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The bar was unusually quiet and subdued when Russell entered, but the overdressed man hardly noticed. What he had was an old Chevy Impala parked out in front, taking up three parking spaces all by itself. It looked like a late seventies model, with faded gold paint and a couple of dented quarter panels. Russell knew every car by sight since this bar was his regular weekend hangout. He arrived at eleven every Saturday night, like clockwork. It was really the only thing dependable about him.
The car meant a newcomer. Someone who hadn't heard of his conquests amongst the opposite sex. Russell brushed off his polyester shirt, tucked in one side that had come loose, and entered the bar with his a practiced swagger.
He spotted his friend Barry sitting in a booth. Odd, since he didn't normally take one. And most of the bar stools were empty, although there seemed to be a man sitting in a dark corner with a small, but incredibly gorgeous, woman on each arm. Barry waved him over, but Russell didn't see why he shouldn't go to his regular stool near where the newcomer sat. A soft jazz tune lilted out of a juke box that hadn't worked for years, another detail that Russell completely missed. "White Russian, Dale. I'm in a good mood tonight."
"I guess this means your date went well." The tall barkeep said as he made the drink. "Going to talk about it?" he said laconically.
Russell was only too happy to oblige. As usual, the bar listened to the tale of his latest Friday night triumph without complaint. "...we got back to my place around midnight. The witching hour, you know. And she was certainly a magical woman, my friends. I was a raging stallion, and she..."
Barry sighed. He knew Russell had some werehorse somewhere in his ancestry but did he have to use that stallion metaphor every single damn time? What worried him more was the newcomer to the bar. Everyone knew just who he was when he entered. Anyone with a brain and even a tiny sensitivity to magic would have to be as dense as concrete to not realize that there was a god in the bar. Unfortunately for him, Russell was just that. Shut up, you moron. You're going to get it, he thought at him.
"...It's too bad it was only a one night stand. She's a cute little mare and I hate to lose her," Russell finished, after recounting several details that most people didn't care to hear. However, that was normal for this bar. Most of the regulars knew about Russell's tactlessness and ignored it. Everyone had their quirks, after all, and he wasn't exactly a bad guy.
He was just... dim.
"Sounds like you had a good time with her," the god said in a slightly bemused tone. The buxom nymph holding on to his left arm tore her eyes away from her god and looked at Russell speculatively. An evil little smile crossed her face and she quickly hid it. Of course, Russell missed this completely. "Buy you a drink, friend?" the god offered.
Never one to refuse a free drink, especially when unemployed, Russell nodded immediately. There was the suggestion of goat-like horns in the darkness as the figure leaned forward and slid a drink down the bar. "Take this. I haven't touched it."
Russell smiled and picked up the glass, taking a moment to look at the dark brown liquid. It didn't smell like anything he had had before. It looked somewhat like a Bloody Mary, but was darker and smelled sweet. He raised the glass in toast. "To your health, my friend," he said.
"And yours," the god replied, raising his drink also. "You seem like a jolly sort. Just the kind of man I'm looking for."
From his booth, Barry watched Russell closely, carefully avoiding any sort of eye contact with Baccus or his nymphs. Russell drank deeply of what the god had given him, then immediately looked unsteady on his stool. "Looking... for?" Russell said, sounding a little drunk already.
"I understand that you're looking for a job. Perhaps we can discuss your future over a drink in a more private place," Baccus said, sounding every bit like a used car salesman who already knew he had a sale in the bag.
"Rrrreally..ly?" Russell replied, his speech slurred.
The oily voice continued. "Come with me to my car, and we'll talk."
Russell smiled. He'd had many jobs in this town, and had lost all of them within a year. Nobody really wanted to hire him any more and food stamps could only be stretched so far. He took another swig and lurched to his feet. "Letsss go!"
Everyone in the bar looked at Barry expectantly after Russell and Baccus left. "What?" he said, glaring back. "It's his own mess, let him get out of it." More expectant looks. They knew him all too well. While he did think that Russell was a complete and utter moron, he knew that he was really the only thing close that the man had to a friend. Mostly this involved dragging him home from the bar--a fairly short walk. A moment or so of rubbing his full beard in indecision and he moved his large frame quickly towards the door. But the Impala was gone, leaving only the smell of alcohol and a pool of oil behind. Damn it. Well, there was nothing I could do about it anyway.
Baccus wasn't likely to kill him, but was certainly not above a prank or two. But the difference between what humans thought of as funny and what the old gods did was frightening. For all Barry knew, Russell would end up a nymph. Doubtless not the sort of job Russell would be expecting! But almost fitting, in a perverse sort of way. At least he'd be nicer to look at.
