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Arms and Armor
The man sitting at the desk tiredly ran his fingers through his short dark hair and tried to refocus his attention on the blurry reproduction in front of him. It didn't help that the handwriting was in an angular blackletter script, what most people would call "gothic". Or that the Latin was so riddled with abbreviations and the occasional old French phrase that it was sometimes impossible to determine what the early fifteenth century scribe was actually saying. He rubbed his weary eyes and leaned back in the chair. Well, I wanted to be comprehensive in this little thesis of mine. And I've only just begun.
Somehow it felt like years instead of just two months since he had first started. Five years of both classical and medieval Latin, and seven of French and German notwithstanding, he considered manuscript reading a necessary evil. He had finally decided on a topic for his doctoral thesis midway through his last year taking proper graduate classes at Boston College. It was titled, still somewhat tentatively at this point, "A Comprehensive History of Knighthood from 900 to 1415," by Jared Black. Ambitious, yes. Perhaps too much. He was already thinking of specializing, but he wasn't quite willing to give up on the social aspects in favor of the development of a knight's equipment yet.
Jared drummed his fingers on the desk and closed the book, deciding that he'd studied more than enough for one day. The Huxley Arms and Armor Museum and Library wasn't large, but it did have more about sword and armor fabrication techniques than almost anyplace in the United States. He'd have to go to Europe to find more, and he couldn't afford that yet. Though if his thesis panned out there was a possible fellowship at Oxford awaiting him. But it would be years before that would happen, and between then and now was a lot of reading, writing, and revision. I'm going to need glasses before I'm finished here.
At least working at the museum as an intern for the next few months was giving him an opportunity to examine the equipment itself. The Huxley had full suits, from the simple chain mail shirts--called hauberks--and helmets of the tenth century, to the elaborately decorated plate parade armor of the sixteenth, and the barding used to protect horses. They had a huge selection of swords, maces, flails, pole arms, and daggers. Some of the collection were replicas made on the premises, including about half of those on display. But at least three quarters were kept away from public eyes, in boxes and crates in a carefully climate controlled warehouse attached to the museum proper. The entire operation was overseen by a Board of Trustees, presided over by the direct descendent of the steel tycoon who had founded it sixty five years before, Ronald Huxley.
Great Barrington wasn't the most exciting of places. It was located in a mostly rural area in the southwest corner of Massachusetts. It was a quiet, lonely town with none of Boston's conveniences. And colder. It was mid-November and the snow was already starting to fall. By the time he had left for the museum that morning there was already two inches on the ground. He was renting an unheated attic room because there was no way he could find a furnished apartment for just a few months. At least the museum was warm and inviting, and he had a set of keys.
Jared collected his notes, then left the library and went out into the museum proper, and found the man surveying his metal empire like a medieval lord overseeing his serfs. The third Ronald Huxley was in his mid-forties, balding but with an obvious combover in a desperate attempt to disguise his thinning hair. He wore a pair of small octagonal glasses that gave him a pinch-faced look, and had a marked paunch under his neat dress shirt and tie. He was scrutinizing a suit of gothic German armor for flaws, leaning so close his nose occasionally brushed it, and squinting at the shining surface. Jared tried to slip out without being seen, but to no avail. Ronald Huxley the Third had a reedy voice that he thought sounded cultured. "Ah, Mr. Black. Working late, I see. How go your studies? Found anything new?"
Since he had begun his research last September he had seen Huxley enter the library several times, and then only to ask him how he was doing. On every occasion the man had looked over his shoulder at the book he was reading, and the notes he took from it. Inevitably afterwards the book was absent from its place for up to a week, when nothing was supposed to leave the room. And when they were returned, they had dog-eared pages. At least none had been manuscripts, but the imported facsimiles were very hard and expensive to replace. The Librarian insisted that if anyone removed materials he would know, but something told Jared that whenever the founder's grandson wanted to take something he turned a blind eye.
Gotta love nepotism. Jared considered his response carefully. "Nothing much today, Doctor Huxley. I was just heading home..."
That opened the floodgates. Who knew one man could have so much inane chatter in him? He talked about the weather, his recent car troubles, a new shipment of books that was coming in, and a dozen tangents besides. It was nearly nine before Jared finally extracted himself and went out into the small parking lot. The snow had stopped, and the harsh white light reflected off the snow in the corner of the lot where he had left his Honda Civic, up against the woods. Deer stomped and blew at him before bounding away, their flagging tails reflecting surprisingly brightly in the dim parking lot lighting. The car was buried halfway up the wheel wells from a small drift. Grumbling, he pushed the snow off the trunk and took out the small shovel and scraper he always kept inside, and then watched as Dr. Huxley drove away in his Lexus sport-utility vehicle without any sign of concern for him. It was another chilly hour before he got his car free.
Veteran's Day weekend gave him time to escape his small town exile and go home to Boston. There was only a dusting of quickly melting snow near the city; the temperature had risen back up into the forties after the brief storm had dumped almost a foot well inland. Jared devoured the Greek Corner gyro like a starving man in the Back Bay apartment he still shared. It would be nice to sleep in his own warm bed for a change. "I hate that place," he complained to his friend Stephen Burns, a fellow medievalist. "Why couldn't the Higgins Museum have had an opening? They're twice Huxley's size..."
"And a much shorter drive," said Jared's blonde roommate. Steve had grown a goatee since the last he'd seen him. He wasn't exactly the type of person one would expect as a graduate student, let alone as a medieval scholar. He was a heavyset man who had played football in high school, and had a deep voice that wavered between baritone and bass, depending on his mood. But nothing was ever mispronounced. He had the genuinely cultured tone of voice that Ronald Huxley III wished he had. They had been roommates since they were freshmen, up until Jared had been forced to temporarily move west for his internship. "Speaking of Huxley, I thought you should see this."
He picked up a copy of a medieval studies journal and handed it to Jared. It was the same publication who had rejected one of his submissions as a first year grad student, but made up for it for the next two. It was about six years old. There was an article in it by Ronald Huxley, M.A.. "Wait a second, he claimed that he got his Ph.D. ten years ago. It even says 'doctor' on his door."
"Was anyone other than museum employees in earshot when he said that?"
"Come to think of it, no. And everywhere else the 'doctor' tag is removable."
Steve leaned back on the couch. "I loved that place when I was a kid. Huxley Jr. always had a spare moment to tell a story to anyone who asked, and he always made it interesting. And he'd bring bits of armor to school and talk glowingly about medieval times. He seemed to know so many things about so much. I wanted to be just like him. I credit him with getting where I am today. Never saw anything of his son, though."
"Wouldn't the Board of Trustees have appointed him?"
"Yes, but I don't know what the criteria is for a new Curator. But I do know that this is the only thing Huxley's published since he took control of the museum about fifteen years ago. Go ahead, read it."
It was a fifteen page article about mid-sixteenth century parade armor, and the writing style was very familiar to Jared, down to most of the sources used. He closed the journal, troubled. "Wasn't the last time they had a graduate student intern there about six years ago?"
"Just about, yes. And you'd recognize the name."
Before any doctoral candidate starts on a thesis they first check and see if anything like it has been done before, so they don't repeat what's already been said, or address questions raised in the older theses from a different angle. Knights and chivalry were very popular subjects among some medievalists, though not as much as the social history aspects during the past couple decades. The thesis written by (now Doctor) Anthony Drake focused on similar areas that Jared was studying, and some of his named sources were from the Huxley Library.
Jared gritted his teeth and finished off his gyro before saying anything. "You know, I'd quit if I didn't need the sources to much..."
"Just watch your back. Otherwise he'll steal your research right from under your nose."
Unfortunately Jared couldn't abruptly alter his behavior and not be noticed. The entire museum staff seemed either very loyal or very apathetic to Ronald Huxley's untrue claims of being a scholar. He didn't dare bring up the issue in public, though the man had a number of other bad habits that grated on his nerves nearly as much. And since he only worked for six hours a day at most, he simply tucked himself into a corner of the library with two or three books he was studying and tried to make himself invisible.
But Huxley was hanging around him more frequently now that he was on to something, normally trying to appear like he was making sure all the shelves were straight. Every so often Jared felt like he was being watched, but always when he looked back Huxley was squinting at the spine of the book right in front of him as if he could see through the leather to the pages beneath; or worst of all, he was running his finger along the visor of the 14th century helmet close to Jared's carrel. He winced every time he saw that. If there was one thing that was repeatedly told to visitors was that they shouldn't touch the armor. Skin moisture, salts, and oils accelerated the formation of rust. They always used special cotton gloves in the daily demonstration that Jared was a part of, if there were enough people in the museum.
He even did it when there were visitors in the museum. Part of Jared's duties was to keep people from touching things, and there were signs everywhere. Yet when Huxley started to drone about this or that piece he would inevitably finger it in one way or another. One day in early December, when the building was empty of even most of the staff due to more snowfall, Jared saw him run his finger down the chest piece of a one-of-a-kind Milanese breastplate. "Sir," he found himself saying, "please don't touch..."
