Chapter 1

"Honey, breakfast!"

Liza moaned in frustration and snuggled deeper into the covers. When she heard her father shout up at her again, she rolled off the bed and stood up. She stumbled sleepily over to her closet where she, without bothering to look, pulled an old T-shirt out and, working her way out of her sleep shirt, slipped it on. After getting her brush from the dresser, she marched over to the bathroom ajoining her room.

As usual, her dog, Beethoven, met her at the door. She glanced at the dog, acknowledging his presence by a pet on his back. Last year she had found him by the road while riding the trails on one of her family's many horses. He apparently had been hit, and the insensitive driver hadn't bothered to stop, leaving the still moving little puppy to die on the side of the road. She had taken him home and, against her father's strong conviction to put him down, had nursed him back to health. He hadn't fully recovered from the accident though; one of his hind legs was weak, and sometimes spasmed uncontrollably. When Liza had taken him to the veterinarian, he had told her that there was nothing he could do, and that the condition would just be a fact of life for the dog, lasting probably all his life. As a result of the uncontrolability of the leg, Beethoven limped constantly, making it weaker than the rest from lack of use.

As she washed her face, she took a long, appraising look in the mirror. She seemed ordinary to herself; her friends, though, always disagreed with her, telling her that she was only being modest, that she was anything BUT ordinary. Frankly, she couldn't see herself as they saw her. She had light blond hair that could did nothing she wanted it to do, and dark green eyes. She had to admit, though, that her skin was flawless; she had never gone through that phase most people went through, when they broke out in zits and other blemishes. She had always had smooth skin, never needing makeup to enhance any features. Although all her friends all tried to get her to wear makeup, she had always hated it, thinking it weighed down her face and not caring for all the extra care needed to keep her face clean. As a result, her friends had admitted that she had a natural beauty that makeup would only ruin. That didn't stop them from trying to make her wear it though.

She sighed at the slight burn on her cheeks. She doubted it was super distinct, and hoped that her mother wouldn't notice. Getting the aloe vera gel out, she put a generous portion into her palm and worked it into her skin, hoping that it would take care of the burn in the long run. She was certain she was being paranoid, but growing up with a paranoid mother, to whom every little sunburn was a certain skin cancer death sentence, she supposed she had an excuse. Taking one last glance in the mirror, she put the aloe vera gel away and headed out the door, going towards the kitchen.

Even before she got through the kitchen door, she knew what was for breakfast. Groaning, she plopped down on her chair and stared at the multicolored omelette on her plate. "Mom," she whined, giving her omelette a dirty look, "why can't you make something different? You know I hate these!"

"If you don't like them, then you make breakfast," her mother said in a soft voice, which belied the strength she had if she thought to use it. "And anyway, I don't ever see you not eating them in the morning. Oh, another thing," she said, turning from the stove, "do you have any homework?"

Oh brother, Liza thought, sighing. "Mom, it's Saturday. I have the whole weekend to do it."

"I'll take that as a yes, then," her mother replied, turning back to her cooking. "I want you to finish it right after your chores today. And no buts or excuses, young lady," she said sternly as Liza opened her mouth to argue.

Liza grumbled under her breath but held her tongue, picking up her fork and tentatively poked at her omelette. Sighing, she took a bite, alknowledging that, despite her words, her mother was an excellant cook, no matter what she made. Liza was just wishing that it was something besides omelette's.

When she finished her breakfast, she studiously put her dishes and glasses into the dishwasher before her mom told her and, not waiting for her mother to assign her kitchen duty, headed out the door towards the barn.

A few years ago, her father had come up with the idea of a daily chore list for everyone to do each day. At first, it had been simple, like only grooming horses and giving them hay. It had evolved over the years, though, as the farm grew to a ranch, to mucking the stalls, excersising the horses, or to go so far as, for the men, chopping firewood. As the oldest child of the family, she was expected to do most of the mucking of the stalls and the grooming, while her little brother, who hated horses, only had to feed them. She personally thought the situation discriminating, but was smart enough not to bring it up. She would probably get lectured on how one must be a role model for the younger generation, and that, as a little boy, he would not have the strength anyway to do many of the chores. He was only two years younger than me, she thought angrily, getting the wheelbarrow and pitchfork and heading toward the first stall.