He decided not to return to the bar, which had more or less gone back to its normal state of chatter for a Saturday night, and headed home, hoping that he'd find Russell in his apartment the next day.
Russell's front door hung open, swinging back and forth gently in the humid early summer breeze. At first Barry feared that Russell's apartment had been broken into, but the man didn't own anything worth stealing. Then he caught a whiff of someone who had been drunk all night and grimaced. I hope he's okay... And he was still a he, for that matter.
He found him--definitely a him--collapsed at the foot of his bed, dressed in the same rumpled clothes as the night before. The man would've been more at home in the Seventies with the kind of clothes he wore. But Barry was still wary of touching him, considering that Baccus often included others in his pranks. But since he was still passed out, there wasn't anything Barry could do but put him into bed and wait.
Russell awoke an hour later, groaning and clutching his head. "Anyone get the number of that train..." he said, face to the pillow. "Barry? You there."
"I'm sitting right here," Barry replied from the doorjamb, sipping bitter coffee. "Do you realize who you went off with last night?"
Russell winced, every word making the pounding of his head even worse. "I don't know what you're talking about... and I don't remember a thing after I stepped in the door. Whatinell happened?"
"Sober up, first," Barry said. "I think you'll want a drink after I tell you."
An hour later Russell was out of the shower, and popping some Advil while guzzling down coffee. At least he wasn't the kind of drunk who thew up all over himself. All for the better for Barry, as far as he was concerned. "So, who was it you say I left with? A hot mare, I hope?" he added with a horse-like snort.
For once, Barry decided to deflate his friend's ego. "It was Baccus, Rus. You know, Dionysus? The old god of wine?"
Russell snorted again, spooning instant coffee into a chipped mug full of lukewarm tap water. He was a thin man, mostly because he couldn't afford to buy much food. "Sure it was. Right. You're pulling my chain, Barry."
"I'm not kidding. Really." But there was no convincing him. And the strangest thing of all was that he seemed no different. He guessed that whatever joke the god of wine had played on him had been done in one night. "Never mind, Rus. I need to head home. Alice is making something special for dinner tonight."
Russell snorted yet again, sounding even more horse-like than before. "You and your werehorse fiancée. How'd you get so lucky?"
Barry had originally met Russell because he'd made a pass at Alice while she was in her "furry" form. A werecreature had to spend a certain amount of time in full animal form--double that for the half-human forms that most could manage. Alice was lucky enough only to have a requirement of a couple of days per month. To Barry's mind she was the one exotic thing in his mundane life that really gave it purpose. They were getting married in September.
He left Russell's Spartan apartment and went home. Alice could do amazing things with quiche.
On Wednesday he was helping a customer decide between two brands of power drills at the hardware store he owned when Russell came in. The man did own a car, but when he wasn't working Barry knew that he hung around one of the numerous stables in the area; all the better to pick up the kind of women he liked. "Hey, Barry!" he called. The blonde man was wearing a plaid flannel shirt with bits of straw clinging to it, and jeans had some mud crusting the cuffs. At least he wasn't wearing a cowboy hat. "I got myself a job!"
Barry's first impulse was to say, "And how long do you expect to keep this one?" But he restrained himself. In two years of knowing Russell, the man had had at least ten different jobs. And news seemed to have gotten around. It was no wonder that Russell's apartment was so empty; the man was a drifter. Once he couldn't find work in one place, he moved on. Instead, Barry finished with his customer and then went over to Russell. "So, where is it this time?" Barry asked.
"Sanford Riding School," Russell replied proudly. "They need someone for odd jobs; and they said they'll train me to actually help out with the horses eventually." Barry waited a moment before replying, knowing what Russell would say next. "Besides, do you know how many cute mares hang out at stables?" There it was.
"And why aren't you there now?"
"Lunch hour. I'd better be getting back." He grimaced. "I've got a few stalls that need mucking out, but there's a cute mare there I have my eye on." He nickered. A sound so horse-like that Barry stared. Of course, Russell had already turned to leave.
I have a bad feeling about this, Barry thought, and couldn't help but wonder if he meant an actual mare. But then a customer asked him the difference between a Makita and a Black and Decker table saw, so had to return to work.
Russell thought he had it made. He'd done janitorial work numerous times before--far too often, for his taste. And horse manure at least smelled better. Best of all were the mares that came for riding lessons. If his boss wasn't continually ordering him around he could literally watch them for hours.