Huxley glared back at him acidly. "Who do you think owns this piece, Mr. Black?"
Jared continued dumbly, too flustered by his mistake to stop himself. "Well, technically the Board of Trustees..."
"Controls the assets of the Estate and the museum. Yes, I know. But I don't need you to remind me!"
"Well, sir... I..." Jared swallowed and wiped his sweating brow. Oddly, he only felt release. "You obviously won't want me here in the future, so..."
Huxley appeared hurt. "You misjudge me, Mr. Black. In fact, I wish to reward you for reproaching me for my faux pas. Have you seen the warehouse yet?"
"Some of it." His initial tour had only been cursory, and he was especially interested in the smithy out behind the building proper. But the blacksmith didn't like anyone watching while he worked. The man was very good, but just as secretive about his techniques as any medieval guildsman in his trade. It frustrated Jared that he could never get any information out of the man, which would be perfect for his thesis.
Now the Curator smiled, an oily grin like a used car salesman. Huxley went over to the front doors and locked them, flipping the sign to closed. "Then come with me. Perhaps you deserve a proper tour."
The museum wasn't large, especially when compared to the three-story Higgins in Worcester. The whole structure was faced with granite, giving the impression of a castle without overdoing it. The museum proper was two stories tall, with the "Great Hall" that had the permanently displayed pieces. It was decorated with banners, tapestries, and shields hanging from the walls. There were no windows, light was provided by halogen sources that had been recently installed. Here and there were what Jared could only call "trinkets" if he was being kind. They were very close to the kind of things that uninformed people about the middle ages bought because they looked that way, bordering on the tasteless. Mostly they were newer, purchased since Huxley had taken over in an effort to appear like he was actually doing some work. But it all contributed to the atmosphere of neglect that permeated everywhere.
There were two smaller rooms on the second floor area that ringed the vaulted ceiling of the Great Hall. They were supposed to have rotating exhibits, but they hadn't been changed in almost six years. The gift shop was next to the short entrance hall.
Behind the museum was the warehouse, almost twice the size of the main museum building, where by far most of the collection was kept. The original Ronald Huxley had built it to compete with his rival in the industry, John Woodman Higgins. The Huxley Museum was only open four days a week, obstinately to give researchers time to do their work without the interference from patrons. But Jared was the only one actually doing anything like study. He couldn't call what the current Ronald Huxley was doing "research". Once he had reluctantly passed by his open office door, and noticed him trying to work his way through some Latin text. Through the miasma of pipe smoke Jared had heard him trying to sound out the words and failing most of the time.
They left the museum proper and went through the office and supply room block that separated it from the warehouse. "Doctor" Huxley led him through two sets of fire doors that kept the climate inside at a constant. Inside, the two-story building was filled to the ceiling with heavy stainless steel shelves, upon which sat wooden crates of various sizes. Most of the armor wasn't on mannequins, but still in pieces inside of felt-lined boxes, each was carefully marked with the year, geographical location, style, and had a complex numbering scheme so in case the different boxes were separated they could be reunited. The space between the shelves was wide enough for a forklift, which sat near the roll-up door on the opposite end where deliveries were made. An eighth of the warehouse was given over to unused armor mountings, in-progress new exhibits, and an area where a researcher could examine equipment freely. The heaters hummed in the background. There wasn't a speck of dust in the air. While the museum and library showed a few signs of neglect, this place seemed state of the art.
Jared followed the dour man to a section that had a number of boxes labeled: "Greenwich, approx. 1520. Acq. 1962 by R. Huxley II." And then a notation what piece was inside of each wooden box. He slid out one labeled "R. Gau.", then gestured for Jared to follow him into the research area. He picked up a small crowbar. "My father found this particular piece in Lincolnshire when I was a child. He bought everything, including the records that came with it."
The Curator seemed genuinely excited as he opened the box. Sitting inside was the oddest gauntlet Jared had ever seen. Sometimes they didn't have individual fingers, especially those made for foot battles in tournaments, but this one went beyond that. The metal glove was a large and round, and reminded Jared strongly of a horse's hoof. Huxley put on a pair of cotton gloves and reverently took it out of its box. "Strange, isn't it? You should see the rest of the suit." He pointed it at him end first. "See? It's even got the structure of a horse's hoof pounded into it. See?"
"It can't be barding," Jared said, looking closely at the strange piece of armor. "It's definitely Greenwich in origin... form-fitting around the wrists... strips of metal articulated together... No thumbs. Reminds me of a tournament suit for Henry VIII..."
"Yes, yes. My father knew that much, but unfortunately this suit hasn't been displayed publicly for one reason or another. At the time the collection was expanding so much he brought it home and forgot about it." He placed it back into its box. "The records are in another crate right beside it... interested?"
Jared nodded emphatically. While Huxley returned with another small crate, he began to wonder if he had misjudged the man. Inside were four leather-bound books, all manuscripts by the look of them. Their covers were various shades of brown, but they were remarkably well preserved for being around for almost half a millenium. "There's a couple interesting things about the history of this piece," Huxley said. "But only one of the journals is in barely readable English, and the rest are in German and Latin." Huxley smiled humorlessly. "And as you've discovered, Mr. Black, neither language comes to me easily."
"Uh... what is it you want me to do, exactly? Surely these books have been studied before..."
"As a matter of fact, they haven't. Why will become clear with you once I show you the rest. But for now, would you like to try on the gauntlet? It's about your size"
"I really think you could. You know that half suit you wear in the demonstration is not a replica. So I think I can trust you with this."
Jared reluctantly pulled on a long leather arming glove, then Huxley slipped it over his hand, securing it with a few turns of the screws along his forearm. It was heavy, though not as bad as the gauntlets he wore in the demonstration. He flexed his arm, unable to twist his wrist at all. The "hoof" went up and down. His hand tingled oddly, as if it had fallen asleep a little. "Parade armor?"
"Yes and no, my father thought. We've run across many helmets and suits with a animal themes--bears, lions, birds-of-prey--but none quite as extreme as this. What I need you to do is find some inkling of its purpose in these other volumes."
Huxley undid the screws and removed the gauntlet. Jared, very curious about how it was made, put on cotton gloves himself and looked at the inside. Barely visible, etched in a pair of lines along the top of the forearm, was what looked like writing. Huxley put it back into its box before he could see any more detail. The founder's grandson then gave him that oily smile again. "Perhaps you would do me another favor?"
With that tone of voice, Jared knew that if he didn't agree then when he next walked out the door it would be for the last time. Being fired from the museum would be a huge black mark on his record he couldn't afford. Maybe he hadn't misjudged him. "Yes, sir?"
"The Museum's annual donor thank-you dinner is on the twenty-third. I would like your assistance in showing this 'new' part of our collection to them."
That didn't sound so difficult. Fifty pounds of armor for twenty or so minutes he could stand. And if it meant that he could find out why and how it was made, so much the better. Jared agreed, since he really hadn't a choice, then tried to rub the feeling back into his hand.
Jared had no peace afterwards. And the manuscripts proved to be more damaged than they had appeared. They had been re-covered at least once in their history, and the parchment inside was often brittle and showed signs of mold. He spent hours on just a single short passage. In the library he had his own study carrel with a lockable drawer, where he had kept the book he was working on and his steno notepads, useful because he could write down the Latin, German, or French selection he was going to quote on the left column, and its English translation on the right. Almost every morning he'd come in and find that the drawer was unlocked and his notes disarranged--or even occasionally torn out of the notebook. Only the Curator had the master key to every carrel.
Why do I put up with this? Why don't I just quit? Because, he reminded himself, that the donor party was less than two weeks away and he'd have to follow through with wearing the armor before his resignation notice time was up. And he couldn't just up and leave, that would be a black mark on his record.
And then there was the writing inside the gauntlet. Huxley wasn't letting him near the equipment itself, but it had looked like Arabic. And since Steve's expertise was in the Crusades, his roommate had opted to learn the language. He decided to give his friend a call.
Huxley's transparent smile was even more pronounced when he met Steve. "So, you're a medievalist, too? Any interest in studying at the Museum?"
"Jared can't stop talking about it, sir," said Steve woodenly.
"I see, I see. Well, I have no objections to your presence as long as you make yourself invisible. And I do hope that you decide to take advantage of what we have to offer."
Steve watched Huxley walk back into the Great Hall, and rubbed his hands together. "I feel like I should go wash up," he said sourly. "Why isn't he in a tuxedo?"
"It's this year's dinner theme. 'Topsy-turvy Day'. You know the old tradition."
"Where the lowest monk would be made abbot for a day. The world turned on its head. Like at the beginning of Hunchback of Notre Dame. All that's left in this country is Mardi Gras. His timing is a little off."
Jared had at least discovered the purpose of the suit, and it fit the theme of the dinner. In 1519 Henry VIII had given the suit to one of his knights. It was supposed to make him look like his warhorse, and if the scribe was correct, the knight in question had worn it for one night only. Unfortunately that was as far as he had gotten before today, and he hadn't begun on the other two journals yet. One was apparently from the armorer himself, but was in a cryptic script that had put Jared off of it for now. He looked at his watch. "Well, I'd better get suited up. I hope your writing hand is quick."
