User:Eirik/Long Ride into Morning
The Long Ride to Morning
Clifton sat behind the wheel of his Saab behind the stable, gripping the wheel tightly. This was about the last place he wanted to be today. Hell, he didn't want to be in this whole damn country, but it was all a part of the game. A game he was a master of playing.
As the chill of the early morning penetrated into the sedan, he gave in and slid out, pulling his overcoat tight around himself. The weather, at least, had held out. The storm that had been predicted to hit this part of Scotland had missed, leaving only a light dusting of snow on the ground that had already frozen into a brittle crust. Clifton barely noticed the cracking as he walked sullenly away from the car.
He loosened the coat as he stepped through the door, nodding slightly to Mick, the ancient stable hand. Mick barely looked up from the gelding he was grooming. "Mornin', Mr. Rennick," he said without a trace of pleasantry in his voice. "You're early for the hunt."
Clifton barely stopped. He didn't care much for the old man, considering him to far beneath his own station to bother with. He'd ignore him completely if he and old man Kennington weren't so tight. "Need to get the nag ready. She can be a pain in the ass."
Mick didn't hide a bit of his disdain. "If you'd treat Melody better, she'd respond better." He waved a brush in Clifton's face. "You are too fast with the whip and never have praise."
Clifton just rolled his eyes and walked on. He didn't need advice from this loser. He didn't give a damn about the horse anyway. As soon as he was transferred back to the States he'd sell her to the first person who'd take her. She was a $15,000 status symbol, nothing more than a tool to get in good with Kennington and move up in the company a little faster. He'd found out that the old man was a fool for fox hunting before long before he'd been transferred here and had made it his mission to make it his own passion.
He got to the stall and saw his steed sniffing at the feed bin, looking for a little more food when there was none. She noticed him immediately and pulled back a little from the front of the stall. Clifton grabbed the lead line and opened the stall door. "Let's get you ready, nag," he muttered. He pulled her from the stall and tied her up.
For someone who cared so little about the welfare of the animal he owned, he spent an inordinate amount of time grooming her. He ran the brushes over her pure black coat until it was perfect, and spent a good long time tieing her mane and tail. After all, what good was a status symbol if it didn't look good?
He groomed Melody in silence for a long time until he found a fresh gash above her eye. "Mick!" he yelled across the stable.
The stable hand poked his head out of the tack room. "You called, Mr. Rennick?"
"Get over here!" he yelled, ignorning the nervousness of his horse. He stood tapping his foot while he waited for the man to get closer. "What the hell is this?"
Mick looked at the mark. "'Tis nothing," he said, touching it gently, "she bumped her head, or maybe got into a scrape with another of the mares. It'll heal without a scar, I'm sure."
Clifton still fumed. "Damn it, I'm paying you to keep her looking perfect!" he turned away, looking down the length of the barn. "Keep her away from the other horses from now on."
"But, Mr. Rennick," said Mick desperately, "it's nothing! She gets along so well with the other mares! She'll be lonely and..."
"I don't give a damn!" said Clifton, turning. "I want her to be pristine! How am I supposed to recoup what I paid for this hack if she's all marked up!"
Mick gave him a hard look. "She's a feeling creature, Mr. Rennick, not some damn sports car."
"Are you going to do what I said? Or do I have to move her to another stables?"
Mick almost told him to do just that, but stopped. The truth was that he couldn't stand the American bastard, but he genuinely cared for all the horses under his care and felt nothing but pity for the lot that the lovely Melody drew. "Fine, sir," he said after a long silence. "I'll do as you ask. Is there anything else?"
"Get my saddle for me," he sniffed.
Mick shook his head. "The horses are my responsibility, Mr. Rennick, not the tack. Get your own damn saddle." He turned and walked away.
Clifton stared at the back of the old stable hand and fumed a little. The man was absolutely infuriating. He calmed himself a little, reminding himself that the man wasn't worth being mad at. He went back to the grooming. He had only a couple of hours before the hunt.