The first stall she had to muck belonged to Red Devil, a roan stallion whose reputation lived up to his name. He and Liza had worked up a rapport, an agreement of sorts, which had taken a while to create. She was now able to work in and around him safely, with him ignoring her, as long as she did nothing sudden or tried anything stupid. But woe to the person who got too close, or was dumb enough to try something stupid. When they first bought him, one of the neighbor's trainers, an arrogant, cocky fool who thought he knew everything about horses, had been impressed by the stallion and had asked Liza's father if he could ride him once. Not fully knowing at the time the roan's full nature, her father had agreed. The trainer had then tried to saddle the horse on his own, even though the former owner, who had delivered the stallion that day, cautioned him against it. The trainer hadn't listen to the man and had put the saddle pad and saddle on without even trying to tie the horse up. Well, Red Devil had simple whirled around, dumping the uncinched saddle and blanket onto the ground, and had bit the arrogant trainer on the shoulder hard enough to draw blood. Liza smiled wickedly, remembering the trainers scream of pain and fear of the horse. At the time, though, it had been no laughing matter. Her father had rushed in and grabbed the horse's lead rope and had calmed him, speaking softly until the stallion had quieted. The trainer, on the other hand, had not quieted. He ran, cursing at the top of his lungs and screaming in pain back to the neighbor. Liza had noticed, as he had raced past, that he had wet his pants, and she'd had to cover her mouth to keep her laugh in. Two days after the incident, the trainer, the neighbor said, had turned in his resignation.

Finishing the stall, she edged her way back to the door, still not fully trusting the horse, and let herself out. Reading the daily chore list, one of which was stapled to every door in the barn, she noticed she had seven more stalls to clean. Sighing with relief, she also noticed that today, her mother would be grooming all the horses, giving Liza some free time. Skipping her heals, she headed to her next stall, wondering what she would do in the free time.

Finally, she finished the last stall and, wiping her sweaty forehead, rolled the wheelbarrow to its usual place. Placing the cleaning instruments in their designated spots, she looked around for her father, but couldn't find him anywhere. She searched through the tack room, grain room, and checked each stall, but he was nowhere to be seen.

Going outside, she spotted her mother cleaning one of the older horses, Black Minnow, and headed towards her. "Mom, have you seen dad?" Liza asked, pulling up beside her mother.

"I have, just a minute ago," her mom said, turning off the hose. "He was loading Runaway into one of the trailers. He's going to take her to the auction today at the Victorian Ranch. Um," she said, scanning the vast yard, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. Then she pointed directly behind Liza. "There he is."

Liza didn't even look at where her mother pointed; she just turned around and started off in that direction. Belatedly, she heard her mother shouting at her about her homework, but she ignored it, and eventually was out of earshot.

Her father was just closing the trailer when she caught up with him, panting slightly from the run over here. Her father frown slightly but said nothing. He didn't like people running anywhere on the farm, since they might scare the animals.

Not waiting for him to say anything or even pausing to catch her breath, she blurted out, "You promised!"

Looking somewhat puzzled, her father looked at her while she tried to catch her breath. That yard sure isn't getting any shorter, she thought, breathing big gulps of air somewhat noisily. When she wasn't breathing so heavily anymore, her father said, "Of course I promised. I remember that."

"Then why were you going to leave me?" she asked, incensed. She had been waiting for this day for about a month and knowing he was about to leave her at home, to do HOMEWORK of all things, made her say hotly, "Do you always go around breaking promises?"

"I was NOT going to break my promise to you, young lady," he said, his tone firm. Liza wished she had chosen different words to say; if nothing else, her father kept a promise. "In fact," he continued, ignoring the chagrin on her face, "I was just about to go find you." He stared pointedly at her for another minute, then his face broke out in a puppydog grin, causing her to grin just looking at him. He had a knack for defusing tough situations just by smiling, she thought, smiling a little more. She had never been able to stay angry at him, or sad, for very long when she saw his smile; it always cheered her up. This time was no exception.

"Sorry," she said, her smile slipping a little.

"Oh, it's okay sweetheart!" he replied, giving her a big hug. "I know you didn't mean it." Which only made her situation worse in her eyes; she had meant it. Uh oh, she thought, sighing mentally; guilt trip.