But his job was physically demanding, and gave him odd body aches that no amount of IcyHot or sitting in the apartment complex's spa would help. His face also ached around his ears and nose. But he wouldn't let a few minor pains stop him from meeting his date; it was Friday night. He looked at himself in the mirror, checking for the last time his perfectly groomed mane and adding a small amount of cologne. Perfection. This randy stallion is hot to trot. She won't be able to resist me, cute little mare.
On Saturday night Barry awaited Russell's arrival. The rest of the bar seemed to have completely forgotten the week before, and the jukebox was still working. For the first time in years there was some music in addition to just talk. Alan and Mike were playing darts, as always. And for once, Alice was here, facing him on the other side of the booth they took when she did come along. Alice seldom came with him to the bar any more. She had so little free time lately, and made no secret of her discomfort around Russell. Barry wasn't about to force her to come, but she wasn't going to tell him not to either.
But tonight was special. Barry had thought long and hard over his decision to become a werehorse, and had come very near to deciding against. He'd gone to his doctor often over the last few months, and had seen a psychologist. The procedure could only be done if he was in good mental and physical health, which he'd worked for ever since he had proposed to Alice in March. Friday afternoon he'd been given the first stage potion. The next would be Monday. Mare's milk, according to a time-old formula from Mongolia.
Alice had often expressed regret that he wasn't able to join her on her daily gallop, and he'd often wistfully watched her doing the same. In mare form she was a rather pretty skewbald, with irregular patches of light chestnut and white on her hide. Her hair in human form reflected this--and by choice, she'd said. In human form most men would overlook her; she was almost as strong as he was, with a husky figure. But she had a cheerful, pretty face that only one of her many strong points. On weekends she endured being a school horse for young riders, "Just to see the smiles on their faces."
He was just about to tell her when Russell walked in--or at least someone he assumed was Russell. The horse-like man who stepped into the bar looked like he'd gone to one of those expensive body modification places. They were much like tattoos--and just as permanent. That kind of magic was very hard to undo. Nearest place like that is in Chicago. That's an eight hour drive...
The horse-faced man swaggered over to Barry, tail swishing confidently behind him. He had a golden hide and a bright white mane and tail. The newcomer stopped beside the table, Alice staring. "You are so lucky, Barry," he snorted.
"Rus?" Barry exclaimed. "What the hell did you do to yourself?" More like "what the hell did Baccus do to you," but I don't think he'd believe me.
Russell's features more suggested horse than anything, except for his mane and ears, which could have almost been taken off a real horse. He didn't have anything that could be called a muzzle, although if you looked at him head-on the effect was quite startling. For all appearances it was a very expensive job. But Russell just looked back at Barry like he didn't know what he was talking about, and shrugged. He looked at Alice, flicked his ears, and lip-curled. Alice frowned. "You're asking for it, bub."
"'Sallright. I'm not looking at anything," Russell replied sheepishly. "I'll just head over to play some darts. Later, Barry."
Alice knew about Baccus. "I don't like the smell of this at all," she said. "He acted like he didn't even hear you."
"I don't think he did. And I don't think anyone else noticed he's different but you and I. Look."
As always, Russell's throws seldom hit the actual dart board. Instead they hit the wood on either side with a dull thunk. He whuffed in frustration every time he missed, but neither Alan nor Mike seemed to notice that Russell was different. They treated him like they always had, indifference with a dash of dislike, but still with courtesy. Russell might be a bit of a pariah, but that was no reason to treat him like one.
When he finished his game he went over and sat at the bar, his back facing Barry and Alice. His tail swished back and forth idly as he asked for his normal White Russian, which Dale served wordlessly. He sat and seemed to contemplate the glass for a minute, then guzzled the whole thing down in two swigs. Then he stood up, rearranged the slit in his pants where his tail came out, and left the bar.
"That's got to be a record," Dale said in a bemused tone.
"Yeah. He actually hit the board twice!" Alan joked. The whole bar laughed.
They left the bar before midnight, Barry dropped Alice off at her apartment on the others side of town. He gave her a deep kiss before she went. "You should go check on Russell," she said.
Barry nodded. "I'll do it in the morning. When he has a bad date he usually goes around to other bars and mopes."
"You know him best," Alice said. "I realize you're the closest thing he has to a friend."
Barry nodded sadly. "G'night, love."
As good as his word, he went over to Russell's apartment on Sunday at about noon. He didn't expect the door to be locked, but at least it was closed this time. When he opened the door he was greeted not with the expected smell of someone who had been drinking all night, but that of fresh wood shavings. Smells like a stable...
