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For the first few seconds after opening his eyes, the donkey had to orient himself. There was a fleeting memory, something that wisped though his thoughts then vanished. He snorted in frustration, then stood up on his four hooves.
The tiny farm was still and quiet, the sun was not yet more than a sliver over the nearby mountains. He squinted into the rising sun and tried to remember why those mountains called out to him every morning. There was something there. A loud thump from the nearby farmhouse snapped him back to the present.
The old woman had been up for some time. The smells of her morning meal had probably been what had awakened him in the first place. She looked frail, but moved with a pace and steadiness that betrayed her true constitution. She walked into the crude barn, barely pausing at the donkey before dumping a measured load of grain into a bin for him, then as he ate placing a fresh bucket of water in the stall.
He didn't bother to watch her actions, though for a time he remembered studying them intently. He remembered watching her every movement for some reason, but that reason was lost to him. The donkey knew what she was doing: Feeding the chickens and sheep, then back to him. If it was a plowing day she'd hook him up to a plow meant for a much larger animal and work him until he felt like dropping. If it was market day, she'd hook him to a cart and they'd start the two day travel into the city for her to sell her wares.
He sucked down the water and let out a long, pained sigh when he heard her coming back with the plow harness. He hated that leather monster. Without a word, she led him to the center of the barn and weaved it expertly over his body. He tried to remember why he didn't protest this. Even as a small donkey, he was still far bigger that this woman.
But he knew she was far stronger than she looked.
She led him to the plow and they started the repetitive back and forth over the small plot of land.
He had no idea how much time had passed, the sun was already very high in the sky, when he heard the sound of distant footsteps on the nearby road. The road, he remembered, had once been a virtual highway with travelers of all types at all times. Now it was almost never traveled and in very bad repair. One of his ears perked at the sound, he even felt his heart race a little, but couldn't remember why.
The old woman could hear them as well, but pretended to ignore them. If they had continued on their path, she would have simply plowed until sunset and they would have been far away. But one stopped at the fence and leaned against it.
"Madam!" he yelled across the field, "Do you have any room to board some weary travelers?"
She tugged the reigns for the donkey to stop, then stepped away. The donkey didn't dare leave his spot, but cocked his ears to hear the conversation. "Boarding? I don't own an inn," she said with obvious bitterness.
The three companions had all gathered at the fence line. The donkey could see two men and a woman, all dressed haphazardly in a mix of leather armor and clothes straight off the farm. "I understand, but we think that a small storm is brewing and we would like to take shelter for a day or two. We would be happy to work for our keep, or pay you when we return."
The old woman grunted out a laugh. "Return? You three are heading into the Hinterlands. Raised on the stories of abandoned cities loaded with gold? Bah!" she grunted again. "Let me spare you the pain of finding out on your own. The stories you heard are true, there are a dozen empty cities beyond those mountains. They have been plundered for hundreds of years. You might find enough to make your trip worthwhile, but it is far more likely you'll fall prey to the victims of Kaldish and his dark magic."
The three travelers didn't budge, "I think you'll find that we are better prepared than you think. We can promise you some gold coin on our return or labor now."
The woman shook her head sadly, "I don't take in boarders, but I do want to go to the city market in a few days and I could use some help," she pondered. "I have no room in the house, but if you sleep in the barn and work two days, I'll tell you what I know of the Hinterlands and give you some fresh supplies."
The donkey was quickly led to a small pasture where he grazed greedily while the three travelers left their belongings in the stable then retired to the house. For a time, the donkey even forgot all about them with the immediacy of the clean, delicious grass before him.
Once the sun had gone down, the three left the house and first stopped by the pasture. The young woman tied a rope around the donkeys’ neck and gently urged him toward the barn. "You think we can trust her information?" she asked her companions in a low voice.
The taller of the two men shrugged, "I think so. She doesn't have a lot of reason to lie to us, and she does live right on the boarder of the Hinterlands. Even if she never got in there herself, she's in a good spot to learn a lot of information."
The young woman nodded, "Besides, Kaldish is long gone. His era was hundreds of years ago. The only reason people don't go back now is fear and ignorance."
The other male spoke up, "You still think this is a good idea? She's right, that anything of value has been stolen already."
"From the palaces and mansions," corrected the woman, "but even she isn't sure about the shops in the city or some of the smaller guild halls. We'll find something there." The three led the donkey into his stall and closed the door, then entered a stall themselves to bed down for the night.
The donkey stared at their stall for hours, trying to piece together what he should do. They were in danger, but from what he wasn't so sure anymore.
Suddenly, it all came together in his head. The memories that had been fleeting though his mind for the entire day suddenly became clear. He remembered what happened to him, at least most of it. He struggled to keep the memory. He stayed awake all night despite the urge to sleep. The one thing he knew was he would have only one chance.
The next morning, the donkey woke from his sleep. Despite his struggles, he had eventually fallen asleep, but this time the memories stuck. He heard the rustling from the other stall, and he knew he had his chance.
"Hey, the stall door is locked," said one of the men.
"What? Why did you lock it?"
"I didn't even close it. Help me with this."
The donkey could hear the three of them struggle against the door, but the stall was well built and the lock was at floor level.
"We could break it open," suggested one the men,
"Then we'd have to fix it," said the woman. "It must have latched in the night. The old woman should be along pretty soon. Hey what's--Haw!" Her voice changed with her head, and in mere moments she fell to all fours, tearing out of her crude clothes and was suddenly covered in brown fur. She stood shock-still in the stall as her new bulk pushed her companions aside.
"Gods protect us!" shouted one of her companions as they now struggled to break the door down on the stall. As one kicked hard, he shrieked, then bleated as his skin erupted in white wool. It was moments before he was out of sight, his new form too short to see in the stall. The last companion stopped and looked around, breathing hard and sweating. "Please! I don't want to be a--bwak!"
He squawked again as he began to shrink, flapping wildly to get out of his now billowing clothes. It was only seconds before he was himself out of sight, but his panicked clucking filled the air.
"Kaldish, stop it this instant!" the woman shouted, rapping the donkey on the nose with her walking stick and breaking his concentration. The donkey retreated back to the rear of the stall and glared at her, but did nothing else as her eyes flashed. His memory dimmed and the memories that had been coming together so steady were now gone.
She sighed and walked to the stall, surveying the three animals. "I'm sorry," she said sincerely. "I didn't realize that his memories were coming back. That's Kaldish the Mage, formerly the master of a fair portion of the Hinterlands. He took an immortality potion at some point, so killing him isn't possible. Thankfully, he overlooked getting trapped in a different form." She reached into the stall and gently patted the Jenny on the head between her ears. "I can't undo what he did, but do forgive him. His memories are so fragmented that he didn't do this out of malice. It's really my fault. I never considered that he'd want a companion."
The donkey observed from a distance, unsure what had happened but dimly aware he'd been a part of it. All he knew now was that he wasn't alone anymore.