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User:Eirik/Long After

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Works by Eirik on Shifti

Long After

Author: Eirik

"I know that you’ve heard the tale," I said as I set down the mug of beer in front of me, "Everyone has, or at least versions of it. None of them are accurate, of course, but they get the basic facts about right. So far as the story goes."

I looked at the few men around me, most of them travelers looking to trade with the nomads of the Cons Vale. None of them bade me to stop, and my blood fueled with some of the worst beer I had ever tasted, I started to tell the story.

First of all, she wasn’t a princess. Every story gets that wrong. Helen wasn’t even of noble birth. That isn’t to say she wasn’t rich, she was the second daughter of William Macomb, easily one of the wealthiest shopkeepers and money lenders in the five kingdoms. And that’s not to say she wasn’t beautiful. She was more beautiful than you could imagine.

This is precisely why she was kidnapped and transformed as she was. It was also why I was able to save her. When the Wizard Hew rode into town on an impossibly beautiful mare wearing a lavishly decorative bridle, I knew something was wrong. Hew, for all his power, had always been an impoverished soul. He earned using his talents, as most men and women with magical skills did, but he was prone to gamble and enact schemes of petty revenge on those he felt wronged him. He could easily have commanded a kings ransom for his services when Helen went missing to help find her, but he didn’t even show up in town until several months had passed.

I had never known Helen, not really. I was just a clerk in her fathers' store. Like most of the young men in the city, I had secretly loved her from afar. And like most young men, I had made a study of her. When she came through the store, I watched her every move, every mannerism. I knew her every habit, every tick, from the way she chewed her lip when she was nervous, to the way she tossed her head back to get a lose strand of hair out of her eyes.

And that morning as I stood at the shop window, I watched the Wizard Hew sit smugly on top of that mare, that mare that was as far from his station as Helen was from mine. I watched the mare move with an uncommon grace and smoothness. I watched her toss her head back to move a bit of forelock out of her eye.

I’m not sure what came over me at that point. The bards tell it better than I ever could, ascribing motives to me like purity of heart, or true love, or even the soul of a champion. Of course, in those stories I’m usually depicted as a knight in shining armor, a prince from a distant land, or my favorite, a king in disguise as a lowly commoner in order to learn about his people.

In any event, I pieced a few things together in my mind, some bits that I knew about magic, and some bits I’d learned over the years about the Wizard Hew. I ran to the back of the shop and found what I needed, a silver carving knife, then ran into the street.

Again, the bards tell it better. There was a great battle in the streets, there was a game of subterfuge, we parried with swords, words or spells in the streets, and sometimes with all three. There was a grand unveiling...

No, I was nothing to Hew, just another peasant in a sea of them. If he paid me any attention at all in that moment, it was to gently move his horse so as not to step on me. In that moment, before he could react, I reached up and slipped the blade cleanly though the ornate bridle around the horses head.

The bards would say, and they have, that in that moment the horse transformed into a beautiful woman, dressed in the finest fashions. At that moment, she threw her arms around me and pledged her unending love to me.

Of course, the only part of that which happened is that she transformed back into a human, but a scared, dirty and naked human, kneeling in the street and partly covered in tack. Hew never had a chance to enact any revenge, he had fallen and hit his head on the cobblestone road, knocking him out. Scared as she was, Helen recognized me and what I had done and allowed me to scurry her off the street and into one of her fathers' stores where she could be covered by a blanket.

Hew’s trial, by angry mob, was short. He was never a loved man, in fact he was loathed by most of the city, tolerated only because he doled out his meager talents to gain favor at the right time. Enough people saw what had happened on the street to start a frenzy. By the time the kings men were able to get things under control, Hew was dead.

His motives were never clear. Macomb hadn’t known, or at least never admitted if he did, that the horse was his daughter. He claimed never to have received a ransom demand. He did admit to have the occasional dealings with Hew, as the largest shopkeeper in the town it would have been strange if he didn’t, but nothing that should have inspired this type of revenge.