He stepped inside and felt a tingle wash over him. The carpet seemed oddly soft, so he looked down, then realized that it smelled like a stable because it was one. There was no carpet, instead there was a deep layer of light yellow wood shavings. The walls were a aged, dark brown wood. The apartment was no longer. Cautiously moving in farther, he saw that the floorplan had vanished. Instead, written overhead on one of the exposed beams, was marked "Sanford Riding School" in cursive letters. Barry heard a nicker, and just ahead where Russell's bedroom door used to be, a palomino horse stuck his head over the stall door and looked at him. The wooden nameplate next to the door said "Russell".
Barry was speechless. For whatever reason Baccus had given the man exactly what he wanted. So, where's the joke? He heard someone come up behind him.
"Hi, hon," said a familiar voice. Barry turned to see Alice standing in front of him, dressed in a button shirt and jeans. "I wondered if the portal would work for you." She sounded very guilty.
"You're involved in this?" Barry sputtered. He didn't need to ask why, she would tell him.
"For one thing, because he's a jerk," she answered. "Secondly, I suppose you could call it serendipity that I managed to run into Baccus when I did. He was about to change Russell into one of his nymphs."
Barry looked at the stallion, who didn't seem to understand a word of what they were saying. Instead he was lip-curling at his fiancée like she was a mare to be courted. "I don't know, maybe being a nymph might have done him some good..." he said, halfway serious.
"I know what you mean," she replied archly. "But you know me. I couldn't let that happen any more than you. So I suggested this. Now he gets to be what he thinks he is." The palomino glared at Barry and whinnied a challenge. Alice changed her nose a little and sniffed a few times. "Barry, you don't smell even close to human..."
His skin had begun to itch a little. Barry's doctor said this might happen. From now until he drank the mare's milk, he'd likely experience odd sensations and phantom feelings. He leaned against the wall to let some dizziness pass. He felt the ghost of a tail moving back and forth. Looking up, it was as if he could see Alice through two pairs of eyes, human and equine. Alice grabbed hold of his arm to steady him, and finally it was gone, giving him a concerned look. "I have something I forgot to tell you last night," he said, and corrected that error.
After two minutes gaping he gently closed her mouth. "I hope I didn't shock you too much..." he said. Behind him, Russell snorted derisively.
"No... no..." Alice stammered. "But we'd better move out of the stable. Two stallions in the same place and all that. I'm about finished here, anyway. We need to talk about this, honey. I wish you would've come to me about this before..."
"I know the risks, Alice," Barry reassured. "I've been thinking about this for months. I read all the materials the doctor gave me and then some. And I've talked to you about it often enough, haven't I?"
She led him outside, leaving Russell behind. "Yes, you have, come to think of it... I wondered why so many questions."
For a moment he felt a curious doubling of sensation; hands with hooves, face with muzzle. Briefly he smelled her like a stallion would. Ye gods... "The doctor said I'd likely be a horse for a week. I've rented out a stallion box at a stable. Can't remember exactly which..." He paused. "What do we do about Rus?"
"I think we can only let things be," Alice said. "I just hope this doesn't go any farther than it has already."
It was a sleepless night for Barry. He kept on feeling like he should be standing on four legs, not two; and he kept on reaching behind him expecting to feel a tail he didn't have. Alice stayed with him all night.
And in an amazing coincidence, the stable where he would spend the next few days was Sanford. They met Barry's doctor there. He was holding a tightly-woven grass basket about the size of a drinking cup. Alice helped him out of the car with difficulty. "I'm glad she agreed to come," the Asian man said. "You'll be a great help, Miss Holden."
"I've been a werehorse since I was born," she said. "I'm not really familiar with the process of becoming one."
The doctor nodded. "Becoming any sort of werecreature involves quite a few more risks and drawbacks than an innate ability," he explained.
"I mmmight end up having to spend half my timmme as a horrrse," Barry said. His voice sounded as if he was nickering as he spoke.
"Half?" Alice said, stunned.
"I've arrrranged things at work," Barry assured. "I trust mmmy managers."
"And there's generally a greater instinctual influence on behavior in animal form," the doctor added. "Unfortunately at this point the process can't be reversed, so if you would follow me."