Steve patted his back pocket. "Arabic's a very nice, flowing script. Don't worry."
Everything was laid out on the floor when they arrived in the warehouse. The arming clothes and padding that went with it was on a table, and there was only the perpetually bored staff member who helped him at the demonstration to actually handle the pieces. Jared was stunned by the strangeness of the armor. The gauntlet had only hinted at how horse-like the suit really was. The head had an abbreviated muzzle with the eyes and nostrils tamped in, and a pair of equine ears. There was the hint of a saddle actually molded into the torso pieces, and the legs looked absolutely impossible to fit into. Worst of all--and it became very clear why this suit was never displayed--was a very embarrassing codpiece. It wasn't as graphic as it might have been, for Jared was familiar with others that were, but it was almost enough to make him march out the door. Of course, what was shaped into armor was merely a reflection of the more common clothing styles of the time. During the sixteenth century men turned themselves into objects of desire, flaunting their masculinity. A very shocking thing to modern sensibilities.
He wants me to march out there for twenty minutes. At least they won't be able to see my face... though he might introduce me anyway. If a few of his donors aren't as familiar with these kinds of traditions as I am they might react badly... Which means it might be a bad night for him. With that thought in mind following through didn't seem quite so potentially mortifying. "You might as well get started," he told the male employee.
Steve was grinning like a madman even as he picked up the left gauntlet with a gloved hand. With the other hand he took out his pen and notepad and started to jot down the inscription inside. His large fingers moved amazingly fast, managing to finish copying before the staff member needed each separate piece. He had enough time to finish, as the legs took a few minutes each to figure out how they fitted on. The foot was supported within the distorted "hoof" while the articulated leg imitated the general shape of a horse's hind leg.
The final touches were a plume on the helmet, and tail made of real black horsehair. Steve looked up from his notepad. "You okay in there?"
Jared's huffed under the weight of the armor. "Sort of. I'm thanking every moment I've spent in the gym about now. I just want to get this over with. Is he ready out there yet?"
"What? Oh... I'll go check."
It seemed an eternity before he returned, a smirk on his face. "You can go in when you want. He said he'll be ready."
"What took you so long? And stop smirking like that. This is hard enough as it is."
"At least some of the donors are actually very nice older men with a scholarly bent. One assumed I was an intern so started chatting--and to be courteous I had to answer. It turned out he was one of Huxley Junior's friends..."
"So you were trading memories while I stand here looking like a fool. Thanks, friend."
The smirk immediately dropped off his face. "No need to get in a snit, Jared. I'm not laughing at your expense, truly."
Jared sighed. He was already starting to sweat under the arming clothes, and like when he had worn just the gauntlet before, his skin tingled. Not quite an itch, like a gentle pressure with a hint of cold. "Let's just get this over with."
"I'll tag along. They're all dressed 'casual' out there so I'll blend in."
Enticing, mouth-watering food smells filled the Great Hall. In keeping with the "topsy-turvy" theme the food wasn't anything too fancy. But the sirloin steak was enough to make Jared's stomach growl. Huxley walked over when he came in, cast him a disapproving look, then closed the visor. His field of view immediately narrowed to a tiny fraction of what he really needed to see. The eyes had holes where the pupils should be, and there was a slit directly in front between them.
Huxley ordered him to wander around the room, obviously wanting to provide "atmosphere" to the gathering, until he said Jared could go. There were twenty donors in all, mostly male and around Huxley's age. Only a few were old enough that they may have known Huxley Jr., and they kept to themselves in a group of their own. The Board of Trustees was there also.
A long table sat in the middle of the Great Hall with place settings for at least fifty people. Men and women stared at him, the wives of many of the older donors gasping in shock and averting their eyes. Some men glared at him through the eyeslits while others gave Huxley offended looks and tried to keep their wives away. Others weren't quite so easily offended, and examined Jared up close as if they were examining a racehorse. One man even tried to strike up a conversation with him, though it was deflected by Huxley, who insisted on answering all the questions himself, only to display just how ignorant he was. Jared chuckled under his breath.
Jared moved stiffly from one end of the room to the other, his tired arms held limply at his sides. He felt treated like a the horse the armor resembled. Ten minutes passed like the slow grind of a glacier, twenty an entire ice age, and an hour dragged into geological time scales. The armor weighed almost a hundred pounds, and though Jared wasn't exactly weak, he didn't have the endurance of a man who had grown up a knight.
"What in God's name is that, Ronald?" said a disapproving voice to Jared's right.
Huxley cleared his throat. "Young Mr. Black is wearing out this suit in public for the first time. It's..."
"And hopefully the last," the same voice continued.
"That's the suit Ronnie and I found in Lincolnsire, in sixty-two," came another, older voice with a very light German accent. "A very curious example..."
"'Curious' isn't the word I'd use, Dr. Klein."
Jared turned to look at the sources of both voices. The first was about Huxley's age, and resembled him in general appearance and attitude, though they didn't appear related. The one called Klein looked like he was in his mid-seventies, but his gray eyes seemed clear and youthful. He had a rim of white hair on his bald head, and a face full of smile lines. He had a very strong, clear voice that had refined with age, gaining personality like wine. Though currently he was giving Huxley's friend a frown. He chewed on his lower lip for a moment. "Forget I mentioned it. Let's eat, shall we?"
During the conversation most of them seemed to defer to him, so at his suggestion the buffet was finally opened. Another twenty minutes passed as the group moved through the line. Dr. Klein was usually looking in his direction, an unreadable expression on his face. As he was finishing his meat, Dr. Klein glared at Huxley. "Ronald, why don't you let him go? He's more than earned his keep for tonight."
Huxley pursed his lips. "Surely you don't think..."
"I do think," Klein insisted. "If you mistreat your interns, how do you expect to attract more? Why, I doubt this young man will even want to stay after tonight."
The dour man looked like he'd just been slapped in the face and nervously rearranged his comb-over. Most of the other donors looked like they agreed with Dr. Klein, if only to get the "horse" out of the room. "Yes, of course. How thoughtless of me." He gestured dismissively at Jared. "You may go."
As the armor was removed Jared felt like he was going to collapse. His muscles burned with fatigue; he wanted to go home, take a shower, and crawl into bed. As Steve helped the staff member remove the armor, Dr. Klein came into the warehouse carrying a plate generously piled with food. "I thought you might be hungry after your ordeal." He set it down on the table, then examined the armor laid out on the floor.
"Thank you very much, sir," said Jared.
"I hope it sits on your stomach well," Klein continued cryptically. "Ronald tells me that you've been translating the records that go with the suit for him."
Jared picked up the fork with stiff fingers and speared a slice of steak. He was tired and fed up enough to be honest. "A thankless task."
"I imagine so. Well, I just thought I should tell you that I read the materials almost forty years ago. Forget the others and focus on the armorer's notes. They're in a very difficult German, but are quite important." He reached into his pocket and retrieved a business card from his wallet. But he gave it to Steve. "It was good meeting you, Mr. Burns. I'm happy to know that there's someone who cares for this place like Ronnie did."
"Likewise, Dr. Klein. A pleasure meeting you, also."
"Call me Albrecht. We'll have to have a long talk later. Have a good evening, both of you." He left the room.
Steve couldn't stop talking about Dr. Klein the whole way back to the home where Jared was staying. But he paid little attention, leaning against Steve's car door, feeling sore and worn out. He'd hardly touched the meat, even though it had smelled good. But the salad had been devoured and the wonderful chocolate mousse dessert was still on his tongue. He almost drifted off to sleep before the car came to a halt. Steve made a face. "Damn, you really are exhausted, aren't you?"
Jared just bared his teeth and snorted. "Yes! I'm just going to collapse into bed. We'll head back to Boston bright and early. I think I'm going to quit that place anyway."
"I would. I'm very sorry I told you about it in the first place, Jared."
Jared fumbled with the door handle. His stiff fingers felt like they had been in a cast for a few weeks. "No, no. You knew it had some sources I needed, and I did some research on my own before I took the position."
The older couple who owned the house were watching TV when he and Steve entered. The kindly iron-haired woman looked concerned when she looked up from watching "Jeopardy". "Landsakes, Jared. You look like death warmed over!" She immediately got out of her chair and busied herself with making a bed out of the downstairs couch. "You're sleeping down here tonight. It's too cold for you to sleep up there in your condition."
Steve watched her fuss over Jared. "If she's going to get you taken care of, I'm going to head to my motel room and see if I can't translate that Arabic I copied. G'night."
In the morning Jared really did feel like death warmed over. His muscles were so sore that any movement at all made him want to groan--and he would have if against all reason his jaw didn't ache also. Even his tongue had gotten into the act. Mrs. York fussed over him from the moment she came downstairs, fixing him oatmeal for breakfast and giving him a huge glass of orange juice. "I must have caught the flu or something," Jared said.
