The Long Shadow
- 1 Chapter 1: To War
- 2 Chapter 2: Secrets Come to Light
- 3 Chapter 3: In the Hands of the Enemy
- 4 Chapter 4: Riding Lessons
- 5 Chapter 5: Lost in the Dark
- 6 Chapter 6: Rising Spirits
- 7 Chapter 7: The Cervanes of Madrane
- 8 Chapter 8: Illusions of Humanity
- 9 Chapter 9: Fallen Enclave
- 10 Chapter 10: Victories and Losses
- 11 Chapter 11: Spoils Divided
"Put your back into it lad! Ye canne let your opponent get the upper hand! And this time keep on your horse!"
Easier said than done. I held on tight to my lance while secured upon the back of my warhorse, who had the rather optimistic name of Vindicator. He was rather small for a warhorse, with a short back, but he was the most magnificent white I'd ever seen in my life. Properly taken care of, he shone as bright as the sun on even the most cloudy days. Optimistic, because the only fights we'd been in thus far were practice ones with dummies. More often than not I got knocked off of him during practice.
Today was no different.
Furious, my father practically yanked my arm out of its socket even though I was wearing full armor. "It's a wonder that the King ever made you a knight! If we weren't at war you would never have been anything but a Page! If you don't shape up..."
I endured my father's speech with as much fortitude as I could muster. This wasn't exactly the first time he'd given it to me, after all. If he truly meant what he said or if he was just trying to put some iron into my rather spineless self was immaterial. Sarn take him. Will I ever do anything right in his eyes?
Only a few days remained before I was to leave—along with my older brothers—with the force that would go across the sea to Loran, our hated enemy. Our King had a claim to their throne, and we were to prepare the way for his landing before winter came. The commander of our expedition, much to the delight of my brothers, was the Crown Prince himself, also known as the Bright Knight. The most chivalrous of all the knights in Winold.
My father's tone of voice swung my attention back to him. "...You should feel lucky that we can even afford your armor! Once you return from Loran with your loot, you'll have to pay for yourself. Hear me, boy? This is it! Hear me?"
"Yes, father. I hear you. Can I make sure Vindicator doesn't come up lame from not getting a rubdown?"
My father prized his warhorses more than I, so he dismissed me with a nod to do work that would normally be a Page's duty. But since in his eyes I was nothing more than a lowly Page to begin with, he didn't mind me doing work that my brothers would consider ignoble. But I didn't mind, since I preferred horses to humans in any case.
Horses liked me, too. I was always awakened out of a sound sleep whenever a thunderstorm appeared on the horizon, because for some reason even our sizable herd of breeding palfreys and warhorses would never do more than fidget a little when I stood next to the fence. Most of the time I'd be soaked to the bone, but I knew that my father would skin me if I so much as paused to bring out an overcoat. More than once during the stormy season I ended up in the kitchen, my feet in hot water and a blanket around my shivering self.
Once my armor was off, with the help of my Squire, Davyd, I put on some clean clothes and lead Vindicator—or "Vin", as I called him privately—down to the stable for a rubdown. After treating him with a piece of carrot for putting up with my inept riding skills, I carefully massaged him with a curry brush from front to rear, both sides. The stallion loved that and would always nibblegroom my clothing with those flexible lips of his. I'd seen horses groom one another out in the pasture, so I reasoned that my equine companion must think of me as another horse.
As I finished his hind hooves he suddenly turned around and whuffed my hair, then started grabbed a hold of it in his mouth. "Ouch! Is this the thanks I get?" I joked. Vin's ears flicked back a moment, confused. I laughed again and went to get him his feed.
"You spend far too much time in the stables, Johan," came the voice of my next eldest brother, Cadwallon. "Father is hosting a few of Sir Matthew's daughters tonight. If we're lucky father might let us marry after we get back."
"You mean if we get back. I don't expect I'll live through the first battle, let alone the war."
"Stop being such a pessimist. You're not as clumsy as you think you are."
"I know. I'm more. Can we talk about this after Vin is settled? The last thing I want to happen is for him to come up lame before we've even left the Keep. Then I've got to check on Dani." Dani was my palfrey, the horse I rode when not in battle. She was a sweet horse with an even temperament and gait that made her very easy to ride, which was a very good thing for someone who fell off his horse all too frequently.
"Far be it from me to keep you from your horses. I'll give you a hand so we can get back to the great hall, then we'll talk some." My brother smirked and came around to give me a hand with the feed. Being second son, he would inherit little of my father's wealth. Like me, his only hope was to gain some lands by doing service for a Duke, Earl, or perhaps a more successful knight like my father, who was now too old to join his sons in battle.
The great hall was draped in tapestries that had been commissioned by my family since we'd taken possession of our small castle a hundred and fifty years ago. It was just on the eastern marches of Giffyyd, a kingdom which had finally been conquered by one of the greatest Kings of Winold... whose name escaped me at the moment. History had never been my strong point. I was more concerned with getting up into my room and into the proper clothing to receive Sir Matthew and his family, who were due here by sunset.
I dressed in my best green doublet, with a matching mantle across my shoulders. Unlike my brother I forwent the pointed shoes that so angered the Clergy. As Father Willam often said, "The Dark One has long, pointed feet such as that. Do you really want to attract his attention?"
Unfortunately our guests had decided to arrive somewhat earlier than had been planned. I heard the Sir Matthew's gruff voice as my brother and I came into the great hall, where all meals and gatherings took place. As usual, he and my father were recounting their many battles in Loran, before the Scourge had come and carried off my mother and younger siblings. The shadow of those memories made me shiver with revulsion. There were worse ways to die than on the back of a horse, in the thick of battle.
I put on my best knightly expression and waded my way through all of Sir Matthew's retainers to join them at the head table. The disproving expression my father gave me when I finally got through made all of my careful preparations come to nothing. "Sit down, Johan. After the food is served my old friend and I will want to talk with you." Was that an actual smile on my father's bearded face?
The meal was passable for early spring. The growing season had just begun, and everyone was on the last dregs of winter rations. A few dried fruits and pickled vegetables, salt meat. If not for the fine archers that were so common in this part of Winold there would be no fresh venison on the table. We ate much better than the peasantry, most of which were hungry because the harvest was still bad. Sir Matthew's gold-embroidered overcoat was being held by his squire, who was looking out the doorway. "Blasted storms. When will they stop?" Sir Matthew said between bites of food.
"Before he died, my father told me about how things used to be," my father replied. "Great harvests, perfect weather... Good times."
"But not quite so glorious as the current war, eh? Why, I remember..."
I groaned inwardly and could only wait until they finished recounting their favorite tale. How, ten years ago, they had gone with the King's Company to Loran and won the day in the Battle of Greenfield. My father gesticulated widely. "It was a grand charge, wasn't it my friend? Two thousand knights on warhorses pounding across the plain of battle."
...'And the hosts of the Loranite lances trembled in their armor.' I completed in my mind, having heard the story a dozen times. I also happened to know that the battle had been won because of the Giffyyd longbowmen, and the very fact that the battlefield was so muddy that the knights couldn't even charge. Once the archers had perforated the Loranite knights, all my father and his fellows had to do was walk in and finish the job.
Since father wanted to talk with me, there was no way I could leave the table until they were finished chatting, drinking wine, and chatting some more. When both of them fell into a drunken stupor from reminiscing too much I finally sighed and got up and went up to the room I shared with Cadwallon. I'd had quite a bit of wine, myself, so was feeling a bit inebriated. "Father forgot to talk to you again, didn't he?" my brother said.
I nodded and collapsed onto my bed. "I should never have picked up a sword, Cad. You remember; father was all set to give me over to the Clergy when I was ten, when for some reason he changed his mind." I hiccuped. "Sarn knows why. I think I would do better in a Cloister than on Vindicator's back."
My blonde-haired brother shrugged. "Well, like or not you're a Knight of the Crown." He smiled. "At least you get to work with horses, eh?"
My laugh was humorless. "If it wasn't for them I'd be quite mad, you know. I understand Vin and Dani much better than I do you, father, almost anyone I've ever met. Horses seem more human than humans." The need for sleep was starting to weigh heavy on me. My eyelids were drooping. But I didn’t' want to sleep because I knew I'd awaken with a headache the size of the Keep. However, I never heard my brother's reply because the harder I tried to stay awake, the easier it become for sleep to knock me on the head unawares.
Sarn saw fit to send rain the day we were to leave. The cold concerned me because of the effect it might have on the horses. Dani, Vin, and the others were in top condition, but it would take time to reach the southern coast of our island kingdom, passing villages made into places where ghosts roamed because of the Scourge. A fortnight's travel, at least.
Soaked to the bone, we left the Keep at a stately pace, meeting other knights along the way. About halfway to our destination there were several hundred of us strung out for at least a couple of leagues along the main road southward. Submerged as I was among the host, I was one of the first to hear a ripple of surprise through the assembled knights. "Mages?" "The King called Mages? Can we trust them?" "They have no honor!" Among other, less flattering things.
Upon hearing this, Cadwallon leaned over in his saddle. "I don't know about you, but if they keep my hide out of the fire I'm all for them! We're all in this together, after all."
My other brother, Evan, apparently overheard. "If father heard you said that he'll disown you. Mages may be servants of Sarn, but I say that anyone who deals with the supernatural must be a lunatic."
I was more concerned with why Mages would be called at all. Traditionally they were quite independent of Crown authority. But with the Scourge still popping up in places, and the fact that there just weren't as many people around any more, using their abilities to bolster the ranks with magic might make sense after all. The only thing that confused me was incentive. What a worldly king could possibly have to offer Mages was quite beyond me.
When we finally arrived at the small port town on the southern coast, the multitude of assembled knighthood threw me with its sheer numbers. Mumbles of "ten thousand men" were common. The sheer amount of horseflesh needed to move all those men and supplies staggered the mind. Ships of every size filled the harbor to overflowing. Not surprisingly, I was told to see that our horses were properly taken care of in the hold of the ships. I spent the whole four day voyage in the hold trying to keep them from hurting themselves in the hastily built special stalls, and trying to keep down any meal I managed to get. For all my efforts, Dani and Vindicator still came out of the experience with minor bruises that had to be massaged carefully.
From what I heard after the landing, a lot of other horses weren't as lucky. As I was checking Dani's bay-colored hide for blemishes, Cad came over to chat. "I found out why we've got all of these mages along," he stated, sounding a little bit scared. "The Loranites have done the same thing. We'll be facing magic as well as other knights and soldiers." He shuddered.
I considered that for a moment. Mages were reputed to be able to call demons, firestorms, tornadoes, animate golems, among other things at the sweep of an arm. It was quite possible that I'd never even see action, and instead end up a roasted corpse in my armor. "At least we have our own Mages to counter theirs. Assuming that they don't break confidence. You never can tell what a mage will do."
"Isn't that the truth," he said solemnly.
Dani nickered and started to lip at my overcoat, where I normally kept treats for her. "Okay, I'll give you a carrot. Last one for a while." I laughed and gave her a chunk. And when I looked up I discovered that my brother had left me.
At least I wasn't alone, giving Dani a pat on her fine, soft muzzle, I focused on getting the others ready to land on the beach in Loran, in a fief known as Bretonia.
There were a few skirmishes almost immediately upon landing. But once those were over, the Crown Prince called all the knights together and started handing out unit assignments. From where I was in the crowd I could barely hear his speech. "Fellow knights, we are here for one purpose: to draw out the enemy into battle. To that end, we will cause havoc in the countryside. No town, village, or castle will be safe from our power! We will plunder and ravage the wealth of this land until their knights appear. And when they do, we will pound them into the mud!" A grand "hurrah!" went up from the host.
There was no way we could possibly lose.
Fog shrouded the coast the morning the campaign was to begin. There was so much moisture in the air that it was almost unpleasant to breathe, water had beaded on my armor overnight and had to be cleaned off before Davyd could help me put it on. What made things worse was that, compared to that of my brothers, my armor was more or less secondhand. Bought from a knight who could no longer support himself, only the helmet and gauntlets were new. The breastplate, the greaves on my lower legs and arms, and chain mail that covered the rest of me were all meant for a man who was taller than I. So even the thickly padded jacket I wore underneath couldn't quite fill out the empty space.
I loved the helm, at least. It had a "beak" that made me look rather like a bird-of-prey when wearing it, and a flip-up visor so I could see where I was going when not in battle. Still, my brothers' armor had rather more plate, and was made to fit their bodies exactly. They looked quite impregnable inside their armor, holding lance and shield as they rode their warhorses. While I just managed to look like an fat metal eagle.
And then there was the clank and smell of it all. Wet armor smelled like an old iron pot, and the wet scrapes of metal-on-metal didn't sit with the horses too well. Vindicator, all done up in his own coat of armor, fidgeted at being so close to so many other stallions. "Easy, boy. They're not going to take Dani. Easy," I reassured. Surprisingly, the stallion did calm down.
My oldest brother had been put in charge of our "squad" of about twenty knights, plus our attendant pages and squires. Knight, page, and squire made up a unit called a "Lance" in military terms. There were at least three hundred Lances in this army, or so I'd heard.
When Evan returned he came with a man dressed in the most astonishingly colorful robes I'd ever seen in my life. Blues and reds and yellows, gaudy colors that would make my mother go into convulsions, if she were still alive. "Everybody, this is Anda, our Mage that has been assigned to protect us." He held up his hands at an angry muttering from the other knights. Evan had always been the diplomatic type. "Before you protest, just remember, the Loranites have mages, too. This man is the only thing between us and the ground opening up. Remember!"
Mages. I couldn't help but shudder in my armor.
The populace seemed to have deserted their homes. What loot there was to be had the front of the column generally got to before we did, even though we weren't too far back. This frustrated our unit no end. I was looking forward to some loot, myself, and even managed to get a small share (two silver coins) from a small merchant guildhall. But knights get restless if they don't see battle regularly. Our own unit complained often and loudly to Evan, who went to speak with the Prince.
Cad prodded his own warhorse, a sturdy gray with the unlikely name of Motte, up next to Vin. "Something wrong, Johan?"
"Whenever I have my back turned I feel like that mage is watching me, and I can't figure out why. I know I'm not a very good knight, but with him watching me I can't focus on what to do if we're actually attacked." I shifted uncomfortably on Vin's back.
"Just keep your hand near your sword, and make sure Davyd is ready with your lance and shield. You'll be fine..."
The sound of pounding hooves interrupted Cad's pep talk. We both looked up and saw Evan with an enthusiastic smile on his face that shone like sunlight. Everyone rushed over to meet him. "Prepare yourselves, men! The Prince said there's a small walled town about four leagues off the main road. We've been assigned to sack it, and whatever else we may encounter on the way." He drew his sword dramatically. "What say you?"
The cheer that went up could surely be heard by the whole army.
The main road itself was made of fairly well-maintained stone pavement that looked to have been around for centuries upon close investigation. However, the small trade road that was the route to our objective was anything but. The constant rainfall had made it so muddy as to turn it into a smelly quagmire, with nothing but a pair of wagon ruts to mark its real path between nearly equally muddy unplanted fields. Our small force was composed of all of the knights under Evan's command, about fifty archers and foot soldiers, and five large wagons that held supplies and were meant to haul whatever riches we managed to plunder along the way.
I had to admit, the thought of gold, silver, fine silks and furniture, furs and clothing was quite enticing. With such riches I could easily strike out on my own and perhaps buy my own manor, somewhere far away from my father's castle. Or maybe even get into the merchant's business, even though nobles weren't "supposed" to.
I was toying with the idea of giving up my nobility and becoming a merchant or burgess when Vin nickered, making me look up. The three Lances Evan had sent ahead were galloping back towards us at breakneck speed. "A manor ahead!" one knight yelled. "It looked inhabited!"
My eldest brother smiled. "Well, it looks like you're going to see some action sooner than you thought, Johan. But don't worry, we'll watch your back. You're not a total idiot at swordplay."
My warhorse was starting to feel the excited muttering, as the squires and pages gave the knights their assorted weapons. Since this was to be something of a siege, Davyd and my Page made sure that my breastplate was tightly secured. "Good luck," Davyd told me. I nodded thanks and closed my visor, making double sure that my shield was secured to my left arm. I was ready.
It was all over very quickly. The manor was guarded by only a few men-at-arms, and archers shooting from arrow slits inside. While our own archers kept them busy, me and some other knights got a huge battering ram that had been brought in one of the wagons. I was so scared that my underclothes were already soaked in sweat, if my visor had been up the others would've laughed at me. It took all my willpower just to keep from tripping over my own clanking feet.
We rushed the door, arrows making ominous plinking sounds as they collided with our armor. One bounced off my breastplate, making a dent that would have to be pounded out, but stopping the arrow. I made myself as small as I could against the battering ram. Hopefully the chain mail would be tight enough to stop any arrows that were shot there. Hopefully.
The lead knight—an ox of a man named Bannock—called for attention. "Ready men?" We called our assent. "Charge!"
The heavy wooden door was broken from its hinges with a resounding crack. Whoever was unlucky enough to have been standing behind it was surely crushed beneath it. Once inside, we dropped the ram and drew our swords with the sound of metal slithering from their scabbards. Whatever fear I had was suddenly lost in the battle fury that followed.
The fighting was quick, but fierce. There were no knights inside the house, but the men were well-armed if not armored. Almost immediately I brained a man with the pommel of my sword, then hacked at another one who came up right behind him. Our swords clattered together, he the quicker because of lack of armor. Suddenly, with an upswing of his sword he hit the side of my helmet, denting it and making my ears ring.
Then Cad saved my life, taking the man by surprise. He never knew what hit him.
I was still breathing hard and trying to regain my senses when my brother pulled me back onto my feet. "I told you I'd watch your back, didn't I?" he said. My visor was jammed, that soldier had hit hard. "Let me give you a hand with that, then we'll celebrate your first battle. They found a whole cellar full of wine casks! We drink well tonight!"
The celebration lasted well into the early morning hours. Perhaps the best night I'd ever had in my life. My brothers and I were very close. They always covered my back, helped me practice my weaponry with the understanding that compared to them my own skills left much to be desired. Our drunken chatter drifted around many subjects, until one came up that I'd almost forgotten. "Did father get to tell you about mother before we left?" Cad said between hiccups.
"Nope. He and Sir Matthew had too much wine and too much talk. He forgot about me." I hadn't yet had so much wine that my own mind clouded over. The last thing I needed was a foggy head in hostile territory. But neither my brothers nor the other knights were nearly so cautious.
Cad almost had to yell to be heard over the bawdy drinking songs that everyone else was singing. "Figgurs. So I guess I should tell you." His expression grew pained. "Mom wasn't your mom. Hell, she wasn't either mine nor Evan's, either. Our mother got very sick while you were growing inside of her, and died soon after you were born. I was only two at the time, so I hardly remember it. But father didn't want us to grow up without a mother, so he married a woman who looked very much like her a year or so later..." he trailed off, the drink getting to him, and couldn't continue, instead apparently falling asleep against the wall.
My mother was not my mother? That took a while to sink in, and my brother wouldn't lie to me, ever. He had to be telling the truth.
Unnoticed by the others, I wandered outside into the vineyards that stretched for miles. For once it was a clear night, the gibbous moon and stars shone brightly. Tomorrow night would be a full moon, and for once I wished that the clouds would roll in. But the only storm was inside of me.
When morning came I was more or less numb to the whole thing. The loot from the manor only filled part of a wagon, if that much. Since I was first in the door I'd gotten first choice, a small ornately carved wooden box, inside which I'd found a pearl necklace. Valuable enough for brand-new armor! And this was only the first of it.
Evan personally burned the manor before we left. For a moment I thought of protesting, since we might be close enough to our objective town that the smoke would let them know we were coming. But, I reasoned, all the better for them to be afraid. Victory would be much more satisfying. Cad slapped me on the back. "Glorious, isn't it? Our King will be sitting on the Loranite throne in no-time."
As we watched it burn, it felt like someone was watching me again. Out of the corner of my eye, the many-colored robe of the mage caught my eye. I gave him a sidelong glance, and when he didn't look away, ventured to look him full in the face. "If I'm not being too forward, is there a reason why you're looking at me like that?"
"You're a strange one," he replied with a tone a voice that was irrespective of rank. "There's something really, really peculiar about you. I can't quite put my finger on it. But I suppose I'll figure it out soon enough." He abruptly turned his back and walked back to his own horse.
I repressed the urge to draw my sword and demand that he explain himself, but I really had no reason to believe a crazy Mage. Mages were reputed to often see things about people that weren't true or real. The only time they opened their mouths was to utter a spell, or to get something that they wanted.
As we left for the town, the battle behind us became something that lent great fortitude to all. Maybe too much. After days and days in armor on horseback one can get very tired and bruised. My armor had to be repaired as it was. Davyd and my Page worked on it while I rode on Dani near the back of the pack, protected in case of an ambush.
I decided not to dwell on what Cadwallon had told me the previous night. It was largely irrelevant, after all. And I couldn't let the other knights see me having some sort of internal battle. I didn't want to lose what little face I'd gained during the siege.
The town was just beyond a short stretch of forest, however, its walls were much shorter than expected. Our scouts reported that they'd seen nobody on guard atop the walls, but the gates were shut. Evan called a halt. "That's strange. No sentries? They must be crazy."
"Or they're preparing their defense," Bannock said gruffly.
Evan smiled. "Should we give them a chance to surrender?"
"Where's the glory in that?" the other knight replied seriously.
Evan's grin only got wider. "You have a point. It's not a very large town. Our force should be large enough to take it. The faster we bash through the doors, the more loot there will to be had." He always knew how to get right to the point of it all.
We took the townsfolk completely by surprise. Their sentries had only just called the alarm by the time our force was three-quarters of the way across the field. The town gate fared no better than the one at the manor. We flooded inside like a river that had burst its banks, an unstoppable force. My heart pounded in my chest, but my previous success heartened me, if it didn't make me any better a knight.