Before she let Barry enter she checked the stallion box. It was about the size of the other stalls, but the walls went right up to the ceiling. The wood shavings were fresh and deep enough, there was water in a large plastic bucket hanging by a hook. She generally only came around to this stable once per month to settle any newly purchased horses that weren't getting along. Barry's nostrils were flaring at the sharp smell of other horses. The world was split in two. He lurched forward into the stall and nearly fell to all fours. Doctor Yu ordered him to remove his clothing while he got the milk from a mare in the same building. He returned in five minutes.
Barry drank it like it was his first cup of morning coffee, hands shaking. Doctor Yu chanted a few short phrases in Mongolian.
Alice had to rub her eyes as her fiancée dropped to all fours and the image of a chestnut thoroughbred with a white stripe down his muzzle became visible, while the likeness of Barry's human form faded as if obscured in fog. He wasn't a fully-grown horse, but seemed to have the body of a several months old foal. "He's limited by his mass for this first change," the doctor explained. "It'll take some time for him to gain it in this form. Once he has reached the equivalent physical age in horse years he should be able to change back. At least, if all goes well."
The instant he swallowed the last of the mare's milk Barry felt his humanity fade, and in a single indefinable moment that would forever remain in his memory, he became a horse. There was no mental struggle, no sense of shock, no abrupt change. It simply a fact, as real as the air he breathed, like being submerged into a warm bath after a long day's work. Restful and welcome.
>> Barry-the-colt grew perceptively larger throughout the day, and was eating nearly constantly. When he wasn't eating, he slept or went for short gallops around the pasture, kicking up his hind legs playfully. Alice wasn't sure what to think. He didn't understand her at all when she spoke to him like a human, but horse mannerisms he had no problems with. So Alice changed to the furry form she seldom used just because he seemed more comfortable with that. As a colt he still needed milk, which she bottle fed, supplemented by a hearty grain feed.
Strutting around in the next pasture with a trio of mares, separated from them by two fences, was Russell. Alice smelled that at least one of the mares was in heat, and stood up to watch what happened.
The first time had been funny. The second, only mildly so. This time it was just sad. The mares just didn't like him at all, for all he was a very handsome piece of horseflesh. And it was all in his attitude.
She saw Mr. Sanford, who was an equitaur, come trotting towards her. For centuries all centaurs and equitaurs could do was take care of horses in some manner, restricted by laws in much the same was that Jews were to moneylending and other professions. That had changed in the early nineteenth century, among other things. "Good afternoon, Alice," Mr. Sanford said. "How's your fiancée?" He gestured at the grazing young horse.
"I think he's starting to show some signs of human intelligence, but I can't be sure," she replied. In the pasture next over, Russell continued to meet with failure. He approached a mare, lip-curling and whinnying suggestively. His potential mate watched him carefully, and broke into a trot when he got too close.
Mr. Sanford sighed. "I had such high hopes for that one."
"'Had'?" Alice questioned.
"Well, I'm going to try him out for another month. He's great stud material, but if the mares don't like him I can't afford to lose the foals. I'll have to geld him and probably sell him off."
Oh damn. "Mr. Sanford, there's something..."
A bell rang. "Excuse me, I have to go grab the phone," he said, then turned and galloped off.
I thought he had someone working in the front office, she thought. It was probably Baccus' doing. He'd do everything he could to make sure his prank ran its course. So when would the joke be over for Russell? Considering who the man was, and what Mr. Sanford had said, this didn't sound like it would end well.
That is, unless she used her skills to actually make him likeable. Damn. If this isn't irony... Barry, who was dozing in the opposite corner of the pasture, abruptly awoke and galloped over, nickering hunger. She picked up another large bottle and decided to worry about it later.
Being a werecreature had several disadvantages compared to centaurs, fauns, or the most common human-animal mixes, sileni. The worst of these was that in animal form they didn't have that uncanny feeling of humanity. You didn't sense it in their eyes when they looked at you, and their lives were split by their dual natures. It was a precarious balance between human and animal that took a lot of energy to maintain. A silenus--the common slang was "furry"--never had that problem.
Even so, Barry knew the exact moment when his needs became more than simply hunger. It was like a light switch had been flipped inside his head. But he still didn't stop, the hearty grain smelled too good. He wondered where his mare was. Alice. Her name is Alice, he reminded himself. He couldn't think of much beyond food at the moment, so perked his ears to listen for any familiar hoof-falls.
In the pasture across from him was another stallion with a couple of mares. He perked his ears and looked across the wide pathway that separated the two paddocks. For the past couple hours he'd been hearing them rushing back and forth. One of the mares was in heat, or close to it. Despite his young body--about the size of a yearling now--he could tell when things were going well. The stallion's coat shone in the sunlight, his lighter mane standing out. That's... Russell, isn't it? Barry thought. It couldn't be anyone else, considering the talk he remembered earlier.