But as I said, Hew was apt to go for petty revenge.

The bridle, which turned out to be a magic artifact thought lost from the reign of King Marris IV, was deemed harmless after I had cut it. In fact, five other horses in the city transformed back once I broke the curse. All had crossed paths with Hew. The bridle first went to Macomb, then later to me as a relic of my adventure.

"You.. you saved me." They were the first words Helen ever said to me. It made my heart soar. "How can I thank you?"

I said nothing, my mind was a swirl with what had just happened. I opened my mouth to say something graceful, something noble, but came up with just a slight stammer.

She smiled, standing up wearing only the blanket that I'd wrapped her in, and kissed me on the cheek. In truth, that would have been enough reward for me.

A few night later, her father threw a massive celebration at his home just outside the city walls. Of course, even though I was nothing but a clerk and had even acted as a servant at these functions before, I was considered the guest of honor. Macomb had me dressed by his finest tailor and sat me next to his daughter at the celebration.

I watched Helen as closely as I could without making it obvious. I'd seen Helen in social situations like this before and she was always the life of the party. But tonight she seemed a bit nervous, trapped. She picked at her food, eating only the carrots and radishes that dressed her plate.

At the right moment, I reached out and gently touched her on the arm. She jumped slightly, but not enough that anyone would have noticed. "Miss Macomb…" I started.

She looked at me and smiled, "I think of anyone here, you've earned the right to call me Helen." "Helen," I said, "I'm sorry, I'm feeling a little…" I started, not sure how to continue the sentence. "Overwhelmed?" she asked with some relief, as if I'd read her mind. When I nodded, she stood and took me by the arm, "Please, come with me."

She took me out on the back porch, where there were few people standing in the cool evening air. She took a deep breath and visibly relaxed. "Is that better?" she asked.

I smiled, "It is, how are you feeling?"

She looked away, "I'm not sure."

Impulsively, she leaned in and kissed me.

It was a whirlwind romance. Less than a year after I rescued her from Hew, we were wed.

And that’s where the stories all end, with a happily ever after. And while I would never stop to correct a bard, I would venture to say that none of them know what happened next.

It would be wrong to say that I didn't know something was wrong even before we were married. Though our brief courtship, it was clear that she was a different person. Before she was transformed, she seemed to revel in the city life, spending hours in her fathers' stores looking for the latest fashions from the capital. After her rescue, she tried to slip back into that life, but she wasn't comfortable in it anymore.

She seemed hemmed in by crowds and startled easily. I wasn't the only one to notice, though I tried hard not to care. She slowly reduced her circle of friends until she was spending her time with only me.

She confided in me shortly before our marriage that she had grown to dislike the city. I spoke with her father about it, and he agreed after some time to purchase a large farm for us outside the city. Helen was delighted at the news, and I was for her. Most had expected her to simply turn the farm into some kind of manor house with large gardens that grew nothing but parties for the moneyed class. She wouldn't have been the first to do so, and no one would have blamed her.

Some took it as strange when she instead expressed an interest in raising horses. The young woman who had spent the better part of a year living as a horse, some though, should get away from them. With her fathers' money and connections, Helen threw herself into the stables. She went on a buying spree, buying exclusively Condirs. She claimed that she loved them because they were versatile horses, used all over the five kingdoms for everything from riding to pulling carts. I knew little of horses, but as soon as I saw her first acquisition I realized that she had spent her time as a horse trapped as one of these.

She started working in the stables from the first day, doing as much work as she could to have an excuse to be around her horses. She hired little help, and only then when she absolutely needed it. She trusted me to manage the home and financial affairs, and herself to raise the herd.

In time, she was spending far more time with the horses than with me.

"I understand them," she confided in me after a time, "I have a connection that no one else does. They are more complex animals that anyone could know, yet most people see them just as beasts to be tied to a wagon."

