. I have never seen her exhibit such slow response and lack of concentration."

"Maybe she just needs a good long run. She is going to look frightful for a while."

"The marks will fade." As Willow continued to eavesdrop – something that had become a favorite activity – she noticed a dark haired woman walking over to her trainer and him. It was the PPA woman. That explained the presence of the hansom cab. Willow was not sure where she had been prior to approaching her trainer and her owner. As the woman approached the conversation about her stopped and both of the individuals turned toward the PPA woman.

"I think I have concluded my investigation." The woman had her clipboard in her hand but was holding it by her side. "We have no record of any strange betting so it does not appear that she was attempting to manipulate the odds. But as you know any interference with the race protocols is a very serious offense."

"I don't understand what she was thinking. These are not docile work animals. They are responsive, but we work for spirit and they can be very dangerous if you do not know what you are doing. She is lucky she was not more seriously hurt." He was shaking his head as he spoke.

"She has been suspended from access to any of the race training areas for at least the next year. We are not going to revoke her commercial stable license but it will be on probation. We have not yet assessed any damages. That will be up to you to make a claim if it appears that your property has been damaged."

"I understand. She may have cost me a fortune in the damage to this one. I guess we will find out tomorrow when we race the two contenders."

"I hope that is not the case." He and the woman shook hands and she walked back to her cab.

Tomorrow? Tomorrow was the elimination race. Willow knew she needed to get her head back in the game. She had no intention of being eliminated. She fully intended to win the elimination and then to be the winner of the big race. Besides, it sounded like the woman was gone, at least from here, at least for now. It also seemed that so long as Willow remained a racing pony she would be out of the woman's reach. But what if she lost? The woman still had a stable. If Willow and Misty lost their position as racing ponies they could end up in the hands of the woman. They really needed to win the elimination race.

The rest of the afternoon was better, much better, but still not at the level Willow knew she would need to win. But her mind was eased and tonight she would rest. She was well conditioned, she was not injured, and she was going to put everything she had into tomorrow.

It was morning. Willow tried to remember what she and Misty had talked about last night. Willow had meant to tell her all about the conversation with their owner and the PPA woman, but she could not remember her conversation with Misty. She had been so tired. Maybe she had just fallen asleep.

Willow and Misty Night were hitched to their double yoke sulky. They were given a warm-up trot around the training track and then they were directed to the main track. They had seen this track, much of it was visible from the training track, but they had never been taken here before. It was absolutely beautiful. The surface was firm dry dirt, potentially very fast track conditions. There was a turf inner track but they were kept on and guided around the dirt track toward the stand area.

The circumference of the track was defined on the inside by a white rail at about nipple height held up by curved posts about every half chain (eleven feet). Twenty posts would equal a furlong. Another rail encircled the inner track. Inside that was a beautiful garden with ponds and flowers and decorative stone. It presented a restful contrast to the frenzied action that would occur around it. A pony stood hitched to a small utility cart in the garden just inside the inner rail.

A team of four slaves worked near the cart in the garden. They were naked except for their chains and cuffs. Feet were held in a relatively close hobble of about 12". Their wrists were connected with a single chain that passed through a loop in the front of their belt. The chain was long enough to allow them to almost extend their arms fully in front of themselves. They appeared to be weeding the gardens. Each of the slaves was connected to a ring in the back of the cart by a light chain attached to each collar. This chain was about 25 feet long and the slave had to carefully maneuver it over the plants to avoid damaging anything. They would work from the cart then all of them including the pony and cart would move up to a new spot. There did not appear to be any overseer directing their actions.

There was another team and sulky on the course. Willow recognized them from the training area and the stable. They had the look of proper racing ponies – long strong legs, well tanned from exposure to the sun; a long mane of straw blonde hair with matching tail; wide strong shoulders with their arms disappearing into a strong case that held their arms and hands uselessly behind their back. Willow remembered seeing the name of one of them on a stall door. It was Llamerei, the name of a strong mare from Arthurian legend. Willow had wondered a few times why some of the ponies had such strong historic names while her name evoked no sense of power at all. She liked her name, she thought it fit her, but the names of great horses of legend seemed to be everywhere.