No quarter was given. Those townsfolk that did not escape were put to the sword. There were, thank Sarn, few women and no children, apparently having been sent away. The women were spared, also; instead to be used to wash our clothing and fix our meals—and possibly other things, if the urge arose.
The whole army marched inside and started to loot and plunder the town. The wagons were brought, and items started to pile on. Rugs, furniture, chests full of trinkets, jewelry. I gathered more than enough riches to buy my own castle. More than enough to get me started as a cloth trader.
All through this joyous occasion, the mage stood in the middle of the town square, a wary look on his face. He saw me and nudged his sturdy brown mare towards me. "I don't like this. I feel like something is wrong. We shouldn't stay here."
Cad chose that moment to arrive. He was out of his armor already, looking very comfortable indeed in a fine purple doublet and hose, a big smile on his face. "Go ahead and get out of your armor, Johan. If you thought the celebration the other night was big, tonight's will show you really how to celebrate. I'll speak with the mage."
Once out of my armor I made double sure that what I'd plundered from several townhouses was marked as mine, not wanting to lose it. Not to be outdone by my brothers, I put on some of my own finery; but I didn't go immediately to the celebration. Instead I went into the small church of Sarn to give thanks that I was merely bruised, and not hacked into little bits.
We'd decided to spare the priest, who was nowhere to be seen in the gray stone church. I shut the door behind me and it closed with a hollow-sounding bang. Sunlight streamed through the stained glass window above the altar at the other end. The scene was out of the Life of Sarn, his Children standing around him, loving arms holding them in caress. I closed my eyes and prayed. May I reach home alive.
Suddenly there was a wrenching feeling, deep inside of me. The roar of the celebration outside was abruptly stilled. It came again, stronger this time. The feeling was such that it was almost painful, centered nowhere and everywhere, an inrush from beyond.
In a daze, I stumbled outside, barely wrenching the door open. Everyone else was doubled over on the ground, previously loose clothing growing tighter by the instant. Suddenly I was aware of this happening to myself. The doublet that was normally fairly loose across my chest made warning snapping sounds whenever I flexed my muscles. What was going on, here?
There were horses roaming freely, their riders apparently fallen off. Bannock laid in the dirt at the foot of the church's steps, looking somehow larger than normal. I carefully made my way down the steps and rolled him over, his doublet ripping easily. "Bannock?" I forced out through an unwieldy mouth. "What's wrong."
Then I noticed the burly man's eyes. The irises had grown large, dark brown, and seemed to bulge out of their sockets. His lips were swollen and nostrils flaring widely. He gave me such an inhuman look of fear that it staggered me backwards to fall down on the steps. The knight screamed, but it was less of a human sound and more like a horse's whinny.
He rolled over again, his body swelling, opening the rips farther. Through the tears a thickening dark brown hide was visible. Other distorted, painful whinnies echoed from every wall and house. A sudden inrush and I practically burst out of my own doublet, my chest and back swelling to a size that was far beyond what they were meant to hold. I rolled over right near Bannock, whose face was recognizably equine, twisted in pain.
But oddly enough, I felt no pain. There was discomfort to be sure, but no pain. My own mouth started to bulge, followed by my jaw. An ear twitched on its own; there was a twinge from my lower spine as the bud of what was surely a tail met the cloth of my trousers.
With every breath the spell worked it's magic on me. Horse hair that was a dark chestnut in color grew on my wrists first, and spread from there. The back of my neck tingled as a mane appeared, accompanied by a stretching neck and a nose that was increasingly coming between one eye and the other. My vision was changing. My clothes had long torn off of my body. But I was soon distracted by what was happening to Bannock.
He was becoming a mare. The only thing between his legs were four prominent teats. I winced inwardly, knowing that he must know it as well.
But I was still male—a stallion. There could be no question of that. With every breath my chest swelled. My fingers by now were stiffened, elongated, moving as one. The world had shrank considerably. Power flexed through every twitching muscle. With every breath, my humanity slipped farther and farther away.
My fingers and toes finally fused and grew numb with hoof. There were only a few discomforts left. A shiver of a new piece of flesh coming into being. A soft nicker rumbled from my throat. Then finally my body was my own.
The world was filled with sharp, distinct scents that bespoke of wordless meanings inside my mind. A acrid, greasy, sweaty smell came from my former clothing. It could only be that of a long-unwashed human, distinct and recognizable from any other. My ears flicked towards the sound of a tired nicker from behind. The smell of mare tickled my nose.
I had to literally shake myself out of that line of thought. That mare was Bannock. How the man must be reacting to what had happened to him I couldn't even begin to imagine. The only thing on my mind at that moment was getting up on my hooves. Before I could worry about if I could do it or not, I had.
Bannock—I had to resist thinking of him as "the mare"—wasn't having nearly as much luck as I. He whinnied loudly several times and rolled around in the newly-dry mud a few times in a panic. When I looked at him, something even stranger happened. Bannock's panicked voice, with slight female timbre to it, seemed to go right past my ears and right into my mind. Sarn's blood! They turned me into a mare! I'm a knight of the Crown and they... they turned me into a mare! The tone of the voice I heard I'd more expect to find coming from my cousin Phillipa.
The former knight made a well-built mare, the kind of horse that my father would love to have as a breeder. She had clean, well-made lines, a black hide with white socks above her hind hooves, the perfect palfrey. I looked back at myself, and aside from being most definitely male, I had pretty much the same sleek lines. I was amazed at the flexibility of my neck. It could move nearly all the way around and helped me examine myself.
I was torn between being amazed and horrified when another horse rounded the corner of the church. I smelled him before I saw him, automatically turning to face the stallion. A warning sound escaped my lips, ears pinned backwards. The other stallion snorted and I heard his voice loudly in my head. Get a hold of yourself, lad. I know you're in there, unlike a lot of the others. I knew there was something strange about you. It was the mage.
It took nearly a physical wrench to stop myself from rushing up and attacking him. What would that be? I stammered.
The wind pulled at his tail and mane. A storm was rolling in. I should have known it, the way that horses act around you. My boy, you have all the markings of a werehorse. But it seems it wasn't powerful enough to actually express itself. Haven't you wondered why you and I are the only ones standing?
It felt like my head was stuffed with old sheets. I couldn't think straight, there were just too many sensations from this body. But if what the mage said was true, the other knights would be in far worse condition. Then it hit me. Werehorse? Me?! How?
The new horse nickered warningly and flicked his ears. How should I know? There must be a dozen ways to become a were. My concern right now is untangling this spell so I can go warn the main column. I don't think I've ever encountered a mass transformation spell before... he trailed off, his thoughts too quiet for me to hear.
I just stood there, dumfounded from the double blow of being changed into a horse, and being told that I might have been able to anyway, had I tried. But if what the mage had said was true... I shut my eyes and concentrated. Change back, change back, CHANGE BACK! Nothing. Not even a twitch of muscle aside from that of my ears moving towards the sound of town gates opening and closing.
Then it occurred to me. It had all been a trap. Which meant that my brothers... My eyes snapped open. You were talking with Cad before this spell hit. What happened to him?
He's behind the church. Or perhaps I should say she is. I'm afraid your brother looks like quite the fetching mare, the mage deadpanned.
It was all I could do to keep from hitting him in the head with a forehoof. Instead I nickered at him angrily and made my way past him, nipping at his side as I walked by, just like Vin would do to an errant member of his own herd. The mage whinnied and nipped back, teeth bared. Rain started to fall as we reared up on our hind hooves, nipping and hitting at each other; nary a human thought crossing our minds.
Finally I bit him on this withers and he backed away, head down. Then he suddenly perked up again, and I moved to take care of this upstart. Wait! Can't you see... The mage said in my mind, then he realized something, and went back into a defeated pose. I whuffled in satisfaction then went to look for my brother again.
The rain was accompanied by wind, and I was quickly being soaked. However, I really didn't feel the cold through my thick hair. My hooves were splashing through puddles by the time I arrived at the back of the church, once more the smell of mare in my flaring nostrils. When I saw her she was standing up on shaky legs. Her ears flicked in my direction and she let out a whinny of surprise. Much quieter than the mage, I could hear her mind. Sarn's blood! A stallion! The voice was once again familiar.
Cad! I stopped in my tracks, probably looking as if I'd just been poleaxed. The mare that was my brother started to back off as best he (she?) could on unsure hooves. I decided to take a chance. Cad? It's me, Johan.
The mare's ears immediately came forward and a look of relief flashed across her equine face. She tried to actually speak, but the only thing that came out was another whinny. Just think, Cad. I'll be able to hear you.
Like this? he replied in that female-sounding tone of thought that had affected Bannock. I nodded. Thank Sarn! These hooves are horrible, but I think I'm getting used to them. He—I decided that my brother could never be a "she"—seemed to settle in better. I see you kept your manhood, he pointed out jealously.
Even so, I had doubts that my mind was quite so intact, considering what the mage and I had just done. I was acting just like Vin would in his own herd. If it makes it feel any better, I'll protect you, I told him honestly.
Cad flicked his ears as he digested my words. Um... you know, that might not be a bad idea. You know more about horses than I do, Johan. I'd never seen my brother more shaken, and I nibblegroomed his withers to comfort him. He did likewise for a minute, the mutual grooming calmed the both of us considerably.
While looking at the buildings surrounding me, certain details skipped off the surface of my mind. How to open a door, for instance. What a door was, exactly. Thoughts of shelter brought forth images of a warm, dry stable filled with soft hay, a feed bin filled with fragrant oats. I sighed at the thought, until Cad spoke up. Evan was around in the tavern, with a bunch of the other knights. I wonder what happened to him...
Only one way to find out. Do you know where the tavern was? I asked.
Yes! Wait... Cad was suddenly very disturbed. I thought I knew, but the only thing I can remember is the smell of ale.
Horses seemed to have very sensitive noses, from what I'd seen. They could smell any treats I had in my pockets no matter what I did. It stood to reason that perhaps horses more remembered the scents of things rather than the sight of them. Follow that scent, then. That's the tavern.
You go first, Cad suggested in a tone that was more of a plea. I'm sure you know what ale smells like. He walked in behind me. The rain was slacking off and I could see a few breaks in the clouds; soon the rain would stop. My brother-mare shivered, ears flicking backward and forward. You get the feeling like we're being watched?
The mage ventured to come closer, but his body posture was that of a defeated stallion. My brother mages are probably observing the effects of this spell. If you don't mind, I'm going to go check others. He walked off, hooves splashing in the mud.
My brother knew the general direction of the tavern, so we started off in that way. While carefully sniffing the air we found other members of our attack force; most of which were still laying on the ground, dazed and confused. There were more mares than stallions—in fact, the scents that I associated with archers and foot solders were all mares. The only stallion I encountered was a large warhorse that we'd had to stay away from (thank Sarn for mud).
Glancing back, I'd heard my brother sniff a few times. That's Motte! Sarn's blood! He was actually going to fight you for me!
That's what stallions do. Fight for mares, I replied. The brisk trot I'd been able to manage had actually felt good. Quite natural, in fact. By now Cad was even walking on four hooves quite well. Are you holding up okay?
How do you think I feel? I'm a mare. There is no honor in that, he replied sadly.
He must be mortified. There was a reason why knights rode stallions into battle, after all. They were proud, strong, courageous. Motte and Vin were much braver fighters than I. We hadn't even been changed into warhorses, only palfreys. I wasn't built like a war-horse, so I reasoned that our enemy must have something else planned. A whiff of ale combined with the sound of fighting stallions in a place where they weren't meant to be distracted me from my thoughts.
Stallions only made that sound when they were fighting over mares. Were all the knights in the tavern? I asked Cad.
Yes. They wouldn't let any of the others in, either. You know how it is.
I could hear them in more ways than one, at least the ones whose thoughts were more human than equine. Several of them were cowering against the back wall, while the rest lashed out with hooves and teeth. From the tavern came the sounds of wooden tables being trodden under hooves. The shrill, challenging whinnies of battling stallions were that of fighting over several mares. My blood surged, tail swishing back and forth, ears flicking.
If only I could figure out how to get inside.
The scents were most intense coming from cracks around a tall, rectangular area that were only slightly larger than I am. A sharp whinny came from beyond and with a loud crashing sound, a large black stallion—also a palfrey—charged right through and almost into me, the whites of his eyes showing. I heard an errant thought. That mare's insane! She tried to kill me! came a familiar voice—Sir Landon's, and sounding somewhat drunk. Before I could reply he galloped off awkwardly, not seeming to notice me.
The scent that followed the stallion was as sweet as honey, as enticing as the meals that the cook back home used to make. The ruckus inside had quieted, only occasionally broken by a shrill whinny of defiance. Then I heard a mental shout. Idiots! Snap out of it, I'm not going to let you have me! It was Evan's voice, even more female than Cad's.
The smell of spilled, reeking ale very nearly overpowered the scent, but the rest of the stallions inside were converging on four mares that were huddled in the back of the room. In the front of the mares was one that had to be Evan. Whenever a stallion got within reach she would lash out, rearing on her hind legs and coming within inches of hitting one of the apparently mindless stallions with her hooves. I'm going to kill whoever cast this spell! Evan said, punctuating the thought with an angry snort.
From behind, Cad shook his head and did something akin to a laugh. That's our brother, all right.
You heard Evan's voice?
No. But I don't think any other knight-turned-mare in heat would act like that. Don't you?
I sent out a thought towards Evan. It's Johan and Cadwallon, brother!
Evan tossed her head. It's about time you two got here. I think I'm in heat and all these stallions want to have their turn at me. Her ears went back and she bared her teeth. And don't just stand there, distract these knaves!
I scanned the minds of the other horses in the room. They were worked up so much that whatever humanity may have been there was submerged under the weight of pure animal instinct, enhanced by drunkenness. How much ale did they have? I wondered. Only Evan was coherent enough, and knowing her, she would not have had much to begin with.
The stallions were still concentrating on the mares, so I announced my presence with a challenging whinny. I reared up on my hind legs and slashed at the air, then came down hard, ears back. I felt no fear, even as I realized that my challenger was bigger than me by at least a hand, his coat a dark gray in color.
I backed out of the opening into the muddy street. Cad turned tail and walked off a ways. The rain was down to a mere sprinkle, the clouds tinged red with sunset. Wind pulled at my wet mane and tail. But I still didn't feel the cold, only the rush that accompanied battle. A feeling I'd never had as a human, I realized. But now I was a proud stallion protecting his kin.
The gray whinnied again and charged. I reared, making him slide in the mud very nearly underneath me. My hooves came down hard, shoving him to the side with as much strength as I could muster. He slid, but didn't falter, turning around and charging me again. He bit into my withers while I bent my head down, throwing upward against his lower jaw, jarring him.
The larger horse stumbled backwards, dizzy with drink and from my own efforts. He collapsed into the mud, his breathing labored, but steady. Cad crept out from around the corner. You didn't kill him, did you?
He'll be okay, I replied confidently. Evan and the other mares shoved their way through the stunned horses and took their place at my side. Are you okay?
No. I feel all hot and I'm having urges that no man should have. How do you think I feel? she snapped. She walked over and sniffed sadly at the fallen herd stallion. Poor James. You realize that if he knew you beat him, Johan, he'd never live it down.
And when he realizes that he was trying to make you the mother of his foals, he'll be even more mortified, I replied.
Cad was looking at the two of us concernedly, then walked over and started to groom his brother-turned-mare. She returned this, and the other mares gathered behind me, leaving me standing there, glaring at the other stallions that were still inside the tavern. Evan pushed me from behind. I don't know about you, but I'm starting to get hungry, she thought.
How can he think of food at a time like this? Cad said.
How could you tell she was hungry? I asked.
I'm... not sure. He sort of smelled like it. And you realize that you just referred to Evan as a 'she', don't you?
Damn. That heat-scent is clouding my thoughts. I just can't bring myself to think of a mare in heat as anything but a 'she'.
Cad sighed, shaking his head. I guess I can see how that could be a problem. Evan doesn't have to know, anyway. But I think I'm as hungry as he is, come to think of it. So why don't we go find something to eat?
But you just said... I stopped myself. Women often change their minds if they felt like it, I noticed. Cad hadn't even noticed, and I really didn't want to point it out to him. Never mind. Follow me. I think I saw some grass next to one of the town gates. Then we can talk about what to do next. I was at a total loss. Evan was the leader, not I. He was the one who belonged to the Order of the Crown, the most sought after Chivalric Order in the kingdom.
Cad nudged me. You're the leader of this herd, so lead.
The former knights followed me, Evan right behind, while Cad encouraged the not-quite-conscious mares to follow me. I could not yet sense if whatever humanity they had retained had awakened yet, and had begun to doubt if they would. The muddy streets made for dirty walking, our collective hooves making squishing sounds that contained nuances that I hadn't been aware of before. The mud smelled moderately unpleasant, as townsfolk tended to dump their chamber pots into the street.
By now the storm was almost gone. It still smelled like rain, but even that was dissipating. The sky was darkening in the west. I wasn't looking forward to the coming night. Soon we would be officially taken prisoner, and whatever the Loranites had planned for us would soon come to pass.
All of a sudden I was aware of a wrenching emptiness in my stomach. The only thing I could think of was food. I could almost smell the oats and hay, in fact. A sweet, wonderful scent, even better than the roasts that were often served back home. I took in deep breaths, imagining being inside of a large stall, the food in the proper feed trough in front of me.
Food! came Cad's thought from behind. He suddenly rushed past me, along with the rest of the herd, causing me to whinny in surprise.
I hadn't been imagining things. Just inside the gates were several feed troughs, filled to the brim with everything I could imagine. And everyone else was eating, not I. But I still paused a moment, briefly counting the horses that had already gathered around the feed... only to find that I couldn't. Numbers were lost to me, with only Sarn knew what else.
And who had put all this food out for us, anyway? The enemy, obviously. But the longer I stood here, the hungrier I became. So I shoved my way in and started to eat. The food was wonderful, and felt strange inside my mouth. Unused to the sound of it, nevertheless the grains and grasses tasted wonderful, and actually calmed me. A calm like I'd never experienced before.
As I ate, I became conscious of another new smell. A smell that evoked an image of a being that walked on two legs, not four, was rather small, but always seemed to smell like he had something good to eat. Focused as I was on eating, I still looked up when the scent of this two-legs and whuffled. "Aren't you a handsome one," the two-legs said, reaching into his clothing. He patted me on the muzzle and I took the expected treat from his hand.
My mind started to slowly clear, though not enough to keep a halter from being put on. But the boy who led me was kind, and didn't demand too much. I finally noticed that a lot of the other horses were being led as I was towards a large area where the scents of more horses, and humans. Humans, I thought amazedly. At least I hadn't lost all of my ability to think in human terms. They must have put something in the food.
The boy led me to where a man sat in the back of a wagon. Torches were lit, the smell of the smoke making me balk. The boy pulled gently on the lead line, feeding me another carrot chunk to entice me. "Come on, boy. The fire won't hurt you." His tone of voice and his scent was calm and reassuring, so I didn't resist any more.
The man in the wagon smelled like nothing I'd ever experienced, it was like he had been dipped in the most expensive spices that money could buy then left to sit outside for a few days. I laid my ears back and wrinkled my nose. "What have we here?" he questioned. "Another mare?"
"Not this time, sir," the boy answered. "He's a stallion and he knows it."
I'd lost a good deal of the sharpness that human vision had, but I could still make out a humorless grin on the man's face. "I'm sure he does, Marl. But you know that you can't put two stallions together for very long. Why don't you take that one to your master? I'm sure he'll figure out who this nice palfrey is before the rest of us; and he deserves just compensation for the service he has rendered us." He marked down something in a book, mumbling to himself, then glanced back at us. "Shoo, boy. It's been a long day."
"Yessir," Marl stammered, tugging on the lead line again. There was another human-horse pair coming up behind us, so we quickened our pace towards more human scents. Dozens of sizable bivouac tents filled a large untended field. The spicy scent abounded, but wasn't really unpleasant, it was just strong. Marl spoke in soft tones as we made our way through the tents. "You'll like my master. He's always great with horses, which I know you'll like because you weren't a horse before..." His movements were quick and precise, almost birdlike. I flicked my ears and nudged his back. "We're here," the boy announced. "Master! I found him!"
I recognized him even though I couldn't see his face. The man had had the same spicy scent even to a human nose. Marl kept a firm grip on the lead line, but my forward lunge easily pulled him forward. I attempted to whinny a challenge, but couldn't make a sound, because I was suddenly frozen in mid-stride. "First of all," the traitor said, "I have a name, and I would rather you start thinking of me as a person instead of 'the traitor'. Because things are not as they appear."
All I could do was furiously paw at the ground and toss my head. The mage hadn't totally paralyzed me. He continued on calmly, as if I wasn't trying to stomp him flat. "My real name is Hugh. Not very impressive, is it? But it's my Sarn-given name, and the power He gave me I use as responsibly as I can." He glared. "Come now, Sir Johan. I know you're capable of more humanity than the others. Snap out of it, man." He snapped his fingers.
My mind cleared of the boiling storm clouds of rage. My breath whooshed out of my nostrils, but now it was more a symptom of being very tired less than being angry. Well? Explain yourself. It's not as if I have any choice.
"I sense you are concerned about your brothers. Marl, would you go and find out what the others plan to do with them?" The boy nodded and walked off. "Good. Marl has always been a good boy. As for you, Johan, I will explain to you what I can in the most direct terms as possible, considering we're surrounded by my those of my brotherhood who would stop me, if they overheard.
"As you can tell, I'm human again. I pretended that I hadn't found the way around the spell, which is a lie. It's quite simple, if you know its inner-workings. This spell was deceptively complex, but I shan't bore you with the details." He cleared his throat. "Suffice to say, I figured it out, kept it secret, and need you for a rather important mission.