The mare who wasn't in heat was... Alice.
Alarmed, Barry stretched his head through the fence planks, but got a little shock from the electrified wire strung along both top and bottom. What is she doing in there? he wondered, backing off with a deep sigh.
Russell-the-stallion was acting differently. And Alice was obviously so focused on whatever she was doing she didn't notice Barry's encounter with the electrified fence. Barry licked his aching foreleg a little before returning to his viewing, despite that the pit of his stomach asking for more food.
The palomino's apparent humility was far more interesting. It was having an effect on the mare. A positive one at that. She seemed almost willing to accept him. Once she really came into heat, perhaps she would.
Unable to resist any longer, Barry headed back to the feed buckets with that incredulous thought in his head. He'd always suspected that Russell's bragging had little substance. The man had always thought of himself as a "stallion" that every woman wanted, but the reality was nothing close. Almost every Saturday the same story was recycled over and over.
But perhaps this weekend Barry's empty bravado would actually have some truth to it.
Just as he finished the last bucket of grain and was about to start on some fresh hay, he heard a pair of giggling female voices. They didn't sound human--few woman Barry knew laughed like that, a pure sound like the ringing of a bell. With his stomach filled enough for the moment, he carefully stuck his head through the paddock fence to see who was coming. He caught a whiff of goat musk.
Baccus and his nymphs.
Alice had obviously smelled it also, because she was back in her half human form and had let herself out of the paddock, where Russell was still waiting for the mare's estrus. She was actually allowing him to nuzzle her withers. The palomino stallion seemed more shocked than anything. But he was gentle in his ministrations, and she was responding. Barry could read the body language, even with his blurry eyesight.
Alice seemed quite satisfied with herself. And she glared at Baccus as he approached. "Joke's over," she said preemptively.
"Is it?" he replied laconically. "I was under the impression that you wanted him to suffer a little more."
"Mr. Sanford was going to geld him if I didn't do something," Alice explained, arms crossed. She had an imposing form as a half-horse, standing well over six feet tall. "And I never wanted it to go that far."
"Indeed," said the former god. "Perhaps you have a point." He looked at one of his two arm candy nymphs. If either of them had been men before, it certainly didn't show. They each had a doll-like perfection that Barry would have found repugnant as a human. "So, what should I do with him instead, my sweet?" She thought a moment, then whispered in his ear. He chuckled at whatever she said. "Oh... oh I like that, Cindi. What an original idea."
Dimly, Barry felt a gathering of energy, as if a muscle was being tensed. When it was released, the mare whinnied and galloped away from her suitor, leaving a disappointed Russell standing forlornly in a corner of the paddock. Alice's equine mouth dropped open. "That was three hours of hard work!"
"Trust me, he won't need it in the near future. Or rather, he might need new instruction."
"What did you do to him?"
Baccus smiled dryly. "All in good time, my good woman. I believe his workday is almost over anyway, isn't it?"
Just at that moment, Mr. Sanford trotted out of his barn-like house. Baccus was apparently invisible to him. "No luck, Alice?" he said.
"Tomorrow for sure, Bob. The mare almost cooperated."
The equitaur nodded. "I'm sure she will tomorrow, with your help. I just came out to tell you that it's after five already. Bring them both in, then head home yourself." Sanford looked over into Barry's stall. "Unless you want to stay with your fiancée for a while longer."
Alice walked over to Barry's paddock fence, smelling nervous. He stuck his head through the gap to accept a muzzle rub. "I'd like to. This is a rough time for him."
Don't know about that, Barry thought, whuffling with bliss under the mare-woman's gentle fingers. His mare. Just wait until he got a little bigger.
"He'll pull through. No worries there," Sanford said reassuringly. "He's made of strong stuff. And a nice-looking animal to boot. See you later, then."
Once the stable's owner left, Baccus approached. "I can't tell you how hard it is to find someone like Russell and Sanford these days," he said ruefully. He reached out to touch Barry's muzzle, only to be slapped away by Alice. "So few of you are vulnerable to us any more..."
"If you think I'm going to let you..." she said, ears laid back.
"What makes you think I can?" said the defrocked god bitterly. He took a deep breath to calm himself, then smiled. "But this town I like. There are just so many possibilities here. At any rate, Russell is quite enough entertainment for now." One of the nymphs tugged on his elbow. "I believe it's time we went." Without another word the threesome strolled back towards the parking lot.