There was a wave of fear. She had not known that this team was the other yearling team. They looked like they had been here a long time. They were clearly better trained than Willow and Misty. This was going to be very tough.

The trainers lined the carts up next to each other approximately a furlong from the start line. Llamerei's team had the additional advantage of the pole position. On a signal from the line the two trainers started their teams. They were kept together in a trot as they approached the line halfway down the straightaway in front of the stands. Willow wondered how far they would race. No one had said anything to them, but after all they were just ponies, why would anyone talk to them about such things anyway? They would start when signaled to do so; they would run so long as their trainer bid it so; and they would keep running until signaled to stop. They would not pace themselves. That again was the job of the trainer. The trainer would set the strategy and see that it was properly executed.

They were across the line and the trainer signaled the advance to the run. The other team had transitioned smoothly and was ahead by several breast lengths. Willow and Misty were holding their own, but the turn was coming. They would either have to turn wide next to the other sulky, extending the radius of the turn, or slip to a position behind them. Willow would have thought that they would stay wide and just use extra energy to keep the distance short, but the trainer's view was different – and only one view mattered. Willow felt herself being eased back with a tension on the reins. She was then moved in behind the other sulky. She was so close her steps were landing where the leading sulky had just been. If it stopped, or even slowed, she would run into it.

As they moved through the turn the trainer held the position.

Once they came out of the turn the trainer eased them to the outside. Willow and Misty started to move up on the outside, gaining until Willow was running near the front of the opposing sulky, just behind the ponies. Suddenly there was a sharp pain in her left haunch. Willow lost a step and they fell back a few feet. She realized that she had been struck by the driver of the opposing sulky. Willow, now dead even with the driver looked to her left and snorted her displeasure at this unsportsmanlike conduct. She wanted to get past them and out in front, but the turn was coming and her trainer eased her back, again falling in behind the other team.

Again, they maintained this position through the turn. As they came out of the turn the trainer moved them wide once again, but it was only a feint. It drew the other team away from the rails. The trainer then moved Willow and Misty back to the left and then forward taking a position between the rail and the other sulky. Willow was almost touching the rail she was so close. They had eased forward on the other sulky, but its driver had pulled as close to them as she could. Misty was now running in the space between the opposing sulky and the left pony of that team. The result was that Willow and Misty could neither go forward nor back without colliding with the other team and it's sulky.

They kept this position through most of the back stretch. Willow was sure as they came to the corner the other team would now have to move outside giving her team the rail through the corner. But even before they could begin negotiating the turn the left wheel of the opposing sulky hit the back of Misty's leg. Misty was knocked sideways into the compartment of the other sulky. That driver was propelled free onto the track. The other sulky then pulled free causing Misty to fall to her right side. This twisted the yoke pulling Willow off her feet and dumping their sulky onto its side. The yoke arm to Willow's left bent and she and Misty lay in a tangled mess from which neither could extricate themselves without help.

Their trainer picked herself up, dusted the dirt from her uniform and came forward to inspect her charges. She started with Misty's legs. Blood was evident on Misty's right leg where it had impacted with the other sulky. The trainer carefully examined the wound, then Misty's body. Next she moved to Willow, again checking her legs first. Other than the fact that she was suspended in the air and not able to touch ground she felt like she was fine. Finally, after carefully inspecting both ponies, the trainer righted the sulky as best she could. With the bent yoke arm it was necessary to release Willow from the yoke before the sulky could sit flat on its wheels on the track. She stroked first Misty and then Willow's hair and softly uttered words of encouragement.

The other trainer, without a word, had gotten up and walked around the track following her team who had finished the race without her. Willow angrily looked after her. She wanted to run forward and kick her. She had acted unfairly. But her trainer led Willow to the back of the sulky and attached her reins there. Then the trainer climbed into the seat and with Misty held to a walk, she guided the damaged sulky back toward the barn, Willow did what one does when reined to something, she followed along behind.