Her father, not noticing his daughter's face, turned around and headed towards the car. "Well?" he called over his shoulder, "Are you going to come or not?"

By the time her father saw her face again, it was back to a beaming smile, as they pulled out of the driveway and headed toward the auction.

"You have your money?" he asked, glancing at Liza.

"What do you think?" she retorted. "Is there ever a time when I DON'T have my horse money?"

He chuckled, knowing she did always have her little black and white wallet on her, or somewhere near her. She was almost too cautious sometimes, he thought. Then again, one should be cautious with fifteen hundred dollars. The only time she ever parted with the wallet was when she took a bath, but it was still right beside the tub. He knew she was ready to pounce on anyone if she thought they had even touched her wallet. He smiled; his daughter was anything if not cautious.

She always tried to come to as many auctions as possible. One never knew whether they would find the perfect horse. She dreamed constantly of her perfect horse: white, with absolutely not markings on it; not too short but not huge either; intelligent, knowing everything she needed, wanting to please. Her last wish was something she had always wanted, stuff she read in books, but knew never happened in real life; she wanted the horse to know her thoughts and her know her horse's.

She had always wanted a horse of her own, but her parents had never had enough money before recently. And she had always wanted her OWN horse, bought with her own money and hers in everything. Her parents had tried to give her one, now that they had the money, but she had always declined, no matter how much she had liked the horse. She'd stuck to her own principles.

Another reason she liked auctions was because of the less expensive prices. A good horse, if one was looking through a newspaper, magazine, or bulletin board, could cost around four thousand dollars. At an auction, though, those same horses could sell for only a thousand dollars. That was the kind of price she wanted, a real good horse who should be expensive but wasn't.

She went to the first in the lineup of stalls and peered in. This one featured a black filly with a single white forelock, much like what she remembered with Black Beauty. Its coat was pure black, not dulled to brown by exposure to the sun, and the diamond on its forehead was perfect. When she stuck her hand in to pet it, though, it didn't act the black beauty; it lunged at her hand, narrowly missing it as Liza hastily jerked her hand out of the stall. Sniffing, she turned from the beautiful horse, whose ears were laid back against her head, and headed towards the next stall. That one, she thought, needs a thoroughly experienced handler. While she knew she was pretty good with horses, she didn't want to have to break her own horse, or have someone else do it for her. She wanted a horse she could ride the trails with, or excercise any time she wanted to.

The next stall held a pitiful old pony, its back swayed, its head lowered to the floor, totally unresponsive to her or anyone. Too old, she thought, and her heart went out to the old horse as she tried to coax it over to her. She had immediately ruled it out as a potential prospect, but she couldn't help feeling sorry for it. It had probably come from a good family who had loved it and cared for it. But whatever the story, it had ended up here, in an auction, where it would probably be sold as dog meat. Such things were illegal but common at auctions. She knew that she couldn't save all of the horses even if she were to try but it still hurt, seeing these horses, knowing what waited for them down the line. So, with a heavy heart, she went to the next stall, which contained a light brown stallion.

Now this one caught her eye. She knew he wasn't more than four, but his eyes made him seem much older. Growing up around horses had taught her what good horseflesh looked like, and she could tell by the legs that this one had great potential. She looked him over and the more she saw, the more she liked what she saw. He had a well defined head, almost like an arabian, but not as dainty. He had a deep chest, which had great potential for deep muscles, and thick flanks that would be good for a trail horse.

She could also tell he had been thoroughly abused. He reeked; she could smell him from ten feet away. He very badly needed a good bath and needed to be groomed equally as bad. She saw open sores all over his back and neck (probably fly or horse bites) and a few around his ankles, that needed aniseptic badly. He looked to be in pain too, she saw, noticing how he stepped lightly around his stall. He probably had a few little pebbles caught up in his hooves, and she could see how his two front hooves, which needed desperately to be shod, were already cracking. One had a very visible crack running about two inches up his hoof.

She took a carrot out of her pocket and, snapping off a piece, slowly reached into the stall and held her hand flat, the carrot piece in the middle. Her breath caught in her throat, though, when he shied away, clearly frightened. He huddled next to the back wall in fright, and, not getting any positive response, sighed and pulled her hand back and put the carrot into her pocket.

"He's a pitiful sight, isn't he?"