The situation was odd to me. I never felt that Helen didn't care for me, but I came to realize soon that she was far more comfortable with the horses than she was with me or any humans for that matter. We began to grow apart to the point where she stayed nearly all the time at the stables. I'd found her sleeping more than once in an empty stall, or standing idly in a pasture watching her horses. I had the feeling that wasn't enough for her.

"Have you heard of the Cons Vale?" she asked one day.

I admitted that I had, though knew very little about it. It was nominally a kingdom far to the north made up of nomads. It was perfect horse country, where many of them ran wild. The Cons were legendary horsemen, and Condirs were thought to have originated on those plains.

"Have you ever thought about throwing this away and going there? Spending your life just on the grassland?" she asked wistfully. "Maybe joining a tribe?"

I didn't pursue the conversation anymore, but it never strayed far from my mind. It was never far from hers, either. She asked her father to import tapestries done by the nomads which she hung all over the house. The work was rough but had a strange beauty about it that fit with that legendary land. It also, according to her, smelled ever so slightly like horses.

You can see now why the bards never bother with this part of the story. After the song ends, you're too presume that we had a good life, with many children, growing old together. In truth, we had no children, and for that I'm glad. Children would have made the last part of the story more… complicated.

A couple of years passed. Helen and I never really grew any closer in that time, but we never really grew apart, either. And much to her fathers delight, we were even beginning to earn our own coin on this horse breeding folly. One morning when Helen was out working with her growing herd, I heard a knock on the door. I opened it to find a young women, dressed nearly in rags. Her beauty, while not up to Helens level, was still remarkable. "Are you the man that rescued Helen Macomb?" she asked.

"I am," I said warily, noting that, as usual, my name had been lost in the stories. It would not be the first time that someone had heard the rapidly spreading stories about me and begged me to go on a quest either with them or for them.

Instead, she smiled, "I understand that you might still have the bridle, the one that transformed your wife?" I didn't answer that one. The fewer who knew that the better. "Why do you ask?"

"I was one of Hews' victims. I used to be his maid, but when he needed money he transformed me and sold me," she said in a remarkably calm way. There was no anger in her voice, she was only stating a fact.

"I'm sorry," I said, "but you don't have to worry about him any longer."

She nodded and teared up. I bid her to come in and sit in the front room. She sat down and wiped her eyes, "I'm sorry, it's just that…" she struggled to compose herself, "I'm ashamed."

"Of what?"

"I miss it," she said after a long pause. "I miss it so much." Before I could ask her to clarify, she looked at me, "Do you know how long I was a horse?" she asked. "Almost ten years," she said. "I was a horse for nearly as long as I was a human." She struggled to compose herself even more, "It leaves an imprint on you, on your soul. I think about it every day." She steeled herself. "I want to be that horse again."

"You want to go back?" I asked, slightly aghast. "You want to go back to being an unthinking beast of burden again?"

She smiled a little, "Who told you we were unthinking? I remembered being human the entire time that I was a horse, but simply couldn't express it. The magic makes you act like a horse, even when you don't want to. And at first I struggled against it, but after a time…" she shrugged.

I didn't like where this conversation was going. "I'm sorry, but the bridle was destroyed when I cut it. That's why you changed back.""

"Do you still have it?" she asked, "Can I see it?"

I decided after a while that it was harmless enough, so I retrieved it from a closet and handed it to her. She smiled like a child who had found a lost toy, even hugging it to her breast for a moment. She then looked it over and found where the silver knife had severed the ornate leather. "When I was a horse before, I was a magnificent specimen. I'm sure that your wife would find me a wonderful addition to your stable."

If I could have, I would have stopped her. She bound the cut edged of the leather together with a small clip, then slipped the harness over her head and put the bit in her mouth.

I had managed to take two steps toward her before the bulk of a suddenly appearing black mare slammed into me and shoved me to the floor.

Stunned, I looked up at the horse that moments before had been a confused young woman. I thought quickly about getting a knife to cut the bridle again, but stopped when I looked into the eyes of the mare and saw a certain kind of peace that hadn't been there before.