This was not fair. They had lost, the other team had finished the race and they had not even finished, but the other driver had cheated, first by striking Willow when they were trying to pass on the outside and then by causing a collision. It was clear that she and Misty were the faster team. They should have been the winners, but they were not. Willow' mind was filled with the talk about selling the losing team; that only the winner would be able to race in the yearling race. The trainer did not say anything to them as she removed Misty from the yoke of the sulky and led both ponies back to their stalls. It just wasn't fair. They should not be sold, they were the better team and they should be able to race, but there was nothing Willow could do but follow her trainer, with her head drooping, back to her stall.

The inside of the stable was quiet. All of the other ponies were still out on the track or in the training areas. Willow was sure this was it. Someone would come for them and take them away from their home. Willow did not want to leave her stall. She felt comfortable here. She felt secure here. She had even been attacked and had successfully defended herself here. This was her home.

There was a sound in the stable. Someone had come. Willow went to the gate to see what was happening. A woman in a white coat, Willow thought she recognized her from the first day on the island. There was another person with her, obviously an assistant. The assistant was carrying a black bag, similar to that used by doctors, but a bit larger. They entered Misty's stall. Willow moved to the dividing wall to hear what she could. The woman instructed her assistant to remove the boot and was obviously inspecting the injury Misty had sustained. Willow heard her asking for things such as disinfectant, cotton swabs, ointments, gauze. There was nothing sinister here; she was the vet come to care for Misty.

Willow saw that the trainer had arrived. As the three left Misty's stall the vet talked to the trainer. "She will be fine. I want the boot off for a day, the wound cleaned daily for the next four days and light service during that period. She will have a nasty bruise on her side, but there appears to be no internal injury."

"I will see to it," was the reply.

The vet then opened Willow's stall and entered. Willow shied away, she was not sure why. Her trainer came forward. "Shh girl, it's ok, she is just going to make sure you are ok." The trainer gently took her bridle in her left hand while stroking her with the right. Willow then let herself be led forward to the vet.

The vet carefully examined her starting again with her legs.

"She may show some bruising, but she seems to be fine. Let her rest today, but give her a good workout tomorrow."

All three left closing Willow's stall behind them. Willow pranced around her stall. Her legs felt fine. She looked herself over. She looked fine. She wished they had removed her bridle and bit before leaving. But that was a job for the groom. She wondered how Misty was doing. There was obviously some injury that would take a few days to heal.

The next day Willow was taken out by herself. The trainer put her on a single sulky and worked her hard. It felt good. She saw the other team on the track and was very pleased when her trainer had her run past them. Willow snorted and defiantly bobbed her head as she came by. She hoped that they noticed her. Even alone she was much faster than they were.

For the next two days Willow had been afraid someone was going to come and take them away at any moment, but the nature of the training did not feel like they were about to become service animals.

It was four days before Misty and Willow were hitched back as a team. Misty had been out on the paddock each day, but had not been harnessed to a sulky at any time. Willow had watched her limp a little the first couple of days, but she was not limping now. Thank heavens she had not come up lame. As much as Willow enjoyed running solo with her sulky, it felt wonderful to be back in tandem with Misty.

Willow could not wait until they were out on the track running together. Misty did not seem to be favoring her leg at all, and they were making very good speed. After two laps of the track at speed the trainer brought them to a trot. Willow realized how well conditioned they had become. They had just run two miles and she was not feeling the least bit winded as she and Misty maintained a good trot around the track.

Willow could hear it before she could see it. Another sulky was coming up from behind. She and Misty were wide on the track and it passed them at a run on the inside. It was the team they had raced. Willow wanted to go after them. She wanted to show them just how much faster she and Misty were, but there was no signal from the trainer. But at that moment, even though there was no signal, Misty lurched forward. She was trying to break the trot and run. Willow was all for that and quickly joined in.

Willow felt the backward pressure on the reins, but this time she was not going to obey. She shook her head back and forth, snorted and pushed it forward only increasing the pace. Another pull from the trainer received the same response. Willow could tell Misty was doing the same. They were about 20 feet behind the other sulky, but they were closing. Then, the trainer seemed to get into it. Instead of pulling back on the reins she started to slap them up and down urging her ponies forward.

