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Authors: Janet Rising

Secret Pony Society

BOOK: Secret Pony Society
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Copyright

Copyright © 2011 by Janet Rising

Cover and internal design © 2011 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Series design by Liz Demeter/Demeter Design

Cover photography © Mark J. Barrett

Cover images © jentry/iStockphoto.com; ivetavai/iStockphoto.com; lugogarcia/iStockphoto.com; Kwok Chi Chan/123rf.com; Polina Bobrik/123rf.com; Alexandr Shebanov/123rf.com; Pavel Konovalov/123rf.com

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and event
s portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

(630) 961-3900

Fax: (630) 961-2168

www.jabberwockykids.com

First published in Great Britain in 2010 by Hodder Children's Books.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is on file with the publisher.

Source of Production: Versa Press, East Peoria, Illinois, USA

Date of Production: April 2011

Run Number: 14966

For Kevin
Chapter 1

I had hoped that a carefree, Saturday morning ride would push my latest problem to the back of my mind for a while. And in a way, it turned out like that because by the time Drummer and I got back, I had a whole new bunch of things to worry about. “It's so lush here,” he wailed, looking around at all the emerald blades waving in the breeze by the side of the newly plowed field, “and it's just going to waste.” I pretended I couldn't hear him. If I could keep it up, he might think I'd left Epona behind. He knows that without her I'm just like everybody else; I can't hear an equine word.

“It will be winter soon,” he went on, “and there'll be no good grass left. Everyone knows you should let ponies build up fat reserves for the coming lean months. I'm surprised you don't know that. You think you know lots about pony management. Obviously, you don't know as much as you think.”

He was trying to rile me, and it was starting to work. My bright bay pony knows exactly which of my buttons to push to get a reaction. I squeezed his sides, and Drum broke into a trot with a theatrical sigh about leaving the grass. I wouldn't mind, but he's already bordering on the tubby side.

Since I'd gone back to school after summer vacation, my riding had been limited to weekends and evenings. With the days getting shorter, evening riding meant everyone jostling for space in the floodlit outdoor school, so that Saturday, it was great to ride in open spaces for a change. We cantered around the field then turned into the woods, Drummer's hoofbeats silent on the moss. Red and golden leaves fluttered unhurriedly to the ground, and there was a damp, autumn smell heralding bleak days to come.

And that's when the first odd thing occurred.

Suddenly, Drummer froze to a halt, shooting me forward. Luckily, as he did so, his head shot up like a giraffe's, keeping me in the saddle. Following the direction of his ears, I could see his gaze fixed on something moving through the trees, and I squinted in the same direction, expecting to see a deer. The woods are riddled with them, and Drummer always overreacts. You'd think they were stegosauruses or something.

It wasn't a deer (or a stegosaurus). It was a pony. An unfamiliar, dark gray—almost black—pony; its black mane and tail laced with white highlights, which glinted silver in shafts of sunlight twinkling through the branches. Catching my breath, I watched as it moved through the trees.

The pony wasn't alone. A girl sat astride the bare, black back. She wore no helmet, and her long, black hair fanned out behind her as her pony cantered and hopped over fallen branches, the pair fused together as though glued. And then I noticed the dog running alongside; a large, leggy hound, like a squire to a knight, keeping his nose level with the girl's toes, matching the pony stride for stride.

I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as the trio disappeared in the gloom. Involuntarily, I shivered. Then I realized that I wasn't the only one holding my breath.

“That's spooky!” exclaimed Drummer, his breath coming out in a
whoosh
, my legs rising against his sides as he exhaled.

“You don't think…” I trailed off, reluctant to put my thoughts into words. The trio had been so strange and had moved so silently. I so didn't want to use the word
ghost
.

The whole area around Laurel Stables, the DIY stable where I keep Drummer, is rich in history and atmosphere. Since Roman times it had been the location of settlements and mansions, taking advantage of the high ground. Drummer's stable yard used to be a farm for a huge country house that no longer exists. It was that history that had given me Epona and changed my life.

I couldn't help thinking that the mysterious rider and her pony and dog certainly looked as though they belonged to a bygone age. I mean, whoever nowadays goes riding without a helmet?