"You… you really want this, don't you?" I asked. She nodded vigorously. With trembling hands, I slipped the bridle off her head and looked at it. The clip she had used to repair it bore the seal of King Marris IV, and was made of pewter. It didn't look strong, but it did the job. Gingerly, I tugged at it, but found that it was deceptively tight and wouldn't budge.

With some difficulty, I managed to get the mare out of the house. I explained her sudden appearance to Helen as a surprise gift. I watched the new mare for some time before I decided that she was really happy.

You want to know how I can prove that I'm not as smart as the Bards stories imply? It never occurred to me, not for days, that there was something wrong with a young woman showing up at my door, a young peasant women, with a bit of magical trickery that fixed the Bridle of Marris IV. I never had a chance to ask her where she got it, and once she was transformed and happy, I simply didn't think of it again.

At least not until a unit of the Royal Guard appeared at my door.

"Have you seen Princess Justine?" he asked. "She went missing during a royal hunt several days ago and hasn't been seen since."

It clicked for me then. Like any subject of the King, I was aware of Justine. Macomb had tied many times to have her banned from his stores. She had a legendary reputation, even among nobles used to such behavior, for being spoiled. Nevertheless, she had multiple suitors vying for her hand and her fathers' kingdom. I had never seen her, but had certainly heard her described. I knew at that moment that I had, of course, seen the princess. She was currently grazing out in the pasture.

I couldn't very well tell the soldiers that, though.

The royal guards searched the property anyway, as I suspect they were doing all over the countryside, but came up empty handed. Through the entire process, the Captain of the guard talked to me.

"You're the husband of Helen Macomb, aren't you?" he asked.

I nodded nervously, noting again that my name was apparently lost to history. "Yes, I am."

He glanced around the room as if there was a hidden partition somewhere, "Is she around? Perhaps she has seen something of the Princess."

"She spends much of her time with the horses," I answered honestly. "If she's not out at the stable, then she's probably riding in the forest."

The Captain nodded, "Of course, her love for her horse is legendary around here," he said, leaving the reason up in the air. He shuffled a foot, "I understand from asking around that you still have it."

"It?" I asked, even though I knew what he meant. I could feel sweat beading up on my forehead.

"The bridle," he asked in a slightly annoyed tone.

"Oh, yes," I said thinking quickly but not clearly, "No. Helen decided that she didn't want it around anymore, so we disposed of it. Burned it. In the fireplace. Last Spring Solstice Festival."

"Yes, of course," the Captain said, but he didn't seem to convinced.

At that point, one of the soldiers returned. "Captain, nothing to report on the property. All the outbuildings have been searched. Nothing but horses." He glanced at me, "A neighbor reported that the wife headed out toward Flint Glen this morning on horseback. It's a routine ride for her, and she should be back by this evening."

The Captains suspicion seemed to lift, slightly. "How many horses did you count?"

"Twenty," he said.

The moment they left, I retrieved the same silver knife from the closet I had used to break the curse before and tried to sever the leather of the bridle again, but the knife wouldn't cut the leather, not even a nick. I tried to pry off the pewter clasp that Justine had put over the cut mark, but to no avail.

Still holding both artifacts, I ran out to the pasture and grabbed the mare by the halter, "What did you do?" I asked, nearly in tears. "You tricked me into letting you live out some stupid fantasy, now your fathers guard is sniffing around and probably think I've picked up where Hew left off!"

The horse tried to look placid, but I could see worry creep into her eyes. Then it dawned on me, "You heard the stories, didn't you? You thought what happened to Helen was romantic. Nobel? Did you think that a handsome prince was going to rescue you?"

Slowly, the horse nodded.

"And what was going to happen to me? My wife? After the King has had me beheaded for witchcraft!" I held up the bridle, "I have news for you, Princess. Whatever magic you used to fix this thing has made it impossible to cut!"