The other trainer became aware of them as they closed up behind to where Willow's steaming breath was on the opposing trainer's neck. She looked over her shoulder into Misty's eyes. They were wild, filled with fire and determination. The trainer turned back and urged her team to gain more speed.

Willow and Misty's trainer tried to close to the inside, but it was quickly blocked. They moved to the outside and as before started to gain on the leading team. Willow could tell that now they knew that they were there and the other team was straining at the yoke trying to pick up speed. But, in spite of all their efforts Willow and Misty were gaining. As they came up to the turn they had drawn almost even. From Willow's position on the left she was shoulder to shoulder with the right pony of the other team. From a distance it would look as if they were actually touching.

The other team had the advantage of the corner, and during the race Willow's trainer had pulled her team back to trail. Willow did not want that now. She was ready to take them in the corner, even with the longer arc of the radius. In order to pass that message to her trainer she strained even faster moving into the lead by a head. As they started into the corner the other team regained the lost ground and started to ease forward. Willow dug deeper. She looked to her right and saw the fire in Misty's eyes. If she were on the other team she would have been terrified by the fierceness of this look. Willow and Misty were gaining. Even though they were running a longer distance they were gaining.

As they came out of the corner they were half a length ahead of the other team. Within a furlong that turned into a length and a half and they were now on the rail with the other team eating their dirt. No achievement in Willow's life had felt as satisfying as this. But she and Misty did not slow with their lead. They kept the steam on. She had never moved so fast with the sulky. She had never seen a team move so fast. As they came up the stretch she could tell that there was excitement at the training area. Whatever anyone there had been doing they had all stopped and all eyes were now on what had just occurred on the clubhouse turn of the training track. As they passed the stand Willow and Misty did not even look to their right. They kept their heads straight ahead concentrating on maintaining their speed. They did not slow until they had made the far turn and were in the back stretch. The other team was so far behind them at that point that there was no longer a race.

The trainer signaled them to drop to a trot. This time they obeyed. Willow wondered what they would do when the other team came by again, but that did not happen. Their trainer reduced them to a trot as well and kept a good distance between the teams. "Just as well." Thought Willow. If they had tried to pass they would only have received a brand new ass kicking.

When they finished the lap at a trot their trainer guided them into the rest area. She quickly dismounted and huddled with the other trainers, and someone else. Willow was feeling really good, but then she saw that he was there. He had seen them. He was listening to the trainers speak, but he kept looking over at Willow and Misty – and he smiled at them. He was happy with them. Even though Willow was standing straight and erect, which had become her normal posture, she felt herself find just a bit more height. It was an achievement and everyone had seen. Many eyes were on her and Willow found that she liked being watched. Finally he left the group of trainers, walked over to Willow and Misty and patted each of them on the head. He slipped a treat into each of their mouths. Nothing had ever tasted so sweet. Nothing had ever seemed so wonderful. Willow lowered her head and nuzzled him. He didn't pull away or move back, he stayed stroking her head for some time, and then he smiled and patted her on the flank.

"Fine job. I knew you had it in you." He said looking back and forth between Misty and Willow. Then he turned back to the trainers. They were talking again, but Willow was not paying attention. She felt like she was floating. The sun was shining, there was a gentle breeze that gently moved the tops of the trees, everything was green and fresh and the perfumed smells of the jungle flowers made every breath of air a delight.

Over the following weeks there was an increasing air of excitement in the stables. Willow could tell that the big race was coming, exactly when she did not know. Ponies do not have calendars. Ponies do not pay attention to days of the week. Their routine was pretty much the same every day.

Grooms were slaves so they did not have days off. Morning was marked by the light of the dawn, but Willow knew that her groom would be there every morning and every night to care for her. She did not know what else the groom might do during the day, maybe clean her stall, because it was always clean in the evening, but just like the sun, the moon, and the stars, her groom was always there to care for her. She trusted her groom completely; she welcomed her groom's hands on any part of her body; she knew that her groom would carefully examine anything that might look troubling, like a good cut-man to a prize fighter; and just like a prize fighter her groom would massage and oil her body feeling for and removing any knots. Willow didn't have to tell her where it hurt, somehow she just knew.