"I don't know," Mrs. York replied. "The way you inhaled that oatmeal I think you're probably fine. I'm going to give Ronald Huxley a piece of my mind..."
Jared he wanted to bite that man. "That's okay, Mrs. York. I'm quitting anyway."
"Good! The place hasn't been the same since Junior died. I haven't been there but once since."
"Can I have more oatmeal?"
He was on his fifth helping when Steve arrived. Steve tapped his pen on his notepad as he sat down on the table. "I managed to translate everything last night. It wasn't much, and some parts were too rubbed out to read..." He finally really looked at Jared. "What the hell is wrong with you? Your mouth looks swollen..." Steve trailed off, staring, and shook his head. "Anyway..."
His heavyset friend sat down across from him. Mrs. York offered to fix him breakfast. Steve smiled and asked for bacon, pancakes, and scrambled eggs. "Nice landlady you've got," he said to Jared.
Jared smiled, his lips felt heavy and thick. "The one bright spot out here. What'd you find?"
"Well, I've studied Arabic for years and I've never encountered anything quite like it. It's like... never mind, you've never studied it. But the only thing I can properly call it is a magic spell."
Jared laughed heartily. "Right, sure... what?" He glared at his smirking roommate.
"I think you wore that suit too long. That was a rather good whinny. Uh... whinny..." Steve liberally sprinkled pepper on his scrambled eggs, then flipped open his steno pad. "Horse... Hrm..."
Stephen took a bite of pancake and picked up his pen, tapping the notepad with the back. "This word is 'horse'. But combined with everything else..." He looked very closely at Jared's face. "Nah... you probably caught something from that codpiece..."
"I think your friend needs to work on his manners," Mrs. York chided.
Jared snorted... then quickly reached for a napkin, as he couldn't stop himself from blowing his nose. His lips felt like they were made of rubber, nostrils wide and flaring. He scratched an itch along the back of his neck. "Whatever I'm coming down with, it sucks. Sorry, Mrs. York. I guess I need to work on my manners just as much as Steve." He put down his spoon, as his stiff thumb no longer wanted to move. Damned armor... I'm going to have to stay here at least until tomorrow...
But his friend was no longer smiling. Instead he was busily flipping back and forth between pages, recopying, and muttering to himself. After a few minutes of this he frowned, looked at Jared, then back at his notes. "This is insane," he scoffed. "I'm not even sure this translation is correct. It's in a very odd dialect."
Jared picked at the back of his neck. The itching was gone, but in its place was... well, it was an impossibility. It felt like very stiff hair. He ignored it, putting it to simply needing a haircut. "What about it?"
"Before I jump to any conclusions, we ought to corroborate this somehow," Steve continued. "Dr. Klein suggested you check the notes... Perhaps we ought to head over to the museum. You have a set of keys, don't you? And the security system code?"
"If it makes you happy." Jared sighed.
Once Steve had an idea there was no making him let go until his curiosity was sated. Jared was already dressed and packed. But with his stiff hands he didn't think he should drive, so he once more rode with his friend to the museum. It was going to be a brown, slushy Christmas by the looks of things. The snow that had fallen so nicely earlier in the month had given way to temperatures that fell well below freezing at night, but barely high enough to melt just a little during the day. It made un-salted sidewalks and pavement treacherous to drive or walk on, and the sand trucks were working overtime in this little community. Steve hadn't had time to put snow tires on his car, so it was slow going.
"Of course, you know why there were so many oversized codpieces on armor in the sixteenth century," Steve jibed. "Many men were in a lot of pain. A little North American import called..."
"Syphilis. I know, Steve. But I doubt anything survived in there for that long; so just shut up. You aren't helping." Jared slumped against the window, staring out at the ice-crusted world beyond, feeling bloated. His belly was uncharacteristically stretching his shirt. Did I really eat that much this morning? he wondered. Too much oatmeal could explain why he was feeling that way. But he was still hungry, but hadn't thought it was a good idea to ask for more. Whatever it was he had, it wasn't the flu, and it definitely wasn't a centuries-old venereal disease. He wanted to smack his roommate for suggesting that, or maybe bite him.
The darkened interior of the warehouse met Jared's nose with the tang of metal. The only light was from a few isolated florescent fixtures. He felt for the light switch with a throbbing right hand that felt no more useful than a club, and flipped them on.
"Did you see smoke coming from the smithy?" Steve said.
"The blacksmith works his own hours. He's kind of a loner," Jared explained. His clothes felt tight and uncomfortable. Maybe I should just give up on this and go see a doctor... But no, it would wait a little while longer. Just a few minutes.
Jared stumbled over to the shelf where the suit was supposed to be kept. The armor itself was still laid out on the floor of the exhibit preparation area, but the armorer's notes were kept inside the small crate on the shelf. He reached up to remove it, then stared at his like right hand. His fingers were all there, but they were about as useful as a claw. No matter what he did they wouldn't bend individually. Damn stupid gauntlets. They squeezed my hands so hard I probably got nerve damage or something.
Awkwardly he took the crate out of its slot, then had Steve use the small crowbar to take the top off. The German volume was sitting on the top. Jared scratched at the back of his neck. "This might take a while. But I think I have an idea where to start." He put a glove on his left hand and carefully turned the old parchment into the middle of the book. "A literate blacksmith in the sixteenth century is rare enough. But I wonder why he'd write things down... It's out of character..."
"Perhaps for guild records?" Steve suggested.
Jared shrugged. Then he pointed at the writing in the book. "See, here was something that caught my eye. It's all gibberish written, but if you say it out loud it seems to have a rhyme and reason to it. I only remembered it because I know what Arabic sounds like."
"Well, I can't read German. What's it say?" When Jared repeated the phrases to him, the blonde man's eyes widened. "My God..."
"Accent aside, that's the spell that was written in the armor. And it's also got the words I'm missing." He looked closer at Jared's face, and at his distorted hand. "Nah... this... this can't be happening. You're not..."
"I'm not what?"
"Never you mind. I must be going nuts. But... you look like you've just stepped off of the Planet of the Apes."
Underneath Jared's jacket his T-shirt stretched tautly against his torso as he laughed again. "What? You think I'm changing into a gorilla?"
Steve's expression was grave. "Not a gorilla, no." He looked around the room. "Is there a phone in here?"
"Next to the double doors on the opposite end. Why?"
Steve pointed at Jared's right hand, then made a dash for the phone.
There was only the remnants of a thumb remaining, while the rest of the fingers had fused into an elongated, almost shapeless mass tipped by a numb callus. Even his forearm had changed shape, but it was covered by dark reddish hair. The whole thing was sluggishly altering more even as he watched it, growing longer and heavier. It was round in cross-section, more like a foreleg. And only one type of animal had a single digit like that.
Jared fell to the ground as his body suddenly strained painfully at the seams of his jeans, his T-shirt stretching around his torso. It felt like a dozen knees had been planted in his groin in quick succession, and he keeled over onto the floor in a world of pain so intense that it blotted out everything else. Mercifully, the crotch of his jeans gave way before any permanent damage could be done, though a very chilly draft immediately followed. Seeing double from the pain, Jared hardly cared. Breathing hard, head throbbing with every heartbeat, he looked down over a barrel of a chest and saw, to his horror, the too-large blackened thing between his legs. He groaned and lay his head down on the cold concrete floor, wondering if Steve was calling an ambulance. He didn't want to lose anything down there; but if he did, Huxley was going to have a lawsuit on his hands. Awkwardly, Jared pushed himself up off the ground to rest against the cabinet beneath where he had set the book.
Almost as worrisome was the fact that, when he relaxed his eyes again, they went back to double vision. Jared wondered if he had bumped his head on something. But there was something else wrong with it. As it throbbed his vision seemed to get worse, each eye getting an increasingly different view of the world. He forced them to look forward again and saw something that couldn't possibly be real. Jared could see his own nostrils, now turned outwards, flaring in and out. They were getting farther away even as he stared.
From the other side of the warehouse his ears picked up Steve's voice on the phone. It had been inaudible a few just moments before. In his exhausted, strangely lucid state he listened. "You're bringing what? No, I don't think he needs it. He can't be... Yes, I know what the spell said. I probably should've call... It's just imp..." There was a long pause. When Steve continued he sounded quite shaken. "Okay, sir. I'll do it, but please forgive my skepticism. I promise that I'll believe my own eyes. And I'll be happy to hear more about your son when you get here. See you in about a half hour."
Jared was out of view when Steve returned. "Jared?" The response was a fit of coughing ending in a very animal whinny. "Damn..." He walked around the end of the cabinet to take a look, then gaped. Jared's right arm was recognizably a foreleg complete with a real hoof, and the left was moving in that direction also. He looked like he weighed about three hundred pounds, and his facial features were beyond the gorilla stage he had left him with. Jared's forehead had shrunken, mouth pulled forward into an abbreviated muzzle, and the bridge of his nose had widened considerably. His friend's skin had turned an ashen gray, and he was currently flexing his rubbery lips, showing big teeth. His nostrils flared in and out, and his breathing sounded exactly like a horse. "Damn..." he repeated dumbly. Promise to Dr. Klein or not, he stood there, stunned.