He noticed Melody's ears prick up, and out of the corner of his eye he saw a familiar shadow coming down the way. He quickly erased the disdain from his face and masked it with a smile. "Clifton!" said Kennington happily. "How could you have possibly beaten me here?" he asked. "I thought you were at the office until after midnight!"
Clifton smiled. He'd suspected that the old man looked at the security guards logs for a long time. "I was," he answered, "but I didn't want to be late!"
Kennington smiled. Clifton was sure he had the old man in his pocket. "Well, happy to have a fellow lover of the sport along, early or late." He stopped and ran his fingers though Melody's mane. "I can't get over what a horse you got here. She's an Irish hunter, right?"
Clifton nodded. It had taken a lot of favors to get a horse that impressed the old man. No easy task for a man that owned more than a dozen of the finest for a hundred miles. "You're right, sir. Wonderful animal."
Kennington smiled, then looked a little embarrassed. "I hate to bring this up, you working for me makes this a little awkward, but I'd like to talk to you about breeding her. An old friend of mine has a stallion with almost the exact same colorings. I've already spoken to him, and I'd love to own the outcome of their mating."
Clifton smiled broadly. "I think we can make an arrangement, sir."
"God damn it!" he muttered under his breath. "Will you get moving?"
When the tired mare didn't respond to the spoken command, Clifton brought the crop down on her flanks as hard as he could. The mare only barely responded, numb now to the pain of the strike. Clifton was far behind the leaders in the hunt, most importantly his boss, and didn't want this horse to make him look like an ass. As it was, he couldn't see any of the other riders through the light fog that had descended over the last several hours.
Frustrated, he kicked Melody in the ribs as hard as he could, whipping her at the same time. Frustrated and startled by the treatment, she leapt off the dirt road and into the thick woods in a blind panic.
"Christ, stop!" shouted Clifton, yanking hard on the reigns in alarm. The horse continued to race ahead blindly, narrowly missing the trees all around her. Clifton crouched low in the saddle, feeling the ice frosted branches brush against his helmet. If Melody decided to buck, he'd end up with a face full of branch.
Without warning, the mare came to a complete stop. Clifton felt himself lift off the saddle and fly over her head, twisting in the air as he landed in a thick mound of wood, leaves and snow.
He lay there, feeling more stunned than in real pain. He looked at his hands, seeing the red marks that the reigns had made as they were torn from his fingers, then flexed them a little, making sure they were still there.
When he felt comfortable with the reality that he was alive and unhurt, he leapt to his feet and turned on the mare. "You miserable animal!" he said dangerously. He stomped toward her, crushing the woodpile down further as he approached.
"If you mean to collapse my roof," said a high voice behind him, "the least you could do is be quiet about it!"
Clifton turned, startled, and looked for the source of the voice. "Who's there?" he said angrily.
"Look up here. No, a little higher, the tree to the left. Now you're seeing me!"
Clifton stared at the figure sitting on the branch in silence, then realized that the little man was actually sitting above the branch. He was impossibly small, saying he was two feet tall would be generous, and sported rough hewn clothes. "What are you?" asked Clifton. "Some kind of leprechaun?"
The little man rolled his eyes. "Bah! You human's and your stupid labels. You are never happy unless something has a stupid name." He drifted down to Clifton's eye level. "Since the first time I met one of you mortals, I've been called a fairy, a fae, a brownie and a host of other names that you wouldn't recognize or care about. I prefer not having a name myself."
Clifton continued to look at the little man with wide eyes, racking his brain for what he knew about these creatures and coming up with only fragments from his childhood stories. "What do you do?" he asked.
The man laughed and spun a little in the air. "Whatever I please, Mr. Rennick. Whatever it is that I please. Sometimes I grant wishes to those that I meet, sometimes I even tag along with a human if I find them interesting. Help's keep me up with the times. Usually, I stay here, though."