"You see, the Loranite king is a sickly man, and recently the mages of this kingdom have had ambitions that are beyond the powers that Sarn has given them. They have already taken control of this kingdom, and mean to use your Crown Prince as a stepping stone to take over Winold as well. This mass transformation spell is only one of those they're testing. They have others I'm not privy to, but I feel like this one might be one of the most important."
I could hear the sound of Marl's huffing and puffing as he ran back from the corrals. His scent made me nervous. "Master! I have bad news. They decided to breed the mares that are in heat after all." The lad—who looked to be around fifteen—gave me a grave look. "Including your brother, Sir Johan."
"How did you know who he was?" Hugh asked reproachfully.
"Can I help it if I can easily read the mind of another Were?"
The mage laughed and put his hand on his apprentice's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Marl. I don't know how that even slipped my mind. Sir Johan, Marl is also a Were. A wereraven, to be exact. Most weres can sense one another to some degree, though you may not have felt it, yourself. Mind showing him, lad?"
The black-haired lad smiled and closed his eyes, almost instantly shrinking into his clothing. Black feathers sprouted on his face, and his lips were pushed aside by a beak growing out of his mouth. A minute later a medium-sized raven hopped from underneath the plain tunic the boy had been wearing, and made a happy "caw!"
Hugh put his arm out and Marl flapped up to perch on the mage's shoulders. "He's like the son I never had," he said, rubbing the bird under the beak, who enjoyed it. There was something between those two that somehow made me jealous. Hugh was clearly proud of Marl, something my father never was with me. "Now, could you repeat what you just said? You speak so quickly sometimes."
Yes Master, Marl's thought came. We were lied to, Master. They've decided that the best way to find out just how complete the transformation spell is would be to breed the mares with the stallions. Sir Evan was the first to go, since she was the leader. I could always make sure...
"It's too dark, lad. There's nothing we can do about it, anyway. The only thing I can do is make sure it doesn't happen again."
My stomach churned with the thought of Evan giving birth to a foal. She could never live with herself, if she was human enough in mind to realize what was happening. I'd long ceased trying to rage against the mage's hold on me, but If you think I'm going to believe your false humility, traitor...
"I am no traitor! What I did, I had to do. Sacrifices must be made. I'm sure your brothers would be happy if they knew that what I'm about to entrust to you will very likely be decisive in this war. You may not believe me now, but in a moment, you will. Marl?" His apprentice hopped from his shoulder to my withers. "Ready?"
As if I'd become an empty vessel, the mage filled my mind with all that he knew about the spell, and the situation here. The spell itself was beyond my comprehension, but what he knew about what was happening here would be invaluable. There was an overpowering sense of truth in what he was showing me. The danger to the Prince was real, and the loyalty of the majority of the mages protecting him questionable. My anger evaporated, and he released me. How long do we have? I asked.
"Truth be told, I haven't a clue. I suspect they'll strike at the first big clash between armies. By that time the mages that I named would surely have the Prince's complete trust." The mage rubbed me on the muzzle between my eyes. A gesture of faith. "We are but a few who oppose this takeover, Johan. I know there are others who are working on other aspects, but don't know who they are. So it would be best to only trust Marl as you make your way to an Enclave I know is safe."
The raven was now perched between my ears, which made me think. You said I was a werehorse. But I haven't a clue how to make myself human again. There must be a way.
The mage gave me a sad pat on the muzzle. "My boy, you are a werehorse. But it's so slight as to be barely there. The spell is entangled with your were-ness in such a way that it would take me years to undo it. Weres are naturally somewhat immune to transformational magics. But this time..."
You mean I might be a horse for the rest of my life, don't you?
"Yes. I'm sorry." He sighed. "Marl, get Sir Johan some nice feed. You both have a long journey ahead of you."
I had a lot to think about that night, and couldn't relax, no matter how much I tried. With apologies, Marl tied the lead line to a post, then set some hay in front of me. "I'm sorry that I have to treat you like a horse. The other mages might suspect something." In the darkness the only light was from fires, lanterns and torches, with the moon hidden by clouds. I kept on sniffing at the wereraven's clothing as he walked around me. "Now, I'm going to give you a proper rubdown and grooming before I get some sleep, myself. On the way we'll get you shod, too. A good horse needs good horseshoes, right?" He slapped me on the withers affectionately.
He was such a likeable lad, reminding me very much of Davyd. He put me at ease with myself, as he cleaned off all the mud and dirt from my hide. I'd never been on this side of things before. His grooming was expertly done, with just the right number of strokes of the curry brush. He muttered calming words as each hoof was lifted and cleaned, finishing with my mane and tail. I lipped and pulled at his clothing in thanks, mussing his hair with my lips. "Stop it, you! This is a clean shirt!" he said with a chuckle. "I guess you like being a horse after all, huh?"
I think I could learn to like it, as long as you're the one taking care of me.
The boy smelled flattered. "Well, I feel lucky to be taking care of you, too. You realize that nobody's going to know that you're not a normal horse. Well, almost nobody. Master tells me there are people that are sensitive to this sort of thing out there. And, of course, the occasional werehorse as well."
You've met others?
"One or two. They're as common as any other were, really. A lot of us weres are sort of drawn to each other—those that aren't meat eaters, anyway." The lad finished up with my tail. "There. All spotless. How'd I do?" I could faintly make out an impish smile on his face.
Nickering, I lipped and pulled at his clothing. As well as any stablehand who ever worked for my father.
"If you have any problems tonight, just whinny. I'll be perched on that tree over there." He pointed towards the edge of the field. With a final pat on my muzzle, he went back into his master's tent. A minute or so later a raven flew out towards the tree, leaving me to my own thoughts, and the hay he'd set in front of me.
Morning came before I could turn around twice. The hay was gone, the sun peeking from underneath the last of the previous day's storm. An errant fly was buzzing around my hindquarters. I'd "awoken" once the fly had bit me, and it had been dislodged with a flick of my tail. But I seemed to have lost several hours, somewhere, not remembering falling asleep. My mind felt like it was immersed in fog.
From above there was a "caw!" then Marl landed on my withers again, looking at me with one pitch black eye that gleamed with inner intelligence. Are you okay? he asked.
My ears flicked back. I seem to have lost track of the night. What happened?
Some of the new mares panicked last night. Especially the ones who knew they were in heat. They realized just what had been done to them, I'm afraid. The mages decided that the best thing would be to put their human minds to sleep.
I blew through my nostrils sadly and lowered my head. Evan must have...
Actually, it wasn't that your brother who lost it. The name I took from her mind was 'Bannock', methinks. They bred your companion last night. To a normal stallion, I might add... The wereraven shuddered. His mind broke. The only thing I sensed was horse after that.
The bird smelled puzzled. Ask me again later. Something strange happened that I'm not sure if it's a good thing or not. For now, I think we should get you ready for the journey.
Sarn's blood. There has to be something I can do!
You can be still while I tack you up for the trip. I'll be back out in a few minutes. He took off and flew into the tent, then came out some time later holding a bit and bridle. I shied away, not liking the smell of the new leather. "What's wrong?"
I don't want that thing in my mouth, I said, ears pinned backward and mouth clamped shut. Can't you ride another horse and just lead me along with a halter? I might look like an animal, but I really didn't want to be treated like one.
The apprentice gave me a comforting rub on my muzzle that calmed me right away. "I wish I could tell you that you'll be human again, sir knight. But don't lose hope. There's more than one mage who knows transformational magics out there. But I know what you're going through. When I discovered I was a wereraven, I couldn't change back for weeks. I taught myself to fly and survived by instinct alone. By chance I happened upon my master and the rest is history..."
He spoke in quiet, calming tones, which kept all of my attention, as he slowly walked around me, occasionally giving me gentle rubs. I watched him carefully, ears locked on his voice, not wanting to miss a word of his fascinating story. "...I thank Sarn every moment for bringing to his windowsill. If not for him, I fear I would've been a raven for the rest of my life..."
What? Wait a minute. How did he get you unstuck? There was something in my mouth. It tasted like metal. A bit! He was just making sure the saddle girth was tight. The tightness of the bridle, the weight of the saddle. He'd done everything he was supposed to, and I had acted just like Dani or Vindicator would. Shock. My head drooped in embarrassment.
"I'm sorry I had to do that. But it's necessary. You're a horse. You're going to be put in a stable, given hay to eat, and have to wait for me until morning when I'll have to tack you up again. I'll let you get used to the saddle and bit while I get something to eat. We've got a long day ahead of us, and on the way we'll stop at a blacksmith I know who will shoe you. I don't think your hooves are hard enough for long trips." The apprentice rubbed the tip of my muzzle apologetically, leaving me to think for a while.
The bit fit perfectly behind the small canine teeth that were in the middle of a large space in my mouth. It didn't pull too much on the corners of my mouth. Just enough so if Marl gave a pull on the reins that I would stop. The stirrups hung limply at my sides, the girth of the saddle not too tight to interfere with my breathing. The young wereraven had done an expert job, as good as any page. He treated me with respect, even; knew how to keep a horse from getting nervous. To keep me from getting nervous.
Marl and the mage—whom I still wasn't sure I entirely trusted—came out of the tent some time later. The scent of them that drifted my way could only be described as a father wishing his son a good journey. "Remember that you'll have to go through the Languedon Dukedom on your way home. They don't much like werecreatures there, lad," the mage was saying.
"I've crossed that country a dozen times, master. I'll be fine."
Hugh gave his apprentice a hug, then walked over towards me, giving me a pat on the muzzle. "I spoke with the other mages last night. Most of them have chosen their own horses and are leaving today as I am. I cannot follow you, unfortunately. I plan to glean as much information as I can. But I wish you two well on your journey."
My response was a solitary nicker.
Since Marl and I were to travel as quickly as we could our supplies were limited to what could be tightly secured to my saddle. The wereraven continued to speak calming, nonsense words that worked quite well, to be truthful. Look like a horse, act like a horse, I thought to myself. Marl gave me a final rub on the nose, then took something out of his pocket. The smell had been mouthwatering, but I'd not been in the mood to make sure it was what I thought. In his hand was a carrot.
Not having the heart to tell him that as a human I'd despised carrots with every breath of my being, I kept those thoughts away from the surface of my mind. But as a horse, apparently my tastes had changed along with my body. Marl continued to gently rub me on the muzzle. "I'm going to get up into the saddle, now. Keep your wits about you, sir knight."
I flicked my ears and watched him carefully as he put one foot into the left stirrup, and felt him put his weight on it. With a free hand he grabbed on to the front of the rather heavy travel saddle and pulled himself up, resting his weight evenly across my back. I could smell him, feel him, but couldn't exactly see him.
My reaction was very natural for a horse. I spooked. There was a thing on my back that shouldn't be there. A living, breathing thing that was jabbing me in the sides and was holding my head back through the bar in my mouth. Only Marl's skill with horses kept me from throwing him off, or galloping away in a panic that would probably result in one or both of us getting injured. Come on, Sir Johan. You know it's me. Be a good horse and calm down.
I didn't exactly calm down, but I did gain better control of myself.
The mage once more wished us well and the two of us rather awkwardly left camp. The weather was good, if windy. But the road was still very muddy from the downpour the previous day. But oh, the smells! Once I could no longer smell the herd that contained my brothers there was nothing but the open road, and the new spring crops that were sprouting in the fields. The sound of my hooves in the mud, the wind that rustled the new leaves in the trees. The feel of the air on my hide. Everything suddenly seemed to different, and those things stood out in sharp distinction from my former human experience.
Marl wasn't a bad rider, really. But he had a few annoying habits that caused me discomfort, and not a little bit of confusion. He held the reins a bit too tightly, leaned forward too far in the saddle, and held his legs too close in the stirrups. It made for a very confusing message, should I speed up or slow down? After plodding along for what felt like a couple miles I just couldn't stand it any more, and told him what he was doing wrong. Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realize, he apologized. I always ride this way.
If you ride like that the both of us will be tired and aching. It's one of the first things my father taught me about horsemanship. A knight has to go everywhere on horseback, lad, or he isn't a knight. I waited for that to sink in. So could you please stop trying to yank on the bit so much?
He stopped right away, giving me some relief. Oops! Well, I guess I have much to learn. I've only been riding for a couple years, so I guess I need more practice, eh?
As we went I gave him more riding tips, as much for my own comfort as for his. It gave us something to talk about, and helped take my mind off leaving my brothers and fellow knights to their fates. But as their scents finally faded from the air, I swore to myself that I would find some way to rescue them, somehow.
I snorted at the absurdity of that thought. My concerns at the present moment were more in the vein of knowing that come the next village, horseshoes were to be pounded into my feet. While I'd watched our own blacksmith do that uncounted times back home, and the way the horses thought of it, I still had to wonder about pain. Horses didn't react well to pain, even warhorses panicked and sometimes dumped their riders.
And then there was the possibility that I would be gelded. A fate too horrible to contemplate.
"Don't worry, sir knight," Marl said in a reassuring tone. "As long as you're my horse you'll get your choice of mares and a nice, large pasture that'll take you a quarter hour to gallop across. Don't you worry." He patted me on the neck.
The weather remained clear, if chilly according to Marl. My size and my hairy hide kept out the cold. The sunlight did little for my mood, unfortunately. Yes, I loved horses. But when I thought about it I had never actually wanted to be one. The lad somehow picked up on my sudden melancholy mood. "You know, I've never met a horse that didn't feel better after a good gallop across a pasture. What say we find you one, I'll remove the saddle and things, and then you can get it out of your system?"
We'd been heading southwest, away from the swath the Winold army had cut through the marches of Loran. Since we were still within the area that word of the invading Winold army had penetrated, there were many abandoned cottages and peasant houses dotting the landscape not far off the main road. Half-planted fields lay untended and weeds were already starting to grow on the moist, rich soil. A plow lay out in the middle of the field, forgotten in the urge to escape what they thought was coming.
The house that Marl chose wasn't far off the main road, and apparently hadn't been abandoned long enough for anyone else to find it. It didn't smell that way, either. Experience had quickly taught me that my eyes weren't all that useful for discerning much detail. They were too widely set and all I could see if I did look forward was the rather large amount of equine nose that was my whole face. It was much better to just let them roam on their own, with two different views of the world.
Marl dismounted carefully and, still holding on to the reins, pushed on the half-open the door with a rather distressing creaking sound. Even standing right next to me, my rider's face was nothing but a blur, as if seen through the thick glass of one of the windows in my father's rooms back home. I could make out his eyes, eyebrows, and mouth. His expression was puzzled. "They sure didn't take much. I suppose that they didn't have the room in whatever wagon they had, by the look of the ruts outside the place." He looked around out front of the cottage.
A certain scent reached my nostrils, and I nickered hungrily at it, nudging Marl over towards the small barn close by. They didn't take all their feed, either. Maybe we can take some with us.
"You're loaded up enough already. There's a fair-sized town about a half day's travel from here that will have a farrier, too. I've got enough ecus to buy us anything we need. My master always provides."
Apparently so. I carefully grabbed at his travel cloak with my huge front teeth and gently pulled him towards the barn. Food now. Then I'll go for a gallop.
It felt good to get that saddle off my back, and I ate while he removed it along with all the travel supplies. Whomever this barn had belonged to had kept enough hay to feed a herd of horses. I buried my muzzle in it, almost inhaling it literally into my huge nostrils. The hay tickled my nose, I snorted and almost sneezed. "You're more a pig than a horse," Marl said jokingly.
There was something in his scent. He didn't mean it, and in fact, it made me nicker in a laugh of my own. Can I help it? This is the most walking I've ever done, and all these supplies aren't exactly a light load.
Carefully, Marl picked up each of my hooves and checked for stones and rocks, picking out a few. "I've got to get you shod. You're all muddy and too much moisture isn't good for hooves.... whoa!"
The lad had to move aside as I lifted my tail and let go what had most likely been part of yesterday's meal. This hadn't been the first time, I'd already voided rather a lot of water, and learned just how much of a stallion I was in the process. I shuffled uncomfortably on my hooves. If I was able to blush, I would’ve been right red. Apologies, Marl. I have no control over that particular part of myself.
"That's quite alright, my friend. You should've seen me the first time I was taking care of horses; didn't know enough to move out of the way when a tail was lifted."
First the humiliation of being caught in a trap, then being changed into a horse, the saddle, and now... It was enough to drive a knight mad. Former knight, I corrected myself. Stronger men had succumbed to the intense drives of their new bodies. After delivering the mage's message and spell information to the Enclave, I’d most likely spend the rest of my life a riding horse. Possibly even a gelded riding horse. The ultimate humiliation, and very possibly my future fate.
"Such gloomy thoughts, sir knight," the apprentice said. "All of my master’s horses loved to gallop. I think you'll love it, too. I know you won’t run off, so I’ll stay here in the barn. Just don’t take too long, okay?"
Words simply cannot describe what happened after I left the barn. If this was to be my body for the rest of my life, before I was to give up my humanity forever, I was going to take some time to simply be a horse. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less. As I broke into a gallop, my mind seemed to become surrounded by a thick fog. There was awareness, the scents, the feeling of surging muscles as my hooves pounded the soil. Back and forth, from one end to the other. The scent of the Rider as he rubbed me down, an odd concern in his scent...
The fetid, sharp stink of a good-sized town blew the fog away from my mind like a strong summer breeze. Sarn's Blood! What just happened?
"I suppose you could call it the power of the animal mind, sir knight," Marl replied understandingly, calmly. That alone kept me from panicking. I’d long been taught about the very simple fact that the mood of the rider is reflected in his mount. Nothing seemed to shake Marl's stoicism.
Care to explain? No... on second thought, I'd rather you didn't. I suspect what you'll tell me I wouldn't want to hear, anyway. My only hope was that I'd seen the last episode of fading out. An involuntary shudder flowed through me. For the entire afternoon I had been nothing more than a horse. Then the wind shifted and brought the stink of humans into my nostrils. Faugh!
"Humanity stinks, doesn't it?" Marl deadpanned. "I know a blacksmith near the town gate that can take care of getting you shod, for a good price, too. And there's an inn that knows me, they keep a good stable." He patted me on the neck encouragingly. "Don't worry, sir knight. It'll all be over soon enough."
This was far from over. It wouldn't be over until Sarn called me to his side in my old age... If He called me. The most I could really hope for, I realized, was to live in the House of Sarn's fifth Child, Huzan. He who loves animals. The thought put my mind somewhat at ease, but for now I had to focus on simply being Marl's well-behaved horse. It simply wouldn't do to get spooked by something and embarrass myself, possibly hurting the lad in the process.
The gate was well guarded by four spearmen and patrolled on the walls on top. The gatehouse was a stout affair, not smelling particularly old to my mind. The walls were a dark gray stone in a world that had become composed shades of gray alone, as equine eyes apparently weren't able to see color. The blurry facial expression of one of the guards was coupled with a scent that could only be suspicion. The language he spoke was similar to my own, but different enough that I only caught six words in ten. Marl's reply was stiffly formal, which seemed to please the guard who was definitely of peasant stock. After a cursory search of our supplies, he let us in.
I thought I would never get through that gate, Marl said to me in my mind. But I suppose they have to be sure I'm not a spy. They'll probably keep a watch on me, too, he finished in an indignant tone.
Little people need to feel important too, I suppose, I replied, trying to keep my mind off the smell. It was more than I could bear! Even worse than where they put all of kitchen refuse and manure from mucking out the stables back home. It was taking all my willpower to keep myself from spinning around and galloping out the front gates, and I might have it not, ironically, for coming very close to being overcome by the animal mind again.
To a horse, there were no real bad scents. At least, they seemed to consider different scents bad. What they happened to be escaped me, but I would know them if I smelled them. Otherwise, the only thing I could smell was human, horse, some dog, rat, and a storm blowing in from the western horizon. People were busy closing shutters as we finally arrived at the inn. A lad about Marl's age came out as we went around back to the stable. "Wow! Where'd you get that horse, Marl?" the newcomer exclaimed in surprise.
"Where do you think? Is Master Genner's stop still open? Johan here hasn't been shod yet, and I don't like all this mud."
"Yeah, I've been cleaning hooves all day. I'll go tell my mother to get your regular spot ready..."
"Thanks. But I need to see your father right now. Master Hugh will have my hide if I don't take care of ¬my own horse properly." There was a very subtle emphasis on that statement. I flicked my ears in surprise, eliciting a friendly pat from Marl.
If there was one thing that didn't bother me about this change it was all the affectionate touching. My brothers and I had never touched one another, but this... it could only be that in the herd, horses always were grooming one another, or huddled against the weather. In a vague way Marl was also a horse, of sorts. It was more an honorary thing, since he didn't really smell like one. Honor among horses, I snorted.
After the wereraven lightened my load, we left for the blacksmith's shop. Dark clouds were gathering in the slanting late afternoon sunlight. At my rider's direction I trotted the distance between inn and shop. When we arrived I shied away from the intense smell of strange horses, mixed with the long presence of a single older human. The ringing of a hammer on hot metal reverberated from inside. I nickered uneasily. "It's okay, Johan. This won't take long." He dismounted and led me inside. "Hi Master Genner!"
The man's voice was much like the wereraven's, in that he didn't seem to be from Loran. "Marl! You've grown every time I see you..." He trailed off, looking at me. "What a wonderful mount! I say, Mage Hugh has a fine taste in horses..." He trailed off, there was a prickling sensation in my head. "I see your friend is more than a horse, as well."
"He's a stuck werehorse," my young companion explained. "A high noble, too. My master agreed to help him get unstuck. For a fee, of course."
"I see," the burly human replied. "If Mage Hugh expects to save this man, he ought to do it right quick. I only found out there was a man in there by chance..."