As the training continued Willow and Misty got better and better. Their timing and coordination smoothed and became instinctual. Willow did not need to look at Misty. She did not need to try to anticipate Misty's moves, responses or actions. She seemed to know what Misty was going to do before Misty did it. And Misty knew what Willow would do. It was if there was some mental connection between them. Observers would marvel at the almost perfect synchronization of every action. Not only did their gait match but their legs seemed to move with the precision of a top ranked drill team. Even their breathing fell into perfect syncopation.

Willow didn't talk to her groom. She didn't talk to anyone. People might talk to a pony, but they did not talk with ponies. Willow had learned that. Not only was it very hard to talk with a bit in your mouth, but any attempt to talk to a trainer usually ended up with a quick snap of a riding crop or the end of a rein to the top of a breast. That hurt, but it was also humiliating because it clearly chided her for doing something about which she knew better. Her groom wouldn't strike her, but she would shush her if she tried to talk. Willow and Misty didn't even talk anymore. Willow was not sure when they had stopped. Willow would sleep next to the wall dividing their stalls. She was more comfortable being able to hear Misty breathing, but words and speech were somehow a part of another world and she no longer would even think about formulating sentences and speaking. If they were outside their stalls they would often rub cheeks, but there were no words exchanged.

There were other ways to communicate. No one had told her how, but they had just developed, and it seemed so natural. Happiness and pleasure were demonstrated by lowering the head, with the chin forward, and tilting it to one side or the other. If a trusted person were nearby they would be rubbed with the side of the head. This might be accompanied by whinnying. Sadness or pain was demonstrated by lowering the chin and turning slightly away so that the pony's shoulder was pointed toward the object of the emotion. There might be low moans. Anger had the chin pulled tight, eyes furrowed and locked on the subject, nose wrinkled, and the hoofs placed with the left hoof six to eight inches ahead of the right, possibly with some pawing of the ground. This was accompanied by loud short snorts, usually through the nose. It was not wise to disregard this signal as a strong kick could be the reward for not paying heed. A good trainer or groom would know to move to the pony's left side speaking, in soothing tones, then move in grasping either the bridle or harness with the right hand – firmly, but not aggressively – while stroking with the left hand. Fear could be seen in the chin pulled back in, the head down and shaking from side to side, but the eyes still on the subject. This would be accompanied by short steps away from the subject of the fear that would match any attempt to approach by that person. A desire for attention was shown by moving the head up and down and whinnying, this would be accompanied by pawing at the ground two or three times with a hoof.

Willow loved and trusted her groom. She was always happy to see her and always felt better when she was near. However difficult the day's training might have been just the sight of her groom would make her feel better. She didn't feel the same affection for her trainer but she trusted her completely. She somehow knew that her trainer had her best interests in mind. Willow would do her best to respond as expected and please her, not just because failure could bring the pain of the whip, but even more so to avoid the pain she felt inside when she knew she had somehow disappointed.

Willow's groom was excited. Such emotions are contagious and Willow was feeling it as well. Her body harness had been removed. The form and fit of the new harness was the same as the old, but it was shiny and gold. There was, of course, a matching bridle. Not only was the leather gold colored but so were all of the fixtures. They may have actually been brass or perhaps gold plated, but to Willow she was being adorned in the crown jewels. Two large plumes, almost three feet in length, forest green to signify the color of her stable, were fixed to brackets at the back of her new harness. Her boots had been replaced with golden colored boots. The material was soft. It would not need to be broken in.

Willows hide had developed a fine golden hue. It was soft and supple from the careful daily attention she received. Any blemish or bruise was spotted with body make-up when she was oiled. Blush accented her cheeks and areola. She felt – she knew – she looked radiant. She was a jewel of the stable and she could not wait to have everyone see her.