Clifton felt his interest piqued. "Wishes? You can give me wishes?"
The man laughed even more. "Why would I do that, Mr. Rennick? Why on the grave of the last fool who asked me that question would I do something like that?" he spun around the air again. "I only give something like that to those that I like! And I can already tell you that I don't like you! You crushed my home!" He drifted a little farther away from Clifton. "And don't get any ideas about catching me and forcing me to give you some wishes. The likes of you wouldn't have the means, and the last who tried is pillar of granite on the shores of Loch Ness."
The little man drifted over Clifton's head and to Melody. "Such a lovely creature," he said, rubbing her gently on the neck. "So full of sadness, but a lovely creature none the less."
Clifton seized the small opening. "It's her fault that I fell on your house, you know," he said quickly. "I wouldn't have fallen off if she hadn't stopped."
The man turned on Clifton darkly. "And if you hadn't been beatin' her she'd never have run in my direction! Don't try to lie to one of my kind, Mr. Rennick. You do not want to incur my wrath."
He drifted back the mare and silently ran his tiny fingers through the mane between her ears. Without turning, he said quietly, "On second thought, too late." He turned. "You already incurred my wrath."
Clifton opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off as his hips buckled, throwing him forward to all fours. By the time that his hands hit the forest floor, they had coalesced into dark hooves. He felt the need to draw in a deep breath and felt his chest expand mightily. For a split second, he felt his fox hunting coat feel tight against his sides, then it expanded with him. He insides felt odd, but not painful. When it was over, he stood, stunned and panting, staring at his fore hooves. Slowly, he turned and looked over his back. His mind reeled, not able to fully realize what he was seeing. He was looking at a horse wearing gigantic fox hunting clothes.
"I am sorry, my dear Melody, but there is a reason to my madness," said the cheery voice of the little man.
Clifton turned away from his altered form and found himself staring at his mirror image, or rather the mirror image of the human man that he woke up as this morning. The human was standing nearly stark naked, a perfectly sized bridle and saddle still strapped into place on his body. He reached to his mouth and pulled the bit out. "What...?"
The little man started darting around the man, tugging the straps off of him. "I am sorry about that, but I just wanted to make sure that none of this was damaged. Alteration is so much easier than repair." He unhooked the saddle, letting it fall heavily to the ground. The now naked man looked stunned at the horse. "That's me," he said, scarcely believing it.
The little man darted over the horse and started tugging at the buttons on the coat. "Actually, this was the former Mr. Clifton Rennick." He tugged at the coat covering the stunned horse. "Will you give me a hand here?" Not sure what else to do, Clifton reached out with his teeth and started tugging at the coat.
"But..." started the human, staring at himself. "But I didn't want this!" he said finally. "I don't want to be a human!"
The little man finished tugging off the oversized white shirt and flew over to the man. "Put this on," he said. The shirt resized perfectly to fit the smaller human. "I am sorry about this," he answered finally as he flew back to get more of the clothes off the horse. "Bear in mind that I have no ill will toward you, my friend. You were innocent in this and I have no wish to harm you. But I ask that you allow me to set up this little masquerade. In the end, I can assure you that you will not regret it."
The new Clifton Rennick looked at his arms. "But I don't want this!" he sputtered. "I can't live like this the rest of my life!"
The little man helped the horse tug off the misshapen boots and tossed them aside for now. "It's not forever, my dear." He sighed. "I guess I should explain. I looked into your memories and his heart, and did not like what I saw. I could very well have turned him into a slug and dropped him onto a salt lick, but that's not my style. I want to give him a taste of what he has been giving." He drifted back to the still confused horse and helped it take the pants off. "Now you are her owner."
Inside the mind of the horse, Clifton started at the last line, and took a closer look at his now bare form. He realized that he was a perfect copy of Melody, down to her smallest marks and scars. His mind, already spinning from the transformation out of his species, somehow couldn't handle the loss of gender. He whinnied in fear, feeling himself weak in the knee's.