The sounds the large human was making started to become garbled and meaningless. He was obviously concerned about me, and so was my Rider, but it meant nothing to me. Until there was a sort of smack inside my head. Are you okay? You faded for a moment, there, came the smith's booming thought.
Don't shout. I heard you quite well, thank you. I sighed deeply, deciding to play along with Marl's story. I don't know how much more of this I can take.
No worries, my friend, the smith replied, I'm a werehorse, myself. Mage Hugh will help you, then you'll have to come back here and I'll show you a few things about being what you are. But since there's a storm coming I'll get you shod so Marl there can take you back to the inn. I voiced my concern about the horseshoes causing problems when I changed back. No worries. The shoes will be a part of your horse shape. Just trust me.
The man was an expert at his craft, I had to give him that. The reason was obvious. He knew horses in a way that no normal human could. My hooves were scraped, rasped, the hot iron bar fitted to my hoof while it was still glowing red; after a dip in a bucket it was pounded in with long nails. I'd faced swords before, but I was never more frightened than when that blacksmith put those horseshoes on my hooves and pounded them in with those nails. Only mental prodding kept me from becoming wholly horse. Once he was finished he stroked me comfortingly on the muzzle. "You did very well. I think you'll be happier with those than with bare hooves. Especially in this blasted weather."
Still fading in and out, I barely understood half of what he was saying. If you say so, Master Genner. It was as if my mind was a castle under siege. A single defender against a whole army of archers, siege engines, with reinforcements on the way. A losing battle, the walls had already begun to crumble under the force of the attack.
But a knight of the Crown of Winold does not surrender.
With practiced skill each shoe was methodically pounded into my hooves. It was totally painless for the most part, though the jarring sensation of each hammer stroke was disconcerting. He was finished by the time thunder rumbled from the incoming storm. My hooves felt heavy, ponderous. I might as well be clapped in irons, I realized. I was now even more attached to horsehood than I had been before.
If I may, sir knight, a few more words of warning and I'll let you and Marl be off before this storm hits, the blacksmith said.
My ears flicked forward and I turned my head towards the man. How did you know I was a knight?
I've never seen a horse carry himself with such awkward dignity. Keep that in mind. Marl obviously isn't a noble, so if you're not careful you may call attention to yourself.
Sound advice, I thought, and told him so. I asked him about when he found out he was a werehorse. That, my friend, is a long story to tell. But keep your human wits about you. The mind of a horse is very persistent, you must find a balance between it, he thumped my withers, and you. A light tap between the eyes.
As if I was going to take advice from a mere peasant blacksmith.
The storm broke just as we arrived back at the stables. A heavy, soaking downpour that would surely last all night. I nickered uneasily at the rumble of thunder from high above. The stable was warm, if a bit crowded. Marl's friend smartly put me in a box meant to keep stallions away from the numerous mares, at least one of which was definitely in heat.
The siege on my humanity began in earnest. It became difficult to hold the moment, at least with all my human faculties. The world became an ever-present now. And now meant that there was a mare in heat that I couldn't get to! I whinnied my frustration. A familiar young human came into the stable, his scent that of complete calmness, muttering something under his breath. In response I stopped my bucking around and awaited his attentions.
It was so dark between lightning flashes, the thunder making me pin my ears against my neck, that the only sense I found I could trust was that of scent. The lad that now held my muzzle over his shoulder, giving it a calming petting, certainly smelled like him. But there was an urgency in his manner that put me ill at ease. However, I made sure he knew I trusted him with a lipping of his clothing for any possible treats.
A carrot! The scent of it made my stomach growl. Chuckling, the lad reached quickly into his pocket and fed it to me. Almost instantly after swallowing it, my hide began to tingle, as if thousands of ants were crawling all over me. An unusually strong hand clamped my mouth shut, keeping me from whinnying aloud. More calming words from the lad.
Once sure that I wasn't going to make any noise, he let me go. Quietly he opened the door to the stall, leading me out by the halter I was still wearing, my hooves making surprisingly little noise that was easily drowned out by the thunder and the uneasy shuffling of the other horses. With a practiced skill that surprised me, a light saddle was placed on my back, a bridle put on with an abrupt pinch of the nostrils to get the bit in. The scent-of-urgency increased. My Rider was in a hurry for some reason. Trusting in this, I didn't make a sound, and just let him get me ready.
Marl got into the saddle heavily, which was again very odd. He'd also seemed to have developed a very light touch on the reins, as if he had years more experience in riding than he had been letting on.
The storm was starting to let up, but not nearly enough to keep us from getting soaked the instant we left the stables. Marl bade me gallop, even in the slippery mud. The wind at our backs, I could smell the cloak he wore. Musty and old. I wrinkled my nose at it, intent on keeping my footing in the mud. There were many humans clustered where horse-scents went beneath the wall that blocked our path. Marl spoke in deep, hushed tones with the human who seemed to be herd stallion. There was a soft metallic clink, and the wall was opened with a sudden creaking sound that made me nervous. "Easy, boy," came Marl's voice quietly.
Something didn't feel quite right, I realized. But I could do absolutely nothing about it. The rain and wind were cold, the road only lit by the light coming from those few buildings that had been built outside the walls of the town. My Rider carefully urged me onward with the occasional nudge on my sides, or an encouraging sound. I could feel him shivering from the cold. It must be really important if my Rider was taking me out in the dead of night, into the teeth of storm such as this!
And yet the feeling nagged at me like the wind tugging at my mane. Marl seemed to have gained quite a bit of weight. My back was as yet unused to carrying so much. Onward we went, Marl depending on me to keep from slipping, and I on him to know where we were going. Once past the last of the human places, we continued onward into the night and slackening rain.
By morning the storm was gone, and I was starting to feel the cold. My Rider seemed worse off than me. His cloak dripped water in streams. Every once and a while I tossed my head back, curious about why he was so heavy. Then I noticed something about myself.
My previously dark hide was now a snowy white. This was wrong!
I whinnied and tried to rear, but the ground wasn't solid enough, and my Rider kept an iron grip on the reins. "Easy, boy! Easy! I'm not going to hurt you!" The voice, deep and resonant, momentarily broke through to my human mind. This was not Marl! But the thought faded almost as soon as it appeared, leaving me with only a feeling of great unease, ears pinned backward, and then even that faded into the murky past, my trust in the Rider unshaken.
Days later, after spending nights in warm stables with plenty of food, the Rider's manner changed. He sat upon the saddle more at ease, letting me set my own pace. Finally, coming over a small hill, I smelled a place that could only be described as old. A combination of human and horse scent, mares and stallions, soaked into the very stones. I balked, eliciting a pat on the neck from my Rider to calm me. "We're almost there, boy. Your new home. I know you'll fetch me many florins from this customer. That little brat I snatched you from doesn't deserve a fine horse like you," he said.
In the time since I'd been stolen, I'd found I couldn't ignore the futility of trying to fight the urges and instincts that came with this body. The more I fought, the less often I had direct control over myself. If let those strange feelings that were always just below awareness control how I acted, I at least had control over my physical self. I snorted, hearing what my father's reaction to this would be. Compromise is unbecoming a knight, boy! he would say in a loud, stern shout inches from my ears.
If he said that to me now I would give him a swift kick between the legs with a forehoof. I'd like to see how you would handle having four hooves and a tail, father.
Now that we were in sight of our destination I saw that it was as old as it smelled. My equine eyes could barely make out enough detail to see that the stable we were heading towards was obviously an old Nuvin Empire ruin, at least in part. Whomever had taken possession of the land after the fall of that old empire had obviously rebuilt it. The whole area had the feel of a manor house, much like the ones that dotted the my father's lands that belonged to the lesser knights that owed fealty to him.
Several people came out to meet my Rider, one of which smelled of expensive clothing. "Jason! I see you've brought me another one!" he said in a expectant tone of voice as we approached.
I felt his body shake as he laughed silently to himself. "Pompous ass," he said to himself. Then, louder, "Yessir! I'm sure you'll find him a fine addition to your herd!" There was a short, crumbling stone wall between we and they, and apparently wanting to show me off to his prospective buyer, Jason learned forward in the saddle and slapped the reins. I immediately broke into a canter, and then a gallop. At the proper moment I leapt over it in a hopefully graceful motion over it...
Upon landing I nearly stumbled. A chill flowed from muzzle to tail, like diving into cold water. I very nearly dumped my Rider and probably broken my leg. All I could managed was a rather ungraceful stumble of a landing. The human cursed under his breath. There went some of my hoped for price...
The prospective buyer—who smelled like expensive ermine—had a rather satisfied smile on his face. "Well, don't just sit there in the saddle. Dismount so we can have something to eat. We can look over your acquisition after the meal, then we can discuss price."
So this was to be my fate, was it? Assuming that the sale went through I would surely be gelded tomorrow.
A stablehand that was not a year older than Marl took charge of me, leading me by the halter to the cleanest, best kept stable I'd ever smelled or seen in my life. Sure, it smelled just as old as the rest of the building; but there was a sense that many horses in centuries past had happily spent their time here, while storms spent their fury ineffectually on the ancient stone walls. The blonde Loranite stablehand removed my saddle, gave me a proper rubdown, then with a parting scritch on the nose, filled the feed trough and left me to wait for the thief and potential new owner to decide my fate.
After eating my fill and having some water, that fate seemed to be boredom.
The stall was large enough, at least. But all I could do was pace around, stick my head over the gate and try to see what was going on outside. Nothing particularly interesting, I decided. Peasants, doing their duties to their lord with many complaints; under their breath, of course. The lord of this manor—obviously more than just a prosperous knight—at least held the respect of his peasants. I waited, the silence only broken by the quiet shifting and nickers of the other horses in their stalls and my own breathing.
The air was moist and heavy with the scent of fresh hay and the geldings that shared the stable with me. I snorted worriedly, wishing I had a pair of working hands to open the latch. For all it was low enough for me to stick my head over, the latch was of course down near the bottom. Well out of mouth reach. Not that I expected any different, but one had to make sure.
My thoughts turned to Marl. The lad must have panicked when he realized I'd been stolen. The storm and darkness would have kept him from changing into his raven form and searching for me. There was also the fact that I was now white instead of chestnut. My only hope was that he would somehow sense me from a distance. But by then it would be too late, if it wasn't already.
By the time I smelled the presence of the thief again, along with the prospective buyer. The stablehand had groomed me to perfection in the meantime, from tail to muzzle-tip. Even, embarrassingly, my sheath. It was all I could do to keep from kicking him across the stall. The buyer—who carried himself with the air of a Duke—listened attentively to the thief, who spoke a Loranite dialect that I couldn't understand. But from the glowing tone of the words, and the broad smile on the nobleman's face, I was a sure sell.
Three gold Florins! The Duke continued in Winoldian. "Jason, this stallion could not be more perfect. I don't know where you 'found' him, but I believe that he will fill a void in my herd. Alas, my prize breeding stallion died of colic not a fortnight ago. This fine fellow will more than suffice. Now, you say his hide will change to chestnut?"
"Yes, my lord. A deep, burnished chestnut with a white stripe on his muzzle. And socks on his hind hooves. Quite a handsome fellow, if I do say so myself. Your mares will like him."
Mares? I wasn't to be gelded? I nickered in relief and nosed my new owner's ermine cloak, eliciting a pat on the neck. "One could almost think he understood us. Come Jason, spend the night here and we'll discuss a more permanent relationship." As they left the nobleman spoke with a short, balding man who smelled so much like a horse that I'd almost mistaken him for one. Obviously the stablemaster. His tone of voice was that of giving orders.
Even my father, who loved horses more than his sons, ever treated his horses so well. I could smell something mouthwatering within the cloak he wore, something that baffled me. Impossible! There were no fresh apples at this time of year. And yet, I could smell the tangy Macintosh even over this man's horsey scent. When I lipped at his cloak he let out a raspy laugh and fed the treat to me. The man obviously loved horses. I knew I could trust him.
Unless my nose was fooling me, there was the faint scent of a mare in heat on him as well. If I hadn't retained my capacity to reason my reaction might have been even more embarrassing. The man didn't even smile, having been around horses for a long time. He just gave me a friendly pat on the withers and moved to get me ready for the morning.
At some point I lost track of things, my humanity gone dormant in the face of what my body was now needed for. The pasture was larger by far than any back home, with a tall wooden fence surrounding it on three sides, and a stone wall on the fourth. A herd of two dozen mares was contained within. Mares... some of which were definitely in heat.
The anticipation was horrendous. The moment I was let free into the pasture I put on my best display, a full gallop across the field, hooves pounding the turf. Seemed to work quite well. One of the mares, apparently very impressed, broke off from the heard and joined me at a trot. I slowed down enough so we were side by side.
The feelings I had for this mare were nothing like love, or even passion. Yet when my body responded to our mutual grooming none of it mattered. I was a stallion. The Seed must be passed. And she, my mare, would be its vessel...
Time and memory blurred. There was not more than a day between one act and the next, one mare and the next. But not all were like the first one. One in particular, on my second day, very nearly emasculated me. When I tried to cover her she lashed out with her hind hooves. I stared at her unbelieving for a minute while she proceeded to whinny in a tone that might have been rather wicked cursing, had she been human.
Well, there were more mares in the pasture. I decided to leave her alone.
Until next time.
There was little to hold me to human ways of thinking any more. The mares accepted me as master of the Herd. I felt a kind of possessiveness over them that I'd never experienced before. They were mine. I would fight any stallion within reach to ensure they would remain so, to defend the honor of the mares, and the foals of mine that they bore.
All and all, the equine notion of "chivalry" wasn't too far off the mark.
The reluctant mare came into heat again some weeks later. By this time I felt myself quite the handsome stallion. None of the mares had refused me... except that one. Perhaps this time she might accept me.
The day was sunny, but very blustery. The wind whipped the newly sprouted leaves off the trees in angry swirls that flew across the wide pasture, never touching the ground. My hairy was mostly shed, and had been nearly replaced by my original chestnut. The wind seemed to delight in pulling the hairs off my hide and pulling them into the air, never to be seen again. Only by chance alone did I catch the sweet aroma of her Heat. The wind tugging at my mane and hers. Her heat-scent was laced with that of confusion and struggle, torn between wanting a foal and not wanting me.
In her hesitation I assumed that she had decided in my favor. So naturally I came to her and sniffed her tail...
And saw stars.
Pain split my head as I heard the mare's shrill whinny of defiance. There was a distinct feeling of having a hoof print between my eyes. I reeled from the pain and the force of the blow, but didn't fall down. I could never have lived with myself had I fallen.
The pounding headache brought along with it a seething anger. How dare she! How dare... I sudden light pressure on my back, and the smell of bird. I twitched my withers reflexively, but it didn't go away.
WAKE UP! The mental shout was like a stroke of lightning into my mind. I staggered backwards again and whinnied in surprise. The raven took off and clung to a branch in a tree close by, feathers more than ruffled by the wind. The glaring bird's eyes seemed to glow, a small point of light on either side of his head. Come on, Johan. I know you're in there.
I felt a flush of embarrassment, as if I'd just been caught with my hoof in the sweetbox. Marl? I thought you'd never find me!
You mean you hoped you'd never find me, the bird said wryly, looking at the herd of mares. He looked at the mare that had just spurned my attentions for a second time, then cawed in surprise. Well, well, well. It looks like you're not the only werehorse here, sir knight. Excuse me a moment. With difficulty, he took off into the strong wind and winged his way over to the fence near where the mare was standing dejectedly.
I watched as the wereraven landed next to her, then give her a penetrating look. She whinnied in astonishment, but surprisingly didn't break into a panicked gallop. Instead she walked closer to Marl, intent on whatever he was saying to her, leaving me to think about what I had done.
Should I feel guilty? I wondered. I was only doing what stallions do... and not forcing myself on mares that didn't want me to be the father of their foals. My aching head was an ample reminder of just how much in control of the situation the mares were. So therefore, guilt didn't enter into it.
Keeping my manhood intact did!
Eventually Marl landed on the mare's withers, then she and he came over and stood in front of me. The mare's scent was near-total skepticism, but her body posture wasn't quite so doubting. Marl mind-spoke to both of us. Sir Johan, meet Lady Alexa. I think you'll get along just splendidly, he said with a hint of irony. The mare glared at me and snorted, as if to say "knight indeed!"
Marl perched on the fence midway between us, flicking his tail feathers rapidly to keep his balance. Now that I have your undivided attention, he began, I think I need to give you the bad news. Both of you felt the sensation of a spell when you entered the manor lands, correct? It felt like jumping into a cold stream? We nodded. Good. The short of it is that there is a really ancient spell on this land. It's so old it's seeped into the very rocks themselves.
Put simply, no werecreature may regain his or her human form while within its bounds. The weremare wuffled and nodded slowly. I heard a bare whisper—a softer, female "sound"—from her direction. Marl nodded. I'm sorry, milady. Our only way out of this is with outside help. The mare snorted disdainfully. And if I may make a point, milady, you are still here.
The mare's ears flicked backwards, and she fixed her eyes on me. There wasn't quite so much hostility in her expression now, but she did apparently realize that I was in the same situation as she. ...ell him... I... ...orry... hit... I heard faintly, as if she was speaking from the other end of a long hallway.
The raven preened a bit. She says she's sorry she hit you so hard, he clarified. And by your expression, I see my spell is starting to work. You might try mindspeaking to her directly, sir knight.
Just call me 'Johan', Marl. I think we're friends enough that we can forget where Sarn has put us in life—at least among ourselves. I owed him that much. The wereraven puffed up his chest feathers in pride. The lady mare snorted again, so I looked at her, trying to ignore the heat-scent that still surrounded her, even over the wind. Frankly, my dear, I do not care if you believe that I am—or was—a knight. All I care about at the moment is escaping from captivity. You can come with us or not, as you wish.
Her mind-voice was now clear as day inside my head, but the tone wasn't exactly grateful. If you think I'm going to spend the rest of my life here being treated like an animal, then you're insane. But... She hesitated. But there is something we should all know. We're being watched...
I saw the man, Marl interjected, and put him to sleep with another spell. There aren't a lot of magics that can be shaped by willpower alone, so I doubt that he'll remain asleep much longer.
She whuffed in relief. That is the best thing I've heard in months, young mage. However, what I'm about to ask is going to sound hypocritical. I fear that if he does not see some evidence that the "knight" and I mated, then he would hobble me and force it. This is the fourth time I have refused mating... her mental voice broke up as she was overcome with sorrow.
He's starting to awaken right now, the bird warned. So whatever you two are going to do, do it now.
I... I began, but was unable to continue.
Just groom me, as if we have just completed the act, the mare suggested. But if you try anything, I'll...
You'll geld me. Yes, yes. I know.
Going through the post-mating ritual was easier for me under conscious control than I had thought. A little mutual grooming around the hindquarters and withers. Though my body wanted her, I was now in more or less full control of myself. More or less... The mare looked at me briefly and snorted. You know, there are certain advantages to being female, she mindspoke sardonically while grooming my withers. I didn't feel like dignifying that with a reply.
Marl had ascended to a perch higher in the same tree, out of sight of human eyes. We continued our charade until he spoke up. He just rushed off. You two can stop now. A pause. I said you could stop.
Her grooming was actually quite pleasant, and she seemed to enjoy mine as well. Perhaps we'll get along after all, milady, I ventured.
Knight or no knight, she replied, you will have to prove that you are worthy of the name. You're aren't the only man who has claimed to be something he wasn't. Once we can speak human face to human face, I will consider it. Then the mare decided that she'd had her fill of me, so trotted away to rejoin her herdmates, leaving me standing there with my mane being whipped around in circles by the wind.
Marl left shortly after that, intent on putting his plan into motion. What it was he swore he would tell me once it was begun. I really didn't feel like arguing with the raven in that regard. We knights weren't known for our detailed battle plans to begin with, preferring to make it up as we went along. He'd steadfastly refused to tell me what the current situation was. The information you carry is still vital, he reassured me. I would have found you much sooner, but you were stolen at just the right time. I could not have flown after you in that storm. The fact that the thief used some magic to change your hide color didn't help much, either. He refused to tell exactly how he found me, either.
But his silence told me more about his situation than he could know. His master was not happy with him. I shuddered to think what that mage was capable of if the wereraven had failed.
Two days after Marl had gone, the herd took shelter from a drenching, steady rain that had begun shortly after the wereraven left, and hadn't let up since. The shelter that was at the edge of the pasture had been built for just this purpose. The spell seemed to be stronger here than outside, oddly. The stone that composed the walls was old. It smelled like horses had sheltered here for centuries. Sheltered, and died here. The herd was used to it, but I was nervous. Alexa watched me from the far wall, then turned away. I smelled... something.
The scent was musty, old, and quite equine. But it wasn't quite there, as if it was a memory of a scent rather than a real one. The wermare stood facing the wall, her posture as if she was listening to something. Curious, I whickered, and the mares between my place at the damp entrance and the far wall parted to let me pass. As I came closer there was a whispering of two voiced in my mind. One male, the other female. The remembered-scent thickened.
And then, in the relative darkness of the shelter, I saw it. A large, horse-shaped patch of softly glowing mist, hanging like fog that has just formed off the ground. But even the occasional gusts of wind that leaked through failed to move this otherworldly mist. For it wasn't a physical fog, but instead that of a ghost.
If it hadn't been for the casual posture and calming scent of the other horses around me, as well as Alexa's relaxed state, I might have panicked the herd. The ghost grew more defined in shape as noticed me. There you are, it said in a baritone mindvoice. We were wondering when you'd notice us. His voice sounded echoed strangely, his glowing equine head brightening. I am Sir Karl, former knight of the Blessed Empire. Milady tells me that you claim to be a knight as well?