I stalked off, ignoring her cries of fear behind me. She was a confused, spoiled young woman in a bad situation, but she had made mine all the worse.

I almost walked right into Helen, who had returned earlier than expected and heard the entire exchange. "What have you done?" she asked. Then she fingered the bridle. "It's fixed?" She looked at the scared mare, "She… fixed it?"

I felt my knees buckle and she guided me gently over to a nearby bench. I spilled the story about the real origin of the mare.

After hearing the story, she leaned back and closed her eyes. "Oh, Junstine. I should have known." She shook her head, "I knew her, before I was transformed. I told her all about my experiences. That's why she knew I was never fully transformed into a horse in mind." She looked at me, "Why didn't you tell me?" she asked.

I looked her right in the eye, "I was afraid. I was afraid that you loved your horses more than you loved me, That if you found out the bridle was fixed, you would rather be one of them than my wife."

Helen looked at me with wide, brown eyes, watering slightly, not responding. Deep down, we both knew it was true. "Justine is headstrong, but not stupid. She would have left something behind pointing to this farm. She wouldn't want to risk still being a horse a year from now." She tossed her head back to move a stray bit of hair from her eyes. "The Kings men are going to be here soon, aren't they?"

I looked down at my feet, "The Captain seemed suspicious. If you're right, I suspect he'll be back before nightfall, the morning at the latest."

She seemed thoughtful, "Maybe you can't cut the bridle because it's not being worn. That's how you did it before."

Helen put her arms around me and gave me a gentle kiss. "I have an idea, if it works, then we turn the Princess back and hopefully she convinces her father not to hurt you."

I already knew what her idea was, and I didn't like it. "And if it doesn't? The clasp she used seems to make it impossible to cut."

Helen smiled, "I have a different idea for that."

We put her plan in motion immediately. We could have tested Helens theory on Justine, but if it worked, then the chances were that the bridle would finally be destroyed and she would never have this chance again. We packed quickly for a long overland trip, then she went to the stable and took the bridle. "Give me a few minutes before you try to cut it," she asked. She slipped the harness over her head, and in an instant she was again the fine, white mare again. She nuzzled me gently, then spun on her hooves and took off across the pasture.

She spend more time than we'd agreed running though the fields, letting the wind take her tale and mane, before she returned to the fence, breathing hard. She nuzzled me again, then looked at the knife.

It was with some regret that I tried to cut the bridle. My heart started to race as the silver started to actually make the tiniest of cuts in the leather. With a flick of my wrist, I could cut the leather as easily as I had before. I then looked into her eyes.

Helen had everything she wanted now, except one thing. I like to think that I thought long and hard, but in truth, I really didn't.

"Forget it," I said to her, tossing the knife aside. "Let's go." I wasted no more time. I put the loaded saddlebags on the Princess, then saddled up Helen and we fled overland for the Cons Vale.

I took another drink and looked at my companions. None seemed to believe me, nor should they. It was too fantastic a story.

"So what happened to the Princess?" asked one man who was just a little too drunk.

I smiled as I drank the last of my beer, "After a few weeks, we didn't need a pack animal anymore. I sold her to a potato farmer to pull his cart to market. Let her suitors be an elderly draft and a donkey."

I paid the barkeep with my last coins, then went to the stable and retrieved my white mare.

We rode out of the town, the last bit of civilization before the Cons Vale and it's nearly endless pasture, home to nothing but horses and a nearly unknown nomadic horse people. We rode though the night, keeping to the narrow cart trail, until the morning light peeked above the distant mountains.

I stripped Helen of all the tack and left it hidden under some brush. Perhaps someday someone would find it and know what happened, but not before we were long gone.

I walked over the mare and put a hand on her face, "Are you sure? This is the last chance. We could try and find a wizard to break the bridle."

Her gazed left mine and shifted to the river just barely visible in distance. I knew she wouldn't change her mind, so I slipped the bridle over my head and put the bit into my mouth.