The now human Melody took a couple of steps toward the frightened beast. "No one deserves this," he said quietly. "Please turn us back. Please."
The little man sighed. "I'm sorry, but I won't. I truly do regret bringing you into this, Melody. Sometimes I'm too impulsive." He shrugged. "But what is done is done. In one year, return to this spot with her and I will return you both to the forms that you were born in. If at the end of that year you wish to remain human, then simply do not return and do with this horse as you please."
The little man turned and looked pointedly at the horse. "What happens in one year is completely dependent on the human in this relationship. If you return alone, Mr. Rennick, you will remain a horse. If Melody meets her end, don't expect a magic return to your human self. It won't happen. You two are linked."
The human looked nervously at the little man. "What happens if she dies?" she asked. "I can read his memories, see what kind of person he is. He might do it."
The little man chuckled. "Don't worry about that, my dear. This animal is too vain to give up his humanity so easily. He was willing to spend years in this land that he considered a hellhole for the simple acquisition of wealth and power. A year is nothing to him." He chuckled a little more. "He still thinks he was destined to live forever."
Clifton started to feel stronger again, testing out his new legs. He turned angrily at the little man and tried to grab him with his teeth. The little man scurried backwards easily. "Oh, Mr. Rennick, or rather, Melody, you don't seem to be thinking things through." He got close to the mares face. "I could always continue to be angry with you in a year." He looked back at the human. "Finish getting dressed and I'll help you saddle her up again." He grinned. "I'm an expert at these things, you know, I've worked in the stables of several kings over time."
"I'm not sure I can do it," said Melody quietly as he pulled on the coat. "I can't be as cruel as he was. No one will believe I am him."
The little man dropped the resized saddle onto the mares back. "I disagree, Melody. Humans are such mundane creatures that they won't exactly notice. If you search his memories, you'll find that he didn't have many friends, and his co-workers don't pay him much heed anyway. Believe me, none will ever think that you're an imposter, much less his mare." He tapped his head. "You've got everything that he was up here. Every memory, as he does of yours. Use them."
For the first time, the new Clifton Rennick walked over and touched the new Melody on the nose. "I wonder if you realize how much I envy you," he said sadly. "I envy you for having the body that I was born with."
Clifton resisted the urge to lunge at his former mount. If not for the fact that she would be stuck as she was, Melody would have been reduced to a bloody pulp under his hooves.
Besides, it was only a year. How bad could a year be?
It wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for the damn boredom.
Clifton turned for the umpteenth time in the stall, looking at the same four walls and the same straw on the floor. The same manure, the same feed bin. It had only been seven days, and he was already going nuts from the boredom.
A human mind was never meant to be locked into the body of a domestic creature like this. Without stimulation, all Clifton could do was stew in her own juices, think constantly about what was happening. Think more and more and want to kill Melody all the more.
It was the worst when the familiar human walked into the stables. The sight of her human form drove her up the walls, and the realization that it would be a year before she could get any kind of revenge made her all the more nuts. Every time she felt the weight of the rider on her back, all she could think about was letting him fly. If not for the image of getting her body back in a year with a broken neck, she'd have done it on the first day.
Mick appeared at the door of the stall, setting down a bale of fresh hay in front of him. Clifton snorted and turned away from him. Her mind wandered over all the things that she missed most, and around mealtime her thoughts turned to steak. Hay and the occasional carrot were poor substitutes.
"What has been with you, girl?" asked Mick in a concerned tone. "I've never seen you so agitated, even when that bastard is around." He reached out to touch her, and she responded by snapping at his fingers. Mick just gave the mare an odd look and filled the feed bin. "I wish I knew what was into you, girl. Maybe Rennick will let me turn you out with the others again."