Ghosts were reputed to be able to see into a person's soul. This was why priests—who sometimes acted as judges in disputes—called them to tell if a person was lying. Apparently the weremare lady was no fool. I snorted. I would not 'claim' to be something I wasn't, sir knight. Where would it get me? For now I am just a horse.
Sir Karl turned his translucent head and said something private to Alexa that I could only hear whispers of, so quiet that they were too indistinct for me to hear. She tossed her head in surprise, then gave me a soft-eyed look. It seems I misjudged you, sir knight. Sir Karl also tells me that going beyond the range of the spell will not release you from your equine form.
I glared at the ghost. And just how could you tell that?
One sees things much clearer in death, Sir Johan, he explained, glowing eyes seeming to penetrate my very soul. I read the plan that the wereraven had concocted directly from his own mind. I will be amazed if it succeeds, for in my centuries here I have only seen a few work out well.
The spirit shifted backwards a bit, reacting to my skepticism of his words. You doubt me? There is something else. I was a knight-mage for the Blessed Empire, dragooned into taking an expedition within the boundaries of this duchy. Being a werehorse was seen as a boon to my Sarn-given knighthood. Your young friend has the potential to be a very powerful mage—much more powerful then either he or his master knows. Magic power gives one great confidence, if he has the skill or not. I'm afraid your young friend might become a victim of it.
Marl's a good lad, I retorted. I'm sure what he will consider all possible eventualities...
He's young, lacking experience, and is quite capable of leveling a whole town with hardly more than a thought. I suggest you remind him that no plan ever works beyond the first engagement. I only wish I could do more than give advice. Good luck, my friends. He vanished, leaving us in darkness.
I suppose I owe you an apology, The mare said. I've been trapped on this manor since last fall, and I've become rather shrewish. If I hadn't met Sir Karl I would have lost my mind long ago. She snorted ruefully. The first time he appeared to me at this very spot I thought I had lost my mind.
If I may ask, how did you come to be trapped here?
I suppose I owe you that much. But not now. Marl will soon return and we must be ready for him, right? She seemed to trust me now—if only cautiously. You know him better. What do you suppose he's planning?
The rain was beginning to slack off, but it would be some time before the herd would move out of the shelter. Alexa and I passed the time chatting. Her presence awoke within me a need to speak with another former human that Marl just couldn't fulfill. For all that I liked him very much, the wereraven was still a peasant, and I had little in common with him.
Alexa, on the other hoof, was obviously a very refined courtly lady. Now that the ghost had dispelled her skepticism about me, she treated me with at least some modicum of respect. Even two days later, when I had to service another mare who came into heat. We both knew we had to continue to act the part for the benefit of our human "masters", which wasn't exactly difficult. When, the next day, a pair of stablehands came to bring us to the manor for a rubdown and a hot mash from another cold storm, their behavior so mystified me as to seem totally alien. That is, non-equine.
I really wish I knew, I told her. He and I traveled together for a while. He's got the determination, but lacks real experience. But our ghostly friend was right. If the magic makes him overconfident you'd better decide if you want me to be the father of your foals.
Her reply caught me completely off guard. Perhaps you may not be so bad after all.
The herd was grazing in the pasture (as we did most of the time) when the young mage returned. He called us to the far end then landed on the stone fence that separated us from the wagon ruts that constituted a road. How much do you two know about magic? he asked.
Both Alexa and I shook our heads and nickered. Nothing at all? Marl sounded surprised. Not even hearsay?
The only mages I knew back home were secluded in an old monastery in the local hills. We preferred to pretend they didn't exist, and they like we didn't. It was a mutually beneficial agreement, I told him. Alexa told him something similar.
The bird hopped to the left a bit, cocking his head in puzzlement. Damn. Well, it may not be important for you to know what's happening, anyway. I've brought a friend along to help. Just watch me and I'll give the signal when to break into a gallop. Okay? Anticipation seemed to crackle in his mindvoice. Marl took off before we could even say otherwise.
Alexa snorted. We might want to plan on staying here for the rest of our lives.
Don't plan on having foals yet, I reassured. Just throw all the confident thoughts about him his way and keep your mental fingers crossed.
Unfortunately equine vision isn't especially good at detail at a distance. The wall between him and us hid much of the horizon as well. He flew off about a hundred yards and descended apparently to a landing. The waiting began to make us nervous when a wisp of fog appeared in front of us. I thought that you two would like to know what your young savior is doing, the ghostly knight said.
A running commentary would be nice, I replied, a scrape with a forehoof betraying the nervousness I felt. There was a sort of feeling beginning to grow in the air, as if another storm were approaching. But instead of being generalized, it was focused on the stone wall right in front of us.
The wisp moved in front of Alexa and I and expanded into a very faint horse-like shape. How much do you know of magic? We both shook our heads. What I knew of magic wouldn't fill a sheet of paper an inch square. I had the sense that Sir Karl had sighed. The nobility of the Blessed Empire at least knows some basics—the vast majority of our population has what we call Small Magic. No wonder this war of yours has lasted for thirty years already.
I don't mean to be rude, but could you get on with it? I reminded firmly.
Ah. Apologies. Since you two don't know even the basics about magic it would be much simpler if you just let me inside your minds and I showed it to you.
Now, I normally wasn't the curious sort, but since my life more or less hung in the balance, I decided that I really didn't have anything to lose. Surprisingly, the mare agreed also, surprising me with her bravery. Sir Karl settled in between us and extended a tendril of spiritual fog to touch each of us. We both shivered reflexively, but held our ground. Close your eyes, and open them, the ghostly knight commanded.
Everything was different. The grass, the ground, the sky, even the air all around. Everywhere I looked the world had gained the texture and color of soft sculptor's clay, though my nose told me that nothing had really changed. Mages see things a bit differently than this, but I'm giving you a vision that you might understand better. What you see, the ghost explained, is the Arche. The Primal Substance of the universe from which everything is fashioned. From softest clouds to the hardest rocks, from the lowliest insect to the gigantic whales of the sea. Even humans. The Many are One in the mind of Sarn.
There was complete silence for a minute or so while he let us digest that particular bit of wisdom. Well, that certainly sounds profound... I began dubiously, then losing my train of thought. It certainly didn't feel like it was my equine side that failed to understand what he was saying. I knew all the words, but I just couldn't make head nor tail of them. I'm afraid you have quite lost this simple knight, however.
It's quite all right. I was taught such things since I was a page, when I discovered my own magic talent, Sir Karl said.
Well, I understand it, Alexa said, surprising the both of us. I may have been third daughter but my mother taught me to read anyway, she said defensively.
There was an electric feel to the air now. Sir Karl told us to focus on the wall itself. It looked as if we were looking at the surface of a huge bubble from the inside, the edge of which was just beyond the wall. Along the edge several sparks moved back and forth. He's loosening the edges of the spell that covers the whole of Madrane, and a little bit of Loran as well, the dead knight reported.
I whinnied in surprise and blinked. Madrane? We're inside Madrane? The kingdom of Madrane was something of a legend, even though it shares a border across the Central Channel with Winold. Generally, those who entered the kingdom didn't return. Or if they did, they weren't the same people they had been, very often physically as well as in personality. From what I remembered of my lessons the physical changes were surmised to be some sort of punishment under their laws, though the bespelled person could never tell what he or she had done.
Legend had it that there was more magic concentrated in a single Madrane duchy than in the whole of Loran and Winold combined.
Marl's continued work started to unsettle me. It was like the ground underneath our hooves was moving, or there was a lightning storm just over the horizon. The herd picked up our uneasiness and began to nervously move around the pasture, nickering and ears flicking wildly. Along the edges of the "bubble" that was anchored at the fence, the motes of light worked frantically back and forth, trying to lever the spell free.
It's not working, Alexa said, nickering nervously. The spell's too strong.
It's been here for over a thousand years, Sir Karl explained.. But that's not the worst of your troubles. Somebody has awoken from your young friend's sleep spell and has alarmed the manor. He's being surrounded as we speak...
I whinnied in alarm! But then the spell working stopped abruptly, then I remembered that the lad had said he wasn't here alone. The hair on the back of my neck suddenly stood on end. I heard a mental shout from the young mage. GET BACK! We broke into a gallop towards the opposite end of the pasture automatically.
Behind us there was a gigantic boom, and a shower of pebbles hit my rump, only making me go faster. Hot on our tails was a raven in the air and an almost pony-sized horse that seemed to be a cross between a draft and a saddlebred. The ghost drifted along with us until we were halfway across the pasture, where he vanished in the direction where the rest of the herd was huddled together. I'll be right back... he muttered. My mind was in such a state that I couldn't formulate a reply.
The rough-hewn wooden plank fence at the other end of the pasture kept us from going any farther, Marl and the new horse right behind us, and their pursuers behind them a goodly distance. Panic! There was nowhere for us to go! Steady, boy. Marl considered this eventuality, came a familiar mind-voice from the new horse.
Master Genner? I said, incredulously. Marl's blacksmith friend who had shod me. No wonder Marl didn't just fly away! He couldn't leave his friend. But I didn't have time to think it over. With a thunder of over two dozen sets of hooves, the herd stampeded right over the closest of our pursuers.
It was then that the fence seemed to melt into the ground, giving us an open route to freedom, the herd flooding out into the countryside behind us.
Hours passed and we played cat and dog with the searchers. With Marl in the air it was no trouble for the three of us to avoid them. The landscape had altered considerably since we left the flat Plain of Loran and into the low foothills that marked the border of Madrane. By the time we stopped for the night my sides were heaving with exhaustion, Alexa and Master Genner were in no better condition. Marl perched in a tree at the edge of a large open pasture where cattle calmly grazed. My mouth watered and I started cropping along the edges while Marl finally told us where we were going.
Madrane is a very strange country, he reported. Because I hadn't a clue where you'd been taken I searched here on a hunch. The tone of his mind-voice betrayed that he'd probably come here because he was curious, not because he thought I'd been taken there. I think I've learned more about this kingdom than anyone east of the Pendragon Mountains has in the past five hundred years...
Where are we going, anyway? Alexa asked tiredly, tiredly cropping the meager grass at the edge of the pasture like I was.
You three will stay here while I go get some friends, Marl said, almost commanding. That's going to take an hour or two, but in the meantime there's a stream over the rise and you can graze your fill here. He took off.
Marl's always been an impatient lad, the smith said.
I took a moment to look over the near-pony that was the blacksmith. If I was any judge of horses, he was about fourteen hands high and a deep burnished bay in color without any other marks. The kind of horse that knights gave their sons to learn to ride. But there was something curious about his scent...
He wasn't a stallion. He was a mare. The smith nickered at my head-toss of surprise. Now don't panic on me, Johan. One were in twenty's animal form is the opposite sex from their birth. It's nothing I'm ashamed of, and I think helps us. If I were a stallion methinks you would have attempted to kill me. Now I'm just part of your little herd.
I sighed and busied myself with filling my stomach with grass. Nothing really surprises me any more, my friend, I lied.
Alexa just stood and stared at Genner, plainly curious about the sometimes-mare. Smelling more than a little bewildered, and plainly not thinking very clearly, she nudged at the smith's hind leg, which she lifted unselfconsciously. I moved closer, and when Alexa pulled away, confirmed by sight what I had smelled. The only thing between the werehorse's legs were a pair of teats. I shudder to think what your reaction must have been the first time you transformed... said Alexa.
I was only a lad at the time, Genner replied mildly. There was a very slight feminine timbre to his mind-voice. So slight that I hadn't noticed it until this little revelation. Scared the manure out of me when I realized that I'd be a mare once a month for the rest of my life. I've managed to escape being a mother, however. I'm not often enough in this form, except for the one day per month that all weres must spend.
Considering what had happened to me in the past few months I should not have been in any way shocked or surprised. Cad was a mare, Evan was mare. Sarn's blood, Bannock had been changed into a mare. But none of those had been by choice; whereas the blacksmith had willingly given up his manhood. I must have looked like someone had whapped me between the eyes with a mace. Now don't go to pieces on me, sir knight, the sometimes-mare mindspoke. I'm the very same man you met just over a month ago.
I'm sorry, it's just a little mind bending is all...
Don't I know it, he replied. Even though Genner looked like a mare it really didn't affect how I thought of him, at least intellectually. But like it or not, he was still a mare to my horsey mind and thus a member of my little herd. The small mare might come into heat. I had doubts that I could restrain myself if that happened.
On the other hoof, Genner's hind hooves were undoubtedly as useful as Alexa's had been, and I doubted my poor head could take another kick like that.
By the time the sun was low in the west we began to wonder just how far Marl had to go. We'd stayed near the edge of the pasture to keep from being seen by any humans that happened by. However, the forest was populated by a rather large number of deer; they watched us with those deep brown eyes, clearly puzzled at our intrusion into their woods. By late afternoon we were quite used to both smelling them and seeing them. They weren't a threat by any means, so we largely ignored them.
It was nearly sunset when a familiar raven landed on a branch at the edge of the pasture and perched there, preening himself. The three of us walked over under the tree and waited politely for him to finished. After five minutes or so Genner spoke up. Well? Where are the friends you'd gone to retrieve?
Marl cawed once quietly and then gestured into the woods behind us with his beak, then went back to preening.
My first thought was that the deer had come to watch us again. It was very nearly the same scent, and I'd dismissed some unusual overtones out of hand because I didn't know the area, the only time I'd outright ignored the feeling that strange equaled dangerous. But even with my blurry, indistinct equine eyesight I saw that these "deer" walked on two legs, not four. There were five of them—three bucks by the half-grown antlers atop their heads, and two does. They had hoofed feet and those selfsame large, deep brown eyes that they shared with their four-legged cousins. They had enlarged skulls and somewhat short, wedge-shaped muzzles.
Cervanes! Alexa stammered. They were exceedingly rare in Winold and other places on the Continent; mostly because people mistrusted anything that didn't look quite human. I'd never seen one before.
My father and brothers believed as most did. However, I didn't share their beliefs, possibly because I just wanted to be contrary. I wanted to meet one before I ran a sword through him. Of course, now that I was actually confronted by them, I didn't know what to do. Marl spoke into my head and introduced his friends as if they were nothing special. The buck with the largest antlers stepped forward and spoke directly into my mind. Pleased to meet you, Johan. Your avian friend here has told us about your plight. We are pleased that he was able to help you escape from your captor. He had a soft, deep mindvoice with overtones of an experienced leader, or at least someone who dealt with people a lot. We're also happy that Marl brought news of your experience to us. We'll take you to the Baron and then he'll decide what to do about the miscreant on our Border.
We were taken through perhaps the oldest village I'd ever seen. It wasn't walled. The homes were made of stone and seemed to be centuries old already. The town itself was populated by the most interesting mix of people I'd seen yet; a mix between humans and cervanes unknown in Winold, or even Giffyyd, where they were far more common. Marl perched on my withers, obviously quite happy with himself. You could have warned us who was coming, I said.
Would it have helped? I don't think it would. I didn't know if you felt the same was as your countrymen about cervanes.
You could've asked, I replied sourly.
I know, I know. I'm sorry.
You should be. Anyway, how in Sarn's name was I able to understand Tulare? I doubt he speaks my language.
I used a simple translation spell. There's a little air elemental that absolutely loves listening to people talk mind-to-mind. There aren't a lot of them, but it wasn't much trouble to call one here. The byproduct of their listening is that they act as a kind of translator. Don't ask me how it works, all I know is that it does. I'm just an apprentice, after all.
The smells in this village were far better than the last town Marl and I had visited, undoubtedly owing to the fact that cervanes have noses at least as sensitive as my own. The scent of coal smoke drifted over the town, as well as the evening meal being cooked inside the many houses. On the front porch of the last house sat a pair of young fawns who waved excitedly to us as we walked by. One of the does who walked with Alexa said something to the duo in a stern, motherly tone. The fawns immediately went back inside. We interrupted their suppertime, Alexa explained from the rear. Apparently their mother is someone of some importance.
I'm a bit wary of trusting them, Genner added. The few I've met over the years have always been rather standoffish and quick to draw a sword.
That comes with the fact that lone cervane travelers have been known to be found hanging by their necks from trees, Master Genner, Alexa pointed out. Can you blame them? She broke off as we came around a corner, and abruptly came to the last house in the village. In the darkness and the fuzziness of our eyesight, we hadn't noticed that sitting on top of the short cliff was a large fortress.
From the bottom of the three-story cliff I could now make out a central round keep, its top surmounted by the jagged edge of merlons, looking like child's blocks set at intervals atop the roofline. The outer wall of the fortress was built right at the edge of the cliff, with another short round guard tower every thirty yards or so—there were four towers I could make out. The perfect defensible position, for the cliff went off only a short distance to either side before merging with the larger mass of the mountain behind.
This was obviously the Baron's castle. I wondered how one got up there, since there seemed to be no pathways dug into the side of the cliff, when Tulare tugged once on the halter they'd put on my as some sort of identification. I flicked my ears forward in a listening pose. The deer-man pointed towards the base of the cliff.
Whoever these people were, I decided, the had methods for digging through solid rock that were unknown in Winold. I'd been so fixated on the castle above that I failed to noticed the glow of a half dozen lanterns right at the base of the fortified front door. The light glinted off the tines of a huge portcullis that was just visible behind the opening. A sentry house stood off to one side, manned by another cervane and a human. They both came and saluted Tulare. I guessed he was some sort of local military commander under the Baron.
It was a nervous trip up the passage. Horses are creatures of wide open spaces, our collective hooves clattered echoingly down the switchback hallway that led steadily upward. Murder holes—used to drop boiling oil and the like on attackers—lined the ceiling every two body lengths. I definitely wouldn't want to be in charge of a protracted siege on this castle!
The passage came up into a central courtyard, surrounded by its own gatehouse. I noticed that instead of a portcullis there was a heavy slab of granite that likely weighed a couple hundred tons. It would require magic to lift it into place, and magic to remove it. Undoubtedly there was some sort of protection against that as well.
After going through one more large, guarded door we entered the central courtyard of the keep. Servants and others walked about on errands for their lord, busily mucking out stables, drawing water from a well in an out-of-the-way nook, bringing food from a kitchen that was right against the great hall. The scent was oddly appetizing, yet it was like no human food I'd ever smelled before.
The scent of fresh straw and rushes, food, mixed with that of many cervanes and humans going in and out, stung at my nostrils when we entered. At the far end sat an older cervane, a piece of bread in one hand and a quill pen in the other, writing diligently on a scrap of paper between bites. Tulare stood in front of my friends and myself, while the other cervanes stood off to the side. The young buck awaited the Baron to notice us with practiced patience.
Marl perched on my withers and preened a bit. The Baron is probably like any man you have ever met before, he warned. I'm sure he knows we're here, but he'll have to finish what he's writing, first.
When he finally finished, after a seeming eternity writing down whatever Grand Vision he had in mind, he looked up from his meal and folded his hands in front of him, elbows resting on the table. The Baron's ears were perked forwards and he had the most astonishing look in his large eyes. In my entire life I had never seen such an expression of unbounded curiosity, it shone through the apparent suspicion that he held us under. His gazed flicked from Genner, to Alexa, to Marl, to me, and back again to Genner. He looked at Tulare and smiled approvingly. A whole conversation seemed to be taking place wordlessly between them.
When the Baron stood up I saw that he wore a plain tunic and short trousers. At first glance one might have mistaken him from a common peasant, but as he got closer to me and I could see more detail, the tunic was obviously of very high quality. "I am Baron Milano," he said in perfect Winoldian. "And I am very pleased that you were able to escape. I have notified the king of this troublemaker on our border and the matter will be taken care of."
He gave the four of us a calm, measured look, the nodded once at Tulare in approval. "You've done well, my son. But please leave us. We have much to discuss here and I want you to go organize the stables for our guests."
"Yes father," the young buck replied respectfully. "I'll see to it." He left the hall.
The Baron walked around the table and stood in front of us, his tail swishing thoughtfully behind. "Now, what am I going to do with you?"
Exactly what does he know about us? I asked Marl in a quiet, suspicious tone.
Umm... he wavered.
Out with it, lad. He's speaking Winoldian so he has to have learned something from you. The bird was still hesitant, and preened his feathers as the Baron leaned against the table, a smirk on his face. I twitched my withers to unsettle him, and he cawed in surprise. Well?!
"I know everything," the cervane nobleman said. "But don't be angry at your young friend, Sir Johan. He really didn't have any choice in the matter. You see, my son is quite the strong mind-mage. Your friend landed and asked us for help, but my son saw right through his story to the truth of the matter. That didn't make us want to help you any less, mind you. But young Marl was trying so desperately not to think of not being punished by his master that his true mission—and yours—bubbled right up to his surface thoughts. And nobody as strong a mind-mage as my son can keep from reading those."
I repressed the urge to whip the bird with my tail, but it wasn't as if he'd meant to betray us. He was barely the age I was when I reached squire, and all that magical ability probably made him more than a little overconfident. While I was thinking Marl flapped from my withers onto Alexa's. I must have been shaking in rage. I focused my ears on the Baron. I suppose you know about the current situation between Loran and Winold?
"We've been keeping on top of that ever since your silly king Charles claimed the Loranite throne. But even moreso, we've been watching the mages. Young Marl's information merely confirmed our fears. Our King has been planning something to discourage such a thing for years now."
Then I suppose you don't need us, Alexa said. So what are you going to do with us?
"I've not decided yet. That's up to the King," he replied in Loranite to Alexa. "We have a couple of days before we hear his decision. We never encounter weres here in Madrane, oddly. We have animals that are like you, sentient mindspeakers; but they were never human to begin with." There was a note of wonder in his voice, tinged with a bit of repugnance.
Marl spoke up. That's because there's some sort of spell on your land that prevents us from resuming human form. Don't tell me you didn't know about that, he snapped.