"Is... therrrre an ambulance coming?" Jared finally rasped, his mouth laboring to form the words.
Albrecht had specifically said not to call anyone else. Steve wasn't entirely sure he trusted the old man's motives, but he really didn't know what else to do. "Believe your own eyes" he had said. But he wasn't prepared to believe in magic! Maybe Jared had caught... something. "Something... like that, yes," Steve said, scanning the countertop for something to cut with. "Uh... you wouldn't know if there's a razor blade or something around here, somewhere?"
"Third rack... on the left... knife replicas..." Jared's voice broke into a nicker, and his enlarged mouth came forward a little more. His ears became pointed and grew upwards towards the top of his head. They twitched. Jared's features were hardly human any more.
Jared watched his roommate go, and hoped that maybe what he had was only Syphilis. And when he returned with a sharp-looking sixteenth century dagger, he wanted to shrink away into a corner. He tried to cover himself, but unwieldy arms simply didn't move in the same way they used to. "What... what are you going to do with that?"
"I was told to cut you out of your clothes if necessary. The way you're progressing I don't want something to cut off circulation to any important parts." Steve slowly came closer, and was taken aback by the waves of heat coming off of Jared. Oddly, his friend hadn't appeared to have broken a sweat. Steve was struck by the strangeness of it all, and couldn't help but smirk. "I'm not going to geld you if that's what you're worried about."
Jared's ears turned backwards as far as they could go. "Geld? Are you insane?" Quite the contrary, he seemed just as disconcerted as he was. Little prickles of fear went up Jared's back, and he had the strangest feeling that he was smelling it from his friend. He weakly tried to push Steve away when he started undoing shoelaces. "Stop it... Stop..."
It happened again. Steve watched Jared's whole body go rigid, then begin to swell. A real mane flopped into existence along a stretching neck, moving his head forward. What was left of his human nose melded into an equine muzzle, while his enlarging torso snapped a few weak seams of his favorite green jacket. His arms were thrust downwards an his expanding chest. His sneakers bulged, but didn't break. When Steve took a chance and cut the laces, they practically burst out their confinement into full-fledged hooves.
"Shit," said Steve. Jared even smelled like a horse now.
A pair of large, brown eyes with oblong pupils stared back at him. Jared was scared out of his wits. Every attempt to form words came out as a nicker, or some other horse sound. He watched dully as Steve began to methodically cut away the remnants of his jeans and jacket. Jared tried in vain to cover himself, but Steve wasn't looking there. Instead he was more interested in his lashing tail. For some reason he gave it a little tug.
Jared kicked, and missed by a mile. "Sorry," Steve apologized. "But... Good God, look at you! You're more than half a horse!"
"Shut up! I'm not a horrrrse!" Jared slurred.
Steve sighed and checked his watch. "Come on, Dr. Klein..."
"You didn't call an ambulance?! I'm laying here dying..." If it wasn't for an overwhelming surge of itching Jared would have lashed out. In dozens of little waves he was abruptly isolated from the air around him. Even his nether regions no longer felt the chill. "What... the..."
"Congratulations, Jared. You're a nice glossy bay. Hungry? Maybe Albrecht will have a feed bag for you when he gets here..." Steve seemed to be talking more to himself than Jared, a slightly hysterical edge to his voice. He began to cut away Jared's jacket and T-shirt. "Dr. Klein said you'll be a nice horse..."
One more pulse, and the world perceptibly shrank around Jared. Now free of his clothing an impulse he couldn't ignore told him to stand. It was automatic, almost robotic, but laying on his side was becoming very uncomfortable. Steve almost jumped to the other side of the room when he struggled to rise. Jared screamed into the silence of his mind and the world in general. "I'm not a horse I'm not a horse I'm not a horse!"
It was an impossibility. He didn't feel like a horse. His body had been put through a taffy stretcher, but he still felt fingers and toes, and other than a sensation of swelling in places nothing felt particularly out of place. Sure, his back was almost level to the ground, and it felt like someone had slipped a pair of high heels on his feet and gloves over his hands, but nothing at all was different otherwise.
Steve saw a short-bodied horse, ears flicking fore and back in confusion. Its forelegs were still too short, but it was already much larger than any human. But even as he watched, the spine was still getting longer, the paunch filling out, the ribcage enlarging. Huge thigh muscles were twitching. The only thing remaining were finishing touches. It had a shaggy winter coat of wiry dark red hair, a black mane and tail, and a white star between its eyes. Finally, the hot air around him began to cool, and the forelegs were now the correct length. An intelligent equine eye regarded Steve, but the horse was obviously confused. The whites showed.
This... this animal is Jared, he reminded himself. So it's not an really animal. He reached out to touch the hor... Jared's muzzle and was rewarded with a weak attempt to bite. "Bad hors... Jared."
"Shut up. I'm not a horse," Jared rasped, the words barely discernable. Behind, the end of his tail whistled through the air. He lifted a forehoof. "See? Hands! Ha..." He stared down at the hoof, seeing it for the first time.
His eyes glazed over, and he whinnied shrilly.
Hurricane winds tore at Jared's mind. First the color washed out of his vision, and then an explosion of scents had followed right on its heels. Winds pulled on his mind, twisting everything around, demolishing false sensations and making him fully conscious of his real body. And with it, his mind was pushed and pulled, twisted and turned, shaken and beaten into a new shape to match it. And when it was finally finished with him, he stretched his neck out to sniff at the familiar human standing nearby, whose breath smelled strongly of bacon, eggs, and maple syrup. Surprisingly, he remembered that this human's name was Steve. Jared turned his head to stare at his broad, hairy back. He consciously flicked his tail, then lifted one hoof after another. Words formed sluggishly in his mind, but his mouth couldn't voice them. Something seemed missing. The very attempt to speak was like walking over broken glass; it cut sharply into his awareness.
He was, in fact, a horse. The body image had been injected into his mind, leaving only tattered shreds of his humanity behind. Jared sighed at the loss, wondering what would mean. He'd retained words, still seemed to think like a human in certain ways. He recalled his childhood, and the hours of research he had put in. But uncertainty loomed, the dark shape of his future. Jared turned his ears back and tried to keep a hold of himself. There were so many smells he didn't like... including a certain amount of fear coming from his friend.
Steve was absolutely terrified. Jared whickered nervously and pondered if there was anything he could do about it, because his friend was affecting his mood so intensely he could hardly maintain a line of thought. He kept sniffing, scanning the room with his new senses, trying to detect what the human was afraid of.
It was Jared, of course.
He didn't blame him.
Jared didn't want to think about the past few hours too hard, either. It made his whole body tremble.
The world around him was now in shades of gray. Nearby things were sharp enough to make out a certain amount of detail, but beyond a few feet the world quickly blurred into detail-less shapes that were to be regarded as suspicious. But his senses of hearing and smell appeared to make up for this new deficiency. While Steve was close enough that he could make out his facial features, his smell was just as indelibly a part of him. For a moment he let this epiphany distract him, and moved forward to try and smell more.
Jared froze as he picked up someone slipping and falling on the ice outside, swiveling both ears to catch it better. A door opened and closed, then came a pause. In front of him, Steve finally started to calm down and looked him in the eye again. He said something, his smell shifting from moment to moment, from fear, to hope, and back to being afraid. The noises he made were meaningless.
And then it briefly flooded back to him. For the moment, at least. But it was like a faulty TV that only worked after banging on it. "What... I'm sorry... what did you say?"
"So you can understand me," said Steve, relieved. "God..."
"It comes and goes. I..." Jared's voice became a whicker again as he tried to tell his roommate what he'd heard outside.
Steve heard a voice come through the thick steel door. "Mr. Burns? It's Dr. Klein. Please open up. I've brought a friend..."
He took a moment to stare at the hor... Jared again before pushing open the first fire door. He propped it open with a block of wood, then opened the next. Dr. Klein was dressed in a green overcoat and slacks. Behind him was a large middle-aged man in a black trenchcoat, holding a leather halter with a nylon rope attached. And behind them was a Ford pickup with a hitched horse trailer. "Uh... come right in," Steve stammered.
"Mr. Burns, this is Justinian Cole. A close family friend," the old scholar said. "You can count on his complete discretion in this."
"God, I hope so. How are we supposed..."
"One step at a time, Mr. Burns. Shall we see to Mr. Black?"
Two strange scents entered the room. Jared nodded his head, twisting his neck around in an attempt to bring their faces into better focus. The larger figure stood for a moment, staring, and said something to the other newcomer, who smelled like the steak that had been served the night before. Jared reasoned that he must be Dr. Klein, because Steve was treating him with a certain amount of deference. The other scent, heavy with the acrid stink of new leather, approached him. Jared backed up until his rump was against the cabinets and nickered uneasily.