“They wouldn't be the first spirits I've seen around here,” mumbled Drummer, snorting. My heart missed a beat, and my thoughts flew back to the séance we'd held at the stables in the summer. Dee had insisted on trying to call up her dead granddad to help us with a team riding competition. The séance had scared us all out of our minds, and I didn't welcome the reminder now, in the gloom of the trees. The woods suddenly seemed very spooky and the very place NOT to be, especially with the wind whispering through the trees.

“What else have you seen?” I asked Drum, winding my fingers through his mane for comfort, half hoping he wouldn't tell me.

“So you
can
hear me?” asked Drum, turning and giving me a look with his big, brown nearside eye. “Pretend you can't hear me when grass is the subject, but you're all ears when there's something
you
want to talk about!”

“Oh, you're impossible!” I said crossly. “You are
not
to eat when we're on a ride, you know that. It's really bad manners, and you'll get green gunk on your bit.”


Oooooo-eee-oooo
,” said Drum. I couldn't tell whether he was being snarky or whether he was making ghost noises. Either way, it wasn't funny.

At least the strange girl and her pony were a distraction from my own doom and gloom—momentarily, anyway. Things had taken a downward turn at the yard recently, and I didn't want to think about that. The trouble was, the more I tried to block it out of my mind, the more it insisted on creeping back in. Actually, it tended to gallop in rather than creep. It occupied my mind like an invading army, sweeping all good events and thoughts before it and enforcing its dominant, depressing regime at full power.

I made Drummer canter along a path in the woods that we call the Winding Canter (for obvious reasons) and at the end, we burst out of the darkness of the trees and back into the weak autumn sunshine at the top of the hill. Then, without a breather (so Drum couldn't nag me), we walked briskly down the hill to the lane, intending to cross it and continue on the bridle path in a big circle around Clanmore Park, before returning home.

I couldn't stop thinking about the mysterious girl and her pony. That the pony was well bred had been obvious, with its fine legs and neat head. The girl had been slim and had sat easily like an expert rider, her legs relaxed and dangling next to her pony's sides. Wherever had she come from? Laurel Farm wasn't the only stable in the area—there were plenty of stables and farmers who rented fields to the local horsey population. And if she
wasn't
a ghost and if I could get near enough, I might be able to learn more about them—if I could hear what the pony was saying, anyway. At least, I could with Epona in my pocket.

Epona, I had discovered, had been a goddess of horses, worshipped by the ancient Celts and Romans. Ever since I'd stumbled (well, Drummer had done the stumbling, actually) across the tiny stone statue of a woman—Epona—seated sidesaddle on a horse, I'd been able to hear what horses and ponies were saying—for better or worse—whenever I had her with me. I never leave home without her now. To say Epona has changed my life is putting it mildly—I'm known as the Pony Whisperer, for a start, as I can hear and talk to horses and ponies. You'd think that would be fantastic, wouldn't you? But it has its downsides—and was the cause of my latest worry that I had come out to forget.

Halfway down the hill, as we got near to the lane, something happened that did manage to distract me and put my own worries very firmly into perspective. With a droning noise, two huge 4x4 vehicles drove along the road, dangerously straddling both lanes, their lights flashing as they drove past and into the distance. Birds suddenly flew out of the bushes and trees, and a soft hum and clattering from the cars' wake got louder and louder. Familiar sounds of horses' hooves mingled with shouting and revved car engines and, instinctively, Drum and I drew back among the trees, looking down from our natural vantage point toward the approaching commotion. The hoofbeats got louder, the shouts more urgent, more intense, and we waited to see what would come around the bend.

I expected to see horses, but when three came into view, turning the corner abreast and thundering toward us, my feelings of excitement turned to dread.

Chapter 2

I watched, horrified, as the horses drew nearer—a piebald, a chestnut, and a tricolored, all in a ragged line. Their brightly colored harness fixed them to three lightweight racing sulkies—little more than two-wheeled frames with a seat for the driver—each occupied by dark-haired teenage boys not much older than me. Stretched across the road directly behind them, another line of 4x4s brought up the rear. The horses had nowhere to go but forward.

The horses were trotting: not the businesslike, working trot Drummer adopts when he's heading for home, but a joint-straining, lung-bursting, whip-enforced, flat-out blur of a trot. I could feel Drummer quivering under me as they bore down toward us.

Racing.