When her reins were finally attached and she was led out of her stall she saw Misty just ahead. As Willow had expected, Misty had been regaled in similar finery. She looked like the finest show pony. They would look beautiful, but they were not show ponies and this was not a parade. They were racing ponies and Willow knew that this was the race. All of the sweat, all of the sore muscles, all of the training, the timing, the teamwork, the precision – it all came down to today. Today everyone would see just how good they were. Today they would make him proud.

She didn't know how many other teams there would be, she didn't care. One or a hundred she was intent that she and Misty would be at the front. She could not remember anything in her life before that was as important as winning this race today. There was not a rational reason why this was so important. But Willow did not conduct rational analysis anymore. She did not consider why she felt the way she did or why did the things she did. In fact, her thoughts were no longer analytical. She had instincts that had developed and these instincts now governed most of what she did. She had responses, feelings and emotions. They were direct, easily reached, and neither hidden nor suppressed. Her feelings and reactions lived in the present – yesterday no longer mattered and tomorrow never fogged the moment. The future was pretty much limited to the end of the task at hand. But today, right now, there was anticipation, something she had almost forgotten how to feel, today, right now, it was exhilarating.

There was a fine golden colored sulky with forest green plumes matching the ones worn by the ponies. Its design and structure was identical to the one Willow and Misty had used for training. The balance and the stress were identical. There was nothing new that needed to be learned. There were no adjustments that would be required. Willow's trainer took the seat of the sulky assisted by Misty's trainer. They were clad in forest green jerseys and shorts emblazoned in gold, with a distinct golden palm tree on the back.

As they left the stable and strutted toward the entrance to the track Willow could hear the sound of the crowd. As they cleared the stable structures, even though they were blocked by the hedgerow along the back of the track she could see people and movement in the stands. There is a sound to crowds that give you a feel for both their size and their mood. This was a big crowd and it was excited. The sound alone made Willow feel stronger. She looked toward Misty, she was looking back. Misty nodded her head up and down and gave her bay-colored mane a shake. Her eyes were bright, she stood tall, and Willow could tell that Misty was also feeling the energy of the crowd.

At the edge of the track near the turn closest to the stables a gateway had been opened. Two other teams were already lined up just on the stable side of the gateway. Willow and Misty were maneuvered in behind them making them the third team in line. Other teams then lined up behind. Willow could have seen them from the corner of her eye if she turned her head to the side, but she could not get a good look or clearly make out how many there were. She focused back on the two teams ahead.

Each team reflected the splendor that their respective stable wanted to present. Their harness was fine leather with gleaming highly polished fixtures. Their sulkies all looked new, perfectly shined and elegant. On the sides of each sulky was a number. Willow's team was number 9. She liked nine. It was a good number. She didn't know why she liked it. She was having some trouble remembering what nine really meant. Most of the things in her world now existed in smaller numbers. Each team was plumed with feathers that presented the color or colors of their stable, forest green for Willow's team. The two teams ahead bore blood red and teal.

After a time the teams ahead began to move forward turning to their left onto the track. Willow could see that the stands, which were all on the far side of the track, were quite full. As the teams were guided to their left Willow could see that there were three more teams behind hers, again resplendent in fine gear and color. A total of six teams had entered the track.

The line of sulkies tracked around the far corner back toward the stands. They were moving clockwise – the opposite direction from normal racing, but they were not racing, only showing off the teams for the assembled fans. Each pony held her head high, occasionally shaking their mane. They walked tall and raised their legs high, proud to be on parade. Each team wanted to impress the audience, to instill confidence that they would be the winning team.

After completing the turn, the line of teams continued to strut the entire length of the straightaway so that every fan could get a good look at them. When they had passed the stands and entered into the clubhouse turn the teams were turned one at a time from the back, reversing their order until they were all set in the proper direction. They were then guided forward; the first team took up the pole position and stopped. The next team moved to their right and stopped there. The third team then positioned on the end of that line. Willow and Misty's team, fourth in this reversed line, was moved back to the inside taking the pole position but in a second line behind the first. The last two teams then positioned to their right so that there were two lines of three teams each.