Dr. Klein's friend looked at the torn clothes scattered on the floor, then back at the horse. "I still don't believe it..."
"You and me both," Jared rasped. Cole stood there as if he'd just been punched.
"Ah, so he can talk, at least," Dr. Klein said, not sounding exactly surprised.
Jared pinned his ears back and bared his teeth. "Care to explain that a little more?"
"In good time, Mr. Black. But please, let Mr. Cole put the halter on you."
"I'm not a horse," Jared said weakly.
"Indeed. I don't suppose you were able to look at the English journal?"
"Huxley kept it."
"Yes. I suppose he would have..."
Verbal understanding failed Jared again and he was unable to ask what that meant. Reluctantly he allowed the stunned man to put the halter on him. Jared sniffed at an appetizing scent coming from his jacket pocket, and was rewarded with a carrot chunk and a rub on the muzzle. He snorted indignantly at being treated like a horse, and refused to move when the halter was pulled.
Another chunk of carrot later, and he was feeling a little less reluctant.
Jared's last gasp of denial came after being blanketed, tail-wrapped, and booted for his trip to the stable in the trailer. Cole obviously had vast experience with balky animals who didn't like riding in one, and had somehow managed to entice Jared forward with soothing words and the odd treat. Jared's hot breath steamed into the cold morning air. Steve stood beside him, a comforting hand on his withers. His friend looked so small; almost fragile, compared to him. From what Jared had been able to determine, he was large for a horse, with massive muscles all around. Exactly like a knight's warhorse was expected to be. He balked again as the darkness of the trailer loomed ahead, and tried to back up. Steve hissed.
"I'm not a horse," Jared protested for the last time, laying his ears back.
"Your hoof on my foot says otherwise!" Steve gasped with relief once it was removed.
"Sorry," Jared said despondently. Finally, he was secured inside. The space was so confining it made him very nervous. The truck's V-8 engine roared into life, and then they started off towards the stables.
The thought that he would probably spend the rest of his life there made Jared very unhappy.
An hour later they arrived. Jared could smell what he could only think of as other horses. The smells were comforting, in a twisted, surreal sort of way. Jared allowed himself to be led by the human towards the large stable building. It smelled strongly of sawdust, dozens of humans and horses, hay, and leather. Steve pulled up behind and got out of his car. The drive didn't seem to have made him less worried, and he was limping a little. Dr. Klein said something to him, Jared caught the end of the sentence. "...so if matters unfold the way I hope, Huxley will get what he deserves, and your friend will be back on two feet."
Jared tossed his head. "Whrrrat?"
Klein smiled. "Ah, good. I was just telling Stephen about my resolution to your problem. And since I have no idea how long your understanding will last, I shall make a long story short.
"About thirty years ago Ronnie finally found the time to examine the suit that you wore last night. He and I were aware of its dubious magical notoriety from the beginning, but were naturally skeptical even during our study of the journals. While we were busy translating, my son Hendrik put on the helmet and gauntlets for fun. He was seventeen at the time. The next day he changed, much as you did, though he only got the forelegs and head of a horse."
Jared laid his ears back. "If you knew what the armor could do afterwards, why didn't you destroy it? Or hide it somewhere, at least?"
The old man sighed. "That's what I wanted to do, but Ronnie would have none of it. He'd spent thousands of dollars on the piece, and felt that if we studied the spell the armor could be made safe by rubbing out key portions. Ronnie felt that if we rubbed out the whole spell than it would destroy the armor, so..."
"I don't imagine anyone wanted to try it on again to test if your alterations were successful," said Steve.
Klein nodded. "The sad thing is that my son wore it on a dare. He and Ronnie's son were quite close friends at the time. Suffice to say that afterwards that was no longer the case.
"To be perfectly frank, I had thought it had been firmly forgotten, but since Huxley was there at the time of my son's transformation, much as Stephen was, that was clearly in vain. But I never expected him to stoop so low as to use it to get Mr. Black out of the way."
"I almost wish he'd killed me," Jared nickered. Frustrated, he started biting at the wooden edges of the stall, nosing his feed empty bucket, his breath audibly whuffing into it. The stallion box was large, but it wasn't exactly made to keep a horse with human intelligence occupied. As soon as Klein and Steve left, Jared knew he'd be terribly bored. Once he was finished working out his annoyance he put his large head over the gate and snorted. "Almost. I suppose even if you didn't have a cure for me, I'd simply make due."
"As I was telling your friend," Klein continued, "there is a way to help you. But it will take some time to create, and to be honest, it's not a complete counter-spell. Though I'm sure you'll agree it's better than eating hay and courting mares for the rest of your life." He checked his watch. "My son will try to visit in the next few weeks. You two will have much to talk about."
"What does he do?" Steve asked.
"As you might imagine, his experience gave him a certain way with horses. He became a veterinarian." The German scholar gave Jared a rub on his muzzle and neck, then noticed that he'd likely not understood the last few things that had been said. Klein could see it in the horse's eyes, as if some little kid was playing with a light switch behind them. They remained intelligent when it was "off"--moreso than the born-horses in the other stalls--but there was no humanity in them. Klein considered Jared a fortunate person to have retained at least that much; according to the journals left by the earl's reeve, the man had been changed completely. Hendrik had also been fortunate that he hadn't put on more of the suit.
When Jared's eyes flickered on again, Klein informed him that it would be best to simply let his new body do the talking, and not draw attention to himself. "As I have said, there is a cure of sorts for you. It worked for my son. But it will take time to gather the proper components. So in the meantime you're a horse. You should not speak aloud, and simply let yourself act like a horse. Do what comes naturally, as it were. Mr. Cole will tend to your needs himself." Klein smiled. "Who knows, you may find yourself enjoying it. Consider it a holiday from humanity."
"You expect me to enjoy this? You've..." Jared pinned his ears back in disgust as words failed him, whinnied, then perked his ears in surprise at the replies from a half dozen other horses in the stable. Every stall was filled, and from what he could determine he was the only stallion. Jared knew very little about horses, but his nose was more than enough to tell him what he needed to know. There were at least two mares, and the rest were geldings. He curled his upper lip at the mares' scents, stretching his neck out into the sawdust-carpeted stable corridor, and wondered just what exactly he was doing.
It was going to be a long wait, and he soon discovered that he had no real choice in the matter of "doing what comes naturally". His body knew more about itself than he did, and the worst of it was that he didn't realize what he was doing until after the fact, if then. He didn't have to try to be a horse, he was one in all ways, except for a very small core that had somehow escaped the spell. Jared had no doubts that if Huxley Jr. hadn't altered the writing inside the way he had, he'd be quite happily eating the grain and oats that comprised his Christmas dinner for the rest of his life. Now he only ate because he was hungry--though he wouldn't admit to himself that it actually tasted good.
There were usually people around during the day, mostly the owners of the other horses inside the stable. Most of the time he couldn't understand a word they were saying, though the way they paid attention to him made him feel uneasy. Once he caught part of a conversation that made him wonder just how much longer it would take Dr. Klein to make the amulet. "I'm sorry, but he's not available for stud service, Mrs. Wyman. We're just keeping him temporarily..."
Worst of all was the fact that he had no control over his bodily functions. While someone mucked out his stall every day, he quickly became familiar with the stink of his own manure and urine, and hated that he'd often go to the bathroom with humans in sight. But his embarrassment felt artificial. No sooner did he think to feel embarrassed than the moment had passed. He was a horse, it's what they did, and the humans didn't care.
Klein and Steve came to visit him daily while he was in the turnout, a fenced space where horses were allowed to stretch their legs and spend time with other animals. The weather continued cold and snowy, and Jared found that rolling in fresh powder was quite invigorating. And the breeze brought all sorts of interesting scents from the mares in other turnout areas, though he seemed to be all too isolated from them on purpose. Jared was surprised to learn that New Years had passed when Klein announced that his son would be arriving the next morning. "Just in time, too. My amulet for you is ready."
Jared shook the snow off his back. "Good. Though I admit this is growing on me a little, even though I'm bored out of my mind."
"But your lucid periods are growing few and far between," Klein pointed out. "The amulet will reverse that trend, though you won't be able to remain in a human form all the time..."
Jared blinked, then nickered questioningly, knowing he wouldn't understand the answer.
Klein sighed and gave the horse an apple. "All in good time, Mr. Black. Tomorrow." He looked at Jared sadly, and left.
The amulet was small, nondescript, even plain, unless you looked very closely, and made of electrum, an alloy of gold and silver. There was writing all over it in three different languages: Ancient Greek, Classical Latin, and the same form of Arabic that was on the armor. According to Klein the spell had to be cobbled together from a number of sources because there was simply not enough left to fill a thimble. At least it all seemed to work on the same principles, no matter the language.
"I can't believe this little thing is all that's holding me from eating hay," Jared said, squinting. The writing seemed big enough, but there appeared to be certain things about his regained human form that weren't quite the same.