The piebald was clipped out and wore boots on all four legs, the chestnut was thin, its ribs showing through its coat, and when the tricolored horse slipped, the driver thrashed his long, bendy whip on its back and shouted, urging him to make up lost ground. In a desperate attempt to do as it was bid, the tricolored horse broke into a canter, causing the driver to lean back, his whole weight hauling on the reins. I winced as the bit forced the horse's mouth open wide, his chin on his chest as he struggled to return to trot. Going so fast, there was no way he could easily gain control of his legs, and he cantered on, slipping on the asphalt, his driver cursing and pulling even more.

As they drew closer, the smell of burning from the sparks thrown up from their shod hooves on the road mixed with the smell of sweat on their necks and flanks. I could hear their frantic breathing as all the horses desperately drew air into their crimson nostrils, and I felt myself gasping for breath in sympathy. Then in a flash, they swept past with clatters and shouts, and Drum and I watched in sickened amazement as they raced away, the force of the following cars making the last shriveled leaves fall from the shaking branches and drift to the ground around us.

Drummer's ears were anxious, and he snorted in distress.

“Steady, Drummer,” I said, stroking his bright bay neck. He was trembling—the race had affected Drummer as much as me. “Come on,” I whispered. “Let's go.”

We rode to the sandy paths of Clanmore Park where we could breathe pure air and try to get our heart rates back to normal. We were both a bit shaky after what we'd seen—and as we walked along the sand paths, flanked by shrubs and tall grass, I tried to reassure Drum again.

“You all right, babe?” I asked him. “I know it was horrible, what those people were doing to those horses, making them race like that. I'll report them to the horse protection authorities; they'll investigate and make them stop.” I knew that when the trembly feeling left me, I'd start to get angry. The trouble was that I didn't know where the horses had come from. I hadn't recognized them—but maybe someone at the yard would know more than I did. There seemed to be a lot of strange horses around suddenly.

Drummer was all fired up. “Those horses were not only terrified, they were in pain, forced to trot that fast,” he said. He shook his head, the shake traveling down his neck, rippling through his mane like an ocean wave. It was as though he was trying to shake the image of the race out of his mind.

I knew he was right. The horses were in pain, the strain on their legs must have been horrendous—everyone knows you should trot slowly on the road as it jars a horse's legs—and they were obviously being pushed to their limits. They were scared, too, at being forced to trot so fast. The chestnut hadn't even looked old enough to do such strenuous work. I felt helpless. I patted Drummer's bay neck again.

“Come on, let's have a canter. You can buck, if you like.” Drummer loves putting in the odd buck, just to keep me on my toes. Usually, I'm not impressed, but I was desperate to pull him out of his unusual gloomy mood and back to his usual sardonic but loveable self.

It was no use; neither of us could get the images we'd seen on the road out of our minds. Retracing our steps back past the road, where all was quiet and normal again, we headed for the yard the long way around. I didn't want to get back until we were both fully settled—even though I didn't hold out much hope for a swift recovery.

So now I had three things on my mind, and it kept juggling them around. The sun was shining, and I was with my most fabulous, part Arab, bright bay pony, and I was more miserable than ever. Not only was there the mysterious rider in the woods to investigate, but now I couldn't get the image of the three terrified and straining horses out of my mind. As for my original worry…well, that wasn't going anywhere either.

We were both thoroughly upset, but I wasn't beaten yet. We were going back home via one of Drummer's favorite routes, which I hoped would cheer us both up. Just half a mile from home is a fabulous, big field on a gentle incline, which we all call the Sloping Field. Dotted with trees with a stream in the middle you can jump, it's a great place for a long canter—and if the ponies take off (which they often do if they get wound up), they run out of steam by the time they reach the top, so no one gets carted home.

And that's when I got another shock.

Because the Sloping Field wasn't how I remembered it. The field had visitors—and they weren't the sort of visitors that you invited in for tea.

Dotted around the grass and trees was an assortment of caravans, trucks, vans, 4x4s, sulkies, and horse carts. Among these were horses, all tethered to stakes, and rings were already grazed in the grass. And I could see a piebald, a chestnut, and a tricolored, still sweating from their exertions.

I heard myself gasp as I realized the full implication of what I saw.

The travelers were back.

James was going to freak out.

BOOK: Secret Pony Society
10.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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