Clarity came and went. Sometimes Barry stared at his forelegs in disbelief, wondering where his fingers were. Other times there was only the ever-now, a world of emotions driven by an incredible immediacy with his senses. During these times, even though she wasn't in heat, he welcomed the familiar mare's presence. He was almost fully grown by the middle of the week, and they often galloped side-by-side across the pasture. He felt like his herd should be larger--much larger--but for some reason he was satisfied with the one. But that wasn't right, was it? Just one? A single solitary mare?
A very strong part of him insisted that was all he needed.
She seemed worried, though. And it didn't go away despite his attempts to comfort her. Her wariness put him on edge, wondering where danger could be.
Barry only remembered during those periods when his stallion-self receded. This was the problem that weres had. Their dual natures made them especially susceptible to their animal form's way of thinking, acting like a thick blanket over their humanity.
Russell hadn't been seen at work since Baccus last appeared. Somebody had gone to his apartment and found the curtain drawn; and one of his neighbors said they heard someone, so he appeared to be home. But he wouldn't come out. And if he didn't show up the next Monday, Mr. Sanford would fire him (no doubt Baccus had played with the equitaur's mind again). Barry knew that if the man couldn't hold this job there was nothing left for him here. He'd have to leave town.
No skin off my back, Barry thought with a derisive snort. It was a nice day, and the grass tasted good. Despite continued periods of simply being a horse, he felt more in control of himself now. What day was it? Thursday, Alice had said that morning. He remembered that she was at a different stable today; a thought quickly followed by a pang of possessiveness. His mare. His fiancée. With some other stallion!
Just then, right when he had a mouthful of half-chewed grass, he found himself laying naked in the pasture. He barely had time to spit out the foul-tasting mass before his equine side reasserted himself, exploding him back into horse-shape. Confused, train of thought interrupted, he sniffed the food he had spit out, then lipped it back into his mouth to swallow.
Saturday night. The bar buzzed with conversation that seemed far louder than before. Barry had to remind himself that it was his new pointy, twitching ears. No matter how hard he tried, or how many times, his ears remained like those of a horse. Almost everything else was human except his ears. I feel like... what's his name... Damn it, mythology was never my strong point. Except he'd gotten donkey ears, Barry thought. Alice assured him that they were actually quite handsome. Even after hours of practice shapechanges his hair had also refused to fully revert. Though it covered his head fully like human hair, it was light chestnut and the coarse texture of a mane.
The shaman had said that it was a certainty that there'd be some outward sign of his new condition. It varied, from a tiny patch of fur to an inability to go past the furry shape. Barry's signs were a little more obvious than average. In any case, they'd take some getting used to. At least this town was more open-minded than most. Upon entering the bar, pair of them had been greeted with cheers and applause.
And if the fates were cooperative, he'd keep control of himself all night. The barkeep wouldn't appreciate hoofprints on the hardwood floor.
They were enjoying a beer when the front door opened. Barry looked up to see when the bar went quiet. Standing there, in baggy clothes, was a haggard, spent Russell. There were deep bags under his reddened eyes; his hair was a mess, and moved slowly like he was missing several days of sleep. He made his way over towards their table, oblivious to the stares and murmuring of the two dozen other bar patrons. Nobody had ever seen him like this, or ever wanted to again. There wasn't even the barest shadow of his normal mask of bravado. This was a broken man. Barry felt an upwelling of pity.
Russell dragged himself over in front of their booth, the dead expression becoming pure desperation. Barry's heightened sense of smell picked up something strange that he couldn't quite comprehend. "You have to help me!" Russell said in a stifled whisper. He seemed to have at least a shred of pride left.
From where he was, Barry could see that the barkeep had one hand on the phone, in case things got ugly. "Help you with what, Rus?" Barry said laconically. What could Baccus have possibly done to him that had come to this?
"I'm a were..." Russell began, shutting his eyes tight, "...horse." He laughed humorlessly. "Just... just like you two. Like I'd always... Except... I can't... can't... control..."
Alice's eyes went wide, her nostrils flaring. "Oh God..."
The haggard man stiffened. "Shit... here it comes again..."
Slumping to the ground, Russell transformed as he fell. His dark hair became a white-blonde mane, skin covered by a golden hide much like the palomino stallion he had been without knowing it for almost a week. But there the similarities completely ended. The mane was thick and full, attached to a graceful equine neck, flowing down over narrow shoulders. The old gray T-shirt couldn't hide the curves underneath, and especially not the prominent mounds of two perfect breasts. Somehow Russell had landed in a position to best display the new body that Baccus had given... her. Barry suspected she was meant to.