He couldn't be sure, but his senses of smell and hearing seemed sharper than a human's should be. And even his ears could move a little if he concentrated. Jared's hair had been dark brown before, now it was the same shade of black that his mane and tail had been, as well as being a bit coarse. And his body hair was reddish. There were other differences, but not really anything that could be called abnormal. And though people who knew him might raise their eyebrows at his hair color change, it really wasn't anything that screamed "Hey look! He's really a horse in a human body!"
Because that's what he felt like, really. It was as if he'd been stuffed, crammed, and crumpled into a human skin, like wearing a shirt two sizes too small. "I don't know how much longer I can stand this..." he said.
Dr. Klein's son Hendrik was about Huxley's age, though he had none of the Curator's pretentious bearing. He was very much a younger version of his father in his facial features, with a few smile lines around his mouth. But his hair was wiry and the same black as Jared's. He gave Jared an affable look. "You'll get used to it--eventually. Consider that it was almost five years before I could set foot out of this house before my father created a successful amulet. And in the years since then he's refined the spell." Hendrik fingered his own amulet, which was much the same as Jared's. He touched a spot with his right hand, then they both watched as his left arm below the elbow turned into a foreleg. He rested it on the coffee table, looking relieved. "Not that it doesn't feel good to let yourself go every once in a while."
Jared was having a little trouble with Hendrik's presence, but was able to ignore the feeling that this was another stallion invading his territory. But as Dr. Klein had said, thought follows form. So while he was human, that mode thought would bob to the surface. Not that he wouldn't have to watch himself.
From his study, Dr. Klein arrived carrying something, putting it down on the coffee table in front of him. It looked like a journal, but Jared was unable to read the title from where it sat. He had to pick it up and bring it closer, then frowned as he opened to the table of contents. It was a medieval journal he'd submitted an article to a couple months before. But while his article had been rejected, there was one by "Ronald Huxley III, M.A.".
"I knew you'd want to see this, Herr Black. It came in the mail yesterday," said Klein. "Huxley had shown it to me before he sent it in. I was rather suspicious from the start, since I happened to know that he's done no real research for years. I knew he's stolen research before, but this is probably the worst I have ever seen it."
Jared was so angry he tore the thick journal in half. Even torn from the spine, it might as well have been a single sheet of paper. He wanted to take off his amulet and stomp that fraud into a pulp! "What are those code phrases again?"
Dr. Klein looked at a sheet of paper. "'Humanus ad equum transmuto' to change into a horse, the reverse for the other direction. And simply 'humanus inter equum' for a partial release. But make sure you're either alone, or with people who know and understand your condition. I'm not sure what you'll look like, but you'll end up somewhere between man and horse."
He coughed and picked up the torn journal. "Now, regarding Huxley..."
"He's the one who should've been a horse, not me!" Jared said. The rest of his life had become very complicated. "Damn it, how did a moron like him become Curator?"
"I couldn't help but notice that the place is in a rather sorry state," said Steve. "He was touching the armor!"
"Yes, I know," Klein sighed. "But the majority Board of Trustees is convinced that a Huxley needs to run the museum. I know two of them are aware of his shameful behavior, but the others have their heads buried in concrete. There's no moving them."
"Then what the hell do we do about this?" Jared snapped. "I'm not going to let him get away with it!"
"I don't propose you allow him. Nor can I in good conscience let this pass." He took something that looked very old out of his pocket. It was an amulet, like Jared's, but it was shaped like a cross and made of iron. It was about three inches long, dark from age, and might have once been jeweled. He gave it to Jared. "I want you to return to work, with this, as if nothing has happened. There's some writing on it, I want you to act like you're deciphering it. If he asks say that it's a gift from me and keep it in your carrel. That will make it utterly irresistible to him, and your return will throw him sufficiently off base that I doubt he'd think it's in any way suspicious. Knowing him, he'll wear it, even though it looks centuries old. It is in fact manufactured by me."
"And what will it do to him?"
Klein smiled evilly. "That, Herr Black, you will likely notice very quickly."
The next morning Jared arrived for work as planned. Though he was sporting a pair of glasses that had sadly become necessary. The collateral effects of his transformation that were a part of his human form gave him a slightly different awareness of the world around him. Huxley gaped openly when he walked in the door, wearing the dress shirt and tie that was his required "uniform". He stopped in mid-sentence in front of a couple of visitors, finger on a breastplate, staring at Jared as if he was a ghost.
He walked over to Jared, hands behind his back like a child who had been caught with his hands in the cookie jar. "You're... uh... late, Mr. Black. Are you feeling well?"
Jared smiled, showing big, slightly yellow teeth. He tried not to plug his nose from the sharp stench of cigar smoke that clung to the dour man. "Healthy as a horse, doctor Huxley."
"I... see. Well..." The man was so flustered he was at a complete loss for words for almost a minute. "I do hope you had a good week off."
Jared shrugged noncommittally. "A little boring, actually. If you don't mind, sir, I'll get back to work." He left Huxley standing there, frozen to the spot.
Throughout the entire day Huxley was never out of sight, trying to appear like he wasn't looking at Jared, but it was quite transparent. The other museum staff members noticed things about him that were obvious enough, like his hair, and the fact that the demonstration armor now fit him very well. Jared didn't comment that it wasn't even a burden to him any more. Greater physical strength was a fringe benefit, among other things. But they came at a cost. If Jared didn't pay attention to his behavior, than he sometimes caught himself doing things that were best left in the stable, like biting the edge of his carrel.
He might be human on the outside, but deep down, he knew he was still a horse.
The one person who worried him was the blacksmith, whom he encountered by chance at lunch. The bearded man gave him an arch look, but said nothing as always, returning to the smithy after grabbing a few things from the vending machines.
During his study time he removed the metal cross from its box, wearing a pair of gloves. With a magnifying glass he carefully examined the inscription, copying it onto his steno pad just like normal. Doing such a thing was irresistible to Huxley. Jared felt like a fly fisherman with the perfect lure. "Where did you acquire such a magnificent artifact?" he asked over Jared's shoulder.
"It was a gift from a mutual acquaintance," Jared replied, not looking up from the desktop. "He hadn't time to study it himself, so he allowed me to borrow it for my dissertation. It's..."
Huxley's eyes glowed with greed. "Looks early fifteenth century. Lubeck, I think... Yes..."
"If you don't mind, sir, this is my own time," Jared intoned with false respect, then covered the cross with a cloth. "It's very difficult to work with someone looking over my shoulder." The tobacco stink was almost unbearable. Jared snorted like a horse unintentionally, trying to clear it from his nose.
Huxley gave him a look that spoke volumes. Jared could read him like a book. That's all it did to him? It just gave him some horse-like attributes? How disappointing...
"Forgive me, Mr. Black. I'll leave you to your research." Huxley left the room at a clip.
When Jared returned to Dr. Klein's home that evening he was exhausted, both mentally and physically. The amulet around his neck was tingling as if electrified, and his skin felt tighter than ever. "If I don't do something I think I'm going to burst!" he said to Hendrik.
"It took me a few months before I had stamina enough to return to public life," said the horse doctor. "No doubt my father's research has borne some fruit, but it's a credit to your fortitude that you've lasted as long as you have. Do you want to turn it off completely, or try the partial release?"
"Well, since this isn't a stable, I'll go halfway. Pardon me." >> What stepped out of the bathroom a few minutes later was a strangely aesthetic combination of man and horse, wrapped in a quilt tied around his massive torso like a toga. "I feel like I belong in a Spielberg film," he rumbled in a voice that rivaled Steve's bass. He sat down awkwardly on the floor, legs crossed, tail spread out behind. He flexed his three-fingered hands, then tossed his mane around. "But I feel better."
"I had hoped you would," said Dr. Klein. "But there are no guarantees that you'll look this way the next time. You may very well end up with a horse's hind end. With Fortune's favor, that won't happen."
Jared sighed and rested his massive head in his hands, flicking his ears thoughtfully. This was the rest of his life, putting up with odd "personality quirks" and trying to keep a secret that would land him who knows where if it got out. He shuddered to think of trying to keep it until he died--and Dr. Klein wasn't sure if he would age at the speed of a horse or a man. There would probably be times when this mixed form wouldn't be enough, and he'd have to go back to being a real horse for a few hours, or possibly days. There was the research for his dissertation, which he was unwilling to give up after all the work he'd already done. And what about his family? How would this affect his love life, his prospects of having children? Would he even be attracted to human females? That line of thought was too unsettling to continue, so he decided to alter it to something more cheerful.
"So, what's going to happen to Huxley?"
Klein waggled his finger at him. "Now, now. Have patience, Herr Black."
A snowstorm and Great Barrington's sparse plows and salt trucks prevented Jared from going to work for two days, then came the weekend. He didn't particularly care, as it allowed him to do some uninterrupted exploration of Dr. Klein's extensive personal library. The old scholar graciously offered to allow him to use any sources he found.