Milano gave the bird a measured look for a moment, then his expression gained that insatiable curiosity again, then just as quickly turned to thoughtfulness. "I seem to recall a history book in my library about that. I'll have to find it. But as for now, I want to speak with Sir Johan and Marl in private. You three will be given a place to stay and food to eat." He gestured to one door and a pair of human servants appeared. "See to it that our guests are given the proper treatment for Sentients."
The servants took Genner and Alexa by the soft leather halters that had been put over our heads and helped lead them out of the hall leaving Marl and I to face the Baron. I really didn't know what to make of the man. He was both welcoming and suspicious. I knew we faced the possibility of being forced to spend the rest of our lives here. Nobody knew the Madranese very well, not even those few who traded with them.
"Excuse me for a moment. I must fetch something from the library," the Baron said, then he left us. Marl glided over to the leftover meal that was on the table and started to pick off bits of crust from a mostly eaten slice of bread. I nickered reprovingly. I'm as starving as you are, the lad retorted.
You've not been entirely truthful, you know. You should have taken the time to explain what you had planned so we might have been able to help? We could easily be on the way to your master right now, instead we're captives in a strange kingdom.
The smell of old, dusty leather and the returning Baron prevented any reply from Marl. The Baron came through wide doorway carrying a medium-sized manuscript of great antiquity. He carried it almost reverently, a strange thing to my mind. Setting it down on the table, he proceeded to leaf through it carefully, his eyes flicking from page to page. "It's been years since I read this old tome. It's over a thousand years old and is one of the few non-magical relics that remain from Nuvin times."
A chronicle? Marl said.
"Yes. I believe it explains the origin of that spell you mentioned. No offense, but I feel I must corroborate your story." We waited while he continued to look through the tome. Several minutes passed, when my stomach growled. Loudly. The Baron's mobile ears flicked up and he looked at me. "How terribly impolite of me. I keep forgetting that you are a fellow knight, Sir Johan. I'll have my servants fetch something for you to eat."
I'd be very grateful for that, I replied thankfully. While the ever-present servants went to fetch some food, I motioned with my head at the book and nickered. Find what you were looking for, my lord?
He flicked his ears back a bit. "No, but I know it's here. I just needed to make sure that my memory wasn't failing me. When you get to be my age you begin to worry about that sort of thing." He stood up and looked pointedly at Marl. "You, young mage, have a lot of explaining to do. You owe it to Sir Johan."
Me, my lord? No, I... The Baron pinned his ears against his neck and gave the bird a withering look. Okayokay. The bird looked at me, then took off and perched in the rafters, far out of reach. I had a feeling that I was about to be terribly angry with him. When I discovered that you'd been stolen, I panicked. And I'll be the first to admit that when I panic I forget certain things I've learned. Unfortunately I forgot the tracing spell that my master had taught me, should this happen. To top it off the storm gave me a huge headache because my magical senses are a bit oversensitive...
"Get on with it, boy."
Yessir. Anyway, I left my things with Master Genner and went and found my Master. He wasn't happy with me at first, but once he cast the tracing spell that would pinpoint where you were, that changed. By that time you were within the Madranese border spell, and my master saw an opportunity...
"The spell that changed you and your fellow knights was from my kingdom," Milano supplied. "Stolen three years ago by mages that came here pretending to be of a School the mages here keep ties to." He smelled far more insulted that the mages had managed to trick them rather than what the result of their theft was. "Go on, Marl."
My master had suspected that the spell didn't originate in Winold, Loran, or anywhere else on the Continent, except Madrane. They have magicks here that were lost to us when the Nuvin Empire collapsed.
A desperate hope dawned in my mind. Does this mean that you could change me back?
The Baron flicked his ears and shrugged in the human manner. "I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about magic for a weak mindspeaker. I'll have my son examine you and determine if this is possible." He smirked. "But consider for a moment. You're in a powerful body, have the ability to communicate with mindspeakers, and there are a few Sentient mares in the village who would be willing to share a stall with you."
A retort died before I could think it into being. I'd never been a very good knight to begin with. Not only that, but the whole concept of "knighthood" seemed alien, nonsensical; seen through the thick fog of having been a horse for so long. So what would I do with the rest of my life?
"That is a question for another time, sir knight. Marl, finish your story."
From up in the rafters, the wereraven was a dimly recognizable shape in the darkness. His mind voice was hesitant. Well, after my master knew where you are, he told me to check in on you, then fly into this kingdom and find out what I could. Seeing that you were otherwise preoccupied and in perfect health, I did so. I spent two weeks here before I mistakenly revealed myself to the Baron's son, and only then because I managed to have a little bit of ale. Tulare knows most everything about us...
"Almost everything," Milano corrected. "But you see that your friend is not responsible for the delay in freeing you, and you have no reason to be angry at him."
I looked up at the young mage and whuffled, swishing my tail. Get down here, lad. I'm not going to hurt you.
Marl glided down from the rafters and landed on the table opposite from me, then hopped along slowly towards me. I just don't...
You could start with 'I'm sorry'. I'm not one of those pompous knights you're familiar with, lad. We've known each other long enough to understand that. The servants arrived with a small box filled with sweet-smelling feed. One even took out a carrot for me to munch on. I nickered in thanks and whuffed the young servant's hair in thanks.
"You are just like a Sentient," the Baron said, a suspicious look on his face. I could smell the sharp tang of his curiosity, and could even feel it in my head. The longer I was in the presence of this man, the more my mind started to race. Never in my life had I felt like this! Then I realized just how wrong that was. I remembered that when I just a colt, I would ask my nanny incessant questions about everything. The world had seemed so different back then...
"I believe we've exhausted this conversation for the evening," the Baron said. "So I'll just offer you the hospitality of my stable. I should have an answer from the King about what is to be done with you by morning."
We were a week in Baron Milano's company before his King returned a decision. The speed was astonishing enough, but when I found out that messages could easily be exchanged from the northern coast to the southern border within a day, I knew that our presence was probably something of a quandary for these people, but I was polite enough not to ask directly.
The Baron himself was the very soul of courtesy, and his son was very much a younger reflection of him. Whenever Tulare entered the central courtyard I knew it was him immediately. There was this odd tingle inside my head that appeared whenever he was nearby, as he was every day at dawn, noon, and sunset.
Every morning the Baron would invite us into the great hall as if we were honored guests, and gave us the best tasting food I'd ever had as a horse. Afterward, he would sit with us in the courtyard and answer questions about himself and his land. Are you trying to convince us to stay? I asked him frankly.
"Well, yes. Considering the fate you have in store for yourself, you'll have absolutely no future in Loran or Winold. In this kingdom we recognize that just because it doesn't walk on two legs doesn't mean it isn't intelligent or doesn't have a soul."
He had a very real point, but being a horse did not absolve my oaths to my king.
We were called into the great hall when the sun rose. Waiting there, in addition to the Baron, were four humans and Tulare. The had the air of knighthood about them, but with a subtle difference. The tang of confidence pervaded the room as they chatted quietly among themselves, quieting to silence as we entered. Marl was perched on my withers, as normal. Milano's ears perked forward as we entered and he looked up. "Good morning, all. You slept well, I trust?"
Quite well, Alexa replied courteously. The rest of us agreed.
"Since I'm sure you're all anxious to know what our king has decided, I shall tell you straight off. Put simply, we need your expertise and intimate knowledge of both the spell that was worked on you, and the fact that you can find the others who were affected, such as your brothers. Lady Alexa will come along, as will Master Genner, who has a family to return to."
I whuffed my relief. Milano went on. "Furthermore, my son and those you see behind him will accompany you and your friends into Loran, where they will thwart the plans of the mages who changed you."
Well, that certainly sounds simple enough, I said dubiously. But if your mages are so powerful, and you know so much about the current situation, why do you really need us?
"Actually, we don't know much about the current situation beyond the fact that the mages have not made their move as yet," Tulare interjected. "They're close, however. The fact of the matter is that they've been working so much magic that they've mangled the natural Pathways through which Arche flows. We can't scry their movements any more."
I had to wonder just how much the horse population had increased in Loran in recent months. So, what do you need me for, beyond what you mentioned?
The younger buck continued. "Frankly we're a bit sympathetic to your problem, sir knight. And admittedly, we're curious about the rest of you." The scent-of-curiosity was nearly as strong as the Baron's. He looked at the four of us with what felt like a smirk. "The origin of the Overspell is unknown to us, but it gives us certain advantages, but with some side effects. Frankly, the five of us are quite curious about you. I've never met someone who can be both a animal and human as a natural part of who they are, without any additional magic."
Alexa wuffed. I would willingly give a leg to be human again.
"It won't come to that, milady. I assure you."
What about me? I wondered to myself. Would I ever be human again? Did I want to be one of those incomprehensible two-leggers? The answer I gave myself was an unconditional "I don't know".
Tulare returned his gaze to me. "As for you, sir knight. After conferring with my fellow mages, I have an answer about your 'condition'." Two days ago Tulare had spent a whole hour just staring at me. I felt nothing, but being under the gaze of one person for so long was more than a little unnerving. I remained as still and as silent as I could. It just wouldn't do to startle someone who could make a person into a pile of ashes in self defense.
I waited with baited breath for his answer. The young cervane sighed apologetically. "I'm afraid that even if we managed to disentangle the spell that changed you from your were-ness that you probably would not be able to change back. After speaking with Genner and Marl, we learned that there's an additional mental component required to initiate a shapechange. From what I sensed in your mind yesterday, you lack that. I'm sorry."
I had never been the excitable type. A knight cannot afford to be emotional. My father had long succeeded in literally pounding out any sort of non-knightly reaction out of me. No need to apologize, I replied calmly. The life of a horse isn't all that bad.
"If you chose to live here," the young buck pointed out.
Out of one eye I saw Alexa start to swish her tail back and forth in an anxious fashion. I pretended not to notice, but I wondered why she was being so emotional over my predicament. You'll have my decision on that after we rescue my brothers. Now, what is to be done next?
The next morning all was ready. Genner and Alexa agreed to act as pack horses so they wouldn't look so conspicuous. One of the other mages placed a small illusion on Alexa to mask her quality a bit, so people wouldn't wonder why such a well-bred mare was being used as a mere packhorse. The other four mages had their own mounts, I was to be Tulare's. I had quite a few misgivings about him coming along on this mission, but I really didn't have a say in things. A cervane riding with humans would draw more than a little unwanted attention.
When a strange man walked towards me from the great hall I spooked a little, and stared to shy away. Then I heard a familiar voice in my mind. Be at ease, my friend. It's me, Tulare. This is just a bit of an illusion that will keep people from looking at us too closely. He looked—and smelled—like a nobleman, but moved as if he were in some discomfort. It's an all-senses illusion. I'm not fond of them, but it's necessary.
So you're physically unchanged?
Yes. But this kind of illusion makes one itch all the way to the root of one's fur. It's particularly bad at the base of my pedicles and my tail. Humans don't have antlers or tails, of course, so the spell must focus on those areas. I fear that if someone somehow feels the top of my head the illusion will break. However, we must take the risk.
Tulare looked like almost any nobleman I'd ever seen. Fairly tall, dark hair cut short to fit under a helmet, and clean shaven. He wore a doublet trimmed with ermine, hose, and fine leather boots. However, the more I was around him, the more I realized that those scents were mostly illusory, especially the boots. He also had a musky deer-like scent to him that no illusion could mask. By far most humans would think it was some sort of expensive cologne, which was typical of Loranite nobility.
Tulare nodded at his fellow mages, then gave me a friendly slap on the withers that was the signal to myself, Genner, and I to gird ourselves for what was to happen next. Since we had no idea what the timetable was until the renegade mages would make their move, time was critical.
We stood before a stone archway of great antiquity, obviously of Nuvin design. Marl perched on the cantle in front of one of the other mages, seemingly deep in concentration. The eye I could see grew into a point of light I could see in the dark, gloomy light of this overcast morning. Behind him, the mage's hands started to glow with the same light, and I could hear him chanting softly to a strange cadence. The edges of the archway began to glow with a color I swore was blue. I hadn't been able to see color since my transformation, but I couldn't deny that it was there.
The whole space filled with that light, and then in the center, recognizable shapes appeared. The crumbled, broken rocks of an old Nuvin ruin became as clear as the great hall behind me. "Go!" the mage shouted, his voice a bit strangled with the effort. Marl looked like he was about to fall off the saddle, but his willpower kept him from doing so.
I hurled myself and Tulare through the portal with all the speed I could muster, not even thinking to be afraid of the most overt display of magic I'd ever seen. Even though Tulare had said the Pass-Through would feel absolutely normal, I still expected some effects. Dizziness, nausea, something. Instead I merely skidded to a stop and spun around to see the others hot on our heels. Alexa, the three mages, Genner, and finally Marl and the final mage. The gateway closed with a inrushing snap.
The Lady mare's eyes were white with fright. That was amazing! she exclaimed.
Where are we? I asked Tulare.
"Somewhat close to Poitiers, we've traveled several hundred miles."
We're not far from my master's Enclave, perhaps two days ride, Marl told me. This looks like a monastery, but I don't think I've ever been here.
"We've been using this location for quite some time, so we placed some subtle ward-off spells around the perimeter. We have time for a short rest, then we'll move on. My fellow mages and I would appreciate a demonstration of your powers, I believe."
The monastery was one of the numerous—and thus invisible—Nuvin ruins that dotted the Continent. The land surrounding it was marginal at best, and whomever had once worked it had probably been taken by the Scourge a few years before. Marl and the mage—whose name was Zane—slumped in the saddle. I whinnied in alarm when I saw Marl start to fall off, but Zane caught him. "Sorry, lad. I nearly lost my grip, there." The wereraven's reply was private, so I didn't hear it, but Zane was chuckling over something. The two seemed to be friends already.
No strangers to travel, camp was expertly set up, only after we'd been fed did they let the others demonstrate their powers. I felt rather anxious about seeing Alexa in human form. I'd known her only as a horse, unlike Marl and Master Genner, and I couldn't begin to think of what she would smell like.
They removed the illusion and the supplies and found a place to sit, their eyes on Alexa, who stood there as if very embarrassed. She nickered warningly at me. Then I realized that she wouldn't have any clothing on when she returned to human form. Though I understood the purpose of clothing, since humans lacked hair or fur, I couldn't imagine what she was so embarrassed about.
Frustrated, she just snorted and took her place at one end of the courtyard, in full view of all. She was such a wonderful mare, I reflected. Not one blemish, with a perfectly shaped head, full tail, and fine, soft muzzle. Even after carrying most of the mages' equipment she still smelled like clean hay and honeyed oats.
Gentlemen, she began, I'll once again warn you that I have not been human in several months. I'm not even sure I can change back. As Marl has told you, the mind of the animal becomes more and more integrated with one's own the longer one remains in that form. Zane nodded in seeming agreement. Alexa nickered at him and moved on. But I will of course make an effort. The weremare looked at me, and I heard a whisper in my mind. No matter what happens, I believe I owe you a debt of gratitude, sir knight. I'll find a way to repay it somehow.
I blinked in surprise but remained silent, while she closed her eyes and began to concentrate. Zane and the others leaned forward on the stone benches they were sitting on, their eyes fixed on Alexa. She grunted in effort and collapsed to the ground. Reflexively I began to walk forward to help her, but was held fast by the mages. Don't interfere, Marl warned me. If she can't do this by herself then she'll never be human again.
I nickered understanding and was let go, but my heart went out to this brave woman as she struggled with herself. With agonizing slowness she started to shrink, bare skin showing in places as she grew closer to humanity. Her eyes came together as her muzzle shrank into a recognizably human nose and mouth. Her body shrank, hooves separating into separate toes and fingers as an agonized groan escaped her lips. When she began to return to mare shape I started to lose hope. Come on, my lady love, you can do it, I said, much to my own surprise.
Determination returned to her expression almost instantly, and with a final physical and mental effort, she took a deep breath and forced her body to obey her will. Quite suddenly there was a fully human—and unconscious— woman laying on the floor of the courtyard. She had long, flowing dark hair the same shade that Alexa's mane had been. Tulare picked up a cloak he'd taken out of one of the packs and went over and covered her with it. "She'll be okay. Her transformation took a lot of effort. I'll give her a few minutes to awaken herself."
"That was painfully apparent, Tulare," Zane said. "In the mean time, perhaps the blacksmith and Marl might change back."
Alexa regained consciousness by the time the others resumed human form. The mages were particularly interested in the blacksmith. They watched him carefully has both his species and his gender changed. But unlike Alexa, both he and Marl knew how to change with clothing on. The blacksmith glared at the mages, especially Zane. "I realize that I'm a curiosity to you gentleman, but as I've told Tulare many times over, I've long grown used to the fact that I'm both man and woman. If anything, my wife and I get along better. So if we could just drop it?"
And that was that.
I went over where Tulare was still holding Alexa, who still looked very dazed. She looked up at me with a bewildered expression and tried to say something, only to have it come out in a horse-like nicker. She blinked and covered her mouth, flustered. Marl walked over and leaned against me. "S'okay, milady. It took me a week before I was talking normally again when my master force-changed me back." She didn't look happy about that.
Curious, I lowered my head and sniffed at her, hopeful that her scent hadn't changed all that much. It hadn't. She still smelled like another horse, for the most part. Are you okay? I said into her mind, carefully.
She gave me a blank look momentarily, then carefully formed the words as she spoke. "I'mm fffiine. I ttthink." Unfortunately she spoke too soon. Abruptly her ears grew long and pointed, face pushing out into a very equine muzzle. Tulare moved away as quickly as he could, lest he be squashed underneath her vastly increasing weight. She whinnied in surprise and alarm, thrashing about hands that rapidly became hooves again. Her tail seemed to shoot out of her behind like an arrow, and then the only sound in the courtyard was the blowing sound of her tired breathing through large, flaring nostrils. I almost had it, she lamented. Almost. I just couldn't hold it...
It's okay, I told her, filling my mental tone with concern. I waited for her to get back on her hooves before I ventured to nuzzle and groom her on the neck and withers. You'll do much better next time, milady.
I am sure of it, with your encouragement, sir knight, she replied coyly.
Tulare finally said something. "I don't mean to snuff out this budding relationship, but I fear we must move on. We must reach Mage Hugh's Enclave by tomorrow evening."
The landscape seemed curiously vacant when we left the monastery. Normally planting was finished by this time of year, but people still needed to tend to the newly-sprouted crops as well as any livestock. We passed through a small village whose only inhabitants seemed to be a small flock of sheep. However, something seemed horribly wrong. "Sarn's blood! They've been changing those that won't support them into farm animals!" Zane exclaimed.
Marl, still in human form and riding behind Zane, looked horrified. "Why in Sarn's name would they do that? These people were no threat to them!"
"They did it because they can, lad. A demonstration of power," Tulare said, looking intently at the sheep. He leaned back in the saddle and sighed. "I've never seen an abuse of power like this. Even in Madrane we encounter the odd rogue mage. But this..." One of the sheep bleated forlornly, looking at us with fearful expressions on their faces. The flock was certainly much more afraid than sheep normally were. If some of them retained their human memories...
Zane looked penetratingly at the flock, eyes glowing dimly. "This is a variation on the horse transformation spell. They've managed to find the Core of it this quickly, then expand on it. Amazing. I never would have suspected..."
Can you change them back? I asked.
"Not without several days of study to find the changes that they made to the spell. All we can do is keep the mages from doing any more damage. We don't need another Scourge to empty the land further." The flock was blocking the road through the village, so we turned and went around.
We stopped that night under a copse of trees close to the road, surrounded by pastureland and grazing cows on either side. Tulare assured us that none of the cattle were transformed humans, but the fact that they had nobody tending them spoke volumes. Alexa and I found a spot to graze our fill for the night, while she told me her story.
Like Master Genner, I found out that I was a werehorse as a young age. I must have been about six when one night of the gibbous moon I changed into a little filly. It wasn't a scary thing for me, oddly. I thought it great fun to be able to romp and gallop and play. All little girls love horses at some point in their lives. It just happened that I could become one as well as love them.
I come from a very old family, and a rich one at that. Lucky for me that I had a nanny who wasn't superstitious and managed to keep my 'condition' a secret from the rest of my family. She also taught me that I must keep it a secret. So I did. Somehow I managed to steal away from the manor once a month. My father had a sizable herd so I was able to blend in with them without being noticed—or so I thought.
We got a new stablemaster about a year ago. He could not have been more the opposite of the one we had before, who died of fever. He watched the herd like a hawk. He must have seen me join the herd one night and told my father. It wasn't a week later that my father told me that I had a husband waiting for me near the in the north of Loran. Since I was the youngest of three daughters, and my older sister hadn't been married off yet, I was a bit wary.
I should have suspected something when he sent the stablemaster and two men I'd never seen before as my escort, but I was so happy that my future seemed to be secure, I just didn't think about it... she trailed off in her tale, frustration and anger apparent in the way she smelled, and the sound of her swishing tale. I waited for a few minutes while she seemed to tear the grass from the ground, as if she would love to do the same to her father.
The spell boundary was apparently farther from the manor farm at the time, she continued, her mental tone filled with her anger. My father was something of a scholar-knight, and somehow knew about the Overspell of Madrane. He knew what would happen to me.
I remember passing into the spell's influence. I didn't know what was happening at first, and I was sweating with the effort at keeping myself human. I changed into a mare almost explosively and fell off my horse, who whinnied and bolted. But the stablemaster was prepared. While I was still shocked he placed a magicked halter on me that made me a docile animal.
I was sold as a horse to this man for three gold Florins. A high price for a horse of any kind. My 'husband' obviously knew nothing of a 'marriage', either. The effect of that halter was far-reaching. I really didn't 'awaken' until the ghost knight appeared to me some weeks after. Her tone of voice shifted abruptly, from anger and resentment, to the warm glow of something more than mere gratitude. And then I met you, sir knight. My savior. She nuzzled my neck and mane, slowly, lovingly.