Somebody started laughing. It was a mocking, long-repressed sort of laughter, starting low but reaching a crescendo as more voices joined in. Very quickly everyone except for Alice and Barry had joined in. Even then, Barry had to repress it. Because if he did laugh, Alice would never forgive him.
For a while, Russell kept her cool. Carefully she stood up on unsteady hoof-tipped feet, keeping her arms over her chest. She cast another pleading expression at Alice and Barry. "Please, I need your help. I don't have anyone else to go to." Russell's new voice could melt the heart of any stallion. She was, much like Alice in her furry, a perfect aesthetic blending of woman and mare.
Someone wolf-whistled. Russell pivoted around to glare at the offender, nostrils flaring, and let loose a spew of invective in that same sweetly female voice. It elicited a few more chuckles, but not from anyone under her angry gaze.
Finally the barkeep interrupted her diatribe. "Look, Rus... I can't have you insulting my patrons..."
Russell snorted angrily, but managed to calm herself. "If you don't want me here, Dale, then I don't want to be here. Goodbye. It was nice knowing you, at least." Primly, Russell collected herself, then stormed out the front door.
Alice buried her head in her hands and groaned. Barry reached across the table to comfort her. "This is all my fault," she said.
"Didn't you say he'd be one of those Barbie doll nymphs if you hadn't done something?" Barry reminded her.
"Yes! But..." The weremare sighed. "We do have to help him... her... whatever."
Barry looked doubtful. "Russell's probably packing to leave town as we speak, love. If he's going to leave, he's going to."
"Well, I'm going over. She asked for help, so I'm going to give it to her. If she'll listen." Her eyes softened and she gave her future husband a warm look. "I'll be right back. You don't have to come along if you don't want to. You've done more than enough for Rus over the past couple years. More than he really deserved."
Barry let her leave, but soon felt like his clothes were a too small. Ears laid back, he left the bar under the expectant gaze of the rest of the patrons. It was a humid summer's evening, cloudless, with a bright gibbous moon descending westward. After removing his shoes, he unfastened a few buttons around his waistband. That done, he let go some of the built-up pressure. His body flowed and changed, relaxing like a muscle into the furry shape that gave his equine side some relief. Pulling his tail through an opened flap, he decided to wait for Alice at his truck. Her visit shouldn't take that long...
He had barely leaned against the driver side door when guilt bit him in the tail. Why did he let Alice go alone? Russell--fool or not--was as much his responsibility as hers. So why was he still leaning against his truck?
Guilt pushed him towards the nearby apartment complex, hooves clopping along the pavement. It was just a quarter mile down the sidewalk, and...
A car going way too fast turned onto the road ahead of him from the apartment building's parking lot. It came to a screeching halt across from him. To Barry's surprise, it was Russell's old Dodge Reliant. And he--or she, rather--was leaning out the open window, staring at him like she was incredibly thirsty and he was a glass of water.
Ye gods, she was beautiful. With that golden hide and platinum blonde mane. He couldn't deny...
Russell's face twisted into a horribly confused expression, and she burst into tears, breaking the spell. But before Barry could approach to see what was wrong, she gunned the motor and sped away towards the Interstate. He could only watch as the taillights vanished into the distance.
Concerned about what had just happened, Barry broke into a run to find Alice. She was hunched over the kitchen sink in her furry form, tail swishing back and forth so violently the tip whistled like a whip. Her ears flicked towards him sadly. "I was stupid," she said, her voice distant. "I decided to tell her who did this is still in town. She freaked out completely, so I guess he's not messing with her mind any more."
"That's something, at least," said Barry. "He didn't hear me when I tried."
She started crying as Barry wrapped his arms around her, nuzzling the nape of her neck. "And... and here. Here I was going to help her adjust. Maybe at least keep her here a week. It's just so dangerous... she can't stay human and male for more than ten minutes at a time, did you know that?"
Barry hugged her softly, comfortingly. "If you knew you had attracted the attention of an old god, would you stay here?" he said.
His fiancee sighed, mollified somewhat. "Probably not, especially after learning what had already been done to me. At least she isn't foolish enough to ask for her old life back." Alice sighed deeply, taking solace in Barry's embrace. "But I'm still worried if she'll be able to adapt on her own..."
Maybe she'd call. Maybe she'd write. All Barry and Alice could do was wait and hope.
They could do nothing else.