Having pole position would normally be good, but with a full line of teams ahead and two additional teams to the right Willow and Misty were completely boxed in. They would not be able to make any quick break forward unless the team directly in front of them moved forward quick enough to let them advance before one of the other teams on that line could close to the rail. This was unlikely, but Willow was not thinking of strategy. She was only thinking of being fast – very fast. Her driver would plan the strategy. The trainer knew the strength of her team, she probably had information on the other teams; she would assess how to play it. Willow trusted her completely so she did not have to think about what to do. Her job was to follow direction and be fast – very fast.

Willow recognized some of the other teams. Directly in front of her at pole was the Nordic palomino team. Willow knew they liked to make a fast break and run. It would be interesting to see if they tried to take the lead and hold it for the entire race. That would be quite a challenge. Willow wished that she and Misty were up on the first row so they could burst ahead of the dreaded palominos.

The teams were held in position on the track for a long time. The teams did not know why, nor did they care that betting had not yet been closed at the track windows.

Finally Willow saw movement ahead of her and her reins were clicked up and down, a signal to move forward. All six teams started to walk. They held their position in line perfectly. Then, they were signaled to a trot, still holding their position. They had not reached the starting line. As they had practiced many times they would move to the start line at a trot and then change to a run as quickly as possible.

Willow knew the signal was coming as they approached the midpoint of the straight away, but she was well trained, she did not anticipate the command. But when the command came she and Misty began to run, finding their pace and rhythm within several steps. The other teams started smoothly as well. There was no false start and the race was on.

As Willow had suspected the palominos moved forward quickly, taking almost a full length lead on the other two teams in their line. Willow and Misty were moved forward, but did not attempt to fill the gap left by the palominos. It was the right decision, the powerful looking sorrels, the next team in the first line, moved toward the rail, seemingly happy to trail in second place at this point. Willow did not know this team at all. She had never seen them before. They must have trained at another location. Third on the front row was the Asian team with their shinny black manes flashing in the wind. They moved in slightly, closing the gap, but moving ahead of the sorrels on the outside. This opened a gap between the three teams in the first row and the other two teams in the second row. Willow's driver moved her team to the right into a position behind the blacks. The other two teams moved in toward the rail.

From two lines of three each the teams were now grouped with three teams on the rail and three more to the outside. Willow and Misty were team number two on the outside. This positioning was held through the turn with the teams on the outside losing only a small amount of ground due to the longer distance created by the turn. As they came out of the turn into the backstretch the palominos tried to open a lead. They pulled away and created a gap between themselves and the sorrels. The blacks were not able to keep next to them and ended up moving into the rail behind. This left Willow and Misty on the outside with no team in front. They were moved forward. Not far enough to challenge the leader, but positioned alongside the second team now running on the rail. The pace felt very good. Willow did not feel pushed, she knew her driver was measuring the speeds she knew they could attain and hold against the overall distance of the race. By the clubhouse turn the field had spread and Willow and Misty were moved in toward the rail behind the blacks that were now running in second place.

As they came out of the clubhouse turn the palominos were in the lead by a length followed by the blacks with Willow and Misty right on their back. Willow and Misty were moved to the outside and picked up the pace. It was a challenge to the blacks and they picked up the pace starting to close the distance to the palominos in first. The teams were in front of the stands and the crowd was cheering loudly. Willow did not know the position of the other three teams, and she did not care. She did not look back, but instead concentrated on holding her pace and moving forward.

If the maneuver to the outside had been meant to challenge the blacks it had not succeeded. As the three leading teams reached the turn the palominos were in the lead with the blacks right behind them and Willow and Misty next to the blacks on the outside. The driver once again eased them back to take up a third position for the turn. Willow could now sense that the balance of the field, consisting of sorrel, chestnut and champagne teams, were at least two lengths behind the three leaders. This did not necessarily mean anything. There was a lot of race left and some of these teams could be late finishers. It was way too early for such a team to make its move.