I knew courtly love as well as the next knight. As one moves from page, to squire, to full knighthood, one learns how to compose songs, write poems, and so forth, in order to impress the Lady that one just can't have. From the very beginning I knew that courtly love was nothing more than fantasy. One never married for love, only to make alliances between noble houses. Marrying one's true love was something for commoners and serfs.
But these things were human, and didn't particularly apply to me any more. Yet I still understood human love, because as I began to return her loving attentions, I knew that's what this feeling was. I wanted to tell the world that I loved this beautiful mare! How it happened I couldn't begin to ponder, and really didn't want to. All that mattered is that she and I were together. I love you, too, I said quietly, hoping the mages sitting around the fire wouldn't hear our thoughts.
Since she wasn't in heat, so we sated ourselves with talk instead. We had much in common, and found more to love within one another than just the joy of each other's presence. We realized that since human constraints no longer really applied to us, there was nothing keeping us apart. Where do you plan to be once this is all over? she asked.
Well, almost nothing. I'm most concerned about my brothers. If I can't find them, I'll probably spend a lot of time looking.
That will be very difficult for a mere horse, she pointed out.
I know, but if I have to find a way, I will.
We dropped off to sleep eventually, all talked out and our bodies screaming for rest after a long day of carrying our burdens. We slept side by side until a familiar weight on my withers awoke me out of a sound sleep. It was only first light, and the rest of the travelers were already stirring. I'm to scout ahead for us. Tulare seems to think that we're only a couple days behind the Loranite army. They don't want any surprises creeping up on us.
Makes sense, I told Marl. A tactically sound idea.
My master's Enclave is rather small. It's set into the side of a small hill. He said he was heading here after I met him about you, so we can be sure that he's here.
Oh? Why is that? Alexa asked.
I can sense him, Marl replied confidently, preening his flight feathers.
We broke camp by the time the sun was above the horizon and made haste on the thin trade road that wound its way through the empty farmland of the plain. Whatever army the mages had with them left no traces of its passing, yet another flagrant waste of magic, or so Marl told me. However, Tulare and Zane thought it was actually smart. It effectively hid the size of the army from any Winoldian scout. I began to worry, which apparently bothered Tulare's sensitive mind. "After your expeditionary force didn't return, your Crown Prince did the right thing and forbade any further such forays. But he also doesn't know that most of the mages among his troops are in league with the rogues. From what we were able to scry, once both armies are together they'll threaten them with transformation, or to join the growing army."
They're after the entire Continent! I exclaimed.
"Nothing less. They want to repeat the methods of one of the greatest conquerors of the past, Julian the Great. It'll probably work if we don't succeed."
Mages were not meant to be kings.
When Tulare didn't reply right away, I began to wonder if I'd said something wrong. Of course, I didn't know if his king was a mage, and I didn't want to give offense. But when I started to say something that I hoped would repair the situation, I realized that the slight shaking I felt from the saddle was actually contained laughter. He rubbed my neck. "That, my horsey knight, is where we can agree on things. A mage simply does not have time to learn how to govern and be a mage as well. I'm afraid we mages can be a rather arrogant lot at times, but for the most part we're just like anyone else..." The illusory human stopped abruptly, looking up at a raven circling above our heads. "Oh boy," he said ominously, nudging my sides and leaning forward in the saddle.
I broke into a gallop at that signal. Abruptly, over a low rise, the landscape changed from farmland to a shallow valley filled with trees. The road turned to mud, as the constant shade from the canopy above kept the sun from touching the ground. We had to slow down or risk a broken leg of damaged hoof. It's only a little farther! Marl broadcasted to us all. The raven vanished around a roughly-cut path through the trees.
We were too late.
The so-called "Enclave" was little more than a large stone cottage in the middle of a meadow. Surrounding it, grazing on the fragrant grasses, were five dirty-looking, decrepit, old donkeys. They brayed gruffly at our arrival, three of them retreating behind the burned-out, blackened cottage that still smoldered and smoked. It'd been a miracle that the fire hadn't spread to the forest surrounding. Marl landed on one of the two donkeys that remained, who was still blankly grazing the grass with dull, diseased eyes. I came to a halt close by and Tulare dismounted. "Your Master?" The raven nodded morosely. Tulare looked at the donkey with one of his intent stares. "I really don't know what we can do for him, lad. They couldn't destroy his mind, but they did managed to shatter it into bits and pieces. He'll have to pull himself together."
Marl landed on the ground and returned to human form. "But you have to help him! Just look at him! He's got mange, worms, he's sick..."
"Now that we can help with. We can even restore some modicum of youth. Zane?"
The elder mage stepped forward, tying his horse to a post. Marl gave him a pleading look. "I'll do what I can, lad. From what you've told me of your master he's a good man." They left us to take care of the formerly human donkeys.
Marl, Zane, and the other mages left to go heal the wereraven's master and his colleagues, leaving the rest of us standing near the blackened ruins of a stable. The weather had turned overcast and gloomy, the air smelled moist and thick with incipient rain. Tulare leaned against a blackened post. "Times like this I feel rather useless, since my magic has a mostly inward focus on the mind, rather than worldly effects."
Then may I ask why you're along on this mission? I thought.
"The plan involves some distance spellcasting that must be coordinated. Since I can even make myself understood by those who lack mindspeech, even over long distances, I'll be the one closest to our quarry and will tell the rest when they can cast their interference spell. If all goes right then the mages should get their just punishment." Tulare unbuckled the girth of my saddle and placed it on an unburned log fence. "How are you doing?"
His abrupt question caught me off guard. I'm tired, maybe a little winded from the gallop, but you're really not all that heavy anyway.
"I have to admit that I've not done much riding. We cervanes aren't really built for horseback. I had to put extensions on my hooves just to use the stirrups."
May I ask you a few questions? Alexa said, hopeful. Tulare nodded and starting removing supplies. She'd galloped just as hard as I have and was carrying at least as much weight. Her hide glistened with sweat. Now, I'd never met a cervane in person before I saw you, and I'm rather curious. If I'm being too blunt, feel free to ignore the question...
While the mages and Marl worked, the three of us chatted about ourselves, our peoples, and our kingdoms. It was just small talk, nothing serious, and a grateful change from the gravity of our situation. Tulare looked at the thick forest surrounding the manor. Alexa asked a question about the origin of his people. "Some say a mage created my people, others say that we're just another of the children of Sarn. But..."
An almost-human bray interrupted him. By now it was twilight and they'd been working several hours. As one, we rushed over behind the house to where the mages were working. We found that two of the five donkeys were now human again—for the most part. One man still had donkey-like ears, facial features, a tail, and looked rather hairy. But he looked quite happy to be as human as he was. The other man was far more human, and the rest were unchanged, except for the fact that they were bright-eyed and healthy. Marl stood next to a sturdy brown beast who was happily having his muzzle rubbed. Zane, looking exhausted, looked up. "I'm glad you're here. We've done with them as much as we can. These two we were able to change back because the spellcasting done on them was rather rushed."
"What about Hugh?" Tulare asked, looking at Marl and the donkey-mage.
"I'm afraid they did a much more thorough job on him, as well as the other two. Their minds are in pieces, and we don't have the time nor the ability to help them."
Hugh playfully headbutted Marl and sent him tumbling to the ground. Marl's scent was sorrow mixed with relief. A curious combination. "He still recognizes me!" the lad said, smiling. "I think we should bring them along on the mission..."
One of the mostly-human mages tiredly looked up and shook his head. He wore one of our travel cloaks to cover his nakedness. "No need, my boy," he said in a voice that was a near-bray. "Now that your friends here have been so kind as to restore Aldor and myself we can bring them back on our own." He looked up at Tulare, who was giving him a suspicious look. "We have our own transformational magics that are just as effective as anything from Madrane."
"I'll take your word for it," Zane said. "Now, can you give us any clues as to what happened here?"
"Isn't it obvious?" the donkey-mage replied sourly. "They discovered that we'd duped them and changed us into a bunch of diseased animals that wouldn't last a week. I fear if you'd arrived a day later we probably would have started to die. I've never felt so sick in all my life..."
"How long ago did this happen?"
"As far as I can reckon, it was about dawn this morning when they arrived. We tried to put up a defense—I think I managed to turn one spell back on the caster. But that failed. There were twice as many of them as us." He yawned, showing big, horsey teeth. "You know, a year ago I accidentally changed myself into a donkey. It wasn't so bad. If I can't remove the rest of these 'features', perhaps I should see what the possibilities are up where you come from."
"Maybe," Tulare said noncommittally. "For now, we need to find shelter from the storm..." He gave the burned-out cottage a disappointed look. We were traveling light, so had brought no tents. The storm looked to be the kind that was only a mere drizzle, but one wouldn't want to spend the whole night out in the open.
"This was only the cottage we use to meet clients. The main Enclave is about a hundred lengths behind, through the woods," the donkey-mage said, still grinning. "They thought they destroyed us completely."
Tulare and the others laughed. "Good man. Let's go get out of this rain."
The real Enclave was set into the side of a rocky hill, well hidden from any traveler that would happen upon it. At the back of what looked like a natural cave wide enough for a horse and cart, there was a panel of rock that slid aside to reveal a dimly lit room that smelled like hay and horses. I heard a nicker from inside. A small but sturdy pony looked out from a stall in a corner. Aldor, the more human of the two transformed mages, walked back to calm the little mare. The partially transformed mage gave Marl a single look. The wereraven obediently went about putting feed in the troughs and preparing the empty stalls. "He's a good lad," he said.
The other less human donkey-mage, Randal, looked at myself, and the others that hadn't been cured yet, and seemed to come to a decision. "I believe we'll have our meal in the stable tonight," he brayed.
Dinner was composed of oats and alfalfa for the equines, vegetables, bread, and cheese for the rest. Conversation consisted of friendly banter and good-natured attempts by both sides to find out the other's secrets. Then it turned to more serious matters. "I believe we can help you with this plan of yours. I was able to take some information from the minds of the mages before they forced donkeydom on me," Aldor said with satisfaction.
One of the transformed mages brayed from his stall. Only Hugh had shown any ability to resist his nature. Donkeys tended to react possessively to any mares nearby, and would court them even if they weren't in heat. To guard against such behavior the mages had magically "gelded" their brethren for the time being. The sight of Hugh munching contentedly from a feed bag was encouraging. Marl sat next to him, continually talking to him in a quiet voice about what had happened in the past few weeks, and scratching him between the ears. Hugh seemed to enjoy both the talk and the rubbing immensely. Out of the corner of my left eye I saw Tulare looking at the donkey-mage and the wereraven, a smile on his face. "He's doing the right thing," he said to me, noticing that I was looking. "He's treating him like a human, and that will help bring his mind together. The fact that he's not locked away in a stall is most encouraging."
"Hugh was always the most resilient of us," Randal said. "No matter what form he took he never lost control of himself. He once spent a week as a lion, roaming the hallways of the Enclave. Never once did we worry that he'd lose control. It took four of their mages to do what they did to him." Hugh flicked his ears and nodded, as if understanding. He brayed softly, as if in reply. Randal smiled. "I doubt he'll be more than a week in recovering. But as for the other two..." He sighed horse-like through his flared nostrils.
"About this information you have regarding the army..." Zane said.
"Ah, yes. Sir Johan, I believe we can use your expertise here."
I lifted my head out of the feed trough and gave Alexa a nuzzle before taking a place around a large round table that had been put in the center of the room. There were several maps in various states of use, some weighted down with dishes at the corners, others still unused. Randal picked up one of these and unrolled it. I noticed that he'd taken some of the honeyed oats and hay that had been my meal for himself. His mobile ears flicked forward attentively while he scanned the map to be sure it was what he was looking for. "Here we are. Tulare, fellow mages, this is where the battle will most likely take place."
More lamps has been brought in to brighten the room to make it easier to see the maps. The lines were just thick enough so I could make them out. There might have been places where writing denoted place names, but it was too blurry for me to read and I doubted I'd be able to understand it anyway. But the lay of the land was indeed familiar. Two small hills and a valley between. Neither side would have the high ground, but the commanders of both sides would be able to see the battlefield. This reminds me of Crecy.
"Aye, that it should," Aldor said. "Now, perhaps you ought to refresh our memories as to what happened there. Undoubtedly you know."
Behind, almost out of view, Alexa flicked her ears and looked up. She came forward next to me and rested her head on my back. Perhaps I can give you the Loranite viewpoint, she suggested.
"Ah... no thanks, milady. This is my home kingdom too, you understand," Randal said diplomatically. Alexa nickered agreement. "Go ahead, sir knight."
Now I was the center of attention, which made me more than a little nervous. But I went on as if I was reciting a lesson to the knight who had taught me as a page. It was a grand victory. First, the Loranites didn't even arrive on the battlefield until nearly evening. Second, it had rained rather heavily the night before, so the battlefield itself was a quagmire.
I hate to say this, but we knights are not known for our use of tactics. The vast majority of us are out for glory and plunder. I have known knights that would fight almost anyone who was of the nobility and on horseback. All they seek is the thrill of battle, the sound of steel on steel, and the screams of their enemies as they lay dying.
"Very... poetic," Tulare said distastefully.
Unfortunately the knights from my kingdom are the worst of the lot, Alexa added in a sour tone. They've cost us victory more than once because they weren't willing to let non-nobles help fight.
I nodded and continued. The Loranites attempted to charge anyway through the quagmire, and of course got stuck almost immediately. King Charles had smartly brought with him longbowmen from Giffyyd. He used them and their yard-long arrows quite effectively that day. That bow has the most incredible range. My father said that the 'sky was darkened by arrows'. The knights fell like axed trees, and didn't get up. The battle was over by evening, the Loranites retreated as quickly as they could.
"'Pride goeth before a fall'?" said Zane. "It's a wonder that there are any knights left."
We die young, I replied matter-of-factly. But I never intended to. I only came here with my brothers in the hopes that I'd get enough booty to set myself up as a cloth merchant. I never wanted to be a knight. Alexa nodded approvingly, nuzzling my withers.
"The additional factor here are the mages on both sides," Randal said. "The plan, if I can believe what I found, is to let both sides engage each other, then transform the leaders. They will then surround the Winold army with a web of magic and threaten them with either transformation into horses, cattle, and the like; or renouncement of their oaths to king Charles and new oaths to the mages."
That is absolutely without precedent! I exclaimed.
"Actually, I believe they found a precedent in the an old Nuvin law text. They then adapted it for knights and lords," Aldor added.
I ground my teeth together in worry. If we didn't stop them, then their army would be large enough to crush nearly anything outside the kingdoms of the Blessed Empire. What is my role to be in all this?
Even under the illusion, I swore I saw Tulare's ears flick. He smiled and looked up from the map. "That, my horsey friend, is what we will discuss next..."
The next morning we were all ready to separate in our tasks, while Master Genner elected to stay behind, saying that he really wasn't of any use anyway. Tulare reluctantly agreed to let him stay. The four Madranese mages would go to the four points of the compass, three miles beyond the battlefield, which was slightly more than a day's ride away from the Enclave. So I wouldn't be recognized, Zane cast a color change spell on me similar to the one that had been in the carrot when I'd been stolen. I was now skewbald, white with patches of chestnut. An unsuitable horse for a knight, but perfect for the squire that Tulare would be posing as. Marl would be his page, and Alexa Marl's horse. I was more than a little worried about her presence. I can handle myself, she assured me confidently.
I knew she could, but that didn't stop me from worrying.
The one thing that held us up before we could leave was Marl's insistence that Mage Hugh come along with us as a pack animal. "He has a stake in this, too," Marl said, standing up to Tulare's hard look. "Without him you wouldn't have nearly as much information as you do!"
The cervane grudgingly allowed the transformed mage to come along as a pack animal, but only with certain changes. The donkey was now a much lighter brown, stockier of body, and a gelding via illusion. Hugh seemed to smile as he realized that revenge would be at hand... or hoof.
Once Tulare made a few changes to his illusion we set off for the battlefield. Both armies were nearly in place already, but neither would make any moves until the rain stopped. The weather was horrible when we moved out. The drizzle had given way to real rain, which made the track very muddy indeed. We were all splashed with mud by the time we'd gone a mile from the Enclave. Tulare sneezed, a sound that clearly wasn't human. "Damn my luck. If I can't stop sneezing then that alone will give us away." He reached up and took out a handkerchief, blowing his nose. The illusion wavered a little, briefly showing his antlers and the faint outline of his muzzle. "Damn it! Not now!"
Do we have a back up plan? I asked.
"No. This is all or nothing. If I don't purge this illness before we arrive everything will fall apart," he said gravely. He sneezed again, violently. The illusion wavered even worse this time. "We had better stop. There's some herbs in the pack that should at least delay this."
We stopped underneath a lone oak tree, where the rain didn't come down as hard. I could easily smell Tulare's wet fur through the illusion. The cervane filled a goblet with rainwater and emptied a powder into it. "There. That should keep it at bay for a day or so, if I'm lucky."
What was that you took? I asked.
"Mother's own herbal cold remedy," he replied with a grin. "We should move on, quickly. The rain is slacking off and we need to be there before nightfall, if we can."
It was a hard ride, but we were in sight of the outskirts of the Loranite camp by the time nightfall finally arrived. We had met others on the road as we got closer; Tulare's illusion seemed to be holding up. He even chatted with one of the other squires about swordplay as we approached. Since the squire was as dirty and smelly as we were, he apparently didn't notice Tulare's odd scent, or discounted it as belonging to me.
The air was heavy with the scent of gathered humans, horses, and the anticipation of coming battle. Tulare and Marl were given a place in a large tent to sleep for the night, along with about a dozen other squires who couldn't afford to bring their own tents. They took Alexa off to where the mares had been herded, and left Hugh and myself tied up to a picket post just outside the tent. After what seemed like hours Marl came over with two buckets of feed and a curry brush. Tulare's scouting the encampment, he whispered quietly in my mind. The highest-ranked mages are in the king's pavilion atop the hill, so he's looking there, first.
Isn't that a might dangerous? I whispered back.
Yes, but he needs to get their magical signatures to send back to the others. Don't worry, his mind-magic is strong enough to make him seem familiar to anyone that sees him.
I had my doubts. Nothing was perfect, and there was always the possibility that he would make a mistake. But my role in this was passive at best. All I could really do was stand there and act like a horse, which came so naturally to me that it wasn't something that needed to be concentrated on. As we ate, Marl gave Hugh and I a careful brushing to remove all the mud, and made sure there were no pebbles stuck in our hooves. When he was finished he begged off to go update Alexa, and give her a rubdown as well.
He's.... good.... lad... came a broken, unfamiliar mind voice from beside me. I nickered questioningly at Hugh, whose intelligent eyes gleamed brightly back at me. I sent out a probing thought, but couldn't get a reply. Apparently Hugh hadn't finished coming together yet.
When it was dark enough evil-smelling torches were lit that guttered and flickered an inconstant light, casting odd shadows that made my equine heart pound. Tulare hadn't returned yet, neither had Marl, and I was beginning to worry. Not a minute after that thought they both returned from the opposite direction of the mage's pavilion. Marl winked at me as they passed into the tent, then his eyes went wide with surprise, and he stared at Hugh. Tulare slapped him once lightly to bring him out of it. It wouldn't do for him to be seen like that. I heard a broken mental chuckle from Hugh in my mind.
The air seemed to crackle with anticipation, so much so that I couldn't calm down enough to sleep. It was as if a thunderstorm was just over the horizon. All of the horses felt it; I could smell their nervousness, hear their anxious shuffling and nickering. I began to worry about Alexa. She was back with a herd of normal mares, but she wouldn't come into heat again for some time. I irrationally began to worry that if she did come into heat while I was away that she'd allow some other stallion to breed her.
I pitied that stallion, should I find him.
Activity picked up again before dawn. The scrape of metal-on-metal from the tents surrounding told me that knights were being strapped into their armor. Tulare and Marl came out of the tent, followed by a pair of squires who went the opposite direction. One of the squires gave Tulare a funny look as he went the opposite direction, in search of food. Tulare didn't look well, and looked to have been dosing himself with those herbs. Are you going to be all right?
After I get home and have a few days bed rest, sure. I'm using all my mental powers just to keep people from staring at me. He stifled a sneeze. I believe that things are coming to a head. I managed to tag all the mages, so we should find an out of the way place and wait for the proper moment.
Marl went to get Alexa while Tulare saddled me, himself. Hugh was to be left with a herd of donkeys kept just outside of camp. He was a lot more coherent now, even mind-speaking in nearly complete sentences. The donkey-mage wasn't happy about being pushed into the background, though. He brayed loudly as Marl tried to pull him off towards the temporary paddock that had been set up. The illusory human blindfolded me while tacking me up, a common thing to do. As he was working I heard the sound of several pairs of boots splashing through puddles and mud. "Is there something wrong, gentlemen?" he said. The air was suddenly sharp with the scent of anxiety.
"Take him," came a gruff voice.
I couldn't see the fight that ensued, but it was short and to the point. Perhaps slowed down by his illness, Tulare attempted to roll underneath me, but was stopped by one of the guards. Whatever happened, the next cry sent a chill of fear up my spine. "He's not human!"
Even though my eyes were useless, I still had my nose and my ears. I knew with pinpoint accuracy exactly where Tulare and the guards were. Tulare was struggling against the grip of a guard to my left.
My blindfold came loose, and I realized that I was no longer attached to the picket post. With this final bit of information, I let my instincts run free and did as any warhorse would when his master was being attacked. I lashed out, landing a pinpoint kick to the man who was at that very moment attempting to knock Tulare out. I heard the guard cry out in pain as he was shoved into the tent across.