As the man walked off, Clifton paced again in his stall, her thoughts turning darker and darker with every turn.
The pair stared at each other for a long time, the silence broken only by the movements of the other horses in the stable. Finally, Melody sighed and stepped forward. "I know what you're thinking, Clifton."
The horse snorted and turned away with disdain.
"I know what you're thinking because I have all your thoughts, remember?" he said. "I've been laying awake nights, wondering what was going to happen ten months from now, when we go back to our own bodies. I realized, after much thought, that you're going to kill me."
Clifton turned and looked at him with wide eyes. Had she been that obvious?
Melody nodded. "I know, you're reasoning isn't that hard to figure. It's hard for me to understand, really, but you blame me for this. I'm sure you do." He stopped and fingered the lead line hanging from the peg. "Believe it or not, that doesn't change anything. Ten months from now, I'll ride you out to the forest and we'll go back. I'd rather die in the form I lived in than live the rest of my days as this," he said motioning to his body.
Clifton tilted his head curiously. If he didn't intend to do anything to stop the transfer, then why go into this?
He leaned against the door of the stall. "I've been trying to think of some way out of this, but I can't. I realize that my life is over. I think that I'll be lucky to live the first night." He shrugged and sighed. "Then I realized that you had, in a way, solved the problem for me. Do you remember the promise you made to Mr. Kennington?"
Clifton stared at her blankly tilting her head one way and the other. Suddenly, the memory returned, and she started snorting and stamping in the stall loudly.
Melody didn't smile at the reaction, in fact she looked a little sadder. "Believe me, I don't want to do this. As cruel a man as you can be, I can't bring myself to harm you, and I know you consider this harm. It is the only way I can see any hope."
Clifton shook her head vigorously, wishing more than ever now that she could speak. She knew that, given the chance, she could talk Melody out of this! Anything but this!
Melody sighed. "My only hope for survival is my progeny. You're a greedy and petty man, Rennick. I can only hope that the prospect of the foal you promised to your boss will extend my life a little longer." He shook his head. "Believe me, I'd rather be in your horseshoes for this. I'm not sure I understood it while I was that mare, but I always knew I was missing something. Now I know what it was." He smiled. "If it's any consolation, I'll be the one to actually give birth."
Clifton continued to shake his head, stamping angrily.
Melody sighed. "I'll put it to you this way: If you don't go through with it, then I'll put a bullet in my head. I don't want to die, Rennick, but I don't want to live like this." He stepped back from the stall. "You have a couple of weeks to think about it." Then he walked away.
Clifton stood, trembling in the stall, his mind racing. She had just a couple weeks to get out of this. She had to think of something!
It wasn't the first time over the last two weeks that she considered and reconsidered her choice. Every fiber of her being, even if her being was right now locked into the form of this animal, hated this. She found it repugnant to even consider, and if she could even think of a single way out of this, she would take it in a second.
It was only the prospect of getting back into her human body that forced her hand.
Clifton strained for two weeks to think of a way out. She tried to scratch messages in the stable floor for Melody to read, tried to cajole her into giving up on this insane idea. In the end, there wasn't any hope of that.
The simple fact was, Melody was right. The first thing she'd have done as a human was kill her.
Melody had been right about the foal, too. Once human, the foal was his ticket to bigger and better in the company, perhaps even the transfer back stateside that he wanted so badly.
It didn't make it any easier to take, though. Even though the body that she wore neared it's peak of fertility, her mind was still locked into the image of the human male she had been born as. In the daydreams that she lost herself into during the long, silent days, she still fantasized about sex with human women. Horses never entered into the picture.
Clifton knew, too, that the time was almost here. She could taste the displeasure in her mouth at the thought, but the feelings were certainly unmistakable. The signs, the flashes of emotion in response to the raging hormones, all things she'd dreaded.
Finally, Mick showed up at the door of the stall, taking the lead line off the wall. "Com'on girl. We've got a friend for ya to meet."