As the lead teams came out of the turn the blacks made a move to the outside and challenged the palominos down the backstretch. The palominos picked up the pace slightly, but they were losing ground. Willow's driver moved her bays to the outside of the blacks adding to the pressure. They were moving faster now and Willow could see the palominos straining. She knew they were well conditioned and that they were a very fast team, but they seemed to be having real difficulty with the current pace. By the midpoint of the straightaway the blacks had pulled into the lead, although not far enough to close to the rail. Willow and Misty were on their outside, but slightly behind – almost even with the palominos.

As the blacks pushed their lead forward Willow and Misty were urged forward still behind them but now ahead of the palominos by a head, still gaining. By the time the teams reached the far turn the blacks had moved into first position with Willow and Misty right behind, the palominos dropped back at third.

While these three teams were at the rail a new challenger had emerged from the pack. A pair of beautiful chestnuts was moving up on the outside. They must have started on the back stretch, because by the time the other three teams moved into the rail for the clubhouse turn they had moved up on the palominos on the outside. Willow's driver, instead of holding to the rail through the turn eased the team out to the right. If the chestnuts had been able to close up on the turn they could have boxed Willow and Misty in behind the blacks. In order to challenge in the final straightaway it would be necessary to have room to the right of the blacks. Then the driver encouraged Willow and Misty forward starting their move on the blacks even before the corner had been completed. It would be a push to the finish of about a quarter mile, longer than the final sprint that they normally practiced, but pretty much required by the tactical situation.

As they came out of the turn Willow and Misty had been able to move up next to the blacks' sulky. This maneuver had forced the chestnuts wider to the right giving the three teams their position for the final dash to the finish. The palominos were trying to push forward but at the rail behind the blacks there was no place for them to go. The best they could hope for would be second if the blacks pushed and they could stay behind them.

The driver became even more insistent. Willow felt the touch of the whip and knew that it was now or never. She was beginning to feel the effect of the pace but she was not going to let up now. The blacks, to their left, were ahead by a head, the chestnuts, to their right, were behind by half a length. It was now a sprint to the finish.

Halfway to the finish line the blacks began to lose ground but the chestnuts had now moved ahead. Willow and Misty (the bays) seemed destined for second place. But their driver was unwilling to accept second place. The reins were snapped, she was urging them on and Willow was pretty sure she was using the whip although adrenaline was pumping so hard that she could feel nothing. Willow could feel the sulky pulling forward on the right. Somehow Misty was finding more speed (or Willow had been losing some) Willow responded. She could see the line ahead. The crowd was roaring, but the sound seemed to be a great distance away.

The blacks were now at least two lengths back. The chestnuts were neck and neck with the bays. Willow could tell because they were almost perfectly blocked from her peripheral vision by Misty. Willow concentrated on being able to see the other team across Misty's back. The finish line was coming. Willow felt they were gaining – was it enough? Did they make it? It had been very close. The roar was ear splitting. The crowd was going crazy.

The driver slowed them and then brought them to a trot. She took them up to the turn before taking them back to a walk. Willow felt good. They had performed well, she knew it. Had they won? She didn't know. They were turned at the corner and walked back along the track near the audience. The blacks were now walking behind them. Then there was a huge roar. The results had been posted. Willow still did not know if they had won. She didn't know where they posted the results. But she and Misty were being guided to a grassy circular area near the finish line. Then she saw him. He was standing in the circle. He was smiling. As Willow and Misty approached he took Willow's bridle in his hand and guided them into the circle and then around to face the crowd. The crowd was cheering.

Willow looked into the faces of the adoring audience and she was very happy. He had not given her a treat like he usually did when he was pleased with her, but she could tell that he was pleased, he was patting the side of her head. Then two grooms approached. Each was carrying a large flower garland in the shape of a horseshoe. As music struck up the grooms placed the horseshoe shaped wreath of flowers around the necks of the two happy bays standing in the winner's circle. Willow and Misty had won. Was it the flowers that smelled so sweet? Willow did not know. What she knew is that she did not want to be anywhere else. She did not want to be anyone else. She was as happy as she had ever been in her entire life.

The End

Copyright© 2011 by I. Binder. All rights reserved.