Monday was amazingly busy for winter. Twenty people were at the armor demonstration, and on the tour schedule two weeks in the future was a field trip from one of the local high schools. For New Englanders, a little snow was nothing to get worked up about. Jared was almost unhappy that he'd already given his notice and would be gone before the group visited. He was in the middle of the armor presentation when there came a very strange sound--like a harsh, abrasive bray--filtered through several walls. Apparently he was the only person in the room to hear it, which wasn't all that surprising, considering. Then the double doors to the small auditorium flew open. "There's something weird going on in Mr. Huxley's office. Jared, Michael, I think we could use a hand," said one of the female staff members.
Michael's consistently bland expression remained changeless as they followed her. Most of the visitors had been in the tiny auditorium for the presentation, but those that hadn't were looking towards the fire doors marked "Employees Only", behind which came the sounds of a rather upset donkey. From the direction of the warehouse, someone had fetched the blacksmith. The burly man, not looking at all confused like everyone else, didn't even back away when the sturdy doors were kicked with an hard clang. He cast Jared a knowing look, then gestured for him to approach.
The smell of donkey filtered through the cracks widened by the kick. Another one would make the doors fly open, but the animal had apparently retreated back into the staff offices. The smith pushed open the dented door while the rest of the staff kept the visitors away. Apparently not seeing anything, he gestured for Jared to follow. There was a small pile of manure at the far end of the corridor, near the lighted exit sign. Apparently the donkey hadn't been able to figure out how to open the door. "I suppose this was old Klein's idea?" he said in a voice roughened from decades over a forge.
"I gather you've been around a while," said Jared, looking down towards
"Long enough," the bearded man replied. "I can't say I approve, but Huxley got what he deserved. This place is going to hell with him in charge."
Jared sniffed the air a little as they approached Huxley's office. Inside, they heard someone groaning. It was a distorted sound, almost animal, but becoming more and more human as the seconds passed. "Ronald?" said the blacksmith. "Are you decent?" He sounded slightly bemused.
Huxley's voice shook with denial. "What in God's name are you..." A bray cut off the rest of the sentence. The silence from Huxley's office was deafening. Finally there was a groan. "Ohhh... ohhh... God..." The air was heavy with a mix of donkey and human smells, and panic.
They entered the office and found clothes scattered all over the place. Amazingly they weren't torn, but Huxley had apparently struggled quite a bit, probably to prevent pain and to keep his expensive suit from being ruined, though with only partial success. Jared picked up a pair of rumpled slacks that had a couple of hoof prints in it. Huxley himself was behind his desk, groaning. A pair of long gray-furred ears were visible, going up and down. "Mr. Black is with you, I see," he said. He sniffed a few times, nostrils flaring. "Or rather, smell."
The smith leaned over the desk. His teeth were very white when he smiled. "Close the door, Jared. And toss me his pants. He can't wear them yet, but I think he'd suffered enough for today."
Jared decided to see for himself, and came up to the antique mahogany desk that sat in the middle of the opulent room. There were hoof prints in the plush red carpet, several of the cabinets had been broken, undoubtedly from lashing out. The man was more human than donkey now--at least above the waist. He had covered himself with his sport coat, but his legs still ended in hooves, and a tail lashed underneath him. And the iron cross was still around Huxley's neck.
"I remember making that," said the smith. The man had amazingly white, even teeth. "For Dr. Klein."
"And you knew what he was going to use it for, I imagine," Huxley sneered.
"No, but I can't say I'm unhappy about it."
Huxley frowned like a child about to throw a temper tantrum--one who had just stepped off the boat from Pleasure Island at that. For a child he was. The man was nothing more than a spoiled brat whose playhouse had contained very old toys. He glared at Jared, daring him to say anything. But as long as he retained the enhanced sense of smell, words were utterly unneeded between them. Both their minds had been affected by their transformations. It didn't matter that they were donkey and horse, they understood each other. As the minutes continued to pass the man was less and less an animal--at least no more so than Jared now was on the outside. He still covered himself with his sport coat.
Leaning over the desk, Jared bared his teeth and bit once at the air so they clicked together audibly, then turned to face the blacksmith. "I'm going to go let everyone know what's going on."
"Good. I'll get the fool dressed and presentable. And I'll meet you at Dr. Klein's later."
Explanations were difficult, but the staff and visitors who remained readily accepted that an animal had gotten into the building. The area had a number of stables, and though donkeys were rare they weren't unknown. The blacksmith had failed to capture the animal, but had at least herded it outside the building, where it had run back into the woods. Huxley had been injured slightly and was now being taken to his doctor to get looked over.
The scene that took place that evening almost made Jared feel pity for the man. Ronald Huxley III might have been forty five years old, but it was as if his development had ceased during his early teens. He whined, he sulked, he was so angry that his glasses were steamed up, demanding that Dr. Klein produce a cure for him. All the old scholar would do was give him an indifferent look over his reading glasses and fold his hands in front of him on his desk, which was identical to the one in Huxley's office. "The answers are likely out there if you care to spend the time and effort to look," he said smoothly, betraying no emotion whatsoever.
"You well know that I can't..." Huxley brayed.
Klein only nodded. "I know that. So does Mr. Black, his friend Mr. Burns, that graduate student that you stole from six years ago, the entire Board of Trustees, and most of the donors. One of the few people who never did was your father--bless his soul. I loved the man like a brother but he never admitted to himself that you didn't have the skills to replace him.
"We've known you were a pretender since well before you took control of the museum. Unfortunately most of the Board is under the mistaken impression that a Huxley must be Curator. But I fear I've made a mistake in not having you removed well before now, so Mr. Black wouldn't have had to suffer your attempt to kill him."
"How dare you accuse me of trying to murder one of my interns!" Huxley scoffed indignantly. "You have no evi..."
Jared couldn't stand the outright lie. He grabbed Huxley by the lapels and picked the smaller man up off his feet. The amulet could hardly keep his body constrained with the flood of anger, and his clothing strained a little at the seams. There was now just enough alterations in his features to suggest a very large and angry stallion. His hot breath blew in Huxley's face. "Do you know what happened to that earl afterwards? Do you? Of course you do, because it was in the journal that you kept! He spent the rest of his life making foals, nary a human thought in his head. The knight was dead you stupid ass, as much being six feet under! I know you were quite certain it would do the same to me, and I'd be neatly out of you way without a body to be found.
"If you want to know what I've felt, how did it feel to forget how to open a door? Tell me."
"I... I... c-c-c...." Huxley stammered. Jared let him go, only willpower keeping him from tossing the man against the wall.
"Because of you I'm caught between worlds," Jared continued, crossing his arms. "I don't know what the hell I am. If it wasn't for your father's friend I'd have lost everything. I'm a freak of the supernatural. And unless I miss my guess, so are you."
"My son would call it poetic justice," said Dr. Klein grimly. "But unlike Jared, you won't be able to control when next you change. So I suggest you put your affairs in order, retire to from the Curatorship, and stay on your estate. They will undoubtedly give you enough of a pension to keep you in oats. After you resign, your life is your own. I couldn't care less what you do with it, but I will make sure you can't do anything to harm anyone else."
There was nothing left for Huxley to do but leave.
"He got off far too easy, in my opinion," said Steve, breaking the long silence that followed.
"I'm not by nature a vindictive person, Mr. Burns," said Dr. Klein. "If I was, Lord knows I would have done something like this years ago. Perhaps I should have..."
"What's going to happen to the museum?" Steve asked.
"The Board trusts me since I knew Ronnie so well. I know a half dozen very qualified candidates that I'll put into consideration. One is even a first cousin of Ronald's that would undoubtedly satisfy the Board's needs. He's everything that the donkey that just left isn't."
Jared felt burned out, despondent. A yawning emptiness had opened in front of him at the moment he'd let Huxley go. "What the hell am I?" he said to nobody in particular.
"What you're feeling is largely psychosomatic, Mr. Black," Klein said in a kind voice. "You should be able to function in society if you're willing to put out the effort." He stood up and walked over to stand in front of a bookshelf that went from floor to ceiling, filled with manuscripts and other volumes. "But I do have a proposal for you."
"I'm an old man. My only child is a veterinarian with no interest in the life of a medieval scholar--and I have never held that against him. But the fact remains that I don't wish my research to end with my death. If you and Mr. Burns would be willing, I'd like to train you to take my place in the coming years. I won't promise that you'll find a cure for your condition in the course of your lives. I've been searching for one for my own son for almost thirty years and have never found it."
Steve smiled brightly and rubbed his palms together. "What an opportunity, Jared! What do you think?"
Snow was falling again outside. It just didn't want to stop this winter, the area had already gotten well over its normal yearly total. Jared watched it fall for several minutes, letting the serenity of falling flakes calm him. Dr. Klein's home was the epitome of a New England house. It was over two centuries old, with a number of extensions that had been added on over the decades. Jared felt very much like the house at that moment. The original building was still there, buried within all the additions. What had changed, really? If Klein was right, there was still a chance that he could find a way to restore it back to its original state.
He had to try. And if it gained him his Doctorate in the process, so much the better.