A shudder passed through her body, but meekly she allowed the old stable hand to attach the line and lead her outside.
"I'm not sure what's wrong with her, sir," said Mick. "She's been like this since April. I'm no expert but she seems..."
"...Depressed," finished Mr. Kennington. He looked worriedly at the horse. "She's been like this three months? That worries me."
Mick shrugged. "It's been worrying Mr. Rennick, too. He's asked me to call a couple of vets to look her over. He didn't want me to tell you, didn't want you to worry about the foal, but you know..."
Mr. Kennington nodded, "I understand, I won't let him know that you told me. At least he's aware of it." He patted the neck of the completely docile mare. "Maybe this is just hormonal," he mused.
Mick shrugged. "Hard to say, sir. Mares usually calm down a bit after they mate, but I've never seen this. She doesn't seem sick, but she's barely eatin', barely movin'."
Kennington sighed. "Such a gorgeous animal, too. I hope the foal has a disposition more like the sire."
Inside the mind of the pregnant mare, the human male mind of Clifton Rennick barely functioned. The only thoughts that still functioned were of how many ways she could hurt Melody.
By the time the summer faded, the worries about the mare were a memory. The foal was evidently healthy, as was the mother. She had begun to show, her udder had begun to swell. Physically, all looked well.
It had been the mental aspect that worried them all the most, and even that was more a curiosity than it had been. It wasn't that Clifton had come to terms with what had happened to him, with the humiliation and degradation that he'd been made to experience, but more the fear of the veterinarians. Her depression had fallen so far that there were legitimate fears about the mares health. Within earshot, one of the vets had suggested that the mare be medicated, and that the foal may be aborted as a result.
Clifton ran that thought around in his head more than a little before he realized that would be the death of him, or rather of his human body. He had little doubt that Melody would, in fact, kill himself if the foal was lost. It took a lot of effort, but he managed to fight down the anger and repulsion that he felt and act normally, at least when others were around.
Others, that is, except when Melody showed up alone. He stood across from the door, arms folded, and stared at her. "I wish you'd get over this," she said, anger evident in his quiet voice. "Whether you realize it or not, you took from me a moment that I would have loved."
Clifton barred her teeth at him, snorting.
He sighed. "I know, I know. I could have simply put a stop to it. But we both know that it was my only choice. If there was another, you'd have communicated it to me. You certainly tried everything else."
He turned and looked out of the barn. "Summer's over, I suppose you know. Just a couple of more months of this for both of us, and good riddance." She turned back to the mare. "I hate your life, your job, your friends. I've maintained appearances, but when this is over I'll be glad to leave it all behind. You can have it." He turned on his heels and walked out the stables.
Clifton didn't allow himself to hope anymore.
Even when the first flakes of snow drifted down, a sign that his year as this animal were almost over, he didn't allow himself the luxury of getting his hopes up. With little more than time to think, he'd done all that he could months ago. Every thought of revenge, every thought of suicide, every prayer that he could muster had already been called into mind and mulled over. The world for him had become smaller and smaller with each passing day until his thoughts were only on his own body and the foal that she carried.
Melody didn't come by the farm that much anymore. He had told Clifton that it was for his own good, in a way. She was always so upset by his visits anymore that she risked losing the foal. Clifton desperately hoped that didn't mean what it feared, and he had plenty of time to formulate paranoid fantasies.
So it was with no joy that she opened her eyes one morning before the sun had chosen to rise to find a warmly dressed Melody standing in front of the stall. There was no real expression on her face, but she smelled a bit of excitement, anticipation. Even at this point, Clifton didn't let himself believe that she was really going to get her body back.
Melody attached the lead line without a word and started to walk out of the barn when a sleepy eyed Mick walked in. "Oh, Mr. Rennick! I heard a noise. What are you doing here this early?"
