I closed my eyes. My mind traveled back to the time so long ago, it seemed, when I had been brought through the village on the Punishment Cross, and the human ponies had pulled the cart, Tristan among them. The image of the black horsetails streaking from their backsides, their heads held high by the bits, obliterated all other thoughts in an instant. It seemed infinitely worse than marching with my hands tied to the bronze phallus in the Sultan’s garden. And it would be done not for the Sultan and the royal guests but for the common and thrifty people of the village.
"Only when that year is passed will your names be brought again to my attention," said the Queen, "and I give you my word that you are more likely to find yourself on the village auction block than at my feet when your service as ponies is ended."
"An excellent punishment, Your Majesty," said the Captain of the Guard softly. "And these are such strong slaves, well muscled. Tristan has already tasted the bit. For Laurent it will do wonders."
"I wish to hear no more of it," said the Queen. "These are not Princes fit for my service. They are horses to be well worked and well whipped in the village. Get them out of my sight immediately."
Tristan’s face was red and streaked with tears when I finally saw it. We were both lifted again on poles, as we had been before, and hurriedly carried out of the Great Hall, leaving the Court behind us.
In the yard before the drawbridge, crude little signs were put around our necks, both bearing the single word: PONY.
And after that we were rushed across the drawbridge and downhill, once more, towards the dreaded village.
I tried not to envision the pony shackles. It was something absolutely unknown to me. And my only hope was that my bonds would be tight, and my position of servitude rigidly maintained by stern disciplinarians who would show me how to bear it.
One year … phalluses … bits…. It rang in my ears as we were carried back through the gates into the swarming noontime marketplace.
We caused quite a stir, the crowds gathering as the trumpet was blown before the auction block. The villagers moved in closely this time, though the soldiers ordered them back, and hands pushed at my naked arms and legs, making my body swing from the pole. I was choking on my tears, marveling that my understanding of what was happening did not lessen the degradation of it.
"What does understanding mean?" I wondered. To know that I had brought it all on myself, that humiliation and yielding are inevitable at any stage of the game–somehow it produces no calm, no defense. The hands that pulled at my exposed ni**les, lifted my hair from around my face–these hands reached through all my carefully pondered defenses.
The ship, the Sultan, the secret mastering of Lexius, all swept away most certainly.
"Two fine Ponies," cried the herald, "to be added at once to the village livery stables. Two fine steeds for hire at the regular rate to Pull the finest coach or the heaviest farm wagon."
The soldiers hoisted the poles high. We were swinging above a sea of faces, hands slapping at my cock, slipping between my legs to squeeze my bu**ocks. And the sun glared on the many windows that surrounded the square, on the weathervanes turning on the gabled roofs, on the hot dusty panorama of village life–into which we had passed again.
The herald’s voice went on recounting that for one year we would serve, that all should thank Her Gracious Majesty for the beautiful steeds maintained in the town and the reasonable prices asked for their service. And then the trumpet was sounded again, and off we were taken, the poles lowered, our bodies swinging close to the cobblestones again, the villagers turning back to their work, the houses of the quiet street suddenly rising an either side of us, as the soldiers carried us on towards the mystery of the new existence.
LAURENT: FIRST DAY AMONG THE PONIES
IT WAS a giant stable like many another, I think, except that real horses had never been in it. The mud floor was strewn with sawdust and hay merely to make it soft and keep the dust down. Its rafters were hung with harnesses of the light and delicate sort fit only for men. And the bits and reins streamed from hooks along the rough wooden walls, while in a large open area drenched with sun from the open doors to the street stood a circle of empty wooden pillories. They were high enough for a man on his knees, with holes for the neck and the hands. And I thought as I glanced at them that I would know what they were for, perhaps, sooner than I wanted to know.
What interested me more were the stalls to the far right. And the naked men inside them, two and three to a stall, their backsides well striped from the belt, their very sturdy legs firmly planted on the floor, their torsos bent over a thick wooden beam, their arms bound in the small of their backs as they merely stood there. With few exceptions, all wore leather boots to which horseshoes had been attached, and in two of the stalls grooms worked–true stable boys in leather and homespun–scrubbing down their charges or rubbing them with oil, their attitude one of casualness and busyness.
The sight took my breath away. It was strangely beautiful and absolutely devastating. It made me realize in a flash what was to befall us. Words alone had not been enough.
After the white marble and golden-threaded fabrics of the Sultan’s palace, the tinted flesh and perfumed hair, this was shockingly real, the world itself, to which I’d been returned at last to pick up the thread of an existence for which I’d been bound before the raiders ever came.
Tristan and I were set down on the floor. Our bonds were cut. And I saw a tall stable boy approaching, a strongly built blond-haired young man, no more than twenty, with light freckles on his sun-darkened face and bright, cheerful green eyes. He smiled as he walked around us, his hands on his hips. Tristan and I stretched out our limbs, but we didn’t dare move any more than that.
I heard one of the soldiers say:
"Two more, Gareth. And you’ll have them the full year. Scrub them, feed them, and harness them up right away. Captain’s orders."
"Beauties, sir, beauties," said the boy cheerfully. "All right, you two. Up on your feet. Ever been ponies before? I want a nod or a shake of the head, not a verbal answer." He gave my bottom a slap as I rose. "Arms behind your back, folded, that’s it!" I saw his hand squeeze Tristan’s backside. Tristan was still badly shaken, and he bowed his head, looking oddly regal as well as defeated, a sight that was heartrending even to me.
"And what’s all this?" said the boy, taking out a clean linen handkerchief and wiping Tristan’s tears, and then mine. He had a stunning face, the boy, big handsome smile. "Tears from a pair of good ponies?" he said. "We can’t have that now, can we? Ponies are proud creatures. They cry when they’re punished. Otherwise they march with their heads high. That’s it."