Liza whirled around, startled: her father had snuck up behind her back. He was staring intently at the stallion; probably noticing the same things I had, she thought. "Oh, I don't know," she replied, turning back to the horse. "He's got a great body, and probably comes from good breeding. I mean, look at those legs," she said, pointing. The horse shied away from her pointing hand and she quickly pulled it back, not wanting to frighten him any more.

It was then she noticed the papers on the stall doors, telling about the horses and the starting prices and so on. She briefly glanced at this horse's papers, noticing a lot of info missing, like the date of birth, the parents, or anything to show lineage. She frowned, wondering how such a good horse could have no lineage, but figured that his papers had been lost or he had never been registered. She continued reading what little was on the paper. She glanced at the asking price and paused there. The horse was only starting at one hundred and fifty dollars. She frowned at so little a price, but shrugged; the former owner probably didn't know the value of his horse. He probably thought that it was a cheap, no good, waste of money. She had been angry when she had seen the condition of the horse but this only fueled her anger. She put a rein on it though and continued reading.

When she glanced at REGISTERED NAME, she noticed it was curiously blank. She looked up at the horse, then back down to the paper, wondering what his name had been.

::Thyme.::

Startled, Liza looked around, trying to find the owner of the voice. There was nobody in the vicinity but her father, but the voice hadn't been his. Who was that, she thought puzzledly.

::Me.::

She looked around again, then turned back to the stall. YOU?, she thought.

::Yes.:: The horse tossed its head up and down, making it look like it was nodding.

Liza could just stare in confusion. There is no such thing as telepathy, she thought.

::What am I then?::

You're my imagination, she thought, her mind all in a jumble. Am I going crazy, she thought.

::No, you're not. I'm really here.:: With that, the horse stopped cowering and slowly straightened, and edged over to Liza. ::You won't hurt me, will you?:: he thought, caution heavily lacing his voice.

"No, I won't hurt you," she said out loud, suprised to hear her own voice. She looked around for her father, but he had gone on to the next horse and was reading the paper on the door. Okay, she thought, no help from that corner.

She pulled out the broken off bit of carrot and once again offered it to him. This time, though, he timidly, slowly, drifted towards Liza, his thoughts seeking reassurance. Finally, convinced, he quickly put his head out as far as it could go and took the carrot. When he had it, he drew back again, and chewed it contentedly.

"Okay feller, le's go now." A stout, muscular man shoved Liza none too gently aside and, opening the stall door, entered Thyme's stall and, before the horse could pull away, clipped a short lead rope onto the brown halter the horse wore. "Time to get yerself sold." Turning back and heading out the door, dragging the horse behind him, he finally noticed Liza, looking rather indignant at being shoved so rudely aside and horrified by the treatment of the horse. Smiling, the man said in a voice that sounded like gravel, "Don' you worry none, honey. We'll take care of this little pony." He jerked the lead rope to emphasize his point. Then, hauling Thyme behind him, he walked down towards the auction arena, the horse following dejectedly behind him.

Liza couldn't believe what she had seen. Never in any of her visits had she seen such cruel treatment of a horse, no matter the condition. But what had torn her heart the most was when she had seen how little a fight Thyme had put up. He had cowered when the man had arrived, but once he had been jerked and hauled out, he had given up. Why, she thought, both indignant and sad at the same time, if that had been Red Devil, he would have trampled the guy!

Tears sprang into her eyes as she remembered the old horse. But that's not possible, she thought fiercly. Thyme can't end up as dogmeat! He's too good. But people only see the outside, and they didn't know what she did.

Then an idea took shape in her mind. So simple, she thought, so very simple. The more she thought about it, the better it looked. She looked around for her father and found him eight stalls away, gazing at a little grey filly for sale as a broodmare. She grabbed his arm and pulled him towards the auction arena. "I found something I want, dad."

He stared at her, nonplussed. He had seen no horse that his daughter might want, and he knew his daughter would not stoop lower than what her dreams called for. "You sure?" he asked, regaining his composure. "Once you get a horse here, that's no turning-----"

"I know dad. Come on," she said, pulling harder on his arm, "he's about to go up for sale."

Pulling him toward the arena, she just hoped her father wouldn't think she was too crazy.

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1997 The Dragon Queen