Melody smiled. "I couldn't sleep. I saw that the moon was full, so there was plenty of light. Thought that taking Melody out and walking her a bit might relax me."
Mick looked at him oddly. "You drove all the way out here to take a walk? Are you okay, Mr. Rennick?"
"I'm fine, Mick. I'm fine." She patted the mares side. "Can you grab me a blanket. It's a little cold out there for her."
Mick nodded. "Give me a sec." He stepped into the tack room and came out with a heavy woolen blanket and started to cover the horse. "Mr. Rennick, you mind if I say something frankly, sir?"
Melody regarded him for a bit, then nodded. "Sure. What is it?"
Mick finished securing the blanket. "What's happened to you in the last year?" he asked. "You were frankly a jackass when I met you, but you've changed."
Melody chuckled lightly. "I suppose I have." He sighed. "I want to thank you, Mick. For everything."
The old stable hand frowned. "For what, sir?"
"For the care you showed her," he said while he patted the mares neck. "I'm not sure you'll ever know how much that was appreciated."
Mick took a half step back and looked at both the man and mare together. He knew that something was going on, but for the life of him couldn't piece it all together. "It was no problem, sir. She's a lovely one." He turned and headed back for the stairs to his loft apartment, "Have a good walk, sir."
The man and horse stepped into the chilled morning air and walked purposefully for the old, rutted access road where this whole miserable year had started. Both man and beast were more than willing to see it come to an end, no matter what that end meant for either of them. Melody didn't speak at all through the walk, and Clifton didn't do more than follow.
It was nearly and hour of walking through the woods, the light of the slowly rising sun piercing the darkness, before they came upon a familiar mound in a familiar part of the forest. Looking around, neither could imagine why this area stood out more than any other, but somehow both knew that this was the place to return too.
"I see that you have made your choice, my dear," came the voice of the little man.
Melody looked around frantically. "I have, where are you?"
He drifted out from some hidden tunnel under the repaired mound. "I am right here, as I have been all this time, waiting and wondering. I honestly thought that the lure of the human civilization would take you, and leave this beast where he belonged."
Melody shook her head. "I couldn't do that. That was the body that I was born in, and the one that I wish to die in. The humans can keep their lives, and so can he."
The little man chuckled. "You are a rare one, my Melody. A rare one indeed. In all the times that I've played this little game with people and their pets or prey, you are one of the very few who have voluntarily come back to me."
Melody looked surprised. "You've done this before?"
He laughed and twirled in the air. "Oh yes!" he said with glee. "Though it has been many years. The last time I did this I switched a young delinquent and his dog. Turned out that it wasn't a good idea, really. The dog was as evil tempered as the boy. But live and learn, that's what I say."
He drifted over to the mare. "Well, Mr. Rennick, I imagine that you are as sullen and depressingly human as you were when I last saw you. Let's see, you're sullen, depressing, and..." he jumped and turned on Melody. "Pregnant? She's pregnant?"
Melody didn't like the tone of his voice. "Yes, pretty far along, too..."
"Wait!" he drifted over and touched her on the head, pulling the whole story out. "Oh, hell's bells!" he shouted. "You'd think after a thousand years around you mortals that I'd have seen it all."
"What's wrong?" said a noticeably paler Melody. "You never said..."
"I didn't think I'd have to say!" yelled the little man. He pointed at the mare. "I left her mind and desires intact! I never considered that she'd ever allow herself to be violated! The instincts are simply not that strong!" He seemed to pace in midair. "I never even expected him to want to experiment with it! From what happened, I can see I was right about that, but I never expected you to blackmail him into it!"
Melody was white as a sheet, and Clifton was wobbly on her legs, threatening to fall over. "What does it mean?" he asked. "Why can't you just change us..."