To their credit, the other guards moved to try to calm me down. But even two strong men can't hold a single large horse. I knocked them down like child's toys, breaking ribs and snapping bones as they were sent reeling to the ground. All Tulare needed was a single moment of distraction, and when I put those two guards out of commission, he got it. No longer encumbered by the necessity of shielding himself from being seen, what was left of the illusion shattered like glass, revealing him for what he was. The guard suddenly screamed, letting go of the cervane mind-mage, his eyes wide with horror at something he alone saw.
Tulare yanked off my blindfold the rest of the way and hopped in the saddle, which he'd just finished putting on at the time the guards arrived. The commotion had rapidly spread through the encampment. Unfortunately Tulare hadn't yet bridled me, but I really didn't need one anyway. I was a horse with the mind of a man, who could plan and avoid danger like no natural horse could. I dug my hooves into the mud and broke into a canter, for the pathways between the pavilion tents was too crowded and muddy for a full gallop.
Just as freedom seemed to be in our grasp, I felt a yank on the saddle. Tulare was pulled out as if by a giant hand. The mud cushioned his fall, he landed with a grunt of pain. I began to skid to a halt, but heard him speak into my mind. Go find Marl! he said urgently.
Just go! I'm right where I need to be and they can't stop us now! Go!
Instinct warred with the reluctance to leave a friend in need. Either I went and found Marl and possibly escaped with life and limb intact, or I stayed with Tulare and possibly was discovered by the mages. Instinct won out.
The only major obstacle between me and freedom was an old, rotten fence. A single kick with my hind hooves was all it took. I was galloping out into the pasture in moments. Seeing a cervane in their midst, the crowd had forgotten about me, so there was no pursuit. After a mile or so I slowed to a trot and ducked behind a rather large bush, breathing rather heavily, but not even worked into a sweat. Now what? I wondered.
I felt a familiar weight land on my shoulders. You wait for me and mull over disobeying Tulare's orders, he said matter-of-factly. I heard a quiet bray close by. Hugh was nibbling on the bush. Marl landed on the ground next to me and resumed human form. "What do you think?"
There is no honor in leaving a friend to die.
"That's what I thought you'd think. Now, what we do next you may not like..."
Tulare had more than earned my respect in the time that I knew him. He was the most honorable man I'd ever met in my life. He never spoke to me like I was a mere animal, but as an equal that just looked a little different than he. I simply couldn't see myself abandoning him. What's happening on the battlefield?
"The mages on both sides dried out the mud, and the knights are forming up. Your king has brought his longbowmen forward. I believe he's going to ask his mages to assist the arrows to their marks. The Loranites are just milling around, disorganized. I heard more than one knight shouting challenges at the other side. Mud or no mud, mages or no mages, I doubt the Loranites will win the day.
"I believe that the rouges will wait to see what the outcome of the battle will be before they step in. If they can pull victory out from under the Winoldians' feet it would do far more to damage morale, I think."
A plan started to form in my mind. How close are Alexa and Hugh?
"About a mile or so. What do you have in mind?"
Fifteen minutes later I carefully joined the herd of mares. What I had Marl do to me took far more courage than I ever thought I had. There was now an all-senses illusion on me. I looked like a smallish bay-colored mare. The illusion made my skin crawl, especially in areas that were best left in the back of one's mind. Marl had been very careful with changing my scent. If I still smelled like a stallion, the mares would react to me in that way. Like this I could move among the sizable herd without difficulty.
Several mares were in heat, and it took a great amount of willpower to keep myself from reacting to the scent. But the determination to free Tulare buoyed me. I focused on locating Alexa's scent. I knew I'd need her help in this.
When I found it, I nearly fell to the ground in shock. There were other scents mixed with hers. Two very familiar ones. I whinnied in surprise and started to push my way through he herd faster. I found the three of them idly grazing next to a young tree that had a nibbled-on look. Seeing them merely confirmed what my nose had already told me. My brothers, Cadwallon and Evan were with her. Alexa! I shouted. The weremare looked up in surprise, sniffing at me, confused. It's me, Johan. I had Marl bespell me to appear a mare.
Oh! I see, you had me confused, love, she replied, whuffing in relief. Guess who I found...
Evan perked her ears forward and whinnied in surprise. Johan! she said in girlish glee, rushing forward and nuzzling me on the shoulder. I thought we'd lost you forever! Evan's mind voice had altered even more in the time we'd been apart. There was no masculinity in her—definitely "her"—mind-voice as she continued to groom me and say how happy she was that we were together again. There was also something else about her... I just couldn't place it.
Cad's greeting was no less enthusiastic, but it was far more in character for him. Alexa has been telling us about your adventures since we were separated. You're a very lucky stallion to have found her, he told me. The feminine timbre was there, but it hadn't changed a whit since the last we spoke. I suppose you've found a way to get us out of this?
I enclosed my thoughts so only Cad could hear them, I hoped. I also recalled that the two hadn't been able to mindspeak each other. Yes, but it can wait a moment. What happened to Evan?
Cad kept his expression carefully neutral. I think that Evan is carrying a foal. Those blasted mages had brought in a stallion to breed all of us that were in heat. If you haven't smelled her, Bannock is in this herd. However, I've not been able to get her to understand me. I think she's anything but a horse, now.
From Evan's manner... He couldn't keep from sighing. I believe we've lost a brother to gain a sister, Johan. I think being hobbled and forced to take a stallion made our brother go insane.
I sighed and gave a sidelong look at Evan. I suppose there's nothing we can do.
I came to the same conclusion, brother mine. Now, you must have a plan to get us out of this. And I don't like being kept in suspense.
Admittedly, my tentative plans were based on something Marl had said only in passing during the time we'd chatted with on another in the first days after my transformation. I probably should have asked him to clarify, but I had to admit that my own "knightly" pride had prevented me. At the moment, Marl had cast a second illusion on himself and was now posing as a servant, while he moved closer to the mages' tent. How many horses are in this herd? A few hundred?
I can't tell. Numbers don't make any sense to me any more, Cad replied.
I doubt that matters, anyway. We just need to create a diversion for Marl. I figure a stampede ought to take care of that.
But how? Evan asked. You know what it takes to get trained horses like us to spook like that...
I explained what I'd learned from Marl to them. My young friend had told me that all werecreatures could communicate with their non-human brethren. Influence their thoughts, their feelings, and their moods. Alexa agreed with me. I was able to make the other mares understand me more than once back at the manor farm. It wasn't exactly intellectual 'conversation', but I was at least able to satisfy my need to talk.
She told me how she'd discovered it, then we separated to move among the herd. Surprisingly, it didn't take much to set them on edge, nor did it take any real words on my part. All I had to do was project feelings of unease towards the other horses, and they would begin to mill around "talking" among themselves with scent and nudges. And when the battle began just over the hill, we no longer had to actively encourage them. Alexa and I met back with Evan and Cad, who seemed almost as uneasy as the herd. I think that worked too well, the weremare said. We're going to have to hold them until Marl gives his signal.
I nodded emphatically. Unfortunately the smell of blood had washed over the entire area. The air crackled with magical spells hurled at one side or the other. But ominously, the sounds of battle were getting closer and closer to our side of the hill as time passed. Things aren't going well for the king of Loran, I observed.
Then all was silence.
That, more than anything, did more to disturb the entire herd than any of our efforts. The air seemed to thicken with gathering magic; the fact that even non-magic users could sense it was ominous. It wouldn't be long now. Even though we couldn't hear them, I knew what was being offered King Charles: either swear loyalty to the mages' cause, or join his horses in the stable.
Now came the hard part. Controlling the direction of the stampede. If it went off into the wilderness our efforts would be wasted.
What happened next changed everything. I was about to break the mare illusion as Marl had taught me to do, when it felt like I was suddenly seeing the world through the wereraven's eyes. There was a huge black beak in my field of view. Beyond, the edge of a blue-and-white striped pavilion tent seen from the ground. Marl had landed and was hopping along the ground, looking for an entrance. Finally, he poked his beak underneath a hole and pushed his way through.
He ended up behind a large wooden chest. I could hear the sound of some sort of animal thrashing wildly against the clinking chains that bound it. Marl peered around the corner, and froze at what he saw. To a somewhat small creature like a raven, a stag is huge and powerful. The one chained and muzzled had a full twelve-point rack, and was obviously fit and healthy.
It was also obvious, by the pattern of white fur on his muzzle, that this stag was Tulare. The look in his eyes was almost completely bestial, with only a little bit of intelligence in them. Surrounding him on both sides were weapons most commonly used for hunting, not fighting. I realized that the mages planned to celebrate their victory with a stag hunt.
Marl crept forward, as low to the ground as he could. Tulare wasn't the only one in the tent. There was someone in a long red mage's robe, wearing a self-satisfied smirk on his face. However, his eyes were closed and he appeared to be focused on somewhere that wasn't in the tent. So the wereraven crept forward a little farther around the chest...
The white-hot rage that suddenly flowed through the mental link was so surprising that it nearly knocked me off my hooves. I had never felt this sort of thing in my life! Even in battle one learns to keep one's head. This was pure, unadulterated bloodlust for whoever had done whatever. I only caught a fleeting glance of what my young friend could possibly be so angry about before the images went red and Marl exploded out of raven form, cutting off the link.
A dead donkey. There wasn't a mark on him, but there could be no mistake. The mages had somehow found Hugh and finally had their revenge.
I could wait no longer. It didn't matter if the entire herd went into the camp, we only needed about fifty or to so cause the diversion we needed. I had to get to Marl before he did anything stupid and caused the ruin of our entire mission!
I rushed forward closer to the camp side of the herd, and shattered the illusion on me like glass. Alexa behind me, I whinnied a command to the herd. Flee! Danger here! This way! The words were projected to all around me that could hear. The final spark needed to set the herd on their hooves for safety.
It worked far better than I could have hoped. With a thunderous roar several hundred mares stampeded. They scattered in every direction from where I stood, breaking down fences in their push to reach any kind of safety. The absence of any kinds of battle sounds, and the fact that the wind had shifted to blow the blood-scent away from us, caused at least a quarter to thunder through the Loranite camp. Pages and squires were trampled. Shouts rung out from everywhere. Alexa, my brothers, and myself were hot on the tails of the hindmost, doing our best to keep from getting caught up in our own efforts.
Briefly we saw the scene on the battlefield. Knights and horses lay in a single line about a third of the way across the battlefield, the ground was riddled with the yard-long longbow arrows, as were the armored bodies of the Loranite knights. The arrows had easily pierced breastplate and helmet, their range assisted by magic. Most knights on both side had been unhorsed. I saw one familiar banner caught in mid-fall, the knight holding his sword in mid-stroke. The Loranite knights had pulled back, not affected by the mages freeze spell.
Unfortunately the herd had failed to penetrate here. Whatever magic was at work had diverted them off to one side, where they were still pelting full speed into the farmland.
The rogue mages themselves had taken up a spot right in the middle of the battlefield. A very effective demonstration of their power; the knights could not harm them because they could not move. I wondered how they'd been able to deal with those mages that didn't agree with what they were doing. Such as... Hugh.
The air thickened further. The Crown Prince had come to a decision that I only faintly heard, but whose power and intent clearly spoke for all the knights in Winold. "We shall never be under the rule of the likes of you! Beasts we may become, but your soul will burn in the fires of Hell!" The thunderous agreement among my countrymen must have been audible for miles.
Even I could sense the expression on the faces of the mages. As one, a hundred mages began to chant the final words of the spell that would most likely change my countrymen into farm animals. At that very moment, the trap was sprung.
When their own spells backlashed against them, they tried to fight it. But even I could feel the twist that Zane and the others had suddenly added to the mass transformation spell that had originated in their home kingdom. I only stayed long enough to see the face of the leading mage burst out into a sheep-like muzzle before tearing myself away to go find out what had become of Marl.
It wasn't hard to find him. I could smell the burning flesh once I turned to face the wind. I followed it, forlornly expecting the worst. Even after our apparent victory on the battlefield and in the mission, it would be empty if my young friend had died. Alexa and my brothers nodded and we prepared to rush into the tent, hoping to kill the mage with a purely physical attack, as I had once been told that mages don't expect that sort of thing. Instead, as we prepared to gallop, Marl exited the tent. His eyes were still faintly glowing a sullen color that must be red. Tulare followed him, unchained, but still a stag. "Johan!" he yelled. "You can come out! I got him!"
Inside the tent lay the body of the mage, a smoking hole in his chest and a very surprised look on his face. Hugh's corpse lay in a slightly more dignified position. Marl's face was drawn with tears. Mage Hugh came in while they were attempting to excise information from my mind, Tulare explained. His sacrifice saved the mission. He distracted the mage that was working on me before he dug deep enough to discover the existence of Marl and yourself, Johan.
He was a better man than I gave him credit for, I said solemnly.
We should go to the rendezvous point and meet the others... Tulare suggested. It may not be a good idea to stay around here, and I want to get my hands and voice back. No offense, Johan.
None taken. At least we don't have to worry about you having to ride bareback.
There is that, I suppose.
The rendezvous point was Hugh's Enclave. Marl reached it hours before the rest of us, as we'd had to avoid being seen by any people and keep to a trot, lest the muddy road trip us up. I would have liked to have stayed and seen the aftermath of the battle, but I knew that our fates were far more assured if we left the area as soon as possible. Once we entered the woods, Tulare seemed much more at ease. More places to hide, he explained. You know how deer are.
Zane and the others had left where they'd cast the interference spell the instant they were sure of its success and had gotten to the hillside Enclave even before Marl. They were all saddened when we told them of Hugh's sacrifice, but Aldor wasn't surprised. He raised a toast to our fallen comrade while Marl suppressed his tears. "To Mage Hugh."
I knew I would never taste wine again when they'd insisted in giving me plain water. Tulare had been restored to his natural form, but he'd retained his full rack of antlers. He explained that it would take some work more easily done back in Madrane to get his body back on-cycle. "Until then, I'll just enjoy the early Rut," he'd said. Alexa sat at the table, back in human form. Surprisingly she'd been able to hold it for almost an hour.
As for Evan and Cad, they were just happy to be free of captivity. Zane had assured me that he would be able to restore both of them to human form. Except, as I'd expected, Evan was a special case. Before retiring to the stall I shared with Alexa for the night he'd taken me aside and spoken to me in a grave tone of voice. "I'm afraid that it's come down to this, sir knight. Do you think your father would like a pregnant mare, a sane daughter, or an insane eldest son?"
Can you say that again? I replied, hoping beyond hope.
"Perhaps I should be more blunt. Your brother is now a pregnant mare. In Madrane, our past experience with such things is that the pregnancy itself changes the mind of a man into that of a woman. Just why that is we haven't determined. If we changed your former brother back not only would she lose the foal, but she would in effect be a woman trapped in a man's body. Now, I ask again, would your father like an insane son, a sane daughter, or a mare and a foal?"
Maybe we should ask Evan, I suggested, just as bluntly. The man looked at me as if that really hadn't occurred to him.
When I asked, Evan's response made my decision for me. I want the foal, she said. Alexa told me that they treat intelligent animals like us like people in Madrane. Why would I want to return to a life of pining for a true love that will never come?
With that problem solved, the next morning would bring new decisions to be made, and there was still the fact that Cad needed to be made human again. I could hear my brother-mare sleeping in the next stall over as I joined Alexa in the large space that had been given to us. Before I could even begin to ask, she just nuzzled my withers and said, I go where you go.
The next morning we were awoken by the clatter of hooved feet along a stone hallway. There was an almost panicked scent in the air that startled all of us into wakefulness. What's wrong? I sent to Tulare, who stood with a drawn sword.
"We've got visitors," he explained. "Not nearly enough for a siege force, though. I believe that the device banner I saw from up above was a Winoldian symbol of some sort..."
Oh? Tell me, I might know it. I listened to him, and couldn't quite believe what I heard. A lion on a red and white shield, with crossed swords behind. That's the Crown Prince's coat of arms!
There was a hollow banging sound on the heavy iron door at the front of the stable. "Hello in there!" came a cultured voice, magnified by magic. "We've not come to storm the place! We've come to thank you!"
"Oh?" brayed Randal. "And just what did you come to thank us for?"
"You're harboring some Madranese mages! The few we still have left say they traced them here!"
I heard Zane curse himself under his breath. "Well, I suppose we should have taken more precautions, gents. Besides, I'm not sensing more than two mages and half a dozen men-at-arms. They're no match for us. You might as well open the door, Aldor."
When the Crown Prince entered, I automatically lowered my head to him, since bowing was out of the question. He smelled quite overwhelmed at the sight of a cervane, two mages that looked more like donkeys than human, and the rest. Then he looked at me and the others standing in the stable. "I've seen more strange things in the past few months than I care to admit. So I'm just going to accept that you're not all who you appear to be, and then we can get down to business."
The talks were held in the stable since the mages were unwilling to allow him up into their Enclave proper. Tulare spoke for his kingdom. Prince Edward was quite unprepared to deal with him. Nonhumans were exceedingly rare back home for the simple reason that they were just so different. I knew there to be a cervane in the King's Court, but only as a curiosity. Now he had to deal with Tulare on equal ground, even though he was only the son of a Baron. The cervane looked very bored as the prince tripped over an eloquent thank-you speech. Clearly he couldn't read Tulare's facial expression.
There were minutes of uncomfortable silence when he reached the end of his speech. While Tulare's attitude wasn't exactly disrespectful, it was diffident and unimpressed; the Madranese knew he had the upper hand. When Edward broached the subject of trade he raised his hand for attention, then stood up, proudly displaying his antlers. "We do not require anything from your kingdom," he stated. "We have other trading partners."
"But surely you need wool..."
"We haven't needed it for the past four centuries. Why would we need it now?" he paused dramatically. "However, perhaps times have changed. When I return home I will send to my king, and he will let you know what we can trade. You'll just have to be patient until then."
The Crown Prince sullenly leaned back in the plain oak chair he'd been brought, smelling more than a little offended. "Do you have any other demands?"
"No, no demands," Tulare said in a much calmer tone. "But we would appreciate it if your mages would find those knights that that were first transformed into horses back when you first arrived here."
"I suppose this means that you know what happened to Sir Evan and his brothers?"
"Yes, I do. In fact, Sir Johan has been standing right behind me this whole time."
The Prince actually smiled. "Capital! I must say you make a fine stallion! Where are your brothers?" By mutual agreement, we had decided that Evan was "dead". Tulare acted as a go-between. He explained the death of Evan because of bad treatment as a horse. "And Cadwallon?"
"I believe my fellow mages are working on him now," Tulare supplied. "Perhaps you can take him back home with you."
"Ah... yes. We will be happy to have him back..." There was a look on his face that I didn't like. He looked almost sorry that Cad was human again. "You can teach my mages how to reverse the spell before we leave. But perhaps I can find a use for those whom we can't change back..."
"Oh? What would that be?"
"I believe that's an internal matter. But we'll find a use for them. What about Sir Johan, here?"
"Ah... I believe that he's one of the few cases that we just can't help. He'll be a horse for the rest of his life. But I believe that his father wouldn't accept that his son is a horse, so I've decided to take him under my wing and bring him back to Madrane with us." Tulare flicked his ears back. There was a veiled threat in his tone of voice that surprised me.
Edward was taken aback, but he knew that he was at a disadvantage, here. "In that case, I believe that I should absolve him of his oaths. We really have no use for a knight who cannot feed himself. Well, almost none..."
I had to restrain myself from stepping on him. My former Crown Prince had just dismissed my oath as if it had meant nothing to him. The oath from Crown to knight was supposedly just as sacred and inviolate as the one from knight to Crown. If he was going to dismiss me that flippantly, then I had serious questions about his honor.
He could keep his oath. I didn't want it any more.
Cad left with the Prince and his entourage. He was walking a bit unsteadily, and unable to talk, but he was well on the way to recovering from his ordeal. My brother had always been a survivor. The fact that he would now inherit my father's lands and fortune now assured his future. We didn't know if we would ever meet again, but we didn't truly say farewell, either.
When they left, I turned to Tulare. I can't believe that the Prince just dismissed me like that! I only look like a horse!
"Why do you think I demanded you stay with me? You're a very good asset, Johan. I didn't want to lose you. I believe he knows to leave us alone. Now, have you spoke to Marl lately? He's not been down from his room all day."
He directed me to go up the ramp that led into the living area. The mages had built the place with their magic to be usable by things with more than two legs, and quite a bit larger than a horse. The hallway was lined with glassed windows that let in the late afternoon sunlight. It was a bright, fresh day outside with only a few scattered clouds. The hallway was an odd collection of a multitude of animal scents mixed with that of odd chemicals from a door that continued upward to the mountaintop. The hallway was lined with these doors, all closed, at least a couple dozen of them that must open into rooms or hallways that led deeper into the mountain. Eventually it topped out at an open iron door at the very top of the rocky hill. I found Marl in raven form, sitting on a perch, somehow managing to look thoughtful. I didn't want to break the relative silence of the wind.
Marl looked at me, and glided the short distance to the ground to resume human form. "Well? What are we waiting for?"
Wouldn't Hugh have wanted you to stay here, and learn from his colleagues? I asked him, not one for subtlety.
"My Master had always wanted me to get the best magical education I could. Tulare told me that they would be happy to teach me what they can back in Madrane. So, to honor my Master, I will go there and learn what I can," he said, his voice thick. "And when I have reached Master I will return here."
That could be several years...
"Werecreatures have human life spans, even in animal form. Tulare has told me that they'll teach me beneficial magics that should not be held in any one place. You and Alexa are leaving this kingdom forever. You've become like an older brother to me, sir knight. So how can I stay here?"
That evening, after a final meal with Aldor and Randal, Zane and Marl once again opened the portal back to our new home. Standing on the other side, the Baron himself waited while we said our final goodbyes. The two assured us that if they couldn't help their friends they would find a way to join us. Tulare assured them that they would be welcome there.
As we were welcomed with open arms, and open hearts.