"Because of the foal, damn it!" yelled the little man. He closed his eyes and took some deep breathes. "I'm bound by little in this realm, but I am bound by some in another." He opened his eyes. "I maliciously deformed a mortal child centuries ago while it was still in the womb, and my queen didn't take kindly to it. She has no love of mortals, but infants are somehow different to her." He sighed deeply again. "She bound me never to do such to another such as that, and that prevents me here. If I change you both back to what you were, the foal will die."
Melody looked desperate. "But it will be born soon! Just a couple of months!"
"I chose a year's time for a reason!" he shouted, on the verge of anger again. "My powers are not all mighty! In a very short time, I won't be able to undo it! By the time the foal is born, I'm not sure my queen could do it!"
Melody fell to her knees, feeling sick. "Oh, no. What have I done?" he asked quietly.
The little man drifted down, touching the human on the face. "We are not without options."
He looked up. "What?"
The little man drifted back between the mare and man. "I can take away your thoughts, your memories. You two would never remember anything of being switched." He looked at Clifton. "You would only remember being a mare," he turned his gaze to Melody, "and you a man."
Clifton, his mind clouded by depression, actually liked the suggestion. Melody didn't seem to take it as well. "What else is there?"
He looked at the human. "I give you the reward I promised you when this all started and take you with me to my homeland, through the woodpile. You could live out the rest of eternity on a plain of never ending wonder and riches as one of the most magnificent mares. You'd never be subjected to rope or rider unless you desired, and you could know the joys of motherhood until long after this world is gone and forgotten."
Melody stared at him. "You never told me..."
"It was a surprise," he said. "I never expected it to come to this, thought."
"What do you mean?"
The little man drifted back to the mare. "She would remain here, like this, for the rest of her days. Her human mind would be intact, and she would probably curse the two of us for the rest of her days and into the afterlife."
Melody stood and nervously walked over to the mare. Gently, he touched her side, pretending to touch the foal inside. "No."
The little man blinked. "What? You have love for this bastard?"
"No," she said a little more loudly. "Honestly, I hate the man. I hate him like I never knew I could hate anyone." She caressed the swollen belly of the mare. "The foal that she carries is mine. This was the foal that I'd have carried if this never happened." He looked up at the little man. "She'd kill it. I know she would."
The little man drifted down. "If I assure you that she will not?"
"How can you?" she asked. "It takes only a moment, and that foal would be a reminder of what she lost, and why. How could I enjoy the rest of eternity knowing that?"
"I said that you two were linked," he said quietly, "and for that reason I can't simply take away her humanity. But I can put compulsions on her. Compel her to be a good mother to the foal, and any that follow."
Clifton broke out of his panic, turning on the pair and whinnying at the top of his lungs in anger. He didn't like where this was headed, and would kill himself before he allowed it!
The little man turned in the air, his face red. "Shut up!" he yelled. "You don't have a say in this matter! This is between me and Melody, and if you have a problem with it you can take it up with my queen the next time she visits the mortal realm! I believe that she is planning on it sometime after the moon turns to diamond!"
Silence descended on the forest clearing while the three looked at each other. Finally, Melody broke the silence. "What would you do to her?" Clifton tried to turn and run, but suddenly found herself bound by invisible straps that wouldn't allow it. She couldn't move, couldn't make a sound.
"She would never be able to harm the foal, either directly or indirectly, or any that come after. I would also prevent her from doing harm to herself. No suicide, no starvation. It would take away some of his free will, but that has never been much of a concern of mine," he finished with a thin smile.
Melody stood and walked over to the frozen mare. "Can you tell me what it is, at least?"
She smiled. "I'd have liked to bring him into the world." She touched the mares nose. "I'm sorry, Clifton. No matter what happens here, you're stuck in that body. I've got an option." She turned back to the little man. "Let's go."
He smiled. "I thought you'd never leave." He drifted to the human's side, touched him, and the pair vanished. At that moment, Clifton felt his bounds dissolve, and she stumbled to the floor of the forest.
It was her cries of terror that brought the searchers to that glade hours later.
They never did find Clifton Rennick.